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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

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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