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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