So, a couple days ago, I got to do something that most DMs I know only dream of… I got to roll up a character and sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons.
I had a lot of fun! It’s been a long while since I’ve had the chance to actually play the game, instead of running it, and it was like a breath of fresh air. The one daunting thing for me was that it was a game of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Of all the versions, 4th and 5th are the versions I’m most familiar with – and the latter by far. 4th was the version of my first ever game of D&D, and I did have a lot of fun with it then, too. But that was years ago. So, when my friend offered to run a game for me and a couple other close friends, I was slightly intimidated when he said it’d be using the 4e rules.
Thankfully, it wasn’t using AD&D or Basic rules, because then I’d be truly lost.
So I sat down and started rolling up my 4e character. The last time I did this, I used a book called Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, which I went out and actually bought at an FLGS just to play the game that we were starting all that time ago. I didn’t really understand what a lot of the stuff in the book meant, so I just picked things based on how cool I thought they sounded. (This was back when I knew next to nothing about D&D)
This time, I’d be using a 4e character builder application that used to be popular. As I started to do this, I suddenly started to miss the 5e character building rules! It seemed much simpler, and streamlined in comparison – even with the help of an app to lead the way!
Still, I was able to do things (and, thankfully, the app helps to make sure the character is legal and complete), and get it all squared away in time to play.
But I wanted to talk about some of the comparisons between 4th and 5th editions. My intent here is not to spark a debate, or reignite the Version Wars that seem so popular among some Dungeons & Dragons fans. No, there’s no point to that in my mind.
Really what I’d like to accomplish is I’d like to see if we could have certain elements of each version influence each other. Like…what can we take from 4th Edition into 5th Edition (without completely breaking the game), and what does 5th Edition do better than 4th?
Now, real quick, before we get started…I know that Matt Colville covered this topic in a way in one of his videos about incorporating 4th Edition mechanics – like powers – into 5th Edition games, and he does a great job of it. You can check that out here. I will try to not repeat things that he says, though I’m sure I am bound to a little bit.
Theater of the Mind
Probably the biggest difference between the two versions – and probably the one and only thing that you can transfer almost seamlessly between versions – is that 4th Edition relies on battle maps and minis, and 5th Edition is designed for more “theater of the mind,” and immersion.
However, 5th Edition is very easy to use with battle maps and minis. It happens all the time. Some of the terminology is different (like a creature’s Speed, for example), and there are less advantages granted for using the field tactically, like there is in 4th Edition.
On the other hand, I feel like 4th Edition would be difficult to play without maps and minis. The game language is written in such a way that it’s meant to play more like a board game than a strict pencil-and-paper game, or verbal role-playing game (quick shout-out to my favorite verbal role-playing game, Ten Candles!).
I, personally, love maps and minis. I think they’re very cool, and – as a Dungeon Master – I think it makes running combat encounters MUCH easier. It factors out a lot of the guesswork and allows players to visualize the field. And, if you’re anything like Matt Mercer, or like InkdMage, you’re going to have some awesome battle maps for your players.
Unfortunately, I do not have the funds for Dwarven Forge and for amassing an army of minis to use. I have a very, very modest collection that I rarely use (because drawing is hard). So, it’s usually theater of the mind for my games. I don’t mind it, and I’m not necessarily upset that I can’t do battle maps and minis as often as, say, Critical Role uses them.
Honestly, though, both versions use battle maps well. It’s 4e that couldn’t really do theater of the mind very easily.
This is probably the biggest difference between the two versions that affects the players and their characters – and, from what I understand of it – is the most controversial.
In 5th Edition, characters have abilities that are specific to their race and class. Fighters have Second Wind, Action Surges, and others. Wizards cast spells from their spellbook using spell levels and spell slots. Clerics wield mighty weapons into battle and provide healing spells and buffs to their allies.
Each class gains their abilities as they level up, or learn additional spells as their experience grows. These abilities and spells are typically separate from a character’s normal attack options, such as hitting a target with a longsword or crossbow. All of those options would be considered as separate actions that one can take.
For example, a cleric could either choose to hit a target with their weapon, or they could cast Cure Wounds on an ally to heal them.
That’s not the way of 4th Edition. In 4e, characters have Powers that more often than not accompany their main attacks. So, now, when a Fighter uses their melee attack weapon, and they hit a target, there is always an option to activate an additional effect.
Apparently, people thought this made D&D feel too much like a video game. And, in a way, those people have a point. MMOs like DC Universe Online, Marvel Heroes Omega, and even the D&D MMO Neverwinter operate in this fashion. You have attacks and “powers” that you can use that can not only damage your target, but also activate some additional effect. It’s pretty standard.
Colville does a good job at explaining why this is the way it is in 4th Edition, so I won’t go into detail here, in case you’ve seen his video. If you haven’t, go check it out. It’s pretty interesting.
For example, I rolled up a Cleric in the 4e game I just played. In 4e, Clerics aren’t martial like they are in 5th Edition. They don’t do heavy armor proficiency and stuff like that, at least not by default. So they’re slightly squishier than their 5e cousins.
My Cleric didn’t have Cure Wounds, or spells like that – at least not in the 5e tradition of being able to cast spells. What I had was Healing Strike, which allowed me to hit a target, and then an ally within a certain amount of spaces of me could automatically spend a Healing Surge, should they choose.
That’s another huge difference with Clerics in 4th Edition: in 5e, a Cleric’s healing just comes from divine magic, no strings attached. The heal just happens. In 4e, a Cleric’s healing powers allow creatures to spend their Healing Surges, of which there are a limited number per day. So, in theory, a Cleric’s healing abilities in 4e will only last for so long before everyone needs to take a long rest.
There was only one or two of my Cleric powers that I had to help me heal my allies that actually didn’t involve me hitting an enemy target. And, then, a couple of powers actually required that the ally successfully hit the enemy that I hit first in order to gain said healing (again, from Healing Surges). So, in theory, the ally could miss and go another full round before they can attempt to hit-and-heal again. Dangerous stuff, that.
However, there IS a benefit to this, for as long as those Healing Surges last. In 5th Edition, as a Cleric I can either attack with a weapon or cast a healing spell. In 4th Edition, these actions are one and the same! In 4th Edition, I can damage enemies and heal my allies with the same action! And that’s actually pretty cool. I definitely liked that.
That brings me to the next thing on the list…
With theater of the mind being the main way to play – in fact, the way it was designed to play – in 5th Edition, it is more difficult to convey the layout of the battlefield to the players. Verbally, there is only so much you can do. No two players are going to see the field in their minds the same way. No two people are going to picture the positioning of the characters the same way. That can make managing combat encounters a little more tricky, and a little more loose.
This can be solved by using battle maps and minis. There’s nothing in 5e that really stops you from doing that, so why not? There’s an issue, and there’s the solution.
However, 5th Edition wasn’t built for maps like 4th Edition was. When I was playing the game of 4th Edition, I was closely inspecting the battlefield, trying to stay aware of my allies positioning and the positions of my enemies. I was studying my powers to ensure that I could do things in the most efficient and maximized way.
And, in 4e, you’re forced to make sure you do it right.
In 5th Edition – and this can be seen a lot on Critical Role (not that this is a criticism, just an observation) – if a character needs to do an AoE heal spell, for example, and they ask if they’re within 30 feet of everyone, Matt just thinks for a moment before saying, “Yeah, you can get everyone,” or, “No, you’d have to move another 10 feet to get everyone,” or something like that. There’s no checks-and-balances… and what I mean by that is there’s no inherent map that forces you to be honest about your moves and placement.
Then there’s flanking for combat advantage, and other ways to use the battlefield to your advantage. There’s the weakened condition. There’s bloodied, and how certain effects activate upon a creature becoming bloodied – a game mechanic that is completely absent from 5th Edition.
4th Edition definitely has more to think about, and more to consider while you play. It can be a little overwhelming to first-time players, and I think even to experienced 5th Edition players.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed embracing the tactician in me while I played 4th Edition. Let me paint you a quick picture. Our game began with our three characters being led into an arena against our will. We were to fight for our freedom. Three enemies entered the arena as well: a human berserker, a thri-kreen, and an owlbear.
I knew we were about to take a fair bit of damage, and that I’d be doling out my healing At-Will powers with about every hit I make. So, looking at the battlefield, and the rest of my powers, I knew what I had to do right out the gate. I told my fellow adventurers to stay close to me, and to wait for the enemies to advance.
Once 2 of the 3 enemies were within my Close Burst 3 space, I used my Daily Power Beacon of Hope to not only weaken the enemies, but to ensure that all of my healing for the rest of the encounter would include an extra bump of 5 hit points.
That’s thinking tactically, and that is really, really fun.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about this subject, because it’s something that Colville covers extensively in his video on 4th Edition elements, and I agree with him. I would definitely port minions over to my 5th Edition games.
And that’s because they do help to make the players feel like absolute badasses. To punctuate my point?
Everyone wants to feel like they’re in those awesome moments we see in the movies – where the hero goes running into impossible numbers, and cleaves down enemies left and right, expertly carving a path through the chaos.
And that’s really it.
Defenses or Saving Throws
In 4th Edition, a character has four different Defenses that an attack or effect can target: AC, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. There are various attributes that make up these scores. And those are how you defend yourself throughout the game.
In 5th Edition, the majority of attacks will target your AC, and attempt to overcome that. Other things can target you, and you must make a Save against it. Saving Throws do exist in 4th Edition, but they’re calculated differently. They work the same, though, for the most part, in that succeeding on a save can end certain effects.
In 5th Edition, much less goes into figuring out your Saving Throw score – it’s typically just your Ability Score modifier plus any Proficiency you might have. But in 4e, there are a lot of factors that go into your four Defenses, like your class and race, and any feats you might have.
At least in my most recent experience, you seem to start out with much less in 4th Edition than is possible in 5th Edition.
For example, 5th Edition has Backgrounds, which provide your character with – usually – additional languages, skill proficiencies, and equipment possibilities. When I started out in the 4e game, I only knew two languages and I felt like I did not have as many bonus features as I would have starting out in 5e.
I feel like this makes adventurers that are starting out seem much less experienced in 4th Edition – which is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes the wild world feel intimidating and foreign. Though, in 5th Edition, the Backgrounds lend the adventurer some kind of experience from their past that can help in their new life, which seems realistic to me.
This is probably the thing that most feels like a video game to me, or makes Dungeons & Dragons feel like a game to me, and less like some people role-playing and telling a story.
In case you don’t know, in 4th Edition, an Action Point is something that you obtain once per day or once per milestone. It’s like a Fighter’s Action Surge feature in 5th Edition – in that it allows you to take a second action on your turn. But it’s for everyone.
It most feels like a “game mechanic” to me over the other features because this is the thing that seems like some icon that hangs at, like, the bottom of your game screen that starts out full of energy, or potion, or juice, or something. Then, you use it, and that icon empties, and slowly fills back up until the next day.
All characters have these. Whereas the Fighter’s Action Surge is a special ability that only the Fighter has because they are the fighting experts. It makes sense for them to have it. If all characters had a 1/day feature like this, it’d cheapen the Fighter’s ability (where the Fighter already has trouble having their own features and abilities they can do).
That’s all that I can think of at this very moment. I’m sure there are other differences that I’m leaving out at this time, but this post is long enough. Thanks for reading, though.
4th Edition and 5th Edition are definitely very different from each other, but I’m finding both to be very fun. I’m preferring 5e over 4e at this time, and I think that’s because I’m most familiar with 5e, but we’ll see how I feel as we continue to play.
At this time, there are definitely things I’d like to port over to 5th Edition from 4e. I agree with Matt Colville about minions, and I like the idea of handing a 4e power to a character in 5e as a reward of some kind. I love the tactics aspect of playing 4e, and it’d be really cool to have that same sort of feel in the 5e games. Having a battle map and minis will help to fulfill some of that desire, but not as much, I feel.
And – as a player in a 4e game – there are definitely things I wish I could bring over into our game from 5e. Pretty sure my DM won’t be doing that, though.
Sorry about the lack of content lately, I get very busy when I do shows. There’s only one more weekend of this show, though – this coming one – and then we should be back to normal.
Which version of these two do you like better? Which version do you like running better? What’s your favorite aspect of 4e that’s not in 5e?
Is there any kind of content you’d like to see on this blog? Anything you’d like me to talk about or delve into from a DM perspective? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time, Well Met!