A Wizard Did It: Patching 3E to 4E Continuity

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.

Comments (8)

Wyatt (October 5th, 2009)

4e’s generic setting (Points of Light) is basically a reboot of the continuity, picking whatever old stuff it likes but basically starting over new. Wizard’s were in obligation of offering some form of nonsensical explanation for converting your old 3.x storylines to 4e, but I’m more partial to “you might as well start over.”

Every other setting so far has included explanations on all the new stuff.

In my own campaign setting I make vague allusions to the 3e to 4e conversion by stating that there used to be a world before the present with all the 3.x trappings such as reality-collapsing 9th and epic level spells, Pun Puns and other game breakers and things like that, but that they were destroyed in a cataclysm after the fabric of reality essentially grew very sick of them.

So I guess good old cataclysms just work well for this kind of thing, like our friend the Spellplague.

rantmo (October 5th, 2009)

I’d take it even farther than Wyatt, 4e is more than just a reboot, it’s a wholly new setting, and doesn’t need a continuity explanation. That would be like asking why Krynn was now called Athas and was out of water without any explanation, the two just plain aren’t related.

I think if one were to update the old Greyhawk-ish setting, the easiest was to handle it would be somewhat similar to what WotC did with Forgotten Realms, move it all forward a significant chunk of time and put a serious event occur in the interim. I myself always like having a war of the gods, that’s such an effective trope and isn’t too terribly clichéd.

Randolpho (October 5th, 2009)

I agree with rantmo:

Continuity is *highly* overrated. It’s a game. It’s fun. Don’t sweat the details unless they’re important to the game at hand — and even then, the details should be setting related, not *rules* related.

Tyson J. Hayes (October 5th, 2009)

Both @Wyatt and @rantmo make good points, a good old cataclysm (or god death) tends to hand wave everything, or even just saying the two aren’t related get over it.

Really I must pose one question in that did people do this for the change from 2edition to 3rd? Try to make everything fit together? Again they are almost two different games.

I really liked your point on the “old magic” is a misconception held by commoners. In the event of a cataclysm or something of that nature and all magic is lost it would would take about three generations for all of the knowledge to be lost. And your thoughts on the survival of the fittest being an explanation for the monsters is quite thoughtful.

Ablefish (October 6th, 2009)

It’s funny, but one of the things I really enjoyed during the year before, and the year after the release of 4E was the regular design and development articles on the Wizards site. They walked the reader through a lot of the decisions that shaped 4E, and between those and the podcasts, I have a hard time with the suggestion that they “showed up overnight with no explanation”.

So you know what I’m talking about, here’s a link to one of those articles.


@Tyson Our playgroup had been playing an Eberron campaign but we basically put that aside when 4E came out and we started a new collaborative setting (mostly because we all wanted to try DMing in order to really learn the new system)

Lurkinggherkin (October 6th, 2009)

Hi Jonathan,

I understand that for those who tend to run shorter-term campaigns anyway, or whose long-term campaign has come to a natural end, starting over probably seems entirely logical, and continuity not so important.

However, as someone who migrated a long-running Greyhawk campaign from 1e to 3.5e, I entirely appreciate your desire to rationalise continuity. I understand that new rules come along and you see advantages in them for your existing campaign, and you want to find a way to use them without junking it or having its flavour fundamentally altered in an abrupt way that doesn’t make sense.

When you’re faced with these continuity questions, I think you have to make a choice between taking on board the new setting flavour that comes with the new rules or else trying to preserve the existing flavour. With my jump from 1e to 3.5e I chose the latter - but planar excursions are a not uncommon experience in our campaign and so I save a lot of the 3.5e material that seems a little ‘outlandish’ in the context of Greyhawk’s quasi-medieval setting to populate those adventures.

Lets’ also not forget that the Flanaess is only a small corner of Oerth, and that there are plenty of places ‘off map’ for people to adventure in where things may be different, or where, say, dragonborn or eladrin refugees might arrive from.

As an aside - Dragonborn are a 3.x invention anyway, described in ‘Races of the Dragon’ IIRC, although a little different to the way they are presented in 4e. And there are a number of other draconic humanoids in 3.x, and a ‘draconic’ template.

Anyway, good article. As for myself, I’m sticking with 3.5e for the foreseeable future, but I think some people may find this useful.

Zeus (October 6th, 2009)

When it comes time for me to adapt D&D 3.5 to 4, I’m just going to add 0.5 to all dice rolls.

TheyCallMeTim (October 7th, 2009)

I like continuity, I really do. Having a group of players that’s familiar with a setting and its history helps an awful lot with immersion in its history, especially if the actions of their previous characters have had or are having an effect on the world in later campaigns.

In fact, I would argue that one of the best ways to explain changes is by attributing it to actions of the PC’s, particularly if you’ve played through a very long campaign in which the players were much invested in the past. It gives them a feeling that they actually have an effect on the world and the story, instead of just starting over fresh every time.

I favor 3.5 myself, but as an example, perhaps some or all eladrin were pulled from the heavens as the result of some failure on their part in the last campaign. Perhaps the Dragonborn were savages beyond some just broached frontier or even a highly developed nation in their own right, analagous to when westerners first arrived in China, where the party was exploring, making them viable PC’s in the next campaign (by which time there’s trade and travel back and forth between there and the former PCs’ homes). Monte Cooke ran the transfer from 2d to 3d in Ptolus, if I recall aright, with the disappearance of the Vallis Moon after his players foiled an attempt by the Galchutt to break their chains. If Asmodeus really has won the Blood War in your campaign, it could be due to the previous players’ direct intervention, if the campaign went high enough level, or just the unintended consequence of someone the cheated, killed, or helped out.

4e works right out of the box as a new setting of course, making no explanations necessary, but if I ever do switch I think I’ll do my best to keep the history intact.

Comments for this article are closed.