Tuesday, June 10, 2008

4th Edition is a disaster of epic proportions


I've lost track of how many times I've had to re-write this post, either due to blogger crapping out on me and not saving my progress, or (having learned my lesson and composing on a word processor) getting side-tracked and sucked into discussions/critiques/outright flame wars regarding 4th edition D&D.

So you know what? I'm not going to review the heck out of it. If you want to know more about it, let me suggest some interesting links:

However, if you don't feel so inclined, let me give you an Executive Summary:
  • 4th edition, judged on its own merits, is not a bad game. However, in my experience it only slightly resembles previous editions of D&D.
  • Many, many sacred cows were sacrificed. Whether this is an improvement is a matter of opinion. I assume most grognards will opine "no".
  • There is far too much emphasis on combat and not enough on role-playing. I base this statement on the huge amount of combat options available to each and every class (including healing), while an excerpt from the Dungeon Master's Guide indicates how best to turn a roleplaying opportunity into a series of die rolls.
  • In general, more is missing (Barbarians, Bards, Druids, Monks, Sorcerers, Half-Orcs, Gnomes, most of the alignment system, prestige classes, cosmology) than is added (Warlocks, Warlords, Tieflings, Dragonborn, epic levels). And I have no idea how to classify the Elf/Eladrin divide.*
  • Not only is the new engine NOT backwards-compatible, it is in fact completely incompatible with 3.5 edition.
  • It just doesn't feel like D&D any more. You've probably heard this a million times by now, but it looks and acts (and probably plays) more like a pen and paper MMO. Given the extreme popularity of World of Warcraft, this is not terribly surprising.
  • In Conclusion, if you love 3.5 edition, you will hate 4e. However, if you think 3.5 is stupidly complex and/or horribly broken, you will probably enjoy 4e. Maybe.

There. Review over. Now I can start ranting about the subject I am truly passionate about: how 4th Edition has been, start to finish, a blisteringly stupid business decision.

I began talking about this back in August 2007 . It's poor form to quote my own work, I know, but for the sake of completeness, and because I know most readers won't click a backlink, I'll just include the original post here:

Dear Wizards of the Coast:

Did you fail your saving throw vs. Stupid Marketing Decisions?

Putting aside the fact that a promotional video for your own product shouldn't underscore all the ways it has sucked over the years...

Putting aside the annoying, lisping little Frenchie...

Putting aside the fact that even a casual D&D player knows you can't just behead a troll like that without using fire or acid to overcome its regeneration...

All of that aside, you have still made a huge and stupid blunder: You announced 4th edition before Christmas.

Goodbye, Christmas sales of 3.5 edition books.

You remember Christmas, right? The one month of the year that brings in more revenue than the previous eleven combined? Yeah, you just screwed yourself out of that money.

I know that I, for one, will certainly not buy any D&D product until 4e comes out, because it's 99% certain that it won't be backwards- compatible, and I know I'm not the only one to think like this. Regardless of whether or not I switch to 4e, since I know that 3.5 lifespan ends in May 2008, I'll just wait until the hordes of fanboys sell their "obsolete" books back to the stores. I'll bet I can get a very nice discount on them....

Seriously, that's a totally bonehead maneuver. What you should have done was wait until January to make the announcement, and then release the books in August at GenCon 2008.

See how tidy that is? You get your Christmas sales, you announce "A new edition for a new year," and you release that edition at the biggest fucking gaming convention in the U.S.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go stake out a place by the bargain bins.

That was back in August, and the pooch has only gotten more thoroughly screwed. Fast forward to April of this year, where in yet another blog post I happily announce that Wizards of the Coast, or at least Porter Novelli, their PR firm, is going to be conducting phone interviews with game reviewers:
We are actually planning a desk side tour in April, which will end with a series of phone briefings at the end of the month (April 21-24). Although we're still working out which spokespeople will be available, if you could send me your (or I guess Erin's) best time slots to do interviews during those dates and we'll work something out from there. It would still be helpful to have Erin prepare her questions so if the phone briefing falls through we could go back to the questions.
So naturally, I'm all "Hell yeah, I want a piece of this," and I get fired up and announce to the world that I get to ask the developers of 4th Edition D&D questions about their new upcoming game.

Surprisingly, no one contacts me in April. I don't just mean the interview, I mean that there is "We are confirming that you have an interview scheduled at X time and date" kind of thing. I am shocked and worried by this, because I fear it's because I somehow screwed things up. Did I not get my availability dates to them in time? Did my latest AnotherCastle.com article offend them?

I pester my Editor, Jason Dobson, who calls Porter Novelli and leaves several voice messages. On April 23 -- ironically, the day that I had indicated I wanted to have the interview, and please note that this is two days past the date that this "deskside tour" was supposed to have begun -- Jason forwards this message to me:
"Hi Jason,

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner.

It looks like we’ll have to push the briefing back due to our executives being extremely busy right now (apparently there is a Fourth Edition coming out, with lots of books or something).

In the interim, we do have the first Fourth Edition adventure module, Keep on the Shadowfell, available for review. Featuring quick start rules and pre-generated characters, this is currently the best way to learn about the new ruleset; by playing. The product doesn’t release until May 20, so if you and your writers are willing to agree to an NDA until then, or until I say otherwise, then we can work on getting that out to you/Erin.

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll keep you posted on the briefing opps."
Let me rephrase that, for you people with poor reading comprehension: The PR Company retained by the publisher of the most popular RPG in the world has allowed its client to blow off its commitments to reviewers. This is unconscionably bad. "Hi, we're too busy to keep our promises, but trust us when we say that our product will be awesome!"

(Allow me to digress for a moment as I talk about bad movies. There is a practice in Hollywood whereby films that are expected to do poorly -- usually cheap horror films and teen comedies -- are not sent to film critics to review. This is done so that the films can at least reap the benefits of opening weekend receipts before poor critical review and word of mouth can do any damage. Sound familiar?)

So at any rate, while they can't answer my questions, they'll at least mollify my hurt feelings by sending me some free swag with a preview version of the rules. Hey, that's cool, I guess. Shoot me that NDA so I can sign that bad boy, maybe I can kinda-sorta review 4th Edition on May 20th.

Guess what happens?

Not a god-damned thing, that's what happens. It's "Shut up, Erin" all over again. So that's twice now that Wizards, or at least Porter Novelli, has completely blown me off. This is way beyond unprofessional and well into reputation-destroying carelessness.

Once again, I harass my editor. Once again, he comes through for me with a reply:
5:27 PM Jason: You around?
5:28 PM me: Yep.
Jason: I'm about to run, as is typical of me, but WotC emailed me apologizing, apparently the rep left the country and forgot to hand off the promise to send an NDA and module to me before he left.
This conversation, by the way, happened on May 19. Keep on the Shadowfell was scheduled to release May 20. Of course, they never did get back to either of us after that. And it turns out that it's not just us that have been treated like this, either. I cannot speak for every reviewer, of course, but I know for a fact that it happened to at least one other person [name pending, following his permission to use it in this article.] So if it happened to two of us, what do you think are the odds that it happened to all reviewers who aren't affiliated with Wizards of the Coast?

[Edit: It now turns out I was operating from incorrect information, and that the person I thought had been neglected was not. So I guess it's just me that was treated shoddily? Doesn't matter. I'm still going to raise holy hell about this, because promises were made and were broken.]

So not only is this Equine-Canine Extravaganza a complete Charlie Foxtrot, but now WotC's attitude seems to be KMAGYOYO, because now the other shoe has dropped:
... Wizards has stated that any company hoping to publish products for their new edition must agree to discontinue any current open licensed products and produce no further open products at all - Dungeons & Dragons related or not. In a phone conversation about 4e licensing with Clark Petersen, president of Necromancer Games, a company representative explained this policy and was adamant that it was not going to change. A number of companies are leveraging the OGL for their independent games, for example the pulp game Spirit of the Century; the gaming community adopted the OGL on good faith and more than 90% of the openly licensed games in existence are using it. This “poison pill” clause means that in exchange for any further involvement with the Dungeons & Dragons game line, a company must abandon any past OGL products and vow not to produce any more.

(from Geek Related)
In case that's not clear, let me quote a post from the aforementioned Clark Peterson:
I believe, in fact, that it is even a bit more restrictive than people are seeing. It is not just that you can't mix the two licenses in one product. It is that if you use the GSL you cannot also use the OGL for 3E products.

In other words, publishers have to decide if they want to stay 3E or if they want to come along for the 4E ride.

It is not a product by product choice. It is a business by business choice. It is not "well, this product will be 4E using the GSL but the next one will be for 3E under the OGL."

In other words, Necro can't do 3 books for 4E then decide to go back and do a 3E book.

Or, along the same lines, if Paizo wants to do Pathfinder 3E, it cant do 4E products. If it does, it can no longer do 3E ones.

I have, however, specifically clarified that Necro can do 4E and Paizo can keep doing 3E Pathfinder stuff and that is just fine.

Once you are in for 4E, you are in, and can't go back (well, you could but you would presumably lose the right to use the GSL from that point forward).

I have to clarify if I will be able to do 3E stats as seperate downloads for 4E books. My guess is that I will not be allowed to do that under the GSL. But I haven't asked that direct question.

By the way, this info was from Wizards. Unless I am misunderstanding what they told me or they didnt understand my question, this is how it will be.

Are you, dear readers, beginning to grasp why 4th edition is beginning to look like a disaster of epic proportions? It seems poised to become the Windows Vista of the RPG world: it looks pretty, breaks upon upgrade, and even on a fresh install with a system made for it, its performance is such that most folks would rather revert back to the previous edition.

Wizards of the Coast is making a very dangerous gamble here. They are effectively wagering that the early adopters who stay with 4e, plus whatever new converts who come as a result of the system being MMOlike, are equal to or greater than the amount of disgruntled fanbase who says "Screw you, I'm staying with 3.5" plus those early adopters who said "This is crap, the old version is better."

In other words: We bet we can get more people to like the game if we change it, so we don't care if our previous fanbase leaves.

The sad thing is that if 4e bombs -- and to be honest, I don't truly know if it will -- Wizards of the Coast is committed to supporting this product line for what, 6 months? A year? More? Having alienated large portions of their fanbase, having given affiliate companies a "Do or Die" choice, having effectively told reviewers either "We don't care about you" or "We don't want this reviewed before it hits shelves"...

... how can ANYONE say that this has been handled well? Or even professionally? (Not I, that's for sure.) It's almost like Hasbro, WotC's parent company, wants 4e to fail, so they can jettison the holding under the cover of "bad management decisions" or "poor profits".

It's like Gary Gygax is being given a Viking funeral with D&D as his pyre.

Now playing: Nine Inch Nails - Demon Seed
via FoxyTunes

* Actually, I do: STUPID. I don't understand why elves need to be pigeonholed into either "granola-eating leaf-wearing tree-hugging ranger culture" or "grand high artsy fartsy ancient magical race". Why can't they be both, or neither? It's like every D&D race, with the exception of humans (natch), must be a Single Hat Culture.


  1. Three words.

    Gygax. Rolling. Grave.

  2. It would have been so much better for everyone if they hadn't called it D&D 4th Edition.

    Instead, they should have given it a new line name -- perhaps something like "D&D Tactics" or "D&D Battles" or, my favorite, "D&D Extreme". These names put the emphasis on tactical combat right there in the name.

    By doing this, WoC could have tested the waters, and seen how the consumer reaction to this game system would be. If people really like it, they could quietly discontinue D&D 3.5. If people absolutely hate it, they could come out with a D&D 4.0 that maintains backward compatibility with 3.5 and discontinue the new system. If (most likely) some people like it and others don't, they could maintain both lines as separate entities. That would mean that they would keep their existing fan base and get the MMO newcomers as well.

    I believe that this one change, plus some smarter decisions regarding the OGL, would have dramatically increased the chance of this venture being a success.

  3. Alright, first off you punks are full of crap. D&D has been combat focused since freak'n 2e released Skills and Powers. Calling it "D&D: Gauntlet Legends" now makes about as much sense as calling Time Crisis 4 too much of a shooter.

    Before there was D&D, there was Chainmail.
    You know what Chainmail was? A tactical medival war game. For the last eight years, D&D has actually been moving back to its roots. And every time they take one step closer, someone bitches about how its not enough like the original D&D.

    Gygax wrote this game 40 years ago. WotC just got back around to perfecting it.

    Secondly, I agree the non-combat system is a fucking joke. D&D has been a dice-based system since its inception and dice-based systems have forever been crappy at handling social situations or mental puzzles. Given a d20, they did the best they could, which was still a massive disappointment. My suggestion to all D&Ders concerning non-combat challenges? Put your dice away. Quit pretending they have a place in this phase of the game. If you and your DM have debated a topic to death and you need a way to finally arbitrate with Old King Cole gives up his +1 pipe and his +1 bowl without having to roll for initiative to beat it out of him, then 4e's dice system isn't any worse than every D&D system previously devised.

    I won't comment on WotC's PR. That's a completely different boat. Needless to say, it doesn't warm my heart to see them stiff-arm a reviewer. Still, whatever. That's basically asking for bad press, so they earn any shit you give them.

    As for the OGL stuff... that's just dumb of WotC. The original OGL move for 3e was designed to revitalize the genre. WotC was going to lose market share to White Wolf and others, as young and entrepreneurial gamers started releasing their own homebrews to market. The OGL, and the Eberron game setting that was its penultimate climax, was an attempt to bring aspiring developers back into the fold. This new move their pulling just shoots them in the foot. Don't cry for the indie guys. They'll survive and flourish if their products rise to the challenge. Pazio is already marketing D&D 3.75e with support from some of the veteran WotC developers.

    In the end, all I'm saying is that 4e is getting a great deal of undeserved shit. It's an untried, untested system with virtually no content beyond the core books to bolster its content.

    I won't begrudge a soul for sticking with 3.5e, or even cracking open their 2e or 1e books and reliving the good old days. But I'm not going to swallow the caltrop that different = FAIL, just because 4e doesn't have all the splats that 3e does.

    3e had some fundamental problems. There were flaws in the system - in terms of spells and feat trees and prestige classes - and WotC made an honest effort to reconcile those flaws. That meant going back to the drawing board on a great deal and, yes, slaughtering a fair number of calves at the alter of Game Mechanics. Still, I've got hope. I think we're looking at a fundamentally sound system that will potentially play as well or better than its predecessor.

    Just give it a chance.

  4. I did give it a chance, even after it came out and they had made a few changes to mullify the general disheartened concensus of the beta Insider crowd.

    I know that D&D started as a miniatures tactical game, but over the years, it evolved to include roleplaying. And that's why a majority of people played RPGs - to get to the roleplaying aspect. That's why there are 300+ RPGs out there. D&D promoted itself out of the sole tactical realm into a pretty good system for RP. All in all, 2e to 3.5e, the miniature combat suffered because the emphasis was on the RP portion.

    But 4th Ed isn't just going back to the roots - it's remodeling both the combat and the RP to stick to rules that mostly complement the OTHER PRODUCTS that WotC sells. Miniatures, dungeon tiles, Insider, to name three (of probably 20 things). Worst part is that they announced it too soon and put an unreasonable expectation on the system, so it's incomplete. We don't have certain classes or races to play because they have not figured out how to fit those square pegs into a round hole.

    All in all, it is not a horrible game, just badly executed and you might as well just Torrent the DMG, since the DMG has two useful sections - the adventure scaling and the creature templating - and the rest is all crap that doesn't flow well or give the DM any new tools to run adventures with.

    To me, the game isn't anything without the DM. 4th Edition made things a little more complex for the DM instead of improving the experience that already suffers from cumbersome mechanics and large lists of things to memorize. DMs are in short supply, and now I believe they will come in even shorter supply since Insider is going to be the only liscensed tool allowed for tracking all the combat additions/complexities. Which means you and your group of friends all now have to subscribe for $15 a month (or more).

    I can't support such a blatant marketing tool and a horribly organized game. Sorry, but our two sessions suffered horribly from even a experienced DM having to flip around worse than when we went from 2 to 3.5 and the obnoxious magic system.

  5. The notion that D&D was originally a tactical miniatures game holds no water. The game's roots lie with wargamers, yes, but the game itself did not rely on them in the early days.

  6. Max -

    You're absolutely right that D&D was not about miniatures and tactical combat, although the rule system it was adapted from for combat was. Early combat shows a lot of wargaming mechanics adapted to pull wargamers into D&D and RPGing.

    From the essense of Gygax's simulator evolved the RPG experience, and that created the new game that shared equal amount of failure and distress. As the game moved into AD&D, the emphasis on combat was altered and to some extent waned, and that's pushed all the way through to 3.5.

    It's not returning to the roots. It's trying to spin that it is returning to the roots, but with an entirely different concept of "tactical" combat that doesn't even match, and a crappy MMO template for powers that really complicates matters more than makes it easier.

    Honestly, they tried to fix it from a player direction, when D&D has always been a little broken from the Dungeon Master perspective. This will do okay with the new crowd, but I have a feeling it won't necessarily woo the old crowd, who is already out there trying some other RPG anyway.

    *PS - Just read that article linked by Max and it is a great example of spinning the "old D&D was Chainmail" crap.

  7. If you want to see where D&D STOLE its so called IP from, see warhammer fantasy RPG that was put out in 2004. I bought it a little while ago and the similarities are too close to be a coincidence. Movement, combat segments(they have half actions instead of 3 actions) tactical usage of squares instead of feet or meters.

    If they had included blast templates Games Workshop probably could have sued. The character design isn't very close but that is more of straight to PC Guild Wars ness about it for your "builds"...I like the game as a tactical combat system, but it is not an RPG anymore.

  8. That is in U.S.

    Here in Mexico (yes, we also play) whe have the same feeling about D&D becoming a poor World of Warcraft tabletop translation.

    Some months ago, I bought the corebooks, after 3 sessions my whole party subtletily and politely asked me to return to 3.5 - "lets give 4e a second chance... dunno, maybe when they run a 4.5 renewed edition in a couple of years"

    All players, here, and in all internet complain about the same :

    -wotc emulating mmorpgs, pay for content-

    -The deliberated adaption of material trying to look like video game parafernalia, rather than working on or exploiting the existing contents-

    -The simplicity, Wotc argued that older editions were complex sets of rules unfriendly for many, although they may extent, rules were really that difficult. By this desition, the game was made inconsistent.

    As I writed above, I hope in a future development, fed by the discontent of players, of a edition more experienced and open.

    Here nobody minds in paying 5 bucks for not-so-necesary material.


The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.