D&D 4E thoughts after the weekend’s sessions

I’ve now run three sessions of D&D 4e. This weekend, I ran the first session of my new Greyhawk homebrew for the Friday Nighters and then ran the second session of Keep on the Shadowfell on Sunday afternoon.

There is definitely some familiarisation necessary with the system. The game does not play in exactly the same way as 3E, just as 3E did not play in the same way as 2E. However, despite the differences, it is definitely feeling like D&D to me.

Probably one of the biggest changes to get used to is the concept of teamwork. Monsters are mobile and can easily move to attack weakly defended party members, especially if they’re intelligent. The Friday night group was lucky – it didn’t face any intelligent opposition, except for a lone Priest of Chaos who went down very quickly indeed. The firebeetles and zombies just went after the nearest players. This will change.

The Sunday group has been facing intelligent enemies, and the fight against Irontooth, which started very well for the PCs (the Fighter, Paladin and Warlord formed a line that stopped the kobolds from getting through to the Wizard and Warlock), started to go against them the moment they broke the line and let kobolds into flanking positions and going after the fluffier members of the group.

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork!

Here’s something I’ve found: first level characters are still extremly squishy. We had three unconscious and dying PCs in that combat (which lasted almost 20 rounds!) and one of those died, with another rolling a natural 20 on their Death Save and was able to stabilise the last. Combats may last longer, but your PCs will always be in danger at low levels.

Knowing your abilities and having them set down in a form you can interpret is also really, really important in 4e. First level characters don’t really have that many, although the fighter has far more than he did in previous editions. In fact, I think the fighter is one of the more difficult character classes to play, and that’s entirely due to his marking abilities.

In AD&D, the responsibility for knowing the rules was squarely on the DM’s shoulders. (This led to some really uncomfortable situations, where part of the descriptions of common spells were in the DMG and easily forgotten). In 4E (and also in 3e), it’s expected that the players will know how their abilities work – the DM is just there for reminders and running the rest of the world.

Thankfully, the actual ability descriptions are pretty clear and only use a small set of terms you need to know. Close, Ranged, Melee, Area, Burst, Blast, and 16 conditions, most of which are self-explanatory. (Prone means, you know, prone). Once you know those terms, you know most of 4e.

The big condition you need to know – and this applies mainly to Fighters and Paladins – is Marked. Here’s the basic text of what it means:

You take a -2 penalty to attack rolls for any attack that doesn’t target the creature that marked you.

So, if a Fighter marks a goblin and then the goblin attacks someone else, that goblin takes a -2 penalty to hit. Marked says, “stay here and fight me!” It’s the prime ability of being a defender. You need toknow how to mark something and what that means. It’s worthy of an article of its own, so I’ll do that and leave this for now.

A couple of other notes about how I run games and the adventures I’m currently running…

Puzzles – I like puzzles. I’m rarely going to put in a puzzle that is necessary to win the adventure (if I do so, I’ve likely made a big mistake), but puzzles will be there to allow bonus treasures, encounters and situations to occur. There may be some encounters you can get past by just rolling dice, but the “puzzle” encounter is one where you have to think for real. I might give clues with appropriate skill rolls, though.

Generally, if you find me giving a lot of description about an area and not letting you make rolls to disarm traps, you’ve found a puzzle. The opening of the secret door with the besieged castle mural is one such. You don’t need to get through that door. You can safely ignore it. However, if you want to have another go at getting past it, be my guest. 🙂

Yes, there will be regular Skill Challenges and Roleplaying Encounters as well. (Garnell the Great, Sage of Castle Greyhawk is a Roleplaying encounter, if you didn’t know). I like to break things up. There are more combats about if you

Towns and Roleplaying – The home base of a group of adventures, when done well, can lead to a lot of really, really good roleplaying. One of the problems with the Adventure Paths and published modules is that they really don’t allow enough development of the base, or they take the PCs away from it too soon. Both Sassarine and Diamond Lake got a lot of development by Paizo, but both – the former, especially – really never came into the adventures much.

I’m happy to develop the personalities and places of your home base further if you want me to. With the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, there’s actually quite a number of personalities and places already defined which gives me a lot to work with. Of course, we’re unlikely to stay in the town for that long, but there are some people you need to talk to.

With my homebrew City of Greyhawk campaign, we’re talking about a place I’ve run adventures in over many years, so there are definitely people to talk to. This isn’t to say that we’ll spend all of our time roleplaying and not adventuring, but I would like to build up some good relationships with key NPCs.

The new edition of 4e is proving to be a learning experience for all of us. Personally, I think it has enhanced combat and kept roleplaying pretty firmly in the hands of the players and DM. There are still rough edges, but I guess we’ll see with further play whether they’ll be a problem or not.


  1. Anonymous

    Teamwork and exploring the new edition

    Hi, Merric, Charles Ryan here–

    Here’s an observation I made in a round of email with my KotS group (in this conversation, the rogue was complaining that he’s gone down in every single session, but the consensus was that he’s playing too much in the 3E rogue paradigm):

    I think we’re in an interesting middle stage of exploring the new edition.

    At first, the monster’s varied tactical advantages were surprising and interesting (“Goblins? What are they going to do?”). The encounters were very unpredictable and fluid.

    Now, you’re less affected by the different monster tactics and abilities than you were initially, because you have a better handle on what you can do individually, and you’re bringing your capabilities to bear more effectively. But you still haven’t found your group stride and you’re pretty much slogging through the encounters by sheer force of will.

    Later, you’ll become a finely-honed machine with well-practiced use of your abilities and good teamwork. At that stage, the DM’s role will be to use monster tactics to make the fights interesting by disrupting your tactics and abilities and forcing you to adjust on the fly. I predict that fights will again be less about slogging and more about acting and reacting. Back to unpredictable and fluid!

    And I can’t wait!


    • tallarn

      Re: Teamwork and exploring the new edition

      Hi Charles!

      I had my first 4e combat last night and I’d tend to agree with what you’re saying – the combat was really quite unpredictable as the group explored it’s own powers and tried to keep up with what their opponents will do.

      I think over the next few sessions we’ll start to see things change as you state – hopefully by the end of Keep of Shadowfell they’ll be working as the unit you predict.


      • orryn_emrys

        Re: Teamwork and exploring the new edition

        My group had their first large-scale combat last night. It was… educational. There’s certainly a shift in thinking involved, but they seemed to adjust. I think combat rounds got progressively faster through the course of the battle, as they figured out how to successfully key off of each other’s actions.


      • downtym

        Re: Teamwork and exploring the new edition

        I don’t think I’ve had a combat that was less than 10 creatures since we started playing 4E. I’ve grown incredibly found of minions. =)


    • merricb

      Re: Teamwork and exploring the new edition

      G’day, Charles! Nice to see you dropping by! 🙂

      Interesting insights; I think you’ll be very right as to how my groups (and others) will react to 4E combat. It’s certainly true that my Sunday group were far more assured in their second session compared to their first.

      Alas, both sessions are fortnightly (and on the same weekend), so it’ll be a little while before I see them again.



  2. evildmguy

    I think it has enhanced combat and kept roleplaying pretty firmly in the hands of the players and DM.

    I agree with that completely, as well as what else you said.

    My players are learning quickly that this is about teamwork, now, instead of what an individual could do.

    I also like how they talk about adventure design and how now, the adventure shouldn’t revolve around anything that’s rolled, mainly the skills. There should be multiple paths to get where they needed, it’s just that some paths will give them rewards if they do have good rolls. I like that!



  3. downtym

    I like that the 4e DMG pulled the spotlight out and looked around to find Skill Challenges and Social Challenges. Now, if something could be done to make them more interesting or interactive.

    One thing I’ve felt RPG’s have missed is a sort of “Combat System” for Social situations. It would be interesting to have such a system because it would give the GM a better framework for the inevitable “Party interrogates bad guy” or “Party negotiates with NPC” and determining an interesting outcome that doesn’t eventually come down to either “NPC stonewalls” or “NPC gives up the McGuffin” – I’m only being facetious here, but often it does seem that NPC social reactions see-saw between “Nothing” or “Everything”. Having a sort of Social Combat system would allow GMs to set up a sort of Combat of Wills between the individuals where they use abilities or skills to out maneuver each other.

    And no, I don’t think such a mechanic would remove Roleplaying from the equation. It would just give something to the “Okay, that sounds like a good argument, give me a Diplomacy roll”. Instead, the Player could go, “I say, ‘…’ and I’m going to use my ‘Straw Man’ argument ability to get a +5 to my Diplomacy roll if he doesn’t have the ‘Logical Mind’ ability.”

    Skill Challenges are similar. The framework in the DMG just pulls back the curtain on what we’ve all known about skills for quite sometime: You roll some dice and move on. There’s nothing interesting about “Make 5 successful climb checks, if you fail more than 3 times, you fall and can’t go this way”. That just makes it so that your player picks up a handful of D20’s and throws them. If it was something more active, almost like the wall they were climbing were engaging them somehow then I think that would give skill usage something that it’s missing – namely “Action”.

    Obviously, there’s the “How much does this slow down the game” balancing act and the ever useful suggestion of “Only use these mechanics when it would be INTERESTING”, but I think that building a larger framework around Skill and Social challenges and modeling them after combat so that they were more kinetic would be interesting.


    • charlesatan

      You need to look into the indie RPGs. They tend to design games with “Duel of Wits” and social mechanics.

      Otherwise, I’m perfectly fine with D&D not covering that particular area and stick to what it does does: combat.


  4. charlesatan

    I want to play in your game. =)

    Most of my players managed to cooperate and used teamwork effectively from the get-go (more so during our second session) to the point that I’m now not afraid to send higher-level challenges their way. I’m not really sure whether it’s because they have good teamwork skills or it’s due to the fact that they play MMORPGs…


  5. gamescribe

    Both Sassarine and Diamond Lake got a lot of development by Paizo, but both – the former, especially – really never came into the adventures much.

    I completely agree. I thought Erik did an awesome job sketching out Diamond Lake, but it was woefully underused. One of the reasons I loved Shackled City was because you really got to know the town you were operating in and around. I know AoW was going for something different, so I understand why you didn’t get the same kind of focus, but it really gave Cauldron a very memorable vibe that my players still talk about. I was very disappointed at how awesome the Player’s Guide for Savage Tide was, compared to how little time Sasserine figured into the campaign.


    • keterys

      The players having a base to operate from for the entire time was a huge draw for me to run the Shackled City campaign. While some players can attach to NPCs and a location without even playing in it or having more than a couple sentences, a lot (particularly mine) seem to really need a long time to attach feelers and sentiment. As a player in Savage Tide I was very confused to start caring about Sasserine then realize we were probably never going back.


      • merricb

        Unfortunately, my Shackled City campaign only lasted a few sessions. As one of the key players died early this year, I doubt we’ll return to it.


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