Tag Archives: D&D Essentials

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

The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

Dungeons & Dragons players have seen five editions plus a few versions that fall outside the count. We tend to see the release of a new Player’s Handbook as a clean break from the last, but each new edition received a preview in a book or two that appeared for the prior edition.

In a convention appearance, TSR designers Dave “Zeb” Cook and Steve Winter talked about how the first-edition books that reached print in 1985 led to 2nd edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

From Oriental Adventures and the Dungoneer’s Survival Guide to 2nd edition

Oriental Adventures brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer.

“One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills,” Cook wrote. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Ability checks reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide previewed rules innovations that appeared in 2nd edition. The non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success. For more, see Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.

From Gamma World and Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics to 3rd edition

In a D&D podcast episode examining the 2nd edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in 3rd edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with 2nd edition.”

TSR’s management required that AD&D stay broadly compatible with the original version, but other games allowed more innovation. Gamma World took D&D’s play style into a post-apocalyptic Earth. Crumbling buildings replaced dungeons, mutant powers replaced spells, mutated creatures replaced monsters, and so on. The 1992 edition of Gamma World took the current D&D rules and made changes from the 2nd-edition designers’ wish list:

  • Ascending armor class
  • Skills called skills
  • Attribute checks
  • Attribute modifiers similar to those that would appear in 3rd edition
  • Health and Mental Defense saves that resemble 3rd edition’s Fortitude and Will saves

This 4th edition of Gamma World set half of the blueprint for 3rd edition D&D. The other half came from Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics (1995).

Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the 3rd edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, cover, and critical hits. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment. However, the 3rd-edition designers chose the best of the innovations.

From Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords to 4th edition

In 2005, work on 4th-edition D&D started as a project codenamed Orcus. In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, lead designer Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Our instructions were to push the mechanics down interesting avenues, not to stick too close to the safe home base of D&D v.3.5.” The project team developed eight classes built around powers and giving every character some interesting action to choose each round.

Early in 2006, designers Rich Baker, Mike Donais, and Mike Mearls “translated current version of the Orcus I mechanics into a last-minute revision of Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. It was a natural fit, since Rich Baker had already been treating the Book of Nine Swords as a ‘powers for fighters’ project.”

Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords presented new martial classes for 3rd-edition D&D. The additions blended the unreal, cinematic stunts of Far-East action games and movies with a typical D&D game. Warriors gained maneuvers that worked like encounter powers in 4th edition.

Now, used copies of the Book of Nine Swords command high prices, a scarcity which might stem from meager sales in 2006. Nonetheless, the book offered a prototype for 4th edition.

From the D&D Essentials red box to 5th edition

Many fans of D&D felt the 4th edition no longer resembled the game they loved. A few years after the edition’s release, sales of the 3rd-edition D&D spinoff Pathfinder surpassed D&D. In an interview, Mike Mearls said, “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 4th 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.’”

Aside from a barely-noticed sample in the Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition came from a secret project. Rather than ask D&D fans what they wanted in D&D, the design team made assumptions and built a game based on them.

When Mike Mearls took control of the D&D team, he worked to reverse course. “We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled—but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again.”

Just two years after 4th edition’s release, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ask players to adopt another new edition. Instead, the D&D team tried to win back some unhappy players with the D&D Essentials line. A new, red-box starter set built on nostalgia for the game’s most-popular introduction. Essentials aimed to recapture “that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.”

When Mearls gained time to create a 5th edition, he stuck with the same strategy of listening to the game’s fans. In another interview, he explained that he launched the open playtest “to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.

“We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.”

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition hardly resembles 4th edition, but Essentials showed the way to the current game’s success.

Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1

When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, people would tell me that the game interested them, but that felt intimidated by all the rules. No problem, I explained, you can play without knowing any of the rules. You play a character, like a mighty fighter. The dungeon master describes the situation, and you just imagine what your fighter would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, I hit him with my axe.

The concept pleased me. As a player, you could immerse yourself in being your character without thinking of the rules. At some point in our D&D history, we all enjoyed this style of play, so as the orc bore down on us, we raised our shield and drew our sword. Where instead of studying our list of powers, we think, if I can cut the rope holding that chandelier, I can bring it down on that brute’s head.

We still sometimes frown on the practice of letting the artifice of the game stand in the way of playing in character. You have heard of metagaming. If the DM drops a battle grid on the table, you know a fight will come, but don’t start buffing yourself. Your character suspects nothing.

Then action points appeared with Eberron. We all loved them, even though managing action points forced you out of your character’s head.

With the fourth edition, the designers set a goal of giving each class interesting things to do during combat. Why should only spellcasters gain the fun of managing resources when we can invent resources like daily martial powers and Hunter’s Quarries?  Every player can join the supposed fun. This opened a flood gate.

You could no longer play D&D by simply immersing yourself in your character. The game added too many constructs that lacked any relationship to the game world. Playing your fighter now required an understanding of things like marks and an entire economy of encounter and daily powers that had everything to do with the rules and nothing to do with the game world.  Playing a ranger meant laying down a Hunter’s Quarry that represented nothing but a floating damage bonus.

Most commonly, these sorts of game mechanics are called dissociated mechanics, and some deeper analysis of them exists elsewhere.

The problem with these mechanics extends beyond just the game’s learning curve. They tax anyone who prefers to play by immersing themselves into character. You can no longer enjoy the game inside the head of Roid the fighter, who likes to hit things with an axe. The game forces you to make decisions that you cannot possibly make in character. Why cannot Roid reuse that daily power again today? He has no idea. When can he spend an action point? What’s an action point to Roid?

Let me be clear about two things:

  • I am happy to think about the rules of D&D as I play D&D. However, I dislike when the rules prevent me from making my character’s decisions in character, from immersing myself in the game world.
  • Rules for things like hit points do not count as dissociated mechanics.  Hit points exist as an abstraction of something in the game world, namely your character’s health, fatigue, and morale.

Many players feel perfectly comfortable with dissociated mechanics as long as, looking back, they can explain them as part of the story. So what if an action point represents nothing in the game world–it represents something in the story. To this mindset, perhaps action points are like that surge of energy that brings Rocky off the mat at the end of the final movie bout. Why does Rocky only get that surge in the final fight? He always saves his action point until the end. (You can see the scene where Paulie coaches Rocky to save his action point in the director’s cut.)

I realize that plenty of players feel perfectly content playing the game as a game, and could care less what Rocky or Roid thinks. But why create game rules that interfere with the enjoyment of folks who prefer to dive into their character’s head? Until late in the 3.5 edition, such rules found no place in the D&D tradition. D&D should excel at immersion for the players seeking it.

By the time D&D Essentials reached the market, the game’s designers seemed to have learned a couple of lessons: (1) Not everyone wants to play a character complicated by things like resource management.  (2) You can invent fun abilities for classes such as rogue and ranger without resorting to dissociated mechanics.

Have the designers forgotten lesson number 2?

I want to turn your attention to two mechanics that appear in the D&D next playtest documents. One is unjustly accused of being dissociated, the other guilty as charged.

First I’ll consider the fighter’s combat superiority feat with its expertise die.

As I see it, the expertise die represents a moment of time and attention that the fighter can spend to achieve something extra on the battlefield. The fighter’s round takes the same six seconds as anyone else’s, but his expertise and training slows down the action, making him able to accomplish more. Perhaps the fighter spends an extra instant drawing a bead on an enemy, parrying a blow that would strike an ally, or tripping a foe already unbalanced by a blow.

As such, the expertise die represents something “real” in the imaginary world, and not some meta-game abstraction.

When I first considered this model, I remained bothered by the Deadly Strike maneuver.  When you hit, you may spend an expertise damage to deal extra damage. I imagined a fighter spending an extra instant winding up to deliver a powerful blow. If he missed, through the benevolence of the rules, he somehow regains that instant to use for something else. The do-over feels like an intervention by the game rules to prevent a player from feeling bad about wasting an expertise die. In character, how could the fighter possible explain the spent and regained moment?

But I realize my first interpretation is wrong. The six-second round represents a lot of time in a battle. The combatants do not actually take turns winding up and swinging like batters in a baseball game. Instead the fighter dodges and weaves, parries and feints, tests his opponents and searches for vulnerabilities. He does not waste time doing an extra wind up before he hits, or at least not before he knows he will hit. Perhaps the blow lands and the fighter spends an instant to wrench his blade or to slam an elbow into his enemy’s gut. Perhaps the fighter spots an opening and takes a moment to wind back for a powerful blow because he already knows his blow will land.

A thread on Wizards’ D&D Next forums considers the gamey aspects of combat superiority in overwhelming detail. Much of the discussion dwells on teasing apart the protect maneuver. Can a fighter decide to jump in and block an attack after a roll determines a hit? I’m sympathetic to the concern, but I’m comfortable with Protect for a couple of reasons:

The dice rolling and other business between beginning an attack and writing down the damage ranks as the one of the biggest abstractions in D&D. The timing of that business hardly matches action in the game world. Your successful to-hit roll simply poses a threat that can still be countered.

  • The fighter’s ability to spot a likely hit and block it seems as natural as, say, a basketball defender’s ability to block a likely basket.
  • I feel like I can use the Protect maneuver without breaking character. “I see the orc wind up for a killing blow on the wizard. I slam my shield into the way and shout, `Not today, you fiend!’”

The expertise die works as a mechanic sufficiently grounded in the game world. The designers deserve kudos for it.

The rogue’s Knack mechanic, on the other hand, exists as pure metagaming. Why does a first-level rogue gain the Knack advantage on a maximum of two checks per day? Nothing in the game world leads to that limit. It exists purely as an artifice of the game, a way to prevent the rogue from gaining too much screen time in the story of the day’s adventure. The Knack mechanic’s appearance is particularly discouraging because it seems like such a gratuitous soiling of a core class. I’m bracing for the likelihood of a warlord class loaded with dissociated mechanics, but this is the rogue. Surely the designers can invent a non-dissociated mechanic that reinforces skill mastery and expresses the rogue’s talent for skills.