Every time I get drawn into a conversation regarding the relative merits of D&D 4e and D&D 3.x I end up saying much the same thing. While I do like the consistency of my position, I think it’s time I posted something here I can just point at the next time the question comes up.
TL;DR (for those with no patience — and this is long, about 2700 words worth): I don’t play 4e, I don’t have the books, I don’t expect to ever do so. But I don’t particularly dislike 4e on a system design level.
I’ll explain below why I have the position I do.
History and Background
I started playing D&D somewhere around 1984 (I was in grade 6, it was before Christmas). As I recall we were wandering around under a pyramid with a bunch of stoned people wearing masks. After a couple of lunch breaks of this, I decided I wanted to learn more so I borrowed Craig’s (I think they were Craig’s) books — the Mentzer Red Box. I read it, was totally wowed by the awesome stuff in it, thought the cleric and the elf were pretty.
I later got a copy of the Red Box for Christmas and I haven’t looked back.
A couple years later I got the AD&D Player’s Handbook (blue cover with a wizard on the front), finally learned what raise dead did. Huh, I guess when we played A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity the NPC cleric (nobody wanted to be the cleric) could have used it to bring back the dead guy, instead of reanimating the giant rat corpses and bringing in the zombie rat cavalry…
Actually, now that I say that out loud, that sounds way cooler than bringing back the guy who was stupid enough to get himself killed. Screw him.
From there I played bastardized mix of Basic and Expert D&D, and AD&D 1st Edition. This lasted until the fall of 1989 when I found out there was a second edition… and it let you customize your PCs! And the bastardization continued (Oriental Adventures was applied immediately, and Unearthed Arcana — my barbarians went away, and I wanted them back!).
You may notice a theme here. I’ve been a rules tinker ever since I decided that, since elves were fighter/magic-users, and halflings were fighter/thieves, dwarves should be fighter/clerics!
I played and tweaked AD&D 2e for about a decade, folding in bits from other games that I found interesting. My designs of the time were… oh, let us say ‘consistent with the times’ and leave it at that, shall we? I don’t think I would ever seriously contemplate that level of complexity and fiddly detail again.
Let’s skip ahead a few years.
1999 D&D Third Edition Announced
A couple of years out of college, I’d kind of stalled out on roleplaying games. Little new material for D&D at the FLGS, and we didn’t have nearly the variety then that we do now (no, I wasn’t interested in World of Darkness, or Shadowrun, if I could still find it). If I’m not mistaken I was no longer reading rec.games.frp.dnd regularly, let alone posting regularly. Then I saw in Dragon Magazine (remember Dragon Magazine?) an interesting announcement.
One year countdown to D&D Third Edition.
They talked about some of the exciting things that were coming in the new edition, and announced that for the next year, every issue of Dragon was going to highlight a particular facet of the game so we could see what was coming and how it would work, and they were going to explain how to use that rule, or something like it, in existing games.
Well now. After the first few such articles I was jonesing hard to run a campaign again. I started reading rec.games.frp.dnd again, I looked Eric Noah’s site when someone sent me to a particular post (I didn’t like web forums then, I still don’t like them now). I started to incorporate the changes into my AD&D 2e game so when the D&D 3e Player’s Handbook was released we were good to go.
The changes made so much sense, and were simpler ways of doing the same things I was trying to do.
- I’d used ascending Armor Class since high school but never made the leap to ascending attack bonus. I’m still mildly embarrassed about that.
- Saving throws worked the same way? d20 + mods vs. Difficult Class, instead of rolling over a target saving throw value (that if I recall correctly might have bonuses subtracted from it).
- Saving throws were broken down into “how you avoid or mitigate the effect” rather than what kind of effect it was, so the saving throw being used could be easily figured out, excellent.
- Stacking rules! So you didn’t have to remember that your ring of protection +2 didn’t help if you were wearing armor (magic armor?) Just “except for dodge bonuses to AC, and some circumstance bonuses if they come from different circumstances, bonuses of the same time don’t stack”, brilliant!
- Multiclassing rules that worked really easily. Okay, we know now that they fall down, but at the time they were so easy to apply and made so much sense.
- Race and class limitations dropped (elven clerics and paladins, dwarven wizards, yay!) but race/class archetypes encouraged (yes, poorly, I know; favored classes died the death early in my games).
- For that matter, monsters that follow the same rules as PCs — I can actually see the details and make changes that are consistent with the rules, including adjusting ability scores and adding class levels.
The game made sense and we were having more fun than ever with it. But I haven’t gotten to the best part: the Open Gaming License.
I’ve been a supporter of Free Open Source Software since before it was called FOSS. I cottoned on immediately why the OGL was going to be great for the industry, and my game in particular. In fact, I’m pretty sure my first d20 monster book was the Scarred Lands Creature Collection from Sword & Sorcery Studios (it hit my FLGS before the Monster Manual)… but that was more than ten years ago and I may be mistaken.
So. When Third Edition was released, there was
- A year of buildup
- High engagement because they presented the material well and in a way that made it easy to understand and use even before release
- Easy to follow rules that would let you publish (for money or not) your own stuff without having to worry about Wizards of the Coast crawling all over you (anyone else remember the sole FTP site allowed by TSR?)
Skip ahead a few years again.
2003 D&D 3.5, Revised System Reference Document
Errata has built up, some undesirable interactions in the rules have been identified. In the summer of 2003 Wizards of the Coast released a revised Player’s Handbook. Some people felt it was too early and were angry that they would need to buy all their books again (etc.). I looked over the described changes and the copy of the new Player’s Handbook a friend bought at GenCon 2003 (any other Code Monkeys reading this? I don’t know how we all survived that party) and decided I could get by with the Revised System Reference Document (RSRD). A year or so later, after packing around a couple of binders full of a reformatted RSRD I broke down and bought the books — way more manageable. Since then I have continued to collect materials supporting this version of the game.
After the glut of crap material came out the third party supplements continued to improve in quality. Green Ronin was always good, but got even better. Bastion Press was good from the start. Mongoose got off to a rough start (early on I thought they were good on ideas but weak on implementation), but around the time they started their Classic Play hardcovers they really smartened up.
I have probably about 25 shelf-feet of d20 materials, if you include direct descendants such as True 20 and FantasyCraft. Add in the PDFs (many of which ended up being printed out and bound — Monte, I love the work done through Malhavoc, but that gorram font you use is going to blind me if I keep trying to read it on-screen) and there is a lot of material to work with.
2007 D&D 4e Announced
In 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced D&D 4e. At least, they tried to; the big web countdown led to their website being slashdotted off the planet, but I’m pretty sure most of us figured out what ‘4dventure’ was going to mean when the countdown was over.
A new edition. Okay. Some people fired up the hate engine, but while I was mostly happy with D&D 3.x (bastardized of course; I was already working on the proto-Echelon d20) I was prepared to take a look.
They announced some ambitious goals. Very ambitious. In fact, I wasn’t entirely certain they would be achievable within the framework of the existing game (especially since I remember thinking some were going to contradict each other — did I mention I develop software for a living? You learn to identify conflicting requirements), but I decided to reserve judgement.
This is where I saw a huge difference between the D&D 4e buildup and the 3e buildup. What I saw:
- The licenses for eTools and producing LST files (for PCGen) previously held by Code Monkey Publishing were discontinued.
- The licenses for Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine, both of which I believe flourished in Paizo’s hands, were revoked, and the magazines relaunched as online magazines. No more monthly presents in my pull box at the FLGS, I had to subscribe online at Wizards of the Coast.
- Where I saw monthly updates on D&D 3e in Dragon Magazine that I could make use of immediately, by shifting format (and ganking the licenses) Wizards lost me as a reader and I saw nothing in the new online magazines.
None of these things really made me happy. Even though I didn’t use eTools or PCGen (neither was usable for the rules I was workng on — or they might have been, but I didn’t take the time to find out), the CMP guys were friends of mine, and I liked what Paizo did with the magazines.
What I also saw, as far as the game was concerned:
- Blog posts from developers describing how cool the game was going to be, without strong indication of what the changes were going to be and how they would work.
- Design elements that seemed to contradict the stated goals (I let that slide early on, assuming my knowledge was incomplete and I lacked the context to understand why these things were good… though at that point I did wonder why they were chosen as examples).
- Announcements of how great it was all going to be when it got here!
- More design elements that conflicted with previously announced design elements and didn’t seem to address the goals at all anymore.
- The Open Gaming License was going to be dropped in favor of the Game System License (GSL), a much (much!) more restrictive license on who could publish what, and if I recall correctly there was a licensing fee to be allowed to use it. Or perhaps gain early access before release of the new game; I don’t remember because I gagged on it. Evidently a number of other publishers (including Green Ronin and Paizo — see below) did as well.
Early in the buildup I was cautious in my opinion, toward the end I lacked confidence in it almost entirely. I don’t remember if I predicted a train wreck, but I am certain I decided to wait what happened after the release. I saw similar reactions from others (one of the more fervent supporters early on started, somewhere around March or April, going ‘hmm, I dunno…’ about the whole thing).
I haven’t felt compelled to change my mind. Dropping the OGL for the GSL was a major dealbreaker for me.
For the sake of completeness….
Not long after D&D 4e was announced, Paizo announced their update to D&D 3.5 — Pathfinder. I admit I was rather more excited by this development than D&D 4e’s, especially since they were making the beta rules freely available (or not so freely if you were lucky enough to find one of the printed copies… mine’s upstairs). They were taking D&D 3.5 and fixing a bunch of the balance problems (I am generally satisfied that they in fact did so), the abstracted and improved some other areas (for example, afflictions now cover poisons, diseases, curses, and other persistence effects in a rules-consistent manner, something I first looked at when I was in Indianapolis in 2003).
I have the core hardcovers (including the bestiaries and the magic and combat supplements) and a couple of other books, but I don’t play Pathfinder and don’t plan to.
Of all the versions of D&D that I’ve played, if I were to play one without modification it would be D&D 3.5. The rules are common enough and commonly-enough understood that I can pick up and go with them. They are not without flaw, I wrote a series of articles about things I don’t like about them (that are still three of the most popular articles on my site).
- Failures of D&D 3.x, Part 1: Systemic Flaws
- Failures of D&D 3.x, Part 2: Issues of Application
- Failures of D&D 3.x, Part 3: Setting Failures
However, for all the flaws, this is still my favorite version of D&D.
This edition saddens me. I want to like it, and I see some good ideas, some of which I have at least tentatively included in Echelon d20. For example, Level Bonuses are useful for modeling certain tropes I like, and the skill training rules actually really work for me. In fact, I took the skill training rules and extrapolated them into six levels of training (seven if you include ‘untrained’).
As I said, though, the GSL was a dealbreaker, and there are other things about 4e that irk me (I won’t go into them now, it’s getting late and I’ve already rewritten this to be about half again as long as the original).
I want to like it, and there are things about the design I do appreciate, but overall I simply don’t feel compelled to delve into it. The really poor buildup, the erosion of my confidence in the product, the revoked licenses, and the crippled freedoms we had under the OGL leave me in a position where I don’t care to explore it.
Pathfinder… it excited me, but I don’t play this version of D&D either, for the simple reason that it strikes me as too fiddly. AD&D barbarians might have a few choices to make (what weapon proficiencies do you want? Oh, and some nonweapon proficiencies, in AD&D 2e) with regard to character design, but they were dead easy to prepare. D&D 3.x, you had to pick feats and assign skills, but that wasn’t so bad. D&D 4e didn’t even have barbarians on release (they showed up a year later, in Player’s Handbook 2), but I expect they were constructed much like other D&D 4e characters.
Pathfinder barbarians? Track your rage points because you get only a limited number of them per time period. And you have to pick specific rage abilities that use them. As I recall, there are prerequisites among the rage powers available, so you can’t quite pick freely, you have to take them in allowable order.
Way too fiddly for my taste. I think this is a place where maybe they took D&D 3.5 and cranked it up in a way I don’t care for.
That said, while I have little intention of playing Pathfinder again, I am quite happy to mine the books for ideas and ways to implement things. I am still planning to rewrite my Polyhedral Pantheon Design article to incorporate material from Pathfinder that gets me around a stickiness I found dissatisfying when I wrote it originally.
Well, there you have it, a longer-than-expected treatise on my favorite version of D&D, including how I got here.
Honestly, though? Echelon d20 is my baby and I’m waiting for gestation to complete. I think I’m going somewhere really good with it and I’ll love it like my very own… but while it has D&D 3.x as its primary ancestor, it won’t be D&D.