Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – System Mastery 125

It’s high time that someone on the internet had an opinion about this edition of this game, and you know what, it might as well be us.  Please enjoy this review of the famous 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  The game that killed imagination.  Oh and happy 125 episodes of the show!

38 responses to “Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – System Mastery 125

  1. Dunno whether this is the right place for this comment, but on the download links page for System Mastery Episodes, it skips from episode 120 to 124. Download links for episodes 121, 122 and 123 are missing currently.

  2. D&D 4e was simultaneously the game that got me interested in tabletop RPGs, and the game that hammered in that I was probably never going to play them. I was enamored with an actual play series I found that made it look amazingly fun and creative, but nobody I was around in real life was anywhere near interested in tabletop RPGs, and everyone I knew who was into them online were steadfastly anti-4e.

    It was a bad start that I apparently never recovered from, given I still haven’t played an actual tabletop session.

  3. >”no edition is theater of the mind, go F* yourself”

    Reminder: Gary Gygax himself never used maps or miniatures. Maps and minis were Arneson’s thing. Gary literally did not use them.

    • I’m not entirely sure that’s correct. Large chunks of the rules for OD&D pretty much just amounted to “Just use the rules in Chainmail” which was literally a combat system for minis wargaming that Gygax had written with fellow huge nerd Jeff Perren back in 1971. You can even see the influence of mini gaming in several monster designs: The Bulette, Rust Monster and original Owlbear’s designs were straight up based on some cheapo “prehistoric monster” toys Gygax had picked up at a thrift store and used as stand-in minis in his games.

      • Odriginal (White Box) DnD was based on Chanmail and really integrated the rules of Chanmail into it (including the Chainmail combat system whch bears no relationship to the version we know today). So, Arneson mayhave used minis, but it was all because of Gygax’s work. Gygax claimed later he did not use minis, but AD&D 1e had a shitton of minis rules in the DMG, even hex and square diagrams of what part of a character is being hit (front, flank, back) with a lot of rules on how that works. Way too many rules, and most of them not fully thought out. My firends and I ignored most of them and winged it. However, none of the rules for concepts like area attacks and so on have any explanation how to apply them without a map, even though Gygax wrote that minis were optional. Everything was in inches. How do you determine who the fireball hits or the oil of slipperyness affects without a map. No guidelines. It was a terrible mess.

        I take anything that Gygax said publically with a grain of salt. If you look at his comments from differrent eras of the game he has many contradictory rememberings.

      • The source for my claim is Mike Mornard, one of Gygax’s own players. Quoting Blog of Holding:

        “Mike gave a fascinating account of a typical early D&D game, with a peculiar detail that I’d never heard before. Gary never used maps or minis: maps and minis were Dave Arneson’s thing. Gary ran games in his office, which was provided with chairs, a couch, and file cabinets. While playing, Gary would open the drawers of the file cabinet and sit behind them so that the players COULD NOT SEE HIM. They only experienced the Dungeon Master as a disembodied voice.”

        So yeah, I’d say it’s pretty decisive that “theater of mind” has been a part of D&D from the very beginning and is not any sort of revisionist addition.

      • Since no D&D book includes rules for hiding from your players behind filing cabinets, we’ll just go along with what the books say and display instead of Gygaxian apocrypha.

      • The problem is not that Gary might have played that way, but in the day no one knew how he played except a few who lived there or went ot Gen Con. All I had to do is go by what is written in the books, and, let’s face it, Gygax was not a great writer, a worse editor, and the books were very disorganized.

  4. Assuming you actually get around to making Episode 150 of System Mastery, what do you think you’ll review at that point considering that you’ve now covered about 4.5 editions worth of D&D core books and then some? I suppose it’s possible that Wizards might pull the plug and kill off 5th edition for whatever insane reason that only the octopus in Mike Mearls’ brain knows, but I’m skeptical that this will happen before the next milestone episode.

    At any rate, congrats on 125 episodes and here’s hoping the podcast will be around for many more episodes before Wowzers teams up with the Fat Knife Clown to finally initiate the System Mastery version of Ragnarok.

    • They have not done OD&D. I think that would be the last of the major editions beside the current one. I would like to see coverage of some of the box sets, like The World of Greyhawk, Planescape, Dark Sun, Red Steel, etc.

      • I’d especially like to see them go back and examine the later additions in the BECMI line that came after the original basic set since it actually added a lot of interesting mechanics that would crop up again in later editions (If I’m not mistaken it was the first edition to introduce the weapon mastery system. It was introduced in the Master set for BECMI which I think came out a few months before Unearthed Arcana introduced a similar system for AD&D).

        Really the various iterations of Basic D&D had some really interesting stuff in them that I feel doesn’t get enough attention as AD&D has tended to get more pop culture attention over the years. If you guys end up doing any episodes specifically on campaign settings I’d be incredibly pleased if you covered Mystara (Which was the default setting for Basic). It’s probably my single favorite “normal” D&D setting because, while it definitely has a lot of the standard medieval fantasy setting tropes to it, it’s also absolutely batshit insane in the most pleasing ways.

  5. 4th ed brought out a weird combination of opposition. It was very upfront about it’s design philosophy and player focused goals, which should have been a good thing. But gamers can be a superstitious and cowardly lot, clinging to memories of a D&D that never was (seriously, you are never going to recapture the days of good friends playing with bad rules). It is an odd thing when theater of the minds and crunch heads align (despite generally being diametrically opposed on most core D&D concepts from HP as meat to time in combat). Despite it being less build dependent than 3.X and allowing every class to actually do things (even clerics don’t have to be healbots *and* you don’t have to have one to heal), nonetheless there was much gnashing of teeth. Oddly, many critics have pulled back into retro clones and “old school” style games that *still* expand the rules beyond just fighter rolls to hit, because that is freaking boring. Fortunately, there are rules for everyone and the voices shouting “wrong fun” have faded.

    The Gygax example is a good one, though, in that it illustrates that far from being some monolithic divine rule set, D&D was originally a cobbled together mess from people with wildly different points of view. Try to be all things to all people and you get a bloated mess.

    Also, shouting a hand back on in a world of dragonmans and Cthulhu wizards is awesome.

  6. Thank you for finally explaining how to offensively teleport the Sun. You’d mentioned it several times before, but nobody on Discord had any idea what you were talking about.

    There are only two things that you got wrong:
    1) Theater of the Mind isn’t about making position or distance irrelevant. It’s about the DM being able to track everything mentally. When the DM tells you that your fireball can hit three enemies, or four if you also hit the bard, it’s because they are visualizing the grid and giving you an honest answer based on that. It’s a huge pain if anyone is going to cast complicated spells or try something with tricky positioning, but it saves time if you’re just standing there and swinging at each other, which was a type of combat that older editions supported.

    2) It’s not that you couldn’t be creative in 4E, so much as the type of creativity that the game encouraged was not the type of creativity that the detractors were interested in. When I play D&D, it’s so I can pretend to be a magical elf, and look at the world from the perspective of a rad adventurer. I want all of my choices to be in-character choices, and asking me to re-skin an ability (or take narrative control over a monster) detracts from that. It’s pulling me out of character, and I don’t appreciate it. (I know that some other people are way into that, just like some people are way into the math of Mekton Zeta, but that’s not me.)

    It was a good episode, overall, though. You did a much better job of actually explaining the game mechanics than you did with 3E.

    • I am going to be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a DM who treated theatre of the mind that way. I’m not saying it’s never been done that way I just think that it’s a way of handling that sort of combat that may have fallen out of favor after the earlier editions.

      • Like I said, it’s a pain if you have complex positioning, which is why it’s rarely used in 3E or 4E. Once you have to deal with flanking, the grid becomes practically mandatory.

        Prior to that, the rules didn’t really mention miniatures (outside of certain specific supplements, which definitely existed), but they’ve always had very specific ranges and distances that you needed to keep track of. I don’t think the topic of Theater of the Mind was ever addressed prior to 5E, either, so they pretty much must have just assumed that your DM would figure it out. There would be no point in printing the maximum range of a longbow, or the radius of a fireball, if it wasn’t supposed to matter. That means you either had to use miniatures, or the DM had to keep everything in their head (which is what I did, and what I learned from my DMs back in AD&D), or else they would just have to ignore the distance rules entirely.

        Based on the Exalted episode, I get the feeling that White Wolf treated Theater of the Mind much differently, where positions were kept intentionally vague in order to facilitate stunting, so I could definitely see where confusion would arise. Of the three DMs that I know who specifically objected to the grid in 4E, though, they all just meant that it was infeasible for the DM to track everything and convey it to the players, since exact position was relevant to everyone all the time (instead of once per fight, when the wizard cast fireball).

  7. > There would be no point in printing the maximum range of a longbow, or the radius of a fireball, if it wasn’t supposed to matter.

    See this is where it gets tricky. Is this meant as a guide for conceptualized rulings (I guess he is about 50 yds away so, yeah, fire away), strict simulationist measurements (well your marker is 2 squares away and each square is 10 yards so you are in range), or something else? D&D in it’s first iterations was more of a guide to creating a game than a coherent game and relied heavily on the DM for interpretation (Gygax v. Arneson). 3rd edition waffled- by 3.5 ed the rules indicate you needed miniatures, while the designers insisted you don’t. 4th ed., in an admirable attempt at standardization of a ruleset laid out everything clearly on a grid (though still ostensibly not requiring it). Obviously, this breaks with one style, so was unpopular with that group. It’s kind of a Catch 22 of D&D design- the original form is kind of a design mess kitchen sink design approach, but if you clean it up you risk alienating segments of fans/grognards. Yet if you try to just be a lump of everything, you won’t do anything particularly well and just be another unfocused rule set requiring lots of bolt ons and mods. Interestingly, the WoTC approach seems to swing one way in 4th and now seem to have pulled a 180 in 5th. Since they had their biggest sales numbers in 30 years as of 2017, this approach, combined with some really strong media presence, seems to be working for them. Not that that means *anything* in terms of being a good game, or appealing to any given player, of course.

    • The original intent of the rules is tangential to my point. I’m only speaking on behalf of people I’ve actually had this specific conversation with, who had this specific objection to 4E. For those specific people, the problem was that they could no longer mentally track things in accordance with the rules, or convey that information to the players sufficiently to let them play without a grid, whereas they could in AD&D.

      • I can definitely see that as a problem if you are jumping from first edition AD&D or earlier to 4e. I think the big disconnect that most people have with that complaint is that a lot of the people who echoed it were people coming in from 3e, which is absolutely supposed to be played with minis.

        I feel like a preference to grid-based combat vs theatre of the mind is, ultimately, more of a matter of personal preference rather than a judgement of quality on the system itself: I find systems are usually stronger when they focus on one style of combat over the other rather than trying to split the difference. I think you can even see this a lot today in that there are a lot of AD&D-like systems that have cropped up that better lend themselves to theatre of the mind combat than the original system and are ultimately stronger for it.

      • Even though 3.5 was designed with miniatures in mind, though, you could play it without a grid. I certainly did, most of the time. The only time we actually bothered to draw out the map for anything was during complicated fights against multiple strong opponents, or dragon fights where there was a lot of movement.

        That could be another way of phrasing the same complaint, I guess, is that 4E got rid of trivial attrition fights. Every fight in 4E is supposed to be exciting, and worth mapping out. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal preference.

  8. That was a really excellent episode. You really got into it and showed what made the game good. For me I think the game was fine, it just wasn’t DnD (check out Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age for a good implementation). As you have said, DnD is really the game of playing DnD (all the tropes), and this one changed so much of it, it was kind of a shock.

    My problem was that the game over-emphasized the already too much trying to balance the encounters. It was way to much a numbers game. However, the fighting was fun when characters set each other up in combat, something lacking in most games. Emphasizing the team is awesome.

    The balance problem really made the character’s too similar in play. Each had powers which were all basically handled the same. Whether it i magic, martial stuff, divine stuff, you had one daily, x number of encounter, etc. Also, making the prime requisite stat the base for combat rolls was blase. They should have not had abilities as they are, just one number you use for the things you can do, and one for not, and make them all the same.

    You are right, too many sacred cows. I cannot stand armor that makes you harder to hit than absorbing damage, and rising hit points and the who escalation thing. However, I am playing more point based stuff since the early 90s.

    • Armor doesn’t make you harder to hit, it makes you harder to hurt. It turns solid contact into an ineffectual glancing blow. And hit points are an abstract representation of endurance; they go up because the character becomes more used to the adventurer’s role. These have always been the explanations for these abstractions, and they’re just as valid as any abstraction in an RPG. Other models of abstraction are no more realistic, despite marketing claims from over the years.

      • “Armor doesn’t make you harder to hit, it makes you harder to hurt.” Except that is exactly what it does. Compare to other games. Either you don’t get hit, or you take the full damage roll. I prefer you get hit but the damage roll is reduced by the armor.

        Of course, your fine explanation in support of AC is just as good an argument for why it sucks.

      • Do you really think every unsuccessful (that is non-damage causing) attack roll is like a batter swinging at a curveball and getting nothing but air? Because it’s not, it could be that contact was made with the target but it was weak and unsolid, resulting in no damage because it was too weak to do anything to the armor. That’s what AC models. The use of “miss” for an unsuccessful roll is an unfortunate misnomer, as it creates a concrete image of no contact when that’s not the intended abstract model at all.

      • Then why don’t the vast majority of other games not model damage via the DnD way? Because it was a bad idea then, and a far worse idea now. Look, face it… you are never going to change me, and you obviously want to keep drinking the Gygax Kool-Aid, so, let’s just stop discussing this.

  9. It’s hard to cover a game like 4E with so much of the anti-4E mindset being tied up in events from 2008 and 2009 (Gygax dying and the OSR; the stupid GSL and Pathfinder’s creation). But this episode was great, detailed without being dragging out too long; I know it’s almost two hours but I listen to you guys on double speed.

    4E was the D&D edition that brought me and some friends back into RPGs. It was also the first edition to really attempt to leverage social media and online, public play. Probably wouldn’t have Critical Role now if not for the old Penny Arcade 4E podcasts with Chris Perkins. Half my group back then were vidya gamers and PA fans who wanted to get in to tabletop RPGs solely due to Jim DarkMagic.

  10. Pingback: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – System Mastery 125 – dyasdesigns·

  11. Regarding your, “no one wants to play weak characters in D&D”, I wrote a small adventure a while back which is all about being weak. Because being a HP sponge is boring in my opinion and I wanted players be smart instead of trying to be heroes. When I ran it, it was a lot of fun. So here’s my free adventure called Kobold Ambush – subtitle: System Mastery is Wrong About Weak Characters in D&D: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/248701/Kobold-Ambush

  12. I only just got to hear this. Thanks for the honest review based on having actually played the game.

    The wizard: it wasn’t explicit enough, but it was clear to me that you could be a blasty wizard (which the wand power helped with) or an effects wizard (which the orb power helped with) or a wizard who just wanted to survive for long enough to use his powers (which the staff power helped with). Later, there was a book power that helped with summoning.

    I never had issues with the math or the monster design and I found ways to make combats fast, fun and actually interacting. Same with skill challenges, which other games immediately started to incorporate. So, 4th Edition is still my edition of choice.

    If you ever have a hankering to play, let me know and we can get a Skype session going!

  13. Pingback: Cannibal Halfling Radio Episode 11 – Campaign Closure | Cannibal Halfling Gaming·

  14. Having listened to your gripes about all the editions of D&D, I really think you should check out 13th Age. It seems like it would be a good fit for your tastes.

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