Surprisingly, my home campaign (with my kids) is still run using 4th edition rules. I thought it would be a good exercise to convert my son's current character - an Eladrin Paladin - to 5th edition, but he got bored just after generating stats, and refused to continue.
I thought long and hard about it, and tried to understand what did I do wrong. After all, he loves reading his 4th edition player's handbook over and over, so why didn't he enjoy creating a 5th edition PC?
I realized that 5th edition took away the single element he liked best in the game - "Powers".
In 4th edition, many skills, attacks, spells and special abilities are formulated into At-will, Encounter or Daily "Powers" the player can activate.
For a kid used to playing games on computers, tablets and consoles, 4th makes a lot of sense. You have a character, it has powers you can activate, go have fun adventuring in the Forgotten Realms.
Generating a character is fast, revolves around selecting those powers, and at the end of the process you have a rather powerful character - lots of hit-points, self-healing abilities and at-will powers means you can have fun with even that single character adventuring.
In 5th edition, the situation is a little different. Yes, there are a lot of choices to be made, but the 'interesting stuff' only happens around level 3, and level 1 PCs are weak in comparison to 4th edition characters. The layout of the 5th edition book makes it hard to understand at first glance what the PC can do - and that was very important to my young players.
So we kept using 4th edition at home.
Things got more interesting when I allowed my son to run a game for us (with my daughter and myself as players). Here, 4th edition really shined. All he had to do is come up with a simple story (he's 9yo, so the stories were largely influenced by the recent TV show he'd watched, or the recent movie - which was cool). Once he had the story, 'designing' encounters was easy - pick XP budget, select monsters, go!. Hard to make a mistake here.
In a sense, 4th edition technicalities makes it a very easy and fun system to run, as long as the scenarios are kept simple. Too many players fighting too many monsters with too many abilities makes the game hard to track - but with a DM and two players running 1st level characters, we had the famous RPG "sweet spot" right there and then.
But what about role-playing and out-of-combat scenarios? Well, here 4th edition skill system shined. The simplified skill system made it easy to complement dice roles with "acting out" and pretending to be the characters speaking to the King or the Evil Wizard.
The main take-away is that 4th edition is very structured, and its presentation makes that structure obvious and easy to grasp, which is a bless when playing with kids who are mature enough to bite into a role-playing system, but still small enough to need easy to understand rules and easy to press "buttons" to play the game.
It's interesting to note that my own introduction to D&D was with the Basic Set (the red box), which was a very simple system combined with a presentation that was meant to inspire. When reading the player's booklet as a kid back then in the 80', I felt so excited to see game that presented a system that 'sorted out' all that buzzing imaginative energy I had as a kid and laid it out neatly so me and my friends could share wonderful moments of role-playing in a fantasy-world. I didn't look for 'what my character can do'. I knew it could do anything I wanted, the system was there to make some sense of a fantasy character wondering around in a fantasy setting.
Now it seems a 10 years old kid is already so familiar with gamification terms such as 'level', 'power', and with the slew of fantasy movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Hobbit and their likes) that a role-playing system trying to focus on imagination fails to hit the mark, but a system focused on 'levels' and 'powers' and that 'trick Legolas does when shooting 4 arrows in one pull of the bow' connects easily.
In a sense, 5th edition is the closest to the spirit of my old Red Box D&D, while having the technical aspects of a modern RPG system. It will be interesting to see if the young generation of role-players will find 5th edition digestible - they'll probably need help from old D&D veterans like me to show them the way. At least the setting stays the same - my kids were always adventuring in and around Neverwinter. But more on that in a later post....