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.