Monday, January 09, 2012

Why Fourth Edition Died

So, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has been announced, and the news has struck the sort of reaction I expected it to. People are hoping for this feature or that. Others are expressing their dismay at the fact that a new edition is coming so soon on the heels of D&D: Essentials. Yet others are suggesting that this heralds the end of Dungeons & Dragons, that a new edition will make the already split RPG community even more fractious. There are yet others that have met the news with incredible, soul-crushing apathy. So, there’s that.

To be honest, I’m not even really sure what to say about the development. I could talk about how much 4E and Essentials stuff I have on my shelves right now. Or I could talk about what I want to see from the new D&D. Or I could talk about what I think would be the best possible direction for the game to take (which is quite different from what I want to see, truth be told). I could talk about a lot of things, but I think what I’m going to talk about today is design space, design philosophy, and why Fourth Edition failed.

See, we wouldn’t need a Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons if Fourth Edition was given the sort of design team it deserves. And by that, I don’t mean folks like Monte Cook. Mr. Cook is an incredible designer and makes good game, and for that I think he deserves a stalwart salute and as many dollars as the industry can throw at him. Under his guidance, Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons revitalized the industry, but his is not the sort of hand a design like Fourth Edition needs. Fourth Edition needs someone like Mark Rosewater. Fourth Edition needs someone like Keith Baker. Fourth Edition needs someone like Kenneth Nagle.

You will note that all three of those names are attached to people who design cards. Two of the, Rosewater and Nagle, are Magic: The Gathering designers. Baker is responsible for Gloom, which is incredible and does something no other card game did before he came up with it. This isn’t to say that I think Fourth Edition needs to be treated like a card game, far from it. It needs to be treated in a way that only men of this design tack can treat a game.

The problem with Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the biggest problem that any edition of D&D has ever faced, is that the people who were designing it didn’t know a goddamned thing about Design Space. I’m not talking about James Wyatt or Mike Mearls. I’m talking about the Matt Sernett’s of the world, the Rob Heinsoo’s. The guys who make Power books and the guys who put out new campaign settings. The people who are the life’s blood of a role-playing game production.

See, Wyatt and Mearls put together a hell of a game. Say what you will about it, it is impossible to deny that the thing was well designed. There are hundreds of moving pieces, thousands of possible combinations, just in the first book, and those things come together beautifully. In many ways, the core Fourth Edition was like the first Magic: The Gathering set, or Gloom. It did things no one had ever done in role-playing games before, and it made an incredible show of it. What’s more, the framework left behind by that first book was amazing. There was design space all over the game, and it was waiting to be plumbed by talented designers. The first showing we had of that was the second Player’s Handbook, where we started to play around with how powers fit together, and how classes were built. There was an incredible and untouched plaza of design waiting to happen around races, with racial feats and racial powers barely touched. There was room left open for the creation and invention of magic items, and the powers framework lent itself to customization beautifully. There was a ton of space in the way monsters were put together (so much so that I found myself drawn to concepts like the Fourthcore Bestiary because of innovative aura designs – understand that for a moment… AURA designs; one tiny little speck in the whole of the game). Seriously, though, let’s take a look at some of the things that weren’t properly explored in Fourth Edition’s brief history:


We saw a lot of books filled with powers, and one book that actually did something neat with them. Having loads of powers doesn’t make for customization, having powers that work in strange ways makes for customization. Understand that the only interesting powers in the whole of the game were those in the Player’s Handbook and those in the Player’s Handbook 3. The originals and the _only_ set of powers that were at all different or strange. One could argue for the powers from Essentials, but seriously, fuck one. The powers presented in those books were half-assed concessions to the players lost in the Pathfinder Exodus, and nothing more. If you wanted to make powers interesting, here’s a one-sentence answer to the problem: Magic cards are still interesting.

Seriously, and this is incredibly important, Magic design is where the D&D crew should have looked for more interesting power designs. Not the cards themselves, mind, but the philosophy behind those cards. Magic cards constantly break the rules of the game they’re played in. That’s the whole point of the game. What the designers of D&D tried to do was create a homogenized environment in which none of the powers effectively broke the rules, and that’s really the wrong way to build a game that’s made out of a bunch of crazy powers. You need each power to break the rules of the game in an interesting way that helps you win that game. Then you need to do the same thing to the monsters they’re fighting.

Moreover, there is an element of randomness in Magic: The Gathering that D&D really could have used sometimes. It had this when wizards were forced to memorize their spells each day, because the wizard would try to guess at which spells were going to be needed and prepare those ones in advance. Magic solves this by randomizing your hand. D&D4E solves it by not solving it at all. There was no need to pore over your powers, because after a short nap, you’d have them all back again, right as rain. This isn’t the way to go into this territory at all. There is nothing about this that’s suspenseful or fun. Sure, players like getting all their powers back at once, but what the players want and what is good for the game is seldom the same thing.

The design space here is mind-boggling. Off the top of my head: a whole list of Encounter Powers that could be made better by giving up a Daily; Encounter Powers that take two full rounds to use; Daily Powers that change when in certain circumstances (underground, flying, in the sunlight, whatever); a list of At-Will powers you can give up using for the rest of the encounter to make way better; a list of At-Will powers that are as strong as Daily powers, but use up the character’s healing surges as a cost; Lifetime powers, powers that can only ever be used once, ever; uncontrollable powers that go off in certain circumstances, but the player has no control over them; come-back powers that allow you to do incredible things for the cost of an action point; counter-powers that allow a player to stop another player or NPC’s powers from going off as an immediate interrupt; mind-drain powers that steal another character’s powers for a turn, or treat that power as spent; dramatic powers that allow you to influence story events in subtle (or, for dailies, not-so-subtle ways)… Seriously, this is just what I came up with in the time it took me to write this list… I’m sure some of them have been done, or variations on them, but I know a bunch of others have never been touched, and that’s a damned shame.


One of the things I was most looking forward to in the creation of D&D4E was the promise that races were going to get a lot more attention than they had gotten previously. Elves could be wicked-cool at being rangers, sure, but they could also be wicked-cool at being, y’know, Elves. And I rather liked that idea, being one of those strange kids that enjoyed playing D&D when Elf was a class. We were promised feats, Paragon Paths (which is sort of a suck concept, but I’ll get onto that in a bit), epic destinies, and I thought this was going to be a big deal when they were talking about it.

Turns out, it was just one more path towards optimization, when it could have been so much more. Again, the amount of design space left open by more focus on races and their interactions is staggering. One very simple answer is to make race-specific classes using some of the design space we have available in the POWERS section, but that’s hardly where the buck stops on racial design space.

I mean, design isn’t just a matter of rules, however much that may be unapparent from the way Wizards of the Coast has handled it. A lot of it comes from flavor, and rather than focus on any given flavorful concept (even their own Points of Light flavor, the thing they’ve touted around for so long without actually exploring it at all), the Fourth Edition answer has been Add More Races. Which is problematic, because there are only so many places one can go in that direction, and this trip has ended with People Made of Crystals, which is fucking stupid. And no, the right answer doesn’t lie in making subraces, because the gods alone know I can’t put up with another Kender. No, the answer lies in making interesting and powerful cultures for the people of already established races, and building off of that.

Eberron proved this in Three Point Five. You take elves, just normal everyday, boring fucking elves, and you give them a continent that they rule, and suddenly we have the Undying Court and crazy Inca-inspired magic, and weird-ass traditions and rules that affect elves still living in Khorvair. And we haven’t changed elves at all. They’re still elves, they still have the same bonuses and flaws, they’re still the same elves we know and love and/or hate, nothing has changed about them, but they are entirely, completely different. Same goes for Baker’s treatment of the Drow. Same goes for Weis and Hickman’s decision to put dwarves on horseback and have them ride around nomadically. Same is true of every human culture in every fantasy setting ever written.

And it sort of looked like backgrounds were going to be how this worked itself out, but they backgrounds were generally pretty lame unless they were overpowered schlock from a single campaign that wormed its way into the Character Builder. And then themes looked like they were going to get this figured out, but themes never took off the way they should have. To be perfectly honest, themes are the sorts of things you want in a core book, not a campaign setting, and they’ve never really gotten the spotlight time they deserve.


This is one of the most prominent complaints about Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons in my store: it’s not as customizable as players want it to be. Your fighter has a type, and deviating from that type usually means that you are going to be crippled in combat. There are a few good generic powers for each class, but the best usually focus around the template’s specific niche abilities. And that’s just bad game design, guys.

I’m going to, again, look at Magic: The Gathering as a good example of how to do much the same thing. See, the point isn’t to make certain abilities work better with certain templates, the point is to make a bunch of abilities that work on their own, and have a level of synergy that make it desirable to play those things together. I can build a green deck out of whatever the hell I want, but if I’m trying to ramp into a host of big beaters, I’d best be looking for some Llanowar Elves and some Birds of Paradise, ne? There is nothing saying I can’t play Birds of Paradise in any other deck, I certainly can, but if I’m looking to ramp mana, I put birds in my deck.

The same is true of powers in D&D. Every power should work well on its own and do something valuable that the rest of the party can build on, but if you build synergies into your powers, your players will find those things on their own, and they will build their characters according to whatever build they want to make.

The funny thing about this is that it changes exactly nothing. You’re still making templates for your fighters, you’re just not making the powers exclusive to those templates and letting the players suss them out for themselves.

Moreover, there are a lot of things you can do with the class system that simply were not done. Again, I point to racial classes. Again, I point to the way powers were never filled out the way they should have been. And I also point to the fact that there has never been a martial controller. And I also point to the fact that there is a nearly endless number of possible combinations of power-types and class archetypes. They’ve covered the basics, sure, and having an endless number of classes isn’t really all that important, but having a lot more customizability in your classes and having those class combinations rotate around the niche system you’ve established would go a long way towards building a much more playable, designable game.

And with themes, paragon paths, and epic destinies at your disposal, you have a lot of room to build in extra customization as you build your game. Paragon paths in particular were an unplumbed font of design space that could have really changed the history of the game. Prestige Classes defined Third Edition D&D, and the amount of effort that went into creating a whole bloody host of them is evident in the fact that there’s a whole bloody host of them. The number of prestige classes available to a player of 3.5 D&D is “too many to choose from.” Paragon paths, not so much.

And Epic Destinies… Oh man, would I have done the Epic Destiny entirely differently. That may actually require a different post, so let’s not talk about that just yet. Let’s just say “FATE,” and move on.


One of the biggest advances Third Edition D&D made to the game was the introduction of a universal skill system. It wasn’t pretty, and it definitely had its problems, but it made the game flow in a totally different way than any edition previous. And while I don’t think that the introduction of the skill system made Fourth Edition any better (I actually think it made it quite a bit worse), it was a damned fine piece of gaming tech, and I understand why they kept it around.

Having played a bunch of First Edition D&D this year, I think they made a rather incredibly horrible mistake by including skills in the game at all. I often tell people that I think Fourth Edition D&D plays more like First Edition D&D than any edition between them, and I still think that’s very true. The difference, the place where I find Fourth boring, is between battles. In First Edition D&D, you had to be on your toes, you had to be thinking, you had to move carefully from room to room and solve all sorts of insane problems just to survive. And that doesn’t involve much in the way of skill rolls from anyone but the thief, and most of the time your thief isn’t good enough to make any of his or her checks anyway. Skills, as they are presented in Fourth Edition D&D, are a crutch used to hand-wave away problems solving and role-playing. In Third Edition, they absolutely made sense, and they added something great to the game. In Fourth Edition, all they did was make it dull.

And the designers couldn’t have possibly known that going in, and I don’t at all blame them for the choice of including a skill system, but I don’t think I will ever play with skills as they are written in Fourth Edition ever again.

Again, this idea might require an entire post to talk about in any sort of comprehensive way, so I think I’m going to move on to…


When I first wrote this, I actually completely forgot about feats, which should give you an idea of how important I think they are to the Fourth Edition of D&D. Like skills, feats were a defining feature of Third Edition D&D. They were, in a word, incredible. In many ways, they allowed you to do things that were, in Fourth Edition, performed via powers. Cleave and Great Cleave were powerhouses of efficient fighting. The meta-magic feats gave magic-users a powerful advantage. Feats meant something to Third Edition.

In Fourth Edition, they’re basically an afterthought, which is a damnable shame, because the amount of design space opened up by feats is insane. I mean, when you break feats down, they’re just a talent tree, with feats building off of other feats to create more powerful combinations down the line. The only feats worth taking half the time, though, were Toughness and the Wintertouched/Lasting Frost combo.

And that is really, deeply stupid.

Like much of what I’ve been talking about today, feats are a layer of character creation that provides a powerful range of customization tools that can be used to make your game better. It’s these layers that add to the fun of building a character, and they’re the sort of thing from which an entire path of feats can be built. When utilized properly (providing actual, wicked-ass bonuses to the people who take them) bonus/flaw systems can be incredible.

What I guess I’m getting at here is that every layer of the D&D game has a bunch of really wicked design space that is laying open for us to tinker with. Class, race, skills, feats, themes, backgrounds, whatever. And the fact that it hasn’t been tinkered with in any meaningful way is really deeply disappointing.


Combat in Fourth Edition D&D is a fucking mess.

I say this with all the love in the world for the designers and the game itself: it is a fucking mess and needs heavy reworking to make it marginally playable. This is especially true of any level over 12, which is entirely disappointing because much of the system was designed to solve the Sweet Spot problem. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition’s sweet spot is levels 1-10.

Combat takes too long. Characters, both the NPCs and the Player Characters, have too many hit points. Figuring out tactics and powers is a time consuming and mind-numbingly dull process. After twelve rounds, even interesting bad guys become a slog and I have players checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

There are a few problems with combat in Fourth Edition, but none of those problems are problems of Design Space. Still, they are worth mentioning in the context of “this is what killed Fourth Edition D&D,” so I’ll be taking a brief look at them.

I’m going to make this as simple as I can: when you make a game, include all of the things you need to play in the box. If your game needs dice, include dice. If you game needs miniatures, include miniatures. If your game requires a grid map, you’d best include a grid map. The creeping reliance of Dungeons & Dragons on miniatures is perverse, commercialistic and sad. You didn’t need miniatures to play D&D1E, and you could certainly get away without them in D&D2. It was in D&D3, with the invention of “flanking,” that the miniatures stopped being a good tool and started being a necessary element of play, and Fourth Edition continued this trend with a gusto that bordered on sinister. As a games retailer, I often found that this increased my sales, but not of Dungeons & Dragons product. Chessex got a lot of money from the lack of production inclusion in D&D, and Reaper made most of the rest, especially after Wizards pulled the plug on their miniature lines.

Moreover, miniatures do not make the game more fun.

Maybe I’m in a minority here, but I have always found my imagination is plenty capable of determining what is happening with a crew of wererats, and I find that putting them on a board in front of me dulls the imaginative blitz of combat. Also, fiddling with toys takes time, and the largest factor against D&D combat is that it takes entirely too much time already. Give me a sheet of graph paper and my imagination any day.

Of course, this does reduce one of the branches of power design that was horribly abused while making Fourth Edition: movement and combat advantage (which are, in reality, the same fucking thing). I’m okay losing that space for the sake of a cleaner, faster D&D experience.

Changing gears: we don’t need this many hit points. Killing player characters  is very difficult in Fourth Edition, which is okay. I get it, we’re supposed to be heroic adventurers, not meat for a grinder. Except that without a threat of player character death, combat becomes dull, an exercise in whittling a monster down to zero. Killing player characters more often is not a bad thing. Your players will thank you for combat encounters that take less than an hour.

And one more time: DO YOUR MATH!!! Paragon tier is a mess. Epic gets even worse. And the Monster Vaults only helped marginally. Do your fucking math, guys, figure out how much time it’s going to take for a level 12-14 party to kill a level 13 solo, because I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that it’s longer than your ideal play flow.


Item creation is stupid. The economy is wrecked. Character Builder software is basically necessary. And the alignment system is stupid.


This seems pretty obvious to me, but I’m going to spell it out anyway.

We need a very simple, very basic version of Dungeons & Dragons. Abilities, race, class, basic combat powers, hit points, armor class, non-armor defenses… go! I want to see a core Dungeons & Dragons that is so incredibly simple I could teach it to an eight year old in under a half hour. These will be the core and most basic rules of the game, the rules everything else is designed to break.

Then we start in on the options. Hundreds of powers. New races, new classes, new racial classes. Themes, integrated from the beginning of the game. Backgrounds that are good for more than a +2 skill bonus. Feats that actually matter. A skill system. An expanded skill system for things like “profession” and “craft” skills. Magic items that are interesting and strange and setting-defining. A variety of spell/attack/power systems. A couple of interesting morality systems. Fill your boots with optional content, but leave the core of the game as simple, pristine and clean as possible.

Then explore the optional design space ad infinitum.

And I think this is maybe the most important thing in the world: invite your players to do the same. One of the shining achievements of Third Edition D&D was that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people working on the game at any given time, and that meant that there was an enormous glut of product available to anyone who wanted to find it. I have a book about African adventuring that is both brilliant and terrible (and Eurocentric and insensitive and empowering and informed). That would not have existed, that _could not_ have existed without the framework that the OGL provided for creating new and interesting content. I want to see that sort of exploration go into the newest version of Dungeons & Dragons, and without a specific invitation from the Guys Upstairs, we aren’t going to have it.


jSpengler said...

I really appreciate this post. 4E is my favorite D&D edition, I love it warts and all. But I couldn't quite put my finger on those warts until you wrote this. There are a few things I don't agree with that you just touch on briefly, but I agree completely with the general sentiment.

Thank you!

Kris Hansen said...

You are entirely welcome. I am also a huge fan of Fourth Edition, and I'm really sad that it veered off course the way that it did. Glad you found my perspective enlightening.

Cheesepie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adamjford said...

Holy crap. Bravo, Kris. You put this excellently.

And I sincerely hope that #DnDNext's core game is going to be something like what you describe at the end there.

TheMainEvent said...

Very thoughtful post. I described 4E as the best conceived and balanced D&D, but somehow, failed to be fun. Your post really helps draw into focus what its shortcomings were while explaining its strengths.

James Geluso said...

I disagree in a couple places. PHB2 had some interesting power development in the warden's dailies, which were basically encounters plus a bonus for the rest of the encounter. However, I agree that all the things you mention powers ought to be able to do should have been in the ___ Power books.

I personally love feats, outside the feat tax feats. I think the dragonborn breath-customization feats are great, in particular the ones that give status effects related to the type of breath you have (I'm a red dragonborn, you're ON FIRE!). And the martial school feats in Martial Power 2 are great ways to customize your character as more than just an axe-wielder. I'm currently playing a warlord with feats from two schools, which I use to illustrate his story transition from soldier to gang leader.

Also, while I think all your points are valid, I'm skeptical that adoption of any of them would have changed the fact that we're moving on to 5e now.

Kris Hansen said...

It's a really long post. If people didn't disagree with some of what I'd said, I would be worried I hadn't said anything worth saying.

I think, at it's basest, what I'm trying to say is this: If Fourth Edition was a better game, it would have sold more books. If it had sold more books, we wouldn't be looking at a new edition. And it started off as a Really Good Game, but it quickly became a game in which nothing interesting happened, and people stopped buying books. They tried to fix it by making a game that appealed more to the 3.5 players out there, but the problem with Fourth wasn't that a lot of 3.5 players hated it, it's that it wasn't interesting enough to sell books to the people who liked it.

Bill D91 said...

I know this is getting to be a pretty old discussion, but I'll chime in with something that's bothering me.

If you've got so many complaints about the game - including core elements of the rules like combat, feats, skills - how does that square with Mearls and Wyatt designing a great game? It sounds more like you're complaining about all of those moving parts not working so well after all. I'm a bit bewildered how you really come to the conclusion that the structure of the game is so good when so much of it plays, as you imply, so badly?

KL said...

Personally for me, 4E did not arouse my interest like 3E does.

AD&D and second edition have weird rules without any explanation or justification in order to maintain game balance while 3E allows it but with consequences (if your wizard want to wear full plate and wield a greatsword, go on ahead).

3E succeed because it was built upon what came before. As for 4E, just looking through the monster stats and I get immediately confused by the come a 3E CR 3 monster is how a level 23 bruiser (or whatever they call it). What is bloodied? What abilities the monster have outside of combat?

4E was just too radically different and lack backward compatibility. Not to mention it dumb down the alignment system and lore that has been built upon since the game's beginning.