Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

In 2005, Dungeons & Dragons faced a possible future similar to the fate of another popular role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. In this future, D&D only exists as a license for online games and t-shirts and another potential movie. The tabletop game remains as an archive of PDFs for sale to die-hards. See The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

To guarantee tabletop D&D never met this end, the game needed to qualify as a core game brand at Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro. D&D needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for return on investment. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

None of this means that fourth edition’s inspiration came entirely from a reach for sales. D&D team leader Bill Slavicsek wrote, “As we move deeper into the third edition, it’s flaws and fun-ending complexities become more pronounced, more obvious to players and Dungeon Masters alike.” The design team saw ways to “greatly reduce and perhaps even eliminate completely the parts of the game that get in the way of the fun.”

Meanwhile, a new threat was taking players from D&D. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By May 2005, WoW had 3.5 million players. By 2008, the community hit more than 11 million players. D&D players started talking about the players that tabletop lost to WoW.

At gaming conventions, the same aging guys who started playing in the 80s showed up to play D&D. Presumably, the younger players and women who might love D&D stayed home to play Warcraft. Wizards of the Coast aimed advertisements at bringing WoW players to the tabletop, but mere ads could never win the flood of new fans D&D needed.

WoW didn’t look like a fad or another way to play. It seemed like the vanguard leading to the future of gaming. “Gaming was definitely changing,” D&D designer Mike Mearls explained. “And I think that for 4th Edition, what we were trying to do was to start predicting for D&D where we thought the game was heading.”

Surely, new players coming to D&D would have an online or video game background. 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, 4th edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” 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 made the D&D fun and especially appealing 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.”

Once players built their characters, the fun came from showing off those characters on the battlefield. Lead designer Rob Heinsoo wanted 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.”

But none of this excitement would benefit players who struggled to find DMs or potential DMs who saw the role as a chore.

The new edition worked to be easier to run. 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. Combat encounters ran easier too. Monsters offered a few, clear options for combat. Just move and roll attacks.

To succeed, the new edition needed to do more than win new players. The game needed a profitable, sustainable strategy.

For Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft boasted an advantage that the D&D team surely envied. Players paid a monthly fee, which guaranteed steady revenue.

“Along the way, we also came up with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons Insider,” Bill Slavicsek wrote. “This exciting suite of digital tools for players and Dungeon Masters was just too powerful a concept to try to shoehorn the existing d20 Game System around it. Instead we knew we had to rebuild the game to take full advantage of this amazing new initiative.”

The game didn’t just need to be easy to DM. It needed to be easy to run online. Ideally, it would help DMs enough to make running a bad game nearly impossible. 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 player would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

The designers aimed for online-friendly rules. Fourth edition defines powers as tightly as Magic the Gathering cards, so a computer never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. Unlike earlier editions, spell effects no longer required a DM’s judgement to rule on a Wish or to decide whether a wizard could polymorph a fly into a blue whale that would drop on a foe.

If the rules proved easy for computers to emulate, the virtual table could lift more and more of the rules burden from the DM and the players. Meanwhile, a new generation of D&D-inspired video games and MMOs could open new revenue sources.

The team planned ways for players at kitchen tables to contribute to the bottom line too. The emphasis on character building would inspire players to by a stream of books with new options. DMs would buy adventures. Everyone needed miniatures. The 4E rules list “D&D Miniatures” among things needed for play—not as a “Useful addition” like a character sheet. The rules never mention tokens or other alternatives to minis.

The D&D team thought they finally had the recipe for sustained success that D&D needed. The new game featured rules optimized to bring the most fun out of the character creation and combat choices that drew players to D&D. The new strategy could gain the income that would vault D&D to a core brand for years to come.

At the 2007 Gen Con game convention, the D&D team announced the new edition. Mike Mearls saw an uneasy reaction from the D&D faithful. “The big announcement on Thursday night was, well, tense. We didn’t spark a riot, but it seemed the audience was a bit nervous.”

As someone in the audience, I saw a confused reception. The D&D team emphasized D&D Insider and the virtual tabletop so much that people wondered if D&D would remain a game playable without a computer. But the designers loved D&D and their new edition, so we felt ready to embrace it too.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

20 thoughts on “Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

  1. Michael Benensky

    Like this DM David. You are not coming off as a 4E hater. Generally it irks me when people tear down 4E since I think it was the best edition. I am a 5E player because that is what the other players that want to play D&D want to play. However, as a DM 4E was a much easier, more balanced and more fun for me to run. Its major flaw was at higher level play it just seemed to get bogged down like being stuck in mud and got really slow.

    1. Lizzy Mills (@ANRLizzy)

      > Its major flaw was at higher level play it just seemed to get bogged down like being stuck in mud and got really slow.

      While this is certainly true, it’s not anything that 3.x didn’t also struggle with. Waiting for the Wizard to take his turn and select just the right spell to obviate the entire encounter could take 15 minutes just as easily.

      I will forever love 4e for having the daring boldness to say “all classes should be able to contribute meaningfully to the story at all levels” rather than the previous edition’s stance of “if you don’t have full spell progression, you aren’t a real character”

      1. Tardigrade

        “Waiting for the Wizard to take his turn and select just the right spell to obviate the entire encounter could take 15 minutes just as easily.“

        That’s not an edition problem. That’s a DM problem.

        I had a couple of player who futzed around trying to figure out their actions, wasting everyone’s time. I gave them 15 seconds. After that, they lost their turn because their character was too indecisive.

        It only took once or twice for that to happen before they had their actions ready o go on their turn.

  2. Joseph Lastowski

    Great article. As a lover of 4e, I appreciate seeing some of the reasons behind it. And as a DM who ran at a store, it was super easy to bring in new players and DMs in 4e. The book & miniature sales strategies also helped gaming stores get better returns on d&d (and their org play was fantastic & well managed with lfr, encounters, & lair assault)

  3. Tardigrade

    “But the designers loved D&D and their new edition, so we felt ready to embrace it too.”

    What do you mean “we”?

    I started d&d with the red box basic set. I bought the ad&d books. I bought the 2e books. The product was good. I reluctantly bought the 3e books. The product was “meh”. I even more reluctantly bought the 3.5e books, for the alleged fixes for all the bad ideas and mistakes from 3e. The product was…disappointing.

    4e looked like a con, a corporate ploy to suck another $200 out of my wallet, which, obviously, it was. I most definitely was NOT ready to embrace it.

    I reluctantly bought a 4e players handbook. What I found inside was so horrible, so insipid and pandering I put it in the recycling bin rather than foist it off onto another human being. You’re welcome. I will never buy any d&d product again. Ever. Hasbro – and especially mike mearles – can all go pound salt.

    But this the problem with the business model of any role playing game. Businesses need to generate not just continued sales, but growth. This product just doesn’t work that way. Once you, the player, have the rules, that’s it. You don’t need the publisher ever again. It was designed by introverted, old dorks so they could make stuff up, not to make money.

    So the publisher has to churn out a bunch of crap modules, crap splat books, and crap settings, until it just falls apart under its own weight. All the while they do nothing to help DMs be better at the craft and art of it. Instead, they dumb it down. Then, voila, a new edition, suckers!

    Screw that.

    My players and I are 10 times smarter than anyone at hasbro. We’ll play ad&d and figure it out ourselves.

    “Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons”

    Answering that is like shooting a very big fish in a very small barrel, innit?

    1. Patrick Wilson

      tl;dr – Grognard Edition Warrior

      I appreciate this article for taking a critical yet neutral stance. Yeah, he’s ultimately coming down against 4th Edition, but at least he’s being reasonable about it. No need to jump on the author for not being biased enough.

      1. Tardigrade

        First of all, Dave’s a grown up and and can fight his own battles. He doesn’t need you sticking up for him. So, please spare me the “tl;dr” crap.

        Second, I do not believe I jumped on him at all, let alone for not being biased enough.

        My point was, not everyone was ready to embrace 4e. I do not know a single person who was jazzed. When 4e was announced everyone I know rolled their eyes and sighed, because we’d all just bought 3.5 books! 3.5 would be my 5th set of rules for essentially the same game. I’m supposed to embrace set #6? I don’t know anyone who was excited. All my friends who bought it, bought it because they felt like they had to.

        And it’s not about being a crabby grognard. Well, not only about that, anyway. The rant about all the editions was more about the money I’ve shelled out for New Improved ™ editions with diminishing returns than it was about 4e sucking (which it really, really did).

        On this, Dave and I are in harmony. That was the whole gist of his post. It was (and still is and always will be) all about revenue for hasbro. I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong, necessarily. It’s just, if revenue is what you want, then d&d is the wrong product to sell. At least with their current strategies, it is not sustainable. Which is why I talked about the business model.

        If they came out with a new edition of Monopoly every few years, with different rules every time and not just different themes, do you really think people would continue to buy the third or fourth or fifth versions? Would you buy it? Why would it even be necessary? Why is that okay to do with d&d?

        1. Patrick Wilson

          Just a lotta hostility about a game that I’ve happily played for most of my life. I played every variant of D&D from 1990 onward, went back and tried some versions that came before that, and I found each one had some things I liked and didn’t like. You’ve got some ludicrous hostility toward this one product line of the game: “it’s crap,” “it’s a con,” “the authors are introverted old dorks,” “I’m ten times smarter than them,” “it was a corporate ploy,” “so horrible, so insipid and pandering.” If you played the One True Edition decades ago and hated every single new version more than the last, I don’t know why you still roll dice, much less buy every new edition. Nobody’s forcing you.

          But, I mean, I guess if you’re committed to having the ultimate opinion about something on the Internet, then I guess this is a conversation that I’ve had before. Pass.

          1. Tardigrade

            Hey Patrick, how about discussing the points brought up rather than your hurt feelings? You have glossed over the content of my posts and instead just written a bunch of emotive, passive-aggressive, semi insults based on things I have not written.

            It looks to me like you’re the one upset with me for not liking the version you’ve “happily played most of your life”. You seem to take my opinion of 4e personally, as if that is my opinion of you. It’s not. At no point have I expressed judgment on the people who play and like 4e.

            You are as entitled to love 4e as I am entitled to hate it. You like 4e? That’s fine. More power to you. I hope,you can play it forever. It’s just not for me.

            It also looks to me like your bias has gotten in the way of understanding what I’ve written. At no point have I said anything about One True edition. Nor did I say I hate every edition after. I don’t have a favorite edition. I too find things I do and don’t like in each. (Except your beloved 4e. It is pure suck.) That was my point about my friends and I figuring it out. No edition of d&d has ever been a complete game. It has always been up to the the players to figure out their own fixes for gaps and rules that don’t work.

            As for calling the original writers – gygax, arneson, et al – old dorks, that was not an insult, nor was it inaccurate. The gaming community back then were nerds and weirdos. My gaming friends are all nerds and weirdos, and I have great affection for them.

      1. medievalmike

        He has no problem with introverts. It wasn’t meant as an insult in the slightest. It was meant to illustrate that the game was not devised as a growth medium because the designers were not the type to build such a thing. That’s not a slight. That’s simply an accurate assessment. I wonder if perhaps you read it as an insult because you suffer from some weird anti-americanism. I’m an american and make no value distinction between introverts and extroverts. Both are just types of people. People are all equal.

  4. Daniel Oliveira

    Great article DMDavid, as always.

    D&D4 is my favourite too. I still love it for it’s balance and how easy it is to DM.
    D&D4 brings lots of new players, and the boardgames that came with this line enhanced pretty much my way to DM. I have a specific group that play AL campaings using D&D4 rules.
    Waiting for the part 2 of this article.

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  7. Blake

    Balance, simplicity, consistency, accessibility to new players, and ease of DMing. 4e did do all that. It showed at Encounters, new players came in, found the game easy to relate to and learn and quickly transitioned to running games themselves. Who knows how many didn’t ever seek the game out because any attempt to research it on line revealed nothing but acrimonious edition warring?

    But the TT game could never deliver the enormous revenue stream Hasbro demanded, so when development of DDI crashed and VTT never came through, it was doomed, even had a faction of the fanbase not turned against it with such hateful, outright false, propaganda.

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