I got a call from my best friend over the weekend, on his new phone. Like me, he is returning to gaming after a long hiatus, and having a fun time of it. Unlike me, he is playing 4e. He said he liked how streamlined the rules had become (ascending AC, unified d20 mechanic, et al), but I pointed out that a lot of that streamlining took place in 3.x. I gave him my stock 4e spiel, that I don't dislike it as a game in and of itself, I just feel it's strayed too far from the feel of the original game to call itself Dungeons & Dragons. For him, though, it fixed a lot of things that he'd been struggling against in the mid-80's; in particular, he liked the simplicity of rolling a d20 to hit a target #, versus the hodge-podge of roll-over or roll-under d6, d20, and percentile rolls from 1st edition. Fair enough, said I.
Then we got to the good stuff: the game recap.
I don't recall much of what he said, other than that the game ended when they were in a room where zombie minions were crawling out of a trapdoor in the floor; it was meant to be a bombastic set-piece to top off the night, but that ended quickly when the mage of the group (or one of them) got to the trapdoor and started blasting the z-words with some at-will damaging power. Since they were crawling out one-by-one, and since "minion" types only have one hit point, she could simply smack them down almost at her leisure as they sprung up. After that, the DM basically said "okay, you've gotten through all I had planned for tonight."
Since I don't know what at-will power she used, I couldn't comment on whether or not the zombies should have had a saving throw, but I pointed out that if they did, then the plan wasn't so airtight: in 4e, even though minions have only one hp, if they save in a situation that would ordinarily mean taking half damage, they take no damage instead. "See," I told him, "I do know the rules to 4th edition."
This, however, was not the game recap to sell me on the idea of playing it. For one thing, as I've mentioned before, I like Vancian magic, and "at-will" powers run completely contrary to that aesthetic. And even if you do have such casual thaumaturgy, I don't like the idea that it could be damage-inflicting magic. Of course, it could just be that the DM didn't think the encounter through enough, as we are all wont not to do sometimes. If he'd had multiple trapdoors, it wouldn't have formed a bottleneck like that, and if he'd thrown non-minions in the mix, the mage couldn't have simply defended it by playing magical whack-a-mole. But I can't help but think that the endless supply of damage spells--even low-damage spells--sucked all the challenge, and therefore most of the fun, out of that particular encounter.
Still, it did have one element that unites it to my preferred style of play: by making a clever assessment of the situation, the players were able to take advantage of circumstances and turn them to their favor.
And that's what makes these games fun in the first place.