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Why D&D 4e "Failed" -- My Theory

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There are many theories as to why the 4th edition of WOTC failed to interest many D&D players and apparently failed to meet the sales goals WOTC set for the game. My theory is simple, 4e's lead designer Rob Heinsoo wasn't really designing a new edition of D&D, but a game that played the way he thought D&D was going to work back in 1974 when he was ten years old and had read about the game in Military Modeler magazine, but had not yet seen -- let alone understood -- the rules to D&D. Rob starts off a "Spotlight Interview" on the WOTC web site (March 13, 2009) clearly stating that in response the first question of the interview about that changes he wanted to make to the D&D system when he designed 4e:

My goal designing 4th Edition was to make a game that played the way I thought D&D was going to play, back before I understood the rules.

I read about D&D in 1974 in Military Modeler magazine and bought the game by mail order. I'd read The Lord of the Rings, but not The Hobbit. I was ten years old and I didn't fully understand the D&D rules for another year or two, but I loved the feel of the game and its fantastic open-ended universe. I wanted epic battles and characters who could fight like Aragorn or Legolas or Gimli or Gandalf using powers that suited those characters. I wanted my 'fighting man' to be as tough and heroic as John Carter of Mars.

Given Heinsoo's stated design goal for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, I don't see why so many people have trouble understanding why many D&D players found that 4e just did not feel like "D&D" to them. Heinsoo admits he wasn't trying to design a new version of D&D, but a set of rules that played the way he thought D&D should be played before he understood how it really was intended to be played. This would be like someone who expected soccer when he first heard of American football revising the rules of American football to be the game he always thought it should be. While many people might like the new rules, there would likely be a large number of people who did not think the new game felt much like American football regardless of the fact that it still used the American football name.

JB said...
April 20, 2012 at 3:09 PM  

Nice insight. Makes much more sense.

Mel said...
April 20, 2012 at 4:55 PM  

Interesting idea, but I'm noy sure that the quote captures anything other than that sense of wonder we all felt with our first encounter with DnD. Nothing wrong with that being the inspiration for a new edition. As someone who has no beef with 4e, who's played and enjoyed it, but who will always prefer Holmes, I think the problems with 4e are simple.

First, the launch was horrible. Truly a case study in how not to launch a product. I was at GenCon the summer before the launch, and I couldnt make heads or tales of what was being said. Further, ther was NO attempt to involve the fan community in the design process. And the d20 community was left in the lurch as to how open the license would be.

Second, although I find 4e kind of elegant (at least for low level play), it ultimately did away with classes. This was a huge no-no. Rather than clerics and fighters, you've got controllers and strikers, etc. Yeah, the class names were kept, but REALLY, the classes don't play very differently. It's the "roles" that play differently.

Those are my .02

Roger the GS said...
April 20, 2012 at 5:40 PM  

Good detective work. The part that nails it is the desire to have everyone be an amazing fictional hero rather than work their way up.

Sean Wills said...
April 21, 2012 at 1:04 AM  

To me, 4e DOES feel like American Football, whereas Oe is clearly Rugby.

Argent said...
April 21, 2012 at 4:26 AM  

I think 4e "failed" in that it was the first major rewrite of a roleplaying system in the modern internet and social media world.

It suffered from an online backlash in a time when the internet was opening up opportunities everywhere - roleplaying particularly. Its true much of this had been around earlier but it was gaining critical mass at the same time as 4e launched.

Without that internet freedom the community would have coalesed around 4e because it would have had no choice.

I fear for 5e. Many of the people who loved 4e, me included, are concerned right now. I think it may just further fracture the base. The 3.5 and legacy players have got on fine without 4e so why do they need 5e? Us 4e players have tons of material and a game we broadly enjoy so why do we need 5e?

How does WotC deal with this? No idea.

Chaltab said...
April 21, 2012 at 11:14 AM  

Read some old Gary Gygax quotes and you'll see that 4E plays rather like he intended for D&D to. It was 3E that fucked up and made a game that Gygax hated. Gygax has numerous quotes explicitly talking up game balance, saying that casters should be balanced with fighters because it's a game, and that people who complain about realism in the fantasy are idiots.

James Bryant said...
April 21, 2012 at 6:34 PM  

I have to say I think a warlock plays very differently from a ranger, and a paladin plays differently from a fighter. Even just looking at leaders the way you play a warlord is completely different than a cleric. I do understand your point, but I disagree. There is a lot of variety in the classes. My two coppers.

Randall said...
April 21, 2012 at 7:22 PM  

@Chaltab: I've read just about everything Gygax has written about D&D since I started playing in 1975. You are correct that Gary wasn't a big fan of 3.x. However, there's really no evidence he'd have been a bigger fan of 4e considering it took the game even further from its Gygaxian roots. 4e has little or nothing in common with what Gygax intended for D&D.

The type of "balance" Gygax talked about in the late 1970s and early 1980s has little in common with the way the word is used by WOTC D&D fans today.

Finally, Gygax was dead set against complex combat rules as they put too much emphasis on combat (by making it take up too much time in a game session) which took the focus away from exploration, treasure-finding, and roleplaying. Remember in OD&D and 1e (the games Gary wrote), experience points for combat were dwarfed by the XP one got from treasure. Combat was an exciting part of Gygaxian D&D, but it was abstract, fast-playing, and not the major focus of the game (as it seems to have become in 3.x and 4e).

benensky said...
April 22, 2012 at 11:08 AM  

Seems like you 4E bashers will never give up. If 5E is proof of 4E "failing" then 4E is proof 3.5 failed. Why create 4E if 3.5 was so great????

ADD Grognard said...
April 22, 2012 at 2:58 PM  

The misunderstanding is that the editions have failed. None have failed...the COMPANY has failed...the 'if it's not just oozing profits then we must need a new one' mentality must come to an end.

And benensky, you are proving my point. 3.5 didn't 'fail'...WotC abandoned it. 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder and the majority of OSR titles climbing in sales prove that SRD based games are the most successful RPGs since AD&D 1e. With the numbers available it would appear that 65%-75% of players play a '3' based game (that being an overall, not single system, figure)

Just like 4e. 4e didn't 'fail'...they are just abandoning it the same as the others. This issue has been covered even right on this blog.

And when they throw the 5e adopters under the wheels of the bus when they release 6e they will say the same thing.

WotC/Hasbro are like that drunken uncle that no matter how much trouble he gets into he can always get out of it because he's rich. Between the patent on M:TG and Hasbro being beyond god loaded they can just keep pretending that they don't know the answer to the question.

Randall said...
April 22, 2012 at 3:16 PM  

@benensky: The word "failed" was in quotes for a reason. 4e is not failing to provide fun for those who like it. However, it clearly seems to have failed to meet WOTC's business goals for the game in that it clearly failed to have the high adoption rates from 3.x (and previous) editions that WOTC needed to met its business goals and therefore failed to produce the level of income that bean counters at Hasbro/WOTC expected.

My post isn't intended to bash 4e or those who enjoy playing it. All I'm trying to do is point out from a statement made by 4e's lead designer why so many people did not like 4e and did not move to it as WOTC expected (and needed to meet its income from D&D goals).

cibet said...
April 22, 2012 at 9:20 PM  

4E failed because the OGL exists and Paizo took it and ran. That's pretty much it. If you take away the OGL, and if Paizo would have embraced 4E, it would have succeeded just fine.

Philo Pharynx said...
April 23, 2012 at 10:44 AM  

Actually, 4e has sold really well and is quite popular when you compare it to most roleplaying games. If it weren't D&D it would be considered a home run (to continue exapnding the sports metaphors). The reason that most people see it as failing is because 3rd edition was the knocked-out-of-the-park-grand-slam-to-come-from-behind-in-the-9th-inning-of-the-world-series-by-the-batter-who-dedicated-the-game-to-the-kid-with-leukemia. 3rd edition and the OGL took over the industry, spanwing lots of new companies and changing the focus of other companies (which ended up killing a few game lines). Compared to that, a moderate success looks like failure.

benensky said...
April 24, 2012 at 6:27 PM  

@Randall When 4E came out it sold record amounts of the core books and made WOC multiple times more than they would have if they continued to sell 3.5. I think that was the plan. It has now reached a point to do the same thing with 4E. That is because of many more reasons, including WoC total failure to market 4E well and anticipate the negative effects of the OGL, than the hypothesis of your article.

It sounded like to me you were stating that it was not really D&D. This is a typical 4E bash statement. Just admit you were perfectly happy playing 3.5 and felt like WoC pulled the rug out from under you coming out with 4E. That is why you are still angry and resentful and bashing 4E.

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