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I am resurrecting a campaign which had been on hold for several months, and considering updating from Pathfinder to 4e (which I have never run before), and juggling the mental calculus that goes into this decision. I don't want to start an edition war here - I'm honestly interested in what other GMs might suggest based on my party's and my own limitations/interests.

Practical considerations: we play every other week, generally 3-4 hour sessions (not as long as I would prefer, but it is the only way our schedules work out). I understand a lot of the tactical depth of 4e comes from attrition and resource management. Is this enough time to run the multiple encounters per day I would need?

Player considerations: My party are either entirely new to RPGs or only familiar through WoW and Skyrim - I think they often feel either overwhelmed by the build options presented by Pathfinder, or disappointed by the "sameness" of combat. None are very invested in their characters yet.

GM considerations: I honestly struggle with the crunchiness of Pathfinder's encounter design as well as certain mechanics (a grapple flow-chart?! Lord help me!), and I feel like combat is by far the blandest part of my games, yet it takes the most time. 4e intrigues me since it seems like it might spice up encounters and speak to the video-game background of my players. That said, I am a huge role-playing wonk, and fostering character development/RP-interactions is the most gratifying element for me. I've heard that 4e often feels "off" when not tailored to the crack-em-on-the-head dungeon-delve style of play, which I generally avoid. Finally, I have never run 4e before, so I am a little nervous at attempting to teach my players a system I am only semi-competent in myself.

What do other GMs think? Should I take the plunge? I don't want better combat to come at the expense of role-playing and interacting with my world in novel ways. Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated!

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I'd suggest that you don't limit yourself just to 4th Edition and Pathfinder. You may find other games that achieve the goals of you and your group a little better. There are lots of system-recommendation questions that might give you some systems to look at. –  Simon Gill Dec 7 '12 at 0:40
    
True - and I've always been intrigued by systems like Whitewolf and Exalted. But I was gifted a D&D Insider subscription by a friend, so I already have access to all the materials (and cost is certainly an issue - I don't want to go out and purchase all new books). –  BRZA Dec 7 '12 at 2:01
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4 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Yes, take the plunge.

  • Your limited session time may be an issue, but there are many ways to address that. There are several questions on this site about speeding up combat already, with a number of great answers.

  • 4e's reputation as a tabletop video game simulator is undeserved, but it does have superficial similarities that may make your players more comfortable. Particularly if you use the DDI character builder: they will come into combat with a spread of cards that tell them what their mechanical choices are, and in my experience this has made every player new to tabletop RPGs more comfortable.

  • 4e works hard to avoid sameness of combat. A popular criticism is that it's a miniatures game; this is true, because they are leveraging tactical positioning into a prominent position to keep combat dynamic. Terrain options and hazards combined with a plethora of PC and NPC positioning and terrain-altering abilities makes it possible for combat to shift dramatically from one round to the next, and for each combat encounter to be unique.

  • Just like the majority of 3.5/PF's rules are combat-oriented, so too is 4e largely a combat system. There are some interesting out-of-combat encounter options (skill challenges are very cool, though I use stalker0's alternate system as it's better balanced and more interesting), and as I'm sure you know RP doesn't need a lot of rules anyway. There are, however, a (relatively small) number of powers and features that support non-combat mechanics and the skill system is a lot less fiddly for these things. I find that there's just more room to RP without the mechanics getting in the way, compared to 3.5.

  • The DMG is very kind about encounter design. It walks you through the process and the system for determining encounter challenge level and choosing NPCs for a dynamic fight are very clear and require a lot less maths than 3.5 did.

  • 4e has fewer extra systems to learn. Each class uses the same basic system, no learning three different kinds of spellcasting for three different classes. Grab is a simple condition that some attacks can impose. Overall there's less emphasis on recreating reality in the system and more emphasis on keeping things simple and straightforward (WotC's poor quality control makes that iffy, but the attempt is at the core of the system).

I spent six years in 3.5 and nearly a year and a half in 4e. I like both systems despite their flaws, and honestly think that based on your situation as described 4e will suit your group better. (I love RP, and so does my group, and if anything 4e has freed us from feeling like we need to roll dice for it all the time, while still having mechanics and class features that support it when we want to.)

In light of your above comment that you've been gifted with a DDI subscription, I think it's worth saying that the DDI is amazingly helpful.

Nearly all the mechanics are covered in the Compendium glossary, which also contains every character option across all published material (including magazines, usually updated within 1 to 3 months of the magazine's release, but you also have access to downloadable pdfs of the entire 4e magazine catalogue). I know 3.5 magazine content was generally poor in quality, but the 4e stuff is a lot better than it has any right to be. (This is partly because the DDI system makes it very easy for Wizards to get erratas in quickly and universally.) I make no differentiation in my campaigns.

The Character Builder and Adventure Tools are also terribly useful (my players feel they'd have trouble building PCs without the Builder, but it's quite easy with), though you'll want to keep an eye on the CB's maths. (I once had a warlord with a mysterious +1 to all NADs that eventually just went away. Another time I qualified for dragonborn feats just by learning Draconic. Trust, but verify.) You can even export PCs and NPCs from the builders for use in various third-party apps, or print them --or save them as pdfs if you have the software for that.

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I moved off of 4E to Pathfinder for a lot of the same reasons you're thinking of doing the opposite. Just goes to show how highly subjective edition choice really is.

Multiple encounters per shorter session: When I first started playing 4E, we jumped from ~16th level 3.5E characters to 1st level PHB only characters (it was all that was out), and combat seemed really, really fast. But as we leveled up, I realized that combat in 4E moves slower than any other RPG I've played.

Build Options: I feel Pathfinder has the leg up here. There's less books to look through that, in my opinion, are filled with more meaningful and usable options. I also feel that 4E provides more incentive to optimize than Pathfinder does, largely due to how things like hit bonuses factor into the math of the game. In Pathfinder, I feel more free to make a character based on story/character and less on math - no need to worry that without that +1 to hit I'm behind what the game's math says I should be. 4E has the advantage of the character builder, though.

Sameness of Combat: I felt far more sameness in 4E than Pathfinder/3.5E. Classes feel very similar, power options are often similar both in class and between classes. I've noticed 4E took players who once thought "OK, my turn. What does my character want to try to do?" and turned them into "OK, my turn. Let me look and see what my character sheet and power cards say I can do." It makes things feel very limiting when I'm told I can't try to do something because I don't have a power that says I can.

GM Preparation: 4E has the leg up here, for sure. Pathfinder did a lot to improve this over 3.5E, and as a seasoned 4E GM, I've definitely found myself ignoring a lot of the "crunchiness" of Pathfinder GM prep - which is a good thing IMO.

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[This post comes off very edition-wars, perhaps you could revise to help the questioner more?] "It makes things feel very limiting when I'm told I can't try to do something because I don't have a power that says I can." Though this is what players think when first encountering 4e, this is instead a weakness in GMing style. No matter what the system the GM should teach players to "Tell me what you're doing" instead of staring at their powers. In all systems, reward creativity over power-searching. –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 7 '12 at 16:31
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As an addition to what @F.RandallFarmer said, there are rules for improvised actions in 4e. So there's no "I can't do that because I don't have a specific power." - it will be less powerful maybe but if you need to do something that's not in the powers you can at least try it. –  Zachiel Feb 21 '13 at 21:22
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I definitely suggest 4E.

Starting with the bad news:

Practical concerns - 4E is definitely slower then most RPG's due to sheer number of things you can do, I personally feel that getting in one good combat encounter in your regular session is better then having 2-3 combats which are just full attack spam.

Good news:

Player concerns - Wow and other games are emulating timeless RPG tropes, so Wow will in my opinion prepare you equally well for 4E,3E,2E etc thus they can use their Wow experience in 4e as well.

The concepts should translate 1 on 1, wizard to wizard cleric to cleric, except archer fighters should probably switch to rangers, in 4E when you think non magic skills you don't go the fighter, he's no longer the do anything guy he's way more tightly defined in 4E which allows him to be much more effective, you go to a Martial class and chose.

And 4E has a number of new classes which have not been seen before in DnD along with a official program to build your character and see all the options in perspective.

DM concerns: I've heard even diehard 1E DM's praise 4E's monster building system which is based on buying abilities with xp and allows for really individualising even goblins in a warband for example.

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Try 4e. I'm having success at running a 4e campaign that involves political intrigue, continent-hopping airship travel, and very little dungeon-delving. 4e battle creation is very simple: pick the level of the encounter and buy monsters to fill your XP budget, providing a good array of monster roles (which are explicitly listed in the stat block). Battles likewise can be interesting with varied monster abilities and interesting terrain. 4e works quite well when there are traps, hazards, and obstacles on the battlefield. That said, a few recommendations:

  • Be prepared to do more of the heavy lifting out of combat. There are fewer skills and sometimes you'll have to go old-school and ask for a basic stat check (maybe adding +5 if the character's background says they should know how to do a task).
  • Skill challenges are great once you get a handle on them, but they're damn tricky to figure out. The DMG2 is a great resource for understanding them better.
  • Try to pick monsters from only these sources: Monster Manual 3, Monster Vault, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. You can always reskin a monster if you like. Monsters from earlier books will work just fine, but they will be less interesting and often turn combat into more of a slug-fest than a fun tactical encounter.
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+1 Great 4e advice and resource list. –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 7 '12 at 16:34
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