So on to part 2 of my reflections on the 3E/4E conflict and my own experiences trying to change editions. Again, this is really gamer-intensive stuff and probably won’t make sense to non-gamers, but it seems like a good time to consider the changes of the past few years and the likely ones of the future. And once more, it’s just my opinion.
To start with, I think that the whole concept of “Edition Wars” is kind of silly. In the end it comes down to a conflict that, while not unique to the Internet, is typical of on-line interaction. Regardless of whether the argument is over whether video games are art, whether Trek is better than Star Wars, whether women heavier than 100 pounds can be attractive, or if My Little Pony constitutes a great work of television drama, most of the discussions come down to one statement:
“Stop liking what I don’t like!” (Or, conversely, “Stop not liking what I like!”)
I think that the so-called Edition Wars are a case in point. Either you liked D&D 4E or you didn’t. And if you did, that wasn’t a reason for the next gamer to like it too. If you hated 4E and everything it stood for, expecting another random gamer on a forum page to agree with you was like expecting him to change his mind about his favorite color. There was plenty to both like and dislike in 4E, as with 3E before it, and every edition previous to it as well.
All that preface is just another way of saying, “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” My reaction to 4E was really a reflection of my tastes as a gamer, rather than absolute fact. That I felt it was a failure doesn’t mean I’m expecting anyone else to agree with me. In fact if you are one of the many who thinks that 4E was the bee’s knees, I will defend to the death your right to do so. Just as long as I get the same courtesy.
That said, in 2007 I was among those lucky few at Gencon to witness WotC’s announcement of the latest (and, we were assured, greatest) incarnation of our favorite game. D&D 4th Edition, we were informed by the odd Frenchman who narrated the introductory film, would be everything that the previous editions were and more. Not only would it be a ground-up redesign of the old and by-now clunky mechanics of 3.5E, it would also be fully supported with a robust on-line community and web-based tools, centered on the gaming community site Gleemax and the new Dungeons and Dragons Insider website.
Though I was one of the new system’s earliest supporters and looked forward to its debut with excitement, I had to ignore the growing sense of unease I felt as details of the revision emerged. The entire on-line community thing bothered me, especially since much of Wizards’ hype suggested that you really couldn’t fully enjoy 4E if you didn’t join DDI, and other tidbits, such as the fact that the new rules essentially required the use of miniatures, implied that there would be wholesale changes in both mechanics and culture.
When the game finally arrived in 2008 I ordered a copy from my friendly local game store, took it home, opened it up and was somewhat baffled and more than a little crestfallen at the extent of the changes. I futzed with the rules for a couple of weeks. My friends had also invested in the rules, but within a couple of moths both Dale and Victor, both valued gaming companions and excellent game masters, had sold their books and decided not to make the change. Rumblings of dissatisfaction were felt and heard throughout the gaming community, though I reminded myself that gamers are just like everyone else — fearful and suspicious of change.
There was no doubt that Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins and James Wyatt — fine gentlemen all — had created a masterpiece of simplicity and consistency. The old rules were largely swept away, though the core d20 mechanic remained — clean, efficient and simple. The 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was a fine piece of game design.
But what had these new rules turned the game into? Both cries of joy and howls of derision echoed across the Internet. The game was better, faster, more efficient, said the supporters. Clunky old rules had been replaced by straightforward, easily-understood ones. The learning curve was less steep and player enjoyment greater. Sketchy elements of 3.5E such as skills, Vancian magic, confusing feats and wildly disparate class abilities were gone, and what remained was elegant and modern — a roleplaying game for a new era.
On the other side the anger was palpable, however. Perhaps 4E was a good game, but was it D&D? In redesigning the game, had WotC gone too far, transforming our beloved game into something foreign and unfamiliar? Had they strayed from the elements that made D&D what it was, adopting the principles of MMOs and catering to the short attention spans of the Internet generation to instead make it World of Warcraft: the RPG?
My first instinct was that they had, that something fundamental had changed about the game, and that it was no longer really Dungeons and Dragons, but instead a cunning, intricate miniature combat system where positioning on the battle grid and judicious use of cool and awesome powers was the most important thing while skills, personality, alignment, race and class were rendered somehow secondary.
I reminded myself that change isn’t always easy. I shared my fears with friends in the industry, and was essentially told to put my money where my mouth was and try the system with an open mind. I agreed that this was probably the best way to go and leaped into the deep end, joining in a brand new campaign run by my friend Travis.
Gleemax was gone, having never really gotten off the ground, so I joined DDI, spending $15 per month for the privilege. That this was the same cost as a subscription to an MMORPG did not escape my notice, nor did the fact that most of the promised features — the character visualizer, virtual gaming table and character generator — were absent or present only in very rudimentary form. Later developments at DDI were uneven, and it looked as if WotC’s foray into the digital world was a mixed success at best.
I began play with a Dragonborn Warlord and we launched the new campaign. Almost immediately I hit a snag. As our ship was sinking in a storm in the first session, I decided that since Warlords are considered “leader” types, I would organize the ship’s crew and build rafts to escape the foundering vessel. To my surprise I found that 4E’s revision of 3E’s skill rules had removed such skills as Profession (sailor) or (soldier) as well as any kind of building or crafting skills. If I wanted to take command of the panicked survivors and get them to build rafts, and to sail those rafts away from the sinking ship, we would have to wing it. Needless to say, Travis did a fine job fielding my troublesome demands, using the thankfully still-present Diplomacy skill to help me command the survivors and improvising other skills to simulate the building and sailing tasks, but the lack of hard and fast rules for even this simple situation left me concerned.
In actual practice, Travis’ campaign went perfectly well, but still felt quite different from what I was used to. All four player types seemed to be variations on the same theme — most abilities were combat-oriented and each class could make a single attack each round that did a little damage, a few that did more, and a couple that did a lot. There was a sense of sameness to the character classes, despite their disparate and now mandatory roles.
The game’s power level was among my other concerns. In the designers’ understandable zeal to make all levels of play fun and interesting, they had crafted a game in which player characters start off cool and awesome, then stay cool and awesome as they advance in level. Personally I actually enjoy games where lower-level characters feel vulnerable and underpowered and have to struggle to survive. There is a sense that as a character advances and becomes more powerful that he is actually earning something, rather than simply trading his cool and awesome powers for different cool and awesome powers that have slightly different cool and awesome names. Again, as with most of my other concerns, this simply represented an area where my gaming tastes differed from those of the designers. Unfortunately, the rigidity of the new system prevented us from making any changes that might improve the situation, and we were stuck with WotC’s “everyone’s fucking cool and awesome even at first level” design philosophy.
In a brief exchange with the designers at a local con I used the phrase that I’ve heard elsewhere (most notably in The Incredibles) that “if everyone is special, then no one is special.” To me this complaint seemed to fit the big problem with 4E to a “T.” In an attempt to level the playing field, 4E had managed to homogenize the character classes, making everyone a general but no one a private.
While there was some roleplaying, particularly at the beginning of the campaign, the game’s emphasis on combat usually meant that an evening’s session was little more than the prelude to a big miniatures battle which we all came to expect at the conclusion. And to be sure, these grand melees were exciting, with miniatures scooting everywhere, one PC’s abilities triggering others in a massive domino effect, Eladrin teleporting left and right, spells bursting, shells flying, flags waving and fireworks exploding overhead. Indeed, 4E combat was a spectacular thing — so spectacular in fact as to overshadow just about every other aspect of the game.
Some things rankled. The strange and inexplicable powers, many with downright silly names and descriptions (“Fangs of Steel,” “Cruel Cage of Steel,” “Wandering Tornado”, “Beat Them to the Ground”), many of which resulted in slightly ludicrous effects and made little sense. Many seemed to have similar effects despite their colorful names — this attack slides the enemy back a square, this one lets me shift a square, this one lets one of my allies shift a square, this one triggers a healing surge, this one lets me move and attack, this one prevents my opponent from moving, etc. The collection of powers seemed random, and their effects sometimes illogical.
As an example, I offer the Warlord daily power “Knock Them Down,” with the eloquent description The rhythm of your enemies hitting the ground is music to your ears. If the warlord succeeds in attacking his opponent using this power, not only does he inflict 3[W] damage, but he also knocks the target prone. Fair enough, but once that’s done, every ally within 10 squares can now move 3 squares and attempt to knock down their opponents as well.
How the hell does that work? How does my knocking down my opponent make it easier for my friends to knock down theirs?
I understand that this is a fantasy game. Yet I still prefer at least a small degree of plausibility. I’ve fought in SCA wars and once or twice I have knocked my opponent down (though more often, I have been the one on his back struggling like a turtle). How in the world would my success at knocking down an opponent during a war battle or grand melee allow all the other fighters on the An Tir side within 50 feet of me knock down their opponents? The illogic of this and other powers made it difficult for me to view 4E as more than just a clever board game.
And I haven’t gotten to the best part. Even if my Warlord misses, HE STILL KNOCKS THE OPPONENT DOWN AND INFLICTS HALF DAMAGE!
Yes, if you’re a Warlord with the “Knock Them Down” power, you too can knock Cthulhu down without even trying. You too can knock down giants, titans, demigods, heroes — all of them. Even if you miss. AND you get to wound them in the bargain.
I loved using this power, but every time I used it I felt silly.
I could go on and on about these powers, but this isn’t a review, so I’ll leave it at that. Powers were a good idea that was taken too far, like so much about 4E.
More bothersome than the occasional goofy power was the lack of options and flexibility. Heinsoo, Collins and Wyatt clearly had a style of play in mind when they designed the game, and that style was all but locked into the rules. Miniatures were required as were parties of four to six, with each character having a specific, pre-defined role — fighters were called “defenders,” wizards were “controllers,” rangers and rogues “strikers,” and clerics and warlords were “leaders.” Parties had to contain a mix of different types and if you wanted to step outside of your assigned role — play a fighter who used a bow, for example — you were pretty much SOL.
The same went for style of play and setting. The world was a dark one, based in the ruins of ancient empires, with settlements as “points of light” in the gloom. Magic was everywhere, and PCs were expected to delve into the darkness, wary of the monsters that lurked around every corner. It was pretty standard D&D stuff.
Unfortunately, it seemed to me that the rules largely required one to adopt this cosmology or else throw out entire sections. If you wanted to play in the ancient, light/dark dungeonpunk world that the designers envisioned, great. If you preferred to play in a low-magic, low-tech world like Conan, or in a more heroic setting akin to “Lord of the Rings” you were once more out of luck, and would have had to make wholesale changes to the rules in order to do so. If you wanted to do a game with all PCs playing a single class, you were probably equally screwed. The game, I felt, robbed its players of options and with them much of the ability to be creative or innovative.
After a few months of this I had decided that if my friends wanted to run 4E games, I would be more than happy to play, but that I had little to no interest in running my own. I found the rules far too limiting to do the kind of things I wanted. I acknowledged that 4E seemed to be a commercial success and that many people were playing it, but after my purchase of the three initial books, I decided against any further participation. I let my DDI subscription lapse and did all my character generation by hand.
All the while Paizo Publications was developing its own entry into the D&D sweepstakes, the OGL-based Pathfinder. Utilizing familiar rules and crowdsourced playtesting, Pathfinder was to me everything that 4E wasn’t — alive, detailed, flexible, adaptable, with many options for both players and GMs, and the ability to play just about any desired fantasy setting, regardless of technological or magic level. Once the final version of the Pathfinder rules came out, I embraced it with enthusiasm, sad that I could no longer call Dungeons and Dragons my favorite game, but also glad that the things I’d liked about 3.5E still existed.
Then a strange thing happened. Pathfinder caught on. Within months it had caught up with 4E in terms of sales, and in many cases had equaled or surpassed it. Despite what we had been told about how ancient and clunky the game had become, there was life in the 3.5E engine after all. The tweaks that Paizo made improved the game further, and many of them reflected similar changes made by WotC in creating 4E (streamlining the skills system, for example). In in Paizo’s case however a careful effort was made to keep the game compatible with the previous edition. Now at last, my $5000+ worth of D&D 3/3.5E books were useful again, and I didn’t have to start from scratch purchasing brand new books to go with my brand-new system.
For the past couple of years I’ve been a devoted Pathfinder fan, and most of the 4E enthusiasts in my gaming circles have gone back to it. 4E remains an option, but so far it’s an option we haven’t turned to very often. The release of D&D Essentials seemed like an attempt to mitigate some of 4E’s more serious issues, but for me it came too late. I had already changed systems and wasn’t likely to switch back.
And then, just a few weeks ago, WotC officially announced that it was working on yet another incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons. Whether it is called 5th Edition, D&D Next or just Dungeons and Dragons, it’s pretty solid proof that 4E simply didn’t perform as well as its creators had hoped it would. To my surprise, I learned that work on the new “edition” (or whatever they’re going to call it) began in 2010, a mere two years after 4E’s release, further bolstering the sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment that many have felt about D&D’s latest version. Statements from the new design team are very encouraging, and it sounds as if those of us who had issues with the extent of 4E’s changes as well as its lack of variation and flexibility were not voices crying in the wilderness after all.
While the time for postmortems and Monday morning quarterbacking is over and the gaming world needs to move on, a discussion of what went wrong and how it can be fixed might yet serve some valuable purpose. I’ll go over my own thoughts on 4E’s successes and failures as well as my hopes for the next “edition” in my next entry. In the meantime, as always, happy gaming.