Okay, that's better.
It's been so long, I haven't even had a chance to listen to my satellite radio and only just found out (from one of the blogs on my blogrole) that Kam Chancellor has ended his holdout. No, I know most of my readers don't care...I'm citing it as an example of how busy the day's been. Sports talk radio is one of my only "links back home," and one I can usually take advantage of when going about the daily grind (I'm sure this was big news today). But...okay, never mind.
4th Edition D&D. I've now read the PHB, DMG, MM, PHB2, and DMG2. I have purchased none of them, simply found them squirreled away on various sites around the internet. Foreign (non-U.S., non-English) sites mostly...perhaps that has something to do with WotC not wanting to translate their products into other languages (either way, the karmic backlash seems to be going both ways).
After reading these core books (and keep in mind that unlike DND 3.5, these #2 books are actual expansions not revisions, so I'd consider them "core"), I find have a lot of thoughts on 4th Edition. Yes, I realize I am years late to this party and that there is something called 5th Edition on the shelves...5E is a post for another time (if and when I ever get around to reading it). 4E is an edition that I've said plenty of poor words about while having never played the game and never doing more than perusing the thing. Now that I've sat down and actually bothered to read the thing I find my feelings have evolved somewhat. I can now articulate with more authority (or, at least, with more knowledge) and there's a lot to say.
Hell, I kind of want to do a "cover-to-cover" series on the game, the way folks like to do for B/X and BECMI and Holmes Basic and AD&D. But that's probably a ridiculous idea.
My first thought is: this looks like a fun little game. Really, that was my first thought. But that was a thought without the bias or color or lens of "this-is-D&D-and-how-does-it-compare-and/or-represent-the-brand-namesake." And as I read, and that little lens/color/bias pushed itself forward (repeatedly) into my consciousness, it carried with it an additional, much stronger thought. And that thought was: where did this come from? Or to put it another way: just what were they thinking?
Now, that's not meant to be the inflammatory, rhetorical question that implies "these guys have flipped their collective gourds!" No, it's a true question of curiosity; a real request for clarification. And the reason it arises is because 4th Edition is soooooooo far afield from any other edition, I am crazy-wondering how they decided to go down this design route!
I mean, were the designers (Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, and James Wyatt) given the directive to overhaul the whole thing from the ground up? Were they directed to take this direction (and if so, by whom?)? Forget for a moment all the fallout that occurred afterwards; forget for a moment all the rants by bloggers, all the kindling of "edition wars." Hell, forget the history of what the subsequent reaction in the community was to 4E (the pretty important Pathfinder phenomenon). I don't want to look at 4th Edition with 20x20 hindsight and judge it by that. I want to look at it like this:
In an alternate universe, where the year is August 2007 and WotC has announced the development of 4E. They expect to hear some grumblings from folks who've purchased 3.5 (just as they probably anticipated grumblings from 3.0 folks at the announcement of 3.5). I sincerely doubt they expected a mass exodus away from their brand/product (what sane corporation would purposefully set out to alienate a loyal fan base?)...so Why-O-Why would they take the game in such an extreme direction? Like, crazy-extreme. Like, "this doesn't really resemble anything that has every looked like D&D in the past ever."
It's bizarre. I want to see the Designer's Notes in a sidebar, but no such notes exist (there are plenty of sidebars)...the text traipses blithely along in a "nothing-to-see-here-everything's-cool" way that is just...I don't know...disconnected from reality. Like, how could you write this and NOT realize how people would react to the frigging sea change in design concept? How could you not throw the reader a bone explaining why you decided to take this road? The closest thing I find is the sidebar in the PHB called The History of D&D (page 7) which presents an overview of the various editions, before concluding with this paragraph:
Now we've reached a new milestone. This is the 4th Edition of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game. It's new. It's exciting. It's bright and shiny. It builds on what has gone before, and firmly establishes D&D for the next decade of play. Whether you were with the game from the beginning or just discovered it today, this new edition is your key to a world of fantasy and adventure.
Wow. It's kind of delusional. Or maybe not...I don't know. It sure seems like like 4E tanked, but I guess it got six years of play before 5E got rolled out. The lead designer (Heinsoo) got axed by WotC a year after the first three core books got published. Collins got the axe about a year or so later and Bill Slavicsek ("Director of RPG R&D" and the organizer of the 4E design team) left WotC in 2011...5E was announced in January of 2012, less than four years later.
Not quite the decade promised.
Oh, wait...here's an interesting forum post from November 2011. I suppose that would go some way to explaining what the thought process was. But still, I'd be interested in more information...oh, wait, here's a good interview with the 4E developers (2010) in the Escapist: it's a two-parter, and there's some good insight into what went into the design process. For example, the inclusion of the tiefling race...the justification given by Collins is understandable:
"We wanted the Players Handbook to represent a broad crosssection of races, not only from an in-game cultural standpoint but also from players psychographics. And this is a good lesson you can learn from a lot of online games, MMOs. You don't want all your races to look the same, you don't want them to all act the same. You want different kinds of players to be attracted to different kinds of races. So there is a niche out there for the evil-curious, slightly bad-boy type of character. The tiefling fit that really well for us, better than any of the other races that we felt really comfortable bringing into the core."It's just that it's such a silly an unimaginative shortcut to take. I mean, I've been the "evil curious" player in the past playing "bad boy" characters, but I never needed a half-demon race to do it...I've run an evil bard (half-elves), evil fighter (humans), and even one evil gnome (an illusionist-assassin). This kind of archetypal shortcut short-changes the players' imagination, if not actively discourages.
However, I say this in the context of the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game. What D&D has done, in its prior editions, has been to encourage its participants' imaginations. In the earliest editions, there was a lot of "empty cup" to fill with one's own imaginings...a lot of blank spaces on the game map to which creative players could add house rules and content. In the 3rd edition, there was less blank space, but there was uncountable (well, I'm not going to take time counting them) options for players (and DMs) to mix-and-match in imaginative ways: all classes could be all races could multi-class with everything and have all sorts of skill-feat-prestige class combos. Both styles (pre-2000 and post-2000) encouraged its participants to think about what they wanted to bring to the game; they encouraged adding one's own imagination.
Which is why 4E is such a departure from those earlier editions. Instead of encouraging input, it encourages participants to use the given rules in an imaginative fashion. Here are your options (as a player): build something (within the framework) and then use it tactically (and in conjunction with your fellow players) on the battlefield. Here are your options (as a DM): use them to build interesting (but winnable) battles that can be overcome in a reasonable amount of time to allow a reasonable amount of progress as players grow (in options and effectiveness) to allow new tactical use of the system features. Game mastery is by far the most important part of 4th Edition.
And I want to emphasize that this isn't a terrible thing if the 4E is viewed in a vacuum: as its own game, its own entity, unconnected to this thing called Dungeons & Dragons. It's something akin to a chess match, or like a small-scale war-game played with multiple players on one-side against a single referee (one who is responsible for assuming the challenge level falls within the scope of what is "fair" for the rules). There's no randomization in chess, and not nearly the variation, of course...but that serves to make the 4E game more exciting. Sure, a chess master would sneer at the injected element of random chance, but the "chance" injected, if the DM has done his/her job correctly, only serves to influence the ebb and flow of the battle...the outcome shouldn't really be in doubt (because it's so hard to lose/die when challenges are scale as directed).
[hmmm...I suppose the chess master would sneer at that aspect of 4E, too. Why play a game where losing is never an option? But then, I suppose, the 4E designers really took to heart the statement that "there are no losers" in a game of D&D]
Okay, this is getting long so I need to continue it later.
[written Wednesday, posted Thursday...told you it was a loooooong day!]