Learning from Fourth Edition’s Brazen Overhaul for the Future of 5E D&D
Dungeons & Dragons needs an overhaul akin to the brash changes made in fourth edition D&D. Got your attention, yet? Good. My introduction into the world of D&D proper came when I began playing midway into 4E D&D. As such, I fully admit it might be my nostalgia talking but I pride myself a bit on being able to look at things I remember fondly with a critical lens and reassess my own enjoyment. (Looking at you, Pokemon anime.) While by no means perfect in its own right, 4E D&D streamlined many extremely complex and wordy concepts from third edition (grappling rules being a prime example). It also dared to reskin much of how the system was worded and refine its emphasis on elements that had fallen by the wayside a bit, most notably combat.
Some might say the renaming and rearranging were core components of why 4E D&D was so poorly received, and well… fair. I think there’s something to be said for overhauling a familiar system with the goal of making it better. The very fact they did such innovative things with the system should be lauded in itself even if it wasn’t ideal, because growth is achieved through failure and the failures of the MMO style combat-focused 4E D&D ushered in the more roleplay-heavy 5E D&D. So let’s talk about some ideas for renaming and retheming that might make the world’s greatest roleplaying game even better!
5E D&D system changes and roleplaying opportunities
How we perceive fantasy race
Recent discussions about core concepts in D&D have led to a more nuanced understanding of our hobby and many flawed or even problematic elements of it. Among these discussions is the notion that many fantasy races have problematic overtones.
In a social media driven age it’s important to remember that while D&D was born and bred in the United States many people play tabletop roleplaying games all across the globe, and it’s entirely possible some people might come from cultures they feel are reflected by nonhuman races in D&D.
While we’re not debating the nuances of race and culture in D&D today, it’s important to note that sensitivities exist. After all if all humans in the “default” setting are Western medieval themed almost exclusively, it can be very othering to say any culture that doesn’t fit this mold must be something other than human.
It’s important to acknowledge diversity exists as a staple of reality, even within a single culture. As such, the notion of ability score bonuses based on race feels archaic and out of place. I advocate for more point allocations within the initial ability score assignment and not actually giving any bonuses outside of that for character creation. An idea posed by a friend suggested instead granting ASI based on class selection.
Another thought relates to the notion of race itself. I understand the point of racial bonuses to represent physical and cultural differences of one fantasy race from another. However, this is fairly narrow in background scope. Suppose I want to play a dwarf raised among the human culture of his adopted family? Is he still just naturally gifted with axes?
For me it always felt like the point of certain aspects of racial bonus, especially proficiencies for weapons and armor, were a result of the schooling received by children of that culture. Additionally, it does feel strange there’s so little variation. As a fan of the AGE System by Green Ronin, I really like how you choose from a table of options for your character, all of which reflect aspects of your culture.
I propose creating a system of defining ancestry and culture and separate things would allow for greater nuance from the outset, with ancestry having a trait pertaining to your physicality as your species, while culture would define among what society you grew up and any bonuses, especially proficiencies, that stem from this.
Ability scores: tradition vs. function
This is where I feel most likely to get pushback, but I get very frustrated by the inequality of the ability scores. Certain scores are just better to have more of than others, regardless of class. I’m thinking very much about Dexterity.
A prime example of the reasons for my dissatisfaction lie in an analysis of the Strength score. By all rights one might interpret this as your character’s capability for damage output. However, Dexterity is sometimes used instead, and don’t even get me started on the divisions of magic and spellcasting.
Strength could really be more accurately labeled as Musculature and better represent a very narrow ability. Meanwhile, Dexterity covers things like speed, hand-eye coordination, Stealth and a variety of other things. Essentially, the ability scores — physical ability scores in particular — are not well balanced in their representations. Dexterity as a concept is so broad and all encompassing it’s no wonder it’s overpowered and everyone wants a high score.
Being an avid gamer I enjoy many RPGs and my MMORPG of choice is Guild Wars 2. One reason I really like this game is because of the way it handles combat roles and statistics. In GW2 you have four primary ability scores you focus on (with some others being hidden).
These four are Power, Precision, Toughness and Vitality. Power helps you deal damage, regardless of your class. Weapon damage? Power. Spell damage? Power. It’s all homogenized, making it easy to understand. Toughness is your resistance to incoming damage and is desirable for defenders — tanks, if you will. Precision is for crowd controllers and Vitality is for healers. Any class can fulfill any role and the secondary scores you focus on may vary by build or specialization but your core ability score will remain the same.
This causes the four ability scores to be roughly equal from a mechanical standpoint. It also makes the game very accessible and allows for more crunchiness in other aspects of the game. I advocate that D&D needs a similar system, which would require a core mechanic overhaul that might honestly leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. However, I think there would be a lot to be gained from having ability scores redesigned to feel more equal in utility. The mental scores are almost there but those physical ability scores are #struggling.
Core mechanics and beyond
What I’ve suggested isn’t perfect by any means and I know if Wizards of the Coast does anything like this, it might upset a lot of people. I don’t want people to be upset but I do think the popularity of 5E D&D has garnered a warranted degree of scrutiny, especially regarding the core mechanics of the game.
While I acknowledge the system works well and is functional I think we do a disservice to ourselves and our hobby if we don’t ask, “How can we make this better?”
From my perspective, one of the beautiful things about D&D is each edition remains playable and supported by a wealth of content creators who love that edition as much as many others and who form communities around said edition. In a way, each new edition is a whole new game and that’s a big reason why I advocate for continued change and expansion. If you dislike an edition then play the one you do like. If you’re averse to change you don’t have to! That’s one of the coolest things about this game. Just because a new edition comes out it doesn’t mean your game is ruined or obsolete and you may even be one who builds a community around your favorite version of the game.
As for my initial premise I’ll say this — there’s a small but dedicated following for 4E D&D and that’s great. While I personally think it had its flaws and was not as elegant as 5E D&D, I love 4E. I love it, not only for the nostalgia factor but also because it dared to innovate and I think it laid the groundwork for asking questions about why we play the game the way we do.
So, as discussions continue about how we can improve D&D on various fronts let’s remember it’s an evolving game for a reason and that’s part of what makes it so cool. It breeds entirely new RPG systems and gave birth to a genre of entertainment and storytelling that’s wholly different from reading, television and video games. TTRPGs are a starting point and I think we only gain from continuing to evolve them to be the best version of themselves for us.
What do you think?
What’s your favorite edition of D&D? Do you have other favorite TTRPGs besides Dungeons & Dragons? We want to hear from you in the comments! If you enjoy tinkering with the 5E D&D system and incorporating new content into your own games check out some of the titles in Nerdarchy the Store like From Hit Dice to Heroics with over 40 optional alternative uses for hit dice based on class. When you sign up for Nerdarchy the Newsletter you receive a special coupon code worth $9.99 so you could pick that up with money to spare. Find that and start exploring dozens of titles here.
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