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Wizards Watch: Kicking 4E under the Edition Bus

under busIt seems to me that there is a disturbing trend of late, arising in blogs, in forums, and on twitter.  D&D 4E seems to be coming under steadily increasing criticism, and its mechanics called into question compared to the “wonderful” mechanics of D&D Next.  Sure I get that, to a certain extent, it feels necessary by WotC and some members of the community to dethrone the current edition to make way for the new one, particularly when it seems that Hasbro and Wizards refuse to look at any other business model for D&D than to support only one version of the game at a time.  But there is something really sad, and even a bit repellent, when you see WotC designers throwing parts of 4E under the proverbial bus, just to somehow justify their own design goals in D&D Next.

What’s even worse is that some of these new Next mechanics have no appeal to me at all as a veteran D&D DM and player.  I’m pretty open to a lot of different game mechanics, and have played a ton of different RPGs over the years, besides all the versions of D&D.  But when you have a game mechanic that is working just fine in current and past systems of a game, then have someone from WotC come along and throw crap all over it and claiming it’s “bad”, it’s not exactly going to inspire loyalty, given that the “bad” mechanic was originally created by WotC itself!

And exactly how long ago was it that WotC and all of the 4E community were championing the mechanics of the current form of D&D?  It wasn’t all that long ago I think that we all weathered together the slings and arrows of angry edition warriors, out for 4E blood, because it wasn’t “real D&D”.

So I felt it was high time to step up and defend D&D 4E against the propaganda wants to use it as poster child for the “bad” mechanics, while trying to convince the community that D&D Next mechanics are so very, very “good”.

Bounded Accuracy

There was a recent Legends & Lore article which discussed a D&D Next design concept called Bounded Accuracy. The gist of this article was that D&D Next would not have attack bonuses, saving throw bonuses, or skill bonuses that would increase solely by level.  They would only increase as a result of new Character Themes, Class features, and through magic items.  This would have the laudable effect of allowing low level monsters to continue to be threatening challenges for even high level characters, make it easier to adjudicate skill checks and improvised scenes, and make it more apparent for DMs and players to get a sense of difficulty and of relative strength.

Personally, I think that while Bounded Accuracy might be able to do all of these things, it also has some fairly awful side-effects, such as making heroes feel inferior and stymie any general feeling of advancement in the game.

First off, it’s probably important to point out that Bounded Accuracy has never existed in any version of D&D.  I was quite boggled in fact when I actually saw commenters to the L&L article praise WotC for bringing Bounded Accuracy “back” to D&D.  Let’s be clear here, that with only one real exception, Bounded Accuracy is a contrivance of D&D Next, so really this mechanic creates a “feature” which has the potential to be off-putting to many D&D fans.  I certainly felt no real excitement for this particular design goal…

So in previous editions of D&D, going as far back as you like, you had only one combat stat which truly had Bounded Accuracy: Armor Class.  Armor Class has never increased simply by level, with the exception of a few odd classes out there like the old Monk, and has always been dependent on ability scores, gear, magic items, and spells to increase it.  Other combat statistics like attack bonuses, saving throws, and in later editions, skills, all increased over the course of the characters’ careers, every time they gained a new level.

Generally speaking, the armor classes of monsters increased with level as well (or HD), making higher level critters more threatening – but not always.  In older editions, D&D designers always threw a few monsters into the game that were exceptions to the rule.  Some high level monsters had weak ACs but piles of hit points, while some low level monsters had unusually high ACs but died in only a couple hits.

And of course, higher level monsters have always been able to hit more accurately and for more damage than low level monsters.  Historically, character ACs, particularly Fighter and Cleric ACs who wear heavy armor, eventually reaches a point where low level monsters can only hit the heroes on a 20, while higher level threats can hit them around 30-50% of the time, and a monster which might be considered “out of their league” will hit them all the time!

But Bounded Accuracy wants to change all that, taking the advancement of combat statistics completely out of the game.  Low level monsters and high level monsters would have almost the exact same percentage chance of hitting character AC, while player-characters will have the same ability to hit monsters back, so that even a low level character can slice into a dragon nearly as well as a high level hero.  This also means that monsters never become better at warding off spell attacks, as saving throws do not increase, but then again, neither do the characters.  In essence, the only thing which differentiates a high level threat from a low level threat, whether hero or monster, is damage output and hit points.  Presumably, from the Open Playtest materials, monsters will continue to gain more and more hit points and their hits will continue to deal ever increasing damage.  From the Playtest characters, we see very little change in damage output over the three levels, and some modest gains in hit points.

So which combat scenario feels more heroic to you?

You’re a heroic Fighter, after leveling up several levels, can now wade into a battlefield full of low level orcs, and mow them down like weeds.  You can hold off packs of them, cutting them down in droves, because only a few of them will actually hit you.  You hold the onslaught back, butchering them several at a time, while your comrades blast apart the warband with spells and deadly missile fire!


You’re a heroic Fighter, after leveling up several levels, marches into a battlefield full of orcs, are quickly surrounded and cut to ribbons while the rest of the party watches helplessly.  Despite your level gains, your ability to hit and kill orcs is relatively the same as it was when you were a newbie adventurer, because bounded accuracy assures this.  Your armor has not vastly improved, which still allows the orc packs to stab, slash, and bludgeon you to death.  The surviving heroes run screaming from the field, pursued by the bloodthirsty orcs, and are hunted down and torn asunder, one after the other.

The first version of this story is pretty much any version of D&D you want to name from OD&D to 3.5/Pathfinder.  Obviously, this sort of mass melee warband thing was not something you would see often in 4E, as it had a different encounter building strategy.  In 4E, DMs would likely scale up orcs to around the same level as the party on the fly, so that even without Bounded Accuracy, monsters never went out of style and would still awarded decent experience points because they still posed an equal level threat.  Of course, an encounter could be constructed to give the same feeling of dealing with old massive orc warband.  That “old school” style of encounter could still easily be simulated in D&D 4E by using low level minions which have little chance of hitting the heroes, and could be easily hacked apart.

But until Next, no edition of D&D expected that a high level Fighter was going to die at the hands of a pack of 1st level monsters – so how exactly is that an innovation?  And does anyone who has ever played a version of D&D actually want to feel that non-heroic?

Now as far as skills are concerned, I’m in complete agreement with some of the points made, but I don’t think Bounded Accuracy is the way to resolve them.  Raw ability score bonuses, with a few small bonuses to represent training, simply does not feel like a real skill system to me.  Does anyone think that a mathematical genius who never studied history is not going to be on the same footing as a moderately intelligent individual who has spent years reading history texts?  Under Bounded Accuracy, they would have the same chance to answer a history question, just so that there is the illusion that all characters can contribute to problem solving.

Don’t get me wrong, D&D 4E’s system of skills does not sit right with me either, because leveling up should not increase all skills across the board evenly.  It’s a nifty game mechanic to make character advancement easy and quick to do, but it’s also not particularly my favorite, because of the ever growing and adjusting Difficulty Check numbers.  For me, 3.5/Pathfinder probably has the best system of skills and skill advancement in D&D, combining static DCs as recommended by Bounded Accuracy, with the ability to increase a few key skills each level, to represent ongoing training and study over a character’s career.

But overall, Bounded Accuracy sounds like a mess o’pottage to me, sacrificing the feeling of being heroic against low level monsters by exchanging in a mechanic which is really quite un-D&D like.

Fallacies about Feats

In a recent blog by a D&D designer called Feat Taxes and Bloat, the feat system of previous D&D systems (3rd, 3.5, and 4E of course) was actually a “bad” mechanic and that the new Theme system of D&D Next is a “good” mechanic.  Getting rid of those nasty feats and replacing them with shining bright Themes is definitely the way to a better D&D game, and we should all embrace Themes so that there will never be Feat Tax and Feat Bloat again.

I think I shall reserve the right to disagree. Thank you.

First off, there is no such thing as a Feat Tax in 3.5.  I both DM’d and played plenty of D&D 3.5 for years, and I never saw a set of feats that were required to make a character, or character class, viable on up into the mid-teens.  Now I never did run an Epic Level 3.5 campaign, so maybe that’s where Feat Taxes come into play, but for characters levels 1-15, I saw feats chosen because they fit with a particular character concept – and occasionally to optimize a character.  No matter how good a player is at role-playing, the optimization honey pot is sometimes just to irresistible to ignore for a whole fifteen levels of character development.

In 4E, there was undeniably a couple of feat taxes, due to some math incongruities between heroes attack bonuses and monster defenses, and vice versa.  Also, there is almost always been a NAD score which is really low on a hero, and will almost certainly need a boost by a feat.  But it should also be noted that these incongruities could have been fixed by WotC at any time.  And it still can be!

WotC has already shown a willingness to post errata, and make changes to existing powers, monster attack and defense numbers, and a whole plethora of other attributes.  And further, those changes can be implemented in DDI and Character Generator as soon as the errata goes public.  So at any time, the attack and defense feat taxes could be fixed by simply adding a bonus to the Character Advancement table at the start of the Paragon and Epic Tiers.  In fact, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting’s inherent bonuses go a long way to resolve feat tax, but they still don’t fix it completely.  But using inherent bonuses, and dropping a +1 to hit, AC, and NADs at 11th level and another additive +1 at 21st level would totally handle the problem.  Admittedly, I suppose that some players are frustrated by having to take a couple Expertise and NADs defense feats, but really, are a couple feats that big a deal over the life time of a character for 30 levels?

The fact that the WotC blogger also seemed to suggest that there were damage feats that were mandatory to be a viable hero was also a bit strange.  In fact, he suggested that characters were forced to take certain feats from Level 1 to Level 6 just to survive.  Again, I’ve got two D&D campaigns running – four campaigns if you include reboots – and there is simply no indication that feat choice in the heroic tier saves a character from certain doom, or transform them from weak to just adequate.   Now there are some feats that optimize a character, but optimized is not merely adequate.  We’re talking about a character at the pinnacle of effectiveness, eschewing character concept in favor of character power.  But I have yet to see character optimization as a necessary trait needed for viability and survival.

And let’s face it, the damage output enhancement feats are actually a joke if you really look at the numbers.  Damage output feats do nothing special against minions, and are directly affected by character attack accuracy and the length of combat.  Given that characters hit about 50-50 during a combat, and that combats last 4-6 turns most of the time, taking a feat to gain a couple of extra damage points per attack is almost inconsequential to the overall monsters’ hit points!

Feat Bloat is the other design “hobgoblin” here, and I fail to see the big deal about offering players many different options for customizing their characters.  Feats come in three flavors:  add-ons, increased options, and exceptions.  Add-on feats give a character a completely new power, skill, or ability.  Increased option feats give a character additional options or bonuses to powers and skills they already have.  And exception feats offer a way to circumvent a minor rule, making that character the exception that proves it.

But the problem that some folks have is that there is a proliferation of these types of feats, giving players too much choice, and occasionally making a feat which is too potent for the game rules.  I find it fairly humorous in an ironic way that a WotC designer would poo-poo the expansion of feats and feat bloat, since all of the design team has had a hand in creating the so-called problem in the first place!

And certainly, Feat Bloat doesn’t seem to hurt Pathfinder’s popularity much at all.  Pathfinder adopted almost all the SRD/3.5 feats, and have been steadily adding more to their feat lists with every new product!  And we’ve certainly heard plenty of arguments here and there claiming that it’s Pathfinder’s popularity that is the reason 4E is being retired in favor of D&D Next!

My own complaint about feat bloat is based upon a need I feel to simplify feat lists and to remove those feats which are redundant.  The feat lists in CharGen are cumbersome and difficult to use, and could be given tags and categories to make them more easily searchable.  And there are plenty of feats which were made obsolete by improvements made on them in the “Heroes of” books, such as the ones with simple bonuses that were replaced with more complex feats which have the same bonus plus an add on effect.  Do we really need to keep both on the rosters?  I don’t think so personally, and I’d love to see how many feats could be weeded out if someone at WotC still actually gave a rat’s posterior about 4E.

And what about Theme Tax and Theme Bloat?  It’s been suggested that DND Next Themes are a way of creating a linkage between feats, creating a thematic reason (ie. fluff) for them to be part of a character building mechanic.    But honestly, how can the designers not see that this is just a horse of a different color?  Aren’t we going to end up in the same quandary about Themes as we are about Feats?

Honestly, I can’t imagine the designers of D&D Next stopping at just 50 or 100 themes.  I’ll lay odds we’ll see a constant parade of specialized racial themes, regional themes, and setting themes coming out as more and more products are released.  Dragon Magazine will probably feature new Themes submitted by well-intentioned fans who want to see Asian cinema, Gladiator movies, and maybe even Steampunk represented in their characters as Themes.  And 3rd Party Publishers and Next bloggers will be coming up with lists of Themes on their own, adding more and more Themes to the bloat.

And we’re kidding ourselves to not see how a Theme tax won’t come into play.  Certain Themes will simply have a drawing power to certain players, and will begin to be seen as the optimal Theme for a particular class build and role.  And isn’t it likely that players will choose themes that contain certain bonuses to attack, damage, AC, and saving throws if they feel they are falling behind in one of these areas?  So in essence, some Themes will be deemed “essential” for class and character viability, making them the “tax” for playing in a D&D Next game.

And really, so far in the Playtest, all we’ve seen of a Theme is a stack of feat-like things connected under a fluff text framework.  Some of these feat-like effects are useful, some less so, but it all forces a character into becoming more homogenized and less individualized.  In essence, WotC designers are saying, “Sorry kids… you have too much freedom to create a character using feats chosen because they are interesting to you or because you like what they do for your character.  You can’t be trusted to make decisions like that on your own, your own ideas for a character concept are inferior to our own, so you have to take this set of feats we pre-designed for you… and like it.”

Of course, WotC designers would never say that to the players, and they might not even realize that is a message and vibe they are sending out by striking down feats as “bad”, and supplanting them with themes as “good”.  But when you take away character build options, and replace them with a more rigid system that allows less flexibility, it’s hard not to see it as a disappointment.

And by the way, that’s what made 4E character themes so awesome and why they were so well received.  They were adding yet one more way for heroes to differentiate themselves, add an additional layer of complexity, and help to create an even more diverse background for the character.

Going forward, I anticipate we’ll keep hearing more and more that D&D 4E was “bad”, and how this or that D&D Next mechanic will be sooooo much better.  I can only hope the D&D community will see through the propaganda, and evaluate a new mechanic for its merits alone.  Turning D&D 4E into a “straw man” to prove the value of new mechanics is neither helpful nor inspiring to the process of creating D&D Next, and it suggests there’s a bit of sad desperation trying to make the Next version of D&D into something that most of us even care to play.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


21 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Kicking 4E under the Edition Bus

  1. Lochness_Hamster says:

    There are a section of fans that want to make D&D not accessible to new players, and generally hound them out of the hobby, you can see this starting in the terrible boring rules we have seen in DNDnext so far.

    Yeah mundane heroes, boring fighters, back to checking every 10′ square for traps, that shit was great 30 years ago, but lets not delude ourselves that it was some great gaming pinnacle of rules design, i see lauding of the return of the Electrum piece, how in the hell does this make a game better……… and if mike mearls thinks the monsterous compendium way of displaying monsters is poplular, then you can see where this game is headed, AD&D DMG was one of the worst set out books for rules in history

    Wonderful well thought out Blog, thanks

  2. Magician says:

    I’d hold off until we see a level 10 monster and a level 10 character, or better yet get rules to build one, to see just how bounded accuracy functions. But I’ll address one of its advantages they cite: that a bunch of city guards have a chance to defeat a dragon. DM doesn’t need rules for that. In a fight between two NPCs, the NPC who DM thinks should win wins. We’re never going to actually roll the “100 guards vs dragon” fight, so why bother with it? 4e did this absolutely right: the focus is on the PCs, what NPCs get up to is solely up to DM to decide.

    On themes, I thought they were described as simply a thematic collection of feats, which could also be taken independently? Which downgrades them from anything interesting at all to “recommended feats” list – good for new players but boring otherwise. I guess we’ll see.

  3. Rich Green says:

    Well argued post – I agree with pretty much everything here, particularly the bit about theme bloat. We will end up with “too many” themes in the same way we have had too many spells, feats, powers, prestige classes etc etc in all earlier editions of D&D.

    On the plus side, the guys at WotC are at least getting plenty of ideas out there for feedback this time round. I just wish it was possible to write about the forthcoming edition without rubbishing the current one.

  4. rekenner says:

    You really are defending the worst parts of the 4e (and even 3.x) that I’m pretty sure no one really cares about when they complain about 4e systems being thrown under the bus.
    Like, flat math is pretty much a 4e mechanic, just without the numbers getting bigger, requiring feat taxes, etc. Flat math, in of itself, is a pretty awesome idea, provided the characters grow in other ways. If it ends up as LFQW because the fighter gets nothing and the wizard gets more abilities, then, yeah, shit sucks.

    And seriously, I love 4e, but I absolutely hate feats to death. I don’t know of anyone that really likes how feats ended up in either 3e or 4e. Like, themes might fall into the same problem as feats, which would make them… just as bad as feats. Sure.

    What 4e people want tend to be things like “Fighters not sucking and being boring” and “The math working and being transparent and also working.” and “Full progression casters not solving encounters singlehandedly and breaking the game”. That’s what 4e brought to the game, not… the continuing of the numbers treadmill and the continuation of feats.

  5. Perico says:

    I don’t think the recent blogs have come to a level of edition bashing that is remotely comparable to what we saw during the 4E previews (and I tended to agree with most of those, back then!). Yes, they are writing some posts that are critical with some 4E mechanics (and with some of earlier editions, for that matter), but they tend to be fairly reasonable, and I wouldn’t dismiss them as mere attempts to sell the new stuff.

    I honestly believe that, when the devs say they see something as a problem, that is actually their opinion, and not a corporate stance. Now, I cannot claim to know what they really think, and it’s not like you would see this kind of criticism from a WoTC employee while they still sold 4E, but you can look at someone like Rob Schwalb – as a freelancer, he wrote a LOT of excellent stuff for of 4E, but he also blogged about his perceived issues with that editions, way before he got involved in Next design. His current blogs are following the same line as before.

    In short, you can love an edition and still write about its problems and propose ways to fix it. I have done this quite often about 4E – and so have you, for that matter. Why does this suddenly become a disingenuous thing to do, now that Next is on the horizon? And of course, someone’s bug can be a feature for others – people disagree about these things all the time.

    Now, for some meaty mechanical discussion. I must confess I am loving the concept of bounded accuracy, and am seriously considering retrofitting it into 4E. First, an important consideration: I do not know how bounded accuracy will get implemented in Next, and I’m working with what the Next devs have told us, and some of my own calculations… but, as far as I can tell, bounded accuracy does not equal completely flat math. Just… flatter math. So, in a 30-level game, instead of the whopping 29 point swing of 4E, you could have, say, 5 points of difference between level 1 characters and level 30 ones.

    That’s all you need. With an average 65% hit rate, 5 extra points of accuracy move you almost into auto-hit territory, whereas 5 points in a defense move you to a modest, but tolerable 40% of hitting – which usually becomes 30% in a game with defenders and marks. Anything above this is overkill, in my opinion, and this does a pretty good job at implementing your Fighter vs Orcs scenario.

    Why do I think this bounded accuracy is good for the game? Because I hate monster obsolescence. In 4E, the stat block of an Orc monster can realistically be used for about 7 levels, or 25% of a PC’s career, and that is likely stretching it. Granted, you can scale the monster stats to match the party level, and in fact I have done so lots of time – but that does not mean I like it, nor makes it a good mechanic. For me, this is only added bookkeeping, for no apparent gain.

    The merit of 4E was in defining a clear and predictable progression for PC and monster stats, not specifically in granting a +1 to hit/defenses per level. That, I think, was an error. You can have characters levelling up and feeling awesome without such a drastic increase in the math – you have hit points, damage, and a ton of powerful new options for higher level characters. You don’t need to make a regular orc utterly powerless against even a mid-level PC to make levelling exciting.

    I love the idea of minions (and I’d love it even more if you didn’t have to houserule them to death to make them remotely threatening), but I’d like even more to be able to throw any low level monster at an epic party (by the dozens, if needed) and have it just work as an interesting fight. It would also do wonders to fix the hideous scarcity of high level monsters in 4E…

  6. Butcher Magnus says:

    I like the idea of bounded accuracy, if indeed it turns out to be “flatter” math as opposed to “completely flat” math as the previous poster mentioned.

    But as for your fighter vs. orc example, I think 4E is much closer to your second example than you give it credit for. An orc in 4E is about level 6, let’s say. So the party at 6th level is fighting about 5 orcs in an encounter, and the fighter is probably not going to survive a battle against all 5 orcs by himself.

    The PCs gain several levels–let’s say another 6?–and are now 12th level. Well, based on the implied evolution of monsters, those 6th level orcs are the equivalent of maybe 12th level minions. So the party is now fighting about 25 orcs (if you take the DMG2 suggestion of 5 minions = 1 standard at paragon tier), and again, if the fighter tries to take out all 25 himself, he has a very good chance of getting cut to ribbons (brute minion damage, and all). In fact, there is a type of bounded accuracy in this, because the 6th level standard version of the orcs had the same exact chance to hit the fighter as their 12th level minion versions do.

    Now, in 4E, by about 17th level, those 12th level minion orcs are not a big deal, but if you put enough of them in a room against a sole fighter, they’ll be able to cut the fighter down eventually, because they can still hit and do damage, and even a 4E fighter can only kill so many minions per turn.

    It’s not until about 22nd level that those 12th level minion orcs have pretty much NO chance to hit the fighter, and at which point the fighter could by himself take out hundreds of orcs without much damage, but we are talking epic level.

    So my point is that the bounded accuracy isn’t too far off from 4E in minion-type situations (which Next orcs eventually become, as their hit points are so low that one hit always kills them). And at any rate, many players (including myself) would argue that if a 17th-level fighter wades solo into an army of 100 orcs, an outcome where that fighter dies is not altogether unsatisfactory. At epic level–whatever that ends up looking like in Next–I can better see that demi-god PCs should be wading through orc armies untouched, but I think levels 1-20 should still be “mortal” enough that an army of orcs is a threat.

  7. Brian says:

    That’s exactly how I felt when I first leafed through 4E and saw things like the AEDU powers system. It’s amazIng how history repeats itself.

  8. Bartoneus says:

    “So in previous editions of D&D, going as far back as you like, you had only one combat stat which truly had Bounded Accuracy: Armor Class. Armor Class has never increased simply by level, with the exception of a few odd classes out there like the old Monk”

    AC increases per-level in 4E. Why is that excluded from this statement?

  9. Eighteen Fourty Three says:

    “First off, there is no such thing as a Feat Tax in 3.5. ”

    I really can’t believe you made that statement. The Fighter, of all classes, is pretty much defined by its feat taxes for very specific builds to remain even remotely viable past say level 6 (chain-tripping being the biggest example). The power differences between spellcasters and non-casters in 3.5 is well documented, and non-casters have to juggle PrCs and have to take certain feats to not be useless–and even then they won’t be up to snuff compared to a Wizard or Cleric.

    The article is otherwise fine, but that one point stuck out to me like a sore thumb. It’s rather disingenuous to claim that it doesn’t exist.

  10. Dwarfling says:

    As it stands I plan to continue playing 4E. I don’t like what I feel is a regression to old rules and playing styles. If I want to play old versions, I can – they’re not that expensive on eBay. The issue with each new edition is, and always will be, support from WotC, and the way I look at it, they have already created enough content for me to design and run my own campaigns, stories, encounters, monsters, etc., with or without their online tools, for as long as I want. If they want to maintain their online tools, great – they’ll continue to have my subscription fees. If not, then they’ll probably lose out on that money.

    Besides, it’s all about the interaction between the players around the table, not the specific edition rules which will always be modified and homebrewed to fit each gaming group’s style, regardless of what is in the books. That they seem to be hard-coding that modularity and customization is beside the point. i don’t need them to tell me I can do what I’ve already been doing.

  11. Joe R says:

    I have to agree about feat taxes

    I have to also agree wholehearted 4E is more heroic than AD&D, 3.x, PF or 5E/next. In 3.5 I ended up starting all characters at lvl2 with the ‘toughness’ (+3 hp) for free in order to make them more survivable.

    I was happy with 4E in practice, when I first looked at it it was so radically different and I thought it would never work.

    the D&D next playtest is horrid. It’s two steps backwards.

  12. Philo Pharynx says:

    Note: some of the opinions are my own opinions and some are just devil’s advocate opinions to keep the conversation going.

    Bounded accuracy: WotC has implied that damage won’t be similarly bounded, which will work against the “feeling inferior” issue. If low level monsters can still hit you (perhaps a little less often), but you can take them out in one blow, then they become the equivalent of 4e minions. And remember that 4e minions still did enough damage to take them seriously. In a way this simplifies the issue because you don’t have to have a special class of monster. Of course, if damage is not bounded on the bad guys, then a high level monster will whack you for a lot of HP.

    Skills: The problem with 3.x skills is that there ends up being a huge difference between an expert and somebody who doesn’t get that skill. By the early teens it can easily be over 20. By the late teens it can be over 30. It makes it hard to set a DC for a challenge that affects the whole party (like being on the deck of a ship during a storm). I like the 4e idea of every skill improving over time. Yes, the wizard hasn’t focused on climbing and the rogue hasn’t focused on arcane studies. But they’ve hung around people who do focus on them. I like the idea that a high level character picks up a little of everything. I just think 4e went too far. I think that using 4e-style skills with the skills going up every four to five levels would be good.

    The other issue is the number of skills. 3.5 had too many. The big example I have is somebody who has diplomacy, bluff, intimidate and sense motive at max. And yet, he can’t figure out where the wand shop is because he doesn’t have gather information. Or the person who gets scent as a special ability and trying to figure out if that uses listen, spot, or do you make a new skill for smell. If your hide and move silent were equal to a guard’s spot and listen, then you’ll only sneak past 1/4 of the time because you have to make two opposed rolls. 4e had too few. Anything without combat usefulness disappeared and got handwaved. How do you forge a suit of armor? What’s the DC? They have dozens of masterwork techniques, but can anybody make them? Can you change one to another? We don’t know. How do you do a “battle of the bards?” Make everybody roll a saving throw vs. elimination? A raw D20? Diplomacy?

    5e skills seem to be crazy. They mostly come from backgrounds, mostly. Can you ever get a new skill? Improve your existing skills? Make new ones? Can you default everything or are there trained only rolls? Is there a skill list or is it just make-up-your-own? If it is make-up-your-own, is there a guideline to keep them from being too narrow or broad?

    Redundant feats: they weren’t taken out because it would be a pain in the butt for the character builder. All sorts of characters would suddenly become invalid. Many of them could be fixed automatically, but there’s a few cases where it would be a problem because it could be replaced by a couple of different feats. This would also mess with DM’s that only allow items from specific sourcebooks.

    “The feat lists in CharGen … could be given tags and categories to make them more easily searchable.” Umm, there is a search box that can search on anything in the feat. Uncheck the name only box and type in the keywords you’re interested in. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it does help narrow the field.

    Themes: I can see how you would be disappointed not to create your own themes. But this allows them to design more powerful options. I can see some themes that have a powerful option paired with a less powerful one for balance. Look at 4e paragon paths. These generally have 11th level and 16th level abilities, an action point boost and three powers. Most of these have one or two choices that are awesome and one or two choices that you wish you could retrain. They only balance because they come as a group. If you could take the cream from all of them it would be hard to balance it.

  13. William says:

    I’ve been reading your site and reviews for just under a year now. I’ve commented once or twice but never really felt the need to expand widely upon my thoughts until now. While I can understand the concern about 4E being thrown “under the bus” as it were, and concerns about the future direction of D&D, I feel like your post is the worst kind of doom and gloom posting – legitimate concerns at the core, but backed up with an unnecessary level of hostility and hyperbole.
    Bounded Accuracy does NOT take the advancement of combat statistics out of the game. What it does do is mean players don’t NEED magic items and don’t NEED expertise feats to stay competitive in terms of accuracy with their fellows. I don’t like heroes that NEED magical weapons in order to fight monstrous foes. Merals has said that monster to-hit will vary based on creature. We don’t need to worry that a warrior won’t be able to become more secure as he levels up. If he gets Plate armor and a heavy shield, hobgoblins need a 16+ to hit the Dwarven Cleric in the play test document. Some creatures will be more or less accurate, but we’ll see a big variety throughout an adventurer’s career. I do agree with the above comments that we need to see some higher level stuff before we can judge it. In terms of the low level hero hitting a dragon well I think there you just skim over the fact that the dragon will likely just pound him flat as he has few hit points and doesn’t do comparable damage. We have tweets from people in Schwalb’s playtest that got stomped by a dragon despite bounded accuracy. You’re panic mongering here, based on 15% of the level progression in a playtest document that we KNOW is going to change significantly. Wait to see the effects of bounded accuracy when we can see it played out long term.
    Saying that a couple feats over 30 levels is no big deal is brushing some people’s concerns under the rug in the exact same way that you are concerned that yours are. No single group of feats should be essential to the basic functioning of a character. I think we can all agree about that. Everyone agrees that we want feats to be a meaningful choice when you build your character. In terms of the R&D teams goals for next and your own preference I think we can say we’re on the same page. When we come to theme bloat though, I think we diverge again. A Theme is a grouping of feats and skill bonuses with a narrative overlay. There will be some example ones, but we’ve heard that you will be able to pick them alacarte. The sky is the limit in terms of what a theme can be contextualized as. If you can avoid feat bloat by keep the number of new feats down and even a couple new feats could mean a whole new theme. The big thing to watch out for is new options not invalidating the old…but that’s pretty much a universal problem with games that have ongoing publishing schedules.
    I know this post sounds very critical of you, and like I stated previously I love 99% of what you post here. That being said however, your post harkens back to the edition wars of yesteryear and think we can all agree we want to avoid that. I hope that the community sees past the propaganda on all sides of the new edition and looks at it as whole, based on its own merits.

  14. benensky says:

    An other good article. Keep them coming.

    I am calling this Mearls Edition. I do not see the modularity and I don’t see how it is going to feel like I am playing 4E when I play this game. All discussion up front was marketing garbly gook. This is a different set of rules just to sell an other set of players manuals, DM manuals & monster manual. It is to make money and it is not necessarily to make the game better.

    Ignore the 4E bashing since it is the same bunch of propaganda they use when creating other new editions. Bash the last edition so that people feel they need to get the new edition. Even though I prefer 4E all the older editions had their good points and problems. They are just different editions. Playing D&D Next a few years and its problems will start standing out like other editions.

  15. Philo Pharynx says:

    @William, if you don’t NEED magic items and expertise feats etc, then what happens when you get them? Does it make the game too easy? I can see the optimizers still wanting to stack everything. What’s more, this edition doesn’t seem to have the bonus keywords that 3.5 nd 4e had (at least so far). If the final version doesn’t have it, will they have anything to prevent a munchkin from stacking everything to get to the point where they auto-hit?

    @benensky, This is just the first playtest. Obviously you need to lock down the base core rules before you do too much to add on to it. Every interview has said that there’s a lot more material coming down the pike. Yes, this isn’t very 4e (from a 4e player’s view. The OSR are complaining that it’s too much like 4e for their taste), but that’s going to be things added to the core. I4e did not have an open playtest, but I’m sure that at some point they played a stripped down game just to test some of the basics.

  16. William says:

    @Philo Pharynx – If you don’t need them then (certainly in the case of expertise feats) just take them out of the game completely. Optimizers might want to stack everything to the heavens, but if there are no expertise feats, and the DM has proper control on the amount of magical gear coming into the hands of the players, then they’ll have to make do having interesting options (Like Cleaving or other options) rather than having gigantic numbers.

  17. Orladdin says:

    I can tell through your language that you don’t like 4e, but that you at least tried to give it a fair shake. I appreciate that. As a gamer who started DMing AD&D and has run every edition since, the edition wars are not a new thing to me.

    In general, your article was pretty good.

    I was with you until the paragraph that started with “First off, there is no such thing as a Feat Tax in 3.5,” which, as commenters above have pointed out, is utterly untrue and doesn’t even address the major issues with 3.X; namely LFQW and the prestige-class football-helmet-clownshoe necessary for other classes to keep up.

    That paragraph ended with “I saw feats chosen because they fit with a particular character concept – and occasionally to optimize a character. No matter how good a player is at role-playing, the optimization honey pot is sometimes just to irresistible to ignore for a whole fifteen levels of character development.”
    And, later,
    “We’re talking about a character at the pinnacle of effectiveness, eschewing character concept in favor of character power.”

    WOW! Stormwind Fallacy, much?

    If you haven’t heard of it, it’s summarized at the below link. Be enlightened:

    If you have heard of it, you should be ashamed. Anyone who, in this day and age, still tries to make the argument that roleplay precludes optimization or vice-versa doesn’t actually understand either of the concepts of roleplaying *or* gaming.

  18. @Perico – It’s unfortunate you dislike the idea of leveling up monsters to create new challenges. I think it is one of 4E major strengths, and a lot easier to do with Adventure Tools than “advancing” a monster in 3.5. But have you considered that Bounded Accuracy also upsets the Risk versus Reward of monsters? If an orc worth 125 xp is still presenting a serious threat to characters who need 6000 xp to advance, there is something majorly wrong here. Higher level characters should be facing higher level challenges, and risking your life to fight a monster which is worth 2% of a level makes them not worth the heroes’ time. Worse still, it’s frankly demeaning to a higher level character to be slaughtered by what many would consider to be a “newbie” monster.

    @Butcher Magnus – Uhh, re-read my discussion – we are actually in agreement here regarding how minions could be used to simulate the old school mass humanoid battle.

    @Bartoneous – Previous editions referred here to anything pre-4E, which did not have AC increases per level. Apparently, either my sentence was not clear, or someone is already counting Next as the current edition.

    @Eighteen Fourty Three – By my understanding, Feat Taxes represent “mandatory” feats which take away from the general feat pool, reducing options for a character. In 3.5, Fighters were given a separate special pool of feats which could only be spent on combat intensive abilities. Sorry, I don’t think that’s a tax if it actually adds more options to the class.

    @William – Yea, actually I did think it sounded pretty critical of me, but that’s ok. You’re entitled to read my blog how you like, and if you feel that my critique of WotC’s fallacies and propaganda sounds like hostility, then I hope you can get past that and still appreciate the message of the blog.

    @Orladdin – Actually, if you think I dislike 4E, you likely skimmed this post and you’ve obviously never read the rest of my blogs. I love 4E, and I do not like what I am seeing in D&D Next. And I wasn’t particularly enlightened by the Stormwind Fallacy argument. I’ve been playing role-playing games for nearly 40 years, and one thing is abundantly clear to me: It’s possible to role-play ANYTHING if you set your mind to it, whether the character is optimized, unoptimized or even handicapped. And any good gamer can justify optimizing his character, even if it’s over the top, every time. But it doesn’t make it a fallacy to point out that there is something a little sad if every character you ever play, in every game is optimized to the teeth. It just probably means you fear a challenge.

  19. Brendan says:

    As you point out, themes could become as unwieldy as feats, but they don’t need to start that way. There is way too much choice available in even just the default 3E and 4E feat lists. I find it intimidating, and I’ve been playing these games for a long time. New players can be entirely paralyzed (I’ve seen it happen) mostly because the feats are just so obviously about game mechanics rather than meaning. I want to be able to just look at the names and have an idea about what they do–lurker, guardian, etc.

    So, my hope is that the 5E themes in the core books will be tight, streamlined, and newbie-friendly. I can avoid supplement bloat, but I would rather not have to avoid core rulebook bloat too.

    Analysis paralysis does exist. Also, check out the principle “magic number 7 plus or minus 2″. The feat sustem as implemented in 3E and 4E totally violates that.

  20. Mike says:

    I’m a little late to the party here – but I thought 4e was the first “different” edition. 1,2,3 seemed to evolve to each other and 4e tried to be different.

    I enjoy it for that.

    next seems to want to be back in the same lineage as 1,2,3 … its funny but I’d prefer they try something different again and open up 4e to other engines – like Gamma World was. I think the system is fun for what it is.

  21. Jester David says:

    Very late to the party but just had to have my say.

    First, 3.5e totally had feat taxes. The term was invented in 3e. Mostly for those feats that were just required (weapon focus and power attack) where they should have just been a class feature or base option.

    Second, WotC kicked 3e under the bus as well. This is what caused a lot of the problems in the community, as they essentially insulted a game everyone had just spent 7 years playing, loving, and enjoying. It was one of the bigger goofs of the change-over, slamming the old edition to sell the improvements of the old edition.
    It was a mistake then and it’s a mistake now.

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