Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

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Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
RPG published by
Wizards of the Coast
Authors Monte Cook
Chris Perkins
First Publication 2009
Essential Books Dungeon Master's Guide
Player's Handbook
Monster Manual
Player's Handbook 2
Player's Handbook 3
Monster Manual 2
Monster Manual 3
Dungeon Master's Guide 2
Heroes of the Fallen Lands
Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
Heroes of the Feywild
Heroes of the Elemental Chaos

The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the most controversial edition of the system. Superseded by D&D 5e.


The setting of 4e is highly generic and designed to give the DM a relatively blank canvas to paint on. This default setting consists of a wild sort-of-medieval landscape in which isolated human and demihuman communities (Points of Light) struggle to survive after the fall of a greater empire. This provides an explanation for the large areas of wilderness and many ruins for monsters to hide in, and the need for adventurers as opposed to more regulated militias. The "ground" setting of 4e has become known as the Nentir Vale, after the particular region of the World used for most official non-planar adventure modules.

The Great Wheel cosmology, present in 2e and 3e since popularized by Planescape, has been replaced by a new metaphysical cosmology, known as the World Axis. This multiverse follows a more organic, mythology-based approach to the planes, dividing existence up into the World (what used to be the Prime Material), the Feywild (Land of Faerie), the Shadowfell (Land of the Dead), the Astral Sea (Realm of Gods, World of Spirit), the Elemental Chaos (Font of Creation), and Far Realm. Advice is given on how to reset the cosmology back to the Great Wheel in the Manual of the Planes.

The DMG contains an extensive section explaining the tropes of the setting and how they might be used, and also suggesting ways in which the DM can deviate from them to make the setting his own.

Perhaps the biggest difference from, say, Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms is that PoLand has very much shaken off Gygax's beloved "humanocentric" approach to setting design. Demihuman and beastfolk races aren't off lurking in dungeons or skulking around ancient ruins, but vibrant and active parts of the setting. Some of the setting's greatest empires were founded by dragonborn (Arkhosia), tieflings (Bael Turath), minotaurs (Ruul) and hobgoblins, whilst there are still thriving demihuman dominated settlements everywhere, especially if you go to other planes. The setting encourages you to play whatever you want and builds a world where you don't have to always be human.

Old-School Nods[edit]

Whilst 4e aggressively asserted its identity as a brand new edition in terms of both fluff and mechanics, a lot of older material is actually given the nod in various subtle ways, increasingly so as the edition aged and became more confident with its basic identity.

Roles stem from the AD&D archetypical party, as explained below.

The rules for Hybrid Classing, introduced in the PHB 2, are actually a surprisingly well-handled translation of the original AD&D Multiclassing rules - in comparison to 3e & 5e's multiclassing mechanics, which actually have their roots in AD&D's Dual-Classing system.

Dragon Magazine #418 actually brought back several ancient monsters that 3e had passed over; the Decapus, the Magen, the Rhagodessa, and the Thoul. It wasn't the only article to do so, either; Dungeon Magazine #195 brought back the Dusanu, for example.

Multiple factions from Planescape returned, in the form of the Mercykillers, Sensates, Ciphers and Xaositects.

The (sadly underdeveloped) Domains of Dread articles paid homage to the original "Weekend In Hell" version of Ravenloft, with even its hardcore campaign setting fans admitting that the 4e version of the Headless Horseman Darklord was better.

Multiple famous old-school dungeon modules were said to have a place within the Nentir Vale setting. Some even received 4th edition updates; the Tomb of Horrors returned once again, whilst Dungeon Magazine ran an adaptation of the complete Against The Giants module series.

Heroes of the Elemental Chaos revived the idea of the Urdunnir, a long-forgotten species of earth elemental dwarves.


Nearly every roll consists of making a single d20 roll, plus a modifier, against a target number. Saving throws have been replaced with Defenses that work like AC; the term 'Saving Throw' now refers to a 55% (DC 10) roll every turn to recover from a persistent effect.

Gameplay is divided into encounters. The GM selects monsters and traps up to a total experience value as recommended for the size of the party, and the encounter plays out as a tactical miniatures game. Non-combat encounters consist of "skill challenges", where skill checks (sometimes of multiple types) are made in sequence. XP is awarded for non-combat challenges and quests, as well as for combat encounters.

Each character can take one standard action (such as an attack), one move action, one minor action, and any number of free actions per turn. Each character also gets one immediate interrupt or immediate reaction per round, which may be used outside of the regular turn order. Generally each character will use their standard action to make use of an attack power. Characters are highly specialized as noted above, and fit into combat roles of controller (status effect and mass-attack focused), defender (durability and counter-attack focused), leader (buffing and healing focused), and striker (single target damage focused).

Characters level up from level 1 to 30; with the scope of the game changing every ten levels. At level 30 characters are expected to undergo some form of apotheosis, but the game is totally broken at this level anyway. Hey, at least this is one thing it has in common with D&D!

All-in-all, 4e has been compared to vidya like World of Warcraft and all that shit, which shouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if it wasn't oddly stiffing in a mild way. Order of the Stick summed this up perfectly in their limited edition Dragon Magazine book; the 4e team relies on spacing and managing cooldowns and per-battle abilities, while the 3.5 team just blows all their gold and spell slots on as many game-breaking potions and spells as they want before standing atop a hill and whoring the fuck out of arrows and magic traps.

4e vs. WoW[edit]

Although comparing 4e to World of Warcraft was the most common thing to do back in the day, in actuality, most of its "WoWish" aspects were derived from unspoken assumptions and core mechanical aspects of D&D going back throughout its history. The sourcebook "Wizards Presents: Races & Classes", a teaser book that covers a lot of the design process leading up to 4e, talks quite extensively about the process - for example, roles have always been part of D&D, ever since we had the Fighting Man, Magic User and Thief, it's just that actually thinking about what makes their combat role work and using that to avoid the tiers system of past editions was new to 4e.


Arguablly one of the biggest class-based mechanical changes in 4e was the introduction of Roles. Whilst often compared to World of Warcraft, this actually stems from the designer team asking themselves "Okay; the iconic D&D party is a Fighting Man, a Cleric, a Magic User and a Thief - now, why is this? What does each class give to the party?"

Roles were their answer; a simple "mission statement" of what a class aims to achieve in combat. The most popular classes are always those that have a strong mission statement, and when that statement gets wobbly, then you end up with problems - hence the infamous Tier system of 3e. Roles became a defining outline for creating classes, both for the designers and the players; a clear shorthand as to what sort of stuff this class should do in order to meaningfully contribute to a battle.

Defenders are the "tanks" of the party. A defender's job is to keep the party alive by intercepting enemies and keeping them away from the squishier members of the group. To this end, WoTC decided that a proper defender should not just be capable of taking hits, but they should also be "sticky"; they needed some way to mechanically encourage enemies to not want to get away from the defender, and to punish them if they did - what good's a fighter if the enemy just shoves past them, taking a hit in the process, and proceeds to whomp the wizard?

Strikers are the "critical hitters" of the party. Opportunist attackers, strikers specialize in dealing out lots of damage to opportune targets. They usually can't take so much damage, but they can bring down big foes quick, which is their job. These are second-line warriors, working in tandem with defenders when done well; the defender's the anvil, the striker's the hammer.

Leaders are the "supporters" of the party. They focus on aiding the other party members, be it by healing, granting extra opportunities, buffing, etc. What makes them different to the "healbot" cleric of editions past is that WoTC noted a lot of people complained that whilst clerics were useful, they were often boring. So, leaders were designed to have "double-duty" powers; abilities that would help the rest of the party and still let them get stuck into the fray.

Controllers are the "tacticals" of the party. They manipulate the overall flow of battle, specializing in winnowing out weaker foes (mowing down minions with Fireball, for example), impeding stronger foes, and in manipulating the battlefield to force enemies to make hard decisions that benefit the party.

It bears repeating that Roles do not apply outside of combat. They measure your tactical contributions/speciality in the party during a fight, and that's all. The player with a Leader type class does NOT have to be the party's meta-game leader unless the party wants them to be. It is perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged, to set up interesting contrasts between a character's Role and their personality. For example, the snooty, supremacist aristocratic elf warlord whose tactical genius can't be denied, but who is such an asshole that the party only keeps him around because he's useful in a fight, and certainly doesn't let him dictate what they should be doing outside of battle.


As everyone knows, alignment is one of D&D's oldest raging arguments for which no peace can be given, right up there alongside "do dwarf women have beards?", and more virtual and literal ink has been spilled talking about the "proper" definition of alignment and how it interacts with classes that have mandated alignment requirements. To this end, 4e made two rather deep cuts to the sacred cow:

First, classes would no longer have alignment restrictions of any kind. Bards, barbarians, and bardbarians could be lawful, monks could be chaotic, and paladins could be whatever alignment they damn well pleased without losing all their class features. This got some murmuring at first, but it eventually died down, hence its survival into next edition. After all, at least one campaign setting had similarly relaxed many of these rules, and it didn't immediately collapse from there.

Second, and much more controversially, the design team stripped out more than half of the existing alignments, collapsing together "chaotic and neutral good" into just "good," "lawful and neutral evil" into just "evil," and all three neutral alignments into "unaligned." Their arguments for these were, essentially, that the existing alignment system promoted debate and hurt feelings, and that a certain stratum of player saw these alignments as straitjackets restricting characterization rather than tools through which to understand it. And it hearkened back to the very olden days, when alignment was a spectrum instead of a grid, thus: Law - Good - Neutral - Evil - Chaos.

It should be added here that there was some justification for doing this, although it was done rather poorly. Chaotic good was always a slippery alignment to get right (you usually wound up with somebody who was much more chaotic than good, or much more good than chaotic) so collapsing it together with neutral good into a unified alignment of "cares about doing the right thing without necessarily following the rules slavishly" helps ease the problem, and if you're removing that, why not go for the poorly defined line between lawful evil and neutral evil as well, since both similarly often seemed to end up in the same pot of "evil, but has some personal rules about it?" Lawful good and chaotic evil, on the other hand, both had their own very well defined identities completely separate from generic "good" and "evil"; lawful good had specific definitions of what "good" was, which the other "good" alignments did not, while ordinary evil does evil for self-interest rather than pleasure, as chaotic evil supposedly did.

Everything might have worked better if they left in the lawful neutral and chaotic neutral alignments as "lawful" and "chaotic" (both of which had much firmer identities then neutral good and neutral evil). But, there was a complication: "chaotic neutral" is one of the most famous problematic sacred cows in the alignment system, infamous for being abused by the same sort of "LULSORANDUMB" players who give Malkavians a bad name, treated as "carte blanche" to do whatever the fuck the player wanted without actually writing "evil" on their character sheet, or otherwise used to enable anti-social, anti-group behavior behind alignment as a shield. Indeed, many suspect that this whole process was initially kicked off by a desire to remove "chaotic neutral" from the alignment system altogether for exactly this reason.

Unfortunately, this was very much a "trying to please everyone, and succeeding in pleasing no one" scenario. People who liked the old alignment system hated the new one, seeing it, fairly or unfairly (and there are some eloquent defenses of it in the PHB) as a dumbed-down, stripped down version of the old one, tearing out more than half the options and leaving nothing to really replace them. People who hated the old alignment system continued to be unhappy with this one, since it was, after all, still an alignment system, only with even fewer options. And even the people who liked it (for indeed, the fractious nature of alignment-based discussions all-but guarantees there are people who see no difference between neutral and chaotic good, or lawful and chaotic neutral) got to get blasted by the heat of the raging flame war this choice unleashed.

Worse, a setting that was somewhat-popular with the indie crowd that liked using the game to explore ideas more than actually playing it was pretty-tightly tied to the traditional alignment system, and completely-revamping the entire alignment grid from the ground up necessitated plucking it up by the roots after the last edition had instead been content to subject it to malign neglect. And a variety of traditionally-friendly monsters were revamped into evil-or-at-least-dickish ones under the internally-consistent-but-externally-dubious logic that everything in the Monster Manual should exist to get killed, and putting in monsters that don't was just wasting everyone's time, leading to accusations that the alignment system was drastically revamped primarily to justify putting "it's okay to kill this, really" alignments next to as many critters as possible.

It was ultimately undone in the transition back to 5e, along with several of the changes to the setting cosmology 4e made, and, as with many 4e design choices, leaves the impression that, perhaps, the design team's vision might have been better served by just abandoning the old D&D system of alignment altogether rather than trying to tie it to the property.

Character Generation[edit]

Chargen is simplified compared to 3rd Edition (although still time consuming). Skills are all-or-nothing, you either have training in them or you don't. Each character gains a selection of Powers which can be used at will, once per encounter, or once per day, in ascending order of power. These abilities often consist of an attack plus some special effect, such as knocking someone prone, setting them on fire, or moving yourself or your opponent.


The character races in the PHB are:

In addition to the races in the PHB, the following player races are in the MM and other sourcebooks: (all of them are "LA +0", to put things in 3.5 parlance):

The races of PHB 2. People were upset that the Gnome and Half-Orc were not in the core book.

Character races in the PHB 2 are:

Character races in the PHB 3 are:

Character races in the Eberron Player's Guide are:

Character races in the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide are:

Character races in Heroes of Shadow are:

Character races in Heroes of the Feywild are:

Character races in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting are:

Character races in the Dungeon Survival Handbook are:


Character classes in the first PHB consist of:

4e Classes table
  Leader Defender Striker Controller
Martial Warlord Fighter Ranger
Divine Cleric
Paladin Avenger Invoker
Arcane Bard
Swordmage Warlock
Primal Shaman Warden Barbarian Druid
Psionic Ardent Battlemind Monk Psion
Shadow Assassin

Classes from the second PHB are:

  • Avenger (Role: Striker, Power Source: Divine)
  • Barbarian (Role: Striker, Power Source: Primal)
  • Bard (Role: Leader, Power Source: Arcane)
  • Druid (Role: Controller, Power Source: Primal)
  • Invoker (Role: Controller, Power Source: Divine)
  • Shaman (Role: Leader, Power Source: Primal)
  • Sorcerer (Role: Striker, Power Source: Arcane)
  • Warden (Role: Defender, Power Source: Primal)

Classes added in the third PHB are:

  • Ardent (Role: Leader, ower Source: Psionic)
  • Battlemind (Role: Defender, Power Source: Psionic)
  • Monk (Role: Striker, Power Source: Psionic)
  • Psion (Role: Controller, Power Source: Psionic)
  • Runepriest (Role: Leader, Power Source: Divine)
  • Seeker (Role: Controller, Power Source: Primal)

Classes in other books include:

  • Artificer (Role: Leader, Power Source: Arcane) from the Eberron Campaign Guide
  • Assassin (Role: Striker, Power Source: Shadow) from Dragon Magazine 379
  • Swordmage (Role: Defender, Power Source: Arcane) from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide
  • Vampire (Role: Striker, Power Source: Shadow) from Heroes of Shadow

Essentials added new, simplified "subclasses" for every every class in multiple different sourcebooks:

  • Bladesinger (Base Class: Wizard, Role: Controller, Power Source: Arcane) from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting
  • Binder (Base Class: Warlock, Role: Controller, Power Source: Shadow) from Heroes of Shadow
  • Blackguard (Base Class: Paladin, Role: Striker, Power Source: Divine) from Heroes of Shadow
  • Executioner (Base Class: Assassin, Role: Striker, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of Shadow
  • Sha'ir (Base Class: Wizard, Role: Controller, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of Elemental Chaos
  • Elementalist (Base Class: Sorcerer, Role: Striker, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of Elemental Chaos
  • Mage (Base Class: Wizard, Role: Controller, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Knight (Base Class: Fighter, Role: Defender, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Warpriest (Base Class: Cleric, Role: Leader, Power Source: Divine) from Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Thief (Base Class: Rogue, Role: Striker, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Slayer (Base Class: Fighter, Role: Striker, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • Witch (Base Class: Wizard, Role: Controller, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of the Feywild
  • Protector (Base Class: Druid, Role: Controller, Power Source: Primal) from Heroes of the Feywild
  • Berserker (Base Class: Barbarian, Role: Defender and Striker, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Feywild
  • Skald (Base Class: Bard, Role: Leader, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of the Feywild
  • Hunter (Base Class: Ranger, Role: Controller, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Cavalier (Base Class: Paladin, Role: Defender, Power Source: Divine) from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Sentinel (Base Class: Druid, Role: Leader, Power Source: Prime) from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Hexblade (Base Class: Warlock, Role: Striker, Power Source: Arcane) from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms
  • Scout (Base Class: Ranger, Role: Striker, Power Source: Martial) from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms

D&D Essentials[edit]

D&D Essentials was an attempt to appeal to players more comfortable with older editions of D&D. It featured classes more similar in structure D&D 3.5, in particular simplifying martials, but still using the structure of character powers to attempt to maintain the modular nature of D&D 4e. This added even more skub to an edition already full of skub; those who weren't fans of 4e in the first place were rarely interested in it, whilst those who were fans found it annoying and derided it as "dumbing down". These fans tend to regard Essentials as being ultimately responsible for the death of 4e and its replacement with 5e.

D&D 4e on /tg/[edit]

/tg/ reacts to 4e.

Since its announcement 4e has been a source of controversy and trolling on /tg/. Its supporters consider it to have made D&D simple and fun. Its critics have numerous objections to the system and setting, often referring to it as 'shit twinkie' (with the implication that they had been expecting a certain type of D&D goodness and sorely disappointed by what was actually delivered). More cogent arguments against 4th Edition by people tend to decry 4th over some of its perceived issues (character homogenization, signed-in-blood role enforcement, etc).

This is not surprising, given that the Dungeons & Dragons fandom on /tg/ is about as fractious as the Transformers fandom on /co/ and /toy/. This was the exact same thing that had happened when 2e switched over to 3e, it's just that A: the internet gave us a much wider sounding-board than the scattered messaging boards and mail column of Dragon Magazine did, and B: /tg/ is /tg/ and hates on everything, though not nearly to the extent of say, /v/.

However, since the release of 5th edition, /tg/'s actually gone and mellowed out a lot about 4e. The most common statement on the matter is that the calculated "nostalgia-appeal" motif of 5e makes it honestly feel a little bland compared to 4e, whilst others feel free to admit to actually enjoying 4e's mechanics now that hating on it is no longer the hip thing to do. The common sentiment is that 4e would have actually been well-received if it was presented as a standalone fantasy combat simulator, but attempting to sell it as the successor to 3e doomed it to skub. While no one is blind to its flaws as a game and as a system (the combat is still widely seen as overcooked and mathy, and the D&D elements are often perceived as not really being well married to the game that was forced to use them), it does get some posthumous credit for engaging in daring experimentation rather than playing it safe, even among people who consider the ultimate result a failure.


Though /tg/ frequently jokes that they don't actually exist, 4th has some legit fans. As hugely popular as Pathfinder was and remains, 4e actually had huge sales throughout its lifespan, only starting to slow late in its lifespan. Since the release of 5th edition, the "4erries" have become both more common and more mellow, focusing mostly on just quietly talking about what they loved and occasionally needling 5e on what they see as negative choices in development - the loss of the Warlord and reworking Gnolls into basically fuzzy demon-bred zombies first and foremost.

Of course, spending more energy on hating on another game's flaws than promoting it's own virtues was arguably the original sin of 4e marketing, so... here we go again...

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]