Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part Two

I’m looking at Fourth Edition D&D through the lens of a years’ worth of gaming experience with a critical eye on what it needed to do and what it’s done. This is a long-term test review spread over several posts covering both the theoretical and practical sides of 4e D&D. Welcome to Part Two.

Last time I wrote about two of the problems 4e D&D needed to address – the lengthy GM prep-time in 3e D&D, and the reduction in corner-case silly rules lawyering questions. 4e tackled both of those issues brilliantly and gives us a game that’s both fun and fast to design scenarios for, is easy to customize & fine-tune yet manages to be simple to understand and play. It’s this GM’s dream edition of D&D combining modern mechanics with an old school hackability.

The biggest problem that 4e D&D needed to address was this: attracting new players to the game. Third Edition introduced a comparatively massive influx of new players to D&D and role-playing overall. I reckon it’s fair to say that 3e completely revitalized the RPG industry overall, giving both lapsed gamers and newbies alike a new found enthusiasm for the hobby. Whether you play D&D or not, there’s no doubting that without the resurgence from Third Edition the hobby would be much smaller and poorer as a whole.

It’s pretty clear that 4e’s designers set out to woo the MMORPG crowd with it’s artwork and cinematic gameplay style, and that’s not a bad thing. But there’s a lot more to it than that. This is an edition which should – in theory, at least – appeal to anyone who loves Third Edition D&D but wants more options for their characters and also suit old-school gamers who yearn for a simpler, less cluttered system.

Has it worked, and if not what went wrong?

I really don’t know the answer to that one. I know old schoolers and Third Edition gamers alike who hate it – but I also know converts who love it in equal measure. What I don’t see (probably by definition) are the silent majority of players who don’t blog or write scathingly vitriolic forum posts but instead quietly get on with the game and play.

My foggy impression is that 4e D&D is moderately successful but hasn’t whipped the world into a shedstorm of fury. At least, not yet. WoTC have (mostly) done all the right things with a much improved Community Site, a Facebook app and D&D Online. They dropped the ball with the D&D Starter Kit but have more than made up for it both online and offine, so I’ll forgive ’em that one.

So yes, Fourth Edition D&D is a high-pixel flashy graphic combat centred battlegame. But it’s also rock-solid stable when it comes to out-of-combat mechanics too. They might take up a tiny proportion of the text compared to All Those Powers, but that’s because they don’t need to. From the superior (imho) multi-class mechanics to the Skill Challenge system and Quest-based XP rewards this is a version of D&D that’s well suited to “proper” role-playing, characterization and immersive story-telling. The combat system is just icing on the cake. Thick icing, I’ll grant you.

I’ve said before that the combat system is really whatever you want it to be – whether that’s gritty Fantasy Noir or its own default Superhero Fantasy style. That’s down to narrative choice more than anything, and that’s something which only comes with an open mind and a willingness to give 4e a fair chance. It took my group a LOT of session before they were fully on board. What can I say? Gamers are a notoriously conservative lot.

Oh yes.

I mentioned that I’ll say something controversial about the OGL, and here it is.

Wizards’ of the Coast abandoning the Open Game License was a good thing for the industry, and I’ll tell you why.

Next time.

13 Comments on “Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part Two”

  1. I think its the crappy and niche-y products that came out with the OGL. However, the GSL is still restrictive. Matthew Sprange’s Mongoose Publishing put out a lot of crap (I know, I have some of it). This drove a lot of gamers to Wizards of the Coast and created loyalty.

    But a lot of products were subpar. Doesn’t mean that they all had bad ideas (Mongoose’s necromantic supplement had some very good ideas) but it did make a lot of people gloss over good 3rd party stuff. Stuff from Atlas Games is good stuff, stuff from AEG is good stuff, and stuff from Necromancer Games is good stuff. Even Monte Cook’s “Book of Eldritch Might” contained good stuff.

    But a lot of stuff was crap or niche-y (the Conan RPG is niche-y, and the Complete Book of Psychic Warriors was crap). But some stuff was very, very good!

    But the GSL is worth a lot of crap, its restrictive, it’s awful, and it’s tied to the whims of WotC. So, why is dumping the OGL a good thing? It encourages growth of Independent RPGs. :)
    .-= Elton´s last blog ..Final Project =-.

  2. My biggest complaint (and the main reason I’m just getting into 4E now) is that I feel they’ve been diluting their content over several books in an effort to make people spend more. My 3E campaign has a lot of half-orc ranger/barbarian PCs. I had to wait for PH2 and Primal Power before we could convert the campaign. While I like 4E as a whole, I’m a little irked that I have to buy 2PHs, and several “power” books to get the information I need to convert a 3E campaign to 4E unscathed. I also end up with a bunch of new stuff that I’m less interested in (hint: there will be almost no tieflings or dragonborn in my 4E Greyhawk campaign). They moved stuff into the 1-series books that I didn’t want and moved stuff into the 2-series books I did want. Feels like the goal was to maximize profits and feed the ego of the designers.

    Still, as I write this, I’m about to embark on a 4E campaign so I guess it worked. :)

  3. Maximizing profits by diluting the value proposition to your customers is a long term recipe for failure. It’s prioritizing your interests over the customer’s. Eventually someone will present a more compelling value proposition and steal your customers away.

    I believe that’s why 4E’s success is (as far as I can see) less than 3E. It is encountering more competition from products like Pathfinder which offer a better value proposition.

  4. about costs, 1 simple answer: dndinsider.com. You can even split the costs between 5 friends(you can d/l the program updates up to 5 times/month).

    In the optimal situation a group of 5 purchases the core books then uses the ddi content and programs to run their games. It’s very cost effective IMO even if the costs are only split with 1 other friend.

  5. As a player I loved 3x, but as a GM it was my worst nightmare. When 4e came out, I ended my 3.5 campaign, got a bunch of new players and started again. We have had a lot of fun. Something that has not happened, for me at least, in a very long time since I usually only DM.

    I figure our group is a part of the quiet majority that just gets on with the game and plays. I never seem to have an issue finding players to join our group. A few in our group are players who never played any pen and paper RPG, but played computer RPGs. So I think 4e has done a decent job of attracting those players to their game.

    I’ve really enjoyed the online content and think this is one of the best things WotC has done to promote their game.

    I can definitely see the yearly addition of a new PHB, DMG, and MM heading towards the bloat that happened to 3.x but there is absolutely no reason as to why I have to buy these books. So far the two sets of books that have come out have been really good. But since a person signing on to DDI gets insider info on the upcoming books being released I can easily make up my mind on whether to buy or pass on any book that comes out.

    I look forward to reading the article.

  6. You damn tease!

    Good post by the way. I agree, I’ve found roleplaying and character concepts much facilitated by 4e, and I also agree that it’s much easier to “hack” as it were…hell just look at my blog, pretty much all I do with my time there is brew. With 3.5 you had many models with which to make new spells, monsters, feats and PrCs, but it was time-consuming and horrendously difficult even if you knew the balance point…which many times didn’t exist.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Monsters of Eden: Antagonists =-.

  7. @The guy who had to wait for PHB2 and Primal Power to come out before he could run his 4e campaign, and complained that he needed a bunch of supplements to run it unscathed:

    That’s probably because your 3.5 campaign was really bloated with supplements too. If you told me that your group wasn’t using PHB2 material, Complete Warrior/Adventurer, or some other supplement, I’d be very surprised.

  8. @John Magnum – Prepare to be surprised. We’re actually running 3.0 from just the basic 3 books. But the players are min-maxers who decided that 1/2 orc barbarians with one level of ranger added in (for double weapon proficiency) was a good idea. What 3.x base races and classes weren’t included in 4e until PHB2? 1/2 orcs and barbarians.

    While I love the new 4e mechanics (and the effort that went into creating a balanced game) I’m a little annoyed that they chose to hold back what was formerly core content until a 2nd book while they introduced new content in the 1st book. It changes what I consider to be the “basic” version of the game.

  9. of course it changes the game, its a new edition. just like 3e changed the core races and classes from what came before. (assassin is a prestige class now? laaaaaaame.)

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