Many players derive great satisfaction from the sense that their game and setting continues to validate the continuity of old books and game sessions. If you’re one of this sort of D&D player, you no doubt cringed over the Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons books as page after page declared inconsistencies with classic game settings and established history.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with dragonborn, non-Vancian magic, or the Shadowfell, at least not as game elements on their own. What gets me is that that they showed up overnight with no explanation, just by writer’s fiat. Even a token explanation would make me happy. Something to validate the new material as authentic Dungeons & Dragons, by describing how we got from where we were to where we are.
For those of us who care (perhaps too much) about our D&D setting continuity, here are a few possible answers to major questions that 4E raises.
Where did dragonborn, eladrin, and other new races come from?
Old D&D settings like Greyhawk don’t feature the dragonborn or eladrin, but both are core races in 4th edition. Tieflings have gone from monsters to core PCs, and new books introduce races like the wilden and Eberron’s shifters and kalashtar. Where did they come from?
- The races are a tiny minority, but a disproportionate amount of them are adventurers. Only recently have any adventurers of this race become famous. (Bullywug, shifter, kenku.)
- The races have emigrated here from far away, or another world, for some reason. They may be refugees from war or famine. (Dragonborn may be mercenaries of a fallen empire, while many tieflings may be refugees escaping the Blood War.)
- The race always existed, but simply kept a low profile, or little was known about them. They may have been mistaken for another race or creature. (Eladrin, changeling, kalashtar.)
Why does eladrin mean a subtype of elf, when it used to mean a type of celestial?
Eladrin originally referred to a type of celestial, which includes the ghaele eladrin and bralani. 4E uses the name for a sort of fey elf. Why?
- The eladrin are one of many elf subtypes. They took their name from the celestials whose bloodline they share, via historically important aasimar and half-celestial ancestors from the plane of Arborea.
- The celestials called eladrin (such as ghaele eladrin) were always called such and still are, but interact with the material plane infrequently, and are rarely seen.
- Eladrin may be a descriptive word in the celestial tongue, which can accurately be applied both to the elf-like eladrin and the celestial creatures.
Why does magic work differently?
Fourth edition switches the “Vancian” per-day spell-memorization system for at-will, encounter and daily powers. Many spells are gone, changed or re-named, and scrolls of combat spells are gone.
- After centuries, research in the field of magic has developed new and improved methods. The “old magic” still exists, but is unpopular, and “old magic” items like scrolls of fireball are hoarded by collectors.
- Some spells have simply changed their name. Councils of wizards have standardized the new names, perhaps accepting compromises on names for political reasons.
- Certain spell components are now so rare that those spells are inefficient to learn, and have fallen from popularity. (Teleport, for example.)
- Certain spells have different mechanics, but the descriptive effect remains the same.
- A great cataclysm changed how magic works. The god of magic was slain, or a powerful weapon disrupted magic and forced mages to research new methods of spellcasting.
- The “old magic” is a misconception held by commoners, storytellers and other non-practictioners of magic, perhaps because it makes for a better story. In reality, magic has always worked the new way.
Why have some monsters radically changed?
Some monsters have changed in level, appearance, name, or abilities. The red dragon you fight today isn’t the red dragon you fought in third edition. From the character’s perspective, what’s changed?
- Over time, a monster has been hunted by adventurers, enemy tribes or natural predators, such that by survival of the fittest, only the strongest survive. The creature is thus now much stronger than its kind were a century ago.
- Spellcasting monsters still possess all the abilities they previously had, but tend to only use a few most effective of abilities in combat.
- Magical manipulation, planar corruption or breeding with other species has introduced new and unusual traits into the creature’s bloodline.
- The creature is constructed or birthed by a human wizard, deity or bizarre natural process, and its design parameters can be altered.
- The creature is a spiritual entity of some sort, and so its appearance to humans may change based on the viewer’s preconceptions, or the guise the entity wishes to take.
Why have world and planar details changed?
The Astral Plane has become the Astral Sea. The elemental planes have been squashed together into the Elemental Chaos. The plane of shadow is now the Shadowfell. Controversially, the new Forgotten Realms suggests that the Nine Hells actually won the Blood War. How can this be true?
- Both new and old descriptions of a plane are true, in a way which is difficult to understand. Extraplanar reality is complex, and difficult for people of the material plane grasp. (A real-world parallel is how in physics, light behaves both as waves and particles.)
- The new plane is simply an old plane with a more interesting name.
- Some major planar shift has occurred. This may explain other changes in the world.
- The change is only true for one world. There are many alternate worlds where it’s not the case.
- Asmodeus claiming to have won the Blood War is a massive, elaborate, world-spanning publicity stunt to gain followers and raise his own power.
General catch-all explanations
When all else fails, one of these may help.
- Much time has passed, perhaps centuries. The old details were true then, but times have changed.
- A massive cataclysm caused the fabric of reality to change. The death of a god, a planar battle, or a truly epic spell has had far-reaching implications.
- Some of the old details are now understood to be false after all. Modern research has uncovered it to be a superstition, an exaggerated folk legend, or propaganda.
- The popular name of something has changed over time, but it’s still the same thing.
- The new game mechanics are just a different representation of the same story element.
- If all else fails, a wizard did it.