To all the DMs out there: how many of you have ever made a house rule? How many of you have changed some piece of description because you felt it didn’t make sense or didn’t fit with what you needed?
Probably all of you.
Wizards of the Coast is undertaking a huge experiment in both of these, and they’re calling it Fourth Edition. While they do this, they want to give you a look at what their thought process was at each change, and some parts of the final product of their experiments. Of course, designing a game system is a bit bigger of an undertaking than just designing for your home campaign.
That’s what these 4e preview books (Races and Classes and Worlds and Monsters) are: the design process of fourth edition, from identifying what they viewed as a problem, how they worked on addressing the problem, and what the results are.
This is a review from that perspective, looking at the way that the Wizards staffers explain their process and about the game design that has gone into the new edition. If you want to find out about specific elements or if your favorite race/class is talked about, I recommend one of the numerous threads on ENWorld (though be prepared for a lot of threadcrapping.) If the design process interests you, read on…
Both books follow a similar format: a little less than 100 pages, full color, with a functional yet fairly uninspiring layout. They run at $19.95 each, which means that buying both will set you back more than a Player’s Handbook. The book is divided into distinct sections with art, sidebars, and humorous excerpts from the design team scattered throughout. (If only we could see more of that side of the designers in blog posts and forums.)
Both begin with the same introduction that explains why they felt a new edition was warranted, and to try to reassure fans that they had legitimate reasons of their own to release 4e and were not under any pressure from outside sources (cough from Hasbro cough.)
Following the intro comes an overview of the development process. In R&C this is more focused on the timelines and codenames, in W&M this is shorter and talks about forming the teams created. For many people, this is probably more trivia than anything, though if you’re interested in how these editions shifts are done, it provides a pretty good overall insight- though it’s all from a designers perspective. I’m sure there was a lot of other meetings happening behind the scenes with marketers, lawyers, etc., that are essential in any big company.
Then the designers lay out what they believe are the core issues with 3.5, though their origin may go farther back. These are issues like “the sweet spot” only being a limited number of levels, instead of being every level. Or that the Monster Manual was filled with too many monsters that the PCs would almost never fight.
It’s not just negative, however, they also list their design goals with the new edition. Not just “fix these problems”, since that’s not enough to necessitate a new edition. Instead, what makes up the core of D&D, and how they can get a closer experience to that. There are many who don’t agree with what the designers have to say on these issues. However, the fact that they can take this approach to D&D makes me very confidant in the design team’s abilities as professional game designers.
After the big picture, the meat of the book is the details. In Races and Classes, there’s a breakdown of each race and class that is going to be in the game or was considered for the game. Worlds and Monsters covers the important monsters to D&D, the new cosmology, and pieces of the “Points of Light” pseudo-setting. (So, it would be safe to say that R&C is more aimed at players, whereas W&M is more of a DM book.)
Each chapter is structured the same, whether it be about Humans, Warlocks, or the Shadowfell. The fluff/flavor comes first, which heavily draws upon the new pseudo-setting. Information about past empires, upheavals of Gods, and Dwarven proverbs are all here, written from an in-setting perspective. Afterwards, there are more discussions on the history of the topic, how the flavor and mechanics fill a need in the 4e design space, and some hints as to the actual crunch. R&C is heavier on the explanation, W&M is heavier on the fluff.
As far as the art goes, Worlds and Monsters is better. Races and Classes is filled with sketches, and there are very few full scenes, relying mainly on character portraits throughout. Worlds and Monsters contains two-page spread panoramas and puts backgrounds to many of the monsters. If you’re buying the books for the art, W&M is the way to go.
So who should buy it? Game designers interested in how a huge, complex game such as D&D can get redesigned should definitely pick this up- you’re unlikely to get this much information from any other source. From a design-process perspective, it’s very well organized and clear.
If you’re not a game designer, however, the choice is more difficult. Most of the setting information, by necessity, will be reprinted in a better fashion when the actual game comes out. Unless you need to get your creative juices flowing 6 months in advance with the new setting (or are building hype), the actual setting information isn’t much use. The book also doesn’t answer such basic questions as “what races will be in” and “what classes will be in.” It gives some strong hints, but there’s nothing conclusive. As far as other rules, it’s even more vague… and for the rules it does address, I’ve found that some of the rules have changed in 4e since these preview books were published. The introduction does warn that everything is still in flux, but it’s disappointing to pay for inaccurate preview books. And if you’re buying the books for the art… buy Worlds and Monsters.
It’s an interesting product, and I’m curious to find out how well it does for Wizards. It’s unlikely that this kind of book would sell well for any other tabletop game. I think there is a disconnect between who the stated audience is (everyone who’s interested in 4e) and the actual audience (those interested in the design process.) Still, as a product, taken on its own, it’s a very interesting and indepth read.