Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, 1st Impressions

We took the plunge earlier this month. We bought Daddy the 4e Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Vault.

After our first play session, I like the system but think the early learning curve is steeper than other editions.

A list of acronyms is at the end.

Family History

Husband has played every edition so far, except 3.5. He played 1st and 2nd when they were current. In the late 80s he was in a group that played almost weekly for several years. That was when I met him. The group faded after graduation, despite their best efforts to accommodate irregular schedules and distant cities. Those of us who stayed in town tried 3e. That worked for several years playing monthly, until schedules changed again and Son was old enough to interfere. (Dice look yummy and character sheets make nice crumply noises.)

This summer Son memorized the 3e books and we played a short adventure. However, in the interest of playing with future groups (and at a loss for a birthday present) we decided to move to 4e.

Son has now memorized the 4e rules, but needs practice applying them.

Husband spent Saturday afternoon at the local game shop playing Living Forgotten Realms and came home ready to DM for us.

I chose a pre-built Half-Elf Cleric and Halfling Rogue from the Quick Start Guide. Later that night I recreated them from the PH to learn the system and better understand why I had +5 to my attack rolls. (Years ago when immobilized I had to recreate how much of my AC was due to Dex based bonuses. I don’t like having to do that on-the-fly.)

Character Creation

The first volume of the PH includes all you need to create and play a character. It omits some of the races and classes and adds new ones. If you want to play a Monk, it’s probably in a later volume. Later volumes also include new powers such as psionics.

Character creation is between 2e and 3e in time required. Every race and class requires choices; there is no simple character. They suggest two builds for each class — sets of skills and powers that work well together. I’ll use them until I’m more familiar with the entire system. The builds are very different, for example a healing cleric and a warrior cleric.

Fewer pages deal with alignment, and they left out some combinations. I miss the 3e descriptions of each combination, each one ending with, “This is the best alignment because…”

4e uses the same 6 stats and ability modifier system as 3e. These are used for skill checks and to modify attack and damage rolls.

The Combat Chapter should be Chapter 2, rather than Chapter 9. Most of the choices you make while creating a character affect combat, so you don’t really understand them until you’ve read that chapter. Also, the blank character sheet has spaces near the top for numbers that aren’t described until the Combat Chapter. I can see a new player wondering if he missed something.

I had to flip between the race and class chapters several times to catch all the “Pick an extra…from…”, but there wasn’t the agonizing assignment of 17 points across 30 skills from 3e. Nor was there the repetition. 3e copied, word-for-word, several paragraphs many times rather than cross-referencing. 4e organizes things so there’s less need for that, and it assumes you’ll remember that a choice you made three chapters ago affects the concept described in this chapter.

4e introduces the concept of Power. Each attack is a Power. (They even describe Basic Melee and Basic Range Attacks as Powers.) So is each spell. So is each spell that is also an attack.

Powers are described in detail in the chapter which gave you the power. Race powers are under your race. Class powers are under your class. This works well for simple race and class, but there are no simple races or classes. Most races allow a power or feat from another class.

A master index of all powers, cross-referenced by page number, race and class would help. It would allow you to quickly review your choices and, when a question comes up in play, find the description of the power if it’s not from your own class.

4e keeps the concept of Skill Checks and Difficulty Class. Several of the skills were combined. 17 rather than the entire page in 3e. Training is either yes (+5 bonus) or no (no bonus), rather than assigning points one-by-one. Faster to create and easier to use.


4e continues the trend started in 3e of positioning. In earlier editions we rarely needed a clear map. It’s worth getting a grid for the new system. A pad of 1″ graph-paper (the huge sheets used on easels) works. We saved the trip to the store by drawing a grid on bristol board and covering it with pexiglass we had lying around. It works well with dry erase markers. One of the players at the store apparently had a nice reusable roll-up grid, but we went cheap.

It also keeps the standard/move/minor/free action system. Our first combat was in a tavern, so movement was important. This slowed down the action.

In earlier editions, fighters were easy to play, but also boring. 4e complicates them with powers. Our fighter usually chose one of the at will powers rather than Basic Attack. I had to read the character sheets for my Rogue and Cleric every turn.

It takes time to add up all the modifiers. All attack rolls are modified by 1/2 your level, an ability (Dex or Str), and the Power you use. Plus any race or class bonus and feats. Plus weapon proficiency. Plus position (such as flanking or combat advantage). Plus environment (such as standing on a table, cover, range, and concealment). AC is modified by armour, sometimes Dex, environment, powers, and feats). Damage depends on the weapon, Dex or Str, and any powers.

For example, as a 1st Level Halfling Rogue, I often used Deft Strike which let me move an extra 2 squares before attacking, but I can only use it with some weapons. To attack I got +0 for my level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +4 for Dex. and +3 for proficiency with dagger, total attack bonus of +8. This did 1d4 for dagger, +4 for Dex, total damage of 1d4+4. Plus any bonuses for positioning or a friendly “increase accuracy” spell.

The same weapon used for Basic Attack would be +0 for level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +1 for Str, +3 for proficiency with dagger, total +5. Damage of 1d4 for dagger +1 for Str, total damage 1d4+1.

The pre-created sheet showed just the totals — useless if I dropped the dagger and picked up a heavy mace.

I could also choose Sly Flourish (distract), Positioning Strike (move opponent), or Trick Strike (more powerful version of Positioning Strike).

For defense, I had to remember that I gained +5 against attacks of opportunity but not against regular attacks.

Some attacks are against AC, others against Reflexes.

This will get easier the more we play. We’ll know which type of attack works most often and know the others well enough that we don’t have to read them each time. However, it makes it confusing for new players. At times, Husband just said, “Use this one.” It kept the game moving, but took control away from the player. I’ll also have more confidence in the totals for often-used powers and be more comfortable building other attacks.

Under the old system, we would have given our 9-year-old Daughter a fighter, but even they are complicated. She watched for a bit, then wandered away bored.

Role Playing

Critics of 4e say there’s not as much role playing. I don’t see that. Yes, you can’t fine-tune your thief to be better at picking locks than picking pockets, but that has little effect during the game.

The early chapters of the PH discuss characterization in details and even give questions to think about. Do you try to make friends with PCs or intimidate them? What do you do when cornered? Why are you adventuring? Each race has a personality and history (which you don’t have to follow — just because most dwarves like ale doesn’t mean you have to). They give different builds for each class, such as brawny rogue or trickster. There is a variety of gods.

Roll playing is about enjoying your character. In our group, the fighter could have chased the escaping mercenary into the woods or pressed the victim for an explanation, but Husband chose to have him sit back with his interrupted ale at the far side of the room. The half-elf cleric chose to give the victim space while asking for an explanation rather than press in and reassure him that we were good and would help him. Either choice would fit with the half-elf diplomacy feature.

A good strategy is to think of three different things your character might do before choosing. This breaks you out of stereotypes. Also consider what famous characters from fiction might do. Aragorn and Malcolm Reynolds are both Warlords. Or maybe Mal is a Thief, in which case compare him to Short-Round.

4e gives the same scope for role-playing as 3e, but balances it between play and character creation better. It asks more questions and gives more ideas than 1e and 2e, but doesn’t lock you to early decisions the way 3e does.

Do You Need the Dungeon Masters Guide?

You don’t need it at all for the official modules.

You can create a basic adventure without it, if you limit yourself to opponents created from the PH. Make frequent use of the standard DC table and base the AC of inanimate objects like doors to be broken on suits of armour. You will need it to assign experience points and treasure and to balance encounters with monster opponents.

We have the Dungeon Masters Vault, which includes a paperback DMs book as well as tokens and maps and an adventure. We were told this was the full DMG just bound differently, but the different title concerns me. Still, it looks like it has what we need. We’re going to work through the Keep on the Shadowfell campaign, so won’t know for a while.

Some Differences from Earlier Editions

Wizards and Clerics are more involved in combat. Wizards can use Magic Missile every turn. Clerics can hit and heal at the same time.

Multiclass is reduced. I only read it quickly, but it looks to be much harder for the characters. I’m still getting used to playing a single class low-level character with the new rules, so won’t look at this for quite a while.

There is no easy-to-play class. Sometimes it’s nice to ease a new player in gently. Every turn they swing and roll with the same bonuses. Once they get into the rhythm and watch others play, they become more comfortable with more choices.


I mentioned earlier that I’d like a list of all the powers, cross-referenced by race, class and page number. Looking up details of powers from the pre-built character was sometimes frustrating. (The sheet had totals, but those would change if I changed weapons.) Even a more-detailed index in the back of the book would help.

There are two Rules Compendiums. One is a book published in September, the other is an online reference that’s part of a subscription to the online group. That would make the list unnecessary.

The combat chapter should be moved earlier. As it is, when you create your character you choose powers that affect your AC, but don’t know how AC works.

I’d like to see a training story for Level 0 characters that shows sample rolls.

Lesson 0 – General descriptions. Overview of races and classes.
Lesson 1 – Basic ranged and melee attacks, armour class. Include wizard and warlock basic attack powers.
Lesson 2 – Basic healing. Healing surges. Resting.
Lesson 3 – Positioning during combat, including movement and flanking.
Lesson 4 – Powers, including attack, defense and advanced healing.
Lesson 5 – Skills and non-combat encounters.
Lesson 6 – Miscellaneous. How to break down a door. Money and gems. Magic items.
Study Hall – Review the above and create a character.
Graduation – You are now a 1st level character.


We have the PH, DMs Kit and Monster Vault.

The best deal is the 3 book set: PH, DMG, MM for $105. Our store didn’t have that, sigh.

The Starter Set is good if you and your friends have never played before. At $20 for all you need to start, it’s a good deal. It has dice, pre-generated characters and very short manuals. There is a solo adventure and a group one, with maps and tokens. It’s a good investment if your group is starting from scratch but otherwise skip it. It does not replace the Players Handbook.

You will need the Players Handbook if you want to go past 2nd level or try other equipment or create your own characters.

The next two boxes are in series. The adventure in the DMs Kit has hooks from the one in the Starter Set, and the adventure in the Monster Vault has hooks from the one in the DMs Kit. The character levels also go up as you work through the boxes.

(Grumble. Many of the boxes and even the adventure books don’t show the level on the cover. I had to go in a few pages to confirm this.)

The boxes include adventures, tokens and maps (no maps in the Monster Vault). The DMs kit has a shield with useful tables.

I’m not sure if the books in the boxes are the same as the core books.

The book in the DMs Kit is 256 pages compared to the DMG’s 224 and the cover says Dungeon Masters Book. The store said they were the same when I asked, and a quick look doesn’t show any obvious omissions. As we’re happy with Shadowfell and the adventures in the kit, we won’t test the DMBook very soon.

The book in the Monster Vault is titled Monster Vault Book and is 256 pages compared to the Monster Manual’s 288

At this stage, we’re more than happy with the boxes we have. I’d like to compare the books to the core rule books, but it’s not urgent.

We also downloaded the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, both the 14-page hook and the 72-page adventure. It looks like the adventure is the same as the one sold as a formal module, but you can’t download the large-scale maps and tokens. Not a big problem. We started with the 14-page hook and sketched the combat map onto grid paper.

I expect we’ll continue with the current adventure till we’re 2nd level, then decide whether to do Shadowfell or move to the series in the boxes. DM’s choice. It’s not like we can’t do the other later.

Online Subscription

For about $6 / month, you can subscribe to the online tools. This includes a character generator and searchable rules compendium.

It’s tempting. When running multiple characters, looking up power details by race or class is a pain. I usually type most of them onto the last page of my character sheet, but looking them up would be nice. (I want a tablet computer!)

I’m not a fan of character generator programs. I like to know where all the bits and pieces of my totals come from. Son liked the free one that was available until last month. I hear it’s better than the program that came with 3e.

They’re still adding tools to this, such as a monster generator.


3e: Third Edition.
4e: Fourth Edition.
PH: Players Handbook
Dex: Dexterity
Ref: Reflex
AC: Armour Class
DM: Dungeon Master
DC: Difficulty Check
thac0: To Hit Armour Class Zero


One thought on “Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, 1st Impressions

  1. While searching twitter for D&D 4ed comments, ideas, and resources I came across your post.
    I bought the red box starter kit and the Players Hand book box set (Books 1 and 2). At first glance I thought this was D&D for lazy PC gamer’s with no imagination left.
    After running a game with a bud I came to realize that it is all in how you apply the tools given to you.

    Anyways, thank you for your write up. I now know what to go for my next purchase as well as finding 1″ graph paper to make my own maps.

    Good on you.

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