4E is still coming!

A little over eight months ago, I wrote an article about Wizards upcoming releases and how they applied to the release of 4E D&D. Well, we’ve just had the releases for the first four months of 2006 revealed. How do they change things?

Well, not much. As I mentioned in my last essay, most of these books are dependent on you having books other than the Core rules. These aren’t the front line of books that traditional D&D players have been clamouring for. On the other hand, books like the Magic series are opening up new possibilities for ongoing series of books.

2007 is still the earliest that we’ll see 4e at this point. We should know about it a year in advance. Indeed, we’d likely know more than that: 4e’s design cycle is likely to be extended. Just playtesting the revised system would take six months, and there’s probably a year of other things that would have to be done before it got on the shelves. Personally, I think that two years might be how long it takes to get ready.

That all depends on how big the changes are, of course.

There are other aspects to when 4e comes about. Do you think Wizards is unaware of the resistance to a new edition? I know there are some braindead people out there who think Wizards will do anything to make a profit… but really, how much of a profit do you make if your customers don’t want to buy your product? Having an early 4e is not in Wizards interests if it just causes people to turn away from D&D.

It should be noted that 3e did cause people to stop playing D&D, but they were a small number when compared to the huge group of people who came back to D&D. We’re not going to see anything like the transition from 2e to 3e here. The numbers should remain fairly constant – a good revision will see not many new people join, but a bungled job will see many people leave.

Indeed, the suggestion that 4e will be as radical a revisioning as that of 3e is unfounded and, in my opinion, improbable. There has been a lot of work done on 3e. The basic structure of the game is really good, and it is understood by the designers and developers who work on the game. This is as opposed to 2e, where the structure wasn’t good.

What do I mean by a poor structure? Well, it has to do with how supplemental books integrate with the rest of the game. In 2e, many supplements were poorly balanced with respect to the rest of the game, or raised up the power of one class significantly (with no drawbacks) whilst leaving the rest where they were, or had to rewrite large chunks of game rules to do what they needed to be done… and thus became inconsistent with anything else that was written.

A good example of this was the Complete Priest’s Handbook, which completely redesigned the cleric character. Any priest from Complete Priest was significantly inferior to your standard 2e cleric. There were good ideas in there, but the result was woeful.

This hasn’t been a problem with 3e. The requirement of needing to spend resources (often feats) to gain benefits is a strong one, and helps keep the game at a more-or-less constant power level. A more subtle resource is that of class levels – when you take a level of a prestige class, that’s a level you’re not taking in your base class or another prestige class. The balancing problems are equally subtle and difficult, which is one reason why the early spell-casting prestige classes have so many problem, and were often revised so much in the Complete series of 3.5e books: the issues involved need experience to handle properly.

Thus, are Wizards going to throw away all of their work with 3e and their knowledge of the system? I really think not.

However, will 4e will be absolutely compatible with 3.5e? Probably not. There are issues with 3.5e (and the 3e system as a whole) that will be improved upon. D&D is an evolving game; the mechanics do not remain fixed. A good example is the introduction of swift and immediate actions in the last couple of years. The ruleset has expanded beyond the basics of the core books, and it would be advantageous to have those actions explained in the core books. They alone are not worth creating 4e for, but there will come a time when such is necessary.

When I look at the issues with 3.5e that require attention, Metamagic and Turn Undead are the two that I normally address. We can probably add Level Adjustments at this point to that (short) list of things that 4e will have to deal with. Andy Collins and Sean K. Reynolds have been discussing this on ENworld. I strongly recommend you look at their discussion.

Then too, there is the ongoing question about the complexity of 3e. Let me say this: from the player’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with 3e. Where the problem lies is with what the DM has to do to create adventures, especially the creation of (high-level) NPC stats.

However, in this area, the needs of players – to have distinctive characters – clashes with the needs of DMs – to have simple stats to create. How this can be resolved is one of biggest challenges facing D&D. The game needs DMs for it to succeed, and if the job is too hard for the DMs, then the game has a problem.

There is no mystery about why most recent books have sample stats for the prestige classes: it is to help DMs. As most of us on the ‘net discussing this are experienced DMs for whom creating new stats isn’t that hard, we tend to see them as not essential. However, the DM who has less time available or isn’t quite as confident with creating NPCs will find them much more useful. In recent days started using these stats and the sample encounters to help with my campaign – and they’ve been very useful!

The history of D&D has been one where more options are given to the players and DMs in each passing year. The original set may have only had 3 classes (Fighting Man, Cleric and Magic-User), but by the time of 1st edition AD&D the list was out to 11 (Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Magic-User, Illusionist, Thief, Assasin, Monk, and the Bard). Today, there are many classes – and prestige classes and multiclassing expand the options even more.

4e won’t be about restricting the options, but it might deal with making them more managable for the DM.

So, when can we expect 4e? I still believe that 2008 is the most likely date for a new edition, with 2010 being the other likely choice. I don’t think prolonging 3.5e’s life would be in the interests of the game, nor do I believe that rushing 4e towards us too early would be beneficial.

This past year has seen many innovations in the mechanics of the game. The action points of Eberron, along with the widening of the range of options with races like the Warforged, are part of the overall evolution of D&D. It is always worth remembering that not all paths in evolution are the right ones: there are things that just don’t work, and are abandoned. So too with new game mechanics. Some will prosper, while others will be ignored.

One challenge that we, the players, have is this: to let Wizards know what innovations they make work, and which ones do not. Although some may be able to let the designers know in person, for most of us that is not an options. So, what should we do? We should play the game. We should try new things. We should then write about them. Most importantly, we should try to describe why something succeeded, or why something failed – and do so in such a way that the designers and developers can learn from our experiences.

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