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Tabletop RPG History: Why D&D 4e Was So Controversial

There is no denying the current success of Dungeons and Dragons. The tabletop RPG now enjoys a fairly comfortable spot in the mainstream following the success of 5th Edition. The hobby, which used to be the subject of japes and jests, is now a common Friday night activity, whether online or in person.

Player's Handbook 4th edition | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

However, the iconic status of Dungeons and Dragons was not without its ups and downs. Before the successful release of 5th Edition, there was the highly controversial 4th Edition. Many did not appreciate the new mechanics introduced into the game, while others swear by them to this day.

While 5E is not without its share of criticisms, it has exceeded the legacy of 4th Edition by leaps and bounds, with its predecessor left largely in obscurity. This article will dive into the complex legacy of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

Criticisms of the Combat System in D&D

The criticisms on Dungeons and Dragons’ focus on combat is not new, nor is it unique to 4th Edition. Early editions had players roll for initiative every round, and many veteran players claimed that the Challenge Rating system in 5th Edition was a little too easy. One can even argue that the wide range of other systems was developed in response to this long-time misgiving in D&D. Many argued that the intensive focus on combat left little else for alternative roleplay styles.

D&D-4th-Edition-Players-Handbook2 | Count_Strad | Flickr

As the saying goes: if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything else starts to look like a nail. If combat is the most rewarded mechanic in the game, why then would players resort to any other tactic?

Others might argue that rules should not bog down the realm of roleplay outside of combat and that this aspect of gameplay should be more freeform. One could take that argument further and say that such mechanics are why people choose Dungeons and Dragons and that there is nothing wrong with wanting to smack every goblin and disrespectful NPC that comes your way. After all, people are allowed to play how they want.

However, this concern was taken to another degree by the 4th Edition—a degree a fair amount of players considered extreme.

The “Problem” with 4E

Even battle-hardened D&D veterans thought that the 4th Edition’s focus on combat could be excessive at times. With all the maneuvers, interrupt abilities, item slots, situational abilities, redundant systems, and so on, combat gameplay became so complicated that a single encounter could take up a whole session, leaving time for little else. All these abilities and mechanics resulted in players having to recompute attack rolls with different pluses and minuses at nearly every turn.

Many players felt that the rules of 4th Edition turned D&D into a minis game rather than a true tabletop roleplaying game. Some even compared its design to popular MMOs at the time. 

Dungeon Master Screen - 4th edition DELUXE RARE - Dungeons & Dragons, D&D DM  d20 | #1829944088

Another thing that irked a few players about the system was that these new combat and character creation options sacrificed versatility in other aspects. While, certainly, there were distinct ways to craft a character within a single class, many of these archetypes did not reward versatility. This issue could be fixed (somewhat) by some creative character creation, but it necessitated some intensive, I daresay, min-maxing.

Such issues were aggravated even further when Wizards of the Coast enacted the Encounters Series, a precursor to the Adventurer’s League. The program pushed combat encounters to the forefront—an act that alienated many long-time roleplayers. Gamers could spend entire sessions without roleplaying or skill checks at all. Paired with how long it took to get through combat, this made for long sessions of a lot of math and a lot of reading through rules to figure out all the bonuses and penalties for one particular attack.

Worthy Challenges or Needlessly Complicated?

One thing the system can be praised for was that its Challenge Rating system was in the sweet spot—neither too hard nor easy. Players could consistently expect a fair challenge in every encounter. While some argued that this was done mostly through the system’s boosting of each monster’s hit points, it nevertheless proved a beloved feature of the system—a fact that 5E is not always able to boast.

Another bonus was that non-spellcasting classes finally had more interesting ways to fight beyond hacking and slashing. All the new maneuvers and moves made melee classes more interesting, if not as powerful as spellcasting classes at later levels. 

For all its perceived faults, fans of 4E and fans who preferred a more intense focus on combat loved the challenges of the system. It appealed to a certain kind of player—one that did not mind recomputing every turn for that perfect strike. 

Final Thoughts: Was it really that bad?

Though many found 4E’s combat rules rather grating and needlessly complicated at times, there still remain staunch defenders of this controversial and sometimes maligned system. While 4E never achieved the same success as other editions, 3.5e and 5E, it is still worth considering for those who want to strategize and maximize every move in combat, roleplay be damned.

For more about Dungeons and Dragons, go ahead and explore our blog. The Dragonforge is not just the premier hobby shop in Metro Manila; it is a shop owned by geeks serving geeks in the geekiest ways possible.