The Analog Gamer: 'Edditional' Information Part I

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On June 6th change is coming. No matter how much the stalwart heroes of countless worlds fight it there is a shift ahead. After 30 years and 3.5 editions, the most popular role-playing system in the world is preparing to shed its most recent set of scales and embrace modern tools and services. Dungeons & Dragons is exiting the cave of ideas with a shiny new coat of rules and a few creative directions altered from the previous edition.

Over the last 20+ years that I’ve been a player of RPGs both analog and digital, I’ve noticed that there is one trend that you can count on whenever change strikes the gaming fandom: people immediately either defend and champion the change or they fire up the torches and erect a cross to burn the new concepts in effigy. Its almost like a religious debate and people often act as though you’ve threatened to force them to slaughter their personal golden calf.

I’m not someone who has a zealot’s perspective on any game. I love games. All sorts of games, all sorts of rules. I’ve changed through every version of D&D and AD&D over the years and have generally found that while none of them was delivered perfectly from the mouth and hands of some deity unto mankind without the need for change, that overall each version has done something better than the last.

1st Edition was the stone tablet brought down to the RPG masses and lead them from the temptation of empty miniature wargaming. 2nd added options and expanded the rules and choices with kits, weapon and non-weapon proficiencies along with the almighty THAC0 and served us well during our days of wandering in the desert. The arrival of 3rd Edition introduced the concept of community content, embraced the morphic nature of gaming and added yet more options and features and allowed players to “take back” control. With 4th Edition I suspect that Wizards of the Coast is continuing the trend of streamlining the game, making it more accessible and looking to make the message simple enough that it spreads easily and attracts new followers.

If the religious comparison’s are getting too much let me apologize. They are merely meant to illustrate just how sacred many fans of the game hold its systems. Role-playing games evoke a large sense of ownership in players. Many fear that the act of changing the rules invalidates their personal memories, likes and dislikes, and that Wizards of the Coast or any other publisher is “abandoning” them to the wild without further books and products to purchase and support their beloved vocation.

Monday, I had an opportunity to make my own “trip to Mecca” in search of answers to the 4th Edition question. I drove from my home here in Columbus to Chicago to meet with a few members of the design team behind the new edition and to get a sense of where the game was going and what tools the folks at Wizards of the Coast would be providing players of this new version.

james-wyatt.jpgI was fairly sold on the concepts of the transition already, an easy convert, though my traveling companion was less so. Once we arrived we were greeted graciously by Designer James Wyatt, Brand Manager Kierin Chase and D&D Insider Executive Producer Ken Troop. We exchanged pleasantries and dove into the discussion, with James leading the discussion of the changes and philosophical ideologies behind the new edition.

Wyatt painted broadly in his discussion of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. He spoke of the history of the game, the concepts of story that had been scattered throughout the old and new versions of the game and he talked of helping players and their storytellers put words to some of the concepts introduced by the game but never codified before. His thrust was talking about story development as a focus in the new edition.

Wizards understands that there is a core intellectual property with the D&D brand and is seeking to strengthen and expand that area by focusing on what he called “core assumptions.” These core assumptions surround the concept of a core mythos built up in the many versions, concepts like Drow Elves, Tieflings and other interpretations of the game world are being carried forward, some with more focus than in previous versions. An example, and one that brought early complaints from some D&D purists was the removal of Gnomes as a core race in the players handbook and the ascension of the Tiefling, a race originated in the classic Planescape setting, in their place.

players-handbook-resized.jpg“We’ve carefully considered just how every race and every class in Players Handbook I really fits into the system and the new mythology of [4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons]” Wyatt explained. “While some people may be disappointed initially because a favorite race or class is not in the spotlight, rest assured we’ll get to them in future Player’s Handbooks. We wanted to innovate where we could. To expand on ideas presented in the earlier games and then in some cases come back and apply those changes to old favorites later.”

Wyatt explains that not everything is changed in this new edition and while the rules might be adjusted or streamlined to make play easier the core of Dungeons & Dragons, the core ethos of this game will always be about exploration and discovery. He stressed that “the game should always be about adventure.”

“What has changed,” he explained, “is how players experience that adventure.” Wyatt claims that 4th Edition is truly a refinement of the rules and tools used to play. He stressed that the idea was to speed up playing the game, to facilitate players and dungeon masters ability to tell their story together. The D&D design team realized that as the 3.5 version continued to expand that often players and DMs found themselves swamped with options and with no simple way to organize or draw from all those sources. The new mantra for the rules was to make the game “as much work as you want it to be to get the most enjoyment out of it.”

Wyatt himself even commented that he was happy to be playing this new version. “I mean I’d become the rules guy in a game we ran at the office. My two bosses were constantly asking me how a rule worked in a game because I’d become somewhat of an expert and the options had gotten pretty vast.” He exclaimed that he was truly enjoying his D&D gaming again thanks to 4th Edition because the game had become streamlined and simpler for everyone at the table to understand.

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Part of the simplification that he explained was the concept of the party role. Players in previous editions often defined their jobs in a party by their class or race. Mechanics, Wyatt said, were not designed with a particular role in mind for any one character, they were always about options and options often grew cumbersome or conflicted over time despite the best efforts of the designers. The new edition embraces the concept of a player’s role. So much so that the class options have been sorted into four broad categories depending on their primary focus.

These four roles will sound familiar to anyone who learned the lingo of massively multiplayer games like the popular World of Warcraft, but Wyatt explained it away saying that the MMORPGs adapted concepts that had always existed in D&D and gave them names, so with 4th Edition an effort was made to draw a comparison to that lexicon. Where MMO’s have adopted terms like “Tank”, “Blaster”, “Bandaid”, “Buffer”; D&D classifies its class options as Defender, Striker, Leader and Controller.

The names sound self-explanatory to a large extent. Defenders are characters who can absorb a lot of damage or borrowing MMO terms and can “pull aggro” from the big monsters and survive while the Striker deals damage at a range, the Leader buffs the party and the Controller judiciously drops a fireball to direct the flow of battle. “These roles set player expectations and defines your place in the party” Wyatt explained. ” It also makes teamwork a very important part of the game and encourages that group dynamic, teamwork is king now.”

dungeon-masters-guide-resiz.jpg“We really wanted to make the game more fun for players as well. You’d often find, when we looked at how people played the game, that players found themselves waiting around to do their part in a battle. We wanted to change that.” Wyatt explains that now players all have more options, more powers they can level so no one has to sit back and watch as the Fighter pummels the bad guy or the Wizard runs out of spells in the middle of a dungeon. “A typical 1st level character has 4 powers they can use in any battle. That’s a lot of versatility.”

The topic of rules was also addressed. “We’ve spent our complexity carefully.” New options will be introduced as the lines of books are expanded over time but Wyatt emphasized that the idea was to add options, not power in the long term.

New abilities published three years down the road should maintain the same balance as those in the initial players handbook release. New races, classes will appear in Players Handbook 2 or 3, while powers and options might appear in the role oriented books like Martial Power or Primal Power. Regardless, the organization of the books is being done with an eye toward making it simple for players to find options simply and easily in the future.

This talk of organization and simplification naturally led into a discussion of the new online tools that are being introduced with the 4th Edition as well. Tomorrow, in the second part of the series we’ll talk in depth about the digital tools that Wizards is offering for players and how Dungeons & Dragons is truly embracing modern gaming habits.

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