Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Tabletop: On the Oncoming Demise of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Two iconic characters running from a boulder

As time goes by and columns like this come out, it's becoming more and more obvious that the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons, called "D&D Next", will in fact be the first edition designed entirely by fear. While previous revisions to the rules set were done in the spirit of expanding, modernizing and generally improving the performance of a system that, by virtue of being the most widely played RPG in the world, had its quirks and eccentricities put to the test, this is an edition in full retreat, an effective apology on behalf of Wizards of the Coast for trying too hard to do something innovative and interesting with the system last time.

Now, let's make something clear- I think that while Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was by no means perfect, and had its own quirks and eccentricities that needed some tuning up, I think it was also far and away the most well-designed and transparent of rules sets for the venerated game to date. Its designers had a strong and clear vision of how to make the rules enable the kind of high fantasy adventure D&D always promised, solving several long-standing balance problems and giving more useful tools to the novice DM than had existed before.

Its great sin was that in trying to cut to the core of what Dungeons and Dragons was all about, it cut a lot of the periphery- Vancian spellcasting, nine alignments, fighters whose main function was to stand in place and swing their sword at the enemy, etc. It added new and scary things like Dragonborn and inspirational healing and a cosmology designed to fuel conflict, and above all, a powers system that gave fighters and thieves and wizards alike lists of distinct tactical abilities that gave them options in every combat, according to a set of roles that built on historical distinctions between meat-shield fighters, blaster mages, and backstabbing rogues.

We won't be seeing any of that in D&D Next; despite promises of a "modular" game that will support all styles of play, over a year into Wizards' gigantic open playtest we have yet to see anything resembling the slightest sop to fans of Fourth Edition. The powers are gone, stripped away, in the process reopening the issue they had rather conclusively solved- that of class balance, where at later levels of gameplay the sword-swinging fighter was regularly outshone by spellcasters who could stop time, fly, summon friendly monsters, open locks, or in other ways duplicate and obviate the need for any parties. The "Caster Supremacy" phenomenon was common enough that Gygax and Arneson were working on solutions to it back in the day, but with 4e's separation of roles and functions, and division of spells into ones that could be cast on-the-fly and more elaborate rituals, it looked like the problem had finally been licked.

But despite promises that fighters will eventually in some future playtest packet get unique abilities and that balance is important, the designers have in general opted for a casual, "feelings"-based approach to game design in which balance and mechanical rigor are less important than the game looking like everyone's nostalgic memories of what Dungeons and Dragons ought to be. It's quite possible that this is just a public stance, and that behind the scenes they're sweating all the details they should, but so far nothing released inspires that kind of confidence.

To be sure, the Next edition looks to at least be simpler than D&D has been in some time, and I consider that an absolute plus- I had enough fun with a 3.5 campaign that lasted a few years, but by the end I was ready to throw the AC penalties and encumbrance limits and synergy bonuses and feats upon feats into some kind of metaphorical dumpster. 4e cut some of the cruft but retained more than it should have, so Next's goal of a simple core game that can be added to with modules is an admirable one.

However, the core contains so many wonky assumptions- from an uncharacteristically simulationist view of Hit Points to an assumption that magic items will be in the game but not affect the mechanics at all- that it's going to be hard to fine-tune. Fourth Edition is not the easiest game to house rule but it's at least transparent and clean enough to make clear how changing one rule will affect others (and it's so close to being an effect-based system that reskinning is a relative breeze.) The promise of a modular game that you can easily make into your preferred D&D seems to be one that, if it was possible to begin with, has slipped from the designers' grasp.

Of course nobody's going to come and take people's Fourth Edition books away, even if the premature announcement of D&D Next seems to have killed the product line for good. But there's something to mourn when a good game line is ended not because actual improvements came along but because a vitriolic portion of the fanbase raged against every change and every innovation until they got their way. At the very least it sets a bad precedent.

It's hard not to blame Paizo Publishing for some of this; I can't blame them for doing what they needed to survive as a game company, by creating Pathfinder as an in-print rules support for their 3.5 modules when the new edition's licenses proved too restrictive. But in failing to really fix the problems of 3.5 and actively selling themselves as "the real D&D" they have created the perception that things like Caster Supremacy are just the way things have to be, that too much balance is a bad thing (imagine a film buff saying the same thing about, say, good editing), and that the game was always meant as a believable simulation of a world where people are limited by the laws of physics, unless they can cast spells.

Pathfinder definitely gave D&D a run for its money, and eventually began to outsell it when support for Fourth Edition began to dry up, so this may all simply be a case of majority rules. There's no evidence that Fourth Edition was ever unprofitable or anything but an objective success, but the rush of the Next designers, and seemingly most of the games industry and what we laughably call games "journalism", to bury the edition and never to praise it may mean it will forever bear a stained and tattered reputation, the game that went too far, tried too hard to level the playing field and give everyone opportunities to shine. (Already I've seen many people treating it like some kind of Harrison Bergeron nightmare scenario, and discussing "player entitlement" and "magical tea parties" like they're attacking the welfare state. It's not so much politics as it is a macho bullshit belief that being in a tough game builds character, as if we aren't all pretending to be elves while sitting in comfort at kitchen tables.)

It's just a damn shame, is all, the same as when Brazil failed at the box office or Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 was cancelled. Some gamers seem to take the position that we should just bend to the majority but I say that if we're going to view RPGs as anything like a viable artistic medium (and if nothing else the existence of Paranoia is sufficient argument for doing so), we should push for more risk-taking and less pandering to the masses. Fourth Edition was Dylan going electric, dammit, it was a great push forward for a flagship game line that too often was content to lag behind what everyone else was doing when the act of its creation was so audacious it brought an entire new form into being.

I'm not asking for D&D Next to be a minor update of its predecessor- I can live without AEDU power schedules and Paragon Paths and all those goddamned Feats still- but what it should take is a strong, driving vision of design, the principle that things like balance and transparency and fairness are important, and that sweating the small stuff is something the designers need to be doing, not the players.

I can't say how much of a commercial success D&D Next is going to be. The rumor is that Next is Wizards' big bold play to make D&D big enough that Hasbro will treat it as a Core Brand on the level of Magic: the Gathering (which, it should be noted, has never walked back changes to its rules solely to appease the old-time players.) I doubt it will be that huge, if only because reverse marketing rarely works. But who knows?

What I do know is we'll be losing something really good- a beautiful, tightly designed system that wasn't afraid to kill a few sacred cows for the sake of more clearly articulating the spirit of adventure and heroic daring that Dungeons and Dragons is theoretically about. I don't want to become a bitter edition warrior raging against the march of time, but I don't want something this good buried under fanboy rage forever. Fourth Edition is unlikely to get its own version of Pathfinder, due to not being released under the Open Game License, but since game rules cannot truly be copyrighted- well, let's face it, ever since Dan Harmon was hired back on Community it's become clear that anything can happen. Maybe I'll design my own 4th-inspired fantasy heartbreaker if I ever go insane.

In the meantime, would it be too much to ask that the designers of D&D Next start actually wowing us? So far there's been very little steak and even less sizzle.


weepingsam said...

AS a player, I have some mixed feelings about this. 4E is far and away the most playable version of the game. The mechanics were very well thought out, time and space and character actions all defined carefully and clearly, and it made it possible to pick it up and start playing, something we never managed in 3 or 3.5. On the other hand, I found its commitment to balance depressing - not the idea of balance itself, but the mechanism, the powers, that seemed to me to strip out the differences between classes, to make everyone act exactly the same: pick a power - roll with bonuses against a defense... The abstraction tends to take most of the imaginative appeal of the game away, while, undeniably, making it very efficient to play.

I have skimmed some of the notes about the next version - I don't know if I can form an opinion yet. The notion that you can adapt any edition to it is appealing, though I don't quite see how that is going to happen. It would be good to be able to use old materials - my brothers, particularly, have a good collection of modules, going back across multiple editions - getting access to elements in all of them would be very nice. Not buying another $500 worth of books would be appealing too (though I'm sure the local bookstore thinks otherwise.) All that seems optimistic though. I don't feel an overwhelming need to change at this point - I suspect, if 3.5 had been a bit easier to play (especially playing intermittently, as we've tended to do in our dotage), we wouldn't have switched last time - 4's playability won the day. This time, unless Next is backward compatible to everything, or utterly brilliant, I suspect I will resist.

Andrew said...

I will say, in 4e, every class is hardly the same - 'pick a power, roll' is superficially what you're doing, certainly. But accusing every class of being identical in that way is similar to saying that in 3e and earlier every class is the same because you 'declare an action, roll'. Powers have radically different applications. One hits somebody with a sword; another puts foes to sleep; another turns them into a frog. Those aren't really 'the same'. However, as the article posits, it is transparent. Which creates the sense of them being identical. Previous versions of D&D might not have a 'to hit' roll for spells, for instance, but a saving throw is really just the same thing in disguise.

I too wish Next was actually backwards compatible, but looking at its rules, it looks to be about as compatible with previous editions as 3rd edition is compatible with 2nd.