Here’s the deal. I was originally going to do another Ask Angry Superblitz this week because I still have a huge number of questions. But this question – which I found in the pile – was such an interesting question and there was so much to it, that I ended up blowing a huge number of words on it. It’s a question that A LOT of people have asked me over the last few years. So, I figured now is a good time to say the final word on it.
Coming up in the next month, I’m going to keep doing a few Ask Angry Blitzes to clear the questions, but I will alternate between those and other feature articles. So, also this month, expect to see a neat article about how to create NPCs for your game and something else that I’ll disclose later. I assure you they will both be plenty meaty. But expect me to continue to work through the Ask Angry Backlog as well until I can get caught up to the point where I can do Ask Angry as a standalone article every week again.
Peter der Verräter (Among Many Others) asks:
Now that a bit of time has passed, are there any parts or aspects of D&D 4E that you appreciate or even miss more than when you actively played the system? And what things are you glad to have left behind? Are those the reasons you quit the system in the first place for?
I guess, since it’s been eight years since we met and around five years since we broke up, I can finally talk about the ex. And I think the best way to describe my personal feelings toward 4E was to quote one of my favorite YouTube video series: Ross’ Game Dungeon. In his episode Test Drive 3, he described the game as “such a mixed bag. If it were a literal bag that you could stick your hand in, it would be filled with gold nuggets and snapping turtles.” And that’s kind of how I feel about 4th Edition. The whole game was an emotional roller coaster for me. It was like the f$&%ing Pixar movie of D&D editions. Or it would be, if I was capable of human emotions and actually cried over movies with cartoon fish or any bulls$&% like that. But I don’t. Because I’m a man’s man and I only watch movies with topless lesbians riding motorcylces that are on fire while shooting guns at each other. And I drink beer. Yeah.
There was actually a lot that I loved about the game. If you’ve been reading my website (and this would be a weird place to start if you haven’t), you know that I too am a very complicated mixed bag. I have a lot of snapping turtles in me, but I also crap out a lot of gold nuggets. I love action gameplay and combat, but I also love engaging stories, emotional connections, and all that crap. Half the s$&% I write on this website is a study in story structure for the modern gaming. The other half is digging deep into numbers minutiae. And that’s because I’m actually about the game experience AS A WHOLE. It isn’t just story, it isn’t just gameplay, it’s BOTH. And how each shores up the other.
D&D 4E thought long and hard about the gameplay experience. And that is something I greatly appreciated. I followed all of the development of 4E. I consumed every podcast, interview, preview book, article, everything I could. And the designers talked a lot more about their design philosophy than they ever had before. And, frankly, they’ve never talked about it that much since.
And that was, to me, the great strength of 4E. There was a very clear and solid design philosophy behind absolutely every game element. Classes were designed not just based on tropes and archetypes, but actually around what they would accomplish in the game. Recognizing that most D&D games are action oriented, the designers sat down and tried to come up with a way to design classes to ensure interesting ways to participate in combat. And also how to differentiate them in terms of story. And that is how we ended up with Power Sources and Roles. And they kept refining that system. So, eventually, you could look at each class in terms of its primary Role and a couple of optional secondary roles that flavored how the class accomplished its primary role. The Paladin, for example, was a Defender, but he was a Leadery Defender. As opposed to the Fighter, who could be a Controllery Defender or a Strikery Defender.
That’s great because, in the past, we’d run into a lot of problems with classes that could do absolutely everything, classes that were highly specialized, and classes that basically did lots of things poorly. The idea of defining combat roles helped prevent a lot of those problems. But it meant accepting that D&D does have combat at its core. And it does.
Now, a lot of folks saw that focus on classes as combat roles and assumed that, if they liked D&D for reasons other than the combat, the game was somehow lacking. And, to some extent, I don’t feel that’s entirely unfair. But I also don’t think it’s completely fair. Most of the noncombat portions of the game really only live in a couple of spaces. First, there’s the skill system. And the designers streamlined the skill system. And that looked bad because you lost a lot of skills that added some character and background to the PC. They were, what I call, “nice to have” skills. Perform, as a skill, is a nice skill for your character to have. But it’s not a skill that is really worth game resources unless you power specific mechanics with it. In 3.5, you can use it to power Bardic Magic, or you can use it to make a pitiful amount of coin, or you can use it to give a performance to solve a particular problem. Now, that last use is highly specialized. The number of problems that can be solved with a good performance is far fewer than the number of problems that can be solved with, say, athletics. Or even persuasion. No one ever used it to make money after first level unless they were bored or looking for something to do in town. So that left it as “the skill that powers certain bard magic.” And that was kind of silly. Because you forced Bards to waste skill points JUST to power a class ability. So, Perform wasn’t doing a good job.
People liked the skill though, because it allowed them to say something about the background of the character. The WotC argument is “it doesn’t NEED a game effect to be something you can do. Just make your character a Performer.” What they missed was that people wanted a game effect, however negligible, so that it felt like the fact that they were a performer changed the way they interacted with the world.
We can make a similar argument for the Craft skills, Profession skills, and certain other skills that disappeared. They all fall into that class of “it’s nice to have the option, but it rarely gets used.”
The shame of it is that D&D 4E probably would have lent itself to an amazing crafting system, one that was streamlined and actually useful. In fact, they did try. Residuum and magic item components were really interesting. But they didn’t feel fully realized.
So, it LOOKED like the game was focusing on combat and sacrificing story elements. A fair few, but a gross oversimplification of what was really going on under the hood.
The same thing – by the way – happened on the other side of the screen too. Monster design became centered around the idea of building combat teams rather than single monsters. Which was a really smart move, because solo monsters are the least interesting combats in D&D. They are static and they tend to drop into a sort of “tank and spank” mentality. And what’s funny is that, for all the accusations that 4E was an MMO on paper, they worked really hard to get AWAY from the the “tank, DPS, heal” system. D&D had really INVENTED that tactical setup. WoW just refined it and encoded it. And 4E wanted to grow beyond it. That’s why healing was something everyone could do, at least in limited amounts, and why healing resources (surges) were spread out through the party instead of just piled on the cleric. That way, the cleric wasn’t expending his own resources to heal. The target of healing paid for the healing. Really smart. Because it got the cleric out of being “just a first aid kit.” At least, that’s what it TRIED to do.
I loved the idea of monster roles and varying stats and powers based on what the monster was supposed to do in combat. I loved the fact that monsters were so varied. I love the fact that I had different types of goblins with different strategies I could mix and match. It was great because, finally, you could build an INTERESTING goblin dungeon fairly easily. Sure, in 3.5, you could change equipment and feats and slap classes on the goblins, but that took a lot of work. Giving me three to five goblins was a lot cooler. A lot more useful. Especially because you told me exactly how they were supposed to work and what to do with them.
More to the point, the powers system – that is, the idea that every combat action was a power with a specific name and set of mechanics – was actually more subtly useful than people realized. If you give a goblin a lockdown power and a high AC, all the GM has to do is use those powers. The GM just has to play the goblin as if the goblin wants to win the fight and the goblins tactics will naturally emerge. That goblin will glue down a high-damage character and deflect the attacks. It was a really great design choice. At least, for monsters. Because that’s where the system really started weighing on me.
I hate spells.
Most people, when they piss and moan about the magic system in D&D, they hate the Vancian, limited resource approach. Me? I can handle that. What I hate is the fact that wizards and clerics and all the other spell casters have to manage these gigantic lists of very specific and often overly detailed chunks of mechanics that define specific tricks they can do. It’s a major source of gameplay lag. Because there are too many spells to remember all of the mechanics and all of the corner cases. And it’s a shame because, if you taught the GM how to manage the game properly, most spells and skills could be spelled out in natural language. And many spells don’t need to be limited resources anyway. Which is what cantrips figured out.
Every class in D&D became a spellcaster. Not in terms of resource management (although we’ll come back to that), but in terms of the fact that every class had a list of specific chunks of game mechanics that defined special tricks they could do that needed to be referenced constantly through the game.
I hated that. Because it led to a lot of slowdown. People blame “analysis paralysis” for the slowdown in D&D 4E, but that wasn’t really what it was. It was just parsing time. It was the time it took to remind yourself of what powers you had and what each did every time.
I also hate arbitrarily limited resources.
Most people, when they piss and moan about limited resources, they hate Vancian magic. The idea of “fire-and-literally-forget” spells. Me, I’ve never had a problem with Vanican magic. In fact, magic is the one place I sort of accept the whole limited resource deal. It’s magic. It could work that way.
I’ll be quite honest, the magic item system in 3.5 made a hell of a lot of sense if you viewed it as a technological invention created by spellcasters desperately trying to subvert the laws of magic that limited the spells they could crank out.
In D&D 3.5, there were three types of magical items: spell completion, spell trigger, and use activated. Use activated items are all the normal sorts of enchanted swords and bracers and pants and jars and crap. But the spell completion and spell trigger were basically different ways of containing spells so they didn’t eat up a wizard’s resources. Scrolls, wands, staffs, potions, and so on. They only existed because the spellcasters needed a way to extend their resources. That was pretty cool. And if you dug into the logic of the magic item system, it made sense in the world.
But what always bothered me was s$&% that was not ostensibly magical but still had weird arbitrary limitations. Flying into a berserker rage X number of times a day. That one always sort of bugged me. Because it is utterly arbitrary. It’s there purely as a gameplay feature, to limit a powerful resource. Fine. But barbarian rage can’t be dispelled or cancelled in an anti-magic field. That makes it purely mundane. And therefore, the exact number limitation is strange as hell.
Instead of a limitation on the number of uses, you can create a cost or consequence or risk that offsets the benefit. Like, you can go into a rage but you take these penalties. Or you become exhausted. Or something. Or you have to make a Fortitude save each round to stay in the rage and not become exhausted and suffer penalties until you can rest. Those would be interesting mechanics that would also serve the story.
4E limited pretty much every neat thing that every class could do with arbitrary cooldowns. And they unapologetically said they got the idea from World of Warcraft. And there’s nothing wrong with taking a good idea from another game and adapting it. But cooldowns are a patch. They are a bandaid. They fix a problem of a specific medium. In this case, they are part of a very complex design that was created to deal with the fact that combat over MMOs involves a certain amount of lag. That is to say, when you swing your sword on your computer, that signal has to go to the WoW servers to calculate the result, and then get spread across all the users you’re interacting with. And that takes time. Enough time that, in the time between you swinging the sword and that signal getting calculated and spread out everywhere, things can change. Cooldowns are one part of a very complicated system of creating what is essentially a turn-based combat engine that runs in real time. So I question whether they belong in D&D.
The thing is, between the spell lists for every class and the arbitrary resource limits created by the cooldown system, my favorite parts of the game (the action combat) kept rubbing me the wrong way. The way the system was designed, I should have loved it. But the specific execution was doing things I only tolerated in prior editions. Constantly.
But, let’s talk about the story aspects of D&D 4E. Because that was another aspect I really loved. There was a very richly defined world in D&D 4E – in the CORE PRODUCTS – unlike any other default D&D world. Most editions of D&D take the “everything fantasy and the kitchen sink” approach and they treat all canon as equal.
That is to say, there are no REAL rules for undeath in the DEFAULT world of 3.5. World rules. There’s no explanation. Or rather, there’s hundreds of explanations. Every specific undead creature rises or gets created or whatever for its own reasons written into its lore entries. In D&D 4E, though, there’s some very specific rules and ideas that were decided pretty early on. If you look back in the preview book Worlds and Monsters, which was basically just a bunch of design essays about 4E, you’ll see that they had come up with this idea of “body, soul, and animus” that explained the different kinds of undead and why they existed. And, while it wasn’t really spelled out until the Open Grave supplement, all the core undead monsters (and necromantic) fit together consistently. You could piece together some of the rules if you really wanted to.
Demons and devils had specific origins that informed how they worked. Demons were elemental beings, corrupted by a seed of pure evil to become purely destructive. Devils were the servants of a dead god, mysteriously forgotten, who followed the rebellious angel Asmodeus. Of course, humanity lacks a creator god, but is very prone to corruption by Asmodeus, as we see in the origin of the tiefling race. So, which god got killed by Asmodeus? Was it maybe the patron of humanity? And are humans prone to corruption because that god was a god of ambition whose angels themselves got a little too ambitious?
There are hints of ancient wizarding orders and tactical schools sprinkled throughout the rules, details that implied a backstory that never fully got shared. And that was to its credit. Because a creative, world-building GM could take those hooks and fill in the backstory their own way. Those details were all consistent with SOMETHING, but we didn’t know what. But whatever we filled in the blanks with, it would create a consistently detailed world.
The idea of a world with a backstory and an origin story and very specific details is nothing new. But the idea of only sharing bits and pieces of the backstory to create blanks in the world so the GM can create a consistent backstory, I think that’s brilliant. I’m not sure if that’s what they intended. I think they only wanted to make sure the details of the game were consistent NOT JUST mechanically BUT ALSO thematically. But it became a sort of lore treasure hunt. It rewarded buying all the books because each offered more glimpses of the true story of the world.
In fact, I got SO ATTACHED to my own answer to all of those questions about the backstory of the world that, for the first time, I used the default D&D setting exclusively and built up my own lore around it. In fact, that’s the world I STILL run my games in. My current D&D game is set in the same world that I built out of the 4E lore.
Compared to that – and I hate to say this – 5E feels really soulless. In terms of world lore built into the core of the game, 5E is sparser than 3E. There’s no real sense of world in the books beyond what is required to describe characters. That is, we know what the races and classes are. And that’s it. There aren’t even gods in the book. Just a spreadsheet in the appendix. How sad.
What do I love about 4E? First of all, I love its bravery. It wasn’t afraid to take risks and to do different things. It wasn’t afraid to break away from what D&D had become if there was a better way to do things. In fact, the first drafts of the design were unrecognizable as D&D. The team went back to the drawing board because they felt, in their zealousness to rethink things, they felt they had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I love innovation for the right reasons. And I truly think D&D 4E was innovating for the right reasons. The fact that they were willing to go too far and then pull back shows that.
Second of all, I love that the design was purpose driven and that everything was created based around how it would be used in the game and how it would interact with everything. I love that they seemed to think about what the game elements actually meant: what is a class, what is a race, what is a monster, and so on.
Third of all, I love that they set out from the beginning to build a world that matched the game. The fact that the world of D&D 4E and the game of D&D 4E were so inextricably connected is proven by what happened to the Forgotten Realms. They literally had to crash planets together, kill gods, burn down the world, and wait a hundred years to get the game of 4E to fit the world of Forgotten Realms. And that’s because the game and the world of 4E were tied together very tightly.
In fact, it broke my heart to STOP playing 4E because specific elements of execution didn’t work for me. And honestly, when the Essentials line hit and they revamped things a bit in terms of class design, I was ready to give the whole system another go. But, by then, like so many people, I’d invested so much in other games, I wasn’t willing to return. I only checked out Essentials later on and I really like what they did.
What I would have liked to see was for D&D 4E to start a new evolution of D&D. Yeah, it had problems, yes it didn’t work. But rather than sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t exist, I would have loved for the core principles they used to become the foundation for the next edition. D&D 5E, as good as it is, is a disappointment to me. It represents a step backwards in terms of RPG evolution. It’s a whoopsie, it’s do-over, it’s a retcon, and it’s basically trading on nostalgia. And I think it’s too married to pleasing people like me, the aging community of gamers. It reminds me of the argument MatPat made in his Game Theory episode about Gamers Killing Video Games.
As much as we – the alpha gamers – want to believe that 4E was a flop, it actually wasn’t. Not completely. You have to listen very closely and pay very careful attention to get any sense of how things are going inside WotC because they play things very close to the vest. But 4E didn’t flop. It grew the community. It didn’t resonate as much with ESTABLISHED D&D fans, but it did pretty well with newer and younger players. The problem is that D&D relies too heavily on established fans marketing the game for them. So, if you alienate the established fans, you lose your gateway for the new fans to get into the product. And I think Essentials was SUPPOSED to be the solution for that problem. But it didn’t.
Some of that is speculation, some comes from information and conversations I can’t really talk about. But what IS interesting is a conversation that Mike Mearls had with me, publicly, on Twitter when 5E was still just a twinkle in WotC’s eye and the open playtest hadn’t even started. He told me that he (and the folks at WotC) didn’t care about me so much with 5E. They wanted all the NEW gamers. He didn’t say it in a dick way. It just came naturally of the conversation we were having. But he said, basically, 5E was going to reach out the new gamers and forgo the established gamers.
Isn’t it interesting that, two years later, we got a 5E that is essentially a nostalgia grab. A big ole love letter to the “best of every previous edition” and one that mostly ignores 4E.
I love D&D 4E for its attempt to innovate, for its courage, and for a really well-developed core design philosophy. I don’t fault the slip-ups that prevented me from loving playing and running the game because I can see where they came from. Because I have to respect that. Innovation is a risky endeavor.
MatPat of Game Theory argues that maybe gamers don’t want innovation and their actions prove it. And I think that’s an overly cynical answer. And for me to call someone else overly cynical takes a lot. Because I don’t exactly have the high ground.
The problem with innovation is that people don’t know what they want – what they’ll like – until you put it in front of them. You can ask people whether they’d like this or that or the other, but people are really bad at predicting what they will like. The reason the “same ole thing” tends to do well is because it survived precisely BECAUSE it was what people liked. But every “same ole thing” was new, once upon a time. People who are very nostalgic for D&D 3.5 don’t realize that 3.5 was the “new, shiny, innovative thing” 16 years ago. Now, d20 is a standard; d20 is the “same ole thing.”
Innovation is the bravery to try new things in the hopes that you will hit a magical combination of elements that most people LIKE when you put it in front of them. But the sad truth is that, for every really great new idea, a hundred crappy ideas die because they just don’t work for most people. And that’s precisely how it works. You can make a “same ole thing” and make modest bucks and sell to the same audience you’ve already been selling to. And when everyone else also makes the “same ole thing,” you’re all fighting for the same audience and that’ll keep the rewards low. Low risk, low reward.
If you invent the next great thing, though, people will flock to you. You’re the only one doing it. And it’ll take years for people to start imitating you well enough for you to become the “same ole thing.” Like it or hate it, the Nintendo Wii had a very strong early life precisely because it created a whole new market for casual family games. And it raked in the bucks. Eventually, the profits slowed as always happens and Nintendo tried to make the same lightning strike with the WiiU. Do something new and interesting and innovative. And that flopped.
I would love to know what the next iteration of D&D 4E would have been. I would love to know where it would have gone next. And I know some people will point at 13th Age and say “there.” Well, I don’t have time to tell you why you’re wrong. I’ve broken 4,000 words already. But, no. 13th Age is NOT the evolution of 4E. It’s an okay game, but it isn’t D&D. And it certainly isn’t a continuation of what D&D 4E did.