Would Anyone Use The 4th Edition Rules If They Were NOT The Dungeons and Dragons System?

“Dungeons and Dragons” is more than a game, it is a cultural phenomenon. Many, if not most gamers, have fond memories of playing this game in their childhood. It was the first RPG I ever played and I played it off and on for 25 years. The very name “Dungeons and Dragons” wears a warm patina of happiness in my mind. I am certain many others feel the same.

Before I jump into my main question, I need to provide a little background about myself. I have a university degree in rhetoric. Yes, they offer a degree solely in rhetoric. We studied Plato and the usual classics, but a large portion of the degree covered how to analyze the influence of words and images on an audience. We spent hours looking at advertising and dissecting the tricks used to influence the audience to buy a product. Ultimately, it was about using emotion to influence perception. Words or images of smiling, healthy people on a cruise tries to touch a part of our psyche that desires that state of affairs. It is a visceral, subconscious response that influences our conscious behavior (buy a cruise).  Just a picture of a boat without the smiling people has far less impact. There is no emotional “distortion” of the image. A ship is just a ship.

It is this distortion that interests me. A few days ago it occurred to me that much of my perception of anything “Dungeons and Dragons” is colored by decades of memories. This is simply a part of life, but it did inspire my question: How much is the historical, emotional attachment to Dungeons and Dragons affecting perceptions of 4th edition rules? Would you be as satisfied ( or unsatisfied) with the rules set if it did not wear a D&D cloak?

This is not an attempt to start an old vs new school argument or bashing the rules set. I truly am interested to hear if gamers would play 4e rules without 30+ years of D&D emotional baggage and expensive marketing. I came up with an answer for myself. What that is does not really matter. I would rather not taint the results with my opinion.  I challenge you, gentle reader, to embrace your biases and seek the answer to this question yourself: If you wandered into a book store and found a plain, photocopied booklet of 4e rules would you use them ?

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

28 thoughts on “Would Anyone Use The 4th Edition Rules If They Were NOT The Dungeons and Dragons System?

  • April 5, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    It would depend on what D&D was doing at the time.

    D&D is the easiest fantasy RPG to get a game going, because every RPG gamer knows about it. You can go to any gamer forum and pick up people, and you can expect they will have reasonable idea of what goes on in such a game.

    However, the scenario you presented greatly depends to me on what D&D is doing at the time. I play 4e because I like nearly every thing it did to not be 3e. If D&D was at the time making a game I like (not 3e), then I probably would like this 4e I found in the store but not play it much. There are NUMEROUS ways of making a game different from 3e that attract me. If the D&D of the time isn’t 3e, I’d probably stick with D&D.

    Now, if the D&D product at the time I found this little 4e copy at random was 3e, I would play the little 4e. Because I wouldn’t want to play 3e. I’d accept that it’s time to ditch D&D and work at assembling a new player group with a different system.

    I’m not sure if I worded that terribly clearly, but it’s the best I can do.

  • April 5, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    “This is not an attempt to start an old vs new school argument or bashing the rules set. I truly am interested to hear if gamers would play 4e rules without 30+ years of D&D emotional baggage and expensive marketing.”

    I’m guessing you don’t think the system is good, and it’s all marketing/nostagia, and you want to see who agrees with you. That’s fine.

    I feel your question is impossible to answer subjectively. I can’t go back in time or erase years of influences. I like 4e, so my knee jerk reaction is to say I would. If I didn’t like it, I imagine my knee jerk reaction would be to say I wouldn’t.

  • April 5, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    @wyatt–I think I got the gist of your comment…maybe 😉

    @Tom– I do not think I was fishing for validation, at least not consciously. I am more looking for the gamer community’s thoughts on the rules set itself versus all of the hype and history

    @Greywulf– I was not my intent to make it two separate questions, but in rereading the post it appears that I did. I have to agree with the photocopy statement. Sometime slick and glossy is not a good thing.

  • April 5, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    No, probably not. My group formed purely on the basis of several old timers looking to rediscover the good times of their youth, plus a couple of young whippersnappers who were willing to try out this D&D “thing”. Although we had a good time with our campaign, several of the old timers intermittently complained that 4E was not the “D&D” that they had grown up with and had fond memories of.

  • April 5, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    I most definitely would. I like the combat system, I like minis, I like the standardization because it’s easier for me to design house rules, monsters, and equipment. I like the fast character generation, and I like the power cards (I don’t like the name power cards though, I think they should have called them tactic cards.)

  • April 5, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Tough question. Especially considering that I’ve already blown up the ruleset in my campaign. I don’t know that without the D&D name and hype that I would have given it enough time to grow on me. It would probably be collecting dust as I worked on my 3.85 campaign.

  • April 5, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    No. My group plays D&D (as far as fantasy goes). Most of us have played every or nearly every edition of D&D, a few of us played all these together. That’s what we play and we play the current version. As long as the current version keeps improving the game, we’ll keep playing ’em. There are many games out there that are “like” D&D, and if the system that became 4e was out under the name Tunnels & Tarrasques or Warpick Fantasy, we wouldn’t play it. We wouldn’t have played 3e, or 2e either if they were not editions of D&D. It doesn’t have much at all to do with the system, but with the whole milieu of Dungeons & Dragons.

    As for rhetoric, your title pretty much eliminates the idea that this question is asked without bias.

  • April 5, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    I probably would not have, though it has nothing to do with the ruleset itself. My fantasy RPG experience has been restricted to D&D and I’ve never had an interest in trying out a different system on my own.

    That said, I haven’t been satisfied with a D&D ruleset since 2nd edition. My forays into game design have revealed a tendency toward skill-based, classless systems. I like many of the concepts behind 4E, but still have the urge to tinker. In fact, the urge is so strong, I’m in the early stages of starting a blog to publish my tinkerings. 🙂

  • April 5, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Excellent question. Or rather, two questions: would you play 4e if it didn’t have the “Dungeons & Dragons” label on the cover, and would you play it is it wasn’t so extensively marketed (for an rpg – a notoriously poorly marketed industry, imho). The way I see it, the two questions are distinct, but closely related. Please correct me if my dissection is wrong 😀

    Speaking solely for myself (and, to an extent, my gamer group) if it wasn’t D&D we’ve have probably tried it once then ditched it. Purely because it is D&D my group have been willing to persevere and grow to like it. The D&D label, history and weight counts for a lot. It’s a system that appeals to my Rules Cyclopedia old-time buddies and newer gamers alike are comfortable playing together. That’s quite an achievement – but it’s taken a lot fo hard work and the D&D name to get there.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t care less about the marketing or production quality. If it did come as a stapled, photocopied booklet I’d probably love it all the more. But that’s just me 😀

    Thinking further afield – without the D&D name and marketing push I reckon it would have died without trace, or probably not even made it to market at all. But hey, what do I know?

  • April 5, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    @Thasmodious– I actually tried other phrasings of my headline, but none of them came out as unbiased as I would have liked. For the record, I am using “anyone” in the general sense, not in the “Why would anyone (implying a lack of judgement/sanity) go skydiving?” usage. I thought about “you” instead, but it honestly sounded a little cheesy as a headline.

    @Kameron– Tinker away!

  • April 5, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I like the rules and would like to play 4e even if it wasn’t D&D. With that said, it would likely be very hard to get a group together to play it without the D&D brand name. Most people play D&D, whatever it looks like. It often has nothing to do with the rules. I think that most people will tell you that the rules have nothing to do with whether they play D&D.

    This blog post seems like you are trying to tie the fact that people would play whatever game had the D&D brand to the idea that 4e is not a good rules set. This is very much a falacy of inference. The fact that the biggest reason that most people play 4e is because it is D&D does logically mean that 4e is not a good ruleset. In my opinion, it is a vast improvement on what was D&D previous to 4e.

    I quit playing D&D because I didn’t like the rule set. I then had no game. I am glad that D&D now has a ruleset that I enjoy. Now I can play D&D again.

  • April 6, 2009 at 12:50 am

    I doubt I would. Right now, I’m in the mode “play if someone runs it”, just to see what it is like in actual play. As an rpg, the style of play suggested by it and the aesthetics of it are completely uninteresting (as a game it is of some interest), so I don’t think I would even want to play it if it were not for the common ground it provides in internet discussions.

  • April 6, 2009 at 2:41 am

    I play in one homebrew ruleset game, and DM another (different rules) as well as play/DM a 4e game. We call all of them DnD to varying degrees. To me, DnD has become like xerox, a generic term for RPGs that are fantasy-based.

    If 4e was sold to me in the right way, I would very likely have played just to get some hands on with it. For the folks I play with 4e is regarded as a sort of disappointing stepchild of 3e and “real” DnD.

    It might be kind of fun to strip out all the fluff and see if a viable homebrew could be made of the mechanics and then sold to the naysayers as a “new” RPG. I suspect they’d like it a lot.

  • April 6, 2009 at 3:31 am

    I probably wouldn’t. I probably wouldn’t have played 3e either. I’d probably be playing WoD or SR or CoC or any of the other great games that came out during the long stagnant later life of AD&D 2e.

  • April 6, 2009 at 1:39 am

    The answer to you question is a resounding yes… and no.
    Historically, my group has played whatever rules set D&D is currently using. So far, IMHO each edition has improved upon the last. But we play it because it is D&D. IF the next edition truly does suck, and it would have to be really bad, I can only guess that we would stick with the current incarnation.

    Theoretically, if the current incarnation was still 3.5 (for example) and a friend came to me with a booklet with the 4E rules set, would I play it? Sure, I’d let him or her run our group through a non-D&D setting game, but I’m sure we would soon get back to our “regular” game of D&D. So really, for the most part, we are playing 4E because it is D&D, not because it is (or isn’t) the best rules set out there.

    On a side note, I’d like to thank Greywulf for using the “I couldn’t care less” phrase correctly. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

  • April 6, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Yes, perhaps. I find D&D 4e to be a great tactical board game. Perhaps my favorite. Its even better than Descent. However, my gaming group is uninterested in the new edition. The majority is happy with 3.x, with the minority feeling that anything after the 1974 edition is too cumbersome. I’ve also become aware that my tastes are very different than my group and as such am looking to start a different group that is more willing to try new games and new play styles.

    I’m intrigued at the concept of fun easy to prep tactical combat, but personally I’m more interested in engaging story lines and character development. I’m not convinced D&D 4e can deliver on anything more than fun tactical battles. I’ve only played a few one shots however (at level 1, level 4, level 5, and level 11).

    I’m going to wait until the Eberron release to make a final decision, however.

  • April 6, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Actually, I think I would like the 4E rules even better in a game that wasn’t D&D. A more generic setting with with the ability to focus on either tactical combat or easy pickup games (here is the basic character and here are the powers you have).

    With D&D, there is a lot of baggage that has to be considered and dragged along.

  • April 6, 2009 at 9:32 am

    I’d be more inclined to play it if it weren’t called “D&D”. I already own that game. Somewhere RPG companies got confused about the difference between “new edition” and “new game”.

    I’d be much more inclined to play 4e if it wasn’t fantasy-superheroes, a genre I’m not really interested in. If they were to make a comic superheroes game with the 4e rules I’d definitely pick that up.

  • April 6, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I don’t know if I would have ended up owning the system to start off with if it weren’t D&D, but I would still enjoy the rules. They’re fun and colorful and let us play a game we enjoy with far less prep work than the system I’d been running previously.

  • April 6, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Probably so. Largely because the name D&D has the opposite effect on me that it has on others. I like rules that make sense, aren’t overly convoluted, and are internally consistent and not complex for the sake of being complex or too granular for the sake of ‘verisimilitude’ or whatever. I was introduced to D&D during 2E. I loved the world, the ‘feel’ and the potential for storytelling, but absolutely hated the arbitrary, convoluted, inefficient, and sometimes ass-backward stupidity of the rules (THAC0 in particular. It makes sense mathematically, but is in no way intuitive) Being handed a lv 8 wizard and thrown into a group with 8 other players playing 12 characters (four people had two PCs due to other gamers leaving the game for various reasons) ranging in levels from 9 to 11 was like being thrown into the deep end and while one of my favorite gaming stories comes from that game, it left a bad taste in my mouth and I infinitely preferred the simpler, more fluid systems (like WW’s Masquerade rules, which have their own serious flaws, but are a well-oiled machine compared to 2E D&D) I grinned at the discomfiture of the beardies when 3E came out, grumbled when 3.5 invalidated 3E so soon after its release, and rejoiced at the advent of 4E and the outrage of the beardies at the deaths of the last of the sacred cows of D&D.
    4E took the sacred cows out back, stunned ’em, throated them, drained their blood, gutted them, carved their meat up into steaks and served em rare. Tasty!

    So in other words, yes, I’d have bought them for their own merits and probably enjoyed it more without the D&D label. I hold a contrarian view, though, and rather than nostalgia, I tend to feel irritation that people forget that there is more to Roleplaying than D&D.

  • April 6, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Talk about leading the question… I think that I would – if I knew about it and had some friends that wanted to play…

    Which goes into the whole thing of marketing and popularity and whatnot. I don’t play, say, Burning Wheel or Dogs in the Vineyard. Does that make them bad?

    Maybe the next thing that you should ask is: If the Palladium Fantasy rules were called D&D, would more people play? Or, if WoD made a high-fantasy game, and called it Gamer, the min/maxening, would people play that instead?

    I like the smooth power progression, transparent mechanics, exception-based system, flexibility, ease of adventure development and general philosophy of 4e. I don’t like some things as well, but it’s a brand I trust and a genre I love. But then, I’m a PC, too.

  • April 6, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    There are many things I like about 4E.

    There are things I do not.

    The reality is that I would not have chosen to play 4E if it were not “D&D” (if someone else had introduced the game and asked me to play I may well still have played it – but it wouldn’t have been my initiative).

    But to be fair – I would ALSO most likely not have been playing 3.x if it were not “D&D”. And if it comes down to it – I’d clearly rather be playing 4E than playing 3.x at this point.

    Sure – I would probably have been even happier with an evolution of OD&D or AD&D that adhered more closely to its roots. But outside of my own head that perfect game – incorporating the best ideas of the last 30 years while avoiding the traps of 3.x-style ‘character customization’ and 4E-style ‘mechanics homogenization’ – just doesn’t exist.

    But the reality is: I don’t play D&D for the system – the system is secondary (at best). So I’m happy to play whatever is ‘popular’ because popularity leads to more players/DMs and more players/DMs lead to more play opportunities.

    And that is what really matters.


  • April 7, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Absolutely not!

    Dungeons and Dragons is every thing I don’t look for in a roleplaying game. I enjoy simple, abstract combat with lots of custimation of a characters with options that have negative effects on my character for the sake of a positive roleplaying experience.

    I play D&D purely for the name. I do enjoy the system as is, but I wouldn’t play it as anything else if it didn’t have a strong brand (as I also play Star Wars saga).

  • April 15, 2009 at 2:54 am

    My only real beef with it(besides the fact that I can’t buy it) is that everybody who picked it up before 4e had to live with Vancian magic at some point(I hated it, but it had a point). Yes, it was terribly annoying at times. Okay, it seems pointlessly arbitrary. But it gives a perspective on magic, in the game system itself, that most people introducing themselves to the game are not familiar with. Magic is lawful, magic is D&D science, at least in the old editions. The 4e system doing away with this seems like it makes the game more fun mechanically, but retracts from the basic nature of the universe. If maybe they could have streamlined the gameplay without sacrificing the feeling that magic was a skilled province, then I’d be okay. But hell, what do I know? I’m only 21, the earliest I’ve played was 2e.

  • April 15, 2009 at 3:00 am

    I have pretty strong feelings about magic, in case you hadn’t noticed.

  • April 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I find that I would be more likely to play 4e if it weren’t tied up in the baggage of D&D. I love D&D settings, I collected Monster Manuals for years without playing AD&D (whose system is anathema) because of the implied setting and quirky canonical items of note.

    4e is a moderately interesting tactical combat game with an adequate, if sparse, system for role-playing tacked on. But by taking the names of things from D&D, and then making them NOT the things that have had those names or attributes for the past 30 years, it sets off a significant cognitive dissonance! Fighters aren’t Fighters, they’re Tanks! Rogues aren’t Thieves, they’re Strikers! Vancian Magic is gone… except for Daily Powers, which give you two choices, only one of which can be MEMORIZED for the day! What the hell?! This isn’t D&D!

    If 4e were *just* called 4e, and not Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, I’d be more willing to accept it for itself, and not the bastardization and mutation of 30 years of creative ideas.

  • April 16, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Not gonna get into the details. Just writing in to say: I absolutely would.

  • April 16, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    4e Scenarios:

    1) Sold by WotC but not as D&D

    Becomes a reasonably popular game, but doesn’t sell well enough to justify continued WotC investment. Line receives much less support product, is ended in third year.

    2) Sold by White Wolf

    Different enough from other White Wolf products that it gets a lot of grief from WW fans, but attracts a player base just the same. Gets a trickle of new releases a year. Survives as the “Fantasy Macintosh” alternative to D&D’s “Fantasy Windows”.

    3) Sold by New Game Company

    Eventually sells out initial print run of 5,000 copies in the bankruptcy half-cover-price liquidation.

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