Counterpoint: Singing the Blues for 4th Edition

I don’t cheer the demise of 4th Edition D&D, and not because my publishing label has at least one more product utilizing the system. 4th Edition D&D was the Ron Paul of game systems—a political outcast with bizarre and revolutionary ideas which, though making a lot of sense, were extremely unpopular within the demographic being addressed, despite still having its own fanatical fan base.

The rationale in accusing 4th Edition of being a pariah is multi-layered and mostly unfounded. For many, the parakeet had fallen dead in its cage years ago. What’s distressing to me is that most of it has nothing to do with the system itself. Like the aforementioned politician, if 4th Edition was independent or a system married to an organization not compelled by factors out of its control to act against its better interest, it would have been lauded for its modern design. The failures of 4th Edition are not rooted in its mechanics but in the politics surrounding it.

Let me analyze the history of the system and offer some obvious and perhaps controversial statements based on experience and on the opinions offered by people are whose opinions I trust. The division within the community had nothing to do with the rules themselves—with the MMO-style presentation or the simplicity of its structure. It was rooted entirely within the fanatical fan bases of 3rd party companies who themselves were being alienated by the very company that helped them become a success. Ignoring accusations or false assumptions of rivalry imagine what would have occurred if, in 2008, WOTC had offered the 4th Edition rules with a more moderate system license and offered it in January when it was originally promised to 3rd party companies, allowing them the opportunity to develop products in time for GenCon that year. This would also assume another stipulation that WOTC would then renew certain contracts and not lock said companies out of DDI, and then later not revise the rules three times. Without Pathfinder, would the mass of disgruntled fans have finally embraced 4th Edition?

This utopia of robe-wearing hippies frolicking in tall grass didn’t occur, but the parting of 3rd party companies only began because of schizophrenic communications and hemorrhaging staff within WOTC. Two rules errata, a clumsy online service, no digital storefront, and the release of Essentials which divided the fan base further (despite me actually liking it) exasperated people’s opinion of this soon unpopular rule set.

However, the rules themselves were solid. Yes, a few things needed to be tweaked, but don’t look at 3.0—err, 3.5 as the holy grail of adamantium-forged rules. Was 4th Edition perfect? I found the restrictions of defining encounters abrasive to more role playing-centered campaigns. I thought Essentials was a far superior character-creation system over the intimidating 30-page character classes of classic 4E, but its timing was atrocious. There were not nearly enough conditions to cover every possible effect you could impose on an opponent. And I hated hated hated skill challenges and how 4th Edition handled treasure. That being said, there are many things I hope people don’t forget when moving into 5th Edition. It would be foolish to disregard everything learned from the previous system.

Take defense values. Having Fortitude, Reflex, and Will operate the same as AC was ingenious. The balancing of character classes at every level was another. I know readers will get upset at me praising the power system, but presenting abilities in bullet form is simply easier than clumping it together in a paragraph, something Pathfinder still hasn’t addressed. As a GM/DM, I will also state unequivocally that monsters were better in 4th Edition than in any other D&D related system. So many games are built for the players, assuming the game runner will simply abide by the thankless job of spending hours between sessions designing or adapting monsters for our heroes. Creating unique and interesting monster for 4th Edition was easy and I didn’t have to flip back and forth between books to do it. I always said that 4th Edition was more popular with GMs but less popular with players, but there are more players than GMs so the minority lost out.

In all the talk regarding 5th Edition, there has been little to no dialogue addressing the politics around this new system. Unless this is addressed and repaired, nothing 5th Edition offers mechanically will appease those that abandoned it. This will involve offering olive branches to 3rd party publishers, readdressing the application of online content, and creating a network which allows WOTC, 3rd party publisher, and all their respective fan bases to comingle (with or without conflict is optional). It has almost nothing to do with the rules themselves. I would also go about saying it would be a step backwards in the development of the “perfect” system if it ignored all the great contributions of 4th Edition.

So that is my plea…don’t erase 4th Edition from history. Learn what worked and what didn’t and restrain the compulsion to erase its mark from memory.

It’s Alien 3; not Highlander 2.

Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

One thought on “Counterpoint: Singing the Blues for 4th Edition

  • January 25, 2012 at 11:08 am

    You make some very good points, and some particularly humorous quips that I wholeheartedly enjoy and agree with, but one ‘improvement’ of 4E that I actually despise as both a player AND a GM (running on 3+ years GMing for my current 4E game, playing every Tuesday, only missing a few days through the years) is the treatment of the Monster category as it’s own strata.

    They have their own number of hit points, expected levels of defenses, and different attack and power stratification than the players. This puts them on what I would call unknown footing with the players themselves. And while there is a guideline for building encounters, this treatment of Monsters as Monster Entities and not just another-being-in-a-world means there is no yardstick, no metric to base relative power or damage levels on.

    My players do otherworldly damage compared to monsters, and if were pitted against one and the other, there would be an insane explosion of powers, followed by all the players dying off. Littered amongst this is the fact that Heroes have surges and monsters don’t, making the numerics all that much more confusing.

    4E strikes me as a great system for a Superhero game, where your players are supposed to be highly stratified above the level of the lay-monster. But as gritty fantasy goes, the inclusion of these elements largely detracts from exploration, world building, and other elements that ‘should be’ independent of these rules, yet seem to be greatly affected by the MMO-like classifications that are found therein. And this doesn’t really lend well to heroics so much as power-corruption and a blasé admonishment for lowly minions and peons.

    No longer can these lowly grunts, armed with ballista, some know-how, and a bit of luck still be a threat to players. The sake of game balance really took away a lot of these elements.

    There are so many elements to a game system like D&D that contribute to the feel and it’s popularity, it’s hard to quantify what any one of the endless number of players enjoys about the game, but I think it can be said that 4E appeals to a different audience than your classic hardcore tabletop gamer. But hey, for everyone else, there are plenty of options out there! It’s just a different type of game.

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