When D&D 5e finally came out, all my 4e stuff went into storage boxes and were placed on the very top shelf at The Ogre, presumably never to be played again. 5th Edition had turned out to be something of a super magical Hogwart's mirror in which everyone sees their favorite edition. I saw BECMI. My more AD&D inclined friends saw AD&D. The Hit Dice mechanics seemed to be the bits of 4e that were deemed "worthy" by the gaming community at large. So 5e was "in" and 4e was so "out" some of my players who had been involved in a very successful Nentir Vale campaign in 4e swore it was the Worst. D&D. Ever. and worthy of the garbage heap. So, into barely accessible storage went the 4e stuff...
And I always felt a bit reluctant about that. You see, I cut my teeth on Red Box basic, and I still use that as my go-to edition of D&D. I played AD&D 1e, and we upgraded quickly to 2e when it hit my freshman year of high school. I thought 3.0 and 3.5 were pretty keen at the time, but in retrospect I really don't have a lot of urge to go back and revisit them. Skill points were a bit fiddly for me, and the Feat bloat by the end of the edition was a bit crazy. Also, the multiclassing rules were sub-optimal in comparison to the rest of the system. Of course, this post is all about how I like 4e, which by all accounts was MORE fiddly, had even worse multi-classing, etc... So, why am I posting about digging 4e?
When 4e first dropped, I was as confused as most old school players by the departures from earlier versions. I had a lot of the same criticisms - why does this Fighter have a sword move he can only do once a day? How do I explain marking mechanics in the game world? Wait- random encounters will unbalance the delicate math of when and how PCs level? The game is designed explicitly for five players with four of them each filling one of the "combat roles" defined in the book?
It was mathematically "tight" - 10 encounters to level. Don't hit the PCs with encounters they can't realistically beat. Treasure is parceled out in level-appropriate amounts. PCs get to make "wish lists" of magic items to give to the GM...
OK, so, this was as far from the D&D I grew up with as I could imagine. I was used to totally random stuff happening. And when the encounter tables indicated something wildly overpowered for your PC group - which was a variable number of PCs and Henchmen/Retainers of whatever classes happend to occur - you RAN. You didn't assume the encounter was beatable because the DMG says not to overwhelm the players with no-win situations. You could also expect a treasure drop to be wildly variable with things like a 10% chance of a magic item resulting in anything from a scroll of Protection from Evil to a +1 weapon that was +3 versus lycanthropes. NOTHING was balanced.
Then D&D Essentials happened and I gave 4e another try. The streamlined PC classes from the two Heroes Of... books were a lot closer to what I'd wanted. The martial classes had do daily abilities. The Warpriest Cleric felt like a BECMI Cleric to me - you could heal at fight all at once. The Thief build for Rogues brought back Backstab as a thing. Yeah, I could do this... So I played a Cleric for the inaugural season of the Essentials organized play. And I had a blast. So I DM'd the next seasons. And had a blast. I collected all the Essentials books, and ran a home campaign using just Essentials character builds. We used the campaign that was included in the DM Kit, "Reavers of Harkenwold" with some of my own additions. It was without a doubt one of the best campaigns I've ever run. Of course, that has a lot to do with the players. (Shoutout to Bobby, Jo, Kiddian, Randi and Trenton)
They key to my learning to enjoy D&D Essentials wasn't just the PC redesign. It was a few other realizations that only had minor things to do with D&D. I realized that all the accusations people made about 4e feeling like a video game were more than hyperbole- they were the thing I was missing. It *was* like a video game, but not in a bad way- provisionally. That provision is that I stop thinking of it as D&D. I started thinking of it as an 8-bit RPG cartridge from the 80s. The hardwired party size assumption wasn't a limitation as much as it was a parameter. In Final Fantasy I you had four PCs, no more, no less. And if you were building a party you gave some thought to the abilities of those for so that they complimented each other. So... 4e Essentials was, for me, a mixture of two of my favorite things on Earth - D&D and 80s computer/console RPGs. I began to really think of it as such, and plot my adventures as if I were coding an RPG. The balance inherent in the 4e math was part of how those games used to work - you didn't stray too far from the level appropriate towns and dungeons. If you did you might get TPK'd, or if you survived... XP city... Was it worth the risk?
It just clicked. The video game paradigm not only made Essentials work for me in a way launch day 4e never did, but it made it SING. I loved it.
Anyway, I went all out. I got a huge tacklebox and labeled the containers so that all my counters from Monster Vault and Monster Vault: Threats to Nentir Vale were organized alphabetically and by monster type. I loaded it up with maps, counters, my magnetic initiative tracker board, spare dice, all the laminated character sheets from the Worldwide D&D Game Day... I was ready to run D&D at the drop of a hat for new players and old players alike... and then 5e was announced. And just like that, nobody wanted to play 4e anymore.
Until a couple of weeks ago. My brother from another mother, Robby, asked me if I'd teach his daughters (my lovely goddaughters) D&D. We got into a discussion about various editions. Robby joined the Army during 3.5e, and missed 4e completely. As I described the tactical nature of 4e's tactical combat to Rob, he thought it was just the kind of math, problem solving and decision making he wanted his girls practicing. Now, I started my kids with BECMI D&D, but here was an opportunity to try another approach. In fact, Rob's girls had played BECMI with me once using pregen characters, but that was a year ago and they hadn't played since.
So I got the 4e boxes down, grabbed the intro adventure from the Red Box, made some pregens, and off we went. Around the table was my son Zane (5), my goddaughters Jadzia (11), Inara (9), Anya (7) and their dad Robby. I'll admit, for about the first 30 minutes I thought I'd made a terrible mistake by agreeing to run Essentials over BECMI. There was just... so... much... to explain. Standard actions, move actions, minor actions. Healing surges. Second winds. Daily, Encounter, At-Will. Good lord, I had forgotten how complicated it all sounds at first. But the odd thing - Jadzia and Inara had zero problems following me. So much of it was so familiar to them from video games that it seemed perfectly natural to them. Probably more natural than descending armor class, d20 roll high, d% roll low, etc.
So we burst onto the scene with a combat encounter. The kids engaged immediately, and it was on. It took a while for them to start figuring out the things most of us grognards know - take out the magic users quickly, finish off wounded opponents quickly, protect your own squishy teammates... and that's where the Essentials rules set started to shine. Zane started to learn how his Defender Aura worked to protect Inara, and Inara learned all about casting Magic Missile - perhaps too much so since there are other spells after all... But I digress. The game was moving, the kids were talking to each other about what to do next, which goblins to gang up on, setting up combos... Holy crap. This was working. And well! And Robby? He was absolutely giddy. His kids were playing D&D and loving it. He was being the Robby I remember from, oh, getting kicked out of Wal-mart for wearing a bra on his head at 3AM when we were young and stupid...
We played for about two total hours before the youngest kids started to feel a bit antsy. Now, I feel like it's an immense victory to get two seven-year-olds to sit at a table for two hours for any reason. Zane is especially known for getting restless, and has had issues at school for that reason. Once Anya and Zane decided they wanted to bow out (With Zane electing to stay until he had killed the goblin that had hit him, because, you know, VENGEANCE) the moms came over and took over the two PCs that no longer had players. The game shifted into high gear at this point, as both Mary and Cami, my wife and Robby's, respectively, don't get to game as often as they'd like. It. Was. On.
Through the evil temple we went. We fought monsters, we disarmed traps, we investigated ancient mysterious statues and the kids started asking all the right questions. Despite the tight mathematical construction of the game and tactical focus of combat the joy of D&D came through. The joy I felt in 1986 as I sussed out Dungeon Crawling for the first time. That realization that through the game I *was* the adventurer, delving through dimly lit stone halls unsure of what manner of danger was around the corner. The exhilaration of opening a treasure chest, or striking the final blow against the Big Bad.
In this case, the Big Bad was a necromancer. The PCs, being inexperienced for the most part and unfamiliar with the system, expended all of their resources before arriving at the Big Bad. Healing surges were at 0 or 1 for the fighter types, and the Wizard had expended her dailys. What to do? The Big Bad had three tough Skeleton Warriors and an Ogre Zombie protecting him. In they charged - and immediately had two PCs drop, unhealable. Robby organized a fall back, spiking the doors and beating feat as they dragged their two unconscious comrades. We played it out, with me making checks for the monsters beating down the doors and counting the time it took for the PCs to fall back to the weird room from the beginning of the dungeon with the brazier that could throw magical fire. They rested for a while, getting their encounter powers back and (with me being merciful) 2 Healing Surges (I rolled a d4.)
They set up to use their three most well-defended PCs to funnel the monsters into position, and Anya would use the brazier to fire bomb the enemies. It was tense, but it worked like a charm, the Skeletons fell one by one to the fire, and just on their heels the Ogre Zombie trundled in to be finished off by the PCs and their flame thrower. They were beaten, battered, but exultant. They wanted to finish off the Necromancer, but they knew they were at the end of their ropes. They chose to barricade the room and rest... Of course, when they went after the Necromancer, I put more guards around him, but fresh, full of expendables, and with a better grasp of tactics they managed to OWN the Necromancer and his minions.
It was about 7.5 hours since we'd begun. Inara and Jadzia wanted to keep playing. They wanted to know when we would play again. They wanted to know how to level up. They were GAMERS. A pair of brand new, dyed-in-the-wool, enthusiastic gamers. "We love you, Uncle Jeff!" And hugs.
So... I had a blast. We all did. And we did it with the "worst" version of D&D according to all the pundits and Edition Warriors. So I'll say it here. I love OD&D. I love Holmes. I love Moldvay-Cook-Marsh. I love AD&D. I love BECMI. I love AD&D2e. I even like 3e and 3.5... and in an unlikely twist I love 4e Essentials. It clicks.
What's the use for 4e? It isn't the D&D I grew up with. It's not random encounters and random treasure and old school sensibilities. That's where I grew up, and where I continue to thrive. What it is, is a game with the sensibilities of a later generation - one that was born after things like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy became popular. They reflect a different time and expectations that aren't D&D - but they are FUN.
So, my go-to is still BECMI. It's my favorite, and always will be. 5e is pretty damn close. But I am eagerly planning out a 4e Essentials campaign for my goddaughters. As long as we're all having fun, who cares what edition we're playing. And, writing the campaign as if it's an 8-Bit RPG cartridge? That's a lot of fun, too. I may even adapt slimes and stuff as monsters. Or maybe Oktoroks, Tektites and Leevers...