I was originally going to call this particular series of articles “What Went Wrong?” and now of course I realize that that’s way too incendiary, especially given the rather silly lengths to which the D&D Edition Wars have gone. Though as my previous entry made clear, I was personally disappointed by D&D’s fourth edition and the business strategy that accompanied it, I cannot say that as a game design it was anything approaching a failure. From a pure design standpoint, 4E was a triumph, a new envisioning of an old concept, charged with the principles of modern online gaming. My problem was that, as admirable as the work of 4E’s designers was, it wasn’t really D&D as I knew it.
None of my objections to the new edition had anything to do with mechanics, writing or design. It’s a strange thing but 4E made me realize just how much of Dungeons and Dragons is tied up in its “look and feel.” There are aspects of the game that are so inherent, so ingrained in my own mind that some changes simply go too far.
In an earlier column I complained about D&D’s original co-designer’s belief that his game was a sophisticated, interconnected design, and that attempts to improve or modify it with such horrors as weapons expertise, critical hits and spell points were doomed to failure, much like hoping to improve the function of a Swiss watch by randomly poking it with an icepick.
While I found Gygax’s tirades about how no one else understood his genius to be irritating, there was a heart of truth to it. There is something fundamental about D&D and its mechanics that excessive modification will ruin. Personally I don’t think it has anything to do with critical hits or spell points — I think that the heart and soul of D&D lies in its freedom and flexibility. Here, I think is where 4E erred egregiously.
Freedom Isn’t Free
Though this perhaps was not its designers’ original intention, I always felt that Dungeons and Dragons’ greatest strength — in addition to being the seminal roleplaying game and the harbinger of an entirely new form of gaming — was its ability to allow game masters to simulate a wide range of fantasy settings and accommodate a wide variety of play styles. This strength was enhanced in D&D 3E when it streamlined the entire system with the elegant D20 mechanic, placing the original D&D combat roll at the heart of the new system. In this fashion, a universal roleplaying system was created and through the OGL spread throughout the industry in short order.
Whether one liked the low-magic, gritty Hyborian setting of Robert E. Howard, or the ancient, magic-saturated universe of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, one could easily adapt the D20 system to conform. During the 3E era I played in or ran campaigns that were pure traditional D&D fantasy, modern urban fantasy, superheroes, space opera and ERB-type planetary romance. The tweaks to the system varied from the small to the grandiose, but the core system remained intact, centered around a single mechanic.
I feel that 4E, despite its quite admirable qualities, changed all that. The system was suddenly locked into a largely fixed style of play. Classes and roles were rigidly defined. The game centered on combat, with roleplaying reduced to a relatively secondary role. Though this was clearly not the designers intention, the nature of the game — that powers centered almost exclusively on combat, that the rules emphasized skirmish-style miniature battles, that encounter design became, in the words on one of my gaming friends, “like designing a Warhammer army” — channeled everyone, game master and players alike, to sessions that centered on the “big melee” at the end of the night.
Further, 4E’s design philosophy — that it was played in a narrowly-defined universe, with narrowly-defined roles — robbed GMs and players of creativity, largely forcing them to play D&D the way that the designers thought we should. Gone were the days of Fighters who specialized in missile combat, of skill-based Rogues who shunned combat in favor of deception and stealth, of pacifist clerics and shy wizards. Character concepts that didn’t mesh with the new “Controller/Defender/Leader/Striker” hierarchy were made difficult or downright impossible to realize.
Vast old decadent kingdoms, modern industrial societies, cultures dominated by psionics — these were, if not forbidden, at least discouraged by the default setting, described in the PHB as “shrouded in a dark age, between the collapse of the last great empire and the rise of the next, which might be centuries away… each settlement appears as a point of light in the widespread darkness, a haven, an island of civilization in the wilderness that covers the world.” Never before, save in specific campaign settings such as Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, had the setting been so prescriptively described. While not without its strengths — the setting was, in fact, about as generic as a bowl of oatmeal — the “points of light” concept pretty much told us that every D&D campaign was going to be alike, and every one would reflect the designers’ notion of “how D&D should” be.
This then was the key issue that made me decide that I did not want to run 4E, and that I would limit myself to playing in such a campaign if my friends took the effort to create one. Though Paizo’s new Pathfinder game is closely tied to its published Ascalon setting, it preserves the core of what I thought made 3/3.5E successful, and allows me to run my campaign the way that I want to, rather than as just another “points of light” game.
The Digital Initiative
When D&D 4E was announced, amid enormous hype, back in the summer of 2007, it was to arrive complete with a fully-functional and well-developed on-line presence, anchored on the Gleemax “gamer community” site and the Dungeons and Dragons Insider website. Much of WotC’s hype suggested that while you could play D&D without a DDI subscription, your campaign wouldn’t really rock unless you signed up.
Gleemax tanked almost out of the gate, cancelled within a few months of launch and now largely forgotten . All of WotC’s energies were then focused on the DDI site, which was to include such exotic features as a virtual gaming table, a character designer (you know, like in World of Warcraft, where you design your own character, dude), character generation software, hyperlinked copies of the D&D rules and digital versions of the old Dungeon and Dragon magazines, recently unexpectedly reclaimed by WotC after a long and successful publication history by Paizo Publications.
This all sounded pretty good, even though it was based on a subscription model and cost 4E fans $15 a month — the same as a subscription to an MMO, with considerably less functionality. Unfortunately, problems started almost immediately with bad or late software and many features such as the character designer and virtual gaming table either cancelled or released years late (as far as I know, the character designer is gone, and the virtual table is only NOW in beta, a mere and a half years after its initial announcement).
I had a subscription for a while and was frankly underwhelmed. While it did help to create my 4E character, none of the other features worked right or interested me. But the character generator was slow, buggy and at the time was the ONLY way to computer-generate a 4E character. That has since changed, but too late to preserve my interest in paying $180 a year for a character generator program, a couple of uninteresting magazines and a hyperlinked version of rules that I already owned.
At the time I found myself wondering exactly what inspired WotC to approach the digital world in such a clumsy fashion. An online community and tools were absolutely the right thing to do, and had they been cheaper (or — a mad, impetuous thought here — FREE), perhaps they would have met with greater enthusiasm. As it is, every misstep and buggy release for DDI was chronicled on line, and many fans ended up turning their back on a very promising concept.
At this time, 4E was being promoted as if it actually was an MMO. Advertisements suggested that players stop using their computer and play with “real people.” Other official WotC material included heavy slams on 3/3.5E, telling us what a piece of junk it was and how much better 4E was, leading many of us to wonder, if 3E was so damned bad, why the hell are we still enjoying it so much?
The appeal to MMO players was doomed to failure, and had WotC examined White Wolf’s experience with their Everquest rpg they might have learned something. The White Wolf game was truly impressive, supported by numerous slick, hard-cover books with excellent art and great writing (and as one of the writers for this particular line, I know what I’m talking about). Inherent in the new setting was the desire to persuade online players of Everquest to get up from their desks and play a pen-and-paper RPG. Unfortunately for us, despite the best efforts of numerous writers, editors and developers, Everquest never developed the audience we’d hoped for. Despite this, WotC carried on with its MMO-like strategy, hoping to draw WoW players away, and to get people to pay MMO-level prices for a limited and largely non-functional DDI website.
As for WotC’s motivations in this, recent columns by various insiders revealed that WotC’s so-called “Digital Initiative” was part of a grand scheme to elevate D&D to what the Hasbro Corporation called a “core brand,” which is to say a brand which earned $100 million or more per year, and consequently received near-unlimited financial and material support from the parent company. The plan, at least as I understand it, was to persuade the D&D community that DDI was indispensable, and once the consumers were thoroughly hooked, use DDI as a launching platform for — yes, it’s true — a D&D-based MMORPG.
If this is true — and it comes from some fairly unimpeachable sources — then it was a classic case of WotC putting the digitial cart before the online horse. DDI was conceived of as a kind of gateway drug that would be dangled under the nose of 4E players, then transformed seamlessly into the newest and shiniest star in the MMO firmament. Perhaps World of Warcraft followed D&D’s lead, but in the end D&D seemed content with becoming just another WoW clone, so long as it brought in more than $100 million a year and so became the apple of Hasbro’s eye.
The decision to create DDI and charge so much for it was motivated, not by the needs of gamers, but by the needs of WotC and Hasbro’s shareholders. Once the decision to launch DDI was made, then and only could was the question be asked, “Well, what’s going to be in it?” The original ambitious list of features, the assertions that DDI was all but indispensable, that no self-respecting 4E fan should be without his or her own private subscription to DDI… was all a transparent attempt to pump value into a franchise that did not make enough money to satisfy its corporate owners. The suits had well and truly taken over D&D, and the results were not pretty.
DDI’s failure, and D&D’s subsequent failure to reach the desired “core product” status says a lot about both the game, its players and its new masters. With the coming of Hasbro, as I have said before, D&D became less game than product. In the end, WotC would have been delighted at any change that vaulted the game to core status. Had it been transformed into a collectible card game with cute cartoon characters, this would have been fine with Hasbro, as long as it brought in the promised money. My disdain for the entire corporate system that had almost destroyed my favorite game was palpable.
Now, not only had the coming of 4E and the relentless emphasis on profitability and corporate culture turned me against the game I’d played since 1976, it was on the verge of turning me into a revolutionary socialist. Nice going, guys.
Back to Basics
We now know that discussions of a new “edition” of D&D began in mid 2010, a mere two years after 4E’s release. Though there is no way of knowing exactly why, it seems obvious to even the most enthusiastic 4E supporter that the new edition simply has not performed the way that WotC and Hasbro wanted it to.
My guess is that they were hoping that the new edition would become the standard, and that those few die-hards who persisted in playing the old, tired 3/3.5E would eventually give up and come join the real party. Had the OGL not existed, this might have worked, but unfortunately the core code for 3/3.5E is out there in the world, free for anyone to use, and nothing can get it back.
Paizo Publications’ long-shot gamble on Pathfinder seems to have paid off, and though sales figures are hard to come by, almost everyone agrees now that Pathfinder sales equal or exceed those of 4E. Though it certainly wasn’t a flop, it’s plain that the fragmentation of the hobby has not served 4E well, and that those of us who are lost to the 3/3.5E and its current incarnation are just not coming back.
And in the decision to proceed on yet another version of D&D, it seems that some very valuable lessons have been learned. Most importantly, it looks as if the interests of gamers and the interests of the corporations seem to have converged at last.
The philosophy surrounding the new version, as articulated by such luminaries as Mike Mearls and Monte Cook, is that D&D needs to return to its roots and create a simple and — more importantly — stable central core of rules, that can be modified and added to, providing GMs and players more flexibility and the freedom to once more create the worlds and characters that they want. In addition, the designers claim that players of every previous edition will be able to seamlessly join in, regardless of their desired level of complexity.
While of course we have yet to actually see the rules, and the bar has been set extremely (some might say impossibly) high, these statements reflect what’s been swirling in my head, and the heads of many gamers since 2008. And what I find most encouraging is that it can be pitched in a way that the corporate suits will understand.
Instead of requiring every D&D player in the world to give up his or her favorite edition, trash all their books, buy everything anew and learn a new system, why not come up with a basic game that they all can play, using their existing materials and conforming to their idea of how the game should be played, rather than that of a new team of designers? Then WotC would not be struggling to hold onto a single slice of an ever-shrinking pie, but instead produce something that everyone else can use.
It’s a nice dream and, to be sure, we’ve been promised the moon before. At least this time there aren’t any videos featuring French-accented narrators and endless ads and opinion pieces telling us how much all the previous editions sucked. Yes, it’s a tall order, and god only knows whether they’re going to succeed. I guess we’ll find out when our playtest material starts arriving.
But this time it sounds as if they’re at least approaching it from the right direction and if anyone knows what made D&D what it was, Mike Mearls and Monte Cook (among the other folks behind this project) are without doubt the best we can get.
One hopes that the old ways, when I could play Fafhrd and the Mouser as well as Elric of Melnibone, or a standard boring dungeonpunk 4E game, depending on my mood, will return, and that the freedom and flexibility that we thought lost would be returned. Time will tell, but the case could be made that this is D&D’s last stand, and if this experiment fails, Dungeons and Dragons itself may be sucked down with it.
But hey — no pressure, okay?