Now, I'm by no means an expert on 4th edition. I ran a campaign that lasted a whole two adventures. I was going to wait to write this until after I had some more experience under my belt, but since Jason still hasn't started his online campaign, I decided to just do it now.
- The game is easier to learn. 4th edition is pretty heavily influenced by WoW (it even categorizes the classes by Tank, DPS, AoE, and Healer), which means anyone who has any experience playing an MMO can pick up 4th edition rather easily.
- The game has more options for classes and races. With just the first two players handbooks, you have like 30+ classes to choose from.
- The game uses a grid system exclusively, and spells and abilities often alter people's position on the grid system. This makes combat a bit more interesting since there is more movement on the battlefield, and its easier for the players to visualize.
- Encounters are easier for the DM to design. In addition to this, a lot of monsters are classified as Minions, which all have 1 hp. This makes swarms a lot easier to manage for the DM while still being relatively challenging for the PCs.
- The game is better supported. Wizards is constantly making minor balance changes and errata to the game.
- Characters at level 1 are more sturdy and more powerful. Wizards won't just die to a lucky enemy critical like they would in 3.5.
- There are less ways to build classes. For example, in the Player's Handbook, it tells you that you can build a trickster rogue or a brawny rogue. All of the rogue powers fit into one of those two rogue archetypes. So while there are more classes to choose from, you are more limited in what you can do within each class.
- All classes get special powers now. For fighters, they manifest themselves as unique combat tricks. The problem is, you almost never make a regular melee attack because of this. You are almost always using a special power in some way or another. JSJ griped that his Fighter just felt like he was playing a wizard.
- Powers really make the game feel like your playing an MMORPG. During the game, most players just used the same powers over and over again. It really did feel like Jules' character was yelling out "Starstorm! Starstorm!" every time she casted. She might as well have been saying "Hot stuff coming your way!" (to get that reference, go here)
- Non combat spells are now rituals, and casters only get a small amount of them. No longer can you make an interesting non-combat wizard/sorc. Your basically stuck just being a blaster wizard if you want to go magic, and I honestly can't tell the difference between all of the magic using classes anymore because of this.
- Since all enemies and PCs have increased HP, combat takes longer ... much longer. The introduction of minions helps this out a little bit, but not enough.
- Character all having healing surges now. Healing surges are powers you can expend to gain by a small percentage of hit points, and all characters get multiples of these a day. The problem I felt, is that it makes the game too easy for the PCs. I had them enter a dungeon filled with traps that did high damage, only to just have them shrug off every trap using healing surges. Characters get all of their healing surges back with just a days rest, so unless you have them fight encounter after encounter, the PCs will never get challenged.
Final Verdict: I wasn't too impressed with 4th edition. I think this is mostly because of my D&D playstyle. From the player's perspective, I like the freedom to do funky stuff with my characters and I like interesting non combat spells. 4th edition takes away both of those joys away from me. From the DM's perspective, I like my combat encounters to have a storyline purpose, and because of that I don't like to have too many encounters in a single adventure. Healing surges discourage this kind of DMing strategy, as the PCs were never once challenged in my adventures because of this. I do enjoy that they make things easier to run a campaign. I didn't have to flip through the book looking for obscure rules all the time. Overall, while I appreciate the changes they made in this edition, I just don't think the system is a fit for me.
On that note, I may have found that is: Pathfinder. I'll save my Pathfinder explanation for a different post, but its basically 3.75 edition. It took a lot of the things that made 4th edition awesome (like easy to create encounters and sturdier characters) but kept the game in a basic 3rd edition shell. Expect a Pathfinder review in the near future.