The 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons launched today, thirty five years on from Gygax & Arneson’s original, groundbreaking publication. I’ve not rushed out to buy the new books, instead I’m sitting here with a set of 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons from 1974. What is striking about them is how simple everything is. The whole game is presented in three A5 booklets, each 36 pages long. The complete description of every spell in the game takes only 11 pages yet they contain the spells that are most commonly used to this day, such as Cure Light Wounds, Detect Magic, Protection from Evil, Fireball, Invisibility and Fly. There are notable exceptions, for example there is no Magic Missile, but the core of the game is there.
Character classes were a lot more limited as well. There were only Fighters, Magic Users and Clerics and they had pitifully few abilities. A 1st level magic user could only cast one spell a day and pity the poor cleric who had to wait until second level before they could cast a spell. Compared to 4th edition, where characters have a wide range of options and can use them multiple times a day, it seems impossible that anyone would play 1st Edition. Surely it was too boring with characters having next to no abilities?
This is where I think that the designers of 4e and those that rush out and buy it have missed the point. This write up from the blog Gnome Stew demonstrates the problem nicely (the emphasis is mine).
Powers: If you’ve seen or used the Book of Nine Swords, you know how much fun that approach to powers and abilities is in play: You can do stuff all the time. In 4e, every class works that way. …
My take? This is the single biggest, most impactful change to the whole game, period. It’s also the single change that will increase the amount of fun your players have at the table the most — it’s that important. As a player, you don’t have to fret about burning up your cool powers before fighting the Big Bad; as a GM, you’ll know your players will have ammo for every fight.
Gnome Stew have confused having fun with having lots of power. This misses the point. If every 4e 1st level wizard started out with the powers of a 3.5e 20th level wizard, would the game be fun? No, unless the 4e 20th level wizard had vastly more power still. It is not having X level of power that makes the game fun. It is having X level but seeking Y level of power that is fun.
By giving players more power, such as 4e’s once-per-encounter type abilities, all the game designers are doing is letting power-inflation into the game. Each edition of D&D has given players more options and more power per character level. Some of these have been great for the game, such as skills that allow the player to flesh out the character and introduced a sensible mechanic to replace arbitrary roles. Others, such as Power Attack, simply force the GM to create monsters with more hit points.
It is possible I’m just getting old and resistant to change. There is no doubt that 4e is going to be hugely popular and profitable for WotC. However I keep asking myself, if 1st edition was no fun because the characters had no power, how did it become so successful?