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I'm looking at starting a game with a bunch of friends. Between us, we have very little RPG experience; one of the party has played a little before (Pathfinder, I think) and I played a handful of short sessions a few years ago, but I've never run a game. We've been looking at D&D 4e, but recently some of the party members have heard, or read online, that 4e has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on the dice and mechanics and not giving the players power to RP. I've been browsing the questions here and I've found comments like "players look at their power cards rather than thinking of their character's intentions" and "4e has the slowest combat I've ever played".

These comments have us a little concerned, but there's also a lot of contradictory testimonials around, and we're aware that it's largely subjective and depends on play style, so we're looking to gather more info before making any decisions. If we decide to move away from 4e, we'd probably switch to Pathfinder; it was our second choice after 4e when originally choosing a system.

For reference, we were planning to start with Keep On The Shadowfell. So far, I have:

  • picked out a few things in KotS that can acts as hooks for further quests
  • written the top-level plot arc that describes what's happening in the world at the time
  • outlined two and a half other quests that would further the major plot
  • outlined one and a half other unrelated quests that could lead into their own plots
  • sketched out some world-building, including some rough locations and general descriptions of society and politics.

Main concerns:

  • Are the things we've heard correct? Is 4e so heavily mechanic-driven? Will the players be able to RP their characters fully, or will the dice constrain them?
  • Some players have already started planning their characters. How much of that work can be carried over?
  • As DM, I already have some plot and stuff worked out. How much of the D&D material (monsters, pantheon of gods, maps) is built to fit the mechanics, and how much will transfer smoothly?
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Just to head stuff off at the pass. Comments are not for arguing. Present your opinion in your answer, and let the community vote it up or down. Everything must adhere to Good Subjective Bad Subjective and, optimally, be based from personal play of the systems involved. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 26 '13 at 9:56
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These are very similar to the concerns I had about 4e when I first tried it out; feel free to drop into chat for a more discussion-y experience if you'd like. –  BESW Jun 26 '13 at 9:59
    
As most of the answers below state, 4th edition has strengths and weaknesses that may or may not suit your group's preferred playstyle. Unfortunately, since you haven't played an RPG yet, identifying your group's preferred playstyle is probably a little hard. My advice is to play for a bit and think about what parts of the game your group enjoys most; Then, once you've got a decent idea, look for a system that fits. –  GMJoe Jun 27 '13 at 4:30
    
    
Anyone who thinks 4e combat is slow has never played something like Exalted. Sure, 4e is slower than, for example, Unknown Armies' One Roll Engine (guess how many rolls a combat turn takes with ORE), but it's not inherently slow. I admit that I haven't played 4e beyond Heroic tier, but many of the combat encounters I've had were decided within five rounds (on occasion I've ended up with a bag of HP that might as well be helpless, so it wasn't over in five rounds, but the outcome was inevitable by that time). –  Brian S Nov 6 '13 at 20:14
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

5 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

4e, like all RPGs is exactly as good as its GM. With that said, it depends on what your requirements are.

I've experienced a campaign that went from 1-30 in 4e. It had significant RPing in it. With that said, 4e offers few rules (but a few excellent books on suggestions) of how to guide RP. If you're looking to simulate a world, it's not the best system.

It does have one of the most interesting tactical systems that I've found, offering fun and engagement for everyone in the party. The combats are long, but they are also fun. On the other hand, if your group doesn't enjoy tactical combat and a large decision space to make characters from, it's maybe not your game.

Specifically, it's a question of what resources you have. Early books and works from the system can be problematic. I hope you've read the question about fixes for KotS before running it. A DDI subscription is invaluable. The core books are mostly for flavour at this point, as the rules have been heavily heavily errataed.

It is a fun game. It's not for everyone, and people who pre-judge will see their initial conceptions fulfilled. Is it the right game for you? Maybe. Everyone plays D&D differently and therefore has different expectations. Games I run in 4e feature heavily narrated combats, because having characters do awesome-cool stuff fits well with their mechanics. It is not a game where you can trivially ignore half the rules, though. It is a very tightly-coupled system and, personally, I prefer it's philosophy and commitment to combat-as-sport far over 3.5 and its ilk. (To be fair, I also prefer the academic approach of Ars Magica over both, but... that is outside the scope of this question.)

Run your players through the Same Page Tool. It may indicate which edition, if any, is right for you in terms of philosophical approach. Don't feel tied to D&D because of name recognition. There are many fantastic systems out there, and you should choose the one that fits your mechanical and narrative needs most closely.

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I'd read that there were issues with KotS, but I didn't realise they were that extensive. I think I've resolved the plot and lore issues by tying it into a larger plot of my own devising (I'm a bit of an amateur writer; no shortage of ideas there) and I'm pulling it slightly away from the canon D&D lore to hybrid it with some of my own material. I'll take a loot at the fixes and errata regarding combat and loot, though. As for RP and world simulation, I think I can provide a narrative structure to help here (again, amateur writer) but could you elaborate on how 4e is lacking in this area? –  anaximander Jun 26 '13 at 10:05
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+1 for the Same Page Tool; make sure you all want the same game! –  Rob Jun 26 '13 at 10:19
    
@anaximander I swear I had not been reading your comment here when I wrote that part of my answer but... there's a little explaination of why the narrative is weak in D&D-like games. (it's in the dice constraining part and also a bit in the mechanically driven one) –  Zachiel Jun 26 '13 at 10:42
    
+1 for the many fantastic systems out there. –  Zachiel Jun 26 '13 at 10:43
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Fourth Edition D&D is a game that has its point of strength in tactical grid combat.

While in previous editions it was stated that you could do anything you wanted and it would have worked, most of this was true because the dungeon masters added their explicit or implicit rules and rulings to the existing, written system specifically to be able to manage those different things. In D&D 3.5 there are no rules for political scheming, for romance, for investigation, just as they are not present in D&D 4e.

4e just stopped saying you could do all those things with ease and focused on a game that could be played by a party of heroes. Its rules help you have significant combats, favoring a step-on-up style of play.

(Step-on-up is design terminology for a game where the participants value using skill and fortune to overcome obstacles more than writing a satisfying story or experiencing a certain atmosphere.)

Is 4e mechanically driven?

Yes, it is. As is D&D 3.5, as is Pathfinder. While you fight enemies, the vast majority of the things you do can be summarised in "My character moves there, strikes for 24 and hits for 12, next". There's no incentive to narrating things and (unless the DM wants it so) there's no real impact on the game if you charge with an evil grin or you charge with a determined stance or any other descriptive fluff.
Since it's not important and it takes up time, people don't usually narrate conflicts that way, treating combat like a miniature game, save for maybe certain choices that stem from their character's personality.

For clarity, quite at the opposite side of the spectrum there's Dogs in the Vineyard, where you use a poker-raise-like system but you need to tell to the opposition what your character is doing because if you don't describe your actions and feelings it's not possible to give back a proper response.
(DitV is a game that doesn't focus on combat but on moral choices.)

Will the players be constrained by the dice?

Not so much. They could fail a diplomacy check, just like they did in previous editions. And, well, they can't exactly narrate that they were successful despite the dice, but that's the point of rolling a die, isn't it?
But there's nothing forcing you to change your character - which could also be a downside since most D&D characters have, in my experience and in the experience of several people I know, the tendency to remain rooted to their background morality, which can be unattractive for some players.

Sometimes I see players complaining of a very similar thing. It was common use in previous editions and in some RP groups to handwave many things. A combination of create water and frost ray could have the additional effect of creating a slippery surface, electrical effects could have a better result if cast in water and so on.
D&D 4e has its powers (including spells and martial maneuvers) strictly defined in a mechanical way to prevent some sort of combo abuse we've seen in 3.x edition.
This also means the powers are supposed to be used for dealing damage, for inflicting statuses or for whatever they were designed for, with little space for imaginative uses.

I personally believe this is a good way to wrestle the game control out of the hands of the player with the better imagination or the better oratory and give everyone the same possibilities to shine, but some players (usually the ones with better imagination and oratory) find this unfair.
I finally had one of these players telling me he just doesn't want to let that power go.

Character planning

Keep the concepts, start from scratch. Character creation in D&D 4e is way easier, especially for spellcasters. There's fewer bad choices and they are more obvious than they were before.

Many things can change. A fighter that wants to charge is better built as a barbarian and refluffed as a fighter (4e encourages refluffing). Multiclass options work very differently in 4e to prevent dipping, and prestige classes now can be gotten at lvl 11 no matter what.
The main criticism I'd be prepared to receive is how the chassis is the same for every class. BAB goes up every two levels for everyone (but touch AC is no more a thing and armors scale differently), there's no more iterative attacks save if a power calls for it, even warriors need to choose several powers that can be used at will, once per encounter or once a day.
Pre-buffing is no more a thing, clerics don't wear heavy armors... yeah, some things have changed. Better to start anew.

Mechanical fitting

There's a whole new bunch of monster manuals (the first two are recognized to be "old design", with monsters that deal less damage than they would do, others with more HP than they should have and bosses easily permastunnable).
Instead of having monsters behave like characters (with the known problem of having a set of useless abilities that PCs use and monsters don't) now they are built to do their job in combat and maybe in social situations. They have few powers that synergize with each other and that are all useable in a single combat. Instead of leveling up, there are several different leveled kobolds, orcs, gnolls and so on. Refluffing is your best friend.

Gods are less important in D&D 4e, except for clerics, who get an (usually unimpressive) extra choice for their channel divinity class feature if they get a feat tied to their chosen god. Paladins are the champions of their god, whatever their alignment is. So if you had some gods you want to use, just decide which channel divinity feat to assign them and you should be OK.

Maps; maps have bigger rooms. Encounters usually sport lots of creatures, most of which will be minions: 1hp creatures that can damage and flank and are dangerous in numbers, but easy to get rid of.
Just like 3.0 maps were unsuitable for 3.5 because of the changes in the number of squares occupied by large creatures, you'll need to get bigger rooms. Rooms with pits, pools of acid or lava and the like are better because a lot of the tactics can revolve around forced movement (not 3e's "I don't attack to push you" but 4e's "I push/pull/slide you while attacking").

On the length of combats

Yes, they are lengthy. I've played 2-hour-long combats at level 1 and I've been told it gets worse at the higher levels.
A common houserule to stop that is to double all the damage for everyone.
I've also had 7 hours long level combats in D&D 3.0 and I don't think Pathfinder has solved that problem yet, so I think it depends on the enemy team setup selection.

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Are the things we've heard correct? Is 4e so heavily mechanic-driven? Will the players be able to RP their characters fully, or will the dice constrain them?

In my opinion, 4e and Pathfinder are both too mechanic-heavy to be a good first RPG. (With the caveat that any RPG can be a good first RPG with an experienced GM.) You’ll spend too much time trying to understand the mechanics to get a good feel for the basics of the hobby. As you noted, mechanics can be a distraction too. You can find yourself looking for options in the mechanics and constraining your thinking by them rather than enjoying one of the key differences of RPGs: The only limits are those the group imposes on itself.

That said, players and GMs can always rise above any system’s constraints.

Even with Pathfinder, combats take too long for my taste.

I have found the classic Basic and Expert D&D (available as PDFs from www.dndclassics.com) were not only a good first system for me and my friends back-in-the-day, but also for a group of four World of Warcraft players who I introduced to the hobby a few years ago, and for my kids today. There are a couple of free RPGs that are modeled on it as well: Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy. Swords and Wizardry aims to be closer to original D&D, but it’s close enough that it could be a good choice as well.

Some players have already started planning their characters. How much of that work can be carried over?

If it’s mechanical planning, then that can be pretty system specific. Even if there are analogies in the other system, the devil is in the details.

But I’m recommending a system without lots of mechanical bits, so such mechanical planning is moot.

As DM, I already have some plot and stuff worked out. How much of the D&D material (monsters, pantheon of gods, maps) is built to fit the mechanics, and how much will transfer smoothly?

The good thing is that a whole lot of these things have been around in every edition of D&D. So, you can often just substitute the version from the edition you’re using. Also, if you’re using a game that is mechanics-light, it is easy enough to come up with your own stuff. (In classic D&D, Hit Dice and Armor Class can be all you need for a monster.) Look at something similar from the system you’re using and tweak it a bit.

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Systems influence the play style, but the group controls it.

The system you use will definitely affect the play style. Dungeons and Dragons in general and 4e in particular are really set for tactical play and assume lots of combat. But with that said I have had GMs that really emphasize the role playing aspect and have had games with minimal combat (though the threat and possibility of combat was ever present).

On the flip side, World of Darkness generally and Vampire the Masquerade in particular were focused on internal character development and politics and are well suited for those. Yet I have been in V:TM games that quickly became "Fight the Monster of the Week" and involved heavy combat with minimal politics in the background.

Some systems and settings are more suited to one than the other, but its the group that really determines how they game will go and most systems can fit with many different play styles even if the fit isn't always perfect.

Most of the setting can transfer

As for the monsters and other setting info transfering to another system it could take a bit of work but as a general rule it can be done fairly smoothly. For one thing, there are numerous settings (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, etc) that use the D&D rules and there are guidelines for converting between the different versions of D&D and pathfinder.

If you wanted to do something like keep your setting but switch to World of Darkness/Storyteller System rules...that would take a fair bit of work but a creative GM could do it with refluffing and house rules if they wanted.

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I won't really say that V:TM is well suited for politics and character development. The vast majority of the tools you get are combat-related: health points, powers and the like. –  Zachiel Jun 27 '13 at 9:47
    
@Zachiel I suppose its a matter of opinion and taste. Yes, it certainly has a combat related side. But many of the powers are primarily or solely about manipulating things out of combat, and it has rules for roles on manipulation, deception, etc. It can turn into a combat game, I've seen it, but at least in my experience that is the exception and I have built characters in V:TM that had little to no combat options other than run and use political force later. That wouldn't work so well (in a normal campaign) in a system like D&D or Shadowrun. –  TimothyAWiseman Jun 27 '13 at 16:52
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Here's the most important thing, don't feel that if you start on systam A you have to keep going with it. In fact, your best option might be to try a couple of one-shots in various different systems and then compare notes on which system you liked the most. If the Fantasy setting is important, but story is more of a concern than tactics then something like Dungeon World might be a better fit. There are many many choices available to you, so many that, let's be honest, you probably won't pick the best fit on your first try.

Another option for the "evaluation stage" is to listen to some Actual Plays from various systems... though this might put traditional D&D at a bit of a disadvantage as spectating (especially with sound only) doesn't always translate as well to tactics heavy games like D&D.

Finally even once you have settled on a "system of choice" it can be good to take occasional breaks and play something else. Having a few Fiasco playsets around, maybe some On Mighty Thews can be handy if the DM isn't prepared for a session, or a couple people are out and you don't want to play with out them. Also playing in different systems will give you a fresh view of the system you are playing, and there's no rule that says you can't steal the best ideas from other games and implement them in your favorite.

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Why the downvote? –  aslum Jul 8 '13 at 16:15
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