Editions War Part Five: 4e D&D

The OGL for the d20 System had opened a veritable Pandora’s Box in the gaming industry, as everyone with an idea, a friend who could draw, and a word processing program set out to make their own game/modules/supplements to make a buck. The situation reached a critical mass quickly, and an RPG bubble formed. Then, like all bubbles, it popped, sending dozens of companies into the dustbin of history. The pop had a secondary effect of spooking WotC, who had been rolling with 3/3.5e D&D for around six years at that point. Concerned that the market had “spoken” (it had not, except against a glut of third party products of varying levels of quality), they began work on 4e D&D, and were determined to break the mould again. It would be the shortest, most confusing run of any edition.

History:

4e D&D came in with a bang and left with a whimper. Rolling hot on the heels of 3/3.5e D&D, it promised smoother game play, simpler mechanics, and a “return” to what D&D was “really about”. What arrived was not up to specs and failed to clear the bar set by the previous edition. From 2008 until its ignominious end in 2014, WotC struggled to try to make the game perform as required, but the consumer base was not into it. Panned as an MMORPG clone, and for its unwieldy combats and narrow character roles, it saw revisions, and a complete mini-second edition (the Essentials series) before it was over.

This edition was extremely ambitious, and in its original planning stages, was designed to leverage online interactions, gaming, and material distribution. This plan saw WotC sever ties with Paizo publishing (who had been writing Dragon and Dungeon magazines for years), and attempt to harmonize the D&D experience with what they thought was the direction of fantasy gaming. It would not work out as envisioned, with most of the planned components never appearing.

Components:

Like previous editions, this one adhered to the idea of the core three books, but then flubbed that. Buying the core set did not provide you with the full base class or player race set that previous editions did. To get all of them, you needed to purchase three PHBs. To get all the info expected in previous editions’ DMG, you needed to buy two DMGs. The game was functional with just the core set, but sadly lacking in classes and races that players and DMs alike had grown used to.

Score: 2/5 Functional at three, but you needed six books to really get all the baseline options. In 1e, this was somewhat excusable, but for a 4th edition, not so much. It came across as a cash grab, and acted to turn many against the edition.

Rules:

This is a mixed bag. 4e had some legitimately good mechanics, and the tool set for DMs for building encounters was great. The system was based on the d20 System, but with various changes (and no OGL). It still had a relatively shallow learning curve, which was good, but it got extremely crunchy in combat. To the extent that at times it seems more like a hyper detailed squad based tactical strategy game (which is close to what D&D got its start as) than an RPG. One of the chief complaints about the game was the exhausting combat, as well as the combat focus. Which is a key point. Where previous editions embraced multiple styles of play, 4e focused hard on tactical miniature play, almost to the exclusion of other methods, and reinforced this in its mechanics.

Score: 2/5 This edition has some good points, but they are by far outweighed by the problems that resulted from the games radical shift in focus and explicitly described method of play.

Character Options:

Great and slim at the same time. I have to break past the core three set here. 4e D&D offered more classes and races that any previous or subsequent edition if you collected all the PHB books. This is great. However, this is a false hope. Part of the embrace of the tactical aspects of the game came with the formalization, and crystallization, of roles. 4e D&D restructured and retasked or built from scratch all the character classes into specific roles. These were Defenders, Strikers, Controllers, and Leaders. Each class was given a set of abilities focused on that role, with little overlap. Multiclassing and dual classing were effectively limited by unfriendly game mechanics, and everything was structured into MMORPG style development trees. So what does all that mean? Well, it means that in 4e, character creation started wide open, but then rapidly canalized and narrowed during character creation and then rail-tracked it in later levels. Optimization was the norm, and the game not so subtly discouraged deviation from established character design and use.

On the good side, the edition did introduce a number of new player race options, and several new classes. It also took psionics seriously, and integrated them into the world much more organically than previously. Notably, it also reintroduced epic level (levels 20-30) play as a normal aspect of the game.

Score: 1/5 For its bursts of creativity, the false choice design of development trees and removal of player agency really hurt this edition badly.

Base World:

Unlike previous editions, this one actually had its own, unique(ish) campaign setting. Building on the idea from 3/3.5e D&D’s Greyhawk influenced generic world, 4e D&D introduced the Points of Light setting. It was largely mapless and still made use of Greyhawk material, but it described a world that D&D could logically exist in. It was a world of isolated towns, villages, and city states, all surrounded by wilderness, ruins, and the remains of lost civilizations. It was very cool, and frankly, very inspirational. More importantly, it was in the core books!

Score: 4/5 This edition had a great, open-ended concept for a base world, using established mythology to build something new to a scale that the previous edition had only tiptoed around.

Diversity:

Low to Moderate. There are five POC in the PHB, and one in the DMG; but there are a fair number of female adventurers in both. This edition fails were the previous ones did, but somehow makes it worse by having more pics of purple hued people with European features than actual POC.

Score: 2/5 Apparently in 2008, it was still easier to imagine people with violet skin in a fantasy setting than POC.

Availability:

Moderate. 4e D&D was recently published, and when combined with its relatively poor sales (at one point Pathfinder was outselling it), that means that this edition is available, still new, in a lot of locations. However, the march of time ongoing, so this edition will become rarer as time progresses. Probably the most frustrating thing about this edition was that WotC appeared to be using a “cash grab” model of publishing, breaking up things that were previously in one book for say, $50, and putting it in two books that cost $45 each sort of thing. This means that, of all the editions, this one requires the most purchases to get the same information that you got with fewer purchases in the past.

Score: 3/5 Lots of books are still available, but the large number of books to get a baseline set is cumbersome and can be difficult and expensive.

Gameplay:

This edition doesn’t play like previous or later editions. The mechanics are designed to make the game very playable, provided you play it specifically the way it was made to be played. Deviation from that makes encounters more difficult. Aside from that, it’s a modified d20 System game, so it has a shallow learning curve and is easy to get into. Combat can become very crunchy however, and it won’t be unusual to have fewer encounters per game as a result. Non-combat skills, spells, and so on are all but absent or incredibly simplified, and combat spell lists are truncated as well, owing to the “it’s all the same” attitude of the designers. So things can get very same-y very quickly, and there isn’t going to be a lot of variation between characters of the same class.

Thoughts:

4e D&D was an ambitious, glorious, failure of an edition. Had it been released as the new edition of Chainmail (the tactical tabletop game WotC resurrected in 3e) it might have stood a chance of surviving, and maybe even coming to set patterns for future editions of D&D. that didn’t happen though. What did happen was the release of the most combat oriented and most creatively restrictive edition since Basic D&D was released. Design ignored what had made 2e AD&D and 3/3.5e D&D successful with a broad fanbase appeal in favour of taking a narrow concept of “what” D&D “was”.

The results speak for themselves. While the game has retained a small, and sometimes rabid, fanbase, it failed to win over the majority of the previous edition’s fanbase. The reason was simple. This edition recommitted the error that Gary Gygax and company had in 1e AD&D. The game designers approached the game from a single angle, assuming that all play more or less followed the same approach to the game, and that players would naturally want to play the game that way. But where 1e AD&D can be given a pass for that conceit (it was a pioneering effort after all), 4e D&D can’t. 2e AD&D (particularly with the Player’s Option series), and 3/3.5e D&D had shown, conclusively, that D&D achieved its most success when it appealed to a broad selection of play styles. While fans argue that 4e *could* be played in any fashion desired (which is true), that argument is invalid in my opinion because it disregards the intent and design of the game.

Final Score: 14/30 4e D&D is getting its own deeper analysis in a future post, because it deserves a deeper look than this post gives it. As an edition of D&D, it failed to provide the “D&D experience” to many players, in defiance of the good aspects of its design. While I can’t honestly recommend it, if you’re heavily into tobletop tactical games, fantasy, and like how MMORPG character development works, this edition is for you.

Check Out the rest of the Editions War series here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

4e D&D is such a unique event that I went into deeper detail about it in an After Action Review. Check that out here:
4e D&D AAR

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