What are the major differences between D&D 4e and 5e? I have been playing 4e for about a year, and I have been considering selling my books to get 5e. What are the major differences, and is there anything new in combat? (Is it easier to figure out?)
[RPG] What are the major differences between D&D 4e and 5e
The two games are very different, despite sharing the same underpinnings. I know plenty of people who played previous editions who don't like 4e, and I know plenty of people who played previous editions who loved 4e. Hopefully we can navigate these rocky, contentious waters without flames.
First off, 4e is fairly light on non-combat rules. This doesn't mean that 4e games are all about combat; it means that the rules assume that a lot of the roleplaying activities that were codified in 3e will be done via freeform roleplay. For example, there aren't any crafting rules for anything other than magic items. There also aren't any general professional skills, and there aren't any NPC classes. If you prefer to have rules for that sort of thing, 3e will be a better choice for you.
Second, 4e uses a power-based design methodology. Classes can be thought of as collections of powers; the differences between classes are defined by the different power choices they have. This makes for a very modular and flexible system. Some people find that it makes the classes overly homogeneous; some people like it.
Third, every 4e class uses powers. That's implied by my second point but it's worth mentioning specifically. A character begins with two at-will powers, that he can use whenever he wants; one encounter power, that can be used once per fight; and one daily power, that can be used once per day. Even martial characters, such as warriors, use this paradigm -- although their "powers" might be better thought of as something akin to a martial arts kata. This was intended to make combat more interesting for (say) fighters, in comparison to the earlier model where fighters just tended to hit things over and over again. If you didn't mind that model, this change may be unnecessary for your play style.
Fourth, 4e leans more heavily on the battlemap. My impression is that the large number of movement-oriented powers both make the battlemap more important and make combat more fluid, but that's definitely a subjective opinion on my part: consider it something to think about if you try 4e rather than a definite fact.
Fifth, 4e introduces the concepts of roles. Roles are a way of classifying classes by what they tend to do in combat. You've got leaders, who heal. There are more of them than just the cleric; for example, the bard is also a leader. You've got defenders, who control the battlefield by encouraging enemies to focus their attacks on them. The fighter is a defender; so is the paladin. You've got controllers, who are somewhat difficult to define, but you can think of them as the classes that affect the flow of a fight: they can hamper enemies, reshape terrain, and so on. The wizard is a classic controller. And, finally, you've got strikers, who purely focus on doing damage. The ranger and the sorcerer are strikers. Every class is primarily one role, but every class has the ability to take on aspects of another role, depending on what the player wants to do.
Sixth, multiclassing is more limited than in 3e. You can multiclass in a couple of ways, but you don't get the same ability to take six or seven classes/prestige classes during the course of your career. 4e classes are fairly flexible, but you don't get the same complete freedom you would with 3e multiclassing.
Seventh, the scope and feel of 4e can be somewhat more epic; or, to put it differently, more broad. The highest level is level 30, and that's very epic play, with abilities that allow characters to come back from the dead. Even at level 1, your characters are significantly more durable than third edition characters, and they'll be able to pull off some really wild things.
I think that hits most of the major differences. It's good to remember that it's still a heroic fantasy game in which characters fight monsters. It still uses a 20 sided die. Also, if you want to try it out, WotC has a free Quick Start kit available.
Alternatively, the new Essentials Red Box will be out in a few weeks; at $20 US, it might be a good way to take a peek at the game and decide if you like it. The Essentials core books will present a bunch of new class variants that change some of the things above: e.g., fighters won't have the same power structure I mentioned. So that might be a better entrance point.
- the list of classes
- the presumption of Non-Weapon Proficiencies
- Advancement of Thief Skills
- nature of Bards
- Specialist Mages
The list of Classes
AD&D 1E Core: Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Illusionist, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, Wizard. Bard is special, see below.
AD&D 1E+ UA: Assassin, Barbarian, Cavalier, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Illusionist, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, Thief-Acrobat, Wizard. Bard is special, see below.
AD&D 2E: Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic User, Paladin, Ranger, Specialist Mage, Thief. Barbarian and Cavalier still exist, but as kits, which see below.
While NWP's exist in late AD&D 1E, they are presumed to be optional add-ons, and not listed in adventures.
In AD&D 2E, while technically optional, almost all examples and almost all pregen characters include the Non-Weapon proficiencies. They are presumed as a part of the game line design. This is a huge change in the nature of adventures, too. The use of NWP's is expected in some adventures, and explicitly required for a few more.
In AD&D 1E, thief skills advance along specific tracks, and all characters of a given level have the same ones have the same base, modified for race, armor, and attributes. This also means NPC thieves do not need their scores listed, as they can be figured from the DM Screen on the fly.
In AD&D 2E, thief skills have a base at 1st level, but a pool of points added to that base at 1st level, and a smaller pool at each level thereafter. Thief skills must be listed for NPC's, as it's much harder to assign on the fly.
Further, in later 2E materials (Dark Sun, Skills & Powers), there are additional thief skills added, and PC thieves pick which ones they take at first level, and gain the remainder at 9th.
This also affects Bards, as in 2E, bards gain certain thief skills for being bards, and use the same points per level method as thieves.
In AD&D 1E, the Bard in the PH can only be taken by dual-classed fighter/thief characters. The Character must be between 5th and 8th level as a fighter, then 4th and 7th as a thief, and then dual class into Bard. This requires some insane stats, and extensive play. Bards will likewise have extensive thief abilities, be competent fighters, and will not gain more HP for several levels due to the dual classing rules.
In AD&D 2E, Bards are a core class. The thief skills are a subset, not the full range. Fighting ability is weaker than fighters. HP are comparable to thieves.
Historical Note: The original Bard class in Strategic Review was closer to the 2E bard than the 1E presentation, but the details of ability were comparable to using the 1E bard as a core class.
Kits (2E only)
The concept of Kits is mentioned in the 2E Core Rules, but they are not presented until the Player's Handbook Rules Expansions (PHBR series). A kit has a set of requirements, provides some bonus proficiencies, and occasionally, bonus special abilities. Many were somewhat extreme.
The equivalent role in 1E was filled by specialized subclasses presented in magazines, as exemplified by the Cavalier...
AD&D 1E has 4 specialist mage classes, with only one, Illusionist, in the core rules. (The other 3 are in the Forgotten Realms Adventures rulebook.) Illusionist is presented as a full-up core class; the Forgotten Realms ones are full from the 3rd level on, and require core Magic User for levels 1-3. A few additional specialist classes appear in magazine articles.
AD&D 2E presents 8 specialist wizard subclasses as a single core class in the PHB. They differ from each other only in specific spells and attribute requirements.
There is no specific specialist spell lists, but every spell has specific school attributions, and those schools are the basis for the specialist classes. All specialists spells are available to core magic users.
An additional variant class is presented in Tome of Magic, the Wild Mage.
Clerics, Priests, and Druids.
In both games, both cleric and druid are presented as a core class.
In AD&D 1E, they have separate, and only somewhat overlapping, spell lists.
In 2E, both use Priest Spells. 2E Clerical spells are assigned to specific Spheres, with a number being in more than one sphere. Clerics have several spheres; druids have a specified set of spheres. Provision is made in the PHB to allow for creation of similarly specialized priest classes; further details are in the PHBR for Clerics...
Since the whole of the priestly spell list is unavailable to core priests, this makes it more difficult to select what spells are available to a given priest... but it's also now a smaller list for any given priest.
THAC0, "To Hit Armor Class 0," was a shortcut used in some later AD&D 1E materials, which imperfectly reflected the AD&D 1E To Hit tables, with their flat spots.
THAC0 was adopted as the official mechanic for AD&D 2E, and the To-Hit tables reworked to make use of it.
This may seem trivial, but it makes negative AC's much harder to hit for low level characters, as AD&D 1E has a 6 AC entries for a To-Hit of 20. So a Modified roll of 21 in the tables hits an AC 5 lower than using THAC0. (As a reminder, the modifiers were situational and attribute only; THAC0 itself is modified in AD&D 2E, and table of roll needed is indexed by Level (on a class basis) and AC being attacked.
In 1E, psionics are in the core rules, in an appendix, relatively unchanged from their Original Edition version in Eldritch Wizardy (Supplement 3).
In 2E, psionics are in a PHBR rulebook, not the core rules. The mechanics get reworked entirely, and while having throwbacks to the older rules, they are quite different in execution. The use of proficiency-score checks, and the methods of generating Psionic Points are very different.
- The specific modifiers for attack rolls have changed.
- Many specific spells have significant explicit changes
- specific wordings changing resulting in different interpretations on many spells
- specifics of the Weapons vs Armor tables differ within AD&D 2E; they are different as well from AD&D 1E.
- Specific entries for the XP earned by non-combat methods.
- Many monsters have changes, sometimes extensive and substantial. Especially Dragons.
- Angels, Demons and Devils are not called that in AD&D 2E. Baatezu and Tan'ari are demons and devils.
So what's the same???
Mode of play remains unchanged. The relationship of the Initial 3 classes (Fighter, Mage, Cleric) remain the same, and the Thief as well in relation to those. The Druid, Paladin, and Ranger as well retain their core character.
The general modes of advancement are the same, even tho the specific methods of earning XP have been expanded, and the XP tables are close (tho not always identical).
The basic mode for magic is still the same, and is still spells per day.
The save categories remain unchanged. The unique monsters - illithids, rust monsters, beholders, and several others are the same as ever in general terms, even if some specifics vary.
2E is a different game from 1E, but shares much of the heritage. They're able to borrow across, but rules as written, they are not the same games. There was far less difference between Original Edition D&D as expanded and AD&D 1e than between 1E and 2E.
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I am not going to list all of the mechanical differences between 4e and 5e; though that is the typical, and no doubt expected, answer to this question, 4e and 5e are simply much too different for that approach, in my opinion. Instead, this answer attempts to get at the extreme philosophical differences between 4e and 5e. Ultimately, you are going to have to treat 5e as its own separate product; knowledge of 4e will probably result more in bad habits or misplaced expectations, than it is to offer an inside track to learning 5e.
Now then, time for a history lesson:
D&D 4e was an attempt to start D&D over. It was rebuilt from the ground up, with lots of, for lack of a better term, “modern” design principles applied, and no sacred cow was safe.
D&D had accumulated a very large number of mechanics and other details over the years in a haphazard fashion, and many of them were considered either dubious ideas to begin with, or obsolete, meant for older playstyles that were no longer popular. Wizards thought it could do better by cleaning up the game, removing legacy content that was no longer fitting for the game they thought players wanted.
Market research suggested that D&D tables tended to focus on combat, tended to focus on big, epic narratives, and tended to be annoyed by bookkeeping, concerns about mechanics that didn’t work as advertised or that couldn’t keep up with other options, and how much work DM preparation required. They also found that people were sometimes reluctant to buy new material for their games, because DMs didn’t have the time or interest to vet it, and wouldn’t allow it in their games prior to doing so. As a company looking to sell books, this was obviously a problem.
So balance and ease of adding new material to a table was a major focus. WotC made the decision to label all books “core” and suggested that you ought to be able to show up to any table, anywhere, and use a character built with any of the published books.
To players, it was a promise that you could find a place to play that character you wanted to play (read: a promise that if you bought books from them, you’d be able to use them).
To DMs, it was a promise that you didn’t have to worry about the character built with some new book; as long as it was done by the book, it would work fine. They also promised digital tools to make checking that relatively simple.
In addition, D&D originally had a very strong logistical focus; accounting for all of your supplies, figuring out how to actually haul all of the dragon’s horde out after slaying it, and so on, were major parts of the game. Play preferences in the decades since D&D’s inception, however, had moved away from these, and tended to prefer to focus on characters and stories. There was also a greater embrace of “high fantasy,” not as concerned with perfectly simulating a world so much as simulating a certain narrative. So Wizards also sought to offer a lot of “quality of life” improvements to limit accounting and bookkeeping, to keep the game moving.
By the same token, embracing the “epic” “high fantasy” style meant embracing the extreme growth potential of the previous 3.5 edition, which had probably been accidental in that edition.
In order to accomplish these goals (and by and large, they did, though of course none of them were accomplished perfectly, or necessarily accomplished at all right out of the gate), Wizards changed a lot of things about the game. For examples:
Classes were streamlined, and to a casual review, homogenized, in the name of balance (and, presumably, to ease integration with the digital tools).
Everything revolved around the use of powers, discrete abilities that were basically supposed to sum up the totality of actions available to a character.
Roles, which were previously just an idea some players had, were made an explicit part of the rules of the game, and the game carefully protected classes’ roles, preventing classes from covering multiple roles too well.
Tiers weren’t precisely new – 3e had Epic as an optional post-20th ruleset, and the old BECMI rules are even named for their five tiers (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal) – but Epic rules were rarely used in 3e, and BECMI was quite old. Coming from AD&D (which had things called Epic, but did not involve more levels) or from one of the overwhelming majority of 3.x tables that never used the Epic rules, 4e had a much stronger and more explicit emphasis on becoming near-godlike. (This is despite the fact that the power available to 3.x characters at the high end absolutely dwarfs anything that 4e characters can do; that was an unintentional part of that system, and most tables never saw it.)
Many details that had previously required a lot of bookkeeping were glossed over, or simply ignored entirely in the favor of the epic narrative, especially if they weren’t relevant to combat.
Combat, which honestly had always constituted the largest chunk of D&D rules, became seen as very close to the only thing developers cared about. The little fiddly bits that were being glossed over were how D&D did non-combat, so with those gone, non-combat mechanics became quite abstract and steamlined
And working from the ground up, WotC eschewed quite a few mechanics that had a long legacy within D&D, the so-called “sacred cows.” Exactly which things were sacred varies based on who you asked, but since WotC was starting from scratch, a huge number of candidates for sacred cow status were not included in 4e.
The problem with all of this was that they changed a lot of things. A huge portion of the gaming tables could find something they hated about 4th edition, whether it was the (apparently) homogenous classes, the lack of detail in non-combat portions of the game, or the insistence that players should be able to show up using a new book, rather than DM acting as gatekeeper for new material. Or just whatever sacred cow they objected to the slaughter of; there were many.
In particular, 4e’s abstract and streamlined out-of-combat play, the lack of fiddly rules, was a problem. In many ways, this matched how prior editions of D&D were actually played – many, many tables ignored the fiddly rules and just did their own thing, out of combat – but the fact that the books didn’t get into details gave readers the idea that 4e was a game purely about combat, that they weren’t supposed to put much emphasis at all on non-combat aspects of the game. Removing the fiddly bits, even the ones that they didn’t use, made 4e “not real D&D” for a lot of people. And of course, many did use the fiddly bits, or at least used some of them.
This led to a fracturing of the D&D playerbase:
Quite a few players did move to 4e (and 4e did relatively well in terms of grabbing new players),
A large fraction of players stuck with the prior 3.5e (and many of those later moved to the spin-off by Paizo, Pathfinder).
Many even went back to the TSR-era D&D products, mostly 2nd edition, as 4e convinced them that they were not fans of WotC’s D&D wholesale (and just as with Pathfinder, an “old school revolution” developed to take advantage of that demand).
5e is an attempt to re-unite the player base. Rather than attempting to promise that all material will work at all tables, 5e has promised a massively modular design, allowing every table to tailor the game to exactly what they want. Many of the sacred cows, not included in 4e, have made a return. Where 4e was a highly detailed tactical simulator wherein almost all causes and effects had explicit rules, 5e relies massively on DM adjudication – just as previous editions had.
This is not without cost. 4e’s streamlining and balancing made it a very deep tactical combat game with an astonishing number of options. Being extremely detailed and explicit meant that the game gave players a lot of ability to anticipate how the various options they had would work, what would be more valuable. It also meant that DMs had a ton of guidance and resources to work with. One of the biggest advantages that 4e offered was the ease with which DMs could put together fun, interesting combat encounters that just worked – 5e is not in a position to guarantee that, and relies much more on DM work to make that happen.
Further, some of the quality-of-life improvements are gone, in the name of re-enshrining various sacred cows. Greater emphasis on these features is basically how non-4e editions of D&D do non-combat activity, but it means that there are a lot of mundane issues that 4e treated as trivial and did not spend player time on.
Finally, 5e does not have tiers, and is actually designed very strongly with being “flat” in mind. Bounded accuracy and other mechanics mean that even high-level characters can still be threatened by lower-level challenges, particularly if the latter have a numerical advantage. 20th-level 5e characters are not the “one-man army, about to start on a path to immortality” paragons that 20th-level 4e characters are.
So when moving from 4e to 5e, both players and DM will have to consider material more critically. Not all options are necessarily balanced with each other, or even relatively balanced, nor are they necessarily intended to be. Many things that the DM could simply look up in 4e, cannot be in 5e, and he will have to make something up (and that also means that players will not be able to know how many things are going to work until they ask their DM, and that knowledge most likely will apply only to that DM). Combat will also be much more simple, which will mean they are quicker, but may also mean they are less intrinsically interesting. Out of combat aspects of the game may take more of a focus, but much of that will still be left up to the DM (just more explicitly so, this time). In short, 4e is very much the odd one out among D&D editions, and 5e is a return to form. If 4e is the only D&D you have played, however, 5e may surprise, and even disappoint, you as much as 4e did for those who preferred the editions that came before.