D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—4. Fourth Edition Sparks an Edition War and the Creation of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

While the Dungeons & Dragons team developed the game‘s fourth edition for a 2008 release, they faced problems from several directions. Corporate owners Hasbro brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic the Gathering and Pokémon. As third edition sales sagged, the D&D team endured annual Christmas-season layoffs. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By 2008, the WoW community hit more than 11 million players. D&D fans saw fellow players switch their attention to the online game and disappear from tabletop games.

To compete, D&D needed a big advance—a new edition that didn’t just improve the game but an edition capable of winning Warcraft players by matching some of what drew players to online games. “As far as I know, fourth edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” D&D designer Mike Mearls said. “I wasn’t involved in the initial design meetings for the game, but I believe that MMOs played a role in how the game was shaped. I think there was a feeling that D&D needed to move into the MMO space as quickly as possible.”

So, the new edition focused on the elements that might appeal to fans of online fantasy games. Mearls recalled that the team felt that “building a player character was the real thing that drove people to play the games. You wanted to choose your feats, your prestige classes and whatnot.” Lead designer Rob Heinsoo sought to give the game an irresistible hook that tied the game together and compelled gamers to play. “The solution James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and I were excited about was to give every PC an ongoing series of choices of interesting powers. Most every time you gain a level you select a new power or a feat. Every combat round you have an interesting choice of which power or powers to use.”

The game didn’t just need to be fun to play. It needed to be easy to run online. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance. Ideally, Players could drop into the virtual tabletop at any hour, join any available DM, and feel confident that a stranger could deliver a fun experience. A thriving virtual table would let players join a game 24/7, just like Warcraft. And all those players would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

Despite the lofty goals, the new edition divided D&D’s existing players and failed to win a generation of new fans.

While the D&D team readied their game for release, magazine and D&D adventure publisher Paizo planned their response. They sent future Pathfinder designer Jason Bulmahn to a convention that offered gamers and chance to preview the new edition. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalled, “We had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for.” She led her company to create Pathfinder, a game that boasted compatibility with the existing, third edition of D&D.

For gamers who shared the Paizo team’s distaste for the direction of fourth edition, Pathfinder offered an obvious alternative. And plenty of gamers chose the alternative. By 2010, rumors circulated that Pathfinder outsold D&D. The rumors proved false, but Pathfinder seemed to dominate many conventions and game stores. At Gen Con, its players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space.

“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,” Mike Mearls explained later. “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.’”

From the D&D designers’ perspective, the market’s rejection of fourth edition stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once and suffered from a lack of design time.

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. 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.” 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 trying to get the plane up in the air.”

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As 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.

For the full story, see The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

Next: Number 3.

5 thoughts on “D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—4. Fourth Edition Sparks an Edition War and the Creation of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

  1. Jerry

    4th gets a bad wrap. It’s a good game that gets more hate than it deserves. I’m glad that 13th Age exists to show what a fully developed 4E could have been.

    That said, it was obvious that WOTC was making decisions based on short term financial gains as opposed to growing the game.

  2. Pingback: D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—5. D&D Splits Into Two Games With “No Similarity,” Provoking Lawsuits | DMDavid

  3. Diana

    I was there for the 4e launch, and in my opinion it had a few other massive downsides that turned 3e/3.5e fans away – the rush you mention above meant that designers for the adventures played at conventions were an absolute mess at launch, written with very little understanding of the 4e system. I remember being at the conventions with DMs confused on how to run the adventures they were handed (at the time, it was unfortunately common to be handed an adventure mere hours before you were expected to run it) because there weren’t encounters so much as combats with single-roll skill challenges in between.

    So you’d start the adventure with a very brief, basic introduction like being gathered in a tavern, have an immediate combat like a bar fight, be asked to make a single skill check like chasing after the person who started the bar fight, succeed that to end up in another combat like an alleyway fight, make a single skill check to search the body and find out who hired this person, then go to the noble house who hired them and make a single skill check to get inside, and have another combat inside the house against the corrupt noble. All of this COULD be a decent, if predictable, adventure, but without any good writing to support the flimsy hooks, the adventures came out flat and uninteresting and repetitive.

    Another reason for 4e’s failure, in my opinion, is the amount of books they tried to publish so rapidly. Up until 4e, my dad bought every single D&D book published under 3e and 3.5e, but sometime during 4e he stopped because he couldn’t afford to buy $60 books once or even twice a month. Using the online character creator became tedious when you’d click on the dropdown to select an at-will power and 50+ options were listed for you to go through.

    The novels also being forced to change burned a lot of goodwill too, since many of us loved the Forgotten Realms books as much as the campaign setting we played in. It was painful to read and made me lose interest in series that I’d been following for decades.

    I do think 4e had some interesting ideas, but you’re right about it being waaaay too big of a shift all of a sudden. I just wanted to mention a couple more things that drove me and my family away from 4e, all of which were fallout from the rushed and forced changes at the start of 4e.

  4. JCambias

    I had conversations with a couple of other roleplayers after 4e came out, and the same complaint kept coming up. Not that it was too big a change from the past or any of that self-congratulating nonsense from the designers. No, the problem was simpler: “This game doesn’t let me do anything but combats.”


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