In one of the many articles about the announcement of DnDNext, Mike Mearls made a statement about the edition as a whole that particularly applies to DMs in 4e: “In some ways, it was like we told people, ‘The right way to play guitar is to play thrash metal,’ but there’s other ways to play guitar.” Maybe the analogy of thrash metal wasn’t the best one because it sounds like a very grognardy criticism of 4e – it is so mechanically loud and noisy that it’s practically impenetrable for those who want to chill out and listen to/ play something a bit more accessible.
I do believe, though, that Mearls hit the nail on the head that 4e was great for a specific and intentional ‘golden playstyle’ of games and DMs – the ones who liked to spend 50% or more time in combat, and who had PCs that were between mechanically terrible and highly optimized (what I call “solidly built” ). That DM could trust that a gang of at-level monsters was a decent challenge for those PCs, unlike in previous editions where a CR 10 monster could have been absolutely anything from a pushover to a world crusher. Monster roles made organizing monster groups really easy, and monster powers meant that DMs didn’t have to craft a bad guy’s spell list or do any of that kind of stuff. Further, there was p. 42 of the DMG that laid out all the relevant damage numbers, and also the chapter that made leveling monsters up and down really easy. DMing in 4e is fun, especially if you were an experienced DM that was able to weave together some RP elements into combats (like in-combat skill challenge). Poking around the blogosphere and podcasts, lots of long time DMs agree that DMing in 4e was a very user-friendly experience for them.
However, DMing became a lot more of a pain in the you-know-what if you weren’t in 4e’s specified wheelhouse. Specifically, for DMs who wanted less tactical complexity to make even more room for roleplaying, and for DMs who wanted more tactical complexity to keep up with optimizing PCs, 4e did not support either in any real way. It managed to come up short for both types of DMs!
For those who wanted a less complex combat system so that they had room for funky, interesting characters (cleric/ rogue, anyone?), or for those who wanted to do emphasize world building, exploration and other deeper roleplayer-type stuff, 4e didn’t provide a lot of help. Especially with 4e’s early books, there was so much crunch, so many rules, so many combat-lengthening options, etc. Granted, it didn’t intentionally hurt roleplaying and creativity as some contend, but the medium was definitely the message here. Plus, there is only so much time in a session. If most of it is spent calculating attack bonuses, figuring out exact movement to set up flanks, or arguing whether immobilized and grabbed were the same thing, that’s time not spent negotiating with the dragon that’s doing the grabbing, or imagining RP alternatives to the whole situation.
On the other side, I think that 4e didn’t do much to help DMs who were happy with the tactical end of things (or more accurately, who were happy that their players were happy), and wanted more options to help make better encounters. Player options spiked while monster options kind of stagnated. Players got wonderful online tools that kept powers, feats, and items organized, and forums both official and unofficial readily directed players to the best options, combos, and tactics. I think they finally got around to fixing the online monster builder about a month ago. I remember being overwhelmed while DMing for an optimized LFR party and then looking for the Monster/ Encounter Optimization board or something similar for advice on how to counter PC tactics. I found nothing. I will go as far as to say that official 4e DMing advice was very naive, almost dishonest, about the ways in which players could break 4e’s intended power curve. Increasing player power isn’t necessarily bad. I want players to be happy and feel powerful if that’s fun for them. But some real tools to help monsters keep up, or real advice on mechanical fixes to bring PC power back in line (for home games), would have been great.
Since we’re at the phase where lots of people are putting together their wishlists for 5e, and since we hope the powers-that-be are reading this stuff, here’s my DM-centric wishlist:
1) Keep what was good for DMs about 4e for those who loved it. As I said before, 4e was a huge success for that golden middle of groups. Please find ways to keep that good stuff.
2) Strip down the basic combat system for DMs and groups who want to spend more session time on roleplayer stuff, or on weaving together combat and RP. Once again, many experienced DMs have done this by instinct. But those DMs could always use more resources, and newer ones sure could use the help. Sounds like this is the direction D&D Next is going in, so no need to comment more here.
3) Release a book entitled The Dungeon Masters’s Strategy Guide that gives real advice about how monsters work, how to craft encounters, how to craft houserules, and how to adjust threat level up or down beyond just adjusting monster math. That resource could also have more monster themes and templates, more encounter templates, a database with traps, curses, diseases, terrain features, and environmental effects, (coupled, of course, with online resources that supplement what would be in here), and more. The DMGs of various editions had some that stuff, but they are necessarily and rightfully general, dealing with crafting good stories, managing interpersonal group dynamics, etc. That’s awesome, but please do not shy away from crunch from those of us who loved it!
4) Release more DM-centric content in general, especially in terms of online tools. Some of us are old hats and don’t need a lot of support. But if we want to grow the hobby, we need more tools for DMs to do the best job they can.
There are LOTS of DMs with LOTS of different tastes and styles. Get to know the full spectrum, and print stuff that supports all kinds. Please everyone. That is all.