Dispel Myth, 4th Edition

Two common criticisms I hear about 4e D&D is that it’s all about the combat, and those combats take too long. Heck, I’ve even said so myself and suggested ways to fix it. But y’know what? I’m wrong, and so are you. Let me tell you why……..

“To get to the next level it’s just ten combats! It’s all fighting and nothing else!”

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong! That’s the kind of twaddle repeated in RPG forums by people quoting other folks, none of whom have even read the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Page 121 covers it pretty well, but it’s also worth looking at in more detail.

To get from 1st to 2nd level takes 1,000XP. That’s one Major Quest (finishing the adventure!), one Minor Quest per character (a side-quest or something specific to the character) and 6-8 Encounters. I’m using 1st-2nd level as this keeps the math easy, but this scales all the way through to 30th. Same principle, bigger numbers, that’s all.

So there’s a Major Quest, which is….. a role-playing goal. It might be “rescue the kidnapped Princess”, “liberate the island”, “defeat the lich and free the slaves”, or whatever. Depending on your style of play and group preferences, you might fit more than one adventure into each level (especially if you prefer lighter, single session Delve-style adventures), or it might take several levels just to complete one larger mega-adventure. That’s up to you, but I’d suggest that one Major Quest per level is a reasonable average for 4e.

Then there’s Minor Quests. I like Minor Quests. These are things which further the personal advancement and goals of each character – in other words, more role-playing goodness, all wrapped up with an XP reward. Using the “rescue the kidnapped Princess” Major Quest, for example, a Half-elf Bard might have “….and compose a daring tale about the deeds!”. Another player could have “…. and watch for clue to the whereabouts of my evil brother”, or “…..and steal that dagger from the Fighter. I wants it!”. Or anything, really. If you’ve got 5 players, that’s 5 Minor Quests all going at the same time, as well at the Major Quest which is the goal of the adventure. Phew!

That leaves us with the Encounters. Six to eight of them, and not all of those should involve combat. They could be puzzles, skill challenges, social interractions (ie, pure role-paying with not a skill roll in sight) or anything else which takes your fancy. If you have a group which enjoys lots of combat then making seven out of eight of them combat-related might be ok, but I think that’s right at the upper limit. Similarly, one combat out of eight is probably too few unless you’re playing a deeply immersive story-telling game. That’s cool, and entirely within the realms of D&D as written. The rules don’t tell you how much combat you should have in your game, despite what some folks think.

I find 5 combats and 3 non-combats is a fair average in our game, but that varies widely. We’ve played sessions with no combat at all, and ones which have been extremely combat intensive. S’all good.

So, a level (in our experience) averages out to:

  • 1 Major Quest
  • 1 Minor Quest per character
  • 5 Combat encounters
  • 3 Non-Combat encounters, puzzles or skill challenges

Your numbers are, of course, likely to differ.

But ten combats per level and nothing else? I don’t think so.

“Combat Encounters take too long!”

There’s no denying that an encounter in Fourth Edition takes longer to complete than an encounter in Third Edition. And there’s a reason for that: they’re not the same thing!

I’ve touched on this before; an Encounter in 4e might encompass 2, 3 or more traditional “encounters” including different monsters, traps, etc all acting at the same time. For example, if a 3e adventure features two rooms and a trapped corridor, in 4e all of this would count as a single Encounter Zone with the monsters working together (or even at odds!) to battle the PCs. So there’s no surprise that 4e Encounters take a while to play through – they’re effectively two (or more) encounters in one!

That goes some way toward explaining 4e’s encounter philosophy, but doesn’t tell the whole story. 4e is designed in such a way that every character is likely to have something to do, all the time – which means that everyone is going to do something, all the time. There’s no deadzone in 4e where a player just skips his turn because he’s out of spells, or a character is out of action due to a fluffed saving throw. More action is good, but the cost is that your time-between-turns is longer. And it’s fair price to pay, I think.

Of course, you might not want encounters to last the same length as two or three third edition encounters (even though it amounts to the same thing), in which case reduce the number of monsters, halve the hit points, use more minions or apply any of a number of techniques I (and countless others) have already covered. Whatever works for you.

But to say that the problem is the system itself – nope, it’s not. 4e gives you the choices and freedom to tweak it according to your playstyle. Quit bitchin’ already and read the damned DMG!

There. I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

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17 Comments on “Dispel Myth, 4th Edition”

  1. First you admit that 4e’s *system* designs encounters that take 2-3 times as long as a 3e encounter, but then you say that the system isn’t to blame?

    I would suggest that the ability to change rules doesn’t exonerate the written rules from saying what they say, encouraging what they encourage, and create the situations they create. :)
    .-= Propagandroid´s last blog ..Chgowiz’s “What brought you to Old School” Poll =-.

  2. I guess it’s all relative and comes down to what you consider “too long” and what you’re comparing it to… but when I say that I think 4e combat takes too long I mean a basic fight – not something with multiple rooms, traps, factions and/or reinforcements. There are lots of things you didn’t mention that contribute to 4e combat taking longer: inflated hit points, tracking conditions, lots of minis movement, etc.
    .-= Stuart´s last blog ..Which Once Upon a Time? =-.

  3. Here, here!

    The things you just wrote are the things that once I realized them…I loved about the system. I am re-doing an investigative section of a module I wrote for 3.5….which took many many little RP sessions, which now has become an extended skill challenge. Plenty of RP still and a better framework for keeping it on track based on the character’s actual skills.

    And then…the encounters. When I realized that a series of old encounters could be rolled into a single encounter for many areas…it struck me too. No need for wandering monsters….a couple of in the encounter area are actually looking out for intruders and strolling around, and then the trap, and then the other orcs from the encounter.

    Not that 4e is the end all of D&D versions….each one has strengths and weaknesses and 4e is fun for me and my group….then we re-visit red box and other RPGs and then back (you know…the standard group thing of bouncing around to different systems as it strikes us).

  4. “Takes too long” is a personal preference thing. You really can’t say people are “wrong” about that. And the ten combats then level “problem” is oversimplifying it, sure, but the underlying concept there is a valid complaint. 4E’s rules are focused almost entirely on combat… it is stressed hard in the rules. I would say the statement is basically true, and I’m not repeating what I hear on message boards – I play 4E every week. Trying to dismiss people’s honest concerns about the game is not very productive…

  5. I agree with your general sentiment but I have to take exception to your description of the major and minor quests as “role-playing” goals. What you describe as major quests are simply mission objectives and don’t require any actual role-playing at all. In fact, all your examples are exactly what are used in video games like Baldur’s Gate, NWN, or WoW. As for the minor quests, once again you’ve mislabeled personal objectives as role-playing experiences. None of the ones you describe require any roleplaying at all, just a skill roll or two. Pure mechanics.

    Roleplaying is what happens over and above the mechanical level – it’s where players take on the personalities of their characters (whether from the 1st person or 3rd person is a matter of choice) and behave in a way that is consistent with the character. It’s not piloting a character around the world and rolling dice. There is a difference. Mechanics can support or encourage roleplay, but they don’t create it.

    So, the major quests are not going to guarantee (or even encourage) roleplay – in fact, for most people, they will discourage it. That’s because it creates an external motivator that in many games is handled in a very mechanical way (e.g., the 10 encounters). Get through your 10 encounters and raise your level…. that’s exactly what you do on a video game. Go here and get that. No need to talk to anybody and if you do it’s usually in a very superficial, goal-oriented way. You can build roleplay experiences, and and actively encourage or even require them, to get through the quest, but the quest adds nothing itself.

    The problem with 4E (and many other RPing games for that matter) is that the mechanics tend to overshadow the roleplaying or they don’t support it. It’s one of the reasons why some old-school D&D players like those systems – there’s very little that is defined mechanically so they’re forced to play out their “role” rather than rely on a “roll.” Of course, those systems don’t necessarily encourage roleplay either but you’re more likely to get it because the characters and system are so vaguely defined. Sure you can tweak the system, but you can’t claim that the system isn’t a problem if you’re modding it.

    Now minor quests could lead to roleplaying, but not necessarily. As I mentioned earlier, they can easily be handled via just a purely mechanical skill test or challenge. The video game analogy is just clicking through the dialog choices. Of course, assuming the minor quests are coming from the players themselves (in other words they’re personal goals or beliefs that are being explored), there’s lots of possibilities for roleplay, if the players pursue them. The problem I often see is that many GMs assign minor quests (again, just like in a video game) and that creates a situation no better than what I describe for major quests. In fact, calling them minor quests suggests that they’re coming from an external source.

    A much better way to get players to really “get in to character” is to have them write out a personal goal for a session or adventure (ala Mouse Guard) or a set of beliefs (ala Burning Wheel) and then reward them XP for pursuing those, especially when it costs them something to do so. That type of system creates situations which are bursting with roleplay opportunities. Call them personal quests and make them a regular part of play. That’s how you infuse 4E with roleplaying.

  6. @Propagandroid Maybe I didn’t word it correctly. My bad. What I means is this: standard encounters in 4e aren’t like encounters in 3e. They’re more involved, more dynamic things – and yes, that translates to being longer, but you’re not comparing like with like. If you want simpler, shorter 3e style encounters then there are rules and guidelines for those too – IN THE DMG! Start reading at page 56, build easy encounters use traps separately. Done.

    @Stuart We’ve run a few tests now where we used a Third Edition module but played using 4e rules and found that combat took about the same length of time. For example, we ran Idylls of the Rat King (at excellent 1st level adventure, btw) and in there the heroes encounter 4 goblins, 2 dire rats, 7 goblins, 4 goblins, a trap, 5 dire rats, 2 dire rats, etc…….. all separately to each other as distinct encounters. Combat flew by. Replace those with 4e style Encounter Zones and the combats became more exciting, but still took about at long as the multiple encounters they replaced.

    That said, I do agree about the inflated hit points, especially at higher levels. I’ve advocated halving them before, or at least adjusting them for each monster.

    @Etherrider Thanks! I agree – 4e isn’t perfect. No system is (well, except Mutants & Masterminds and 3:16, maybe……..), but I much prefer it’s design over 3e, and that’s not something I ever expected to say.

    @Jack Colby You’re right – it is a preference thing. But when folks say “Combat takes too long – the rules are broken!” that annoys me no end. If combat takes longer than your group prefers, then you have the tools to change it, right in the DMG. 4e is much more of a tweakable game than Third Edition, and that (in my book) is a Very Good Thing.

    @MJ Harnish I agree, to an extent. Role-playing doesn’t require rules. But it’s good to see that 4e has systems in place which rewards and encourage it. Your last paragraph describing how a character could get an XP reward for pursuing a personal goal – that’s exactly what a Minor Quest is.

    Great discussion and input, all!

  7. Thanks for expressing concisely how 4E is not all about big dungeon or hex clearing. It can be these. It can be more. This depends on the DM and the group you’re playing with. I’m trying to imagine a level done entirely with skill & RPG challenges – would this be regarded as a ‘soft option’?

    There is an emphasis on combat because it’s a form of conflict that people can readily access; 4E is unashamedly aimed at simplifying the experience and making it accessible to it’s audience. The first isn’t entirely there but the second most assuredly is.

    A thought: Condition tracking can be handled by simple peripherals (cards or arkers) and is not peculiar to 4E (or even D&D) – maybe it’s an attitude thing or are people looking for a game that returns them to simple mathematics, no miniatures and social conflict mechanics as well as combat?
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..weekend warrior: vargrim =-.

  8. Just curious as to how long it takes people to play out combats in 3e and 4e.

    In my case, both took around an hour. The only difference is that 4e takes 4-6 rounds and 3e only took 1-3, with each person taking longer.

    The problem I’ve found when people complain about the grind of combat is that they’re still planning encounters like 3e combats, with total monster ELs at +2 to +3 that of a party, where you’re supposed to have equal levels to the party in 4e for the most part.

  9. Great discussion all. Many valid points. I’d add for emphasis that combat is the mechanical backbone of many RPGs, while roleplaying and story (the free form components of the game) make up the vast majority of the “body” of the game. This requires imagination from both players and DMs.

    Yes, CRPGs incorporate quests and combats and can be very mechanical and grindy. They form the vocabulary that many gamers bring to roleplaying. It is up to players and DMs to go beyond the rules or mechanics when they’re fleshing out their games.

    Old school games left many rules unwritten, yet folks complain that 4e doesn’t have rules for this or that, as if they are a requirement of a good game. What you imagine is what really makes the game good.

  10. “4e is designed in such a way that every character is likely to have something to do, all the time – which means that everyone is going to do something, all the time. ”

    That’s a good point, and one I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of, considering my background is as a 1e mage. Sling a couple spells, sling a couple darts (ineffectively), get KOed in one hit, and then sit there ticking off lost HP for a few rounds until I got down around -8, at which point I usually started yelling at the cleric.

    My totally anecdotal evidence about 4e is that every time I try to throw in some mindless hack’n’slash, it takes forever, but only because the party keeps making it all plot-centric. “I heal the warlock! Then I try to convince him to worship Torog.”

  11. Cant agree more – except about the combat length. Our 3E combats lagged terribly. This edition has been a goshsend :)

    @ MJ – As to quests and roleplaying – they are what you make of it. We have lots of RP in our 4E game. Simply saying it’s not there – doesnt make it so :)

    If I say rolling dice, and piloting my character around is roleplaying POOF! It is :) Always remember the Qualia. What YOU think is roleplaying, I might see as LARP level idiocy. Roleplaying is whatever the subject says it is. It is that simple.

    The quest awards and such are a mechanical expression with solid numbers that fit the mechanical framework of the game. They allow a linear progression of XP that is story driven.

    What is it with folks trashing RP in 4E? I just don’t get it. Why does your “right” have to make me wrong? Did RPG’s become some kind of purism contest while I wasnt looking? I think people just see what they want to see – same shit different day indeed.

    Great post Greywulf :) I’ve be using your “old school” 4E stat blocks in my own campaign – and thank you from my roughly 3% happier group!

  12. @Donny – So, by your definition Monopoly is a RPG? Cool. I’m glad we’ve evolved to the point where words have no definitions. It makes communication so much easier.

    Nowhere did I make a judgment on your definition of roleplaying. What I pointed out is that one can’t label a quest as a “roleplaying goal.” It’s not. Roleplaying is what goes on in the process of carrying out the quest.

    You also might think about the incongruency of having written “What YOU think is roleplaying, I might see as LARP level idiocy. ” followed shortly by “Why does your “right” have to make me wrong?”

    You are indeed right: Same shit, different day.
    .-= MJ Harnish´s last blog ..Kidz final draft almost done =-.

  13. @MJ – Can you be more rude? Twisting words? Putting words in other people’s mouth? And could you be more wrong?

    A goal that is role playing oriented could very well be a quest. Indeed, I don’t see how someone interesting in role playing could think differently.

    “I’m glad we’ve evolved to the point where words have no definitions.”

    Words like role playing can have more than one definition. People use it to define not only acting (which is what you are doing), but also putting an in character meaning to what they are doing (in this case, the quest is the reason they are hunting for the Ivory Goat).

    Finally, his statements very much make sense even if you don’t understand. Just because he thinks what you do isn’t role playing doesn’t mean it isn’t. Why does his right make you wrong?

    Next time, before lashing out and insulting people, spend a few minutes reading, and less time being childish and rude.

  14. Temper temper people. Keep things civil, on-topic, polite and (above all) fun, else comments get closed.

    And we don’t want that as this is turning into a rather jolly good discussion.

    Keep it flowing, folks!

  15. Jason,
    I’m not sure why my comment has caused confusion. Rude? I never used words like “LARP level idiocy.” That’s a quote I was responding to. Putting words in people’s mouths? What are you referring to? I have a feeling you’ve confused what I was responding to or haven’t read all the comments because you’re not making a lot of sense. I never put a single word in to anyone’s mouth: I quote text, word for word and responded to it.

    Regarding the “words have no definition” that is referring to the idea that rolling dice and pushing stuff around the board can be defined as roleplaying. If you follow that logic, games like Descent, Last Night on Earth, and even Monopoly can be defined as roleplaying. All involve rolling dice and piloting a character or token around. Are you saying that you think Monopoly is a roleplaying game?

    Nor did I dispute that a goal is a quest. Where are you getting that? I said, and I quote “one can’t label a quest as a “roleplaying goal.” It’s not. Roleplaying is what goes on in the process of carrying out the quest.” You roleplay a character. You do not roleplay a goal or a quest. They are inanimate objects which are incapable of cognizant or purposeful thought. You can not roleplay an object.

    My whole original comment was noting that while I agreed with Greywulf’s sentiment, I didn’t think his defining “quests” as roleplaying goals was accurate, nor were his examples of how a quest involved roleplaying. Roleplaying could occur in the process of completing the quest, but there wasn’t any need for it and therefore you cannot use it as an example of where roleplaying was built into the system because it’s not. I could give your party the quest “Go kill the kobolds in the Crystal Caverns” and you could complete the quest without ever roleplaying at all – you could simple describe your actions in mechanical terms, announce the skills and/or powers you’re using, and rolling dice to determine the outcome. No roleplaying whatsoever. Similarly, Greywulf’s example of a bard composing a daring tale doesn’t have to involve any roleplaying at all; just role a skill check or two and be done with it. The point is that roleplaying occurs when the players engage the setting and story, not because of a goal, quest, or specific task.

    So, if I’ve offended your sensibilities, I apologize. However, I really don’t think you understood what I responding to, nor what I was talking about because there was nothing rude nor childish in what I wrote, with the exception of using the other commentor’s own words.
    .-= MJ Harnish´s last blog ..A novel way of approaching D&D’s edition wars =-.

  16. @MJ Harnish Agreed. Goals aren’t role-playing in and of themselves, but they are motivators that can help role-playing take place. What motivates one type of player might not drive another, and Minor Quests help that by encouraging each player (and the GM, of course), to find their own reasons for characters’ behaviour, and getting an XP reward for achieving the goals they set themselves.

    It’s nothing new – heck GMs have been rewarding XP for great role-playing since XP have existed – but that fact that this element is alive and well in 4e D&D is something all to often missed by the folks who think that 4e is nothing more than a combat engine.

    Thanks for the clarification! :D

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