4th Edition Flaws, part 1

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So I’ve been playing in my group’s 4th Edition campaign for awhile now, and I think I’ve got a good enough handle on the game so far to feel out things that could be done better.

4th Edition is pretty convoluted when it comes to tactics. Once a combat gets going, you’ve got every class slinging around some kind of marker onto enemies, or enemies slinging them back. Positioning matters, and there are a number of abilities that allow constant repositioning. When people say 4th Edition is a miniatures game they’re not kidding – I don’t see any way to play this game except with miniatures.

The character I’m playing is a Warlock (a ranged striker), and I’m noticing a couple of things about the game.

Typically, when a character makes an attack, they roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier and a weapon proficiency bonus. That’s all well and good, except as a Warlock I don’t get a weapon proficiency bonus, because all of my attacks are “spells” and don’t use a weapon. On the plus side, my attacks aren’t usually hitting enemies’ Armor Class, but rather their Fortitude, Reflex, or Will defenses. This means I can potentially target the enemy’s weakest defense, which will compensate for not having a weapon proficiency bonus.

Thing is, how am I as a player supposed to determine what defense is an enemy’s weakest defense? I’ve purposefully avoided looking through the Monster Manual and finding info on enemies the GM has thrown at us, but it seems like I’m just hamstringing myself. As far as I’m aware there’s no game mechanic I can use to say, “I want to look at this creature and assess its weaknesses.” Sure, you can guess the extreme cases reliably – The musclebound savage, the darting creature, the brain in a jar – but the problem is when you’re talking about Joe Goblin who has a 15 in everything except Fortitude. You can’t even count on spellcasters having low Fortitude anymore because lots of spells factor in Constitution, and Intelligence counts as a Reflex defense.

Furthermore, it seems like melee combat is, frankly, just a lot more interesting tactically. If a combatant charges they can gain a +1 bonus to an attack roll. If you’ve got a friendly Cleric nearby, they can use Righteous Brand to give you a bonus to hit equal to their Strength modifier. If you’ve got a Warlord, they can allow you to shift a square (great for setting up flanks, which grant +2 to attack rolls against the flanked target) with Wolf Pack tactics, or boost attack and damage by his Charisma modifier with Furious Smash. And all of this before you consider things like feats that can add further bonuses to weapon users, but are basically entirely lacking for spell-based attacks. In short, there are a lot of cumulative conditions and interesting interparty tactics that take place for melee characters, and not so much for ranged.

It’s a bit of a nuisance to feel like the game has purposefully left my character out of “the loop” of combat tactics. Where everyone else is constantly coordinating with other characters, my choices are mainly about where I move, which enemy I target (The already-beat-up one, or the one who is hanging back?) and what attack to use to try and get a better chance to hit. It’s a lot more interesting than 3rd Edition on an individual level, surely. But none of these choices really play into the fun of coordinating with other people, except on the level of “I’m going to attack the guy back there so he doesn’t try to shoot at you guys.” Sure, that’s a valuable role. But it’s nothing like saying, “I’ve marked this guy, you move here, provoking an attack from him, but I’ve got this bonus going from another party member, and when he goes to attack you, my mark activates I will attack again with all X, Y, and Z that we have synchronized for this perfect moment of execution.”

When you can pull something off like that with your friends it feels great. When you’re off on your own rolling your d20 and hoping to make a difference in the big picture? Not quite as much.

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