I have a small group of players who don't play often and we've been playing D&D 3.5.

I wanted to know if there are any significant differences between D&D 3.5 and D&D 4e? Do they use a different style of game? Is one better suited for certain groups? Or is D&D 4th edition just an 'update' of D&D 3.5?

I'd like to know about the major differences (the bard class was removed?) and about any small differences that people have noticed whilst playing.


5 Answers 5


The two games are very different, despite sharing the same underpinnings. I know plenty of people who played previous editions who don't like 4e, and I know plenty of people who played previous editions who loved 4e. Hopefully we can navigate these rocky, contentious waters without flames.

First off, 4e is fairly light on non-combat rules. This doesn't mean that 4e games are all about combat; it means that the rules assume that a lot of the roleplaying activities that were codified in 3e will be done via freeform roleplay. For example, there aren't any crafting rules for anything other than magic items. There also aren't any general professional skills, and there aren't any NPC classes. If you prefer to have rules for that sort of thing, 3e will be a better choice for you.

Second, 4e uses a power-based design methodology. Classes can be thought of as collections of powers; the differences between classes are defined by the different power choices they have. This makes for a very modular and flexible system. Some people find that it makes the classes overly homogeneous; some people like it.

Third, every 4e class uses powers. That's implied by my second point but it's worth mentioning specifically. A character begins with two at-will powers, that he can use whenever he wants; one encounter power, that can be used once per fight; and one daily power, that can be used once per day. Even martial characters, such as warriors, use this paradigm -- although their "powers" might be better thought of as something akin to a martial arts kata. This was intended to make combat more interesting for (say) fighters, in comparison to the earlier model where fighters just tended to hit things over and over again. If you didn't mind that model, this change may be unnecessary for your play style.

Fourth, 4e leans more heavily on the battlemap. My impression is that the large number of movement-oriented powers both make the battlemap more important and make combat more fluid, but that's definitely a subjective opinion on my part: consider it something to think about if you try 4e rather than a definite fact.

Fifth, 4e introduces the concepts of roles. Roles are a way of classifying classes by what they tend to do in combat. You've got leaders, who heal. There are more of them than just the cleric; for example, the bard is also a leader. You've got defenders, who control the battlefield by encouraging enemies to focus their attacks on them. The fighter is a defender; so is the paladin. You've got controllers, who are somewhat difficult to define, but you can think of them as the classes that affect the flow of a fight: they can hamper enemies, reshape terrain, and so on. The wizard is a classic controller. And, finally, you've got strikers, who purely focus on doing damage. The ranger and the sorcerer are strikers. Every class is primarily one role, but every class has the ability to take on aspects of another role, depending on what the player wants to do.

Sixth, multiclassing is more limited than in 3e. You can multiclass in a couple of ways, but you don't get the same ability to take six or seven classes/prestige classes during the course of your career. 4e classes are fairly flexible, but you don't get the same complete freedom you would with 3e multiclassing.

Seventh, the scope and feel of 4e can be somewhat more epic; or, to put it differently, more broad. The highest level is level 30, and that's very epic play, with abilities that allow characters to come back from the dead. Even at level 1, your characters are significantly more durable than third edition characters, and they'll be able to pull off some really wild things.

I think that hits most of the major differences. It's good to remember that it's still a heroic fantasy game in which characters fight monsters. It still uses a 20 sided die. Also, if you want to try it out, WotC has a free Quick Start kit available.

Alternatively, the new Essentials Red Box will be out in a few weeks; at $20 US, it might be a good way to take a peek at the game and decide if you like it. The Essentials core books will present a bunch of new class variants that change some of the things above: e.g., fighters won't have the same power structure I mentioned. So that might be a better entrance point.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Since Essentials, classes no longer get a fixed pattern of power types. \$\endgroup\$
    – Quentin
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 7:36
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ Roles aren't a new concept, there is a reason that the traditional 3rd edition party consists of a fighter, a wizard, a cleric and a rogue with changes usually being of the "replace a wizard with a sorcerer" type. 4th edition just makes it explicit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Quentin
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 7:38

I'd like to add a few extra things to the other answers here, which are all good answers as well, but don't cover the whole feel and experience of the differences.

Rules as Simulation?

3.5e attempts to simulate a world with numbers and rules. If you have X strength, you can lift Y pounds. A given weapon or spell does exactly X damage to any opponent's HP. A roll of X on your jump check will send you exactly Y feet. Etc.

4e does not do this, and if you come into it thinking that it does, you will be confused, befuddled, and probably angered. Instead, 4e uses a cinematic simulation, and numbers are all relative, instead of absolute values.

For example, the basic unit in 4e is not the "5 foot square", it is "the square". How big is a square? Well, the books will tell you that a square is usually 5 feet. But it doesn't have to be. When my players hit paragon level, I announced that all squares were now defined as 10' squares instead. The rules don't change, but the feel does... everyone suddenly felt twice as fast, twice as strong. Descriptions had to change, with a lot more moving about, a lot more "controlling space" to define what they were doing. And then, at epic level, I graduated them to 100' squares. The math didn't change. The battlemap now drew villages instead of streets, but still worked as a battlemap. But boy howdy did the feel and scope of the game change... big time.

HP means different things at different levels, due to the "Minion/Elite/Solo" system. The rules don't tell you this, but if you look at it close enough, you can see that a normal level 10 monster is the same thing as a level 5 elite monster. The defenses adjust, so that level 5 characters can actually hit it. The HP adjusts, so that combat doesn't take all day (note: some argue that the HP doesn't adjust ENOUGH, but you can tweak that with practice). But the level 5 elite has more things it can do in a single round, and is a lot more threatening than a level 5 standard monster. The challenge has significantly increased, without being impossible-- it's still fun. My simulationist players simply accepted that the level 5 elite got more attacks then the level 10 standard monster because the level 10 standard monster is just faster than level 5 characters.

Thus, everything becomes relative. You start thinking less in terms of "I'm a level 6 characters fighting a level 8 monster", and start thinking "I'm fighting a monster two levels higher than me". Your level doesn't indicate a mathematical, gameplay based power level, as much as it defines a NARRATIVE power level. What is your impact on the world? At heroic level, you save the town. At paragon level, you save the kingdom. At epic level, you save the whole world, and maybe even some other worlds while you're at it.

Another thing that drove my 3.5e players nuts was the idea that the numbers for monsters and the numbers for PCs have no real relation to each other. A monster might get hundreds of HP at epic level, while PCs might have HP merely in the dozens. You cannot build a PC and run it as a monster. The math just doesn't work that way.

Rule Clarity

That said, things in 4e are a lot more clearly and concretely defined than 3.5e. In 3.5e, there are many, many, MANY rules interactions, and quite a few of them are ambiguously worded or confusing. You can really get into the fun of exploring all the rules of 3.5e, even outside the game, just to see how far you can stretch them-- the result being works of art like the legendary Punpun, or the Hulking Hurler.

4e's rules don't do this. Interactions between statistics and rules are kept to an absolute minimum, in what is called "Exception Based Rules". There is a simple set of rules that just plain work, and then when you get powers and abilities, these powers will generally create a SINGLE exception to the basic rules, which are all clearly and precisely defined.

As a feature of this, it's a lot easier to simply put everything you need to run a character, or a monster, right there on the page in front of you without having to flip between books and pages to find out exactly what a spell or ability does. The rules are clear, and compact!

I have DM'd both 3.5e and 4e. I have had hours of rules debates about 3.5e. I have never had more than a cursory "Ah, I forgot the difference between a close burst and a blast for a moment there" in 4e. It just works.

Where is the Game, in the Preparation, or at the Table?

Extending from this, in 3.5e, there was a lot of fun involved before you ever sat down at the table. My players could spend hours, days even, designing a character, going through splatbooks left and right looking for the perfect combination of feats and classes.

When we finally had our game session, combat was often over before it started. My 3.5e players would sit around the map, studying the layout, seeing the opposition, and then crafting an intricate plan and sequence of spells or abilities or item usage that would probably end the combat instantly, or at least without any surprises. Once the plan was in place, it was simply a test-- did the strategy work? If yes, we win. If no, time to come up with a new strategy. In 3.5e, my players practically ignored the dice, because they would manipulate bonuses, buffs, and so forth, such that if they attempted it, they knew the dice would work 95% of the time.

In 4e, character creation is actually pretty simple. Yes, there are some tricks to it, and it is possible to make simply bad characters with certain combinations (which are easily solvable by reskinning, see next section) but in the end, if you've got DDI, you select some things from a list, and start playing. There's not a lot to tinker or pour over. My players said it was BORING when we first switched, because of this.

But they soon changed their minds, because once play started, THEN the game began. The actual combat felt like chess, with precise positioning being key and the flow of battle constantly changing. Everyone was moving all the time, they had to dash to save each other, and while plans could be made, the plan would never be the only thing that mattered-- dice were always there to mess things up or change things around.

The Fluff is what you want it to be, the Crunch is all that's written down

Because of the "simulationist" nature of 3.5e, if you wanted a specific character story and background, with a specific look and specific weapons, there were rules for that. If you wanted a Halfing Wizard wielding a Greatsword, there are rules for exactly that... you might suck, but that's what you chose.

In 4e, it just feels so much easier to reskin. My player discovered that the best builds for certain classes didn't match the story they wanted to tell. So we stuck what they wanted on top of a build that worked. No one cried foul, because there was no real simulation to screw up, just rules for what made for a fun combat at the table. One player was a necromancer in the game, but his character sheet said rogue (albeit with the ritual magic feat). Another player was a halfling knight riding a wolf, but his character sheet said goliath barbarian. It just felt so easy to reskin when the rules weren't tied so heavily to the fluff.

That's not to say that there's NO fluff attached to the rules. If you didn't want to be creative, you could still stick with what the character sheet said. Powers and abilities give a general jist of what they're doing, and so on. It's just easy to reinterpret.

DMing is easy

Here's the biggest change in my opinion, and the reason I will never DM 3.5e again, and am reluctant to go towards 5e.

In 4e, preparing for a session as a DM is the easiest thing in the world. Instead of spending literally hours, as I used to, preparing stat blocks and doing all the math for the enemies... now, I just focus on writing the story. The stat blocks for every monster in the world can fit on a single business card: http://blogofholding.com/?p=512

In my experience, when the DM is happy, players are happy. When the DM has less work to do, the player experience can be that much richer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Wow, thanks for such an in depth answer. Gives a new perspective on what the rules are actually there for, and what style of game they may lend themselves to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Heather
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 11:54

There are a lot of differences in rules and general gameplay between 3.5 and 4. The essence of the changes were to make the PCs actually feel like the heroes in stories from the 1st level. At low levels in 3.5 it always felt that you could make it through one encounter, maybe two, before you had to head back to town and rest up. You've expended your daily abilities/spells, you only heal when you've taken a full nights rest, bad rolls have caused you to burn through items that you wish you didn't have to, etc. Yet in the stories/movies the heroes charge on through encounter after encounter without significant rest or having to retreat back to town simply to heal up. That's what D&D 4 is trying to capture.

For some specific examples of differences though, take a look at the Wikipedia entry. Some of the points from the article:

  • Changes in spells and other per-encounter resourcing, giving all classes a similar number of at-will, per-encounter and per-day power types. (This applies to all classes, in contrast to previous editions where each spell was cast on a daily basis while noncasters were more likely to receive combat and noncombat bonuses than any specific powers.) Some Fighter-class powers also receive bonuses for certain types of weapons.
  • Characters at 11th level choose a "paragon path," a specialty often (but not always) based on their class, which defines some of their new powers through 20th level. At level 21, an "epic destiny" is chosen in a similar manner. In many respects, the paragon path and the epic destiny replace the prestige class system of 3.5.
  • Extending core rules to level 30 rather than level 20, bringing "Epic level" play back into the core rules (level 21+ play had last been explicitly written into core rules in the black-covered "Master" rule set of classic D&D).
  • Revision of the healing system. In addition to the healing powers available to some classes, each character has a number of daily healing surges based on their class and Constitution score. Spending a healing surge usually heals a character for 1/4 of a character's maximum hit points. Generally, characters can only spend one healing surge per encounter, however certain powers allow additional surges to be spent, and characters can spend any number of their healing surges while taking a 5 minute 'short rest' outside of combat. Finally, players recover full hit points after a (once daily) 6 hour 'extended rest'.
  • Elimination of skill points. Each skill is either trained (providing a fixed bonus on skill checks, and sometimes allowing more exotic uses for the skills) or untrained, but in either case all characters also receive a bonus to all skill rolls based on level.
  • The Dungeon Master's Guide officially supports leveling monsters down and up to allow for easier encounter design and flexibility. Many monsters have their mechanics redesigned to help differentiate them from others. Some monsters are designed to work well in group fights whereas others can be used as a solo monster versus the players' party.
  • Distances previously measured in feet are now measured in 5-foot squares. The move action 5 foot step, usually taken to avoid attacks of opportunity, was replaced with a type of movement called shifting. Shifting 1 square is a move action, but some powers can allow shifting a greater distance.

Agent-9191 and Bryant covered most of it, but I thought I would add some thoughts on the broader changes that have been most salient in my play:

  • Non-combat magic is much less of a focus, and really only exists in the form of rituals that most characters can perform, not just wizards, etc.
  • The CR system is no more, instead replaced by a system that assigns an XP reward to each monster. Encounters are built using XP budgets. I've found that this makes it easier to scale encounters to groups of varying sizes.-
  • Magic items come more frequently and sooner if you go BTB. A first level party of 5 will usually have 4 magic items by the time they reach 2nd level.-
  • Thus far the classes are in many ways more similar than in previous editions. That is, they are all constructed using the same template and have fairly similar levels of complexity. The new Essentials line is supposed to change that, however.

EDIT: The comment about non-combat focus sparked this thought I'd also like to add. The non-combat focus in the rules can swing both ways. The rules are silent about much of non-combat play, but this can expand non-combat possibilities as much as limit them. In my own 4e campaign, not having to reference rules for those non-combat situations has allowed us to play them in a more improvised way based on my "rulings" as DM rather than by the "rules." This is one of the reasons people have said that 4e is in some ways more amenable to old school play styles than 3.5.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, re: Essentials vs. 4e: penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/8/23 \$\endgroup\$
    – Numenetics
    Commented Aug 23, 2010 at 14:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Peraonally I find that non-combat anything is much less of a focus :P \$\endgroup\$
    – LeguRi
    Commented Aug 23, 2010 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree, Richard, although see my edit as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Numenetics
    Commented Aug 23, 2010 at 17:43

3.5e - More of a simulation, better for rp sanbox style gameplay. I prefer this and pathfinder

4e - more on simple fun gameplay, reaches a broader audience kind of like wow. It slightly more themepark in nature than 3.5

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Hi and welcome to the site. Would it be possible for you to add a little more detail? Maybe give some information that backs up the statements you make? \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 22:56

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