It is safe to say, without much doubt, that the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (4e D&D) is the most contentious edition of the game ever to issued by either TSR or Wizards of the Coast (WotC). It was also the shortest-lived edition since the game made the leap from the 1974 “Original D&D” to Basic and 1st Edition in 1977, lasting only four years (2008-2012) before work on its replacement started. So what happened? How did everything unfold so disastrously? This post is going to be an AAR (after action review) of 4e D&D.
As I surmised in my Editions War post on 4e D&D, I believe that the d20 bubble popping spooked WotC into taking action to change their product. But that’s only part of the story. In an exhaustive interview with Andy Collins and Liz Schuh by The Escapist, more can be discerned. WotC, and their corporate parent, Hasbro, appear to have identified two large trends at the time that they believed were indicating the future of fantasy RPG gaming, and were labouring under the shadow of TSR’s failure in the 1990’s without fully understanding it. When combined with what was seen in the actual 4e D&D plan and what was released, it all comes together.
The trends they identified that were cleaning up shop in the mid to late 00’s were miniature wargaming and MMORPGs. Warhammer and Warhammer 40000 were enjoying something of a renaissance, and “WarmaHordes” was a fast up and comer. People all over were getting into the hobby, and it appeared that their own Chainmail lineup was missing out for lack of integration into the larger D&D game (which was in 3.5e D&D at the time). MMORPGs were an influence in that they appeared to indicate how people were “playing” fantasy RPGs, and had a monstrous following as that was only growing (World of Warcraft wouldn’t see falling numbers until Q4 2010). Suffice to say, WotC wanted a taste of these numbers, and the cash that was flowing out of them.
TSR in the 1990’s decided, poorly, to try to dominate the tabletop gaming industry; they hammered out campaign settings for almost every genre fantasy could be applied to, dipped their toes in strategic wargaming, and made a push. It failed and left the company bankrupt and ripe for take over. When I say that WotC didn’t understand what happened, it’s because they appear to have conflated the system of the game with the failure, instead of the reckless volume of material being pumped out in an effort to capture a market that had grown bigger than what TSR was really capable of grasping. 2nd Edition AD&D (2e AD&D) didn’t fail because of its system becoming stale (it was but it wasn’t a failure point yet, and the Options series was a life-ring); it failed because TSR tried to dominate a market they no longer fully understood that was crowded with games in genres that they weren’t even competing with.
So, with that in mind, 4e D&D’s creation was set in motion.
The Plan & Execution
Like most plans, the plan for 4e D&D was good on paper from what I can determine. The idea was to bring in some new blood, revitalize the game, improve its systems, bring it in line with modern gaming trends and tastes, and to combine it with a digital offering to leverage the online capabilities that were coming into use. One of the things I recall hearing a lot at the time was that 4e D&D was getting back to the “roots” of D&D, which excited a lot of players. It shouldn’t have though, because what Dungeons & Dragons, as a cultural institution, had become to many players was not what close to its roots at all. D&D, as a game, has its roots in a squad level tactical tabletop miniatures wargame, and that was the bulk of what 4e D&D was.
4e D&D had a number of issues in its execution. Not the least of which was that, unlike previous editions, purchasing the core three books did not give you a complete starting set. The digital supporting material never fully materialized. The licence made it so that companies that wanted to produce 4e D&D material had to cease all production and support of 3/3.5e D&D material. The situation snowballed until, in 2010, the unthinkable happened. Paizo Publishing’ Pathfinder RPG, made under the OGL to 3.5e D&D, tied 4e D&D for sales. Then in 2011, it surpassed the it. The world’s most recognized fantasy game was no longer its top selling fantasy game. The writing was on the wall for real this time, and in 2012, four years after 4e D&D was released, D&D Next was announced. 4e D&D had failed.
What Went Wrong
WotC badly misread the trends at the time as indicators of “what” gamers wanted. Key aspects of 4e D&D that were most problematic were:
Role Enforcement: In previous editions, “roles” of different classes were implied, but extremely flexible, and could be ignored completely if desired. 4e D&D embraced a strongly MMORPG influenced model of taxonomy for classes. There were defenders, leaders, controllers, and strikers. Then it enforced those roles with game mechanics and implied direction in the “fluff”.
Combat Orientation: 4e D&D was the most combat oriented edition I have played. Everything, every class ability, every level gained, was all oriented towards efficacy in combat. There were no options for making less combative characters, and frankly, trying to do so (like making say, an enchanter specialist magic user) was not on. Additionally, the game was heavy on playing with miniatures, a battlemat, and so on.
Unification of Worlds: This edition went to every effort to shoehorn its base races into pre-existing campaign settings, regardless of whether they fit or not, and erased much of the uniqueness of these worlds as a result. As a Dark Sun and Forgotten Realms fan, this hit particularly hard for me.
Character Choice: Despite ultimately offering more classes and more player races than any previous or following edition (to date), the MMORPG style character development trees, role enforcement, and combat orientation in combination with the lack of true dual classing or multiclassing, ultimately reduced the amount of potential directions of development for characters. Classes were designed to work a specific way, and deviation was frowned on.
“Money Grab”: As mentioned earlier, you did not get what was recognized as the full “base” list of classes and races in the core three books. There were two more PHBs to buy if you wanted the actual full base game. It rubbed the consumer base wrong, and came off as a cash grab by WotC, spoiling a lot of good will.
Poor Representation: For an edition that was supposed to reach out to the “younger” gamer generation and bridge the gap between them and the old guard of D&D gaming, this edition had a shocking lack of diversity in its art. Compounded with things like what happened to the non-white parts of Faerûn, the edition came off as fairly hostile, or at least unwelcoming to many, and odd to people now accustomed to a more diverse fantasy environment.
No Compatibility: When WotC introduced 3e D&D, there was a booklet available to guide players and DM’s in converting their 2e AD&D characters, NPCs, and monsters into the new edition. There was no such animal for 4e D&D. Not just that, but many characters were impossible to recreate or update to the new edition because of the adherence to roles and the comparatively rigid structure of character development.
In summation, the edition reduced player agency, focused on combat, ripped up established worlds, and came off as a grab for gamer cash. Of these, the player agency and combat orientation were the most problematic. These aspects probably did more to turn players away than anything else. To me, the general feel of the game was that I was playing an MMORPG built character in a squad level tactical game. Adding to that feeling was that my friends who did play both MMORPGs and tactical miniature games picked up on the cues in the material and switched their game styles to match the game play style being offered.
What Went Right
This may sound surprising to anyone who has seen me in social media forums banging on against 4e D&D, but there were some things that it did very well, and that should have made the transition (with modifications) to 5e D&D.
Class Variety: There were lots of classes, and had they not been so prescribed by their assigned “roles”, they could have revolutionized D&D for the better. There were twenty-two classes in the base PHBs, and the concepts behind them were good.
Player Races: Again, lots of them, seventeen in total. It was outstanding. For an undescribed base world, this is the sort of variety you need to bring it to life.
Division of Powers: Divine, arcane, martial, psionic, and primal; it was a clear-cut set of divisions that actually improved the game in many ways. It also acted to help with the next point.
Embrace of Fantasy: This sounds a bit odd, but, more than any other edition to date, 4e D&D deeply embraced modern “fantasy” concepts and constructs, and nearly broke away from the limiting historical fetters that other editions hew to.
New Base World: Points of Light, later evolving into Nentir Vale, was an original concept that actually made the D&D ecology work. It was brilliant and while minimalistic, allowed for amazing development by individual DM’s.
Layout and Tools: The actual layout of the books, and tools for players and DM’s alike were superb, and set a good standard for how that sort of information should be conveyed to the end user.
4e D&D had immense potential that was lost because of a blinkering effect caused by the biases and influences of the “What Went Wrong” and “Background” sections. Seriously, in my opinion, had 4e D&D not embraced the MMORPG and tactical tabletop approaches it did, and had instead come at D&D from a broader playstyle perspective, that we would probably still be playing it and wondering what WotC would do for the upcoming 5e D&D, and why Paizo was still persisting with that 3.5e D&D knockoff.
When 4e D&D was in development, there were a lot of rumours about it, and in honesty, I wish some had been true. But ultimately, the edition failed because while it was labeled “Dungeons & Dragons”, it didn’t feel, act, or read like Dungeons & Dragons. After the progressively increasing player agency and variability within classes through 2e AD&D and into the 3e and 3.5e D&D era, 4e D&D was a sharp regression in both of those areas, back down to a very core concept of play that was at odds with what D&D had developed into. It felt like the developers and planners understood that modern gamers wanted more than the original fighting-man, magic-user, thief, and cleric combination, but still thought that the tactical dungeon crawl with a 10’ pole and rigid tactical tasking was the norm of play. This is a little understandable given the extreme popularity of MMORPGs at the time and the structure of raid play in them.
Which I think brings me to the biggest killer of this edition. It assumed. It assumed that play in a computer environment (with the limitations of that) was “what” players were looking for. It assumed that miniature gaming was how people wanted to do combat, and is what they wanted the focus to be. It ignored that those games are heavily structured the way they are because they are limited by their hardware (computers), and focus (tactical gaming). This doesn’t mean that MMORPGs or tabletop tactical miniature games are “bad”, or “unworkable”, it means that they have to place constraints on the players in order to function, and those restraints are heavier than those needed by an pen’n’paper RPG.
So there it is. My assessment and AAR of 4e D&D, an extremely contentious edition that had immense potential. Had it been released as is under a different title, it would probably still be published and supported; but it had the misfortune of trying to take on what D&D had become in the years since its 1974 debut as an appendix to a medieval wargame, and was unable to match it.