Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reactions to 4E

About a month ago, Ryan asked me the following question:
How do you feel the dumbing down of D&D? I know you blogged on this earlier but thats what it seems like to me. In comparing 3.5 and 4.0 what I've seen is a change towards "user friendliness" that in reality seems to change alot of what appealed to core fans inorder to appeal to a broader base. I found this frustrating but do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?

I felt that this is something that deserves its own blog entry because it's kind of a complicated question.

The first issue is whether 4E is a "dumbing down" of D&D. To that I would agree that character customization is certainly different than 3rd edition. Your combat abilities now have more to do with rigid class powers than they have to do with your choice of feats and other decisions you make as you level. I don't consider that so much dumbed down as drastically changed. If that happens to be easier, then whatever gain there is in terms of ease of use is complicated by all of the combat conditions that are placed on characters.Marking opponents, causing them to fall, get pushed, and other conditions end up adding a lot of complication that you used to have to select by performing certain combat actions, or casting certain spells. I'm not going to blow smoke by saying that I like 4E, but I don't think that calling it dumbed down is exactly accurate. I also think that the new approach makes combat more repetetive than what we saw before, and that's not something I particularly like.

The second part of the question - "do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?" is more in line with my own criticisms. The things the old guard aren't happy with include the way that powers have become the all important character decisions where combat is concerned, the jettisoning of simulationist mechanics that dealt with things other than combat, the loss of the Vancian magic system, and the shortcomings of the three core books. Is it true that there are poeple who didn't like Vancian magic? Sure. I'm not one of them, but they're out there. Are there people who would rather play a tactical miniatures game? Definitely, and those people seem to be pretty happy with 4E. Are there people who like the ease of use of powers, as opposed to having to use feats and special combat actions? Absolutely. However, some of these systems dated back to the original Dungeons and Dragons game, and for those that didn't they were definitely parts of third edition that people enjoyed.

That begs the question, why would you make such drastic changes? My opinion is that it was done to appeal to a younger audience that might be more familiar with video games than D&D. I believe that 4th edition serves its purpose as a player acquisition product. The main problem that I see with it is that those who have been playing the game for upwards of 30 years see this new version as something other than D&D. I'm in that crowd myself. I feel that what we were handed wasn't so much a new version of D&D as it is a brand new game that happens to bear some resemblance to the D&D we all know and love.

And I agree with Ryan that there is an indifference in the other markets among players that are being sought after. World of Warcraft is huge, so they decided to make many of the mechanics operate more like what you would expect to find in an MMO in an attempt to entice those players to play D&D. The problem is that the vast majority of those players are perfectly satisfied rolelpaying on their computer monitors with people who probably don't live nearby. If this is what they know and enjoy, what is there to motivate them to play a game on a tabletop that simulates the experience that they get, quite vividly, on the computer? They're different games, different experiences, and I think it foolish to try to suck players from one to the other by making one more like the other.

So what of the players who have been with the game for decades? 4E is such a departure from the previous edition that it's a tough sell. Some will embrace it, but a lot won't. That only serves to fracture the existing customer base. If polls at places like ENWorld are to be believed, only about 25% of the existing player base is actually playing 4E. The more telling statistic in this poll is that roughly 31% of the total number of respondents have tried 4E and stuck with 3E. Add that to the 27% that refuse to try it anf it send a clear message: if the D&D brand is a train, people seem to be getting off in record numbers. What this poll doesn't address is whether or not 4E is working as an acquisition product. ENWorld is known as a site composed primarily of older gamers and professionals in the field. Are there newer gamers that we just don't know about? WotC had better hope so.

So for those of us who don't want to play the new game they've given us, we have a few options. We can stick with 3.5; many people are doing exactly that. The problem of course is that they aren't making anything new for it. Sure, there's enough stuff between WotC and other 3rd party publishers to keep people busy gaming for the rest of their lives, but a lot of people like to collect this stuff andaccumulate more. I'm guilty of that. So if you don't like the new game, and if you feel that 3.5 could use some improvement, primarily in the areas of high level play, certain combat actions, and other subsystems, then there's Pathfinder and a few other D20 based systems out there.

I'm personally pretty firmly in the Pathfinder camp. Sure, the beta has yet to address the difficulty of high level play, but I think that the final version will since they've listed that as one of the game's design goals.

Second, what I have played works rather well. The core classes are balanced with 3rd edition prestige classes as well as some of the later core classes. What this does is make it so that you can run a good character without having to take multiple prestige classes or multi-class into a bunch of other core classes. You can also incorporate WotC's prestige classes and core classes from later books without worrying about unbalancing the party. I'm cool with that.

Third, the guys over there at Paizo are some of the friendliest, coolest people in the industry. I have nothing but respect for Jason Bulhman, Erik Mona, James Jacobs, Wesley Schneider, and Sean K. Reynolds.

Fourth, the involvement of Monte Cook and other people who could be considered "Old school TSR," such as Jeff Grubb, Sean K. Reynolds, JD Wiker, and authors like Elaine Cunningham. Monte Cook was one of the three brains behind 3rd edition, and he's acting in the capacity of advisor to Jason Bulhman, the guy who's actually designing the Pathfinder RPG. Who better to help guide you along the way than one of the guys who was responsible for making 3rd edition the smashing success that it was? Who better to contribute to the line than experienced designers who were there at the launch of third edition? Someone put it best when they said that Pathfinder is the spiritual successor to D&D, and I completely agree with that statement.

Finally, I'm biased because they're letting me in on some of the fun. Pathfinder #16 had my first contribution to the Pathfinder line, an article that I wrote about the Drow of Golarion. Also, I wrote a full length adventure that will appear in Pathfinder #23, and I have a pretty good feeling about my prospects of continuing to work with them in the future.

In the final analysis, I doubt that Pathfinder will be able to capture all of the people who are deserting D&D, but I do think that it will capture enough of them to do well for itself. For those of us who want the next version of D&D to be look and feel like the D&D we've always known, Pathfinder is the real deal and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who will listen.

You can download the Pathfinder beta-test rules for free from Paizo's website at


Hexmage said...

I've never played World of Warcraft and personally don't understand why anyone would want to spend hours on end it. In my opinion, it and games like it aren't even really RPGs. Sure, they have similar mechanics, but oftentimes players don't actually role play, which in my mind is one of the greatest benefits of pen and paper games. I also don't think I would like playing a game where the majority of your adventures involve killing X amount of a certain creature.

Last year I tried to get some of my friends in college to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition. Interestingly enough, the only one who had no interest in playing was the one who played World of Warcraft.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons several years ago with Third Edition. One of my friends in high school had the Player's Handbook with him one day and let me look at it. Soon after I rolling up my first character, as Half-Elf Monk. After playing for a while I decided to start running my own game.

Since then I had spent a lot of money on supplement books, Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and issues of Pathfinder. When Fourth Edition was announced, I planned to stick with Third because I felt that I hadn't used the material I'd bought enough. I looked to Pathfinder to see if it would fix some of the problems I had with the game.

That said, I bought the Fourth Edition books a week after first perusing them in the bookstore. Many of the problems with Third Edition that Pathfinder tried to fix with band-aids were more properly dealt with in Fourth Edition. Fighters can do more than attack or full attack; Wizards don't have to resort to pulling out a crossbow; many different types of the same kind of monster make adding class levels unnecessary; creating brand new monsters is more along the lines of "What abilities should it have?" and less "Did I calculate their BAB correctly?";combat goes faster and no one character type hogs the spotlight; etc.

I can understand why longtime DnD players are upset with the changes made in Fourth Edition. It's a drastic difference. At the same time, I've also read comments from First and Second Edition enthusiasts who claim that Third Edition lacks the spirit of DnD, saying that the game is too easy and lacks truly threatening scenarios such as reaching into a statue's mouth and being destroyed by an Orb of Annihilation.

I'm a young un', so I'll never fully understand the feelings of the longtime Dungeons and Dragons fans who feel alienated by Fourth Edition. I'm also a bit strange in that although I greatly prefer Fourth Edition, I feel bad whenever a longtime DnD fan says that it isn't truly Dungeons and Dragons.

I'm lost to Third Edition as I've gotten my fill of it, but I'm interested in playing a Second Edition game to see what its like. Who knows? Maybe if I do I'll see the light and discover that Fourth Edition isn't Dungeons and Dragons.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right on about 4th edition. I think I might even like it as a sort of hero quest or table top dungeon crawl game. Being a WOW player I could actually see how this could be a fun table top mini game. Just not happy with calling it D&D. During the d20 hay day I mostly played GURPS and missed the first round. Now though more and more I find myself playing off shoot OGL systems. True20, modern20, and pathfinder. I'm So much more impressed with what 3rd company publishers are doing with it than WOTC ever did.

Iv enjoyed your true20 products and look forward to seeing some more products in the future.