Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition arrives

Can the new iteration bring D&D back to the mainstream?

Dungeon & Dragons 3.5 was released  just a few years ago, but for PC gamers, those rules now belong in the landfill with the three million ET cartridges. I dislike drastic rule rewrites because improved rules for grappling aren’t what lure me to RPGs. I play RPGs because they allow me the unique experience and unparalleled freedom of creating a personalized alter-ego who can do what I want in a simulated world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with improving D&D to make it more digital-friendly and otherwise responsive to the reality that a game played around a dinner table by often antagonistic teenagers imagining what’s happening is no longer going to attract a mainstream audience. I’m not particularly beholden to any D&D ruleset, but I would prefer developers to focus resources on adding adventuring content that allows new players to run rewarding campaigns without possessing Tolkien-like creative genius.

D&D 4.0 is easy to cynically characterize as a cash grab, since it changes the rules so broadly that it renders dozens of recently released products obsolete, and it’s also easily the least complete D&D iteration. You’ll have to buy future supplements for information on many previously core character classes, such as Druids, Bards, and Monks, for instance, and pay a monthly subscription fee to access new digital content. The new D&D rules may not access a broader commercial market, but they’ll definitely continue to bleed the relatively few remaining loyal customers D&D has retained since its heyday.

PC gamers can’t just stick with the early D&D rule sets, since new D&D games won’t be greenlit under the prior rules

The new rules do finally remove cumbersome Vancian spell-memorization rules that forced characters to pre-select a handful of spells from their library of incantations. Those outdated and rarely emulated rules just ensured that many spells were never actually used, since it was wasteful to allocate precious slots to spells that only had utility in special circumstances. The D&D 4.0 rules strive to make the game more accessible, but often at the cost of removing character customization and roleplaying options. Players no longer have to carefully consider which class or skills to select, because skills now automatically advance and classes are now more balanced and useful in any situation. As a result, characters are more likely to artificially resemble each other instead of personalized alter-egos.

D&D 4.0 needlessly imports MMO gameplay conventions and terminology, which is ironic, since many MMO mechanics originated as necessary compromises when it was impossible to re-create the more open-ended gameplay of tabletop RPGs. D&D adaptations frequently over-emphasized combat simply because the open-ended world-simulator aspects of D&D were impractical to incorporate. D&D 4.0 unnecessarily imports the same restrictive focus by giving lip service to roleplaying, while constantly betraying its bias in favor of combat encounters. The DM guide discourages getting into the “mundane details” of player actions away from encounters and emphasizes that “encounters are the exciting part of the D&D game.” It even boldly proclaims that “combat encounters are where the game happens.” I haven’t read such a misguided perspective of RPGs since a then-soon-to-be-replaced producer proclaimed that “Ultimas” weren’t about baking bread.

The new rules also emphasize a less grounded, less plausible world. The result is that D&D 4.0 is more World of Warcraft than Tolkien

RPGs are about roleplaying, not just combat, and that’s why Fallout is a better RPG than Diablo is. The 4th Edition of D&D feels like a Diablo-esque shadow of the original game. D&D evolved from a combat game, but its open-ended world simulation aspects grew beyond that origin to spawn the entire RPG genre by offering a new type of experience. Frankly, that’s what D&D is renowned for—not being the prodigy of Chainmail. Diablo massively outsold Fallout, so perhaps the focus of the new D&D rules isn’t commercially misguided, but it seems like a step backward for roleplaying fans.

Jul 7, 2008