Edition Wars IV: A New Hope
For the carnival, I wanted to avoid mindless, repetative Edition Wars over which version of D&D was best so I set a challenge. Play a version of D&D you have never played before and write about that. Anything from original D&D to 4th Edition and including all the D20 variants. By chance, for the last few weeks, our Thursday night game has been D&D 4e – Keep on the Shadowfell.
This is the first time any of us have played 4th edition and the introductory nature of Keep on the Shadowfell works well. As an adventure, it is a classic “not a great module but it teaches beginners the system” module. This is perfect as it allows us to focus on learning the rules and this has been surprisingly easy. Overall I’ve been impressed by the mechanics. They are more streamline than 3.5 (or indeed any previous version) and flow more logically in most places. I have a few quibbles with the typography and presentation of the books but generally I’m impressed with the game.
Read This Before You Start Flaming
I’m now going to talk about what I don’t like and I just want to make a couple of points clear.
My dislike of 4e is a personal thing. It is about me, not the game. My opinion of the game should make no difference to how much you enjoy 4e or any other version of D&D. You are free to play whatever you want to play in whatever way you want play it. What happens around my dinner table on Thursday nights has no effect on your life.
Secondly, the mechanics of the game and why Wizards created them that way are not important. Or at least, not important here. If you want to discuss those issues, there are more meaningful places to do it than this article.
What is D&D?
What defines D&D and sets it apart from any other fantasy roleplaying games?
Practically everything in D&D, up until the time Gygax left TSR, is based on books. Gygax, Arenson and everyone else in those early days of TSR looted ideas from fiction ranging from the tales of King Arthur to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. By doing this they created a universal generic fantasy setting that pulled all these ideas together. This allowed anyone playing the game to find a corner of it which suited them. If you want to be Merlin – play a Magic User; El Cid – play a paladin; the Gray Mouser – play a thief and so on. Whatever fantasy trope or meme you wanted to play, there was a good fit for you in the rules.
These tropes extend all the way through the rules. From the Sword in the Stone to Star Wars, the idea of the humble farm boy becoming a great man constantly reoccurs in fiction. In early D&D the characters all started off like that farm boy – weak but with a lot of potential. By surviving adventures they grow, gather prized magic items, and become powerful. The narrative of a story demands that the characters change over time and D&D captured this requirement in the levels system.
Another common narrative device that early D&D borrowed was stereotypes and poor characterisation.
Many of the books Gygax and crew used as a basis for D&D were not literature. The characters are two dimensional and never develop much as believable people. To help the reader identify with the book’s characters, the authors pander to stereotypes. Fighters are big and strong, wizards are weak but can access strange power, dwarfs are tough and stoic, evil monsters are always evil. Everyone had their strengths and everyone had their weaknesses and out of these stereotypes we get the D&D classes and alignments. These mechanics, crude as they were, allowed players to quickly make their character distinctive. On top of these crude foundations, good gamers could develop their character’s personality and move away from the stereotypes.
Early D&D was a game based on fantasy fiction and predominately played by the people who read at least some of the same books as the game designers. Combined with familiar and effective tropes, this produced a game that encapsulated the essence of fantasy fiction.
Why 4e is Not D&D (To Me)
As D&D developed it moved away from its fantasy fiction sources. Instead trying capture the fantasy worlds of our imagination, the rules books became more focused on making a better D&D game. A game that was more balanced, made more sense and was easier to play. This started in 2nd Edition and 4e is just the logical next step in the process. However each step has taken D&D further from its sources and 4e is a step too far.
The core of the problem is the obsession with balance. All character classes has the same number of powers and do roughly the same sort of things. In our Thursday night game, we have a Dwarven Fighter, a Half-Elf Warlock and a Tiefling Rogue. A fairly traditional party mix for D&D and one that should give the party a fair variety of abilities. However, it is hard to tell the characters apart in combat. We all have similar hit points and we can all do similar amounts of damage. Sure the Warlock calls it an Eldritch Blast but its chance of hitting and the damage it does is very similar to the fighter hitting something with his big hammer.
Compare this to early D&D. A fighter would have twice or three times the hit points of a magic user and was miles better in straight combat. But once in while, the magic user would cast a spell and it would be devastating. It wasn’t balanced and it sometimes meant the guy playing the magic user did nothing during the combat, especially at low level, but each character was made distinct by what they did. In 4e they may call the powers different things but they are all basically variants on a theme.
Somewhere down the line, some one at Wizards decided that players of 4e could not wait to gain powers. Gone is the idea of the humble farm boy slowly mastering his skills. Now everyone starts with a range of powers and gets more at a steady, predicable rate. Show me where this happens in any fantasy book? Or for that matter any book? The story line “Competent hero gets a bit more competent” might make a good mechanic for a skirmish game but it is useless as a narrative device.
There used to be real pride in getting a magic user to 5th level. Surviving those early adventures where a syphilitic kobold with blunt spoon could kill you was an achievement. Not getting bored after you had used your one spell for the day was equally significant. But it was all worth it once you had third level spells and could open a world of pain on the monsters. In contrast, fighters got relatively less powerful at higher levels.
Each character class had its own distinctive feel and sweet spots as the levels progressed. In 4e, one class is not allowed to be better than another. Everyone gets the same number of powers with roughly the same capabilities at the same time.
This is not just misty eyed nostalgia but the hard science of Reinforcement. How often and how significantly you reward people effects how attached they become to the behavior. Variable, erratic reward systems, such as early D&D’s level system, build the longest lasting and strongest behaviors. This is why gambling is highly addictive.
By granting instant rewards and gradual liner advancement, 4e takes a significant step away from the the mechanics that made D&D such a desirable and enduring game in the first place.
Whose World is This?
Early D&D took ideas from everywhere, so much so that it got into trouble over copyright a few times, but it produced a gestalt world everyone was familiar with. Over recent years, Wizards have deliberately included more of their own material and less of other peoples. The most obvious sign of this can be seen in the heavens. Gone are all the gods looted fro
m mythos around the world and in come D&D’s own set of gods. The Teiflings, Dragonborn and the other new races are another example of this drift from a generic fantasy world to a specific D&D world.
But the whole point of D&D is that I get to play in a generic fantasy world. If I want a specific fantasy world I could play Warhammer or Runequest. What D&D gave me and my friends, that none of those other games did, was that we all each got a bit of what we liked.
If role-playing games were pizzas, early D&D would be pick-your-own-topping whereas Runequest would be the vegetarian pizza and Warhammer the meat feast. Fourth edition is still pick-your-topping but it always comes with free anchovies. Great if you like anchovies but if salty fish aren’t your thing, the pizza’s ruined.
I am being rough on 4th edition. It is not its fault I was playing D&D before the trees it’s printed on were even planted. In many ways it is a great system but I grew up reading fantasy novels and 4th edition has moved away from that source material. There are people for whom 4e clearly resonates, presumably because they share the same culture references as the game’s designers.
But I don’t have those culture reference.
4e has no more meaning to me than any other fantasy game system. I enjoy playing 4e and could even grow to really like the system, just as I have done with other games. And this is the problem in a nut shell. D&D should not be just another fantasy game, it should be THE fantasy game and this is what 4e has lost.