Lets start with an oldie but goody: A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away.....
Some guys got together and came up with the idea for a strategy combat game where the player(s) controlled a character in a medieval fantasy setting. And thus Dungeons and Dragons was born. Some time later some other guys, along with the initial group of guys - very technical, I know - decided to expand a bit on the original idea and add in more thematic elements from what is now known as the "Standard Fantasy Genre". And this eventually gave us Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, aka Second Edition/2E. I'm summarizing here, so just bear with me. In 2E, the developers of the game generated new ideas and content that slowly but surely became part of the full/final game through supplements produced by TSR Inc. These updates were typically bundled together with other like errata and compiled into what became known as "kits" which were printed in "The Complete Guide" series of supplements.
Again, summarizing. This all has to do with 3.X and 4E, trust me.
In a previous post I mentioned how you could do almost anything with the rule set in 2E; the kits were a direct result, and as such a lot in the way that makes 4E work appears patterned on 2E rules and kits. Now when Wizards of the Coast (WotC) took over the production of DnD, they decided to change how the game worked from the bottom up. Most notably (to me) they decided on having all the math involved in the game follow a direct linear progression. I can only assume that WotC felt this would make the game more balanced and make play proceed more smoothly. As a result, WotC was forced to spend countless hours dreaming up rule after rule after rule on to handle particular situations of "in case of 'a' do 'b' unless 'q' happens and then proceed to 'a2'" and so on. That is not to say that 2E was without flaws, but the math in 2E was solid even though it did not follow a direct linear progression.
The best example of this comes in combat. Lets use the most basic model of a fighter with a weapon trying to hit an enemy. In 2E, in order to succeed in making an attack on your enemy you must roll for THAC0. In 2E, 0 is the best numerical value you can have for Armor Class (AC), and as such is the hardest to hit. Depending upon what your attack and to-hit modifiers were, those values would be negated from your eventual attack roll to determine how close to 0 tour attack roll was. In 3.X and 4E, the reverse is true; an AC of 0 would be incredibly easy to hit, while an AC of 20 is much harder. Unless you've played 2E (and liked it), I'm sure you can see why you might be thinking a linear progression would be better.
Back to my main point - its the countless rules and errata churned out by WotC throughout the career of 3.X which really stunted the growth of the rule set/system. By the time that WotC decided to admit there were some serious flaws in the system, they were pumping out a new book every month (at full price, mind you) of things that had been rehashed countless times before. It gave the feeling that there were a bunch of guys sitting around in a back room saying, "OK, we just gave them flying monkeys, and a few months back we gave them a book about marine creatures and settings. Lets roll them together and have Flying Monkey Fish...with lasers!" It really became ridiculous when you're waiting at the beginning of each month to see what mishmash WotC had flying out of the printer.
When Wizards finally opened up the Open Gaming License for all of the 3E errata, it allowed Pizo to create their own system called Pathfinder which breathed some life into a dying system, and bring some clear, concise gaming back to DnD.
Which brings us to 4E. From the ground up, the guys over at Wizards seem to be doing their best to streamline the game, and not run into the same problems of "endless rules" that is prevalent throughout 3.X. The best non-gaming analogy I have for how 4E works is like this: Its a roller coaster. Getting up to that first hill is a little daunting and takes a little bit of time. You might even have thoughts like "did I do the right thing getting on this ride?" run through your head. But after that initial drop, its pure exhilaration. And then when you get to the end, you're contemplating doing it again. 4E is a bit more complicated right on the onset of character creation than 3.X is, and the larger number of playable class/race combinations allows for a greater diversity of balanced play, as ECL doesn't seem to exist anymore. No more bitching and whining from other players because Fred plays a race that has innate special abilities and is therefore somehow more powerful at level 1 than Sally who plays a race without any special abilities. But here is where the "fun of the coaster ride" comes into play - in 4E all races have special abilities and all classes have special abilities. So everyone playing has the opportunity to do something unique and fun.
This brings me to another example of how 3.X and 4E differ. Lets again use our example of a fighter. In 3.X a fighter has a steady progression of increasing to-hit bonuses, and an increasing progression of Feat choices. By the time a fighter gets to level 20, he has eleven bonus feats awarded just from his class. And in every game I've ever sat down to play in, I think I've only ever seen a fighter use two or three. That's it. Its just a waste. Conversely in 4E you gain abilities which are used once per day (Daily Powers), once per encounter (Encounter Powers), and all the time (At-Will Powers). You still gain feats, but not as many and not as fast. What this allows for, is for every class to be on equal footing with what they can do in a combat (or non-combat) situation. It balances the game.
So what does all of this mean? To be sure, 4E is less complex than 3.X and all of its endless rules and variations. 4E is undeniably newer and certainly has a "new car smell" that I'm sure attracted a number of gamers to it, just as any new computer/console game attracts new players. But there is quite a lot of grit and substance to the 4E system that allows for the great customization of your character that was prevalent in 2E. The big difference between 4E and the other editions is what the developers did with the setting/story. Basically the god/goddess of magic was destroyed and the resulting magical backlash altered the world on every level. In game terms that means that all of the classes have "magical" abilities. So instead of our vaunted fighter saying "I'm attacking the goblin, let me roll to-hit," the fighter now says "I'm going to try attacking the goblin with *insert ability name here*," and the new attack can, and often does, have magical/elemental properties to it. So mechanics wise, everyone gets an opportunity to do something spectacular and fun every round. Players aren't pigeon-holed into being forced to play any particular class in order to help ensure group survivability. You could run a party full of fighters and not really have to worry about much until you came across something really nasty. Yes, this is where a bit of that "It Looks Like World of Warcraft" complaint comes from. Unlike WoW though, you cannot solo an adventure at a table-top game like you can solo with every class in WoW. And its the diversity of classes which can support a larger party dynamic if you had a GM with enough patience and concentration to run a large group (read: more than 6). The differences in classes and class abilities ensure that no two people are doing exactly the same thing. Oh sure, some abilities look similar, but the differences are there, and that is what makes 4E superior in my book. Its the differences in the classes and in the abilities that make the setting engaging and dynamic to me.
It also means that once I finish leading my Call of Cthulhu/Modern campaign players through their game, I think I'm done playing 3.X for good. The system is too broken for me to want to continue playing it after I've been able to experiment with 4E. I could fill several pages on the differences between the mechanics of 3.X and 4E and how I feel that certain rules/mechanics have more merit than others, and how dissatisfied I am after years of playing 3.X, but I don't want to get on a soapbox - I'll save that for something good.
I'll make another analogy - 3.X is like a 90s model SUV. At the time it came out, it was all the rage. No one cared about the crappy gas mileage, no one cared that it needed constant tune-ups. No one cared about the small problems because nothing else was available that was perceived as better. Now 4E comes along, and its like a Nissan
Enough rant. Bonzo out.