4e Rules To Enhance Your 5e Game
Dungeons & Dragons has been the most popular tabletop RPG in the world for decades, and in that time it has reinvented itself several times with complete reboots of the rules. Put a few longtime fans in a room together and they’ll launch into debate about which edition is the best faster than a feral manticore launches its tail spines into your marching order. However, no edition of Dungeons & Dragons is more maligned than 4th Edition.
Upon its release, 4th Edition (4e) represented a daring, innovative shift in the franchise’s fundamental design philosophy. The game was essentially rebuilt from the ground up. Compared to its predecessors, it had a tighter rules engine, a stronger emphasis on tactical combat, and a propensity for killing sacred cows. 4e challenged many of the core assumptions of the game—the alignment grid, the mechanics of spellcasting, the default setting and cosmology…nothing was left unchallenged.
It was a bold gambit, but for many players, it was a bridge too far—it was too different.
Yes, the 4e backlash was so strong, it even helped propel Pathfinder, a new company, into a prominent position in the market. Where 4e was practically unrecognizable as D&D in many respects, Pathfinder represented the comfort of a slightly tweaked and somewhat improved version of D&D 3.5e. And when Wizards of the Coast ultimately released 5th Edition with its lighter, more beginner-friendly rules and general return to form, 4e quickly faded into memory.
Today, I am going to introduce (or reintroduce) you to some of the best features of 4e that did not make the cut for inclusion in today’s 5e. We will examine what made them so great, and how Dungeon Masters might learn from them to improve their 5e games. Let’s start the countdown to the 4 most interesting features.
The Cool Thing about Alignment.
While the classic 3×3 alignment grid is iconic, it is also surprisingly unhelpful when it comes to actually roleplaying with characters. For example, what’s the difference between Neutral Good and Chaotic Good? From a practical standpoint, there isn’t one. They are both do-gooders who follow the rules when it suits them and flaunt them when it does not. Heck, the entire distinction between Law and Chaos is often muddy. Say you are a vigilante unconcerned with society’s rules when they stand in the way of justice—that’s Chaotic. But say you also have a fiercely held personal code of honor that you have sworn never to break—that’s Lawful. So what do you write down on your character sheet? Suddenly, what was meant to be a tool to help you better understand your character’s motivations has instead become a quandry. I bet at least 20% of our readers are already scrolling down to the comments section of the article to argue about it.
4th Edition saw that the alignment system wasn’t working optimally and distilled it from nine alignments down to just five: Lawful Good, Good, Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Unaligned. With this setup, the wonkiest alignments have been removed from the mix, and it is almost always obvious what alignment a character should be. And when it is not, you do not have to give them an alignment at all! This system boiled away a lot of excess complexity and left behind only the parts needed to support the kind of heroic adventures for which D&D was built.
How to Bring it Back
Because 5e removed almost all the mechanical ramifications of alignment, you can port 4e’s alignment system directly into your 5e games without changing anything else. You can even do it as a player by simply ignoring the other alignments. Easy peasy!
The Cool Thing about Streetwise
Streetwise was a Charisma-based skill introduced in 4e. Well, okay, technically, it first appeared in 2e with Dragon Magazine #169 as a noncombat proficiency that improved your ability to gather information and collect rumors. This itself was a take-off of the information-collecting proficiency in the Complete Thief’s Handbook, which later became the “Gather Information” skill in 3e…but who’s counting? Anyway, Streetwise is exactly what it sounds like— it is used for any situation in which your character’s street-savviness might come into play. I like to think of it like the urban counterpart to the “Survival” skill.
In 3e, few invested their precious points in the “Gather Information” skill, and those few who chose to do so were rarely rewarded. By refurbishing the skill with a broader, more evocative name, 4e turned Gather Information into an iconic rogue skill- Streetwise became a marquee skill right up there with the likes of Sleight of Hand.
How to Bring It Back
While 5e did not include Streetwise as a skill, this latest edition of the game is more flexible with the ability scores used in skill checks than in previous editions. So when a situation calls for street smarts, substitute Charisma instead of the normal ability score used for the check. The most common one that I use is the Charisma (Investigation) check to gather information by chatting, socializing, and greasing palms. Other applications might include a Charisma (Stealth) check to blend into a crowd, a Charisma (Survival) check to forage for food in an urban environment, or a Charisma (Athletics) check to chase someone through a bustling marketplace.
#2: Skill Challenges
The Cool Thing about Skill Challenges
Skill challenges were an attempt to make noncombat encounters more dynamic and cooperative. Whether they succeeded in that goal is up for debate, but I personally found them to spice up action and investigation sequences.
Sure, Grump! Here is how they work: the party is presented with a challenge. Perhaps the challenge is a complex trap, a crime scene, a portal gone haywire, a dramatic escape from a collapsing dungeon- you get the idea. To make your way through such a challenge, each player takes turns to roll the skill checks appropriate to the type of challenge. For instance, in the crime scene example one player might use Perception to meticulously search for hidden details, while another uses Heal to determine how the victim was killed, and a third uses Insight to try to guess what the motive for the crime might have been. There is fun in players determining the appropriate skill and the rationale to accompany it. In the collapsing dungeon scene, relevant skills might be “Acrobatics” to dodge falling debris, “Dungeoneering” to identify potential hazards ahead, or “Athletics” to run really fast. However, any skill could be used, as long as the player can justify why it would be relevant. The goal is to reach a target number of successes before accumulating too many failures. Once the skill challenge ends (one way or another), the party reaps the rewards of success or the consequences of failure.
You’re right Grump, but the basic structure of the skill challenge–going around the table to allow each player to contribute to the problem and tallying successes versus failures–provided a solid roadmap for resolving complex skill-based challenges.
How to Bring It Back
5e no longer has a concrete system to determine how much experience points players should gain from noncombat encounters; however, outside of all that mathy stuff, skill challenges can be ported directly into your 5e games with no other meaningful changes needed. It can take some practice to become comfortable DMing them, but once you’ve got a handle on how to keep the scene flowing, you should be in business.
The Cool Thing about Minions
You know what makes for a really cool cinematic combat? Mowing down a giant horde of disposable mooks! You know what doesn’t make for a really cool cinematic combat? Slowly slogging through those mooks’ hit points. This is where minions come in to play.
Minions are essentially normal monsters, but with only 1 hit point. Any amount of damage dealt to them is enough to take them down. A Dungeon Master can add a bunch of minions to a combat scenario, thereby padding an enemy’s mob posse, but still giving the PCs a proper fighting chance. What better to create the feel of triumphing against overwhelming odds – what great for drama!
I grant you, it is easy to understand why this mechanic was left behind in 5e. With the new “bounded accuracy” philosophy, also known as keeping the players’ defenses from skyrocketing as they level up, low-level monsters like goblins and skeletons should theoretically present a credible threat even for high-level PCs. However, I have found that, in practice, the damage output of those weak monsters is just too low for them to really matter as the intended threat; it just prolongs battles. And if DMs were to use more powerful versions, it simply inflates their hit points, which defeats the purpose.
How to Bring It Back
Mechanically, bringing minions back is simple: just reduce the monster’s hit points to 1. (For Challenge Rating purposes, you can roughly assume four minions equals one real monster of the same kind). The real shift comes in how you design your encounters to include them. And that itself is a topic for another complete article.
So there you have it! Did we miss anything? Are we actually horribly wrong, and one or more of these mechanics is in fact terrible? Or perhaps you have some tips of your own!