Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has hit stores, but as my readthrough review shows, you probably shouldn’t bother with it (see the “4e PHB Readthrough” posts on this blog for the nitty gritty). It’s a World of Warcraft-inspired tactical combat game, very unlike (and incompatible with) previous editions of D&D.
Many people love to attack the bearer of bad news, so let me be clear about my background. I’m not one of those D&D-haters, or someone who has only played Third Edition and therefore can’t believe anything might be an improvement. I’ve gamed since the early 1980s, starting with Star Frontiers and quickly moving to the D&D Basic set, and happily migrating to AD&D first edition, AD&D second edition, and D&D third edition. Each time, the new version of D&D, with its improved elegance and increased options, easily sold me on being an improvement on the previous version, and I was happy to upgrade! My bookcases still bear the weight of more Second Edition gear than anything else, just because they published the most product ever in that generation – but except for repurposing adventures those books lay fallow after the upgrade. I view players of “1e derivative” products like Castles & Crusades and OSRIC with pity; I enjoyed my First Edition days but I don’t find that I want to go back there.
I’m also not a D&D-only guy – I’ve played everything from Deadlands to Feng Shui to Call of Cthulhu – I have several Cthulhu Master’s tourneys under my belt and have playtest credits in things as farflung as “Wraith: The Great War.” Check out my RPG reviews – they’re pretty widespread. I also can’t be accused of being just a “collector”, I play all the time. So I think I know RPGs in general, and D&D in particular. I don’t have a (previous) bone to pick with WotC. I helped launch 3e as one of the original Living Greyhawk Triads at Gen Con 2000. OK, so enough about my credentials.
4e is the first time I thought of D&D, “Whoa – this isn’t going in the right direction.”
Not only is it the largest change ever in D&D, possibly excepting only the shift from the original D&D wargame rules to AD&D First Edition, but it’s a negative change – not only relative to D&D but also to the rest of the RPG field. If some other company put out this exact game under a different name, it would already be sinking into obscurity. Like Windows Vista, it’s a failure – a failure that will regrettably sell enough copies, due to its maker’s market share, that they will likewise deceive themselves into thinking it’s a success.
My chapter by chapter 4e readthroughs are revealing a lot of specific bits to dislike, but what’s the mile-high view of the problem? It boils down to a couple major categories.
The oddest thing about this new ruleset is that they didn’t just change the mechanics. You expect mechanics to change in each edition, and being incompatible there is no offense. But D&D has always been a game with a rich history of continuity. People run games in their favorite published, or their own personal, campaign setting for decades.
In 4e, they have decided to “rewrite history.” Previous core races, classes, and spells that have been enshrined in novels, campaigns, and tradition have been discarded or reworked until they aren’t the same thing any more. Greyhawk, the campaign setting that has thrived from OD&D until the last issue of Dungeon Magazine, is now impossible with the new D&D as written. Entire major character archetypes have been removed. The cosmology, which previous classic stories like the Temple of Elemental Evil revolved around, has changed. Wizards don’t use the Vancian spellcasting model, which has always been an integral part of D&D. The same campaign or campaign world cannot transition from 3e to 4e without a complete rewrite, something that’s never been required for a D&D version upgrade before. “Uh, all the gnomes have been killed and replaced with dragon guys, and the elves all teleport now…”
What makes this new game D&D, besides the branding? If another company released this under a different name, it would get reviews on RPG.net about being a “fantasy heartbreaker” with “better than average production values” and that would be it. It shares very little beyond a very cursory similarity to previous versions of the game. It wasn’t the rules that made D&D D&D, it was the fantastical concept, the enchanters and necromancers and iconic races and the whole distinct fiction surrounding it. And that’s been changed significantly to where, for me, it’s “some other fantasy story” and not D&D.
Retreat from Openness
With Third Edition, D&D took a brave step into empowering their community and sharing the core of the game by picking up the open source concept of open licensing. Wizards of the Coast released the core D&D rules under the Open Gaming License. Product flowed, third party companies sprung up to form an ecosystem around the game. The company that had nearly gone out of business towards the end of Second Edition was doing great again. The best stories since the classic 1e modules came from companies like Paizo Publishing and Green Ronin.
Now, Wizards has decided to say a big “screw you” to that. Not only are they not using any more open licensing, but they are requiring companies who are 4e licensees to agree not to publish materials under the old open license. After a big stink, this restriction was “clarified” to only apply to products in the same product line, but that’s a difference only in the magnitude and not the nature of the hostility towards openness here.
They are just giving off closed vibes about everything. From their behavior toward their playtesters to their jerking around the entire D&D publisher community with their delays and equivocation regarding licensing. Their new license, the GSL, still isn’t out, and was supposed to cover fan sites but now that’s “coming later.” Their every move is dripping with lawyeriness and disregard for their customers and partners. It’s hard to keep an open mind towards the game itself when its maker is being a grade A asshole.
Awful, Derivative Rules
So maybe I could say back incompatibility is OK – after all, the Wizards adventure products in 3e were all derivative “returns to” the original great D&D adventure locales, from the Temple of Elemental Evil to the Ruins of Greyhawk. A fresh start would be nice, perhaps. You can make an artistic argument for a break with the past, even iconic story elements; the comics do that from time to time. And I like openness, but I could see that there might be business drivers I’m not aware of that make it not a good idea. If 4e was a brilliant game, those two complaints lose their luster.
But even when you take it to the gaming table – 4e is not brilliant. They took some steps towards improving the game – the core mechanics are cleaner – but then they just layered gratuitous awfulness on top.
“Oh, all that tracking of effects like Bless in earlier editions is such a bummer!” they said. Sure, we’ve all had combats that get slow because people are trying to remember all the pluses and minuses from Bless, Haste, etc. And what did they do? Put an “aura” on nearly every monster, and make every power for every class give fiddly little minor bonuses for one round in duration. So now instead of remembering “+1 to hit from Bless, and another +1 to hit and damage from the Prayer, for the entire combat” you get to remember “oh, this round Fred hit someone with some power and I have +1 to hit this turn only. And we’re in a monster’s -1 to damage aura. And Jane’s heal spell also is giving me a free healing surge if I do that instead of attacking on this turn only. And the warlord’s aura is giving me +1 to hit, until he moves away from me.” Their goal was good, their implementation worse than 3e – one-round effects and aura effects plus more mobile combat equals pain. Combat is slow and fiddly and painful, and most of the game has been made about combat.
And call me crazy, but when I play a RPG I like to be able to pretend my character’s a real person in a real world, albeit with differences from reality, like magic – but still internally consistent. They are kicking that in the balls with each chapter of 4e rules. From the preposterous economics to movement only being in “squares,” to marking – it’s nearly impossible to “pretend you’re there,” and not just be playing a board game. They’re deliberately moving away from immersion as a chief goal of an RPG. It’s a board game now, not an imaginary world.
And the ripoffs from World of Warcraft are just sad. I know WoW is awesomely successful and they’d shoot their CEO to get 1/10 of its business. But the character “builds,” and talent trees, and disenchanting magic items into magic dust, are blatant ripoffs. I’ve always hated derivative crap in D&D – when someone makes an adventure with monsters obviously taken from the movie Aliens, I don’t think “yay,” I think “boo.” It’s not that I don’t like WoW, either; I’ve got a level 69 priest who’s about to go raiding, but it’s not the same experience as D&D or any real RPG. Orcs and spells aren’t what makes a RPG a RPG – you can have a novel, a computer game, a picture, or a RPG sharing the same fantasy dress. It’s the ability to live in another world and look through another person’s eyes for a short time that defines a role-playing game. And 4e has decided that’s no longer in scope.
Was Third Edition perfect? No, and it’s gotten heavy under its weight. I support initiatives like Pathfinder that look to fix what’s wrong with 3e. But 3e is the highest point in the D&D game’s evolution – it’s to be built on, not thrown away. 4e throws it away, along with much of what makes D&D unique and what makes RPGs an interesting and distinct hobby. Epic fail.