Finally. Almost a full year since this blog was first established, and I’m just now getting to the subject I was going to tackle day 1. I need to step it up around here. Anywho, in this post I’m going to do an autopsy on two editions of D&D that have officially ended their runs. (Yes, 4th edition is soon to be a thing of the past, since since 5th Edition is now in development.) The transition from the former to the latter was one of the most acrimonious in RPG history, to the point where it adversely affected the sales of 4th. The 4th Ed Essentials line was, in part, an attempt to recapture some lost players by rolling back several of the changes made in 4th. Not popular stuff.
SUPER-MEGA-DISCLAIMER: I am personally a fan of 4th edition over 3.5. I’ll end this piece with my explanation for why, but I’ll do my best to avoid letting that bias interfere with the examination itself.
This first part will examine the two systems from a mechanical standpoint, comparing the rules of the two systems to see the kind of games they build. To prevent ruining the nice formatting, I've implemented a handy dandy jump-off below:
Both systems use the D20 system as their core (really, the D20 system is a generalization of 3.5) in which all situations with an element of chance are resolved by adding plusses and minuses to the result of a 20-sided die roll and comparing that total to a Difficulty Class (hereafter referred to as DC) The more adept a given character is at something, the larger their bonus to a roll. The harder the task, the higher the DC. e.g.
Alfred is a skilled climber (+5 bonus) and is trying to climb a rope. (DC 15) He needs a 10 or higher on a d20 to succeed. He’d have an easier time than Barry, who isn’t as skilled (+1 bonus) Barry would have to roll a 14 or higher to successfully climb the rope.
It’s a versatile mechanic that works for a variety of tasks, whether trying to decipher an ancient book in a dead language or trying to stab a goblin so it dies. The differences arise in the granularity of the two rulesets. Take skill checks. In 3.5, there is a dedicated climbing skill that you must put points into if you want to be a good climber. With each character level, a character gets a certain number of skill points that can be assigned to this and a variety of other skills. The points are additive, so if at level one Albert puts 4 points into Climb and then another point at level 2, his Climb bonus would be +5.
Those points would be absolutely worthless if Albert were to try to swim across a river, or jump over a crevasse. In comparison, 4th edition has an Athletics skill, which encompasses climbing, jumping, swimming, and other athletic endeavors as the DM defines. You do not assign points to the skill. At character creation, each character has a certain number of skills to become “trained” in. These choices are taken from a certain list, also determined by class. These choices do not change unless you decide to retrain them, or take a feat that allows an additional trained skill. The trained skills gain a +5 bonus outright, as well as the inherent bonus provided by ability scores (more on those later) and the bonus from leveling up (all skills increase their bonus by +1 at every even level) Skills are much more general in their application (note the contrast: in 3.5 there is a dedicated climbing skill, while in 4th the ability to climb well is tied into swimming, jumping, and running well, among others) In 3.5 each level is a decision as to what you want to focus on, while in 4th your characters skill strengths are mostly set in stone at 1st level.
There’s variation in proficiency in 3.5; a character who puts the most points possible into the climbing skill at every level will be a much better climber than one who only puts a few in when they have points left over. In 4th, two characters of the same level who are both trained in a skill will have the same bonus; boosts from feats, ability scores, race, and equipment notwithstanding.
The two systems use feats in similar ways: they handle useful “tricks” or talents that go beyond the boundaries of skills but that fall short of what character class entails. Examples include the item crafting feats in 3.5 (condensed into rituals in 4th, themselves governed by a feat and various skills) and the racial feats in 4th. In neither case is there a build that CAN’T take such a feat, other than obvious restrictions like race, or arcane knowledge. It’s hard to take advantage of one’s orcish heritage when one has no orcish heritage, after all.
The contrast between the two lies in the functionality of the feats. In 3.5 feats are part-and-parcel with class features (for vanilla Fighters, they ARE the class features) and play a significant part in determining what a character can do. In 4th, they are more meant to improve something a character can already do. They are usually tied to a specific race or class, unlike 3.5. They usually provide numeric bonuses, like Elven Precision, which grants a +2 bonus to the reroll granted by the racial power available to all Elves. The feat doesn’t add a truly unique boon, it just improves something the character had to begin with. Similar feats are available to all races, and many classes have similar feats that enhance their abilities. In 3.5, feats allowed members of any class to do things like fight from horseback without penalty, snatch arrows from the air, or fight effectively with two weapons. Other than mounted combat (an entire linked list of feats condensed into a single item on the list) there are no such feats in 4th.
The reason for this is the largest distinction between the two, mechanically speaking. Whereas in 3.5 each class has a set progression of special effects that unlock as the character increases in level, 4th defines each class with a few abilities at first level and a selection of “powers” over the course of each level afterward. These powers are tied to the class’s role in combat and general mythos. One can create a wizard who annihilates swaths of enemies with bolts of lighting hurled from her fingertips or who beguiles her enemies with illusions that make them mistake friend for foe. Likewise, a Fighter’s powers allow him to do things like sweep through multiple enemies, crush defenses and leave brutal, gaping wounds that bleed and weaken their enemies. The contrast can be seen in the example of both versions of the Paladin class, a holy knight blessed by one or more deities:
A 5th-level paladin in 3.5 can: smite evil enemies by calling upon their divine favor, resist all mortal diseases without effort, heal the wounded by a certain number of HP per day, cure diseases a certain number of times per week, and summon a celestial mount of some kind (usually a horse or riding dog) as a companion.
A 5th-level Paladin in 4th can: infuse her weapon with holy light, channel the damage of her attacks into healing effects for her allies, spend some of her own vitality to heal her allies, gain divine favor to increase odds of an attack hitting or to resist a harmful effect, and several variations on these combinations.
The important thing is that while 3.5’s effects from class features are more varied and idiosyncratic (curing disease by laying hands on the afflicted is a very biblical heroic act) they are static, unlocked in a specific order that encourages multiclassing to achieve the list of abilities desired. A multiclassed Paladin/Fighter would be a highly-skilled warrior with divine blessings to fall back on, while a Paladin/Rogue would be more akin to a holy assassin who can stealthily kill enemies hated by the gods with nothing more than the touch of their holy hands.
The concept of multiclassing barely even exists in 4th, ignored in favor of making the character classes more distinctive. A sword-and-shield fighter will usually have a different selection of powers and thus different tactical options and a different battlefield role than his friend who wields a two-handed greataxe. Returning to the Paladin example, a 4th edition Paladin tends toward one of two archetypes: the compassionate battlefield leader, taking hits for other party members and healing them at the expense of himself; or the holy warrior, striking down enemies and engaging as many foes as possible in combat to slay the enemies of his faith. Relentless focus on one archetype or the other is possible, but many split the difference and choose powers that allow for elements of both.
One thing you’ll likely notice reading through the rulebooks is that while in 3.5 many of the classes not specifically tied to battle (such as the fighter, et al) have features that are useful outside of combat (see again the “Lay on Hands” abilities the paladin unlocks), the 4th edition powers are overwhelmingly combat-focused (especially noticeable with the classes that should logically have roles outside of combat; spellcasters apparently know their rituals, parlor-trick cantrips and how to blow stuff up/mind-control them in a combat timescale/blow up their brains and NOTHING ELSE). This leads into the second part of this series, the game design philosophy of the two editions, which is the better part of WHY these games are so divisive. Tune in next time!