Everyone’s Doing It: My Thoughts On D&D 4th Edition

I think I’ve figured out what it is I like about Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. To me, they’ve managed to laser-focus on the things where D&D is in fact better than most other RPGs. They’ve turned it into a combat-oriented dungeon-crawling game par excellence. If it’s not as strong on role-playing elements as some prior editions, there are plenty of other games that were better than D&D at such things to begin with, and it was never part of D&D’s paradigm to stress such things mechanically. Basically, I’m looking forward to playing 4th Edition with my friends because it’ll be a novel experience for me. We played 3rd edition some when it first came out, but otherwise we’ve pretty much abandoned it, and playing such a “game-y” and clearly-defined RPG would be something new after playing long campaigns with Fudge, Truth & Justice, and OVA.

Reactions to Changes
I will admit to having engaged in what Judd calls 4enfreude — grim enjoyment of other people’s distress over the changes to the new edition. Pretty much the only RPG forum I go to that hasn’t had any to speak of is Story Games. From my perspective a large portion of the complaints seem a bit trivial. Admittedly, none of the races or classes I was ever particularly interested in playing got cut (for the aforementioned game with my friends I’m playing a half-elf Fighter, if a rather eccentric one), but then the changes to the selections of such things aren’t any more severe than in prior editions. AD&D 2nd Edition didn’t have any half-orcs, monks, or barbarians. 4th Edition is also aping MMORPGs (but I don’t want to explain why), doesn’t have enough items, will run over your dog, and completely fails at being 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 3.5 editions, much less white box or Rules Cyclopedia.

I’m not in any way attached to the prior editions–the very few d20 and AD&D2e books I have I keep around more for inspiration, or in the case of Planescape unbridled awesomeness–and unlike my friend Chris’ roommates I don’t have a long-running campaign that’d be impractical to port over. When 3e got rid of THAC0, I saw it as a major step forward in terms of being willing to discard artifacts of the earlier versions’ idiosyncratic design when something new would just plain work better. You can debate the relative merits of “balance” in RPGs, but I really, really like the idea of wizards always having something useful to do and fighters having more options than just swinging a sword.

Market Type Stuff
I do wonder about D&D’s popularity and moreover its dominance in the hobby. Not because I think it’s a bad game–far from it–but simply on the fact that it’s remained such an overwhelming hold over RPG fandom as a whole for the entirety of its existence. Video games thrive on variety; each generation has at least two major consoles, and each console strives for a game library encompassing hundreds of titles in every genre available. There are people who like a narrow range of genres, and people who have some perennial favorite they keep on playing, but on the whole video gaming as an industry moves forward through new stuff. In particular, the video game industry has to invent new genres periodically, since the older onces become calcified and cater to an ever-shrinking hardcore audience. I don’t know board and card games that well, but my impression is that there’s new stuff coming out all the time, and even casual players (1) don’t stick with just one game, and (2) are occasionally willing to give new stuff a try. Wargames and MMORPGs have their dominant games (Warhammer 40K and World of Warcraft), but these are relatively recent games that essentially took the core of the established hobby and found the right mass appeal to take off.

Of course, if you look at the different editions of D&D as separate games (and certainly entirely too many people have a habit of decrying the latest version as not being “real D&D”), you might argue that TSR and WotC have managed to do just that. The so-called “kill things and take their stuff” approach is simple and accessible, and all the more so with the new edition’s emphasis on setting up encounters.

When I posed the question of why people play D&D exclusively on Gaia Online’s Tabletop Gaming forum, very few people actually said they did so by choice per se. There are a lot of people who just want to play some kind of RPG, and D&D is the only one they can find a group to play with… Which in turn sends me to the question of why it’s hard to find groups playing stuff other than D&D, which then puts me back where I started. “D&D dominates the RPG hobby scene because it’s the dominant RPG.”

But there are people who just refuse to give other RPGs a chance, and I still wonder how one can think that way. I mean, I seriously can’t think of an analogue that I can relate to. Even when I don’t like a genre, I can usually find something within it that I’ll enjoy (Shawn of the Dead, Uno, Halo, etc.), and even if I can’t, I’ll still give it a chance if a friend recommends it (hence although I’ve concluded that wargames do nothing for me, I have in fact played Warhammer 40K a couple times). When I do like a genre, I’ll go through periods of going all-out researching what’s out there on the internet and such (ask me about how I wound up doing a research paper on Godzilla some time). I seriously just can’t wrap my head around why someone who likes one role-playing game wouldn’t give any others a chance.

But What Is D&D Really Like?
One interesting thing that’s coming out of all this rumination on the validity of the new edition is that it’s harder than you might think to make assumptions about how people want to play the game. Part of why people are taking issue with 4e is its tighter focus doesn’t appear to mesh as well with how they want to do things. It’s hard to say anything definitive about early D&D because different groups interpreted and approached the rules differently, and houseruling was a way of life. Here are some different accounts I’ve gleaned from different places:

  • Sociologist Gary Alan Fine reported that when he studied gamers in the Twin Cities area, he found relatively few people actually spoke in character, and many used the games as outlets for violent and even sexual urges.
  • From what I’ve been reading in forums, one account says that Gygax meant for characters to use lots of hirelings and to move on to more of a leadership role as they rise in levels, yet he was surprised to find them remaining adventurers indefinitely.
  • One person said that dungeon crawls were about avoiding combat as much as possible in favor of achieving a stated objective.
  • Another recalls being docked points in a tournament game for using guile to deal with a monster rather than killing it outright.
  • And when AD&D came along, Gygax wrote a long column in The Dragon about how if you play AD&D with house rules, you’re not really playing AD&D, likening it to trying to push a variant of chess into an official tournament. In general he seems to have done a lot of ranting about how TSR’s D&D was pure and gamers should avoid the bastardizations provided by APAs and such.
  • By the time 2nd edition came around, Gygax was no longer with TSR, and from what little I know of that time the company seemed more inclined to deal with other companies trying to make D&D-compatible products with lawyers rather than snark (hence the “T$R” moniker used relentlessly on BBSes and usenet). 3rd edition came after White Wolf had already made its mark on the hobby, and you would routinely see people bragging about how they’d spend sessions of D&D wholly immersed in role-playing and intrigue sometimes (which makes one wonder why they’re using the D&D rules at all).

In a sense, the new edition does a lot more than the previous ones to divert gameplay towards what the designers felt was the optimum mode of play. More styles of play are left with little to no mechanical support (in the matter of the 3e court intrigue games), but the core style is supported exceptionally well.

On the other hand, the last two editions have done a lot more to remove some of the particularly Gygaxian notions about how the game should flow. Third Edition tossed out level and class limits for non-human characters. The argument was that it was a balancing factor intended to ensure that human characters would take center stage in the game despite demihumans having inherent advantages. This in turn relied on the assumption a group would play the game regularly for a very long period of time and characters would improve relatively slowly; if you were to play the game for less than a year, the level limits were unlikely to actually come into play in the first place. (Also, I’m one of the people cheering for the demise of Vancian magic in D&D).

In Conclusion
In conclusion, this turned out to be much longer and more rambling than I originally intended. I’m looking forward to playing the new version of D&D. It’s a very good game, but I can’t comprehend why anyone would consider it THE game. On the other hand, the haters are silly at best, and undignified at worst. This is doubly true of the ones who like an older edition, and triply true of the ones that like 3.5 and have no sense of the history of the game. (Guess what? Barbarians and half-orcs weren’t in AD&D2e either!)

For my group we’re going to start at 1st level (and one of the things I like is that 1st level PCs aren’t so goddamn weak), and we will be using maps and miniatures, albeit on the cheap (I have Chessex battlemats, one of my friends has a couple boxes of old pewter minis, and the rest will be cardstock I’m sure). On the other hand I totally want to get a special set of dice for the game, including a Crystal Caste metal d20. I will post a bit about my experiences if/when I have something interesting to post.

5 thoughts on “Everyone’s Doing It: My Thoughts On D&D 4th Edition

  1. actually, i totally get why people stick to d&d and not give other games a chance…

    because an rpg ISN’T just a game. it’s a SYSTEM. it’s an “adventure operating system” if you will.

    and just like there are OS wars when it comes to mac pc and linux (and even variants of linux), people can become very attached to rpg systems.

    i think it’s this way with complex generalized (generic) systems because once you know how to operate the system, you can then spend the rest of your time OPERATING… instead of learning another system from the ground up before you can work (or in this case, play) again.

    (hence the emphasis to d20ize everything in the first place… people dig standardization. it’s a basic impulse… especially for complex systems)

    nevermind the investment of time and money that you plunked to keep your system up to date and well equipped….

    this is less so with board games i think because the rules are usually not complex or flexible enough to encompass more than a very game specific kind of play. system and game is inextricably tied together. there would be no OS wars if you had to run mac to run a word processor and winxp to do spreadsheets. people would just switch back and forth at need.

    i mentioned money investment – here’s another addendum to that topic – commercial rpgs are expensive. especially if you think about all the companion books they try to squeeze you for.

    personally, i totally buy into ron edwards’ assertion that mechanics matter and that a unique system can be an integral part of the experience of a specific kind of game (and can even in itself be an artistic expression of someone’s interpretation of the nature of humanity ala ‘my life with master’… and now that i’ve found all these cool indie games, i can indulge for cheap!

    anyhoo, cool article!


  2. Perhaps that’s the difference in thinking. Being into the indie scene has made me think of RPGs more like console video games. Some of them you put a huge time commitment into, and some you play for an hour or so every now and then. Only a few (like Halo) become a sophisticated medium of competition and interaction that you keep coming back to over and over.

    Having learned many RPG systems, I think that the investment of time and money required for getting into a new one is severely overrated, simply because in terms of the number of books and the complexity of the system, D&D is very much one of the exceptions to the rule. Exalted comes close, but the vast majority of RPGs just don’t have that many supplements (and aren’t popular enough for too many supplements to be commercially viable), and aren’t that complex.

    For example, the Shab-al-Hiri Roach only asks you to buy one $20 book, and you can learn ALL of the rules in maybe 20 minutes if someone in the group has taken the time to read them over and print out the reference sheets. You almost certainly wouldn’t get as much use out of it in the long term, but it’s the Xbox Live Arcade Tetris or Lumines to D&D’s WoW or Final Fantasy XIII.

  3. well, i was never really that into TTRPGs. I played a few times in high school with some hard-core friends but that was all. That has all changed recently and I now consider myself a new-comer to the hobby. I bought a 4e players handbook and some dice…

    As a game goes, 4e is pretty darn good. Encounters are where the action happens and its a good place to start. Role-play elements can be added along the way as the story develops. The mechanics start off simple. Beginning characters aren’t cannon-fodder. New players can feel the excitement of actually finishing a quest in the first session or two. Great start.

    The bad? I’d say it’s damn near prohibitively expensive. The core books alone can run upwards of $100+ and the supplements are starting to trickle down (each another $40 a pop). Plus all the companion material and if you’re really into the accessories: it quickly adds up to one damn expensive hobby. It really doesn’t help that the core books also try to up-sell WotC products inside. Really breaks up the excitement of a new purchase when your new found treasure tells you to go buy more treasure. Not too happy with this aspect.

    I really can’t wait to get my feet wet. Why D&D? Critical mass. It is the biggest and as far as popular culture is concerned, probably the only TTRPG there is. It’s almost guaranteed that anyone completely new to the concept will come into the hobby through D&D; but will they stay there indefinitely? Probably not. Those that stick around will eventually branch out… but will always have a fondness for that first game they played.

    But if WotC really wants to branch into the mainstream more, they’re going to have to find some way to bundle the content and deeply reduce its cost. It’s too late for me, but look back I used to think $70 for a console/computer game was steep. I look back fondly.

    As an aside, go figure, eh? My copy of Fallout 3 cost a hell of a lot more to produce than all of 4e, yet costs much less per unit at retail. Even adjusting for volume, I wonder if WotC is sitting on a ludicrously fat per-unit markup. With all the up-selling one gets the feeling that they’re fleecing their customers by serializing the release of content and rabidly pushing customers to buy the accessories. One might even think they were gouging us. But it is a past-time and we can walk with out wallets… alas, critical mass eh?

  4. Well, I hope you enjoy your experiences with the game. There’s something to be said, on a lot of different levels, for that experience of being a part of the biggest part of the hobby. Although I’ve enjoyed many different games over the years, when people ask what I’m playing, it’s nice in a way to be able to say “D&D” and know they’ll actually understand what I’m talking about. And if I decided that I wasn’t getting enough of it with my friends, the local game store has RPGA stuff going on twice a week.

    But, as you say it’s not a cheap game to get into. To really get the full effect you need a bunch of hardback books, and on top of that some semblance of maps and miniatures (even if it’s all bits of paper or similarly cheap substitutes). Apart from that very basic starter set, WotC is selling an experience that requires a fairly high commitment–not only financially but in terms of time–to really get the most out of it. My group’s best moments with D&D4e as a rules system have generally been the most recent, because it’s taken us quite a while to fully grasp everything.

    While I suspect that WotC could stand to charge less for their books, for better or for worse they’re a subsidiary of Hasbro, and they have to put out products that sell well at Borders and such. By Hasbro’s standards of profitability, WotC could well be just barely justifying its existence, even if they really are fleecing their customers by RPG industry standards. But, so far they’re putting out a really fun game, which to me is the more important thing.

  5. @Ewen

    All very true. Maybe it’s the Hasbro execs and not WotC putting the pressure on sales. Not much can be done about that and I wouldn’t expect it to go away. I take issue with the up-selling in the book content. I don’t think the accessories are a bad thing, but I’d rather see them in an ad in the back than being pressured with a sales pitch on almost every other page (some sections more than others, of course.. I am exaggerating).

    But it is about fun, and the game is nothing but. I’m positively tickled to play the next session. It gets under your skin to be sure. :)

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