Why WotC is Slash-and-Burning Dungeons & Dragons

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.

%d bloggers like this: