Alright, so a few weeks ago, just under two at this point, I played 4th Edition Dark Sun with Lance, his brother, and my tyrannobrosaurus rex Shawn. So this post is going to be about 4th Edition.
By now we all know I have mixed feelings about 4e. I think it is a strong tactical combat focused high fantasy RPG, which doesn't mean you can't roleplay in it. I think it is a shitty RPG for anything else, which doesn't mean it's a shitty RPG period. It is a rigidly designed game where its moving parts work pretty nicely together in the system they were designed for. If you bring preconceived notions about the way things used to be, they definitely detract from the enjoyment you get out of 4e, because 4e isn't those games. If you try to add non high fantasy elements to the game, like guns, you have to create completely new powers and find a way to make guns distinct from other ranged weapons. This seems simple enough, but guns in a setting imply other stuff like explosives and whatnot, and that can be more difficult to factor into 4e.
Additionally, the game's rigid structure makes it difficult for the DM to make changes to it. It's all set up to be part of the same system, so you have to mangle adjacent subsystems if you want to change the way anything works. If you want to change anything about healing surges, you have to dip into powers and magic items as well, and vice versa.
As an example, to fit Forgotten Realms into 4e, they had to kill the goddess of magic and destroy the Weave (the source of all magic in the setting since it was created) to find a way to make the power system for 4e fit into the background material. They did other insane stuff too. I don't want to talk about it.
Additionally, 4e is heavily gear based, because of the power system. Most powers are used with a certain type or set of weapons and if you don't have that shit, you end up limited to basic attacks instead of being able to use all your powers. Which wouldn't be a big deal, Fighters did it for three editions with no problem. But feats aren't what they were, so your basic attacks aren't augmented by long feat trees that give you more and more bloodletting options.
For instance, my thri-kreen Ranger is a dual weapon mobile warrior with a secondary focus on thrown weapons. Specifically, he uses weapons of his people (the chatka and gythka), and has feats that reflect that. Lance gave me a longbow as my only weapon. So my mobile warrior with all his two weapon and movement focused powers stood in one spot and spammed double shot, the one Ranger power I had that could be used in conjunction with a longbow. Additionally, all my class features and feats were dead weight. It was not fun and it didn't feel challenging, it felt like I was deliberately being punished for choosing to play a certain way. Meanwhile, Shawn and Lucas were completely fine, because Shawn's Shaman was given an implement and Lucas' Rogue was given a dagger. I'm not butthurt, I did pretty well for a completely crippled character, but this example exposes how gear reliant characters are in 4e, and also that Lance is a douchesaurus. Hehe
Alright. So 4e is a game I like, but not an RPG for playing the styles of campaigns I like to play (i.e. my own). Dark Sun is also my second favorite published DnD campaign setting, and 4e does a decent job with it. I have a complaint or two, but nothing filling me with nerd rage. Or my joy at being a player is just crushing the life out of my complaints.
Shawn, Lucas, and I were playing and Lance was DMing and things were perfectly swell. We had some fun and made some jokes and some rolls and then got into combat. Before the first round even finished, Shawn was all like "I have family stuff and stuff, derp." so he had me control his Shaman. Shamans are a leader class, so they heal and buff and whatnot and they also have a spirit companion, which is how they do the majority of the things they do.
Combat in 4e breaks down into standard, move, and minor actions and at will, encounter, and daily use powers. Seeing as how Shawn left and Lucas was a noob to DnD, I had their character sheets on my computer screen alongside my own. About halfway through the fight I started to see synergies. Ways I could use this power on Lucas so he could use a power on my turn to attack and still allow me to heal my Ranger while Lance's mobs beat the piss out of him and his whopping 13 AC. Like I said, I had a longbow and all my feats and abilities were geared for having a weapon in each hand.
It was an interesting experience to see the way powers and the action economy fit together in a very dynamic way, and I'm not sure it is possible to duplicate it in Pathfinder. Yes, you can buff your allies, and flank and all that, but I don't know that it is possible to be as active as a process as it was for me in 4e combat. I don't know how you'd set up something like popping a heal and then buffing another party member and allowing him to not only attack, but use one of his own special attacks while he's at it.
This aspect of 4e brought something else to mind. Tactics and communication. I was only able to set up combinations of abilities because I knew at a glance what each character in the party could do. Something that might not have been possible if all three players had been there. We certainly didn't sit down and discuss everything we were capable of and talk strategy before the battle.
This brings to mind my own players. They do well in combat, but they approach it like personal combat and not as a small unit of allies working together to achieve a goal. They typically roll initiative, pick a target and each of them goes and does their own thing. If something is unleashing a lot of damage, they concentrate fire. If someone is running out of hit points, they try to heal him. That's it though. It works, but could it work better? Could Eric and Cary compare their strengths and weaknesses and spells/powers and find a way for one to leave their enemies particularly vulnerable to the other? Could the casters work in concert with the lead slingers and make their lead more accurate or deadly than it already is?
I dunno. It's not my problem, but it is interesting to think about and it was cool to find a spot where 4e, in my opinion, does a better job at something than my beloved Pathfinder.