I occasionally read Neogrognard’s blog, mostly because of his nickname and because of that blog’s mission statement. One of the quotes from his most recent post caught my attention:
I believe the chief mistake of 4e was the goal of making it more accessible, put the audience on an equal playing field. It stripped away those things seen as an antiquated or as part of an insular language of an obscure discipline. The initiated balked, and told whoever uninitiated who would listen how Wizards dumbed down the game. It was a powerful, though unfair, complaint. D&D is supposed to be a game that smart people play and no one wants to and few want to play the perceived dumbed-down version, not for long anyway. Not even the people who will sample the game, think it’s a waste of time, and move along. When you start something, you want to be awesome at it, and get better over time. As any 10-year old will tell you, you can’t be awesome on training wheels. So, those people didn’t play the game or didn’t play it with an open mind. They had an axe to grind and something to prove. It didn’t incent investment from the old guard, because it invalidated large chunks of the old game, and it could not create new pockets of investment fast enough with an inpatient market and overseen by yearly reviews of numbers. Most other RPG companies live hand to mouth, and are happy to do it. It’s hard to imagine the casual brutality of the corporate umbrella. Love is a sentiment lost amid marks on the balance sheet. (Emphasis mine)
What I would like to discuss is people’s investment in D&D as a certain type of game and how 4e both succeeded and failed in meeting expectations.
4e is not syncretic
I have a fair bit of experience with GURPS and Hero System, having written for and playtested both the systems. They are the product of evolution in a way that 4e is not. Their designers started with a marginally functioning product – the Model T, if you will – then kept adding features and complexity as they went. Most often, a new edition meant fine-tuning, only making substantial changes to the glaring problems.
By contrast, 4e is a spontaneous mutation. One needs only read the Races and Classes preview book to see this. By all appearances, the suits at Hasbro turned to the D&D development team and said, “We can’t have people using the OGL to rip us off any more, so we need you to come up with a new version of D&D that we can properly protect.” Unbound by previous convention, the design team set themselves to this task with vigor. Then something amazing happened.
Someone asked the question, “What exactly do we want to keep?” which started a discussion about what defines D&D, what fun is and what isn’t. (Take a look at Mike Mearls’ column about The Core of D&D, which I believe is an echo of earlier conversations.) I’ve never heard a development group actually discuss that as a concept before and if Wizards had been living hand-to-mouth like most of the other RPG publishers, I don’t think the conversation would have gone very far. For as deeply entrenched as those companies are in the hobby community, they can’t afford to be radical.
So, 4e jumped and people freaked. Some of them were going to anyhow, especially since 3.5 was widely perceived as working (1). A RPG is not like a video game where you buy the new version (or the expansion pack) for extra content. You buy it because it does what you need it to do better than the previous edition. To return to the car analogy, you get it for the cargo space or the gas mileage. In this way I disagree with the Neogrognard, that there were people invested in resisting change was never a question. The issue was that this group was enlarged by the people who couldn’t grok challenges to the fundamental assertions of the previous additions. When it comes to RPGs, you can’t sell people what they don’t understand.
Wizards should have kept letting us in on their thinking, just as they did with Races and Classes. The DDI would have been the perfect format for this. We’re seeing timid steps in that direction, mostly from Mearls.
You Have to Go Balls Deep
Another reason that 4e has struggled is that the developers didn’t go far enough. Having committed to sweeping changes, they assumed that they were smart enough to find all the bugs in the system mechanics. Hubris bit them squarely on the ass. They had to scramble to fix Paladin marks after the D&D Experience. Anyone who got under the hood of the original skill challenge numbers could have told you that they were wonky. I feel secure in saying that they had a number of very intelligent, highly creative people on their design team – none of whom had any experience wrecking a game by bending mechanics. Not only should they have had better playtesting, but also that testing should have included people who were good with math.
Templating is another issue. It’s fairly obvious that there was a good deal of intellectual cross-pollination between the D&D team and the Magic: the Gathering people. Keywords are a powerful tool for managing mechanics. So is a consistent and logical format for expressing powers and abilities. These things are frequently expressed as subroutines; 4e was just really in your face about it. Unfortunately, once you tell people that rules matter, you need to make sure that your rules are solid. Wizards didn’t do that. They half-assed it and ended up having to go back and fix things, leading to an avalanche of errata that irritated the fan base.
SJG solved these problems by developing playtest teams. I was part of one of these teams while I was in college. Wizards already has something like this in place: the “Future Future League” for MtG. By my understanding, none of the people in the FFL are paid. They do it for fun and there are no leaks.
You Can’t Choke-%$#* Someone in Public
Sorry for the crass way of putting that, but it’s true. Whether it was an in-house decision or was handed down from Hasbro, the GSL was always designed to choke the life out of the third-party publishers. Viewed at from their perspective, I’m sure it made sense. Nobody is yelling at Steve Jackson for not opening up GURPS, why should D&D be any different? Isn’t it the “great-granddaddy of roleplaying games”? While that’s true, the genie was already out of the bottle with regard to the OGL. Not only were the players shocked at how tightly Wizards was holding 4e in an armored fist, by making the decision to neuter the third-party publishers, Wizards created a perfect storm of reasons for those people (most of whom are pretty popular in the community) to rail against 4e.
Now, to be fair, some of this they brought upon themselves. I can’t find the link, but one of the third party publishers put out a “compact” or “condensed” player’s handbook that could completely replace Wizards’ PHB. The World of Warcraft RPG was designed in a similar way. The OGL was a disaster in that regard, but the GSL killed the good with the bad. The cottage industry that had sprung up around D&D withered quickly and, suddenly, D&D was a much more barren system. Wizards’ betrayal in this matter offended many people and justifiably so.
Now, this isn’t something you can put on the game itself. This was a money decision, driven by the fact that Hasbro has to answer to its shareholders. There’s a part of me that wants to punish the suits, but I really like 4e and the people that made it, so I’m torn. In a way, this defect in the rollout of 4e is a reflection of what’s wrong with corporate America today: it’s not enough to be profitable, at least not if you’re a publicly traded company. There’s something very wrong with an environment where a company can fail solely because it isn’t meeting the expectations of people who are completely remote from the actual business itself.
To be honest, I don’t know what can be done here. Those relationships are thoroughly soured and we find ourselves in a situation that has never existed before: there are two equally valid versions of D&D in publication at the same time. I don’t care for Pathfinder, but I don’t have anything against the people who prefer that system. Essentials did not help. If anything, it made things worse, as it was widely seen as a confession that 4e was a bad idea. It feels as though Hasbro is comfortable making less money on D&D, so long as no one else is making much of anything off the franchise. If that’s the case, I can’t offer a solution because I think that position ignores the realities of the RPG community.
The Big Lie
Even before the release of 4e, we were being bombarded with the message that 4e is “dumbed down” by comparison to the older editions. Ask people exactly what that means, though, and you get one of two responses. They say it “doesn’t have as many options,” which is a crap complaint, given that they were comparing a just-released edition with a fully developed edition at the end of its lifespan. If you look at 4e now, it’s easily as robust as 3.5, in many ways more so.
They also claim, “It’s all combat and no roleplaying.” I find myself genuinely offended by this assertion because the things that they left out of 4e are not at all what I consider roleplaying. Crafting rules? Not roleplaying. Powers and traits that only apply out-of-combat? Not roleplaying. Mechanical expressions of character reputation, social class or authority? Not frakking roleplaying. If those things aren’t roleplaying, then what is?
- Speaking in character.
- Making choices based on the character’s beliefs, experiences and knowledge.
- Developing a character’s history, personality and outlook.
Pretty short list, right? This isn’t intended to demean roleplaying; I hold the hobby in high regard. Roleplaying is everything that happens in the absence of rules and it’s more important than the rules or else we would be playing Descent, Warmachine or any of a thousand other games.
What the grognards weren’t telling you is that most of them have a very narrow, stylized idea of fun and they’re eager to fight for it. In this respect, Neogrognard is right on the button. Their version of D&D includes autocratic GMs, random encounter tables and fights that can’t be won. I don’t think that style of play is inherently wrong, but I have feelings similar to those I have regarding baroque music – all its possibilities were long ago explored and exhausted. If people have fun playing RPGs that are structured that way, more power to them, but those games no longer reach me. I know a fair number of people that feel the same way.
Wizards’ response to this – Essentials – confuses the crap out of me. They answered the charge that the game was too easy by taking away choices in character creation and adding new, less complex powers. Judging from what I’ve heard of the groups here in Michigan, Essentials is popular, not because it’s easy to play, but because the books are super cheap (they’re also formatted a hell of a lot better). My suspicion is that Hasbro said, “There are all these people not transitioning to the new product. Get them back.” and Wizards created Essentials.
At the end of the day, there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about new edition heresy. If you don’t put out something new, you stagnate and die. If you change things, people get butthurt. I think you have to stand up and make the best game you know how, which is exactly what the designers of 4e did.
(1) Which is a perspective I strongly disagree with. 3.5 was a mess, but that is an anomaly. Most RPGs require far less fixing than 3.5 needed.