Sunday, June 3, 2012

Who's Getting Screwed by 5e?

4e gamers, that's who.

There has been a lot of talk about D&D Next in the blogosphere of late. Now to begin with, I really must emphasize that I have no horse in this race. I have my Labyrinth Lord and I am happy. I have no reason to spend money on a new iteration of D&D regardless of what exactly goes into it. I am NOT a "hater," I am just completely ambivalent about 5e, much as I was about 4e.

Yet with what I can glean from the recent blog posts -- I am not participating in the 5e playtest myself, so all this is secondhand hearsay mind you -- I find myself in the surprising position of feeling a great deal of sympathy for all the 4e devotees out there. Let me explain why.

My basic position is similar to the (much better informed and credible) one recently explicated in an open letter to WotC Labgrrl posted on her blog, UAD&D. (Thanks to David Maccauley for the link to that post.) Labgrrl writes:

"Immediately upon hearing rumors of #DnDNext, a significant number of fans of the current edition began to get confrontational and disheartened in social media. They feel abandoned despite repeated assurances by the WOTC social networking team and even some uninvolved third parties that continued new releases will happen. Their general view seems to be that there is limited point in investment in further books and materials when it’s going to be rendered useless so rapidly.

"The problem with planned obsolescence is that it can create huge feelings of ill-will towards a company [and] when the economy is doing poorly or is in recovery, planned obsolescence backlash increases dramatically."

Labgrrl's comments remind me of a conversation I had with the manager of my FLBS a few days ago. He asked me if D&D changed drastically every time there was an edition change; he seemed particularly interested in the shift between 1e and 2e. While noting that 2e is the one edition of D&D I have never played, so I am not terribly familiar with it, I nevertheless explained to him that, in my view, I didn't see 2e as drastically altering the core rules set forth in the earlier editions. Sure, it added skills and proficiencies, which were either nonexistent or only minimally present in earlier editions, but it did not radically alter the core classes or the main thrust of the rules, as far as I know. In my view, the main changes 2e instituted were to streamline the presentation of the rules, change the dominant style of the artwork, and to santize D&D vis-a-vis its alleged demonic/Satanic content. (Please correct me in the comments if I have this wrong.)

So IF we assume that 0e through 2e were BASICALLY the same system, that's a 26-year run (1974-2000) of more or less completely compatible stuff. Hell, I am even willing to lump 3e/3.5e/Pathfinder in there because despite its major emphasis on skills and feats and hence character "builds," 3e is still ESSENTIALLY a d20 system that hadn't yet introduced player appeasement measures like healing surges, and hadn't severely shifted the game's emphasis from strategy to tactics. So that would give us a 34-year run of more or less compatible systems, before "strikers" and "defenders," the absolute necessity of battle mats, and the near-impossibility of PC death set in in 2008.

Even if we keep 3e/3.5 partitioned off as its own thing, those players (of which I was one for about four years) at least had an eight-year run before 4e was introduced, and after that they had (and still have) Pathfinder and Paizo.

By contrast, the 4e players have had only four years with their edition of choice. And, as far as I know, no guarantee of major corporate support for the edition once it is discontinued by WotC.

Justin Alexander's analysis reveals that 5e's playtest version evinces a strong hearkening back to 3e, and he asks why he would want to play what is essentially WotC's homebrew of 3e when he could just keep playing his own? It's a good question, and I would also ask, if 5e indeed ends up being really close to 3e rules-wise, what will keep the Pathfinder crowd from continuing to play Pathfinder, whose (expensive) rulebooks they already own? This is a recession after all, and sadly it is distinctly possible that "those jobs aren't coming back."

Daniel Proctor supports this view in his commentary, stating that:

"[D&D Next] has to compete with all the other 3.x spinoffs that have been evolving for many years. What can 5e meaningfully add that hasn't already been done? I think that's why D&D 5e feels like an also-ran at this point. The days where the Brand alone was enough are past."

In slightly more concise (and vehement) terms, Biting Halfling over at Tenkar's Tavern called 5e's playtest iteration "a stripped down rebuild of 3rd Edition D&D + exactly four innovations." Again, I cannot confirm these views through my own direct experience of the playtest, nor am I here to judge whether or not 5e will be any good. It's just that it seems like 5e, in returning to WotC's 3e roots, will leave 4e players out in the cold; the 4e crowd -- i.e., WotC's most loyal current customer base -- will be those precisely most screwed by the changes made to bring 5e into closer relationship to the pre-4e editions. This is a strange scenario that may well indicate a kind of limited victory for we old-school gamers, but which also seems to indicate a mild form of corporate schizophrenia on WotC's part, as Labgrrl so eloquently surmises.

Going the way of the Dodo.

Epilogue: My One Gripe
I suppose that while I am here I will add a brief comment about the one thing I do not like the sound of in those secondhand playtest reports: the tendency in 4e and 5e to make it well nigh impossible for PCs to die.

The real threat of character death makes puts something serious at stake, and (in my view) encourages smart play rather than relentless tactical hack-and-slash. The 4e-and-onward editions seem to encourage "low death, low frustration"-style play, as Roger the GS puts it, noting that in 5e "hit points are numerous, the margin of safety for low-level characters is great, and healing remains as available as in 4th edition."

Jeff Rients shares my disdain for this kind of "softening" of D&D, noting that "abstract 'healing surges' are about the most boring game mechanic ever."

More recently, Rients continued his ruminations on this issue, bemoaning the fact that in 4e and 5e "my own personal D&D sweet spot, the hard-scrabble death-at-any- moment fiasco of levels 1-3, is no longer supported. [. . .] For me, all other questions about what should and shouldn't be in the new edition pale in comparison to this simple issue. If by the numbers I can't murder your starting PC with a single lousy orc-stab, I don't want to play."

Patrick Wetmore echoes this concern in his recent post, in which he asks "What kind of delicate flowers have modern D&D players become?"

I totally acknowledge that it's "different strokes for different folks," yet I wonder the same thing Patrick does. Just last week, I introduced about five neophyte gamers to Labyrinth Lord; I started them at 1st Level and ran them through (most of) Tim Shorts' Knowledge Illuminates. During the short (3-hour) session, one PC was killed outright and another reduced to 1 hp. Something was very much at stake for that party; after their elf died, they were much more cautious, and really used that 10-foot pole that somebody thought to buy. I really loved seeing that; a classic D&D situation all the way!

So in the end, I am forced to agree with Dan Proctor, who writes:

"Criticize 3rd edition all you like (and I have), but it was a pretty successful edition. The problem is that when WotC left an edition behind they didn't just revise the game into something else, they torched and salted the fields behind them each time. Each time they tell their customers that there is something fundamentally broken and bad with the previous edition, and in doing so they create a rift between the people who stay behind with the old edition and the people who take the bait for the new edition."

An Afterthought
Was 4e released under the OGL? In other words, could it be retro-cloned?


  1. D&D4 was not released under the OGL as far as I recall; it had it's own licence. That said, it could be retro-cloned under the "you can't copyright mechanics" argument, and it may also be possible -- I am not a solicitor -- that it could be cloned under the OGL, even though it wasn't released under it; the latter would depend on if you could build a version of D&D4 from D&D3, although that would be a lot of work.

    You make a good point about feeling sympathy for the D&D4 crowd. It's a horrible game, and I'm glad it's going away, but if I had invested time and money in it, I'd be feeling a bit miffed that it's being dropped after only four years.

    As far as player-character deaths go, in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game last night, the elf got his head punched clean off by a mutant hillbilly. It was beautiful.

    1. 4e isn't a horrible game. It's a poor example of what D&D is generally thought of by those who played *any* prior edition, but the game itself is a good one.

      Just... different.

      Any maybe Wizards will see fit to release 4e under an OGL after 5e is released?

    2. To clarify, I found it horrible to play.

    3. "maybe Wizards will see fit to release 4e under an OGL after 5e is released?"

      That would be interesting, and pretty cool of them. I hope they do.

    4. David has it right. It isn't a bad game but it isn't D&D in the sense of anything prior to it.

      Once I got that through my head I actually had a good time running and playing Type IV.

  2. 4e players will get their love when the optional rules d&d next tactical module is released for play test, probably in the next update. Also, it's funny to hear complaints about healing surges from the same group who use Liquid Courage rules. Anyway, in many of the d&d next actual play reports I read pcs have bit the dust. I'm cool with making 1st level pcs a little beefier, and I think d&d next is striking a very nice balance so far.

  3. @Kelvin: I am jealous that you are getting to play LotFP!

    @LucidDion: Glad to hear WotC is addressing the needs of 4e players. I don't use "liquid courage" rules myself, though my understanding is that such rules attempt to "associate" a healing surge-type mechanic, that is, to tie the rule to some in-game-world logic that can be roleplayed. See Justin Alexander's discussion of associated vs. dissociated mechanics:

  4. That 13th age game looks to be 4e but fixed and modified.

  5. I really don't see the comparison with 3E. Sure, there are DCs, and rolling high on a d20 is always good. The primary underlying system in 3E, however, is built around ascending difficulty classes and increasing bonuses (in an essentially unlimited fashion). 5E, from what we have seen so far (and what they have said) is about flattening the power curve. The essence of the two games seems not only to be different, but to be diametrically opposed.

    That being said, I agree with the criticism that starting PCs are far too tough for games that I would like to run. Happily, Mearls has stated that HP will likely come down (though it is unclear how self healing might change). More problematic, for me, is lack of support for low level resource play (unlimited light cantrip, unlimited magic missile, etc). I think that is harder to fix than the HP issue, as you can always start PCs with fewer HP and use more punishing death rules (presumably these will be options in the final product).

  6. Yeah, if you take a step back the whole edition treadmill idea is a weird thing. It makes me wonder if the idea was based on a bunch of false assumptions. No matter how much I dislike 3e, even I have to admit it revitalized the D&D brand. That and the OGL. But I do wonder if the situation WotC inherited with 2e was due to the mismanagement of a dying TSR rather than any inherent need to re-envision D&D.

    The edition treadmill is just not a sustainable business model. I mean, if the only real success we can hold up as evidence that it is a good model is 3e, I'm not sure that is true evidence. There are so many variables there and I'm not sure the system revamp is the most important one. That is a long and complicated discussion.

    That blog post had a great line in it that really resonated with me, basically the idea that WotC should get "out of the business of creating new systems."

    I think that is really a key issue. How many other products can you think of where the stewards of a brand are constantly trying to reinvent the brand image and then convince customers it is the same product? Sure, there are examples out there. But I think an important difference is that there are so many fantasy games out there that by doing this you really destroy the brand image in a way that cannot be recovered. This has been complicated by the OGL.

    In the end even if you don't agree with my point of view, I think we all can agree that every new edition splinters the D&D fan base. It is driving people to other brands that maintain game continuity. Game continuity is something tangible, the actual game in play, and the brand is intangible. The brand D&D can't survive all these transitions in the face of competition that is willing to give customers the game they want.

    1. Two key, truthful bits:

      WotC should get "out of the business of creating new systems."


      Game continuity is something tangible, the actual game in play, and the brand is intangible.

      I mean, look at Tunnels and Trolls or Call of Cthulhu, two games that have changed precious little over the years -- also games with extremely loyal fanbases. Perhaps there is a connection.

      Is WotC's problem that D&D is the "flagship" brand in the hobby so is under intense pressure to treadmill?

    2. A big reason D&D3 was successful and reinvigorated the brand may just be timing.

      D&D3 came out as I was getting more involved in the hobby after a long break due to marriage. This is a story a lot of D&D3 players will tell you.

      I very easily might have gone some other way. I actually started to get serious again in 1999 and the first game I bought, Unknown Armies, is still a favorite because it pings a lot of my sweet spots both in gaming and genre.

      But D&D, well as a Holmes baby I suspect D&D will always have a sweet spot.

  7. In my experience 4th ed can be lethal, If you abandon it's Balanced Encounter Algebra, and use good old fashioned random encounters. Fourth's emphasis on tactics, and the oft over looks terrain rules can be pretty brutal to a group that doesn't have their act together, inflated HP or no.

    5th has me a little nervous however. I'm OK with the healing on resting, but the death rules are a little to forgiving. I'm sincerely hoping that they forgot the word modifier after Constitution.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, I am probably a little underhandedly unfair to 4e at times.

    2. I concur. Although I only ran Type IV for about six months last year I had multiple character deaths including a TPK.

      I didn't use the balance too strictly and warned players the world might not scale.

  8. Perhaps Mike Mearls is getting screwed by 5e. What happens to him professionally when the brand finally grinds to a halt on his watch?

  9. "The days where the Brand alone was enough are past."

    WotC has no one to blame but themselves.

    D&D3 really did reach out not only to 2nd edition players but to those still player other TSR versions and lapsed players: both lapsed as D&D players and lapsed as gamers. Sure, they said 2nd was broken but they addressed things that people often complained about and/or house ruled.

    Contrast that to D&D4 which was "you're playing a broken game you have to throw away" (WTF, you've been selling it to me for 8 years). The complete divorce seems to be a response to the OGL and the loss of control. Plus, Hasbro didn't like sales so 3.5 came out a couple of years earlier than the original D&D3 play.

    So, they told a fanbase they had courted a decade earlier to screw off while the OGL allowed the clones (including Pathfinder) to make sure no player of TSR D&D or 3.x ever needed to do business with WotC.

    In doing so they broke the brand. I own four or five Type IV books: PHB 1&2 (which I bought when playing), DMG and MM (and maybe MM2 might have traded it I'll have to look) which I all bought second hand.

    I do want to get DMG2 and Manual of the Planes before the line dies, the former for it's advice and the later because I like it.

    Anyway, back to the broken brand. Now they're telling their new players to piss off to appeal to people for whom they ruined the brand.

    Hoping the people with dried piss on them will come back to more than fill those leaving because they have wet piss on them isn't very good strategy.

  10. I miss the days when a "new edition" of an RPG meant pretty much the same ol' text and tables with some new art.