D&D4E: The Exceptional Flaw

An opin­ion on how design­ers botched the lat­est edi­tion of Dun­geon & Drag­ons. That’s what I promised. The last post focused on exter­nal fac­tors that played into its decline as a paper game: tech­nol­o­gy and con­ve­nience. I won’t wax poet­ic with social com­men­tary on short­er atten­tion spans, less free time, and the prob­lems with kids’ imagination—because I’d have to fol­low with “get off my vir­tu­al lawn.” Still, not all of the rea­sons for D&D’s drop in pop­u­lar­i­ty can be writ­ten off to the world at large.

To explain what went wrong, I’ll take a stab at what used to work so right. And then com­pare…

J.R.R. Tolkien

Our father of medieval-ish fan­ta­sy set­tings. To this day, the great advan­tage of pro­duc­ing fan­ta­sy kitsch, over sci­ence fic­tion kitsch, is that fan­ta­sy has a default set­ting. John’s gift to us, ready to use. Elves, dwarves, and men. Maybe hob­bits. Def­i­nite­ly mag­ic. D&D absolute­ly ben­e­fits from, and is part of, this tra­di­tion.

So the orig­i­nal D&D allowed play­ers to pre­tend to be heroes in a gener­i­cized role­play­ing set­ting that could eas­i­ly be mis­tak­en for Mid­dle Earth (sor­ry, Iron Crown). Ele­ments that dis­turb that fan­ta­sy, even those that expe­ri­enced play­ers con­sid­er new and cool, don’t real­ly belong. Espe­cial­ly not in a new edition’s core play­book. It is designed to appeal to the widest pos­si­ble audi­ence, right? Unique fan­ta­sy ele­ments have no busi­ness here, sor­ry. Good­bye, 4th edition’s genre-con­fus­ing races of eladrin, drag­onborn, and tiefling. War­locks. Con­trollers. Pow­er sources.

Lev­el­ing Up

Self-evi­dent psy­cho­log­i­cal val­ue. In the last few years, every game genre has embraced the pow­er of the ding. Social games depend on it for rev­enue. Shoot­ers sup­port lev­el­ing to increase attach­ment, longevi­ty, and the obvi­ous sense of achieve­ment. Even RTS games, that the­o­ret­i­cal­ly require greater devo­tion to bal­ance and fair­ness, incor­po­rate the lev­el­ing of play­ers and units.

The acqui­si­tion of pow­er, ranks and titles, how­ev­er imag­i­nary, demon­strate a hold on the psy­che that I some­times find scary. We seem so vul­ner­a­ble to manip­u­la­tion in this regard that it appears dif­fi­cult to design a char­ac­ter-based lev­el­ing sys­tem that fails to cap­ture the audi­ence. And yet, gain­ing a lev­el is less mean­ing­ful in this new edi­tion. And we have weak­er con­cepts such as pow­er replace­ment.

Excep­tion-based Design

A smarter man than I, Richard Garfield, cred­it­ed Cos­mic Encounter as the inspi­ra­tion behind Mag­ic: the Gathering’s excep­tion-based game design. While that pass­es the test for the world of strate­gic board and card games, I’ve always con­sid­ered D&D (released three years pri­or to Cos­mic) to be the most pop­u­lar exem­plar of this design. What’s more, the long-term per­sis­tent nature of role­play­ing required this “game design of spe­cials” to a greater degree than short-lived strat­e­gy games such as Domin­ion.

D&D ful­filled a fan­ta­sy. On the char­ac­ter lev­el, this meant doing things that no one else could do. At least, no one else in your par­ty. Pri­or to 4th edi­tion, just about every class abil­i­ty, spell, mag­ic item, and mon­ster wrote new rules for the game. Even if your char­ac­ter couldn’t cast spells, you looked for­ward to potent mag­ic items that did the same. Today’s embrace of minia­tures, rules stan­dard­iza­tion, automa­tion of the Dun­geon Mas­ter, and a pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of bal­ance over fun have under­mined the prin­ci­ples of game design by excep­tion. Do 4th edi­tion abil­i­ties do some­thing oth­er than dam­age, grant a bonus, slide a fig­ure, stun, or knock a fig­ure prone? Class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion (the feel­ing that your class and thus you are unique) seems sta­tis­ti­cal­ly present, but effec­tive­ly miss­ing. I miss com­mandheat met­al, rope trick, rod of lord­ly might, and illu­sions, as dif­fi­cult as they could be to arbi­trate. The spe­cial­ness is gone. Includ­ing any unique­ness of your char­ac­ter could aspire to become or acquire.

The trou­bling finale is this. If you agree that D&D has more val­ue going for­ward as intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty than as the paper game, the lat­est edi­tion should be fault­ed with doing some dam­age to that brand.


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