Now, let me make one thing clear: I still don’t like 3.5 very much either. But I’m not as excited about 4E as I once was. Here’s why.
I’ve been playing Star Wars SAGA for a good long while now. Now, normally what I do is treat a game as a sort of “primary:” I play lots of games, but I focus most of my attention on one system or another. I’ve had a few of these over the years, but only four for any significant length of time: D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, Shadowrun 4th, and Star Wars SAGA. The merits of 3.5 have been discussed to death elsewhere, and honestly, if you’re reading this you probably have an opinion on it. Suffice it to say that I don’t like it as much as any of the other above systems. Also, Shadowrun is a very different style of game than the others; it’s not d20, and lends itself to a bit more of a “beer and pretzels” feel. (Note: this is a very good thing, if ya ask me.)
So that just leaves SAGA and 4E. Now, both games are d20 system games, both are by the same company, and both have similar mechanics — SAGA was actually a testing ground for a lot of the 4E mechanics. (Compare 3.5–SAGA–4E skills, for instance.) You’d think they run in the same way. And, well, they sort of do. But there’s a huge difference between them, and that’s the level system.
See, the thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth about 4E? It’s not what a lot of people complain about. I don’t think the classes are generic in terms of flavor; I don’t think that there aren’t enough options to play the character you want. I don’t think that having the classes work off the same mechanics was a bad idea; as it happens, I still think it’s a good one. No, what bothers me is this: there’s just not a huge difference between what a level 1 character does and what a level 30 character does.
Okay, WHAT? That is a pretty hefty claim to make. I mean, people are dealing tons more damage and attacking with a much higher to-hit, right? Well… yeah. And that’s really about it. Because of the way the system works, you’ll only ever have four powers of each type. And while you get new and exciting ones while leveling up, they’re basically just higher-level versions of the same thing. Your character may be getting more objectively powerful, but to me it seems that he’s just running faster on a treadmill.
Add to this the fact that feats and class abilities have been de-emphasized in terms of power, and you get this system where you level up really fast and barely even notice. It doesn’t help that since feats are so terrible, you’re either taking from an incredibly small set or picking stuff you’ll never, ever use. The end result is that you just don’t notice the difference in your character’s abilities, and that’s (for me) one of the most fun parts of the game.
Note that there’s more to abilities than mechanics. I work off the basic assumption that we’re all roleplaying because we want to play characters that can do stuff. Maybe not awesomely, maybe not as well as other people in the setting, but you wanna be able to swing a sword, shoot a gun, cast a spell, or use the Force starting from day one. And then, as your character becomes more experienced (and comes into more Experience), they start to be able to affect the world around them in different ways. That’s what’s not reflected in 4E: your character, in a large way, never changes. And compared to something like SAGA — where every single level offers new and exciting change — that’s just not very interesting to me.
So I’ve given up 4E for SAGA. And I couldn’t be happier.