Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth-edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

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11 Responses to Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

  1. AndyP says:

    Think major thing being left out here was how badly 4e got structured in terms of adventures, marketing and legal in the beginning.

    They had so much overkill in output that a lot of really bad adventures were going out in Living Forgotten Realms in year one. And the published ones in 2008 weren’t much better. Skill challenges are a great mechanic after being errata’d. But many adventures made them look as if they were extended single skill checks rather than a way for DMs to think about setting up meaningful roleplaying.

    And telling Paizo to basically go to hell was just an insane decision. It forced them to either go bankrupt or think outside the box, leading to Pathfinder. Not having a viable SRD for 4e and limiting 3rd edition publishers. Not having options for selling watermarked PDFs, even for older editions.

    I think if 4e had an equivalent of the Slayer+a way to make Wizards seem just a touch more complex – say Wand Wizards, instead of getting a +Dex to hit once an encounter, could use an extra different encounter power once a day…that plus resolving the above probably would have solved most of their problems.

  2. This series of articles is just fantastic. While I harbor extremely hard feelings about 4th Edition, I think most of that was predicated by the DMs I was playing under … combat was everything, the story took a back seat to the action, and one of the DMs preferred a punishing DM vs players scenario, as opposed to telling a good story with RP moments.

    The *game* mechanics of 4E are pretty solid at the lower levels, but the problem was that it felt like an MMO on a tabletop. But if it took 4E failing to get to 5E, then brother it was worth the journey.

  3. Ilbranteloth says:

    I think that the problems with 4e can be boiled down to a few major mistakes:

    1) They relied too much on a small group of vocal opinions (including their own) rather than understanding their customer base as a whole. It’s easy to listen to the surveys, the gamers at the cons, and online and accept them as the “core” base.

    2) They didn’t understand their product, or what makes their product what it is.

    As game designers, the natural inclination is to design games. Take some of MtG, ideas from MMOs, get rid of the stuff that “everybody” is complaining about, and then wait, we don’t have a true “D&D setting” complete with official D&D lore. Basically ignore everything that made D&D a hit to begin with, and make something new. I’ve always seen a much stronger connection to Magic: The Gathering than MMOs and video games.

    They designed a very complex and well balanced game, But it wasn’t what people wanted to play, and it wasn’t what many people considered D&D to be.

    What they figured out with 5e is that what they really needed was something simpler, more streamlined. Something a group of new players could pick up and start playing in 15 to 30 minutes, not with hours of prep.

    What they figured out is that it has to appeal to the casual player. Because the reality is, that’s their core base. They buy the most books, and the PHB of any edition always outsells the supplements and the adventures. With 4e they might have convinced themselves they were targeting that audience, but the reality is they were designing for a very, very small subset of D&D gamers.

    “Rules light” doesn’t mean “game light.”

    MtG is a simple enough game to pick up and learn, and a deceptively challenging game to master. Video games are the same way, and they have built in difficulty modes. They went the exact opposite direction they should have with 4e.

    D&D 5e is super easy to learn and play. But still supports the feel of any of the earlier editions, and can be made as complex as you’d like it to be. They designed simple, elegant mechanics, and leave the complexity for the content. Because that’s where an RPG’s strength is – the content.

    Ironically, I don’t know if 5e would have worked as well directly following 3.5e. The simpler approach may not have been accepted as wholeheartedly. Now it is viewed, in part, as a return to form, at the same time that nostalgia is peaking for the game.

  4. Mulchmaker says:

    The 4ed rules were simultaneously reductionist and gimmicky, the artwork sucked, and it absolutely DID feel like a big “your kind aren’t welcome around here” to players whose history with the game stretched back decades. 5ed is brilliant by comparison–streamlined, easy to teach to new players, and flexible enough to accommodate seasoned gamers.

    • Stephen Ayers says:

      4th was Genius. All the dissenters were and are f ing morons. Such is the creator/consumer ruling dichotomy unfortunately.

      • Larry Hoy says:

        Indeed, the dissenters were sooooo moronic that, when the creators listened to them, they were able to influence the new edition enough to make it the greatest success a D&D version has ever been.

  5. Simon Newman says:

    In hindsight WoTC had really been wandering way up the garden path in the later years of 3.5 – Book of Nine Swords was all very well, but looking at adventures from that era you can see the terrible ‘delve format’ that helped turn 4e into a skirmish combat game. They seemed to completely lose sight of the things people enjoy about D&D that aren’t tactical combat. And they thought that was what everyone was playing for. So they produced a game that at its heart owes really nothing to Gygaxian D&D.

    After that, the “Three Pillars” approach of 5e, and especially restoring Exploration as a goal, was a huge turnaround, and has done a lot to bring D&D back to its roots while bringing in a new generation of players.

  6. Gabe snyder says:

    My big problem with 4e was that I had collected 18 3.5e books by the time 4e came along. My choice was to start over with a new collection or increasing rely on Pathfinder which did a great job filling the void.The switch from 3 to 4 also seemed to happen overnight and I had forgotten about that d&d insider crap. Those slaps on the face were enough to lose me until I got a free Amazon gift card which I used to buy the 5e core books. Wizards returned to what made D&D great- so much so I don’t see a reason why they would create a sixth version..

  7. Bomster says:

    Als a DM/player I pretty much skipped editions 3.5 and 4, mainly because my group at the time had dissolved post-university.

    Looking back today, I don’t really think that 4e is a bad game – basically it’s similar to all those pretty popular dungeon crawling board games, but with way stronger campaigning and character building (and at least token RPG elements).
    My biggest problem was that it was hardly recognizable as a D&D experience – it may have been better served as a totally separate RPG instead (although we can assume that it wouldn’t have gotten the budget and player base that D&D could expect).

  8. Joe Rogers says:

    One thing thing about 4e was that it was somehow more accessible to newbies via essentials.

    It would have been a different story had they started with essentials

  9. Ace42 says:

    D&D Insider really was handled incompetently though; the character builder that first worked (and decently enough) as an executable program, but got pirated so they put it up as an online tool that used *quicksilver rather than Java* and thus routinely broke.

    The monster-creator tool that never left beta AFAIK and always crashed-to-desktop after editing a handful of monsters.

    The monster / loot encyclopaedia was serviceable; but lacking any sort of advanced feature (stuff like auto-rolling level appropriate encounters and randomised loot for you ended up being provided by 3rd party sites).

    Even without a virtual table-top they could’ve provided a straightforward digital DM screen (initiative tracker, loot / encounter roller, dice rolling tool; etc, etc) knocked together in like a week.

    I think the only reason anyone could possibly have wanted to subscribe to DDI was because of how fiddly character building and generating power cards was, and wanting to quickly look up monster entries.

    It’s a shame because most of the players I introduced to the game through 4E still gravitate to that edition (and didn’t think much of Essentials either, as it goes) rather than adopting 5E.

    I think with a bit more time (working out some of the kinks in terms of the game’s economy, in terms of power and decision creep, in adding polish to some of the components) and work it could’ve been both a hit product and profitable.

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