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Where Have All The Players Gone?

posted Sunday, October 19th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth Edition

The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been out for four months now. A significant number of of players have taken up the new edition, but it still seems that a lot of the existing userbase is sticking to third ed, switching to Pathfinder or “graduating” to other RPGs. I think there’s reason behind this other than the inevitable miasma of new edition hate.

Third edition was very “D&D” – arcane, detailed, pages upon pages of rules, lore and obscura. That’s what appealed to me about the game before I ever played. Just reading the books was like poring over an ancient tome, discovering secrets and magic.

Fourth edition loses that for a more gamesy appeal. The target demographic barely reads fantasy novels any more; we watch action movies and play MMOs, and the game has moved to tap that potentially huge market.

I see a big issue with this: D&D 4th ed is still very complex, moreso than any casual board game you will play. It’s still too low-tech for many World of Warcraft players, and still not approachable enough for most casual players. Now, it’s also too dumb for many serious players, and too new for the hardcore players.

Wizards of the Coast has made a game that’s more popular with the modern crowd, but my concern is that they may not have given enough thought to how to attract the modern gamer to a very different sort of game than most of them are used to. Ultimately, I think the game’s success will be the best benchmark.

Comments

  1. Bog97th

    October 19th, 2008

    It’s possible that WOTC should have made “Fast play” rules for those it was trying to market to and left more of the 3.5 rules in place for the older players….

  2. Chris Tregenza

    October 19th, 2008

    I started to write a comment about how I agreed with you but it grew far to long winded and drifted away from your article so I’ve posted it my blog: http://6d6fireball.com/rpg/where-it-all-went-wrong/

  3. Jeff Greiner

    October 19th, 2008

    Speaking for myself and my gaming group in many ways I think 4e is MORE true to OD&D, but arguably less so to 2e and 3e. But that’s not the point I’m looking at…

    My group is about half grognards who have been playing since 1e or 2e and I haven’t heard anyone say anything other than that they have been loving playing 4e. For what that’s worth.

    I find the REAL failure of 4th edition D&D to have little to do with the rules or products associated with it. It is abundantly clear to me that the failure of 4th edition is in the marketing, public relations, and probably the worst of it, customer relations at WotC.

    The D&D designers seem to be right on top of what is happening in the community. There’s no “ivory tower” syndrome that I’ve found in the D&D offices when talking to them. But there does seem to be that exact problem in the WotC/Hasbro foundation of the company. And let’s face it, they had a much harder challenge in “selling” people than 3e because people were begging for 3e but 4e was a surprise. An unwelcome surprise at that (I myself was mad about it at first). So WotC needed to garner MORE support from their base of fans, not alienate them as they seem to have successfully done over and over. And that, I think is a major reason why 4e doesn’t seem to have the instant fan-base boost that might have been expected from watching 3e’s rise.

  4. Tomcat1066

    October 19th, 2008

    With my group, the primary hurdle is the fact that 4th edition has been streamlined beyond the point of mere simplicity and into the realm of ridiculous. The skill list used to take up almost an entire page in 3.5e. Now? It’s about the same size as a paragraph. A large number of skills have been combined (not necessarily a bad thing) and a lot have been eliminated (a bad thing for us).

    Then there are the way the classes are set up. They fit a niche that we may not want to play.

    My group is full of diehard gamers. We’ve all been playing D&D for years. And yet, we have to walk away from the new edition because all that we loved is missing. Sure, the new edition is not without merit (I LOVE the Warlock for example). But what’s there isn’t particularly compelling for us.

    I apologize for going on like this about 4e. I really have to avoid the subject because this is what happens when I talk about 4e…I go on and on with how disappointed I am in the new edition. Needless to say at this point, I don’t see us converting over any time soon.

  5. mxyzplk

    October 19th, 2008

    My gaming group has decided (after running a demo) not to go to 4e. In fact, all the related gaming groups (I have limited time, but some of the guys are playing in like three other campaigns per week) are using 3.5e, other d20 (like Monte Cook’s World of Darkness) or just other RPGs, not a one is using 4e.

    It boils down to a couple things. One, some of the campaigns are using the Paizo adventures, and are so excited about them that it’s the adventure content keeping them with 3.5e (and will transition to Pathfinder when it comes out). Two, all the players play a wide variety of RPGs. 3.5e was already the most tactical of all RPGs, and 4e has taken it even more in that direction, so most of us just plain don’t like the rules. I think a lot of the 4e advocates are using the old-days tactic of “D&D’s the only major RPG out there, so we must houserule/adapt it to fit our needs.” Nowadays there are many more choices, so you’d only go to the trouble of heavy adaptation of 4e if there was a specific kernel there you wanted to preserve. And 4e has cha

  6. Toord

    October 19th, 2008

    I started playing this game with v3 and v3.5 (Eberron & Forgotten Realms campaigns). The lore, arcana and literature is simple too much to give up and to this day I still go to libraries and or bookstores and find comfort in the plethora of books relating to Eberron and Forgotten Realms. 4e seems to be like a Warhammer version of D&D — but not really luring either crowd.

  7. mxyzplk

    October 19th, 2008

    My gaming group has decided (after running a demo) not to go to 4e. In fact, all the related gaming groups (I have limited time, but some of the guys are playing in like three other campaigns per week) are using 3.5e, other d20 (like Monte Cook’s World of Darkness) or just other RPGs, not a one is using 4e.

    It boils down to a couple things. One, some of the campaigns are using the Paizo adventures, and are so excited about them that it’s the adventure content keeping them with 3.5e (and will transition to Pathfinder when it comes out).

    Two, all the players in our interrelated groups here play a variety of RPGs. 3.5e was already the most tactical of all RPGs, and 4e has taken it even more in that direction, so most of us just plain don’t like the rules. I think a lot of the 4e advocates are using the old-days thinking of “D&D’s the only major RPG out there, so we must houserule/adapt it to fit our needs.” Nowadays there are many more choices, so you’d only go to the trouble of heavy adaptation of 4e if there was a specific kernel there you wanted to preserve. And 4e has changed the core of the game a lot – the cosmology, Vancian spellcasting, the races, the classes – such that in many ways it feels like “just another fantasy RPG” and does not contain the historical distinctives of D&D. If you have to change the fluff AND the crunch to get what you want, then you start saying “Hmmm, what’s the advantage of using 4e vs True20 or OSRIC or M20 or 3.5e or Pathfinder or d20 Modern or Star Wars: Saga…” and so far we haven’t seen much of a real driver there.

    Three, with third party support so substantially reduced due to the GSL, it’s no longer compelling to get on board 4e because you know there’s going to be so many cool adventures/supplements/variants out. This ties into reason one actually; it’s not just Paizo but Green Ronin, Atlas Games, Mongoose Publishing – all the things we remember fondly from 3e days (Conan, Starship Troopers, Freeport) aren’t going to happen in 4e. As a group that also plays GURPS and Silhouette and all kinds of other stuff, the whole 3e-based ecology was a strong reason to invest in it.

  8. Berin Kinsman

    October 19th, 2008

    I agree with @Jeff Greiner that 4e is a lot truer to OD&D’s sensibilities than 3.x was. I also agree with you, Jonathan, that 4e was devised for a generation that doesn’t read fantasy novels. I think that’s one reason a lot of the old grognards are going back to OD&D or AD&D, or embracing the retro-clones. The old games “feel” like the pulp fantasy we cut our teeth on, and 4e, as good as it is, “feels” like a video game. OD&D and the clones have rough edges; 4e is slick. I prefer the rough edges.

  9. Wyatt

    October 19th, 2008

    While I’m not seeing much evidence that 4e is “failing”, I have to agree with Jeff on:

    “I find the REAL failure of 4th edition D&D to have little to do with the rules or products associated with it. It is abundantly clear to me that the failure of 4th edition is in the marketing, public relations, and probably the worst of it, customer relations at WotC.”

    I think if Wizard’s had been more up front about the vast swathe of changes, rather than saying “3.5 did this, and it sucked” (funny and true as I believe that to be) it would have softened the blow. I like 4e precisely for what it is: it’s not 3.5. I played 3.5 for 4 years, and by the tail end of it, I was aching for a major shake-up that still had some of the stuff I liked about it. I got that, so I’m happy and fully converted to 4e. I like the new rules. But I think Wizard’s would’ve done much better admitting it was a total shakeup and not trying to be or claim that it’s your grandpa’s D&D. That might have also helped them lose a lot of legacy bloat that I hate, like Alignments (though they’re so nerfed now as to be laughable – which makes their inclusion even dumber).

  10. Rycrousalem

    October 20th, 2008

    Greeting all hi from Namibia
    Our D&D community got slaughtered by the evil christian empire ie no shops here stock D&D items and no D&D items are shipped to here from anywhere the best we usually do is pay consultants to return from germany with dice books etc. currently I’m trying online D&D communities as my D8 has chipped and unlike the rest of the players I do not have a reserver of 20 d8′s to replace it. can someone help me out with a dice please email me at worldwidefuneral@gmail.com

  11. Steve-o

    October 20th, 2008

    Our group is having a lot of fun playing 4e. We all agree that it has that old tyme OD&D feel to it. Are there issues with? Sure, but there are issues with every game edition. All I know for sure is that when we started up our 3.X campaign, I had a hard time finding people to play. This time around, I had to stop at 12 players and start making a waiting list. No one is under the age of 21, most are in the mid 20′s to early 30′s, do not spend time with video games, read voraciously. The thing that has really annoyed us about the game is that they have made it geared for online play so, for example, spells that used to be around are no longer there because they couldn’t figure out how to write the code. (ie: Command spell)

    What I like best about 4e is that it makes my prep time a lot easier and a lot less. At worst, if we end up getting bored, and I don’t we will since we are just having fun, we’ll just switch to another game- Serenity, Champions, or Rules Cyclopedia.

  12. Micah

    October 20th, 2008

    What I like best about 4e is that it makes my prep time a lot easier and a lot less.

    That’s also a big plus in my book for 4E. I really hate the video-gamey feel of it, but the ease of prepping adventures is a huge benefit. Still, my love of D&D is waning. I’ve started branching into alternate RPG systems, and I like the change of pace.

  13. mike

    October 21st, 2008

    Long time passing…
    Couldn’t resist :)

  14. Jancarius

    October 22nd, 2008

    My comments are thus: One, I don’t like the simplification. Yes, it makes it easier to teach the game to new players, astronomically so if you were to bring them in it at higher levels. But I must agree with people who’ve found that combat is “blow your encounters as soon as you feel like it, daily if you think you need it, spam at will powers.”
    Two, going with the simplification, there is NOTHING that changes about the style or nature of play from levels 1 to 30. In 3E (or in the unlikely event you broke double digits by much in 2E), the SCOPE of the entire game changed as you leveled up, at least for spellcasters (I’ve been playing wizards as my primary class since I rolled a natural 18 on my int in living greyhawk 2e). I LIKED that the scope and style and challenges of a high level dungeon were literally impassable to lower level characters. Now, instead of an inter-dimensional maze that transitioned back and forth across plains (to block plane-walking casters from traipising through), 4E basically just says “No, teleport is basically town portal now, except for the version that costs a fortune to cast that you don’t get until L28, giving you all of L28 and L29 to use it, before you character is auto-retired at 30.” I agree with a comment I saw in another blog “It’s not that the fighter was made more interesting, it was that everyone else was dumbed down to his level.” Okay, so primary casters (casters with L1-9 spells) was basically an inaccessible play slot in my group unless you knew your spell lists inside and out. I felt bad when my girlfriend picked to be a cleric, thinking that clerics were basically like divine wizards or WoW Priests or FFXI White Mages. Various people questioned for months her stat distribution, her gear and spell selection, her feat selection, and her choices of domains. Similarly, I’ve told anyone who wants to ‘learn’ arcane casters to just play Sorcerer. It’s like Wizard-lite. You pick your 4 spells per level and remember what they do and generally never have to change them, except things like Dispel magic when you get Greater Dispel, etc. But for the most part, introductees to the game were told “play a melee class” By which we didn’t mean a To9S (which brought fighters of all levels up on the relative power scale to high level casters… until high level, when they dropped completely behind casters again, even with all the errata’d in caster nerfs to iconic spells like Shapechange) characters, which actually were pretty interesting, until the munchkin in me started combining the classes with pretty much anything. Anyway, rant went way off track there.
    Three: I do like the shortened prep time, but I dislike the cause of it. NPCs and PCs are playing under different rule-sets. An npc wizard is NOT the same as the pc wizard. Mounted combat is another noticeable point: Mounted combat is immensely better for npcs than pcs. A mounted PC gains little more than the option of using the mounts attacks instead of their own and the mounts movement speed. NPCs gain the full range of the mounts movements, plus the mounts attacks in ADDITION to their own. My party dreads the thunder of hooves. In 3E you could be confident that you could back through a monster and deconstruct all the formulas built into it’s creation.
    Four: I like minions. Really. No caveat, they were just a good idea.
    Five: Initially, I disliked the conversion back to flat XP values for monsters. I liked the CR system, because it discouraged the player mentality of “let’s go beat up low level guys until we’re ready to take on a high level guy” I’ve actually come to like it because when my group attendance fluctuates, it makes for very quick encounter adjustments.
    Six: From a DM perspective, monsters are SIGNIFICANTLY easier to organize and use. Several of my friends who I let give a go at DMing in 3E would find themselves quickly overwhelmed by 5 books of monsters, plus monsters appearing in smaller numbers across at least a dozen other books, particularly campaign and campaign supplements. Memorizing, or least being able to properly utilize their tactics required a DM to not only be familar with the monsters strength and weaknesses, but the abilities themselves. I have to this day, after three years running Eberron games, NEVER used a quori or had any player conflict with the Inspired or any Riedran. Why? Cause I don’t have the time, or brain space to add psionic powers ontop of near 800 pages of spells that I have at least a general idea of their function. The ‘powers’ entries that explain exactly what the monster can do, and how often it can do it, greatly simplify monster use. Unfortunately, it also greatly decreases their depth. Templates are a hollow shell, better off than alignments (which are a joke now. “What’s everyone’s alignment?” “Unaligned”), monsters with class levels are equally meh. Sure you can stick the class-templates on them (Though it may appear in the FRCS, the FRPG 4E does not contain a class template for Swordmage, which makes me think these monsters with class levels are something WotC is trying to drive into extinction). An aside: Of the five DMs, counting myself, that I have played with or under, only two have generally strived to accurately stat and power all monsters and hostile NPCs. The other three held the philosophy of making up stats on the fly, which irritated me to no end when the encounter was planned in advance (tolerable if hte PCs go off track, but when you make up the stats of the Dark Lord of Evil mid-fight, that’s just lazy). Which is a whole rant to itself. I have a pretty good head for stats (I’m a graduate political science students), so when I can determine that the only possible way for a creature to have made it’s saving throw was to roll a 20, have Iron Will and Luck of Heroes, and an 18 Wisdom (as a rogue-NPC), and yet regularly make it save really bugs me (DM in question admitted to having one mob always escape or save any crowd control AoE I used in order to ‘spice up the challenge, so you don’t win an encounter in one spell’ to which I asked why he simply didn’t include more encounters, since his two-encounter a day format allowed me to blow my spells largely as I saw fit. He apparently just didn’t want to)
    Seven: To go back to simplification, again, alignments and morality in general. I loved the idea of a world of largely moral grays in Eberron, one of the things that initially attracted me to the setting (also the lack of double digit epic characters, or even canon L12+ characters) was the ideas of a corrupt Lawful Good church, characters who were doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, a vampire king that nobody knew was a vampire (I do on one level LIKE the separation of player and DM information that the FRCS and FRPG represents, in which the players have all the mechanics and information they as characters would be likely to have, and the DM guide has much more detailed background information and ‘ongoing hidden sinister plot information’. Of course, I also think WotC is just getting us to try and buy more books but oh well), and also dragonmarks, which are actually something I’m really looking forward to in 4E, because how they seem to work in the novels doesn’t really match up with their mechanical powers (completely excluding Crimson Talisman, which was like the worst book ever written). In the 4E PHB, there’s essentially a giant finger wagging at you everytime evil comes up saying “No, don’t do it. Be neutral at your worst, it’s not like evil characters are ever interesting.” Perhaps WotC assumes the player groups mature enough not to have evil characters devolve the game into a PK fest (Usually within the first three sessions, when two players who feel like badasses disagree and promptly settle it with a fight) will just ignore their finger-wag and play how they want while the wag blocks off the 12-14 year olds with the Christian Mother For Upright Upbringing from role playing anything less than shining armor heroes. But man, much like Faith of the Fallen is like getting hit in the face by the ghost of Ann Rand, the 4E PHB is like a giant discouragement from evil or even morally questionable characters.

    I still have my entire shelf of 3E books, and I seriously intend at some point to finish my 3E game (was actually running the final part of Demonweb Pits when 4E came out).

  15. DM Louie-Louie

    October 22nd, 2008

    Maybe WOTC will resurrect 3.5 and run it along side 4.0 (In truth, I don’t see it happening at all but we always hope.)

    My group likes 4.0, though there have been some dissenting voices from time to time but in all honesty, reading all the previous comments, it seems to me that 3.5 has been thoroughly developed–do we really need another set of 5 more monster manuals? With two PHBs, DMGs, and a host of other supporting material, I’d say 3.5 is fulfilled. Keep playing it–keep buying it and dare I say, if you want something else: invent it!

    To keep my campaign alive and vibrant, I completely changed up all the abilities of all my crits. I’d introduce an Orc and some guy would yell out, “AC 13, 1d8+1 hit die, moves 6 squares.” He practically had the book memorized! So to keep things interesting–even for him, my Orcs could came in different color varieties. Some would blink, some could gate, others had limited breath weapons.

    My point is simply this: If you don’t like 4.0–chuck it out and return to 3.5. Instead of pouring over the tomes, perhaps it is time that you start writing some of your own! Huzzah! The birth of a new world awaits you!

  16. Jonathan Drain

    October 22nd, 2008

    DM Louie-Louie: Indeed. Gamers should play whichever edition or game they prefer. (Unfortunately this means a lot of my players left for MMOs, but that’s life!)

  17. DM Louie-Louie

    October 23rd, 2008

    Yes, that’s true Jonathan, and that was your original point. The problem I have with MMOs (the D&D MMO for example) is that you are restricted to the confines of the game and that game does not allow for an interaction between the player and the DM the way traditional rpgs do. During the time I was playing the MMO, I grew increasingly bored at constantly just hacking and slashing the game. I tried D&D, Everquest, City of Heroes, City of Villians, and a host of other games. Yes, they all looked great. Yes, the game action was fun but it all got old pretty quick. There was one online game that held my interest for four years and that was EVE Online. I played that game daily. Why this game as opposed to the others?

    The difference, I believe, was one of genre. EVE Online is a space opera game where your avatar is represented by the ship your character is piloting. I had never played anything like it and so playing the game wasn’t a let down compared to the other games. I’m the type of DM that sits down with the player ahead of time and talks to them about what they want to do or the direction of their character they want to play. I let them come up with their background–no matter how outlandish and then work all that information into my campaigns. Of course, you can’t get that from MMO’s. So it was easy for me to lose interest in such a game.

    With current economic conditions, playing a game that requires $15 a month to do the same thing over and over again is not going to be as exciting as playing a game for free that you can do whatever you want! You may see your players back sooner than you think!

  18. "John Lee"

    November 4th, 2008

    There are a few major issues I have with 4e.
    1) NPCs are constructed differently from PCs. This just idealogically irks me. It does fix some problems, but I’d rather have a slightly dented silver vase than a genericized copper one.

    2) Minions. It’s a great idea, but I just don’t like the way it was implemented. If I’m making tactical choices based on the fact that some monsters are minions and some aren’t (a distinction that my character would have NO WAY of figuring out), then that is extremely irritating.

    3) Alignment. I personally love alignment, and would have liked to see it kept in the game. The current alignment system is…pathetic. I believe it’s done more harm to the concept of alignment than if WotC had renounced the alignment system forever. It killed any depth the system had while keeping all of the confusing flaws that Law and Chaos introduced. It has marred the face of alignment forever, and since I cannot believe that this new mangled alignment axis will be suffered to live, the new system has killed alignment and defecated on its corpse. The previous two issues were very little, just pet peeves I had with the system. The new alignment system is easy enough to eliminate, but it is a gaping flaw that continues to inspire my hatred.

    4) There was another thing, but I lost in in the upwelling of hatred for the new alignment system. Like #1 and #2, it was a minor thing, and no severe flaw in 4e. But then again, these little flaws are what make 4e unpleasant to play; and while I’d get used to them over time I see no reason to waste my time doing so when I can stay comfortably in 3.5 and other systems.

  19. Arym

    December 4th, 2008

    In my opinion I love 4e more then 3.5e for the exact opposite reasons. I came into D&D in the fall of 2007 and was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of for the lack of better terms “Junk”.

    I had my 3 core books but found out soon that it didn’t matter to have any fun with the groups around me i had to spend hundreds of dollars to get the essentials.

    My characters were vastly underpowered and useless because i was not using all the extras and little quirks that could be found in a plethora of other books. To create a character i had watched a friend look through no less then 7 books before he was even satisfied with his character.

    When 4e came out i was excited, i was on the leading edge and could be on par with others and enjoy the game to its fullest.

    I dont have the experience of 1e gamers but i personally love the new system and cannot wait for more.

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