4th Edition D&D - Why It Might Be a Perfect Time to Revisit
If you have been involved with D&D as long as I have, you've seen almost every edition of the game ever released to the public. But if not, here's a quick rundown. 1st Edition was just the framework for what would eventually become the "world's greatest roleplaying game". 2nd Edition expanded tenfold on the lore and introduced many of the characters we know and love today. 3rd Edition had an insane number of options, allowing you to fully customize almost everything about your character (and eventually led to the creation of Pathfinder). 5th Edition is our current system, and it's probably the most successful and accessible edition of D&D to date, although in 2024 One D&D seeks to eliminate the idea of "editions" and focus on pulling everything together into a system that can constantly be tweaked without always creating another edition, almost like a "live" video game where they install updates once you've bought the core game. However, with the emergence of COVID over the past few years and the resulting virtual TTRPG boom, and One D&D's ambitions to create a fully realized digital playspace, I think it's time to re-examine 4th Edition because while it didn't make for a game that played and felt like your normal D&D, it is almost perfectly suited for virtual tabletop gaming.
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My feelings about 4th Edition have been pretty strong in the past. I've been playing D&D since I was a kid, with 2nd Edition and then into 3rd Edition when I was given the Dungeon Master's Guide one year for Christmas by my friend's mom when I was a teenager. When 4th Edition finally released in the early 2000's, I was actually pretty excited. I knew that 4th Edition was going to be *MY* edition and I was a full-time worker by that time with my own expendable income. As soon as it was released, I went out and I bought literally everything I could to set myself up. To my dawning horror, I realized just how much you had to buy with 4th Edition compared to earlier editions, namely the tokens and/or miniatures you needed to play with the World of Warcraft-esque game mechanics that didn't function well at all if you played theater of the mind like I usually do. Still, I did my due diligence and began a campaign with my younger brother. He had played earlier incarnations of the game with me before, so he was pretty excited as well. We only lasted a few game sessions before I realized even with everything I bought, in order to play the game to its full potential I would need to buy even more books and boxes of tokens. And, next to the miniatures, the tokens seemed a very poor replacement. This was before 3d printing, and minis were expensive. Tokens were cheaper but lackluster in comparison and in a game where minis or at least tokens are *required* to play, it really took a lot of wind out of my sails, and I slowly just stopped playing D&D all together until I gave it another chance with 5E - which I do not regret. I didn't have the money back then for even more books that would flesh out the individual classes and compared to the number of books available for 5E, 4E released at least ten or twenty more. And let's not even talk about the recession of 2008, which happened the same year 4E was released and affected lots of people's incomes and financial security, even mine.
However, I decided to revisit 4th Edition recently just conceptually because maybe it was just ahead of its time when it was released and maybe those of us who didn't appreciate it back then weren't ready for it. I still don't personally view 4E as "true" D&D - it's way different from every other edition that exists, mechanically speaking, and plays more like a board game or video game than it does traditional D&D. But 4E would work perfectly as another alternative to mainstream D&D for people who enjoy virtual tabletops and all their accoutrements. With virtual play, you're already viewing a screen in the first place as if it were a video game experience with your participation dependent on the viewing of that screen. Virtual tabletops provide much easier access to VTT tokens and digital maps as well as music tracks, atmospheric effects, and graphics than if you were to try to acquire all those things in their physical form with various other media outside of virtual play. It's already all in one place and certainly wouldn't be as expensive as buying all the physical miniatures you'd need to play 4E as it was originally released. But even if you were to play 4E as it was released back then nowadays, 3d printing has made miniatures very cheap to make potentially if you have the extra money for a 3d printer as well as printed maps being easier to print at home or to make with various tools in the modern age.
4E was a top-down system, dependent on area of attack and line of sight, with powers and game mechanics heavily focusing on combat with the roleplaying element taking a back seat to the action. This could be really fun for wargamers or for people who enjoy miniatures wargames like Warhammer or Battletech. If you never saw the way 4E explained their rules, this is one of the many images they used in the core rulebooks.
As you can see, they used a very tactical approach to the game, and from this image alone you can also see how a virtual tabletop would be ideal for this sort of gameplay. All of the things in this image are currently available as assets in most virtual tabletop providers like Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds. The reasons why I never liked 4E and possibly why many others didn't like 4E when it was released, could be its greatest strengths in today's digitally focused world.
Did you play 4E? Do you still play 4E? Let us know in the comments. The good thing about any edition of D&D is that they all still exist, and you can play them at any time. -Joe