Thursday, September 24, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 1)

It's been a long ass day, and I want a drink. In fact...

[*pours wine*]

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?) 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,'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!]


  1. Ha, you're so late on this it's funny. (I'm saying this in a good natured way).

    Yeah, 4E is a fun board game for the Diablo and World of Warcraft crowd. I liked it for a while but a campaign eventually leads to somebody yelling "Gryphon Strike Attack" and dumping a handful of dice on the table, and nobody knows what's going on fiction-wise but it doesn't matter because you're just playing a board game.

    I think WotC got there by wanting to fix the tax code mess of 3.5 but went way to game-ist and sucked the soul right out of the game. 4E is basically the Phantom Menace of D&D versions. Slick, well-executed technically, focused completely on the wrong things, and ultimately dissatisfying.

    1. @ Fumers:

      Oh, I know I'm late...but at this point I'm not trying to discourage people from the game (that barn door has already opened and shut). I'm trying to take a cool, reflective, and distant/removed look at the thing. I mean, it's about time for a revisit, no?

      Or, in my case, a first visit.
      ; )

      The "ultimately dissatisfying" part is an interesting end-assessment...I haven't ever played 4E, of course, so I can't judge whether I'd be satisfied "in play" or not. But just looking at 4E as an artifact, it's design has a few interesting wrinkles.

      More later.

  2. @ littlemute:

    Why? I realize that's Heinsoo's main post-4E project, but what should I be looking at/for?

  3. Icon rolls, escalation die, backgrounds as skills, no XP, easy to build encounters and the bestiary.

  4. Yeah, this is all sounding much like the impression that I've gotten of the game: it's an interesting tactical extended-skirmish game that bears only the loosest resemblance to previous roleplaying games in general, and D&D editions in particular. Kinda like Dungeon vs. D&D back in the day, perhaps, only way more complex.

    It's never sounded like something that would interest me, so I've just sort of ignored it other than that overview. I do look forward to hearing your take on it, though.

  5. Kam is back. Thats' is great new and i just learned it here.

    In my short lived 4e game I killed at least one P.C. as the players tried to invade a goblin lair. I was using maptools and the whole thing played out like a skirmish game as i moved goblin reinforcements from the caves to secure choke points. It was fun, but not DnD. The campaigne, maybe 13 sessions was just a series of large (fun) battles.

  6. That justification for the Tiefling makes sense, but I don't think that is entirely what happened. When I look at the Tiefling, the Dragonborn I don't see a tool for player creativity, I see a way for corporate branding. The Dragonborn and the Tiefling (as well as many races in following PHBs) are visually distinctive, and more so visually unique in the industry at the time.

    4e focused hugely on miniatures combat. When 4e launched the only people making miniatures for Tieflings and for Dragonborn, a third of the player race options at launch, was WoTC. Of course, D&D Miniatures were in randomized, collectible packs at the time, so you might have had to buy quite a few to get what you wanted.

    Powers were difficult to memorize, and were ubiquitous through the system. Until the release of the Essentials line 4 years into 4e's run, you couldn't play a class that didn't have powers. You could either write each power down by hand on a character sheet, buy Power Cards (for 15 bucks a pack, covering only 1 class, and only with the options available at printing) or you could pay 10 bucks a month for a D&D Insider subscription and use the character building tool.

    The original PHB launched without Gnomes or Half-Orcs available as player races. On Launch we were all told that those options would be in the PHB2, which was released the following year. There were plans for yearly expansions to the game from day one.

    Despite design goals stating a lessened importance placed on magical gear, magic items became vital to character builds. New magic items were added in each supplement that they could possibly be justified in.

    Third party publishers were given a very strict license agreement if they wanted to publish for 4e, and that license included forfeiting the use of the much more open OGL to do so. Third party publishers would also have to pull all of their supporting products for the previous edition from all shelves, physical or digital. I think the license may have even wanted them to destroy the remaining physical products, but that just may be me mis-remembering the deal with negative bias.

    Oh, and a year or so after release they tried to add a collectible card feature to the game. They sold booster-packs of "blessing" cards that would give characters a small bonus. Of course, the cards are collectible, so you'll have to buy several packs to have a chance at the best bonuses.

    4e was, from its inception, an attempt to monetize the game in a way similar to how Magic: The Gathering could be monetized. Steps were made to make the game brandable, collectible, and controllable. They thought that they had a property powerful enough to bully smaller publishers, and to ignore (or deny products to) any fans who would not make the switch.

    1. @ Matt:

      Welp, that would justify all my pre-read rants about how 4E was designed to be a cash grab...and a diabolically designed one at that. I was never suckered into buying a single 4E product, myself (I believe I'm on record with telling folks to keep their wallets in their pockets), but this has caused me to be very late to the party when it comes to actually examining and analyzing the design elements of the game.

      Hence, this post (and hopefully a couple follow-ups).

      While your thoughts (or hard knowledge? not sure if you were worked for WotC) on the dragon born and tie fling make sense, I see a lot of similarities between them and the fantasy artwork/design found in both WoW and MtG: over-the-top, uber-fantasy that is cool and creative but a little cheesy. I can see it as a way of injecting a little 21st century "style" into a the way comic book artists will give superheroes a new look/costume after 30 years of wearing the same tights. For me, that kind of "new shiny" works best when its just an update of an old look...take away Captain America's buccaneer boots and give him red army boots, for example...and looks dated (in retrospect) when you go for more sweeping changes (Iron Man's red-and-silver armor comes to mind, or maybe Superman's mullet-and-capeless look).

    2. Personal experience with the product, but no insider information here. While artistically there were some similarities with current concepts, the actual designs for these particular races were unique enough that I had difficulty finding non-WoTC miniatures for Dragonborn and Tiefling characters for a good year or so after launch.

      And I think calling 4e just a cash-grab is a bit inaccurate. I think that the goal was to brand D&D as something other than just generic fantasy. I think the goal was to create a more solid intellectual property, with unique features that could be branded, and then used to control the tabletop market. I just think the idea didn't work as planned, mostly due to the fact that instead of watching bullied third-parties fall into line, the bullied third-party publishers ignored 4e and did their own thing.

      I might be giving WoTC and Hasbro too much credit with this line of thinking though.

    3. Hmmm..."cash grab" was a poor choice of words on my part. Perhaps I should have said "long-term, corporate financial strategy."

      A "cash grab" more accurately describes WotC's re-issue of out-of-print books to take advantage of the large "old school" demographic.
      ; )

    4. But it's not like a cash grab is bad. If they did all those things and the game was really good, that'd be great. I'll buy stupid little packs of cards for a game that I like and play.

      4E petered out because of its lackluster rpg design, not its business model.

    5. It petered out becasue "super detailed cartoon dungeon skirmish where all choices have the same scale of impact" gets stale after a while.

  7. I appreciate your fair-minded assessment of 4e and the robust discussion.

    I'm an AD&D man, but I had a lot of fun playing 4e when that was my only gaming option.

    I hated the adventure design guidelines: 1 gaming session = 2 encounters (i.e., large-scale battles). When I DMed, I actively subverted the model by varying the scale of encounters and creating lots of role-playing opportunities, and the PCs dug it big time. (Their favorite session was an urban investigation/mystery scenario that involved no combat and little dice-rolling.)

    In my opinion, it's not about game mechanics. It's about getting cool people at the table with an adventure design that gives them room to have fun.

    I do wish we could settle on a couple of core systems because converting good scenarios to other systems is a hassle.

    I want people who publish RPGs & adventures to make money if they earn it by making good products.

    1. "In my opinion, it's not about game mechanics."

      Cool. My opinion is different. I think that one of the things that the Forge people got right is that "system matters". (They turned that into a marketing tool for their highly fragmented and limited designs, but that's another issue entirely.) If your resolution system is Toon (using the "Dungeons and Toons" method from the Tooniversal Tour Guide, perhaps), then the game is going to be an entirely different experience than if it is AD&D, and both are going to be different than Hârnmaster. Sure, it's one thing to say that we all sit down and play a game and we all have fun, but it matters which type of game we're playing. When I go to the movies, I select the sort of experience I want: do I want an action-adventure film or a sappy romantic tragedy? I don't go in to see Conan the Barbarian if I want to feel deep emotions and cry my eyes out, and I don't watch Chocolat if I'm in the mood for 'SPLOSIONS! WAAAAGGGGHHHH!, but as a human being I am capable of experiencing both states (and of course, both movies feed both of those extremes of emotion to varying degrees). Similarly, I don't play AD&D if I'm in the mood for grittily detailed simulation of medieval blood & guts, and I don't play Hârnmaster if I want epic high adventure - even though both games can incorporate those extremes to some degree.

      And that's why we will never be able to settle on a couple of core systems, as far as I can see. I do wonder why some systems need to exist (what does Pathfinder really bring to the table that 3.5E didn't*, for example), but the existence of different rules sets that provide different experiences to one degree or another is definitely something we need, and the more the merrier I say!

      *Yes, yes, I know. It's because marketing and the beginning of the hardcore edition wars that led to a return to the so-called "old school" editions for many people.

    2. I agree that systems have implications both for flavor and for ease of play, and of course I have my preferences. I just think our hobby is too small and marginal to endure endless splintering.

  8. I have to admit I wondered why the heck they spent so much effort (with such verbosity) reducing the game to a detailed subset of what it could be.