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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Why WotC is Slash-and-Burning Dungeons & Dragons

by Ken Newquist / February 21, 2008

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is coming, slashing and burning all that has come before to create a new game that ignores the tropes of classic sword-and-sorcery in order to embrace the always-on, always-cool mechanics of digital fantasy.

We see it at every turn. The lack of a 3.x-to-4.x conversion guide. The admonishment to wrap-up old campaigns in favor of 4E. The impending decimation of the Forgotten Realms, and the planned 100-year leap forward in its timeline. Succubi are now devils. Devils are fallen angels. Gnomes are monsters. Tieflings are cool. Evil elves worship Grummosh, formerly god of the orcs. Warlocks are the new baseline of character power.

Wizards isn't just burning their bridges. They're annihilating them.

During the 2nd edition to 3rd edition conversation, Wizards of the Coast was concerned about retaining the core of Dungeons & Dragons, while fixing what was fundamentally broken about the earlier edition. With 4th edition, Wizards seems more interested in retaining the core of an entirely different game: World of Warcraft. Level progressions are fast, with characters going from Level 1 to Level 30 in the same time it used to go from 1 to 20. Characters gain abilities at every level, and their powers are designed to be used in every combat, reseting between engagements. By level 30, characters will be able to -- indeed, are expected to -- fight gods.

And the elves have sideburns.

For long-time fans, the question is ... why? Why is Wizards going out of their way to alienate their base, mocking old standbys like the gnome, dismissing the earlier incarnations of the game, and making it practically impossible to upgrade existing campaigns, all the while playing up the l33t tiefling warlocks?

I think there are two answers.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
  2. Demographics

First, Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was an incremental edition. It's usefulness will be endlessly debated, but I think we can all agree it killed any hope of D&D 4.x to be an evolutionary upgrade. With the last revision of the rules only a few years in the past, D&D 4th edition can't just be about tweaking what was broken in the previous release. It must be a major, revolutionary change, or people won't have a compelling reason to start buying yet another round of new books.

While 4th edition will undoubtedly retain certain core mechanics of the game (e.g. you're still rolling a d20, you've still got fighters, clerics and wizards, you're still going to make some sort of saving throw) large swathes of the game are being changed. It won't be compatible with what's come before, ensuring that diehard fans will need to buy all new books to keep their new games running.

Second, demographics. The average age of a D&D gamer has been creeping upwards since 3rd edition was released. In my gaming group, the average is probably about 35, where as it was likely 29 when 3.0 came out. I'm willing to bet that we're not unique in that. Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro, aren't stupid. People in their 30s do not have a huge amount of disposable income or time. In a few years these thirtysomethings are going to be fortysomethings who may very well give up the game entirely.

Wizards of the Coast has benefited as much as it can from a generation that cut its teeth on Lord of the Rings and Tales of the Dying Earth. In many ways, the Lord of the Rings movies are a capstone for our era of fantasy. The torch is being passed to a new style of fantasy inspired by games such as Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls and Everquest.

Since the new edition is going to need a radical change up of the rules anyway, why not do it in such a way that appeals to a younger demographic at the same time, especially if you can compete directly with Warcraft and perhaps lure back some of those millions of lost players?

The big question, of course, is will it work?

I think Wizards can count on a certain amount of inertia; some people, maybe even a majority of the current player base, will upgrade simply because that's what you do. They play D&D, and they will keep playing whatever the current ruleset is. I also think Wizards is alienating a significant majority of their players by changing the default setting as much as they are and making it harder to run more traditional fantasy games like Greyhawk or even the Forgotten Realms. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that 30% of their players don't upgrade at all.

Will D&D 4E lure back those lost MMO players in sufficient numbers to replace the lost traditionalists? Maybe, particularly if the online offerings prove to be compelling enough. I think there's a good number of Warcraft players who are in the game simply because they can't find a local D&D game; if they can do it over the net, then they might come back.

Ultimately though, I think Wizards is making a mistake, and radically underestimating how much their players like a traditional fantasy setting. In my opinion, it would have been better to release a flavor-text light edition of the Player's Handbook, making it a toolkit-style release like d20 Modern or Savage Worlds Explorers Edition and then releasing all of their too-cool creations as a stand-alone campaign setting rather than try to shove these changes down the collective throats of their fan base.

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While I happen to agree with pretty much every point you made, and I myself am one of the many that was not happy about the 4e announcement, I am willing to give it a try. I will buy the core books and I do like the virtual tabletop idea. But unless the new mechanics are ground breaking enough to make me forget all about 3e, I may just add the 4e books to my collection and continue my 3e campaigns. Of course it would also be nice to be familiar with 4e and have at least the core books, in case I come across a new group that is playing 4e.
However, though I am willing to give the new system the benefit of the doubt, I'm a sucker, I agree that changing the rules at this time is not the best idea on WotC's part. I think making such drastic changes to the game, the very foundation of the RPG industry and purposefully alienating such a vast majority of your customer base is a poor decision.
Then again 4e could be the revolutionary idea that the gaming industry needs. Keeping just enough of the old to keep us long time gamers and the old guard happy, but with enough of the new to inject some life into the industry. I know I'm being too optimistic about this, but I hate to see them kill a game that has meant so much to so many people. I want to believe they know what they are doing.

As they say, what's good for D&D is good for the industry, so I'm hoping that 4E sells like gangbusters, even if I don't end up using it for my regular campaign. At the same time though, I like my current style of play, and I'm hoping that Pathfinder does well enough to keep the 3.x branch alive. With any luck, the two games will help grow D&D's audience by offering systems that appeal to old school and new school gamers.

I'm with you. I think there is more than enough room for both systems. 4e will appeal to the group that is looking forward to the online component. While I think that a lot of us will still play 3e at home, I would not be surprised if more than a few 3e lovers, like myself, also pick up the 4e core books to take advantage of the VTT. I have friends here locally that I am pretty sure will not convert, and that is fine by me, we can continue playing 3e till we are too old to throw dice. However, I also like the idea of gaming with some of the podcasters and other great people I've come in contact with since starting the Gazette. Especially since the person with the subscription can invite people to sit in and try it out, or so I've heard. Maybe I could even get you in on a game, or vice versa.

I'll reserve judgement until I've seen the online play. I'm less then thrilled with the need to buy online miniatures to play the game (does World of Warcraft require you to buy murloc minis before you can fight them?) and I'm bummed that it's Windows only, but like you say, it could be just the thing to get together with folks I want to game with but rarely (if ever) get to see in the real world.

I'm willing to install Windows on my Mac for that chance ... assuming the online tools work as advertised.

I'm only vaguely familiar with the Mac OS, but isn't there something for Mac that lets you run window's apps? Linux has wine and I use it occasionally on my Linux laptop, the rest of my machines are windows, and it has worked so far. I haven't tested the extent of what it will do, so I don't know if it will run the VTT and may end up having to play on my desktop or my wife's laptop. I imagine that they will eventually have a Mac version.
I do think paying for the virutal minis is a load of crap, though they do offer tokens for free that can represent the monsters you want to use. I have also heard that you will be able to upload an image to the token, rumor only, so in the end it may not be as bad as it sounds. I'm still unclear as to the number of character slots you are able to use. Some reports I have read state that each level your character advances will fill a slot, while other reports state that they have abandoned this so that you can actually have 10 different characters that progress normally.
Regardless unless 4e is just mind blowing, I seriously doubt I will go beyond the core rules. I have too many different game systems, including a ton of 3e books, to be that concerned with 4e. If not for the VTT I probably would sit this one out.

WotC isn't the only one putting a new edition out this year.The hero system will be seeing a 6th edition that will incorporate material and allow conversions with the Champions online game. I have given up on the Hero system as no one I know wants to play a game that can get pretty complicated, same reason we gave up on Rifts, but over all I like it.
I kind of think the "dumbing down" of system is getting a bit sad. On one hand it is nice to have systems that are fast and easy, especially for new players, but I kind of like the heavy numbers, do any things systems as well. Unfortunately, I am finding that pretty much everyone I know wants the easier systems and won't even look at the heavier stuff. I loaned a friend my copy of Hero 5e and he told me there was too much to read, he didn't even want to try.
I'm not saying it is a bad thing, but our video game mentality is definitely sending table top gaming in another direction. We want to make our characters quick and get on with the game. One of the reasons my wife quit playing was because she hated making characters.

No problem; rants are welcome. :)

Mac users have a few Windows options: dual boot into Windows and Mac OS X using Apple's Bootcamp utility, run virtualization software like Parallels (which runs Windows within a virtual machine on the mac) and CrossOver, which allows you to run Windows-based programs without installing Windows (think WINE; actually, it's based on WINE).

Now that Macs run on Intel processors rather than PowerPC ones, Mac users have a huge number of solutions to this particular problem. I'd likely dual-boot into Windows and run the D&D tool natively; the other option usually involve a hefty performance hit.

As far as dumbing down systems, from what I've seen I don't know that 4E will be any easier than 3E; streamlined, yes, but still pretty damn complicated in its own way (as opposed to Savage Worlds, which really is a much lighter system).

That said, I do love crunchy games, but I don't have nearly as much time for them as I'd like. I could spend a Saturday building the perfect villain in Mutants & Masterminds and have a blast doing it ... but I don't have many of those. Savage Worlds, on the other hand, let's me build NPCs in 15 minutes, if not less.

Ok I'll give you the fact that streamlined is a better term for 4e, but there is a trend of systems becoming overly simplified. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be that players are coming to prefer non-crunchy systems. The simpler, faster and easier the better.
While I have to concede the merit of games that are less time consuming and I am guilty of picking up more than a few myself, I do miss the deeper systems that required more time. Like you however, time is a precious commodity and in truth I don't have the time I did when I was a kid to devote to building and tweaking characters and villains. So I guess it is just me showing my age and trying to hang on to a bit of the past.
It is amazing that some people who pride themselves on keeping up with and adapting to advances in technology, for the most part, are so resistant to change when it comes to something as anti-tech as their RPGs.