I’ve been playing D&D in some form for… let’s just say a long time. Through every major edition, including the minor revisions like Unearthed Arcana and Player’s Option. Every release, there are some detractors and some controversy stirred up. It seems to grow louder with every edition, too. Some people still swear by 1st or 2nd Edition over 3 or 3.5, but for the most part 3rd Edition was rapidly accepted after some initial grumbling. It’s this time delay that lets me write about it now, rather than just after release. The game has had around three quarters of a year to settle into the minds of gamers and the community. Yet a large portion of the community still gnashes teeth at the idea that 4th Edition is called ‘D&D’ at all. This is very surprising considering the majority of pre-release reviews were positively glowing with praise for the new game. Obviously there’s some sort of split, even discounting the grouches who will hate the game regardless of how good it is.
What It Did Right
I’ll readily admit I’m biased. I don’t like the direction 4th Edition took Dungeons and Dragons either. However, to be fair, it’s not because it’s a bad game on its own. So I should start with talking about what I think 4th Edition does well, and the improvements it made. On the whole, I can see that it’s a decently-designed game, and it is fun when played. I didn’t come to this decision without giving it a couple tries. So in that respect, the designers succeeded.
The most prominent thing I’ve noticed about 4th Edition is the balance. Balance is king in 4th, and it’s drilled in for every class, every item, even how magic items are created and used. This isn’t an in depth review, of the system, so I won’t cover specifics here. Either as a side effect or as a conscious decision, this balance has also normalized the mechanics of every class across the board. Power, class feature, Skill. All use the same mechanics for every class. The power effects themselves determine if it’s a support role or attack role or whatever. Some people don’t like this, but if you’re going to streamline combat and balance it, that’s a good step. Since it falls squarely within the design goals of the system, I’m marking that as a plus.
Streamlining was given a great degree of importance, as well. Better miniatures integration, easily adjustable monsters for the DM, and the aforementioned flattened mechanics make combats go faster… or at least they seem to go faster. Actual time spent seems to be about the same, but the characters can handle a greater number of enemies in that time span. Mechanics in general were simplified, and though there are those who complain about this, I’ll mark it as a positive.
The presentation of the game itself is very bold. I don’t mean that in an “in your face” way, either. Just flipping through the book, all the races and classes are shown in half-page cuts with dynamic, colorful poses. A newbie flipping through the book gets to see a bit of life in them, begging “pick me, pick me!” At least that’s the impression I get from how its laid out. This styling isn’t to be dismissed, honestly… it gets people into the game, visualizing their characters. Arguably it does a much better job than the relatively dull poses and artwork shown in the 3.x series.
First Mistake: The Launch
While I was too young to remember the launch of 1st Edition AD&D, I was playing during the introduction of 2nd Edition, and quite active when 3rd was launched. The differences in approaches are astounding. The 2nd Edition launch can’t really be compared with the others, as the influence and size of the company, not to mention its management, were completely different at the time. I’ll concentrate on the launch of 3rd versus 4th Edition, instead.
When 3rd Edition was announced, Dragon Magazine made certain to give small overviews of each system and change on a month by month basis. They were honest about the fact that 3rd was a significantly different game, but provided a plethora of conversion material to ease the pain of buying all new books. Wizards of the Coast put in a presence at most of the conventions with various preview materials. Most interesting to me was their large booth at Origins, where they ran small demo games and had a preview printing of the not-yet-released Player’s Handbook, encased in glass but with holes that people could use to turn the pages and get a look at it. Several of the actual developers of the game were there to answer questions and talk about the work that went into it. Certainly, there was still some resistance to a new system, but the overall feeling was that everyone in the company understood that reluctance and was doing their best to assuage it.
Fourth Edition’s launch was different. While I was not reading Dragon Magazine at the time and therefore can’t offer an opinion on their coverage of that, I did see some of the debates online. There were the expected flare ups, but little real information until near the release date. A lot of hype was built up… and that’s fine. What wasn’t fine was Wizards basically having a public attitude of “you’ll convert and you’ll like it” in most of their announcements. It’s nice to have confidence in the product, but telling people they can throw away the shelves full of expensive books from the previous edition isn’t going to win any points.
And then there’s the convention presence. Or, more accurately, the lack of such. Wizards didn’t even have a booth at Origins at all, even though by then the game had actually been released. In fact, it was only around a month or so that it had been out, and there was no real attempt to sell it to the industry. Most of the third party companies that used to do a lot of 3rd Edition work had nothing but complaints of the new licensing scheme, and there was no representative from Wizards to explain their point of view. Even finding a 4th Edition game to play in was difficult, and this at the second largest gaming convention in the nation. And I was actually interested in trying out the game! Imagine how difficult it will be to convince the naysayers when they can’t just wander by and observe a game, like they could with the launch of 3rd Edition.
“Okay,” says my internal Devil’s Advocate, “But Wizards was trying to appeal to a larger audience, and only a small fraction of the hardcore players attend conventions, so is it that important?” Well, maybe not. We’ll let these first two details slide, though it is still two strikes against the launch. So why don’t we focus on the real bungling here? Trying to appeal to a new demographic is fine, though it’s better to not disturb your base too much in the process. However, much ado was made about the online features of DnD Insider both online, and in the print release of the books. Various features like the Game Table and Character Visualizer were promised, along with a Character Builder and Compendium. Even for one such as myself, the temptation of easy online play with a streamlined system was enough to tempt me toward playing or running a game in 4th.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. Upon launch, none of these features were available. In all fairness, the Compendium — arguably the simplest feature — went up not long after the launch. Even so, it’s been nearly a year since that day and the only promised feature that has been released is the Character Builder. Although convenient, I can do that without an online tool. I want the kickass features like the Visualizer and the Game Table. But there’s no sign of such on the main page. Way to look professional, guys. I’m sure that inspires all the newcomers as to your dedication to supporting the system. Now there’s another book out, and they’re still pushing this new system, yet I still have a bad taste in my mouth from that bait and switch.
Change Is Good, Change Is Bad
All right, so they messed up the launch. It’s possible to recover from that. But that depends on the game having a wide appeal and/or a supportive fanbase. To be perfectly honest, I do think 4th has more than enough devotees to succeed and turn a profit. I’m not so certain the fanbase will ever be the same, though. More than any previous edition, 4th tossed out a lot of old rules and made something different. The complete elimination of backwards compatibility is controversial, but I’m of the opinion that sometimes, it’s for the best. I’ll not criticize that decision, by itself. The real problem isn’t that the old system was dropped, it’s that no upgrade path was provided at all. Wizards gave no real help to people wanting to transition from 3.x to 4th, and instead simply cut support as soon as 4th was released. Even popular products that were released a mere year before launch are getting hard to find now, and the sudden drop was a hard pill to swallow for people still trying to fill out their 3rd Edition collection.
The fact of the matter is, even the best of new editions takes some time to spread and replace the old. And I wouldn’t call 4th the ‘best’ replacement for 3rd. A lot of people will protest because they love it, and I hasten to add that what 4th focuses on, it does extremely well. Here’s the rub, though: 4th edition focused on streamlining and appealing to one particular play style, at the expense of all the others. Some of this is unavoidable, as increasing flexibility often increases complexity, unless things are abstracted to an immense degree. This alone is not too bad, but it’s combining with everything else to make 4th less appealing to the audience.
Fourth Edition represents not just a change in systems, but a fundamental genre shift. The first three editions have all been about simulating a fantasy world using pen and paper and possibly miniatures. At first, it was combat only, with nonweapon proficiencies — “skills” — introduced in Oriental Adventures and the various Survival Guides. In 2nd Edition, NWPs became standard to the system, but were heavily reliant upon initial stats and very primitive in execution. Finally, with 3rd, D&D became a true skill-based system, even with the level advancement still present.
This is all changed in 4th. While skills are still present, only reduced in number, various other parts of the system have been altered to make it feel focused almost entirely upon combat. Skill Challenges are a nod to noncombat parts of adventures, but even with these the entire game feels set up as… well, a game. This isn’t a bad thing by itself, but all previous editions had been a move toward a more simulationist feel, so 4th feels like a massive step back. Arbitrary limits are place upon magic items, while many spells are no longer a limited resource and now just another attack. Classes are fixed, with the “multiclassing” thrown in feeling like some sort of half-forgotten crumbs to appease people who like combination builds. For that matter, the entire game is focused upon “builds” and planned character advancement rather than organic growth through roleplay. If someone decides that after five levels, their character no longer wants to be a fighter, but the cleric is a better calling… tough. They’re stuck as a Fighter for the rest of their life, with at best a smattering of pitiful cleric abilities that are paid for by sacrificing much better skills. This is such a massive step backward it’s sickening… even 1st edition had dual classing, though the rules for demihumans made no sense.
And that is the big gripe. Where 3.X felt like the system was working with you to simulate roleplay, in 4th it feels like any roleplay of great complexity forces you to work around the extremely gamist elements of the system. The balance forced down the player throats is all, supposedly, meant to eliminate min/maxing and builds like the infamous Pun-Pun build, yet at the same time referring to different paths as “builds” in the main rulebook encourages, in my mind, a very metagame-level approach to creating a character. It bothers me on a fundamental level. Sure, nobody’s forcing me to metagame, but isn’t that what everyone was complaining about? I think this is one reason that everyone, rightly or wrongly, accuses 4th of borrowing from MMOs and such. Because it doesn’t feel like you’re adventuring in a fantasy world so much as, well… playing a game set in a fantasy world. It’s a step back from immersion, in my opinion.
Small rant here. A lot of people are complaining about the increased reliance upon miniatures in 4th as compared to previous editions. While I do prefer having the option of doing paper-only play, I’m going to withhold judgment on that for now and strike at the real problem. In any battle suggested by the rules or published adventures, the DM requires a large number of similar monster figures, not to mention player representations. Wizards recommends using their own, prepainted minis for this. While I like those minis, and think they’re decent quality for the price, they’re a collectible item. The distribution of figurines is random, in sealed packs, so collecting say… ten orcs, which should be a fairly simple exercise, would require an outlay of up to $100, easily. While it’s possible to buy preopened second hand for cheaper, I don’t think this is what WotC intended and it isn’t a good solution. And people say Warhammer is expensive! Minor subrant over.
I don’t think 4th Edition will fail, despite my own misgivings. PHB 2 has some interesting stuff in it, but not enough to really make me want to buy the supplements and play a regular game. From what I’ve heard, supplements aren’t selling well, either. I don’t think WotC will see a massive explosion in number of players, sad to say. As for myself, I don’t think I’ll be playing 4th much unless they can get Table up and running, and it isn’t terrible. I can appreciate the push toward balance, it just feels like the system itself was butchered to make it happen, and too many missteps tell me it wasn’t as well thought out as everyone says.