Fourth Edition for people who prefer earlier editions

Karl (one of the people I had the pleasure of playing old-school D&D with last week in Albany) made an insightful comment on the blog that got me thinking.  He pointed out that some people don’t like all of the emphasis on tactical movement in D&D Fourth Edition, and also that there has been a collapse of many different skills into a smaller number (with the “taking ranks in a skill” concept radically changed to just a zero-one binary of being trained in a skill or not being trained in it).  It got me thinking: What should a person who doesn’t like some of these elements of 4e do?

The simplest option (and the cheapest), of course, is to play an earlier edition.  OSRIC lets you play something like First Edition for free, and as I understand it the System Resource Document lets you play something like Third Edition or 3.5 for free.  So, if you prefer an older edition, you can play one.  That’s what Shawn’s group does, and it seems to work for them.

But are there things you could take from 4e and combine with earlier editions to make something more to your liking?  I think there are.  When I think about it, 4e feels like it could be quite modular if you wanted it to be.

First, flavor.  If you just love the flavor of Fourth Edition and want to use it with an earlier rule set, that’s obviously very easy.  Sure, you’ll have to change around numbers on monsters and so on, but their descriptions can be identical and their powers can be adapted to a different set of rules.  If you like the 4e gods, use them.  Setting information, dungeon maps, whatever you like can be easily transferred to another edition’s rules.  I’ll admit that I don’t personally have strong feelings about the flavor of 4e, but if you do, have at it!

Next, powers.  This is one that I think you either love or hate about 4e.  In Fourth Edition, characters start with (in general) two at-will powers that they can use as much as they want, one encounter power that they can only use once every battle, and one daily power that they can only use once per day (and they get more as they go up in level).  In earlier editions, the only equivalents you had to at-will powers were melee or ranged basic attacks (I swing my sword, I shoot my crossbow, etc.).  You could also do something that’s pure role playing (I talk to the bad buy or my allies, I try to hide, I jump onto a table, etc.), and that’s still there in 4e, too.  Magic users in earlier editions had a certain number of spells they could cast per day (very few at low levels), which gives them a little bit of a daily power feel, but other classes don’t seem to have any equivalents.  I like the whole power system in 4e, partly because everyone has at-wills that are useful in combat and partly because I like the tension of when to use dailies and encounter powers versus saving them for later.

Could you use this power system in an earlier edition?  I don’t see why not.  Some powers have certain ranges on them or a number of squares that they affect, but I think a good 1e DM could handle that stuff without breaking out a battle map.  Weren’t there the equivalent of bursts and blasts in earlier editions, such as with a fireball?  I assume the DM would say, “Okay, these three bad guys are clustered together, so your fireball hits all of them, but the other two are far enough away that they’re safe.”  Same idea here.  Powers that generate something like difficult terrain would be tougher without a battle map, and you probably wouldn’t want to use those unless the DM really liked mentally keeping track of this stuff.  Even there, you could rule that a power that created difficult terrain around a bad guy would make it hard for them to charge you on the next turn, and it’s up to the DM to say whether they can get to you or not.  This is basically playing 4e without a map or minis, and while I like the map and minis, I think a group could absolutely play a great 4e game without them, as long as they weren’t nitpickers for EXACTLY how close imaginary point A is to imaginary point B.

How about the collapse of skills?  Here’s an area where it’s almost totally unrelated to combat, so you can separate the two.  If you love the powers and maybe even the map-and-minis combat of 4e but you prefer the larger number of skills where you spend ranks in them, as you had in 3e and 3.5, then just go with the older skill system.  I think the new skill system was probably designed to be easier for new players to grasp, and I agree that it’s likely a sign of Wizards of the Coast de-emphasizing role playing to emphasize tactical combat.  If you are cool with more complexity in your skills, though, use the older skill system and enjoy!

Now let’s talk about numbers.  I must say that the transition to “higher AC is harder to hit” in Third Edition was a good change, period.  Maybe someone can convince me that the old system, where you want to lower your AC and you have to figure out your THAC0 and all of that, makes good sense.  But I personally don’t see it.  This is something I would adopt wholesale, even if I wanted to play an older edition.  I also think that having to use a table to look up whether an attack hits a monster, depending upon the class of the PC who hit, seems overly complex and doesn’t add anything to the game, at least as far as my limited understanding goes.  But hey, if you love the tables, stick with them.

I don’t know enough about the other numbers in older editions to say how they would differ from 4e, but I get the impression that HP totals are lower (for both characters and monsters) in 1e, and that it’s probably true that battles are swingier (you get lucky and kill a bad guy right at the start, or you get unlucky and he kills you with one hit).  That’s fine if you like it, but I imagine that if you didn’t like it, you could probably use 4e as a guide for hit points and damage output.  Of course, some people complain about “grind” in 4e, with battles taking too long due to the high hit points all around, so maybe there’s a good middle ground.  I know that I personally wouldn’t want to be a wizard running around with 4 HP and scared of my own shadow, but hey, maybe that’s just a great opportunity for role playing!

There are lots of other little details that could probably be taken from 4e by themselves if you wanted, and I think doing so would be easy enough if you’re cool with house rules.  Character creation using a point buy system is something that’s not unique to 4e, and I would personally use it over rolling dice (now that I’ve had a chance to try it both ways).  Using Fortitude, Reflex and Will as defenses other than AC that an attack might go after is something I could take or leave, and if you preferred using them as saving throws as in older editions, you certainly could do so.  Conditions that “save ends” seem fun to me, and you could easily introduce those to a First Edition game, and so on.

Ultimately, you’ve got to go where the fun is for you and your group.  If you’re happy with the rules of one edition (or one non-D&D game) as written, then life is easy for you.  If there are things that annoy you about the rules of your current edition, you might be able to pilfer different rules from other editions.  Me, I like 4e just fine as written, but if I got to the point that something about it just grated on my nerves, I wouldn’t hesitate to use house rules to change it.

4 thoughts on “Fourth Edition for people who prefer earlier editions

  1. Glad to have inspired something! :o)

    Disclaimer: I am not a 4e “apologist”, nor do I hate AD&D or any older version. Currently, I do prefer 4e since so much of it is still new to me.

    I should probably point out that our group was not so fed up with 4e that we all wanted to switch. We had been playing 4e almost since it came out – so about two years – and most of us liked it just fine. Several of us took turns at DM’ing. But Sean wanted to run AD&D, so we decided to go along, just for a change of pace. In fact, we seem to have lost our most recent new player due to the switch. But we enjoy our gaming nights together (as you noted, we spend more time just hanging out than we seem to actually “play”), so for the most part, we went along for the ride. But, for example, Scott still plays the 4e Encounters series at our FLGS, and I only play 4e on-line as play-by-post.


    Yeah, the 4e powers. In a sense, Sean is right. Every character can do essentially the same thing at first level, in the name of balance. There are slight mechanical differences (for example, the defender classes usually have melee attacks versus one foe, while controllers are ranged and sometimes bursts), but everyone can do about 9 points of damage at first level with their at-wills, and sometimes a minor side effect. Is that a problem? I don’t think so.

    This is not a historically realistic battle simulation; it’s a game. Sometimes, you have to tweak “realism” for the sake of a playable game. Besides, this is mostly fantasy anyway – who is to say what is “realistic” and what isn’t? Why can’t the wizard have effects that are as powerful as a fighters’ sword slash, and vice-versa?

    My favorite argument against 4e is that the characters seem “the same” – because certain powers are better than others, most characters of Class X will choose power Y, so there’s no real difference. Really? So let’s look back to pre-3.x; if you had a sword, you… what? Swung it. Every round. Repeat ad infinitum. There was little in the way of real “attack options”. In 3.x, there were feats you could take that let you specialize in certain attack forms, but usually you spent all the feats to make your preferred one better, so you used it whenever possible. Is that really so different?

    Not to pick on Sean, because as a DM, his attention to detail – especially in his original campaign world, Rothnoran – is superb*. But you can see his bias in that game: magic is something so extraordinary that it is unusual and limited in power. The idea of a Magic Missile at first level would never happen in Rothnoran. His view, which mirrors a lot of D&D players who favor older editions, is that a magical effect shouldn’t be mechanically similar to swinging a sword or firing a crossbow. I admit that I haven’t played a higher-level AD&D or 3.x game with him, so I don’t know exactly how he handles the powerful spells that come up and tend to marginalize the fighters at higher levels, but the point is still that magic is something… “special”, with a set of separate rules and stipulations that set it apart. Which is good (in their eyes) because while anyone could learn to hack at something with a four-foot length of sharp metal, it should be rare to harness the cosmic energies of the universe (or to convince your deity to rearrange the world on your behalf).

    Sure, there are rituals in 4e, but IMX they are used so rarely that they are almost an afterthought. Plus, I think anyone can take a feat to learn them.

    Moving on to tactical combat. You saw how we resolved the Sleep spell Pip casted (I admit that I argued that point because I thought it would be more amusing if he didn’t catch any of the bounty hunters in it) – mostly DM interpretation. Which is fine, but it does make a lot of the 4e rules, like OA, slides, and zones, for examples, messy. You’d have to work at limiting them so that they effect creatures specifically. So you wouldn’t create a zone that slows anyone moving through it, since you can’t really tell who is moving through it. Rather, you’d say that anyone caught in the burst when cast is slowed for X rounds, maybe a save cuts it short. More work to re-configure everything, but possible.

    I agree that the Skills is probably the one thing that could be carried over whole cloth from 3.x. Sometimes target DCs would have to be adjusted, but that’s probably the easiest alteration of anything we’re discussing.

    Using the d20 mechanic for AC and to-hit numbers and all that is certainly superior, to me. How much longer did it take because the DM had to look through the charts with half of the attacks? if you’re familiar with the charts, you understand the reason behind them – each class has a different progression. At first level, to hit AC 6 requires pretty much the same roll from any class. But a 5th level fighter has a much easier time to hit AC 6 than a 5th level wizard because of the tables. 3.x tried to generalize this with the BAB progression, which worked well in some cases, and failed in others. 4e doesn’t even try. Example: I had a 4e Cha-based paladin, so my Strength score was bad. My melee basic attack was worse than a Strength-based sorceror’s would be, even though that sorceror would generally not be a melee character. That kind of quirk is anathema to most old-schoolers.

    As you point out, a lot of this can be overcome by the DM putting his foot down and disallowing certain things, or using parts from other systems that are preferred. But… wouldn’t it be nice if the system worked the way you wanted it to, the way you’ve come to expect it to for the last 30 years? It’s time and effort for the DM to pull things from this and that, as opposed to “plug and play”.

    * even *if* he created a game based on a prophecy that he never explained… it’s like the “Lost” of gaming! :o)

    • @Karl – Dude, that is an epic comment! Thanks for taking the time to write in such detail.

      I think we pretty much agree. We might have some different preferences, sure, but it sounds like you and I are pretty well aligned when it comes to picking and choosing the parts you like from various editions. I agree that it would be nice if one edition just did everything the “best” way, but realistically I think there are too many players with too many differing preferences for any one system to please them all.

      As I’ve started DMing my own games, I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of house rules that exist just for one campaign. If all of the players around the table (physical or virtual) were used to these rules, they would be easy to follow, and they would make the game world make sense to everyone involved.

      I see where you’re coming from about some players preferring a world where magic is rare. Honestly, I’d be fine treating 4e the same way – but if you’re a wizard or a sorceror, you’re one of the rare ones. Yes, your first level Magic Missile, which you use time after time, is about as powerful as your ranger buddy’s arrows or your fighter friend’s sword swing. That’s fine, because you’re special. Maybe if the wizard gets killed it would be hard to find a replacement, but sword wielders are a dime a dozen in a particular world – cool! That’s flavorful. I’m comfortable with a world where other wizards are out there, too, but I buy into the 4e idea that just by being an adventurer, your character is a hero with abilities beyond those of normal people. Some of the abilities are martial, some arcane – but they’re all awe-inspiring to the average peasant. I dig that – but I totally respect that other players might not, in which case they’ll prefer the flavor of an earlier edition and perhaps just pilfer a few mechanics that they like (such as 4e-style armor class) from later editions. Works for me!

  2. Wow…just stumbled upon this 7 years after the fact. You know Karl…you can always come back and play with us. And when was a prophecy ever explained (LOL). Actually, the evolution of that game (Rothnoran) was, I started a short campeign for Bernie, and a couple of others where a phrophecy would lead the party to discover the lost heir to kingdom. Later, when an Exaulted game died on the vinee, I started running Rothnoran for the players from that game. As more people left Bernie’s game, they got envited to join Rothnoran (just because i wanted everyone to have a place to game). We even eventually picked up Bernie. At the height of the game there were 14 players, playing in three different groups. Now I challenge anyone to keep the a story line on course in that situation (LOL). and yes, low magic but if you recall, that was explained in the story line (the heavy hitters had worked to weaken magic). So blah!

    As far as 4th edition goes…it was complete rubbish. Trying to make a game that mimics the on line gaming experience (WOWC and Evercrack) is not in any way a role playing game. Heck, you could not even grapple a person…so a fantasy world where attempting to grapple simply prevents a person from taking a move action but allows them to attempt anything else? Just sad. And as far as adjusting the rules to make it more like a real role playing game? Sure, just adjust them back to 3rd edition (LOL) or do what everyone else did…go to Pathfinder. Honestly, i would suggest that the short run of 4th edition, relative to previous editions, before a new edition came out, pretty much shows that even WOTC came to realize it was a failure. The “new” people the system brought in could not take the place of those who jumped ship.

    The rules as written were little more than a board game. Now do not get me wrong, I did run a fun 4th edition game, but in order to do so, I only allowed one of any given character class, making each one unique and ran the game as a kind of Victorian super hero game. Even than we only used the powers and such, free formed skills and ignored most of the re-statting etc. that made 4th edition so bad to begin with.

    Nice blog by the by.


  3. I agree that Fourth Edition was not a commercial success. However, I had fun with it. It made me into an avid player, dungeon master, blogger and evangelist for the game. That’s not a bad thing, is it?

    I try hard not to call things that other people love “rubbish” or similar words. Maybe it’s not for me, and I’ll happily say as much, but if you love a game that I can’t stand, I’m still happy for you that you’ve found a game you love.

    Anyway, yep, I think that 4e was an experiment that even Wizards of the Coast eventually said did not work, as evidenced by the launch of 5e. And I’m happy that 5e appears to be well-received and successful! If I were playing D&D these days, it would be 5e, and I would be having lots of fun with it.

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