Dragon Magazine #364

You will have noticed that I’m running a little behind on my reviews of fourth edition products. I think it’s obvious that I’m not going to go into everything in as great a depth as I currently am with Player’s Handbook 1. However, I do want to take a look at all the releases, even if I can only spend a small amount of time to write something about them.

Which brings me to Dragon magazine. I last looked at this magazine in the hey-day of second edition, when I obsessively sought out Darksun articles from any source. I largely ignored it throughout third edition, have decided that I already had about a 1000% more material than I could possibly used in the printed books I had bought, without opening another can of worms. Plus there was always the nagging opinion that Dragon didn’t really matter as much as the books; that the material inside it was somehow less worthy of attention or incorporation in the unending game.

Fourth edition has changed all that. Dragon (and Dungeon) are now electronic journals. New material is added on a weekly basis over at the Wizard’s website, which is then drawn together into a single PDF at the end of the month. All the material is scrutinised to the same level as material that finds its way into the printed books (whether you find that reassuring or laughable is up to you). All the articles expand upon things that the printed works don’t have the time or the page count for. They present new options, new powers. In short, they do matter. And I will be making full use of them.

As I type this, the magazines are free – but this will not be the case for very much longer. Even though the more technical applications of DDI (the Gaming Table, the Character Creator and so on) are not ready, Wizards will start charging for their e-journals very soon. My guess is that they will start charging for content from #368. If you pony up the cash for a whole year’s subscription then it’ll cost $4.95 per month. That’s £2.50 at the current exchange rate. Considering both Dragon and Dungeon magazines were retailing at about £7.00 each in the UK when they printed, I consider this something of a bargain.

What I would like you all to realise is that because Dragon and Dungeon aren’t working toward a specific page count, they can afford to be slightly more indulgent regarding both the material that appears, and the length of time they spend on it. This has led to the articles in the magazines being really rather good. I’ve been impressed with almost everything I’ve read so far, which is saying a lot considering the miserable old curmudgeon that I have become.

So, let’s look at issue #364. I won’t dwell on everything in insane detail, just the highlights. Although, in this issue of Dragon there are a lot of highlights:

Yeenoghu, Demon Prince of Gnolls

Always good to start with a tongue-twister. Yeenoghu has a pretty impressive pedigree in D&D. He’s been around for a long time, and has popped up in every incarnation of the game. His power and importance has waxed and waned, and there’s a nice section at the beginning of the article on the history of Yeenoghu.

Fourth edition views gods, demon lords and archdevils as sets of stats for PCs to carve into. After all, Orcus has a stat block in the new Monster Manual. He is intended to be a credible opponent for a party of five 30th level PCs. Yeenoghu isn’t quite as powerful as Orcus. The hyena-headed god is listed as 28th level, and his Aspect (what we might have called an avatar in second edition) is 22nd level. Still fairly respectable. Although I don’t really see the need for either his stats or his combat tactics, I suppose I’ll forgive D&D this little extravagance.

Once we’re past the number crunching there’s a very nice and informative article of Yeenoghu’s primary minions, his ambitions, his cult and his extraplanar realm. There are even instructions on how servants of Yeenoghu sacrifice their victims. Marvellous! This is just the sort of detail I want to see. The rest of the article is stat-light, and information-heavy. There’s enough material to see me through a good sized campaign.

This is exactly the sort of material that we should have for Orcus, but this runs for twelve pages and there is no way that one entry could command that much space in a fourth edition monster manual. This is why Dragon magazine serves such an exalted purpose. If I want to use clerics or servants of Yeenoghu then I now know exactly where to come for their goals and their practices. Nicely done.

Vor Kragal, City of Ash

Vor Kragal was once a tiefling city, ruined in their long war against the dragonborn. Even if you don’t subscribe to that history (and I don’t) this article still provides a great deal of food for thought. The article describes the city at the height of its power, and delves into the wasted ruin that it has become. There are some very nice ideas here.

I won’t go into too much detail, as there is much of Vor Kragal that is worth pillaging for Iourn. I will say that this article is good example of the things the new Dragon magazine is trying to achieve. It takes something from the 4e game that is a generally unknown quantity, in this case the new tiefling race, and fleshes it out in rich and satisfying fashion. There are few game mechanics here (a couple of new artefacts, though), it’s all about the history and the hooks for adventure.

Playing Warforged

The jewel in the crown of Dragon #364? It has been said, often by me, that we don’t have enough races or classes to choose from in fourth edition. Presented over ten pages, are all the rules you need for playing a warforged PC in fourth edition. There is a detailed description of the race, lists of racial feats for the heroic, paragon and epic tiers (which is one up on any race from PHB1), a detailed look at the warforged origins, racial paragon paths and a whole host of new equipment designed for your warforged PC.

For those of you not in the know, the warforged is a product of the Eberron campaign setting. They are living constructs – magical androids if you will. They were built to fight in a great war, but somehow gained sentience. On Eberron they have only been emancipated from enforced servitude in the last human generation. They are new race, one that is extremely curious about the wholly alien world of the living. They cannot reproduce, they can only experience and they live in fear of an end to that experience.

The background history of the race presented in Dragon is a ‘genericised’ version of the Eberron history, edited and adapted to fit into the assumed setting. This seeks to point out how easy it is to use warforged in most settings, and they will certainly be making an appearance on Iourn very soon. I have resisted the tempatation to use them up until now.

In third edition, the warforged suffered from having an enormous laundry list of abilities and resistances that stemmed from their nature as semi-constructs. They were immune to poison and mind-affecting magic to name but two. Fourth edition levels the playing field between the warforged and other races. Few races have that level of immunity any more, and the 4e warforged succeeds in retaining the flavour of the original without sacrifcing what makes the race unique.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. As I never saw a third edition warforged in play, I have nothing but the naked stats to compare the two. Maybe this is for the best. The warforged are a very interesting race, and I can think of some of my players that were born to play warforged. Of maybe they were just born warforged, which would actually explain a good many things come to think about it.

The availability of another player character race is something to celebrate. I suspect the warforged will eventually appear in the Eberron Player’s Handbook – but as that isn’t out until at least July 2009 I think we should be glad to have the stats for it now. Of course, the warforged did appear as one of the playable races from the back of the Monster Manual but it was in nothing approaching this depth. The text of the racial power has also been changed between the two sources. I would favour the Dragon one, given the choice.

Alchemical Imbalance

But I save the best until last. What, the best – better than the article on the Warforged? You betcha. Alchemical Imbalance is a wonderful article by Bruce Cordell and Chris Sims about a tribe of goblins who are using alchemy and alchemically changed allies to conquer the world. Well, that’s their ultimate goal – they’re starting small.

I won’t go into too much detail about the content as I love it too much not to use it, but I will mention the presentation and approach of the article. This text introduces numerous new monsters and aberrations, but doesn’t bother to give them stats, it merely gives the GM a nice long list of monsters and advice on now to modify their appearances but keep their abilities and role intact. I’ve used this tactic as a GM for a while: take the stats from monster, change the description and the players suddenly don’t have a clue what they’re fighting. It’s good advice, and very timely at the beginning of a new edition where there simply isn’t the weath of resources to draw upon.

Secondly, and importantly the mini-adventure that accompanies the description of the tribe can be completed from start to finish without once engaging in combat. Certainly it’s a dangerous adventure, but the PCs don’t have to fight. After a succession of terrible adventures that would have seemed hackneyed 20 years ago, it’s such a relief to see something more sophisticated.

And the rest…

Well, there’s a suitably creepy Eberron article, some illusion spells for wizards (these were largely absent from PHB1) and even an article set in the Darksun campaign setting. This bodes well for Darksun being the campaign setting released in 2010. I was looking forward to the article, but it was just a few pages on some killer Athasian cacti. Useful, but I wanted more.

Anyway, that is Dragon #364. Much better than anything WIzards has so far released for 4e in a print. You’d be crazy not to download these issues while they’re still free.

D&D Character Record Sheets

Okay. I don’t know why I bought this either.

In my defence, it was very cheap over at The Book Depository, and I thought that it might present a slightly more intelligable version of the 4e character sheet. Sadly it didn’t, and I’m left with little more than a cardboard folder and some pretty art.

So what do you get for your £6.99 (RRP)? The cover is detachable and completely superfluous – it’s just there to protect the product within. It serves the same purpose as the covers of the old Planescape modules. Within the cover is a folder that sports a larger version of the cover art, although the image is inverted. And within the folder…

The character sheet is exactly the same as the one in the back of the PHB1, and the one you can download from the Wizards website. There are two copies of this sheet in portrait format, and two copies of it in landscape. The sheets are indentical, the tables on the landscape version have been juggled about a bit to fit the new orientation. Quite why they thought the world was crying out for a landscape version of a generally crappy character sheet is anyone’s guess.

Why is the sheet crappy? Well, I suppose that this review is as good a place as any to vent my opinion. There are parts of the sheet where the maths become hidden for the sake of expediency. For example, when recording your AC you note down all the modifiers that apply to your armour class to the left of the final figure. The bonus from your armour and the bonus from your ability score have the same box. It’s only a small thing but it annoys me. I’m playing a ranger wearing leather armour. I apply both my dex bonus and my armour bonus to my final armour class total. I want to be able to see that on the sheet. It’s the same with skills. Why is “Ability Modifier” and “Half Your Level” the same box? Why are you expected to add them together? It can only make it harder to work out if you have applied the correct bonus for your level to the skill. Isn’t the whole point of exploding out the modifiers so you can see at a glance where everything comes from?

Over on the right of the sheet, the Attack Workspace, Damage Workspace and Basic Attacks sections are utterly baffling. Six people sit down to character generation. Between us we have about ten higher degrees including a doctorate, and none of us could work out what we were supposed to put in those boxes. Nuff said there, I think.

Let’s look at the reverse of the sheet now. Exactly how much space is taken up to record magic items? Are you ever going to need that much space, really? There’s no attempt to give you enough space to record what the item does, so all that space is just to list the things. Twenty-five magic items? Each? Really? I know I’m pretty reluctant to hand out magic items, but is anyone that generous?

Then you have six lines for your personality, five lines for mannerisms and appearance, four lines for your character background(!), and a mighty twelve lines for session and campaign notes. It’s a woefully inadequate space for any of those topics, so why waste the space on the character sheet at all?

Anyway –

In addition to the character sheets, we have a set of eight perforated cards that you can divide into sixty-four power cards. Ever since the earliest known stages of official play testing it has been mooted that fourth edition D&D plays quite well with cards. You have one card for each power you have. The card has a description of what the power does written on it (so no more flipping through the PHB to find a ruling), and you can just turn the card face down on the table when you have used the power, so you don’t forget you’ve used the power.

I’m not going to poo-poo this idea out of hand. I can see how this would be an advantage in some games. What we have here are eight at-will power cards, twelve encounter power cards, twelve daily power cards, sixteen utility power cards and sixteen magic item cards. There are spaces for you to fill in the details of your own powers. I know that I will never use these, and for those of you that might, be warned that Wizards are bringing out official printed decks of all the powers for all the classes starting in April next year.

All things considered this a bit of a rum purchase for me. 100% useless on every front. Still, the art is quite pretty.

Dungeon Master’s Screen

Okay, I have a mountain of background material to write for my upcoming game, and two reviews to post on Spiderfan, so this is going to be brief. I received the new 4e Dungeon Master’s Screen in the post this morning, and I felt moved to say something about it.

It’s awesome!

There, glad I got that off my chest. You see, I normally buy the official GM’s screens because I’m a bit of a completest. I have the original 3.0 screen, the 3.5 version that came with Dragon Magazine, the 3.5 “deluxe” version as well as one for the Forgotten Realms and one for the Eberron settings. I’m used all the screens as a barrier to conceal my wild cheating, but I’ve seldom read the stuff that was written on them.

I feel that this screen will be something different. There’s some truly useful stuff plastered on the inside of this screen, notably a full list of all the conditions from PHB1 p277. That is really going to speed up play. Plus the Experience Point Rewards, and Damage by Level tables makes it much easier to come up with encounters on the fly without referring back to the PHB or the DMG. I whole-heartedly approve – but that’s not the reason I love this screen.

There’s a beautiful picture on the player’s side, a dark and moody dungeon filled with all manner of iconic nasties; and it’s given the widescreen treatment thanks to the landscape printing of the screen. But that’s not the reason I love this screen.

I love it because it’s thick. We’re talking thick-as-a-Scrabble-board thick. Every GM’s screen I’ve had up to now has just been a laminated piece of cardboard, this is more… so much more. I set this screen up on a table it’s not going to snap back to its original shape, folding itself neatly up, spilling my dice on the floor and revealing my notes to the players. That’s why it’s awesome. Well done Wizards of the Coast.

Right, I’m off to look at my new Dungeon Master’s Screen some more. Once I get a couple of projects out of the way, I’ll be adding a great deal more to this blog, so bear with me a little while longer. In the meantime, I’ve extended the list of 4e releases all the way out to August 2009.

Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Five)

I’m sorry that I keep bouncing all around PHB1 like this. I will get to chapter four and the character classes soon, I promise. However, it seems more pressing for me to talk about skills. Having played five sessions of fourth edition at this point, I’ve come to the conclusion that the skills system really doesn’t work – or at least it doesn’t work in the way that I want it to. They have neither the versatility or the verisimilitude that I require. I’m not alone in thinking this, or in thinking that something needs to be.

Which is a bit of a shame, really. I had hoped that I could begin a fourth edition campaign without tweaking the skills system. I knew that it would probably be something I looked at in due course, but I thought that maybe I could start an ongoing campaign with the skills as they were written and not meddle with things. I really can’t do that.

Character generation for the new campaign is still scheduled for 12 August (even though I don’t seem to be able to get the background written and posted to the PCs with any degree of speed). I don’t want to generate PCs with the skills system as it is written – I want to use my own. I want to use a system that is very much like the system used in third edition.

But, before I get into the domain of house rules let’s do the review thing, and look at chapter five in all its gruesome glory.

Skills Overview

In third edition there were thirty-six skills. That is not counting the Knowledge, Craft, Profession and Perform where you had to choose a specialism. In fourth edition, there are seventeen skills and no chance of specialisation. Each skill is intentionally broad and can be used for a variety of different tasks.

Unlike third edition, or other games such as Runequest or Call of Cthulhu, fourth edition doesn’t try to create a skill list that encompasses every possible skill that exists in real life. The fourth edition skill list is a tight list, and only contains those skills that PCs would find useful in their adventures. PCs don’t weave baskets for a living so there’s no basketweaving skill.

There seems to be a move among players of both editions toward a smaller skill list. Even the people behind the Pathfinder roleplaying game are into reducing the number of skill choices for players. Why are they doing this? It’s all a question of game balance. The designers want all skills to be equal. In third edition, you could spend your skill points on Craft (basketweaving), but in doing so you were unable to spend your points on Spot, or Spellcraft or Climb. The craft skills were not worth as much as skills that received continual use during the game.

Part of me can see why this decision was made. Part of me can see if you all you do is run dungeons or adventures like Keep on the Shadowfell, then you wouldn’t need or want ‘superfluous’ skills. Part of me can see that, but it’s not the part of me that runs roleplaying games. For goodness sake, step back a moment and look at the big picture.

The skills system is there to give the players options. You could say (and it has been said) that you don’t need rules to know how good a farrier the local blacksmith is, the GM just decides. Well, yes that is true – but what happens when the PC wants to be a blacksmith? Why limit what players? Table top roleplaying games have an unassailable advantage over the so-called roleplaying games you can buy for consoles and computers: you can do absolutely anything. If you want a paladin whose more skilled at being a florist than an athlete then you should be able to have one. The player deserves that choice.

Another problem with reducing the skills list is that many skills get combined together. Sometimes this makes some sense: Listen and Spot are combined into Perception, Hide and Sneak are combined into Stealth. I can still see an argument for them being different skills, but I can also see a strong case for Perception and Stealth in the game. If I’m being generous, I can get behind that change. However, there are far more examples of the reduced list creating absurd synergies.

An example: in fourth edition there is a new skill called Athletics. Climb, Jump and Swim don’t exist as individual skills – only athletics. So everyone who can swim is also a good climber? Nonsense. There’s no Ride skill either, and no explanation of which skill it would fall under. Athletics is as good a fit as any. So you make an Athletics check to ride a horse. Again, nonsense. How would this work in any sane games system? A character leaps on a horse and wants to gallop after the bad guy. He doesn’t have the Ride skill, but the GM says: “That’s okay. Make a Swim check instead.” What planet are these people living on?

The 4e Skill List

You can tell I’m against this change can’t you? Anyway, I’m not going to dwell on all the skills in any great depth. Those that have mechanics are functionally similar to how they were in third edition. There are some notable changes that I will get onto in a minute. In the meantime, the best way to present the changes are in table form. I’ve included a column for the current house rules so those players of the Iourn game can see how I diverged from the official third edition skill list.

The skill list is in order of the third edition skill, so look up that skill in the leftmost column. And I’m sorry, but I still can’t get WordPress to left-align each cell.

Third Edition 3e Houserule Fourth Edition
Appraise Appraise History
Autohypnosis Autohypnosis No equivalent
Balance Balance Acrobatics
Bluff Bluff Bluff
Climb Climb Athletics
Concentration Concentration No equivalent
Control Shape Control Shape No equivalent
Craft (choose) Craft (choose) No equivalent
Decipher Script Decipher Script No equivalent
Diplomacy Diplomacy Diplomacy
Disable Device Disable Device Thievery
Disguise Disguise Bluff
No equivalent No equivalent Endurance
Escape Artist Escape Artist Acrobatics or Athletics
Forgery Forgery Bluff
Gather Information Gather Information Streetwise
Handle Animal Handle Animal Nature
Heal Heal Heal
Hide Hide Stealth
Iaijutsu Focus Iaijutsu Focus No equivalent
Intimidate Intimidate Intimidate
Jump Jump Athletics
Knowledge (Arcana) Knowledge (Arcana) Arcana
Knowledge (Arcana) Knowledge (Dragons) Nature
Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) History
Knowledge (Dungeoneering) Knowledge (Underdark) Dungeoneering
Knowledge (Geography) Knowledge (Geography) Nature, History
Knowledge (History) Knowledge (History) History
Knowledge (Local) Knowledge (Local) Streetwise
Knowledge (Nature) Knowledge (Nature) Nature
Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) History
Knowledge (Psionics) Knowledge (Psionics) Arcana
Knowledge (Religion) Knowledge (Religion) Religion
Knowledge (Religion) Knowledge (Undead) Religion
Knowledge (The Planes) Knowledge (The Planes) Folded into other ‘knowledge’ skills
Knowledge (any other) Knowledge (any other) No equivalent
Listen Listen Perception
Lucid Dreaming Lucid Dreaming No equivalent
Move Silently Move Silently Stealth
Open Lock Open Lock Thievery
Perform (choose) Perform (choose) No equivalent
Profession (choose) Profession (choose) No equivalent
Psicraft Spellcraft Arcana
Ride Ride Nature or Athletics
Search Search Perception
Sense Motive Sense Motive Insight
Sleight of Hand Sleight of Hand Thievery
Speak Language Read/Write Script See feats
Speak Language Speak Language See feats
Spellcraft Spellcraft Arcana
Spot Spot Perception
Survival Survival Dungeoneering, Nature
Swim Swim Athletics
Tumble Tumble Acrobatics
Use Magic Device Use Magic Device No equivalent
Use Psionic Device Use Magic Device No equivalent
Use Rope Use Rope Athletics, Acrobatics

The Changes

There are a few skills that merit explanation regardless of whether the 4e skill system was adopted or not. These are the ones that I think you, as players, will need to make a note of.

Concentration (3e): I’ve spoken about this before, but Concentration is not a skill in fourth edition. Spellcasters don’t need to make concentration checks to get spells off in stressful conditions. In fact there aren’t really any ways that you can disrupt a spell caster or prevent them from casting a spell. I’m going to look at this again when I get onto talking about the powers themselves.

Endurance (4e): This is a new skill entirely. You use endurance if you want to hold your breath, go without food or water, or resist climatic effects. It’s actually more useful than you would credit. Particularly if you don’t want to drown.

Knowledge – The Planes (3e): This has been folded into the various ‘knowledge’ type skills. So Religion tells you about the Shadowfell, Arcana about the Astral Sea, Dungeoneering about the Far Realm, Nature about the Feywild and so on. These skills also absorb the monster lore aspects of knowledge skills in third edition.

Lucid Dreaming (3e): Not surprising that this wasn’t supported in PHB1. However, it is important to the ongoing League of Light campaign. I will look at Lucid Dreaming in more depth, but I suspect that fourth edition will demand that it is changed into a suite of powers, a paragon path or that Lucid Dreamer becomes a character class in its own right.

The Mechanics of Skills

The skills system has also changed in fourth edition. There are no longer any skill ranks, instead your skills are based on your class and your level. Every character has a base chance of using any of the seventeen skills at half his level (rounded down) + the relevant attribute modifier. So a 20th level wizard with a strength of 12 still has a Climb skill of +11 without putting any time or training into it.

At character generation you can select a limited number of skills for your character from a prescribed list. This list is dependent upon your class. The skills you choose become trained skills. You have a +5 bonus to all trained skills.

Obviously there are other things that further modify your skill check – like equipment, magic items, other characters or powers – but by and large this is as complicated as the system gets. There are no complicated synergy bonuses in fourth edition. There are too few skills to make it worthwhile.

Why have they done this? Well, partially it is to make the game quicker and easier. Ability checks are essentially the same as untrained skill checks, so its very easy for the GM to throw together the skills for an adversary. Character generation is also much quicker without the fiddlesome nature of skill ranks. There is also the matter of how the game actually works.

In third edition you could spend your many skill ranks as you chose – a few points here, a few points there. You could have a very broad range of skills. However, the game did not support this choice very well. If you spent your skill ranks on being competent at many skills, you quickly found (as your character rose in level) that you went from being competent to mediocre to generally crap at everything. Despite appearances, the third edition system demanded that you concentrate on a few skills and max them out (your level +3 in skill ranks) every level. If you didn’t, you would find the DCs associated with those skills would soon outstrip your ability to roll them.

Of course, that assumes that the player and the GM wanted to play the game that way. Fourth edition, doesn’t give you a choice. So, let’s be clear what the fourth edition mechanics do to the skills system:

  • You cannot dabble in a number of skills. You are equally good at all the skills you are not exceptional in.
  • You can’t actually be bad at anything. Having a character that simply can’t swim, or can’t bluff is just not an option in the game any more.
  • Because of the small base of skills, a normal party of six PC is likely to be skilled in everything.

In Conclusion

The fourth edition skills system is not fit for purpose. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s true. I understand why the changes have been made, and I appreciate that the official rules will be sufficient for some campaigns, but they’re not good enough for me. I want a much broader skills base, I want the PCs to be able to dabble in a number of skills (even if it isn’t an optimal choice) and I want them to be able to be bad at something. I want there to be things that they can’t do.

House rules on the way…

Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Nine)

Those reading this review on the day its posted, will notice that my review of the PHB1 has leapt from chapter three to chapter nine. Do not fear, I will go back and look at the other chapters in due course. However, I really want to get on to a nice juicy discussion about the rules, and the changes I feel I need to make to the rules to run the game sans miniatures. Before I do that, we all need to know where we stand in the new edition. Which leads us inevitably to chapter nine…


“The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Getting Shot” as Tales from the Floating Vagabond once put it. Let’s not delude ourselves, the D&D rules are built around combat and always have been. Out of combat activities have enjoyed a little more time in the sun in third and fourth editions, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the sheer number of options that cater for a player’s more violent and murderous urges.

Combat in fourth edition is very similar to combat in third, but it’s just different enough to be confusing in play. I’ll go through the chapter and point out what has changed and what has not, and hopefully set the scene for discussions to come.

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that the first page of the combat chapter has a section on “visualising the combat”, which announces some very telling (and extremely annoying) conceits of the new edition. Here they are for your edification:

  1. Position is everything: you need to know exactly where you and everyone else is standing in order to make use of various abilities, feats, opportunity actions and more.
  2. Combat is complex… so visual aids are a must.
  3. Terrain matters. So it’s important to realise what areas of the combat have difficult terrain, which don’t, which are zones etc.
  4. Imagination needs help. You can’t rely on a bunch of players to be visualising the same thing no matter how well the GM describes it, so you need a common frame of reference. You need… a battle grid!

Yes, a battle grid. Combat isn’t combat without a battle grid! Each square represents five feet in the real world, so a grid eight squares by ten squares works for most combats. You can use beads or coins to represent where everyone is, but you really want to use miniatures – they’re the most fun you can have in a role playing game!

Fortunately, I am not a violent man. I am the master of my rage. I am able to smile (though clenched teeth) and tell you all how happy I am that those players who like using miniatures in their roleplayinggames have the means, the rules and the resources to do so. I’m very pleased for them. I am a little put out that I have to overhaul the entire combat chapter, as well as numerous powers, feats, items, and skills if I want to run 4e D&D without using miniatures. This is my choice, and I am at peace with that. Just don’t bring it up in conversation.

The Combat Round

The combat rounds lasts six seconds (as it did in third edition). In those six seconds, each character has a turn. In this turn, the character can perform a finite number of actions as dictated by the rules -we will get to those actions in a moment. Generally, each combat follows a pre-established pattern, that will be familiar to many of you.

  1. Determine Surprise. If one side of a battle is initially unnoticed by the other then there will be a Surprise Round before the main combat. Skill checks (notably Perception or Insight) are used to determine surprise. Those characters who are surprised cannot act in the surprise round. They also give their attackers combat advantage. They may take no actions. Those who are not surprised may take a Standard Action, a Move Action or a Minor Action (but not all three). They may also take Free actions. They may not spend Action Points. More on all those options below.
  2. Roll Initiative. Everyone rolls initiative to see when they act. Remember those who are surprised won’t act until after the surprise round. Initiative is your Dexterity modifier + half your level + any other modifiers (like the Improved Initiative feat, for example).
  3. Take surprise round actions. Everyone who can act, does so in order of their initiative – remembering that they have limited actions.
  4. Take turns. After the surprise round, Round One begins and everyone can act. In third edition there was a condition called Flat Footed that applied to all characters before they first acted in a combat. So you could fail to notice your opponent and be flat footed for the surprise round, and then roll a low initiative and be flat footed when the opponent attacked again in round one. That has gone in fourth edition. If you are surprised, you don’t act in the surprise round and you give all your opponents combat advantage (see below). Then you act normally from round one onwards. There are no further complications.

Action Types

Now, pay attention: this is important. Third edition veterans will remember different types of action. In version 3.5 there were standard actions and move actions. You could attack witha standard action, and move with a move action. But the move action could be used for any number of other things. You could drop your standard action for a second move action (but not vice versa). You could combine your standard action and your move action into a full round action – which was essential for characters with more than one attack per round. There were also swift actions, quickened actions (which were effectively the same thing), immediate actions, free actions and even things that were not an action. If you’ve played version 3.0 you may remember partial actions and move-equivalent actions too.

Forget all you know of third edition. Fourth edition uses the same terminology, but the terms mean subtly different things. It is just as complex as third edition, but it’s complex in a different way. It may take a little getting used to. Here are the three core actions that you can take every time you have a turn. You may take them in any order.

Standard Action: This is the core of any combat. Attacking with a weapon, using a power (which could well be a spell) or a complex combat manoeuvre (such as Charge!) are standard actions. Some powers may not be standard actions, so be sure to check the power description, but most of them are.

Move Action: In fourth edition you take a move action to move. There is no such things as a move-equivalent action. The move action is spend moving – be it walking, crawling, running or shifting (more on shifting later). By having a dedicated action each round that you use for moving it’s much easier for characters to be mobile during combat. There’s more moving about, so combats take place over a wider area. This is a deliberate design technique to tie the combat closer to a tactical miniatures game. We’ll explore how well movement without miniatures works later on.

Minor Action: These are described as “enabling action” – they’re simple actions that can lead to much more exciting actions. So sheathing an item, drawing a weapon, opening a door are all minor actions. Some powers are minor actions too.

Free Actions: As in third edition the only limit to the number of free actions you can take in a round is the GM’s common sense. Free actions normally happen on your turn and not someone else’s. Examples would include dropping an item, releasing a grabbed opponent and speaking a few sentences. This is extremely important for taunting the bad guy.

So, on your turn you can take all of the actions above. As in third edition, you can trade down an action. So you can take a Move action instead of a Standard action, or a Minor action instead of a Standard or a Move action. You couldn’t swap out a standard action for a move, or a move for minor. This boils down to five choices:

  1. Standard, Move, Minor
  2. Standard, Minor, Minor
  3. Move, Move, Minor
  4. Move, Minor, Minor
  5. Minor, Minor, Minor

So you could draw your sword (minor action), move to engage the enemy (move action) and hit the enemy with a shiny martial exploit (standard action) all in one round. Or you could spend the same amount of time opening three doors. Eveyoneclear with that?

The above are just the actions you can take on your own turn. In fourth edition, there are a whole host of options you can take on someone else’s turn. These actions are called Triggered Actions because something else has to happen for you to get to use one of these actions. Excited?

Opportunity Action: If an enemy lets its guard down then you might be able to take an opportunity action. The most common of these are opportunity attacks – which are a bit like the third edition Attacks of Opportunity but less heavy on the rules. There’s a big section on Opportunity Attacks coming up in this post. Quick preview: I hate them. You can take as many opportunity actions in a round as you like, but you can only take one on each opponent’s turn – which means you cannot make multiple opportunity attacks against the same target. In third edition, the only way you could take more than one opportunity attacks in one round at all was to have the Combat Reflexes feat, so there has been a relaxation of the rules in this regard. The text in the 4e PHB states that an opportunity action “interrupts” the triggering action. This doesn’t mean it invalidates the triggering action. If a wizard provokes an opportunity attack by casting a spell, attacking him doesn’t stop him from casting the spell. It means that the opportunity action (an attack in this example) is resolved before the action that triggered it. This is a fundamental shift from third edition, which I will discuss at greater length soon.

Immediate Interrupt:This is an action that let’s you jump in and take an action on an opponent’s turn. Your action happens before the opponent’s action. For example, you might have a doody power than allows you to shift out of reach if an opponent attacks you. The foe brings up his sword to strike you, you activate the power as an immediate interrupt and suddenly you’re out of reach of his sword and the attack fails. Just like opportunity actions, an immediate interrupt doesn’t prevent the triggering action from taking place – it just happens before it. So what’s the difference between an opportunity action and an immediate action? You can only take one immediate action (be it an immediate interrupt or an immediate reaction) in one round. Are we clear on that?

Immediate Reaction:This is an action you can take on an opponent’s turn, but you take it in response to something that has already happened. It is a reaction. The clue is in the name. For example, you might have a second doody power that alllows you to trigger a healing surge if you are damaged by a fire spell. You get hit by the spell, take the damage, and then you usethe power as an immediate reaction. You can’t take both an immediate interrupt and an immediate reaction in the same round. One immediate action is all you get. Don’t get greedy on me.

Taking Your Turn

You now have a list of all the actions you can take in combat. What more is there to say about taking your turn? Well, fourth edition formalises the turn you take in a combat round. It divides each turn into three parts – the start of your turn, your turn proper, and the end of your turn. It introduces a consistant procedure to manage all those little housekeeping measures that are often forgotten.

To a degree this changes the turn into something more akin to a turn in a board game, or a collectible card game. I don’t think that this is such a bad thing because there are so many things to keep track of in D&D (of any edition) that anything that makes it easier for the players to stay on top of their characters is fine by me.

So, when it comes to your turn in a combat round, these are the steps you take:

Start of Your Turn: You take no actions at this stage. If you are taking ongoing damage from any source then you lose hit points now. Likewise, if you have regeneration then you gain hit points now. If there are any other effects in play on your character, then you face the music and take their effects now at the beginning of your turn. Some of your own effects and powers may automatically end at the “beginning of your turn”, if they do then they stop now.

The Turn Proper: This is where you take your actions. One standard, one move and one minor – or any combination of actions as listed above. You may also spend an action point at any stage of this phase of your turn. It’s possible that other characters take immediate or opportunity actions against you during this part of your turn as well.

End of Your Turn: You take no actions at this stage. If you are suffering from any conditions that allow you to make a saving throw once per round, then you make that saving throw now. Check the actions you have spent. Some powers can be sustained as long as you spent an action during your turn proper doing so. If you didn’t then those powers end now. Some effects automatically end at the “end of your turn”. They stop now, too.

This may look horrific to all you Cthulhu GMsout there, but this is no more complicated than third edition. I think that it’s really helpful to formalise where everything happens in a combat round. If could be really important to know at what point in a round your regeneration kicks in, for example. It might take a little while for players to get used to the book-keeping, but after a few sessions it should become second nature.

I should point out that if you delay your turn to act later in the round, then a fair amount of the housekeeping is undertaken at your original initiative point. You can’t extend any effect by simply delaying until the end of the round. I won’t bother to explain what the rules are, just take it from me that they exist.

The important thing is that none of the rules for the combat round or actions actually require you to use miniatures, so these rules can stay completely intact. At least for the time being.

Attacks and Defences

This lengthy part of the combat chapter is all about making attacks and damaging your foes. There are various types of attacks and these are covered in some depth. This section doesn’t include Actions in Combat – what were called Special Attacks in third edition. These are actions like grapple, overrun, bull’s rush and so on. I’ll get to those a little later. This is just the basics.

Attacking is the same as third edition. Pick an attack, pick a target, roll to hit, if the roll is higher than the defence you apply damage. In fourth edition this principle is expanded. Everyone rolls to hit. There are no such things as automatic hits any more – the wizard is rolling to hit with his magic missile and with his fireball. And if he’s casting fireball then he’s rolling to hit everyone within the area of effect.

Attack rolls are set at half your level + a related attribute modifier + any other modifiers. So the wizard attacking witha fireball would start with half his level, add his Intelligence modifier and perhaps a bonus to hit granted by focusing the fireball through his wand. He would roll a d20, add all the relevent numbers and compare the result to the targets’ Reflex Defence.

There are four general attack types in fourth edition. Some of them are self explanatory, others take a little more exposition. Let’s have a look at them:

Mêlée Attack:An attack (usually with a weapon) that targets a single enemy within your mêlée reach. Most characters will have a reach of 1 square (five feet), so you can hit anything that is adjacent to you. Some weapons (like polearms) allow you to make a mêlée attack beyond your normal reach. Unlike in third edition, a Reach weapon can be used to attack anyone within reach – so a polearm is just as effective at five feet as it is at ten feet. Note that in fourthedition, attacking with two weapons has completely changed. See the section below on multiple attacks.

Ranged Attack: A strike against a distant target within range of the weapon. Ranged attacks normally target single targets. Powers may set a specific range, such as “Ranged 5” (5 squares = 25 feet) or “Ranged Sight” meaning if you can see it, you can hit it. Ranged weapons such as crossbows and longbows have two ranges: e.g. 20/40 for a longbow. The first figure is normal range, and the second is maximum range. If a target is beyond normal range, but within maximum range then you take a -2 penalty to hit. That’s it, just a -2 penalty. There’s none of this -2 per range increment as there was in third edition. If the target is further away than long range then you cannot even attempt to hit it.

Close Attack:A closeattack originates from you and affects all foes within a certain range. This can either be in the form of a Blast (which is like a cone was in third edition, affecting all foes in a particular direction), or a Burst which attacks all foes in a certain radius of you. Magical powers and martial explots can bothbe closeattacks. One can imagine a martial close attack that ressemblesthe third edition feat, Whirlwind Attack, for example. You must make an different attack roll for every enemy that could be caught in the area of effect, but only one damage roll. Normally, you can choosenot to hit your friends but that isn’t always an option. For a close attack to work you must have Line of Effect (see below).

Area Attack: In an area attack you pick a certain spot within range of the power. That spot becomes the centre of the area attack. The attack is either a burst (all targets in a certain radius) or a wall. You must have line of effect for an area attack to work. You don’t need to see the target “square” – you can still lob a fireball into a dark room and hope for the best.

I will post a discussion topic about converting blasts, bursts and walls from squares to feet. It isn’t quite as simple as you might imagine.

Multiple Attacks

Okay, so I hit with a standard action but as I gain levels I can make more than one attack a round, right? If I’m wielding two weapons I get an extra attack too, don’t I? No! You are living in the past! Multiple attacks are game destabilising… they slow things down and generally skew combat. Fourth edition is all about party balance and speed. I’m not convinced I necessarily believe that, but we’ll see when we start playing it.

In fourth edition no-one gets multiple attacks based on their level. You have one standard action in a round, and in that standard action you can make one basic attack. There are certain powers that allow you to break those rules. Obviously, things like fireball hit multiple targets, but the equivalents of cleave and whirlwind attack are now powers, so a fighter can still attack multiple opponents if he has taken the right power, and if that power is available to him.

As for attacking withtwo weapons – well, that’s completely changed. You can hold a weapon in each hand if you like (as long as one is an off-hand weapon), but you can’t attack with bothof them in the same standard action. You can choosewhich of the two you attack with, but that’s as far as it goes. There is a feat called Two-Weapon Fighting but all that does is give you +1 to damage. This situation is improved by (you guessed it) powers. The only class withpowers related to two-weapon fighting is the ranger. So, if you want to be effective with two-weapons then you have to play a ranger or multiclass into ranger. In 4e the ranger has been divested of his namby-pamby tree-hugging roots, so he is a more attractive choice for players who want the powers but not the associated baggage.

Targeting your Foes

My word, there’s a lot of text describing how you count squares to determine the range of your foes. Lucky we can ignore all that, eh? The general point that the rules are trying to make is that in order to hit something it needs to a viable target. There are two terms that you need to get a handle on as they are used repeatedly by powers and feats: line of sight, and line of effect.

Line of Sight:Can you see the target? If you can’t then powers that rely on line of sight won’t work. Most short range teleports are line of sight, so you can blip around he battlefield, but you can’t teleportto the other side of a closed door. If you can partially see the target then that target has either cover or concealment. We’ll get to them later. While the rules make a bit of a meal of working out whether a target has cover or concealment I don’t think its that important. It should be obvious. If it isn’t then the GM makes a call, just as he always does.

Line of Effect: Line of Effect powers require an unblocked path between you and the target. You might be able to see you target and still not have line of effect. Maybe you can only see them in a mirror, or they are the other side of a force wall for example. Cover makes it more difficult to hit with line of effect powers, but it doesn’t make it impossible unless the target has total cover. Concealment isn’t a barrier to line of effect powers at all, as long as your willing to cast at an area instead of individual.

Bonuses and Penalties

We all know the story from third edition. There are numerous bonuses that accrue from feats, spells and magic items. Some of these stack and some of these don’t. In third edition you could have (deep breath) circumstance, competence, deflection, dodge, enhancement, insight, luck, morale, natural armour, profane, racial, resistance, sacred, shield, size and untyped modifiers. By and large, bonuses gained from the same type of modifier did not stack. So if you had a +2 enhancement bonus from a ring, and a +4 enhancement bonus from a broach then you took the better value, you don’t add them together. Because the system is largely designed to shaft PCs, penalties always stacked with one another.

In fourth edition there is a similar, but far more prosaic approach. There are nine types of bonuses that can be applied to your statistics. Except for untyped bonuses, these bonuses do not stack with themselves. Penalties always stack with each other (there are a couple of exceptions, but as a rule they don’t). The bonuses are as follows:

  • Armour bonus: This is granted by your armour and applies as long as you are wearing armour. It provides a bonus to AC.
  • Enhancement bonus: Usually this is added to a magic item. If its added to a weapon it improves your attack and damage rolls. If its applied to armour, it improves your armour class. If it’s applied to certain magic items it will improve you Fortitude, Reflex and Will defences. You can benefit from several enhancement bonuses at the same time as long as they are applying to different things. A weapon, shield, armour and cape are all fine. Trying to put on two pairs of magic boots is not. The chapter on magic items explains how different magic items interact.
  • Feat bonus: This is a bonus granted by a feat. You have the bonus as long as you have the feat. Feat bonuses that modify the same thing (e.g. your speed, damage rolls) do not stack.
  • Item bonus:Is a bonus derrived from a from certain magical items.
  • Power bonus: A bonus that is granted by (you guessed it) a power.
  • Proficiency bonus: This is the bonus to hit you get from being proficient in a weapon. If you use a weapon to deliver a power (i.e. the power has the “weapon” keyword) then the proficiency bonus applies to that as well.
  • Racial bonus: This is conferred by your race. They do not stack. Having one elf in the party grants all allies a +1 to perception checks. Having two elves does not grant a +2.
  • Shield bonus: This is granted by your shield and it applies to both your AC and your Reflex Defence.
  • Untyped bonus: If the text does not explicitly tell you what the bonus is, then you can assume it is an untyped bonus. Untyped bonuses stack with everything – including themselves. For example, many feats give you bonuses, but not all those bonuses are “feat bonuses”. If a feat gives a feat bonus it will tell you (e.g. Iron Will). If it doesn’t tell you, then it’s an untyped bonus (e.g. Combat Reflexes).

Roll Some Dice!

The chapter now tells you how to calculate your attack roll (for all attacks and powers) and how to work out your defence values for AC, Fortitude, Relfex and Will. I’m not going to dwell on this. It’s pretty straight forward, very similar to third edition, and I’ve no intention of changing any of it. There are just two things I want to spell out here:

Damage: Damage is either expressed in terms of dice, or in terms of the notation [W]. [W] represents the weapon damage. So if a longsword wielding fighter with a strength 18 is asked to inflict 1[W] + Strength Modifier in damage then he’s doing 1d8+4. It he’s asked to do 7[W] + Strength Modifier then he will roll 7d8+4.

Automatic Hits and Misses: A natural 20 is always a hit and a natural 1 is always a miss. No change here from every other edition, but still worth mentioning.

Critical Hits:If you roll a natural 20 then it is a critical hit. You don’t need to roll to confirm the Crit in fourth edition. A natural 20 is a critical pure and simple. Critical hits do maximum damage (not multiple damage). So the fighter who normally rolls 1d8+4 would inflict 12 damage on a critical hit. This has the effect of making the criticals significant, but no longer combat altering. In third edition one lucky shot could completely alter the course of a battle – as anyone who has been on the receiving end of a critical hit from a battle-axe wielding orcbarbarian can testify. Some weapons, feats and powers extend the critical range. High level characters might critical on an 18, 19 or 20 for example.

If you require a natural 20 to hit, then that hit is not a critical hit. Likewise if you have an extended critical range and an 18 or 19 would normally be a miss, then its still a miss.

If you inflict any extra damage on your critical hit (you are wielding a magic or a high crit weapon that does additional dice of damage), this extra damage is not maximised. However, damage from class abilities such as a rogue’s sneak attack is maximised on a critical hit. It should also be apparent that becauseyou have to roll to hit witheverything, the rules for critical hits apply to everything. So it’s quite possible to critical hit with your 29th levelmeteor swarm. As an aside, there are no such things as critical misses in fourth edition D&D.

Resistance and Vulnerability

Energy Resistance, Damage Reducation and Spell Resistance do not exist in fourthedition. Instead they have been replaced with resistances and vulnerabilities. They still work in a similar way, though. If you have Resist 5 Fire then any time you take fire damage you reduce the damage by 5. Some powers or monsters might have Resist 5 All – in which case all damage rolls are reduced by 5. Fortunately these are rare.

Vulnerabilities work the same way, but in reverse. An undead creature might have Vulnerable 10 Radiant. This means when ever it takes any radiant damage (a new category of damage, that sort of replaces positive energy) it takes an additional 10 points of damage. Hit that creature with 2d6 radiant damage, and it’ll actually take 2d6+10.

Where this leaves us with the PCs <cough> Brack <cough> who had managed to get their hands on damage reduction is unclear. Resistance to mêlée weapons is extremely unusual. I think I will have to see the game in play before I make a call on that.


Often in combat you are going to be struck with an ongoing condition. You might be deafened, or blinded, or unable to tie your shoe laces. Like its predecessor, fourth edition formalises this process by giving each condition an absolute defintion. Powers only need to refer to the condition and everyone knows where they stand. Well, if you’ve memorised the conditions that is.

There are sixteen conditions identified in PHB1. This is the same list printed in Keep on the Shadowfell. The conditions are: Blinded, Dazed, Deafened, Dominated, Dying, Helpless, Immobilised, Marked, Petrified, Prone, Restrained, Slowed, Stunned, Surprised, Unconscious and Weakened. I’ve no intention of changing any of those definitions per se, but changes to other rules may require tweaking them a little later on.

Ongoing Damage

There are many effects that deal ongoing damage on your character. A snake’s venom deals ongoing poison damage, a spell might inflict ongoing fire or acid damage and so and so forth. As mentioned above you take ongoing damage at the start of your combat turn before you make any actions. At the end of your turn you can attempt a saving throw to shake off the effect, and prevent you from taking any more ongoing damage the next round. Damage of the same type does not stack. So if you get bitten by a snake for 5 ongoing poison damage per round, and by a spider for 10 ongoing poison damage each round, then you only take the higher value.


Ah yes, here’s a sticky one. Some powers have instanteous durations. Others last “Until the Start of your next turn” or “Until the end of your next turn”. The durations of some rituals are measured in hours or days. All theseare easy to adjudicate. But what about powers that last until the “end of the encounter”. How long do they last? And importantly, how long do they last if you cast them outside of a combat encounter?

If a power lasts “until the end of the encounter” then it ends whenever you stop for a rest, or when five minutes have expired – whichever is less. So all these types of powers effectively last for five minutes.

Some powers have a sustained duration – which means you have to spend an action every round to keep the power going. For example, the power Astral Storm is “Sustain, Minor”. That means you have to spend a minor action every round to keep the power going. Unless the power says otherwise, you can only sustain a power for a maximum of five minutes (50 rounds).

Saving Throws

In an earlier post I said there were no saving throws in fourth edition. I lied. Saving throws do exist, but they are completely altered. If you are affected by a persistanteffect or condition such as blindness or ongoing damage, that can be shaken off by a saving throw then you make such a saving throw (one for each condition or effect) at the end of your turn each round. You will know whether you’re allowed to a make a save, because the affliction will have “save ends” written in the description.

A saving throw is a straight d20 roll. If you roll a 10 or higher then you shake off the effect. You therefore have a 55% chance to shrug off anything at the end of each round. Very few things modify saving throws. You might find some feats or powers that give you a temporary bonus, but on the whole a straight roll is what you have.

Is this appropriate? Coming from third edition we expect saving throws to be dependent upon character level. As you get more powerful your saving throws improve. However, that was in a system where the difficulty class of effects also escalated, creating an arms race between defences and attacks. Third edition worked from the premise that a character has a 50% chance to resist (or affect) a target of an appropriate challenge level. Isn’t this the same thing? I’ve no intention of changing these rules initially. We’ll see how it plays. But for those of you who think it’s a bit odd or undesirable, I know exactly what you mean.

Attack Modifiers

This section lists the most common modifiers to attack rolls in combat. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here, but I’ll dutifully point out the differences. I’m really very good to you all.

Combat Advantage

You’ve heard the term bandied about for months, but what is combat advantage? Combat advantage represents a situation where the defender cannot devote his full attention to defending himself. He is distracted, or beset by multiple foes, or surprised. Attackers with combat advantage have a +2 to hit their target. Some powers and features only work (or work better) if you have combat advantage. For example, a rogue’s sneak attack only works if you have combat advantage.

So how do you get combat advantage? The PHB  provides a definitive list. If you are balancing, blinded, climbing, dazed, flanked by an attacker, helpless, prone, restrained, running, squeezing, stunned, surprised, unable to see the attacker, unaware of the attacker or unconscious then you give your attacker combat advantage. Remember this, it’s important.

Cover and Concealment

In D&D Cover and Concealment have two distinct definitions. Cover is physical barrier between you and the target. You might be able to partially see the target, but there’s something in the way that could interfere with your attack. Concealment is something that makes it harder to see the target. The barrier is intangible, but for whatever reason (fog, darkness, incorporeality, invisibility) you cannot see exactly where your target is. Cover generally applies to ranged attacks, while concealment can more readily be applied to all attacks.

In third edition, Cover was expressed as a penalty to hit the target, whereas concealment was expressed as a percentage miss chance. You rolled to hit normally, and then rolled a miss chance (50% for an invisible foe) to see if you actually connected. The rules for determining cover and concealment were simplified between version 3.0 and version 3.5. This trend continues in fourth edition.

Cover and Concealment in fourth edition are expressed as penalties to hit, not bonuses to armour class. This is because, cover and concealment apply to all four defences. A ranged attack against a target’s Will defence is made harder by cover. With that in mind, let’s walk through the modifiers.


We have two levels of cover in fourth edition; cover and superior cover. This is a step up from the one-size-fits-all definition of cover from version 3.5, but it’s stil a little simplistic by third edition standards.

Cover: Imposes a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Examples of this sort of cover would be crouching behind a bush, standing just behind a low wall or a small tree.

Superior Cover:Imposes a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Superior cover is standing the other side of an arrow slit, or a portcullis. It represents a siginificant defensive advantage.

Area Attacks and Close Attacks: Burst and blast attacks, be they at close range or at distance are also subject to cover. Shoot a fireball at someone standing behind a tree then you have -2 to hit with the spell.

Creatures and Cover:According to the rules enemies can give other enemies cover (-2 to hit) against a PCs’ ranged attacks. However, allies never give enemies cover and there is no mechanic for accidentally hitting the wrong target when firing into mêlée. This is a bit ridiculous, and I can feel a houserule coming on. However, there it is for the moment. Creatures also don’t providecover for one another against area effect powers. That I’m slightly happier with.


The fourth edition game gives us three different levels of concealment, and then gives us two penalties between them. Concealed creatures can be lightly obscured (the light is dim, there is heavy rain, light foliage or snow); heavily obscured (heavy fog, heavy smoke or dense foliage); Totally Obscured (utter darkness, the target is invisible). Here’s how the mechanics play out:

Concealed: Imposes a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Lightly obscured creatures, and heavily obscured creatures in adjacent squares are considered concealed. As we’re not using squares this is a pointless differentiation. If you’re concealed then foes have a -2 penalty to hit you.

Total Concealment: Imposes a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Do you begin to see a pattern here? The penalties for cover and concealment are the same. I guess there’s less to remember that way. Obviously, totally obscured foes have Total Concealment.

Mêlée and Ranged Attacks only: Common sense should make this abundantly clear, but I’ll say this anyway. Concealment penalties only apply to attacks that target individuals. Area attacks don’t impose a concealment penalty. As long as you aim for more or less the right area then you’ll hit.

PHB1 p281 then has an interesting section on targeting foes with Total Concealment (such as invisible foes). As you can imagine this works by way of contested skill checks between Perception and Stealth. However, it should be noted than an invisible character doesn’t get a bonus to their stealth check if someone is looking for them. Looking at it logically, Stealth is supposed to represent the ability to move silently and hide so perhaps this isn’t too far-fetched. However, those expecting something akin to the +30 hide bonus conferred under the third edition rules are in for something of a shock.

Movement and Position

I’ll run through theserules quickly because I intend to change almost all of them. All the rules for movement rely on a battle grid, and all movement is measured in squares and not in a real-world measure. Although it is largely simple to convert from squares to feet, there are several occassions where it is either tricky or undesirable to do so. To mention that here would be stepping on the toes of a future post. So here are the edited highlights.

Creature Size and Space

A whole page basically informing us that bigger creatures take up move space than smaller ones. An interesting side note to third edition veterans is that size categories of creatures now run: Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, Huge and Gargantuan. Fine and Colossal are no longer categories in their own right. Also, size has absolutely no measurable impact on the rules as far as I can see except for the space the creatures occupies and its reach.

Tactical Movement

This refers to your movement during combat. As in previous editions, this doesn’t necessarily marry up with overland movement rates if your character is walking from one town to another. The information for that is in chapter eight, and we’ll get to that in due course. The tactical speed of your character is the base for your race (usually 6), modified by your armour (heavy armour gives you -1 to speed), and by any feats you might have (e.g. Fleet-Footed gives you +1 to speed; Fast Runner gives you +2 to speed when you are running or charging).

The text dwells on the importance of diagonal movement, whether you can end your move action in an enemy’s square and so on. Without a battle grid, all this is irrelevent. Difficult terrain (such as rubble, undergrowth, shallow bogs, steep stairs) are defined as follows: “Each square of difficult terrain you enter costs 1 extra square of movement”. This is just a convoluted way of saying that you move at half speed in difficult terrain.

This section is also where we find the new rules on falling. I guess this is because there wasn’t a “lack of tactical movement” section. Falling damage hadn’t changed since first edition: 1d6 per ten feet falled, maximum of 20d6. Well, it’s changed now. Now you take 1d10 per ten feet fallen and there is no cap to the amount of dice you roll. Fall of a 1000 foot cliff and you’ll take 100d10 damage. It suggests taking an average result. It’s odd that in a game where the damage potential of so much else has been toned down, that the lethality of falls has been increased in such a manner.

Forced Movement. Now, here’s a tricky one. Various powers say that you can push, pull or slide (move in any direction) a foe. In fact you’ll find that you’ll be flinging enemies and allies across the battlefield with gay abandon in fourth edition. There are only three things to really note. Firstly, you must have line of effect between where the target is, and where you want it to be. Secondly, forced movement doesn’t replace the target’s own move action. They can still come back on their turn. Thirdly, if you fling an enemy over a precipice, they can always get to make a saving throw to “catch themselves”. Whether this means they didn’t fall at all, or are hanging on my their fingernails, seems to be GM fiat.

Actions in Combat

This is the section that corresponds to Special Attacks in third edition. What this amounts to is a list of all the options a character has in combat above and beyond “put the sharp end into the bad guy”. There are less options in this list than there were in third edition. Now, the designers helpfully point out that this list isn’t exhaustive, and that PCs can effectively try anything, which is all well and good but without concrete rules support you wonder how often some things would be attempted. How many players are going to attempt something knowing that success or failure is completely dependent upon the GM’s whims? Some actions that anyone could attempt in 3e (such as disarming), have been turned into powers. We’ll have a look at how that fits in as well.

Action Points

All characters have one action point per tier (some monsters may have more). You can spend no more than one action point per encounter. What does an action point do? It gives you an extra action. Spend the action point (as a free action) and you can choose to take an extra standard, move or minor action when it matters the most. All paragon paths give you an alternative (or additional) benefit for spending an action point, but you can still only spend one per encounter. You get your action point back after you take an extended rest (six hours). GMs can also award an additional action point every two encounters if you don’t rest. I’ll talk more about that when I get onto chapter eight. I like this mechanic, as it empowers the PCs to be extra-heroic at a dramatically appropriate moment.

Aid Another

The rules to aid another haven’t changed much since third edition, and can be used inside or outside of combat. In combat, you make a basic mêlée attack roll against a foe. Your target is AC 10. If you succeed, you deal no damage but your action helps an ally who is also attacking the same foe. That ally gets a +2 bonus to their next attack roll, or +2 to all their defences against the foe’s next attack (you choose). Note, that there is nothing stating that the benficiaryof your aid needs to be in mêlée combat with the target. You could make the foe more vulnerable to a ranged attack from a sniping ally.

Outside combat you can grant a bonus to an ally attempting a skill check or an ability check. First you must make a successful check against DC 10. If you succeed then the ally gets a +2 bonus to his roll.

Up to four people can attempt the Aid Another action on the same ally at the same time. Third edition said that the number of allies that could help was limited, but never actually spelled out how limited. Four is an arbitrary figure, based on the fact that the default party size in the fourth edition game is five characters. However, it sounds about right. And it means that you can get up to +8 to a roll if you work together as a team. Aiding Another is a standard action.

Bull Rush

A Bull Rush is simply an attempt to push away the enemy without dealing any damage to it. The rules for the Bull Rush in third edition were quite complex, and involved attacks of opportunity, specialised feats and the concealment rules. In 4e, adjudication has been streamlined. You simply make a Strength vs Fortitude attack (don’t include modifiers for the weapon you use). If you succeed then you knock the foe back one square (five feet). You travel with the target, so you end up standing where the target was at the beginning of your action. Therefore, you end the action in mêlée range of the target.

The text points out that you can only bull rush creatures of a size category one place higher than your own or less. So a medium-sized creature like a human, has a chance to bull rush an ogre but not a dragon. Obviously, you can bull rush foes from tall buildings or into bubbling pits of lava. However, a saving throw would apply in these circumstances. Bull rush is a standard action.

Basic Attacks

Obviously, in a combat you can take a basic mêlée or a basic ranged attack as a standard action. A basic mêlée attack is Strength vs AC (and your strength modifier is added to damage), a basic ranged attack is Dexterity vs AC (and you add your dexterity modifier to damage). Add your dexterity modifier to damage? How egalitarian is that? Now the elven archer doesn’t need a high strength to pack a wallop with his arrows. Whether it makes any sense is another matter.

Basic attacks tend to be the attacks you make when you run out of powers. A wizard’s magic missile, and a warlocks’ eldritch blast are considered basic attacks so the spellcasters always have their fingers on the trigger in that respect. Opprtunity attacks and free attacks are always made with basic attacks. Some powers will allow you to make a basic attack in addition to the effects of the power.

Interesting, the damage you deal with a basic attack increases as you gain levels. Epic characters (level 21 and up) deal double weapon damage with their basic attack. A normal longsword does 2d8 base damage in the hands of an epic character.


Charge is a standard action. During the action you move up to your speed (but at least 10 feet) and make a basic mêlée attack or a bull rush at the end of it. You receive +1 to the attack roll. After you make the attack roll you can take no further actions unless you spend an action point. Difficult terrain can hamper charge, and you must run in a straight line to build up momentum.

A charge in third edition granted +2 to the attack roll, and gave you a -2 penalty to AC. In comparissonthe 4e charge doesn’t seem to be worth your time. There’s a little more versatility in 4e for the battle-map generation as you don’t have to spend a full round charging as before. You can useyour move and minor actions for something else. Feasibly under fouth edition, you could drink a potion, climb a wall and then charge a foe standing on the roof.

Coup de Grace

In third edition the coup degrace was brutal.  Take a full-round action to attack a helpless defender. You automatically hit and score a critical hit. The target must make a Fortitude saving throw at DC 10 + damage dealt or die instantly. Now, you could say “fair enough” – the coup de grace is designed to represent lying peacefully on the ground while a mad dwarf takes a lump hammer to your skull, it should be fatal. However, it can be annoying.

The combination of an attack that renders the foe helpless (even temporarily) followed by a coup de grace is a disturbing one in the hands of players. When a GM starts doing it, then mayhem can ensue. As a GM I can imagine plenty of monsters and NPCs that would want to make sure their foes aren’t going to get up again. To give them an opportunity to deliver a coup de grace and not take it would be playing them out of character. However, I don’t want to kill my PCs by virtue of random bad luck.

The 4e coup degrace is more to my liking. The target must still be helpless, and probably offers a -5 penalty to all defences because of it (therefore it is not as certain that your coup de grace will hit). A successful hit is still an automatic critical, but crits tend do less damage in fourthedition. There is no death saving throw, but if the attack deals half the characters hit points or more in one blow then the target dies. Still dangerous, but not quite as dangerous. Coup de Grace is a standard action.


As a move action you can crawl. In order to crawl you must be prone (dropping to the ground is a minor action). While crawling you move at half your speed, therefore crawling over difficult terrain means you move at a quarter your base speed. Crawl is still movement and provokes opportunity attacks like any other type of movement.


By far the most complicated rules in the whole game are thosefor what happens when you choose to delay your action in a combat round. I won’t repeat them here, as I’ll end up copying them all out verbatim. Bascially, if you delay you must delay your whole turn (and not just bits of it). Therefore effects that lasted until the “beginning” or the “end” of your next turn cease at your original initiative point. Equally, if you have a magical effect running that requires you to spend an action to sustain it, then delaying your action means that you delayed spending that action, so the effect ends.

Grab and Escape

These are the new grappling rules. The third edition grappling rules were infamous for their complexity – although unless you’ve played Rolemaster you have no concept of complex. Suffice to say the rules were a barrier to even attempting to grapple – certainly, you could master them, but any rules that the 3e Rules Compendium could only succeed in condensing to two pages needed to be looked at again. In fourth edition, grapple is divided into two actions: Grab and Escape.

Grabbingis a standard action. The target must be one size category larger than you or smaller (so no grabbing EarthTitans). You make a Strengthvs Reflex attack, and if you succeed then the target is Immobilised. Immobilised is a condition. It means that you cannot move from where you are, unless someone else forces you to, or you teleport. That one roll is all the grabber has to do. A grab can be maintained each round as a minor action. As long as the grabber doesn’t move away from the target, or is affected by a condition such as dazed, stunned, surprised or unconcscious) then he can continue to hang on. He can even spend his standard actions normally.

If you grab a target you can attempt to drag them off. This requires another attack from the attacker, this one is Strength vs Fortitude. If you succeed you can move half your speed and take your prisoner with you. If you fail, you don’t move. This is also a standard action, so you grab in round #1, and drag away the target in round #2.

Of course, the target is not still during all of this. He can attempt to Escape! Escape is a move action. This means that if your first escape attempt fails, you can convert your Standard action into another move action and try again. You can choose to make an Acrobatics check vs Reflex, or Athletics check vs Fortitude to escape. If you succeed then you are free, if you fail you are still immobilised.

Now, seasoned third edition players may think that there simply isn’t enough complexity to grapple. What actions can you perform while grabbed? Can you cast a spell? Can the grabber hit you with their great sword? Can the grabber further restrain his victim? Enquiring minds need to know!

As it is written, all the Grab rules do is stop your opponent from moving. It is the equivalent of holding onto someone’s t-shirt in the school playgroup. A grabbed opponent can use a move action to escape the grab, or he can stay where he is and usehis standard action to hit the grabber over the head withhis two-handed battle-axe. Actually he can do both. No actions are precluded if you are grabbed. You can still cast spells, shoot a ranged weapon or compose a sonnet. Grabbed characters can’t be overpowered, tied up or similarly restrained. The rules don’t work that way.

So is grab useless? No, not as long as you are using a tactical battle map. Because so much of the fourth edition came is dependent upon movement, stopping someone from moving (even for one round) can be tactically advantageous. It gives the rogue chance to move in and flank an opponent, or stops the grabbee from using his own funky move related power. However, this is of small comfort to those of us not using a battle grid, and not measuring everything in squares.

If you want a system that even vaguely simulates the real world then you need to have these options. If you don’t have them then D&D will run more like a computer game than a RPG. As in third edition, there are increasingly serious conditions relating to restraint. Here they are:

  • Immobilised:You cannot move from where you are standing. You can teleportor be forced to move by a push, pull or slide. Grabbed characters are immobilised.
  • Restrained: You are immobilised. Additionally, you grant combat advantage, you cannot be forced to move with a push, pull or slide and you take a -2 penalty to attack rolls.
  • Helpless:You grant combat advantage. You can be the target of a coup de grace.
  • Unconscious: You’re helpless. You take a -5 penalty to all defences, you can’t take any actions, you fall prone (if possible), you cannot flank an enemy (well, duh!).

Do we feel a houserule coming on here? Could we maintain the shadeof the old grappling rules in 4e. You already have to take a second standard action to move someone who is grabbed, what if you could also take a second standard to restrain someone? Another Strengthvs Reflex attack to impose the restrained condition. Now, restrained is a lot like Pinned was in third edition, but it’s not quite the same. You can still take actions, for example, and there’s nothing to say that you could then be further subdued. Would we look for a third roll to induce the helpless condition – but you can stil take actions if you are helpless in  fourth edition.

I’m not going to get into a house rules discussion here (maybe later!). I will add, that the trouble with altering grab as I have outlined above is that there are several powers that do properly restrain a target, or otherwise give the attacker the benefits of the old grapple/pin rules. These powers are Garrote Grip, Stab and Grab, Bigby’s Icy Grasp and Bigby’s Grasping Hands in PHB1, but you can imagine that will be more of them, particularly when rules for the monk class are published. Change the fundamental nature of grab, and you invalidate some of the utility of those powers.

As they stand the grab rules aren’t really fit for purpose. They are fine as a clever tactic in a wargame, but they do not accurately reflect how a grapple would work in real life. They are simpler to be sure, but in this case simpler is not better. We need to find a way to work around this problem.

Opportunity Attacks

Attacks of Opportunity are now Opportunity Attacks. The same mechanic but with 12% less syllables! Who said 4th edition doesn’t streamline the system? For those of you who have forgotten, never knew, or just weren’t interested… since third edition every character (be they PC, NPC or Monster) threatens an area around them. If foes take certain actions within that threat range then the character can have a free attack against them. There was a very long and complicated list of what provoked an attack of opportunity in third edition. In 4e, the list is shorter. This is what it says on page 290 of PHB1:

  • Mêlée Basic Attack: An opportunity attack is a mêlée basic attack.
  • Moving Provokes:If an enemy leaves a square adjacent to you, you can make an opportunity attack against that enemy. However, you can’t make one if the enemy shifts or teleports, or is forced to move away by a push, pull or slide.
  • Ranged and Area Powers Provoke: If an enemy adjacent to you uses a ranged power or an area power, you can make an opportunity attack against that enemy.
  • One per Combatant’s Turn: You can take only one opportunity action during another combatant’s turn, but you can take any number during a round.
  • Able to Attack: You can’t make an opportunity attack unless you are able to make a mêlée basic attack and you can see your enemy.
  • Interrupts Target’s Action: An opportunity action takes place before the target finishes its action. After the opportunity attack, the creature resumes its action. If the target is reduced to zero hit points or fewer by the opportunity attack, it can’t finish its action because it is dead or dying.
  • Threatening Reach: Some creatures have an ability called threatening reach. This lets them make opportunity attacks against nonadjacent enemies. If an enemy leaves a square that’s within the creature’s reach, or if an enemy anywhere within the creature’s reach makes a ranged attack, the creature can make an opportunity attack against the creature.

I hope you can all tell how hellish it will be to try and and adjudicate opportunity attacks in a freeformcombat system. Because there is no way to verify where everyone is standing, you just can’t tell if a foe is crossing, or standing within a character’s threat range. I have a proposed solution, it’s rather radical, and the subject of the next post on this blog.

However, before moving on, I’d like to point out how these rules have changed between editions. Moving out of an a threatened area provokes an attack as before, as does using a ranged weapon within the threat range. That hasn’t changed. However, spellcasting (or using powers) doesn’t necessarily provoke an attack. You only provoke one if it’s a ranged or an area power. If you are casting a spell on yourself, or if it affects a radius that is centred on you then you don’t provoke an attack of opportunity. There is no concentration skill in fourthedition, so there are no rules to see if your casting has been disrupted. Even if you choose to usea ranged weapon or cast a ranged spell, being hit by an opportunity attack doesn’t stop you following through with your action. The spell still goes off, the arrow is still shot – you just had to run the gauntlet to do it.

In short: attacks of opportunity are neither as versatile, nor as potent as they used to be. The only way they can prevent an action from taking place is if the opportunity attack reduces the target to zero hit points. I’ll leave the discussion there for now.

Ready an Action

When you ready an action you prepare to react to a creature or an event. “When that happens, I will do this!” You can choose to ready a standard, move or minor action. The readied action becomes an Immediate Reaction, but the actual act of readying an action takes up your standard action for the round. You don’t act in a round until the condtions of your readied action are met, so it’s likely your initiative will change, and the rules for Delaying an Action will come into play.


Ah the favoured tactic of all cowards and wizards. Run works very differently in fourth edition. If you run then you add +2 (+10 feet) to you Speed. Running still only occupies your move action for the round, but you move an extra ten feet. In exchange for this burst of speed, you grant combat advantage to your attackers, provoke opportunity attacks from anyone you pass and suffer a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Is it really worth it? 

You can also double move in a round – that is, you convert your standard action into a second move action. If you do this then you apply the +2 bonus from the Run manoeuvre twice. Feats can augment this. Fleet-Footed gives you +1 to Speed, Fast Runner gives +2 to Speed when you run or charge. These bonuses apply to both move actions. Example: a human normally moves 30 feet with a move action. The run manoeuvre adds 10 feet. The Fast Runner feat adds 10 feet. Fleet Footed adds 5 feet. If he double moves he could move 110 feet in one round, which is about 12½ miles per hour. That sounds about right.

Second Wind

The Second Wind action allows you to spend a healing surge during combat. All creatures have healing surges, but far fewer can actually use them in the heat of battle. All PCs can do this which gives them something of an advantage over the common man (or the common dragon). Using second wind is a standard action, but you can only use it once per encounter. As a side effect of restoring hit points, it all so makes you feel so good about yourself that you gain +2 to all your defences until the start of your next turn.


Shift is a form of movement that does not provoke an opportunity attack. You move 1 square (five feet) as a move action. It is primarily used for withdrawing from mêlée combat. You spend your move action to shift away form your foe and then use your standard action (or an action point) to turn around and run for the hills. You can’t shift if the movement requires a check of any kind (swimming or climbing, for example). You also can’t shift over difficult terrain.

Without a battle grid the importance of Shift is diminished. However, if I decide to keep the principle of attackers having a free attack on you if you flee from mêlée then Shift will still have its uses.


You attempt to move through a space smaller than you. There are rules stating how many squares a squeezing character of different sizes occupies. This is irrelevent if there’s no battle grid – the GM just adjudicates this on the fly. All we really need to know is that squeezing characters move at half speed, grant combat advantage to their attackers and take a -5 penalty to attack rolls. Squeezing is a move action.

Stand Up

No, this isn’t some sort of improvised comic routine. You need to spend a move action to get back on your feet if you are lying down, knocked prone or crawling somewhere. I can imagine that this will come up quite often, so it’s probably worth remembering.

Total Defence

As a standard action you can choose to go on a complete defensive. You gain +2 to all defences. You still have a move and minor action in the round to spend as you see fit.

Use a Power

Well, it goes without saying that you can use a power in round. I’ll just remind you that although most powers are Standard actions, some are Move actions and some are Minor actions. There’s nothing stopping you using three powers in one round if you happen to know one of each type.


Okay, this is getting silly now. Did the PHB really need an entry for Walk? Did this blog for that matter? Anyway, Walk is a move action – in fact, it’s the default move action. You move a number of squares equal to your speed during a walk action. Nothing special or fancy about it.

‘Missing’ Combat Actions

So what was in the third edition Player’s Handbook that is missing from the 4e list?

Disarm: In third edition disarm was an opposed attack roll than anyone could do, and those with the Improved Disarm feat could do better. In fourth edition, there is no mention of the mechanic except in the Exorcism of Steel power – and that is a 17th level Fighter Attack power. Why make it so hard and so specialised to disarm a foe. Can’t regular characters of the heroic tier even attempt it? Do we need a house rule for this?

Feint: It’s not in the combat section, but the rules for Feint can be found in the description of the Bluff skill (see PHB1 p183). It works in a similar fashion, but can only be used once per encounter. I’ll get to it a little later in these blog posts.

Mounted Combat: This is now covered in the DMG. Characters can take the Mounted Combat feat and gain access to their mount’s special abilities, as long as they make the prerequisites of the mount. For example, a hippogriff grants its rider a +1 bonus to all defences as long as that rider is friendly, 5th level or higher and has the Mounted Combat feat. This is how 4e attempts to balance mounted combat. There are no rules in the game for a paladin’s special mount at the moment – I think that is coming in the Martial Powersourcebook, due in October. I’ll touch on mounts more thoroughly in a later post.

Overrun: In third edition, this action allowed you to barge past opponents. They could choose to avoid you, if they didn’t then you knocked them prone – the Improved Overrun feat helped a lot. There’s no black and white mechanic for this in fourth edition, but it is not difficult to see how to implement. Overrun works like Bull Rush except that you’re not trying to knock an opponent over.

Sunder:This is the ability to target the weapon and not the opponent. The sunder action allowed characters to damage (and perhaps break) weapons. Again there was a feat called Improved Sunder that made you much better than this – third edition was nothing if not consistant. In fourth edition there is no sunder action per se. The DMG1 (p65) has rules for object hit point points and resistances. From there it’s possible to extrapolate how many hit points an orb, weapon or wand might have. But as to breaking that item while it is being wielded by someone else… that’s currently in the realm of house rules and very specific powers.

Trip: Oddly, the ability to push someone flat on their face is not covered in the combat section. Numerous powers knock an enemy prone, but there’s no specific rules for just anyone to put their foot out and give it a go. However, like overrun this could be easily adjudicated. Dexterity vs Reflex as a standard action, perhaps? Success results in the target falling prone. Not as powerful as powers that knock you prone, but good enough for something off the cuff?


Hit Points in fourth edition have taken on a more abstract form than ever before. Your hit point total does not soley represent your ability to take damage. In addition to sheer physical endurance they are your character’s luck, his morale, his skill and his ability to get out of the way in the nick of time.

A 1st level character and a 30thlevel character both take 20 points of damage from an attack. To the 1st level character, this represents pretty much all his hit points. He is badly wounded, and could be about to kark it. To the 30th level character, this is but a flesh wound. What’s the difference? Well, the 30th level character is no more able to take a sword to the gut than a 1st level character can. The difference is that the 30th level character has seen the blow coming, and rolled with its force; or the stroke has bounced off his epic level cigarillo case; or he has been shot so many times by a fireball that he knows just how to roll to avoid the worse of its effects.

The wounding and the healing system is built around the abstract nature of hit points. This is nothing new to D&D, but fourth edition takes it to new levels. So if you tied a character down so he can’t move at all, then you kill a 30th level character with one blow from a dagger? Potentially, yes – although the coup de grace rolls do not adequately represent that. Actually – I’m not sure that it should.

Your class, level and constitution score determines your maximum hit points. As you do not have to roll these any more, and as your Constitution modifier no longer plays a role in the calculation, there is no longer a great disparity between PCs of the same class. When you take damage it comes off your maximum hit point total, and your current hit points can never exceed the maximum.

When you have been reduced to half your hits points or lower, you are considered “bloodied“. This is a measure of how wounded, pooped and out of luck you are. It has no effect on your character in its own right, but certain conditions, events and powers come into play when you are bloodied. For example, when certain dragons are bloodied they get very cross, and lash out in the form of a free attack against everyone.

When you reach zero hit points (or lower) you fall unconscious and are dying. More on this later, but it’s not very pleasant and can be quite brutal.

Healing Surges

A healing surge equals one quarter of your maximum hit points (or one quarter plus your Con modifier if you’re a dragonborn). You have a finite number of healing surges that you can spend in one day – this is usually about 7 + your Con modifier, but is dependent on your character class. This is every character’s own personal pot of healing, so use it wisely!

During a combat encounter, you can spend a healing surge by using the Second Wind action (chronicled above). You can only use second wind once per encounter, so you can only spend one healing surge – regardless of the number you may have remaining. Second Wind exemplifies the abstract nature of hit points. A fighter that spends a healing surge, isn’t actually healing his wounds – he is shaking his head and regaining his composure, he is gritting his teeth against the pain, hefting his sword with one hand as his other keeps his colon in place. A healing surge is a player’s way of stating that his character isn’t as badly injured as it first appeared – that there’s still some fight in him yet.

I like healing surges – which is just as well, as I’m not sure fourth edition could function without them. They mean that you don’t necessarily need a magical healer like a cleric to keep the party going. There is magical healing, but this all relies on the healing surge mechanic. A power might allow you to spend a healing surge without using second wind, or it might restore hit point “as if you had spent a healing surge”.

Outside combat you can throw around as many healing surges as you like to restore you to full hit points. But be aware that you only have a finite number of healing surges to use. Because I know that I’m not going to be throwing the number of encounters per day at a party that the rules suggest, I might be tempted to reduce the number of healing surges available. But, it’s not something I’m going to introduce any time soon.

As a note, NPCs and Monsters tend to have one healing surge per tier. So Epic adversaries would only have three healing surges. For combat this is fine, as mostly such opponents are only there to be killed. But healing surges play a role in other rules as well – notably those for drowing and starvation. I think that to be fair, foes must have the same healing surges as PCs, even if they never use them.


Some powers or magical items give you the ability to regenerate a number of hit points each round. Regeneration happens at the “start of your turn” phase of your turn. You cannot regenerate hit points above your maximum level, and regeneration doesn’t work if you drop to zero hit points or lower. Importantly, regeneration doesn’t stack. So if you have regeneration from two different sources, you take the higher value –  you don’t add them together.

Temporary Hit Points

Some powers and abilities grant you temporary hit points. This is like having a second pool of hit points. They are not added to your maximum hit point total, but they exist as a separate entity. Any damage you take comes off the temporary hit points first, and when they are gone then they are gone. Like regeneration, temporary hit points do not stack with one another. Take the higher value if you are lucky enough to have them from more than one source.

Death and Dying

When you reach zero hit points you fall unconscious and you are dying. Any further damage continues to subtract from your hit points. So if you are taking ongoing fire damage, you continue to burn when you are unconscious. It is unclear whether you can make a saving throw to end ongoing effects when you are in this condition. That’s a piece of further research I need to do.

When you are dying to need to make a Death Saving Throw at the end of every round. This is a normal saving throw, so you are usually looking for a 10 or better. If you have any abilities that modify saving throws, then they also apply to your death saving throw. If you succeed then nothing bad happens to you. If you fail you are one step closer to death. Fail three times and your character dies. If you roll a natural 20 you automatically spend a healing surge and leap to your feet. See healing the dying below.

Your character dies if he fails three death saving throws, or he takes damage enough to reduce his hit points to minus half his hits (your bloodied value as a negative number). First level characters can still go from healthy to irrevocably dead in one blow in fourth edition, trust me: I’ve made it happen.

Monsters and NPCs usually die when they reach zero hit points. They don’t get to benefit from these rules. However, if it’s a significant NPCor villain, then the GM is well within his rights to rule that they stabilise from a wound.

Knocking Creatures Unconscious

Third edition had its subdual damage (later renamed non-lethal damage) to measure attempts to knock creatures unconscious. Fourth edition doesn’t have anything like it. In fourthedition, whenever you strike a blow that would reduce a foe to zero hit points or less you can choose to knock them unconscious instead. You can even decide after the damage is rolled. Unconscious characters wake up after five minutes with one hit point.

Now, this seems a little preposterous to me. You would think that this sort of thing would be difficult, or that it would at least have to be intentional. This doesn’t offend me so horribly, that I immediately want to change it, but I’ll certainly keep an eye on how this works in play.

Healing the Dying

If you are reduced to negative hit points, and you receive healing from any source (including your own healing surges) then you are considered to be on zero hit points for the purpose of regaining hps. For example, the fighter is down to -30 hit points; his healing surge value is 25; when he spends a healing surge he is actually on 25 hit points, and not -5 hit points.

As soon as you have positive hit points, you become conscious and are no longer dying. You are still prone and must spend a move action to stand up. If you are required to spend a healing surge while dying and you haven’t got a healing surge remaining, then you are restored to 1 hit point.

If you die then some powers and the Raise Dead  ritual can be used to bring you back to life. Resurrection and raise dead do not cause you to lose Constitution or experience points in fourth edition. But getting resurrected might be slightly trickier.


Well, that was a mammoth chapter. This blog is as much about me learning the rules as it is providing information and opinion to the readers, I think. Anyway – next time, we are going to take a break from the PHB and look at some new house rules. We will consider a world without Opportunity Attacks.

Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Three)

Right, back to our originally scheduled programme. The third chapter of the fourth edition PHB devotes itself to character races. Clocking in at eighteen pages, background information and colour is a little thin on the ground. In fact there’s far more useful information printed in the Races and Classes preview book than there is here.

I’ve already mentioned how the eight new races are likely to fit into an Iourn campaign, and have little more to add on that front. In this post I’m going to be taking you through a few of the new rules for PC races, how this fits (or doesn’t fit) with what we see in the Monster Manual, the rules for playing more powerful races, and the new racial feats. Deep breath and here we go.


Dragonborn, eladrin, elf, dwarf, human, half-elf, halfling and tiefling. The identity of the eight races have been known for quite a while. The loss of the half-orc is keenly felt in the Iourn setting, where they are fairly common in Norandor and Kerikal. I’ll deal with that when I have to. In a moment, I’ll go through each race individually and look at each one in depth. However, all the races in fourth edition have a few commonalities that it behooves us to look at.

The first thing that you’ll notice is that the base races are much tougher than their third edition counterparts. This is a deliberate change on the part of the designers – I can understand why they have done it and, on the whole, I approve. By raising the bar for the ‘standard’ races the designers make it much easier for themselves to make other races available for players – races like drow, gnolls and genasi. In third edition, these races were so much more powerful than your basic human or dwarf that they merited a level adjustment.

Now I’m not going to get into a discussion about third edition level adjustments here. Suffice to say that they really didn’t work, and few people wanted to play a race that was saddled with having one. By giving humans, dwarves and elves more toys they put them on a par with (e.g.) the drow, which makes for much less of a headache. Obviously there are still some races that are inherently more powerful than any of the races depicted here. If you wanted to play a mind flayer and your GM was mad enough to let you, then it isn’t going to balance.

It is here that the key foundations of third edition and fourth edition differ. In third edition all races were built in the same way, and all races were advanced in the same way. Whether you were gaining levels by adding racial hit dice or levels in a character class, the mechanics were the same and the result was the same. This is not the case in fourth edition. Monsters and NPCs are built with a short hand system designed to make them easy to generate and easy to run for the GM. Player characters need to be more complex and more consistant. They use a different set of rules for character generation. The results of both are comparable, but a monster or NPC’s stats are not sophisticated enough for players, and a PC’s stats are probably more than the GM needs to know.

This is a big change. It harkens back to the days of second edition, and not everyone likes it. One of the great strengths of third edition was the unified system. It was the great attraction for me. However, I’m being slowly won round to this way of thinking – largely based on the fact I haven’t been bothered to fully stat out a monster or an NPC in third edition for about six years. And if I wasn’t doing it anyway, then that’s a very good argument for fourth edition’s approach.

I’m in danger of going off topic here. Suffice to say that some races are designed to be player characters and some are designed to be monsters. In fourth edition, there is no easy way to take a ‘monster race’ and turn it into a PC race. All player character races need to be built from scratch. I am happy with this because, although third edition gave you the illusion of being able to play anything you wanted direct from the Monster Manual, it didn’t actually work that way. I’m going to return to this later in the article, but let’s stick with eight core races presented here to begin with.

The commonalities of player character races are as follows:

  • Attributes:All PC races receive +2 to two attributes. No PC race gets penalties to their stats any more. This is not to imply that dwarves, for example, aren’t usually less charismatic than elves, just that this particular PC dwarf doesn’t suffer this disadvantage. Remember different rules for PCs and NPCs. Humans are a slight exception to this rule, as they only get +2 to one stat. However, they get other goodies to make up for this.
  • Height and Weight: You don’t have to roll this any more (did anyone in the first place?). Each class merely gives you a common range for the race and you choose accordingly. Some of these statistics have changed greatly between editions.
  • Age: There’s no information in the PHB about ageing characters. There are no longer any ageing modifiers and no definitive random date when the character dies of old age. The text tells you how long the race normally lives, and that is all. Ageing modifiers are ripe for abuse – particularly by players wanting to play old spellcasters. They didn’t really represent old-age decline particularly well anyway. I think I’m happy to see them go. If the life expectancies of the races have altered markedly then I’ll probably stick with the third edition rules. I may not. Or I may pick and choose. I’m capricious like that.
  • Speed: Most races have speed 6 (they move 30 feet in a round). This is the same as in third edition. However, it is true to say there is more variety in the speeds now. Elves and dwarves are both a bit faster than they used to be.
  • Vision:As I may have mentioned in previous reviews, darkvision or infravision doesn’t exist as a standard accessory for most races. Very few creatures can see in pitch-black darkness. The races will either have normal human vision, or low-light vision. Those with low-light vision see in Dim light as if it was Bright light. These are specific terms, explained in more depth later on.
  • Languages: Each race starts knowing a handful of languages. You need that Linguist feat if you need any more. Here are rules that are ripe for the changing.
  • Racial Powers:Some races get an extra power than can be used either at-will, once per encounter or once per day. The dragonborn’s breath weapon is an example of an encounter power.
  • Other traits: Skill bonuses, weapon training, bonus feats and so on are also common additions to the racial package. Races that don’t have a racial power will often have more of these to balance things out.
  • Physical Qualities: Each race gets a paragraph on their appearance, physical powers, limitations and other traits.
  • Tips for playing the race:The defining characteristics of the race are laid bare and suggestions are given to how you would play such a character in the game. Dragonborn are honorable adversaries (even the evil ones), for example. There is also a suggested list of names that is reminiscent of the old Hero Builder’s Guidebook for third edition. To be honest, there’s not really enough in this section to make it that useful. There’s a couple of hooks, but if every PC used them then members of each races would come out a bit samey. Still, I suppose it leaves room for the racial splat books that will inevitably appear later in the release schedule.
  • Example Adventurers: This is quite good though. Three example character backgrounds to show how you put all the racial traits into practice. Each is only a paragraph long, and its a bit like Roleplaying 101 but the thought is there. Those who have never played D&D will find it useful, I think.

So, onto the races. I’m getting into a bit more mechanical detail here than usual because I want my future players (who may not have the books) to understand the full rubriks of each race:


Dragonborn are enormous, standing between 6’2″ and 6’8″ and weighing in at between 200 and 320 lbs. They live as long as humans, but mature more quickly. They are medium-sized lizardine creatures with standard speed (30 feet per round) and normal vision. Their +2 stat bonuses are applied to Strength and Charisma. They can speak two languages (which are Common and Draconic from the standard list), and get a +2 bonus to the History and Intimidate skills. In addition to this they have three extra racial traits.

Dragonborn Fury allows gives them +1 to hit when they are bloodied (half hit points or less). Draconic Heritage lets them add their Constitution Modifier to the number of hit points usually restored by a healing surge. Both of these are quite minor abilities; Dragon Breath is not.

A dragonborn can vomit up a blast of energy once per encounter. This is defined as a “Close Blast” which means that it affects three squares by three squares on the combat grid (a square 15 feet to a side). Everyone in that area takes 1d6 + Con Mod damage. The damage increases by 1d6 when the dragonborn ascends to paragon tier (level 11) and epic tier (level 21).

If you think that this does sound like much damage then you have spotted one of the new truisms of fourth edition: everything does less damage. Even the biggest, baddest red dragon you could ever meet is only dishing out 4d12+10 damage with its breath weapon. It is also quite interesting to note how each player can personalise their dragonborn’s breath weapon.

At first level you get to choose which form of energy the breath is made of: Acid, Cold, Fire, Lightning or Poison. This reflects the heritage of your dragonborn. Also you can choose which stat governs your ability to hit with the breath (either Strength, Constitution or Dexterity). This means that you don’t have to min-max during character generation. You can concentrate on building your character class, knowing that you will probably have one reasonable stat that will govern your signature racial ability. Yes, this is a bit artificial, but once the numbers are on the character sheet, I can’t see it affecting the game too much.


Dwarves stand between 4’3″ and 4’9″ (up a couple of inches since third edition) and weigh between 160 and 220 lbs. Fourth edition dwarves live for between 150 and 200 years (it was 250-450 in 3rd ed). They still medium-sized creatures and have a speed of 5 squares. This translates as 25 feet per round, so they are faster than in third edition, but still a little bit slower than humans. They also have low-light vision, so although dwarves cannot see in the dark, they can see better in lower levels of light than humans. Their +2 stat bonuses are applied to Constitution and Wisdom. Dwarves can speak two languages (Common and Dwarven), and gain a +2 bonus to the skills Dungeoneering and Endurance.

Dwarves don’t have a racial power like Dragon Breath. Instead they have a plethora of lesser abilities. Cast Iron Stomach gives them +5 to saving throws against poison. Considering the fourth edition saving throw rules this is very powerful – it’s really not worth trying to poison a dwarf.

Dwarven Resilience allows them to use second wind and spend a healing surge as a minor instead of standard action. I’ll talk about minor, move and standard actions in the combat chapter. But suffice to say that this is quite useful, as dwarves can heal themselves in a combat round while still doing something else meaningful.

Dwarven weapon proficicency gives them proficiency with the warhammer and the thrown hammer. Not with the axe, oddly. I might be tempted to allows players to choose between hammers and axes, but that’s not something I’ll introduce in the first campaign.

The Encumbered Speed trait allows dwarves to move at their full speed even when carrying a heavy load. So the dwarf in full plate is moving at the same speed as a human in full plate.

Stand Your Ground seems to be a trait that is dependent upon the battle grid, but I think that it’s easily converted. If any effect forces a dwarf to move (he is pushed, pulled or slid by something) then he moves 1 square (5 feet) less than indicated. This means that forced movement that moves him five feet or less, doesn’t move him at all. Also, if a dwarf is subject to an attack or effect that would knock him prone, then he can make a saving throw to avoid being knocked prone. Now, that is useful.

All in all, the mechanical traits and abilities of the dwarf succeed in bringing the dwarf of cliché to life. Here is a hard drinking, hard fighting hard-ass who keeps coming back regardless of the number of times you hit him on the head. But does the design constrain roleplaying? It is very much pointing a player in a certain direction: dwarves are fantastic fighters, whose racial abilities synergise with those of the fighter class. How much support is there here for playing against type?


The elves of the feywild (or the Greymere on Iourn) are the elves most closely associated with magic. Fourth edition have called them the eladrin, stealing the name from an old celestial race that doesn’t exist in the 4e rules set. To all intents and purposes these are the high elves of second edition, and instead of supporting a sub-race, Wizards of the Coast have divided the species into different races. Eladrin, elves and drow are now a triumverate of races with common roots. What this means is that eladrin can have different stats to elves.

Elves in third edition stood between 4’7″ and 5’5″. They were even smaller in second edition. In 4e, eladrin stand betweem 5’5″ and 6’1″ (slightly taller than elves for some unknown reason). However, at least the official game has acknowledged that short elves are a bit silly. Tolkien got it right the first time, and there’s no reason to mess about with that. Eladrin weigh between 130 and 180 lbs – far more than before. They are as solid as humans now.

Eladrin live for up to 300 years, a little less than the 750 years of third edition. Of course, elves in Iourn are immortal, so I’m going to stick with that. Eladrin are medium-sized creatures and have a speed of 6 – the standard 30 feet per round. They have low-light vision. Their +2 stat bonuses are applied to Dexterity and Intelligence. Eladrin can speak two languages (Common and Elven), and gain a +2 bonus to the skills Arcana and History. They have following other traits and powers:

Eladrin Education gives them one additional trained skill. Considering how few skills there are in fourth edition, this is not to be sneezed at.

Eladrin Weapon Proficiency gives skill in the longsword regardless of their class. All very elven, and we can’t help but approve of that.

Eladrin Will is also quite good. Take a +1 to you Will defence, and also a +5 racial bonus to your saving throws against Charm effects. If you can’t poison a dwarf, you definitely can’t charm an eladrin.

Fey Origin gives the eladrin the status of a fey creature when it comes to determining any effect that is dependent upon racial type. As the elves of Iourn are fey, this doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to me.

Trance is an ability that has its origins in various fantasy roleplaying games. Eladrin don’t sleep. When they take an extended rest they can do it in four hours rather than six, and during that time they are awake and alert. I guess it’s the poor eladrin who is put on watch while the rest of the party get a good night’s sleep.

Finally, Fey Step  is an encounter power than eladrin receive in addition to any other power they might have. This allows them to teleport twenty-five feet. Now out of combat they can use this every five minutes. A PC who can teleport effectively at will, from first level? Is this game breaking. Actually, I don’t think it is. Short range teleportation only works if you have line of sight. Put the eladrin in a cell with no window and close the door and he’s still trapped. In fact Fey Step and the Greymere elves’ ability to pop into and out of the Greymere don’t seem a million miles away from one another. That could work quite nicely. Obviously, all chasms encounted by the party will be 26 feet wide.


Fourth edition elves stand one inch shorter than eladrin (obviously the Feywild has certain engorging properties), and are a little lighter as well. They live to be 200 years old, even shorter lived than the eladrin. They are medium sized creatures with a speed of 7 (35 feet per round). This makes them the fastest player character race. Like the eladrin they have low-light vision. Their +2  stat bonuses are applied to Dexterity and Wisdom. They can speak two languages (Common and Elven) and get a +2 bonus to the Nature and Perception skills. They also have the following:

Elven Weapon Proficiency gives the elves automatic proficiency in the longbow and the shortbow. Therefore the traditional weapons of the elves (bows and longswords) have been divided between these two sub-races.

Fey Origin applies to elves just as it applied to the eladrin. Considering that these are effectively the same race, it would be odd if this did not apply.

Group Awareness is an ability that confers a +1 racial bonus to perception to all of the elf’s non-elf allies within 5 squares (25 foot radius) of the elf.

Wild Step allows the elves to ignore difficult terrain when they shift. This doesn’t translate well into a game with no battle grid, so I will have to rethink this power. At the moment I am thinking of some sort of trackless step ability akin to the third edition druid. However, I will mull it over a little more before making a final decision.

Finally, they get an encounter power called Elven Accuracy. This power allows the elf to reroll a failed attack roll. They have to accept the second result even if its lower. I suppose it’s intended to reflect an elf’s sharpshooter skills, but there’s nothing to stop them using it with a mêlée weapon.

Fourth edition elves in the Iourn setting will be the elves that didn’t retreat to the Greymere one thousand years ago, and remained on Iourn. We have already met the Arboreal Guardians of Faerauth in the League of Light campaign, but its a safe assumption that there might other pockets of elfdom somewhere in the world.


The fourth edition half-elf is a charismatic and open-minded creature. They are diplomats, leaders and negotiators designed to slot very well into the warlord or paladin role. Presumably they’ll be good bards too, as soon as that class is published. There’s no mention of the surly loner shunned by both elven and human cultures in this edition, which is a change of emphasis for the race. Of course, that sort of material is easily reintroduced. You should note that half-elves are just that: half-elves. They are not half-eladrin.

Half-elves stand between 5’5″ and 6’2″. They are a little taller than eladrin and elves, but slightly shorter on average than humans. Equally, they are more solidly built than their fey progenitors, but lack the bulk of humans. In third edition, half-elves had an enormous range for their height and weight, and could have been anything from 4’9″ to 6’1″. This is a change for the better, and far more in keeping with what I imagine a half-elf to be. In this edition, half-elves live as long as humans. Half-elves are medium sized, have standard speed and have inherited the low-light vision of the elves. Their +2 stat bonuses are applied to Constitution and Charisma. Unlike the other races, half-elves start with three languages (Common, Elven and one other). They get a +2 bonus to the Perception and Insight skills.

In addition to all that, half-elves have three racial powers. Group Diplomacy grants all allies within 50 feet a +1 bonus to their Diplomacy skills. Presumably a disaproving look or frantic hand gestures from the half-elf prevent the dwarf from putting his size 15s in it. Dual Heritagee nables the half-elf to qualify for any racial feat intended for humans or elves (not eladrin) as well as those specifically designed for half-elves.

Finally, Dilettante, which cemenets the half-elf’s role as a bit of a dabbler. This allows the half-elf to select any at-will power from another character class and use it as an encounter power. Considering the heavily demarcated roles of the fourth edition character classes, this is quite a significant advantage. We’ll talk about how significant in chapter four.


With the departure of gnomes, the halfling is the only Small-sized PC race left in the PHB. In fourth edition, Size does not play the significant role that it once did. It doesn’t provide you with a bonus to armour class, or to hit, or to hide rolls or to the other inumerable things that it used to help with. Neither are Small PCs necessarily weaker than larger characters. You can have a halfling with a Strength of 18 if you want, although you will be playing decidedly against type.

As already discussed in previous posts, these are no longer Tolkien’s hobbits. The halfling is a wandering boatman – sort of an aquatic gypsy. They have also been heavily influenced by the kender from the Dragonlance setting. The result is a unique race that doesn’t owe anything to Middle Earth. The 4e hlafling is an entirely different race, so different that I don’t see why the halflings depicted in second edition, third edition and fourth edition can’t live side by side in the same world.

So what do these new halflings get? They stand between 3’10” and 4’2″, and weigh in between 75 and 85lbs. Third edition halflings stood between 2’8″ and 3’4″ never weighed more than 40lbs. This is a definite and noticeable size increase for them. However, despite their size they still move at the same speed of humans (30 feet per round) – another step up from third edition. However, they have lost any special vision that they possessed in earlier editions of the game. They have the same life expectancy as humans.

The +2 stat bonus common to all races is applied to Dexterity and Charisma. In addition they get +2 to the Acrobatics and Thievery skills. They speak two languages: Common and another of their choice. There is no Hobbit tongue in this edition. They have two other feature and one racial power.

Bold gives them a +5 racial bonus to saving throws against fear. That’s the fearless nature of Krynn’s kender poking through. Nimble Reaction gives them a +2 bonus to AC against opportunity attacks. Now, we’ll have to do something about that in a game without miniatures. I have some ideas that I will come to in a future post. The power, Second Chance, allows the halfling’s player to force a reroll of any attack made against them. It represents the halfling’s luck and can be used once per encounter.


In previous editions, humans were the yardstick from which all other races were measured. In fourth edition, humans stand on their own as a race with their own unique abilities and point of view. In third edition, human was the optimal choice – the extra skill points and bonus feat really made the race stand above its fellows. In 4e, humans are still good but they’re not so good that the min-maxer would always choose a human.

The credo of the human is versatility. They are able to adapt to various different roles and their abilities reflect this. For example, humans only get a +2 bonus to one stat, but they get to choose which stat they enhance.

As for their standard statistics, according to D&D all humans stand between 5’6″ and 6’2″ and weight somewhere between 135 lbs (9 st 9 lbs) and 220 lbs (15 st 10 lbs). Hmmm. They are medium sized creatures with a move of 6 (30 feet), and have normal vision. They can speak two languages (Common and one other). They do not get a +2 bonus to two skills like every other race does. Instead they have following:

Bonus At-Will Power provides with an extra at-will power from their character class. This is over and above their normal number of powers. It’s not any more powerful than the ability of the Dragonborn, or the halfling, but it is more versatile. Bonus Feat confers one bonus feat at first level. Given the new status of feats this isn’t quite as useful as it was in third edition, but it is still not to be sneezed at. Bonus Skill provides the human with an additional trained skill from their class list. And finally, the Human Defence Bonus grants a +1 to Will, Reflex and Fortitude defence. That is all-round useful as you can imagine.

It is worth pointing out that human racial feats concentrate on different uses for Action Points. This makes humans the quintessential action heroes. We’ll talk about action points later.


Tieflings have an impressive pedigree in the D&D game. They were introduced as a player character race for the Planescape campaign setting, and they fitted into that setting perfectly. They were a mortal race with something fiendish in their ancestry. They have all manner of different appearances, but their statistics remained the same. The tiefling was updated for version 3.5 of the game in the Planar Handbook. The third edition tiefling had the following:

Tieflings were outsiders native to the Prime Material Plane. They received +2 Dexterity, +2 Intelligence and -2 to Charisma. They had the same speed as humans, and possessed darkvision (as did most races in the last edition of the game). They gained a +2 bonus to Bluff and Hide checks. Importantly, they could cast darkness once per day as a spell-like ability, and had Energy Resistance 5 to Acid, Fire and Cold. That little package translated into a +1 level adjustment for the race.

Now it’s fourth edition, and the origin story of the tiefling has been streamlined to the point of obsolescence. Now all tieflings are of human origin, descended from an empire than made a fiendish bargain several hundred years ago. Now they all have the same appearance. Whether tieflings are descended from fiends, whether they’re descended from careless pact-makers, or whether they can be both really isn’t the point though. How do their statistics compare?

The fourth edition tiefling stands between 5’6″ and 6’2″ (in third edition they stood between 4’7″ and 6’6″). The 4e tiefling is also heavier. They are still medium-sized creatures with a speed equal to that of a human. Their darkvision has become low-light vision. Their +2 stat bonuses are applied to Intelligence and Charisma (something of a turnaround from third edition). They can speak two languages (Common, plus one other), and get a +2 racial bonus to the Bluff and Stealth skills. They have two class features, and one power:

Bloodhunt grants the tiefling a +1 racial bonus to hit foes that are bloodied (on half hit points or lower). They also have Fire Resistance equal to 5 + one half their level. Their energy resistance is now focused on fire, but has the potential to be much better than it was before. Finally, they have the encounter power, Infernal Wrath. This gives you +1 to hit an enemy that you hit during your last turn, and allows you to add your Charisma modifier to the damage in additon to any other modifiers that may exist.

Personally, I don’t see the need to have changed the background of the tieflings. I also don’t see any reason to be upset about it, as it is a simple matter to change it back. Mechanically, the tiefling looks a little underpowered, but that fire resistance could come in very handy. They work very well with Infernal pact warlocks. But then they would really, wouldn’t they?

Playing More Powerful Races

Okay, I’m taking a little bit of licence now. I’m no longer talking about chapter three of the PHB but this seems a thematically appropriate time to raise the matter of more powerful races. What if you want to play a drow, or a sahuagin or an awakened dire geranium? What are the rules for that in fourth edition?

In third edition if you wanted to play a character race that was more powerful than the norm, then you had a variety of options. For example, let’s say you wanted to play a half-dragon. At character generation you are faced with numerous choices. Firstly you could take your normal race and add the half-dragon template from the Monster Manual. This template has a +3 level adjustment. Your 1st level character would be considered 4th level, and you’d have to earn sufficient experience points for 5th level to advance to level two.

Alternatively, you cold build a character with a view of entering the Dragon Disciple prestige class. The class is largely intended for sorcerers who can enter the prestige class at sixth level. Other classes can qualify, but it will take them longer. The prestige class effectively gives you the half-dragon template over the course of ten levels. A sorcerer 6/dragon disciple 10 is far more powerful than a sorcerer 13 with the half-dragon template. Already there is discrepency.

Alternatively, you could use the rules for Bloodlines published in Unearthed Arcana. You gain special dragon powers every level as you advance, but you have to pay for them by picking up a +1 level adjustment at levels 3, 6 and 12. Again, this method doesn’t produce a comparable result to either the template or the prestige class.

Fourth edition takes a different approach.

In fourth edition, the entire character class is put under the microscope. Fourth edition says that every player character race is entitled to powers and abilities on a par to the eight races depcited in the PHB. In addition to that each PC will gain a paragon path, an epic destiny, seventeen powers, eighteen feats and +24 to their attributes over thirty levels of advancement. It is entirely up to the player how he chooses to spend these additions to his character.

There are racial feats, racial powers and racial paragon paths that are available if the player wants to take them. The drow PC race will be published in new the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It is still more powerful than the elf and the eladrin so a number of the drow’s signature abilities (such as the ability to levitate, or conjure darkness) will be available through special feats and powers. Now, players of drow characters can choose to select these common racial abilities, but they do so at the expense of their class abilities. Therefore, a 30th level human wizard, and a 30th level drow wizard should be of the same power level. However, the drow has probably chosen far more racial feats and powers to get where he is than the human.

There are racial feats in the Player’s Handbook for all of the above races. Many of these feats improve upon the racial abilities that I have already mentioned. For example, the Dragonborn can choose a feat that increases the area their breath weapon affects; Tieflings can choose a feat that pushes foes back every time they use their infernal wrath.

One of the goals of the designers of 4e was to make your choice of race matter even as you advanced in levels. If you wanted your dwarf to be more ‘dwarfy’ you could choose racial feats and powers that further exemplify the dwarf. I think they have succeeded in this goal.

I suspect that some of you will be thinking that all this is completely unrealistic. That a 30th level drow wizard should be more powerful than a 30th level human wizard simply by dint of what it is. From a story persepctive, I would agree with you. But this is not about the story. Character levels are solely there to provide a means to balance player characters with one another, and to help GMs gauge the sort of threats he can realistically throw at a party. They aren’t meant to represent anything in the game world itself.

In fourth edition, I know that a 15th level character – regardless of their race, their class or their weirdo background – is going to be the equal of any other 15th level character. In the context of the world, the setting and the story this is meaningless, but in the context of the adventuring party this is everything. No one player character should be more powerful than any other player character, that is the very foundation of cooperative roleplaying. This is very complicated in Dungeons and Dragons. We’re not playing Call of Cthulhu, in D&D every character has so many toys that it becomes increasingly difficult to balance them all out. If fourth edition has done this, then it is an acheivement of which the designers should be justly proud.

Enter the Monster Manual

Nearly done, bear with me a bit longer.

The fourth edition Monster Manual  lists an additional sixteen races that may be used as player characters with the GM’s permission. These races are: Bugbear, Doppelganger, Drow, Githyanki, Githzerai, Gnoll, Gnome, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Kobold, Minotaur, Orc, Shadar-kai, Shifter (Longtooth and Razorclaw flavours) and Warforged.

This is a quick fix. This entry is largely presented as a GM’s tool. These races are not optimised for player characters. If you compare the Monster Manual entry for the Warforged with the way the player character version turned out in Dragon #364 then there is really no comparisson.

Without going into too many details I would like to point out a few things, and in order to do that I’m going to take the Minotaur as an example. In third edition, you could take any monster presented in the Monster Manual and see how a PC version would work. The third edition Minotair was presented as having the following attributes: Str 19, Dex 10, Con 15, Int 7, Wis 10 and Cha 8. From that you could extrapolate the attribute modifiers that PCs would enjoy: Str +8, Con +4, Int -4 and Cha -2.

The fourth edition Monster Manual gives us three different versions of the minotaur: the Minotaur Warrior (Str 23, Con 18, Dex 10, Int 9, Wis 14, Cha 13); the Minotaur Cabalist (Str 22, Con 17, Dex 12, Int 13, Wis 17, Cha 16) and the Savage Minotaur (Str 24, Con 20, Dex 12, Int 5, Wis 19, Cha 12). What stat modifiers do PC minotaurs get? +2 to Strength, and +2 to Constitution.

So what is the game saying? Is it saying that PC minotaurs will always be less powerful that NPC minotaurs? No, it doesn’t, but what it is saying is that player character races and ridiculously high stats are a thing of the past.

The minotaurs in the 4e MM1 are not first level. They are 10th, 13th and 15th level respectively. A PC who starts with the basic array suggested in the Player’s Handbook (16, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10) and adds in the racial bouses, and then adds in the stat bonuses he gets from gaining levels is going to reach 10th or 13th or 15th level with stats that are comparable to these minotaurs. They may not be exactly the same, but they will be close enough.

And here is the point worth making, and worth remembering. In third edition the monsters in the MM are average for their race. From those average stats you could derrive attribute modifiers. However, because the PCs were not average those modifiers were quickly blown out of all proportion. Which is why you could get a starting minotaur with Strength 27. In fourth edition, the emphasis is more on party balance, and player choice. You could play a minotaur and choose to have an obscene strength, but you could also play a dragonborn, or a warforged or a halfling and make the same choice.

The system is simpler, it is less open to abuse and does not adversely affect the setting’s verissimilitude. It is grounded firmly in the assumption that D&D is an heroic game, and that the PCs are larger than life heroic characters. I will speak about that assumption in a later post, but for now I think we should be content that races seem to balance with one another in a way that they didn’t before. This may mean I actually allow some of these races in the game.


The next chapter of the Player’s Handbook looks as the new character classes, but we’re not going to do that. I’m jumping to Chapter Nine to look at the combat rules.

Treasure of Talon Pass

While I continue to ponder the new core rules and the 4e combat system, I thought I would jot down a few thoughts about the latest official adventure. The Treasure of Talon Pass was released as part of Free RPG Day 2008. Frankly, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing… I only stumbled across the concept and the product by accident. Fortunately Westgate Games in Canterbury was participating (one of the few game shops in the UK that was) so I was able to get a copy without resorting to eBay.

A shame it wasn’t worth it really.

This won’t be quite as damning as my review of Keep on the Shadowfell. The Treasure of Talon Pass is not a complete adventure, and doesn’t pretend to be. It is the finale of a larger adventure; the disappointing last act of an otherwise promising play. It is a dungeon crawl, taking players through eleven rooms of increasing carnage. No imagination is necessary, and there is certainly nothing as tricky as roleplaying to be found in the adventure.

Physically, the product is more recognisable than Keep on the Shadowfell. This is the typical adventure format used for years by TSR. A removable card cover conceals a thirty-two page adventure booklet. The paper lacks the glossy finish of more recent releases, but is far more robust as a result. The adventure is also in black and white to save on costs. However, the general appearance and pagination matches the previous 4e releases, and the art is recycled from these releases as well. Frankly, I’d rather see all 4e adventures in this format. If they were they’d be about £10 cheaper.

Only twenty of the thirty-two pages contain the adventure. The rest of the booklet is made up of adverts and five pregenerated player characters. These are the same PCs that were printed in Keep on the Shadowfell, but they’ve been advanced (incorrectly) to second level.

To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of the product. It was free, so on the one hand you feel privileged to have it at all. On the other hand, I can’t imagine ever using it. Dave Noonan attempts to introduce some hooks to tie this adventure with a wider campaign, but they fall a little flat. Use the same descriptions for other dungeons in your campaign world and introduce a sense of continuity! Put a known NPC’s name on this ancient tapestry to hint at a dark past! It’s not very sophisticated.

Spoilers ahoy.

The plot (such as it is) revolves around the PCs entering a dungeon to retrieve a jade chalice. They arrive shortly after a party of orcs who are also after the chalice. The chalice is a complete macguffin. There’s no attempt to explain why the PCs might want it, why the orcs want it, or what its wider significance might be. The chalice is in the possession of a dragon and his wizard servant, but they don’t use it for anything or even seem to ascribe any importance to it. Their presence in the dungeon is entirely coincidental to the chalice. In short, this adventure doesn’t actually tell a story.

Now, the party of orcs is an interesting idea. You can imagine the PCs battling them, before realising that the dungeon is too dangerous for one group alone. The PCs and the orcs team up, the orcs gain individual personalities, and there’s a lot of roleplaying as the PCs have to work with the orcs to overcome challenges. Then in the finale, the orcs and the PCs must betray one another, and perhaps break the bonds of friendship and respect to attain their goal. Now, that would have be a good and memorable adventure. Unfortunately, Noonan has all the orcs wiped out by kobold skirmishers in room 2, which utterly torpedoes that idea.

I despair for the future of D&D if Keep on the Shadowfell and Treasure of Talon Passare the best adventures Wizards feel they can produce. They’re unimaginative and derivative tripe. While they may have some utility as a primer for learning the combat rules, I wouldn’t let either of them within a mile of an actual campaign. I find it shocking that anyone else would.

What is more, in Treasure of Talon Pass the creativity bar has been set even lower than their last effort. I suspect that because this was a free adventure, the designers didn’t really try to give their best work. There are parts of the adventure that make no narrative sense, and other parts that make no sense full stop. Why is the dragon Skatharilarn in this dungeon? Why does he need to employ the services of a wizard? Why don’t the wizard and the dragon actually work together against the PCs? Why is there an arena that spews forth undead for the party to fight, and why does the wizard decide to lure them there?

If I was Skatharilarn and a bunch of adventures had massacred all the kobolds I had placed on the upper level (and remember these kobolds are good enough to take out a dozen orcs!) then I would hit those adventures as quickly as I could with all the power at my disposal. Anything less is a nonsense.

The fact the adventure is free is not an excuse for it being bad. There’s nothing here of any worth, unless you’re in the market for a new magic item not presented in the DMG. This is a product for completists and masochists. There’s no meat on these bones.

By far the best stuff for fourth edition is being printed on the Wizard’s website. Click over there and have a look at the articles for Dragon and Dungeon magazine while they’re still free. The article on Goblins is particularly good. I’ll probably get around to reviewing these additions to the cannon when all the articles are collected into Dragon #364, which should happen in the next week or so.


Back to the Player’s Handbook.