Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Improving 4th edition

Dungeon's Master has a preview of the next season of D&D Encounters, and that season will not use standard 4th edition rules. Instead it will use 4th edition rules which have been modified with some of the improvements coming from the D&D Next development process. Which leads me to the question: Why develop D&D Next in the first place, instead of just improving 4th edition? I suspect the answer is purely financial. Release a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and everybody who wants to keep up to date has to buy new books. Improvements to an existing edition create less sales.

There have been huge changes to Dungeons & Dragons from version 3.5 to 4E. And because that change was so huge, 4th edition had a lot of "bugs" and other flaws. There have been errata, but those are kind of unwieldy with a printed book. And some of the flaws have either never been addressed, or better solutions have only been presented in the context of specific new game material. For example later 4E books often have character "themes" for certain advanced characters, but not for the basic Player's Handbook characters. D&D Next has a good system for backgrounds and themes, but in fact it would be perfectly feasible to adapt that system for 4th edition. Instead WotC throws out the baby with the bath water, makes yet another set of huge changes to D&D, and will probably end up with yet another half-baked edition full of flaws.

Dungeon's Master says about the 4E rules changes for D&D Encounters: "It’s stated right at the beginning of the adventure that the elements of D&D Next they’re really trying to incorporate into this season of D&D encounter are finding a balance among the three significant elements of the D&D experience: exploration, interaction, and combat." That is a typical point where the problem lies not with the rules, but with the adventure. 4E has more epic combat encounters than other editions of D&D, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a balance between combat, exploration, and interaction; you just need to make adventures which have a few epic fights instead of lots of "trash mob" fights. The Caves of Chaos, the first D&D Next playtest adventure, is a dungeon crawl with one combat after another, and very little exploration or interaction provided beyond what the DM makes up on the spot. The major problem 4th edition had with being too combat-heavy was the badly balanced first commercially available adventures, not the rules system. Later 4E adventures are much better balanced, and the DMG2 added some badly needed better advice for DMs on how to run a more balanced campaign.

There is not a single complaint about 4th edition which cannot be fixed by some optional rules or additional material. Fixing D&D by creating a new edition only introduces new flaws and complaints. The D&D Next discussion forums are already full of complaints. And some of the new flaws are in fact more serious than anything that was ever wrong with 4E. Especially forgetting about decades of evolution of the genre and bringing back outdated rules from the 80s is just making a few dinosaurs happy, but will cause serious problems to game balance and playability.

And apparently WotC is well aware what is needed to improve 4th edition, as they are doing it for D&D Encounters. Why not patch 4E to 4.1 instead of abandoning all the progress made and starting from scratch? As I said, probably they think they'll make more money that way, because a new edition makes more old books obsolete. But in an age where most people think that roleplaying is something you need a computer for, that strategy might well backfire.

D&D 4E has already had much errata (monster hit points, defenses, expertise feats, stealth rules, etc) that I consider it already 4.1.

I'd like to see explicit versioning, like in software releases.
That way, people can easier determine what version they are playing with. This could also be used in the character builder.

I prefer pdfs and a compendium over books because they are searchable.
You are right, it's mostly financial related. They make money selling books, so that's what they need to do. Any fix of 4th edition would need to be sold in book format.

They already did that with 3.0 -> 3.5. To say that many people weren't happy with being sold whole new books to fix broken design problems is an understatement. (I was a bit disgruntled, too, but I went to Gen Con and won most of the 3.5 book as prizes at the WotC booth, so I'm less cranky than I could be.)
I'm in a hotbed of antagonism toward 4E in my local gaming cirlces; I like 4E, and I'd run it often if I could, but most of my gaming brethren despise it and this makes it a hard sell. It seems like they have no choice but to revise and rebrand the game to try and appeal to this crowd. That said, if they were to release a definitive revision and update to the core 4E books I would most definitely buy that....but given that the next year's worth of releases are reprints of older editions, I'm guessing 4E is well and truly over with outside of their Encounters program.
I think this is the natural result of closed gaming license, where originating company is the only one allowed to make improvements to the system.

Compare this to Pathfinder, with it's open gaming license, where there is a myriad of professional quality, third party products available to make improvements and alterations to the base system.

At first I was worried that this would lead to fragmentation of the system. However, it has not worked out that way. If someone in my group asks if they can use something from Psionics Unleashed or Kobald Quarterly (third party products), I know exactly what they mean and the reputation of those publishers. We all play the same base game, and have the freedom to pick and choose between a large number of compatible, high quality options.

In contrast, the restrictive 4E license has lead to a tragic fragmentation of D&D. We now have Pathfinder, 3.5 players (who have no professional support of their game), 4E players (who will soon have no support) and .Next. Instead of a single, open base with tons of compatible options, we have a multiple, incompatible bases with only the current version being supported. Even worse, it seems that this situation will only be exasperated, as WotC seems to develop new core rules whenever they need a believe it will be profitable.

It is a pity. The hobby will endure, but it will be in spite of WotC, not because of it.

Indeed. I'm an old 1e player just getting back into the game. I really like most of the changes I see so far in 4e. DnD always had a crappy combat system (old editions) so I really like the improvements there -- adding additional tactical elements and making some of the classes more balanced across all levels. I'll note that I was always a big fan of Warhammer RPG so I like to see some of the skills and combat elements I saw running Warhammer campaigns mixed into DnD.

As for story and role-playing, that really doesn't have much to do with the game rules -- content supplements, modules, and your own imagination provide those. Again, look at old modules like the Enemy Within and Shadows over Bogenhafen for Warhammer RPG and you'll see awesome adventures with vicious combat but that don't feel like a slog of endless combat encounters. These were great stories and the rules just provided a framework for adventuring. DnD has always suffered from combat heavy, linear modules, that seemed to rely on cool rewards magic items and new monsters to keep people happy. Just look at the top 30 list for a series of those (G1-3 in particular stands out at the top of the list). And lets not forgot all the arguments over rule systems that were often confusing and contradictory.

So back to 4e, these are good rules that deserve to be improved upon and not thrown out. I'd love to buy the revised Players Handbook with the rule tweaks of the last few years. WotC should concentrate on making this game better not shelving it. And the chance for updating, re-releasing, and creating new content is still immense -- lots of sourcebooks and new adventures for people to play and enjoy.

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