Divesting from D&D

BECMI boxed set
The first edition I played

As part of the aforementioned spring cleaning, I’ve now sold most of my books for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. It’s the first time in nearly 30 years that I’m role-playing but not using the latest edition of that game. (I still have lots of books from prior editions.)

I’ve been an early and enthusiastic adopter of past editions of D&D, including moves from the boxed sets to AD&D1 back in high school in the early 1980s, from AD&D1 to AD&D2 in college, and from AD&D2 to D&D3.0 and 3.5 (and the D20 Open Game License in general) in the early 2000s. Each new version had clearer rules, stronger support in terms of published supplements, and a larger fan base than its predecessors. I’m surprised to now find myself sympathizing more with the grognards.

In 2009, I used D&D4e for the “Faith-Based Initiative” team in my long-running “Vanished Lands” homebrew fantasy setting. The rules set worked well enough for a time, but more than half of the eight gamers soon became disenchanted, mirroring a schism in the larger community.

Some of the problems were stylistic. As a Dungeon Master accustomed to “sandbox“-style settings, in which the Player Characters are free to pick quests and explore a world in any direction, I clashed with those who expected every encounter or challenge to be appropriately scaled to the adventuring party’s power/experience level, as D&D4e encourages.

In my previous campaigns, if low-level adventurers found a monster like a dragon, they ran or hid. In D&D4e, some would either express shock at the unfairness of such a battle or doggedly fight until all opposition (and possibly some of their own company) was dead. I’ve become stingier with treasure and prefer slower advancement than in most published modules.

It’s true that I and other people didn’t master the D&D4e’s subtleties as quickly as a few in the group, and I grew impatient with combat scenes that dragged on for nearly as long as similar scenes had in earlier editions. D&D4e’s emphasis on tactical maneuvering, collectible miniatures and cards, and balanced powers was different from games that focus on nonstatistical character development, narrative storytelling, and varying “sweet spots.”

For example, Fighters used to be more important relative to other archetypes/occupational classes at lower levels, while Wizards came into their own at higher levels. In addition, I and some other Game Masters prefer scenarios between third and eighth levels, when characters are tough enough to survive some battles but still had more gritty or realistic concerns, like keeping their horses fed, than leading armies or slaying gods.

D&D4e sought to eliminate intraparty imbalances across levels, but it also made every combat maneuver resemblebutton mashing” common to multiplayer online games, with every attack from a weapon or a spell resulting in predictable outcome of some damage and a move. I’m more interested in spontaneous character interaction than crunching numbers, but other G.M.s are definitely better at providing interesting combat scenes than me.

Noncombat skills, which proliferated in AD&D2 and D&D3.x, were pared back. Sure, an ambitious character who wanted to become a warlord still could administer a fiefdom in D&D4e, but it could require creative role-playing only recently supported by the official rules, and an inexperienced gamer wouldn’t necessarily even know of an option other than striving for demigodhood at Level 30.

To be fair, D&D4e eliminated some of the “min-maxing” and numerous inconsistencies, but I think it also lost some flexibility and seemed less connected to its literary inspirations, such as the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack Vance, and Fritz Lieber. The weird and unpredictable magic, bizarre creatures, and character vulnerability of early editions of D&D are in marked contrast to powers and “exception-based” rules. See the excellent Vornheim for the retro-clone Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a return to the days when adventuring could be scary fun.

The D20 renaissance of the early 2000s showed that a relatively complex system could be used for a variety of styles and genres, from gritty sword and sorcery to high fantasy and from steampunk to superheroes to space opera. Wizards of the Coast’s missteps with its third-party licensing, publishing of PDFs, and online tabletop also contributed to the D20 vs. D&D4e “edition wars.”

Unfortunately, a early lack of support for third-party publishers and the more restrictive Game System License, the successor to the OGL, has limited the diversity of worlds using D&D4e in comparison with D20. Just as role-players moved from AD&D2’s “code bloat” to White Wolf’s Storyteller: World of Darkness in the 1990s, so today some gamers are moving to lighter systems such as FATE rather than play D&D4e.

The D&D Essentials product line has addressed some of the confusion by compiling rules into affordable softcover books, and the D&D Insider (DDI) makes errata and character generation tools available through a digital subscription. If the DDI had provided a virtual tabletop as quickly as initially promised, I might even still be running or playing D&D4e now instead of Pathfinder and FATE. Ultimately, every role-player, Game Master, and group has to find the system that suits them best. I don’t expect debate to die down, but what works best for you?

Coming soon: More on genre TV, retro games, and current campaigns!

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3 thoughts on “Divesting from D&D

  1. I was totally swept up in the pre-release hype of 4e. The preview books were very evocative and really sold me on the “Points of Light” focus. Even a dreadful D&D Experience playtest didn’t dissuade me. But after playing in a 4e game for a few months, I just realized that it wasn’t all that much fun as a player.

    Which is sad. The game has a lot of things for DMs to love. I like the DMG and the philosophy of monster design is pretty cool. And I ran a couple of really awesome games for other people before trying it out as a player.

    Oh well. I don’t get all busted up about it. It’s just another game that I’m not particularly excited about. I’d rather be playing games that I love than fighting the edition wars.

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  2. Thanks for the thumbs up on Vornheim!

    Note: it isn’t for the LOTFP game–it’s system agnostic for any version of D&D.

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  3. Tim, I was also initially interested in the innovations and presentation of D&D4e, and I ran the game for about a year before my group and I decided that it wasn’t for (most of) us. Fortunately, there are lots of other systems to play! After participating in the occasional edition debate, I’ve mostly opted out of the edition wars, but selling my D&D4e books is still an odd milestone.

    Zak, you’ll be pleased to learn that I passed around both Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Vornheim at last night’s face-to-face session, and the role-players present were all impressed! I’ll definitely be using the latter for my Pathfinder telecom fantasy group…

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