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.