Breaking the Fourth (Edition) Wall

Last night, I got to play my first game of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Bottom line up front: I fail to see from where all the hate for 4E comes. It’s very similar in its rules foci to 2E or (dare I say it?) 1E. Having grown up on those games, 4E is certainly no paradigm shift to me. The only difference is that with healing surges, the cleric doesn’t have to be the healing battery. And for those who are saying it doesn’t facilitate role-playing—it has skills like Bluff and Diplomacy, which actually puts it a few steps further along the role-play road than its illustrious forebearers mentioned above.

I played a Githzerai Runepriest (both from the Player’s Handbook Three). We started at 6th level, which meant, for a complete newb like me, character creation took the better part of an hour. So many choices, and so many things different than in 3E, it really did feel like a different game.

I recall all the hype about how broken 3E was, and how 4E was going to fix all that. Maybe it did, I don’t know about grapple, but with so many powers and so many situational modifiers and prerequisites for using them, it’s confusing in its own particular way. Likely—as with 3E/d20—regular play would smooth out these difficulties.

And while 4E does try to cover every possible option with a rule, this happened in 3E as well. This is unfortunate, as it tends to straightjacket player choice and stifle creativity. It’s one reason why I’ve been moving to more and simpler systems recently. It’s why I enjoyed Old School Hack, which has 7 pages of rules, and adequately covers everything I need it to in those 7 pages.

So, I found 4E mechanically a very large step away from 3E, yet philosophically close to 1 and 2E. I’m not about to become a 4E disciple, but by the same token, I don’t buy a lot of the hyperbolic denunciations of it.

But would I request this game? Would I ever run a 4E game? Would I ever buy any of it?

No to all three.

I also recently played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, third edition, and if I’m going to go crunch heavy, that’s the game I’d play. Yes, Chris wins.

Walking in to a WFRPG 3E game as a newb was pretty easy. I did not build my character from scratch, but I would imagine there would have been a time outlay on the same level as 4E. For those who regularly play WFRPG, I’m sure they can build a character relatively quick, but for a newb, there’s a lot to consider there. The big difference comes in the ease of play and the entertainment multiplier of the WFRPG components.

I did not spend a lot of time considering my actions and deciding on tactics with WFRPG. In 4E, a lot of the powers seemed relatively similar, with very specific—and it often seemed minute—differences in effect. With WFRPG, the different powers seemed much easier to differentiate, and therefore choice seemed easier. With the effects so different, choice became easy based on situation. It’s kind of like a multiple choice question in which two or three answers all sound very similar and correct, with each having only one word different. You can spend a lot of time answering that question, even if you have the required knowledge, while you could answer a similar question with four very clear, very different answers quite quickly.

There’s also a lot to be said for the cards, tokens, markers, and different kinds of dice in WFRG. Everything seemed to be at my fingertips while I played—no referring back to manuals for this power or that attack. The interplay of different kinds of dice for different kind of actions—success vs. banes and boons, stuff like that—seemed both more interesting and—in an odd way—more exciting. It also seemed really intuitive to me, dividing the success of an action from the beneficial or baleful repercussions of that action.

So, 4E? Interesting. It’s fun for an RPG with rules focusing on tactical combat, and it has some very interesting races and classes. It is not visionary enough to be exciting, nor does its mechanics address the kinds of narratives and actions I like to run. It’s not going to be a buy for me, nor would I ever request it. If someone wanted to run a game and asked me to play, I’d certainly join a game. It’s just really not what excites me for RPGs.

One example can illustrate this: the group was getting its ass handed to it by some uber-psionic using dude. We were on the balcony, he was on the ground floor, and the stairs had collapsed. My character jumped down, then tried to catch the floor of the balcony, and swing under, smashing into the foe. I would have expected to get some kind of mechanical recognition for bringing the cool to the game—and everyone, including the DM, agreed this was cool—or at least not be penalized for doing so. Of course, 4E isn’t geared for this, and I got actively penalized for trying to do something different. My Githzerai, of course, failed his acrobatics and then his athletics checks, so he landed on his ass and took damage for the fall.

I want a game that rewards people for characters doing cool things. Action point, awesome point, some kind of bonus, extra dice, something. I want that because it signals to players “this is what we want, bring the awesome!” What incentive do I now have for acting outside of the strictures of my powers? Heck, I could have used a couple of move actions to get to the ground and back into the action, but I was thinking cinematic action while 4E is built for tactical considerations.

I prefer cinematic action, thanks.

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6 Responses to Breaking the Fourth (Edition) Wall


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    Stytch says:

    Now…please understand I’m not a D&D fanboy; this question comes in earnest:

    Would you say it was the 4E system that ham stringed your efforts, or the DM?

    I’ve never played WFRPG, however based on all of the feedback it has gotten, I’m looking forward to giving it a shot….that being said; can you be sure that it the same actions/results wouldn’t have been the same in WFRPG?

    I’m looking at introducing a small group of folks to tabletop RPG’s, that have NEVER played before…which would you stand behind for an introductory system? (with the understanding that one of them might the “training wheels” system? (no long term commitment implied)


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    Fraser says:

    The question is a good one. The 4E rules, as they are written, hamstrung me. The DM–bless his heart–had been trying to keep up with our “creative” approaches to problems, but I think in combat–wherein 4E focuses its rules–he was following the rules more closely. 4E is a tactical combat game that has RP elements, rather than an RPG with combat rules.

    And, yes, the same problem would occur in WFRGP, if following the rules as written (which is the only way one can review a game, otherwise one is reviewing the GM).

    As for intro’ing a group to TRPGs, I think I would go with something rules-light and simple. My answer would also depend on what game I was loving at the time. Were I to run complete newbs through a fantasy RPG right now, it would be Old School Hack. That game is simple as hell, but does all the important fantasy RPG stuff, and also actively encouraging “being awesome.” There’s not enough rules to confuse, but enough rules to guide. The rest is pure creativity and imagination.

    And it’s free. That’s cool.

    For Old School Hackery, go here. Download the rules here.


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    Kryyst says:

    Nice article Fraser. But there are some reasons to draw the hate. I’ll go into more detail on the forum. But the bulk stems from the very methodical method the game seems to put into how you run you game. Generally that flow is Combat, heal – hand wave – Combat, heal repeat. That and the very, very tactical nature that combat has become. Take all of that add on various other personal griefs and that’s the bulk of it.

    However specifically I wanted to comment on your stunt and it’s mechanics in WFRP 3. Each character gets to perform one maneuver and one action (typically an attack but could be another maneuver or something else) in a combat round.

    In this case you’d use the simple Perform a Stunt action card as your maneuver. You’d assemble your dice pool, few for agility, maybe one for being acrobatic, perhaps a couple misfortune or challenge dice depending on the inherent difficulty of the action. That last part is subjective though there’s no rule or chart it’s purely based on GM style and the general story precedents so far. Oh and you could add some fortune dice to that also if wanted.

    So you have your dice you make your roll and consult the action card. Basically if you net out 1 success your action will work. More successes or some boons and you’d likely gain an advantage to your attack – catching your opponent off guard for example.

    Then again that’s if you are playing a more mechanically minded version of the game and closer to the rules. If the GM and everyone thought it was cool and say within the realm of your character he’d be perfectly within the rules to just allow it and say cool move here’s a fortune point and you get a bonus fortune die on your attack.

    What’s interesting is that either situation would be perfectly acceptable in 3e. There are no rules on how to handle that thing. WFRP 3e is much more a game of handing over the toolbox and letting the GM and players figure out how to use it. Sure there are plenty of guide lines on how various elements interact and certain areas are covered more heavily to help balance things out.

    But the core experience is play how you like. WFRP 3 wins again 🙂

    Now in WFPR 2 odds are that action would be an acrobatic roll probably at -10% and generally leading to you getting hurt – generally.


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    Fraser says:

    Good to know. You mention that I would gain an advantage for my attack. So could the stunt be a move action and then the ending of the stunt, assuming it succeeded, would be the attack.

    This is not far from how it is played in 4E. Check to see if your action worked, and then do your attack. What I was trying to get at was systems that simply accept (like Wuxia and Feng Shui) that the stunt worked, because it’s awesome, and the character gains a bonus for that. I actually have once or twice all but demanded that in my games–tell me the cool way you do this and I promise you a bonus. That’s what I like now. Give me the visuals. Give me the cool. Make this fun. I’ll give you a treat.


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    Kryyst says:

    Yes the stunt would be your move action, then followed up by an attack. Again depending on how you want your WFRP game to flow it would be perfectly acceptable for someone to do that and the GM says, “yeah that’s cool 2 fortune dice on your next attack”. But that kind of decision would come down to the types of stories you are trying to tell.

    If you were running a kind of swashbuckler themed group or perhaps even just that kind of character then not calling for the stunt action could be reasonable. On the other hand the tank in heavy armour or in a little more gritty feeling game you’d probably want to make use of the Perform a Stunt maneuver to see if they pulled it off or not.


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    Craig Brown says:

    It’s cool that you’ve discovered the 4e hate is undeserved. I get annoyed with all the criticism that I read that seems to come from folks who have never played the game, and yet seem to claim some deep understanding. Of course, I have to admit, I was as obnoxious about 2e at the end, and I was playing Storyteller. It’s pretentious crap, and I’m sorry I perpetuated it.

    I think the circumstance bonuses still exist, which would have mitigated some of the problems you had with your cinematic action. I believe I’d have run things a little different, but I don’t know all the circumstances of the environment, so I don’t know. I tend to think this was more of a DM issue, but I’ll admit I could be wrong.

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