How to Fix 4E

Commentary DnD 4E Ideas System

tools of the tradeI’ve been catching up on the old Google Reader feed, and I came upon a post from Wimwick over at Dungeon’s Master on the Future of D&D. In this post, he goes through the various elements of Fourth Edition D&D, talking about whether he thinks each was successful. It made for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

The post definitely got me thinking about my feelings on each of those points. I agreed with a lot that Wimwick had to say. As a hacker and tinkerer, however, it mostly got me thinking about how I would fix the things I thought were broken.

First off, I want to make it clear that I’m not a 4E hater, as much as we’ve complained in the past. It’s a well thought out game, and it’s great at what it aims to do. I’ve had a lot of fun playing 4E. There are just a couple areas I think need to be fixed.


On one hand, I like the idea of having Powers. They provide variety, a common mechanic between classes, and an impetus to pre-calculate stats. I think that my wife, who has never yet read an RPG book despite playing for several years, liked 4E powers because they gave her a concrete set of actions she knew she could take without asking for help.

I’ve written previously about some of the ways I’m dissatisfied with powers as implemented. First is the problem of power overload at high levels. Second, I think that they provide paths of least resistance, which channel the actions a player tends to take. Third, the descriptive nature of the powers can overwhelm the player’s idea of the character, and make the class as a whole less flexible (descriptively, not mechanically).

Less Quantity

It’s pretty clear to me that we need fewer powers. Maybe they should start “overwriting” previous powers at a lower level. That way you could still keep to the “make feature choices at every level” design goal.

Less Description

I think the powers need to be less specific in their descriptions. Maybe I don’t want my character’s sword to double in size, or shoot a gout of flame. I know that I can just describe it as a lunge or something, but new players may not feel comfortable overruling the game that way.

More Interaction

Finally, I think that powers need to interact more with other character features. This is partially being done now, but I think that it needs to be more thorough. There should be feats that customize the generic powers, so that they better fit the character. There should also be a way to use skills in combination with just about any power.

This change would take the reduced number of more generic powers that I’m advocating, and, using other character features, allow you to modify them. This effectively multiplies your powers, but keeps the player completely in control. You have a smaller set of things to remember and manage, but lots of ways to put them together.

This would, of course, have to be carefully tuned to prevent abuse. Maybe you specify that only one feat and one skill can be used with a power at a time. You can’t just design the game to stifle munchkins, though. I think that’s what has caused some of the other aspects of 4E that I don’t particularly like.


I remember reading through my 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, and thinking of all the cool ways to use those spells. My favorites were almost always the “utility” spells. At high levels, my “memorized spell” lists were usually dominated by them. I had always aspired to make a character who only cast utilities.

In 4E, however, casting has become dominated by spell powers. This forces you to devote a vast majority of your repertoire to combat. It also means that spells are far more “locked down” than they used to be in order to fit into the Powers system.

There are Rituals, of course. I like this system for the most part. It offers ritual casting to all classes, and makes it so that you don’t have to choose between Unseen Servant and Fireball. Even the rituals, however, seem more constrained in effect, and more resource-intensive to cast. Also, the distinction between Utility Spell Powers and Rituals seems a bit artificial.

Let Me Choose

Yes, I understand that D&D 4E’s shines in tactical combat. What if my character doesn’t like combat? Should I play a different game? I should be able to take all utility powers if I want to!

Open is Good

I miss the days of spell descriptions that I could interpret and use in a million different ways. For some reason, “4d6 fire damage to target area” just doesn’t seem very magical to me. I assume that a lot of these were made more restrictive to fit into powers and prevent abuse. I, for one, welcome our munchkin overlords, however, if it’ll get me my more open spells.

Interaction Redux

I think that the same concept that worked with powers in general would also work with spell powers. One of the things that I really like about the Dresden Files RPG, is that it boils down the wide assortment of spells in the Dresden Files universe to simple combinations of: Attack, Block, and Maneuver with an Element. A Fire Attack and a Water Attack may be described completely differently, but their immediate mechanical effects are pretty much identical.

I think similar ideas are possible with Spell Powers. You could combine a generic blast spell power with your Fire Magic feat to create a Fireball. A Wall spell plus Cold Magic gives you a Wall of Ice.

Mounted Combat

This is a pet peeve of mine. In fact, many months ago it made for the first post in our Rant category. I won’t rehash this. Please read my aforementioned rant for more. Come on Wizards, why pick on horsemen? Give us more options for mounted combat!

Crunch Over Fluff

I’m going to echo Wimwick here. The vast majority of D&D 4E books is mechanics. Lists of powers, feats, and attributes fill those pages. Maybe some gamers are in favor of this, but not me.

For instance, I was always captivated by the description of the Fochlucan Lyrist from the 3.5 Complete Adventurer. Similarly, I loved the descriptions of a lot of the organizations from 3rd Edition’s Paragon Paths. I might or might not use them, but they made for awesome story ideas.

It sounds weird that I advocated for less description of powers just a few paragraphs ago, but now I want more. It’s really not a conflict! What I’m looking for is inspiration, not definition; flavor, not canon. Maybe we can use the space saved from consolidating powers for some fluff?

(Not) Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

This item overlaps a bit with my complaint about being forced to take combat spell powers. Let’s face it, when you look at a Fourth Edition character sheet, most of what you see is geared toward combat. The same is true of all the source books. Most of your powers, feats, and abilities only come into play when you’re trying to kill somebody.

Can we get some more non-combat abilities? I realize that my character is called a Fighter, but that doesn’t mean he has to be defined by his profession. Stop stereotyping already!

That’s All Folks

Well, I’m certainly not out of ideas, but I have to stop before this thing goes through mitosis and splits into a two-parter. I think my proposed changes would make D&D more open, streamlined, customizable, and easier to learn. Many of them would also help you tell the story you want. Here’s hoping Wizards is thinking along the same lines!

Do you have other ideas for improving Fourth Edition? Do you like the things I’m trying to change? Did you think I’d push for adding Aspects to D&D? Let us know in the comments!


  1. avatar MAK

    After playing 4e for over a year, while constantly tinkering with the rules, I came to the realization that D&D does not have to be THE game to try to fit to any playstyle. To be more exact, it dawned on me that I could actually switch to a game that was a better match to begin with, instead of (having to) overhaul the only thing available to me.

    Maybe the availability of different (indie/small-press) games has exploded so that there actually are more games to choose from. Certainly the style of D&D – and my personal tastes – have evolved from the 2ed times when I started gaming. I still enjoy the mechanics of 4e D&D, no doubt about that, but the rules have begun to assume a style of play which I don’t really agree with any more. I still often get the itch to tinker, but I have found it easier to tinker with games that I don’t have to REMOVE parts from when tinkering… Lighter rulesets allow adding standalone “modules” of rules without having to touch the core.

    • avatar Chase
      Posted 09/08/2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I think our progression has been similar, moving from almost exclusive D&D to only intermittent. This probably is due to a combination of 4E going in one direction, and our gaming style in another (and sheer curiosity too). Still, most of my suggestions are aimed at making 4E better at what it intends to do. Of course, a few (like fluffiness and non-combat options) are more about what I want it to do. What games have you moved toward?

      • avatar MAK
        Posted 09/09/2011 at 1:18 am | Permalink

        I have taken up FATE, using the Dresden Files engine to run a “renaissance noir” campaign in 1500′s Venice. It has yet to gain full acceptance from the gaming group, as the most min/max power players want to try once more the good-old-times-of-3.5-ed to see if 4ed was the cause of all our dissatisfaction (I personally doubt it…) We also plan to try Fiasco for no-prep situations, and even 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars for some light sci-fi kick-ass.

        It seems the main problem for everyone is the dramatically reduced time available for gaming, which makes it hard to play the prep-heavy, epic, plot-driven long campaigns we used to. FATE, Fiasco and 3:16 try to counter this with low-prep and light(er) rules.

      • avatar BryanMD
        Posted 09/09/2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        @MAK- The problem of dramatically decreased gaming time is something I’ve been running into a lot in the last couple years, and 4E seems to exacerbate the dilemma precisely BECAUSE our group is used to running epic, plot-driven campaigns. While I enjoy 4E quite a bit, I’ve grown to appreciate some of the systems like Dresden Files because they allow for plot-driven campaigns without too many complications.

        That said, your “renaissance noir” campaign already has MY full acceptance; I’ve been looking for a game setting like that for years. Does your group need another player?.. As long as you don’t mind dramatically reduced playing time, that is.

  2. avatar MAK
    Posted 09/09/2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Well… there are already 8 players, and as we play so seldom they tend to all show up at once :-) Also, we play in Finnish which may complicate things a bit for the other 99.95% of the human race.

    I’ve put up translated session write-ups in RPGGeek, though:

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