Where It All Went Wrong

This post started as a comment on Jonathan Drain’s article, Where Have All The Players Gone? but grew into something larger.

4e marks a turning point in D&D’s life. It is when WotC misjudged the whole idea of the game. This is not the end of D&D but I think in five years time, when WotC are trying to push D&D 5e we will look back at 4e and say “that is when it all went wrong”.

When D&D started, and for most of the next 20 years, D&D was a minority, even underground, hobby. News of it traveled by word of mouth and players were introduced to it by existing players. The rules where complex (compared to other hobbies & games) and it required a huge investment of time both in reading the rules and playing the game. There was also a social stigma (much more than today) associated with playing the game.

Despite these apparent handicaps, D&D became a world wide success.

But I don’t think they were handicaps. I think D&D became a success because of these features.

When you learn and master something, whether it be rock climbing or GMing a D&D game, there is a sense of satisfaction and personal development. The harder the task, the greater this satisfaction becomes and it can become a drug, driving people on to master harder and more extreme aspects their hobby. D&D’s rules were hard to learn and master but because of that, those players who achieve it become hooked, became true believers in the product.

These true believers then went out to pull in as many players as they could. Some which became hooked and they started spreading the game as well.

The social stigma and that fact the games lasted many hours forged a tighter bond amongst players. It was US against THEM, the rest of the world who don’t understand our hobby. By playing D&D, a lot of us nerdy type people found a social group where we truely fitted in. It bound us with our fellow players and with the brand D&D.

Then the great Geek revolution came, with the internet becoming the public playground of the nerds and shows like Buffy making fantasy/SF acceptable to mainstream adult audiences. D&D had become a household word, losing most of the stigma attached to it. And WotC released 3.0 then 3.5 with a marketing strategy based on selling expansion books. The focus shifted from producing a great game to play and consequently making lots of money, to simply making lots of money.

Now the hobby got more expensive and vastly more complex. Players and GMs were swamped with rules, spells and monsters with a huge variation in quality. The hobby became less about your imagination and much more about buying and reading the countless books.

So when WotC considered releasing 4e they had a look around them. Their sales figures told them that expansion books that made characters more powerful sold well and at the same time they saw World of Warcraft making big bucks. The logical solution? Make the characters in 4e more powerful, make the game more like WoW and make lots of expansion books that make the characters even more powerful still.

But this logic is fatally flawed.

Simple WoW type mechanics might be a good idea but it is incompatible with more powerful characters because more power needs more options, spells and rules. A simple game is also incompatible with a business based on releasing expansion books that inherently makes the game more complex. Leaving 4e with a easy to master mechanic ruined by an overwhelming number of expansions options with a very adult price tag associated with them.

This constant stream of new rule books also dilutes the social side of the game. Once, if you played D&D with one group, you knew you could just drop to another group because everyone played with the same three books. Now it is a question of which books the GM owns or allows. With 3.5 this wasn’t to much of a problem but with 4e, with many of the major classes being in expansion books, it is a far more critical aspect. D&D players around the world no longer have a single bible that we all read from. We have fragmented and schismed into different versions and different combinations of rules.

For 4e, WotC have so far published 3 core rule books, 1 expansion book, 1 campaign setting and 4 adventures. In twelve months time there will be the 3 core books plus deluxe editions (with slightly different rules), 6 expansion books, 2 campaign setting plus 2 theme books (dragons & undead), and 9 adventures plus Dungeon Delve. Well over half the content being released by WotC in the next 12 months is about the expanding the rules.

The release of 4e misses the mark because WotC are chasing after the casual gamer and the GM’s $ rather than the hard core gamer that made D&D so successful originally. We want a basic set of rules and our imagination stimulated with adventures. WotC need to stop thinking about making mega-bucks this year and concentrate on ensuring that in ten years time, D&D can still turn people into true believers.


  1. I think you’re off base on a couple of counts.

    “Once, if you played D&D with one group, you knew you could just drop to another group because everyone played with the same three books.”

    …And completely different sets of house rules. I never, EVER, played two 1e games that used the same rules. With 3e and 4e, I have.

    There’s never been “a single bible.” Not since Supplement I, at least, and likely not since the second D&D campaign got started. Even the self-described grognards who rhapsodize over the earlier rules mostly do so with some variation of the “it’s a toolkit” explanation. It’s the *variance* in the rules that attract them.

    “The release of 4e misses the mark because WotC are chasing after the casual gamer and the GM’s $ rather than the hard core gamer that made D&D so successful originally.”

    Did they really? Did sales of Unearthed Arcana, the Wilderness Survival Guide, the Dungeon Survival Guide, Oriental Adventures, etc. have nothing to do with it? What about Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Birthright, Mystara, Al Qadim, Hollow World, and all those other settings TSR churned out during the 80s and 90s? None of that was chasing after dollars? Really?

    Hell, why AD&D in the first place, when there was already a D&D?

  2. You are right about the house rules, they did fluctuate radically between groups but they were variations were within a small base set of rules. With the supplement books, it vastly increases the size of the rule base increasing the number of permutation in the what rules are applied. E.g. Yes we use Books A & B but we don’t use Class X because it is too powerful.

    “Did they really? Did sales of Unearthed Arcana, the Wilderness Survival Guide,….”

    There is nothing wrong with TSR / WotC trying to make money from D&D and releasing books are part of that process. However in the days of 1st edition, the focus was on releasing a core set of rules then lots of adventures and campaigns that used them. Unearthed Arcana came out FIVE years after AD&D 1e. The subsequent books came out about every 18 months after that.

    By comparison there will be two versions of the core rules plus six rules supplements within the first two years of 4e. Why the rush for new rules unless a) they are doing it just for the money, or b) the core rules are so crap the supplements are needed to fix them?

    There is also a difference between campaign settings and supplementary rules. Generally, only the GM needs to buy the campaign settings and only if they want to run that specific campaign and they contain few rules, classes or spells that are relevant outside that setting. WotC should be releasing lots of campaign settings. D&D is about imagination and campaigns inspire imagination.

  3. Yeah, I think they were going for a “sweet spot” but instead seem to have hit an “unsuitable for everyone” spot. It’s still 80% the same to an outsider, which won’t bring in the hordes of new players – how much lower a learning curve is 4e *really* to Joe MMO out there? Not much. But that 20% sufficed to alienate at least that percentage of their existing base, which has always been the “however imperfect) conduit for really introducing new players.

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