Where D&D is Heading; or, How the Internet Changed a Game

Most people with a strong interest in D&D were not surprised by the recent announcement that Wizards of the Coast is in the process of creating and playtesting the next iteration of the game. The signs of its arrival were pretty clear if you knew where to look: the split in the player base, the design tenets of the most recent Wizards’ publications, the staffing changes at Wizards, the contents of various articles on the Wizards’ website, and many other clues hinted at a large-scale project in the offing.

Although the announcement was made just a few short days ago, speculation, discussion, analysis, and predictions are running rampant in every corner of the RPG world in anticipating of the D&D Experience convention, where the first public playtests will be held. As one would expect, the chatter runs the gamut from the typical Wizards-bashing on one end to outright giddiness on the other. As a freelancer who has done a bit of work for Wizards over the past few years, my natural inclination is to the side of giddiness. I have both a sentimental attachment and a professional interest that strongly hopes Wizards succeeds spectacularly. Indeed, I will continue to work to my best ability to make sure that happens in any of my projects.

However, there is the part of me that has been playing and enjoying D&D for three decades. That part of me must also look at the hobby, the business, and the game objectively. This new version of the game will be the one that my daughter will play during the same time of her life when I started playing, when all those amazing hours of fun and shared storytelling helped make me the person I am. I want the game to be fun and challenging and smart and encouraging imagination. I want that for her, and for me, and for players everywhere.

Long Ago and Far Away

The goals of the new design team are simply expressed but will be incredibly difficult to fulfill: bring all of the best parts of previous editions into a new iteration that players with different desires can play together. Cynics scoff at this as an impossible task, and they might right. That’s OK. I think that it is a goal worth pursuing, even if the final results fall short of it. You cannot even approach the goal if you don’t try.

The first step in meeting that goal is recognizing the evolution of the game. I know that many of the members of the design team have been playing older editions of the game to remind themselves, with first-hand experience, what those games were like. I have not had the chance to play the games, but I have gone through my old books (conveniently timed thanks to some house remodeling) to refresh my memory about what the rules of the game once were, and how my groups used those rules.

Rather than a point-by-point, edition-by-edition rundown of where the game has been, I must summarize. I owe my sanity that. The next months and years that the new iteration will be in design will see enough evaluation of older games to keep one busy reading. Some very smart people have already started.

What I will try to look at are what I see as the general trends rather than specific rules. (Some of these trends I have brought up in past articles in different contexts, so if I repeat myself much I apologize. Just consider it practice for when I will start embarrassing my family. More than I already do.) AD&D (sometimes called First Edition) was a mess of a rules set, in terms of mechanics of a game—and yet it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had gaming. I’m sure some of this is nostalgia, but not all of it is. I’m sure some of this is the newness of the game and the genre, but not all of it is. Looking back at that edition from the perspective of a designer and through the lens of countless RPGs, the game just excelled at getting to the stories. It might be because the game “borrowed” from so many great works of fiction that you couldn’t help be in a story as you played. Part of it had to be because there were so few choices that a character could make in terms of game elements that all of the decisions were made in the game.

I do strongly believe that a large part, and perhaps the largest part, of the games draw was that each group that played had to basically design their own game. Like I said, the rules were quite interesting, in that Chinese proverb sort of way. Those who are very generous say that the rules were written as they were because they were guidelines. Well, I can tell you that they became guidelines pretty quickly regardless of the intent, because most of them were house-ruled into something completely different. And I don’t mean “Little House on the Prairie” house-ruled. I mean “200,000-square-foot mansion” house-ruled. The game was great because it was a game that the group created as much as the published rules did.

In this game, the DM was in control. There was no question about it. Sure, different DMs ran things differently and player input was usually welcomed, but the only rule of the game was that the DM made the rules. Players who have grown up with discussion boards and errata and computer games might shudder at this, but not only was it not scary or dictatorial, it was liberating. Yes, the DM was in charge of the story, but, when done right, so were the players. For groups that got along and understood how they wanted the game to play, it was Zen-like: the more you let go of the control, the more control of the story you had.

The Connection Is Made

Another thing to remember, as it will become important later, is that there was no significant inter-connectedness like there is today with our Facebooks and Twitters and infinite niche forums. A few small conventions and periodicals (we had this stuff called paper back then) were the main places for cross-pollination of ideas. For the most part, people were playing and not really worrying about how other people were playing. A “character optimization board” was the piece of wood the DM hit you with when you thought your PC was so cool and invincible. Min-maxing was finding a way to flick your wrist just right so that your wizard PC got 4 hit points when he leveled instead of just 1.

When Second Edition D&D was released, I didn’t notice much of a change in the game. A few more options were offered to the PCs, giving the player a few more decisions to make. It seemed like a little power was taken away from the DMs and given to the players, but all of my groups soldiered on with little thought. We ignored a lot of the extra material that was released at the end of the 1990s, and just continued our happy campaigns with all our favorite house-rules and quirks.

Third Edition turned everything on its ear. This was both good and bad. It became a much better game in terms of rule mechanics. Elements of the game that were convoluted and seemingly mystical became as easy as beginning algebra. We all know that huge weight that was lifted when THAC0 went away. Players now longer had to worry or wonder about what a DM might do to make things rough for them regarding how something worked, because there seemed to be a rule for everything.

And then there were the character rules. All of the character options, the multiclassing freedoms, the customization through feats: it was a player’s dream. And for all that, it was also a DM’s nightmare. Whereas everything in the first two editions seemed to focus on exploration and story, everything in this edition seemed to focus on the rules. Opening a door became a rule. And the rule was written down. The rules became a tool of the player and a burden to the DM. This edition of the game was the first that I voluntarily stopped playing because I was just burned out. And what made it worse for me was the discussion of the rules. It was bad enough that the players were pulling out 4 different books to try to argue a miniscule point. But now they could pull out their laptops and show 45 other people all pulling out their own books and argue the same points.

Fourth Edition came just in time. I was seconds away from taking up a less frustrating pastime like demolitions or shark baiting. This edition began to return some of the power to the DM. Not a lot, but a little. Most of the power was returned by streamlining rules to get them out of the way so the story could come back into focus. And some of the player rules were streamlined as well. Those of us who had DMed and played in the earliest editions could see the old “exploration and story” light at the end of the tunnel. But things were still a little off. That light was blocked a bit by a strong focus on “encounters” which emphasized the same grid-and-movement mindset that 3e introduced. The feeling of “campaign” that the earliest editions encouraged was still a bit hazy, especially for those who only played 3e and 4e.

Old Arguments, New Technologies

And the Internet is still there. It gives us the beauty of communication, but we use it to clamor for errata and clarification and justification and perfection. We have a tool for sharing stories like no other, and we use it to nitpick and gripe and limit our imaginations rather than free them. I am as guilty as anyone in this, perhaps moreso. I have striven to make campaigns that embrace the ugly perfection of rules over the beauty chaos of a story shared. And in my foolishness, I would probably make the same mistakes again.

Having said all this, I need to make it clear that this is just my severely biased opinion, and it is a bunch of opinions that have been simplified and distilled down to an essence that does not capture my whole experience. I have loved D&D since even before they added the “A” at the beginning. Even at its most frustrating, I would still take a game of any edition of D&D over just about any other hobby to share with a group of friends (or in some cases, strangers). There is still more story in even the most tactical game of D&D than there is in all reality TV put together. Unless “Celebrity Housekeepers of Waterdeep” is on some network’s spring schedule.

So, as I sit with everyone else and wait to see the first draft of the rules that we will all get to playtest, I have much hope for what the game can become. I would love to see the streamlined balance of 4e, the players’ ability to create a truly unique character of 3e, but the power for the DM to bring about an inspiring and fun story that was enjoyed most in those earliest versions of the game. It may not happen, but count me as one of those cheering that we are all going to get a chance to make it happen together.


  1. Really nice article. I was surprised to hear you support the way early editions resulted in a lot of house rules, but I see what you mean. It was great that each group could create what they wanted. It was like having the OGL… in your own hands. At the same time, I love how 4E has given us a stable currency and common understanding of the game. House rules are few and far between, as is custom content. We used to fill netbooks with AD&D house rules… there isn’t the same need for custom content now. And, the common rules mean we can all have great online discussions, because we all largely agree on how xyz works. But perhaps the greatest gift of that aspect of 4E is that DMs can really share things. You can often drop-in a terrain bit, monster, or magic item from a blog right into your home campaign and have it work. You can collaborate much more easily.

    It will be interesting to see how D&D Next handles those different possibilities. Will modularity marry the two to some extent, such that at a game table you can have your game and I can have mine, but by referring to the module by name we can both know what we are talking about? That’s a tall order, but also very cool.

    And good point about our children. I hadn’t thought about this being _their_ edition. Wow.

  2. Shawn Merwin says:

    Thanks Teos. This whole concept of thinking back through the editions has been a bit odd for me. I am not used to thinking. It reminds me of that line from the movie Inherit the Wind. Drummond asks Brady what he thinks about a certain subject, and Brady responds, “I do not think about the things I do not think about.” Drummond replies one of my favorite lines in any medium ever: “Do you ever think about the things that you do think about?” This past week I have been doing a lot of thinking about the things I have been thinking about. All that thinking has shown me that I am completely torn on a lot of issues.

    Yes, the 3e and 4e rules were brilliant at codifying mechanics. 3e rules absolutely captured the fancy of a generation of players in ways that the previous rules did not and could not. I was captured as well. 4e did a good job in simplifying those rules to help DMs run games more smoothly. I loved 4e rules. All this communication lets us talk about rules and debate and compare and grow the game to be something bigger than itself. Part of my is grateful for that. I wouldn’t be here typing if I wasn’t a part of it.

    But it is also a different game because of it. It is still D&D, of course. But part of the mystery is gone. Part of the ability to tell a group story got lost in the rules. It’s not gone, it’s just obfuscated a bit. Rather than going into a game with a sense of wonder, I think many players now go into the game with a strategy. It is not “what will happen if I try this,” it is “one of two possible outcomes will happen if I try this because of the rules.”

    I am OK with how messed up the rules in earlier editions were because it didn’t matter. It was, like you say, an OGL for each group to create their own game. And that was all that mattered. Sure, there were still rules lawyers back then, and we had a board with their names on it as well. We didn’t need errata. We were the errata. We might have missed out on something cool because we couldn’t get on forums and share ideas. But we also spent the time we would have been on forums creating our own stuff, which was cool too.

    I just realized it. I’m old. 🙂

  3. That was well written. I’ve read similar comparisons about the different editions, but this is the one that resonates with me. And in a short amount of space, too. 1E/2E being story based because there were lots of stories being used from other sources hits the nail on the head. It’s like watching Once Upon a Time with my kids. (um, yeah, I watch it because of the kids, yeah, that’s the ticket) Whenever the show introduces a character from a fairy tale, we can already relate to them because we’re familiar, even intimate, with the basis from which they came.

    4E being encounter based is the description I’ve been looking for about what 4E represents. Well said.

  4. Chris Sniezak says:

    Man Shawn. This article says everything I’ve felt about D&D recently. Now when people want to discuss older editions vs Newer editions and the differences I’m just gonna point them here and say “This is what I think.”

  5. Awesome article. The issue of 4E being broken into Encounter chunks is downright eloquent. Well played.

    One thing: You described 3E as being there for making Unique characters….can I ask you to elaborate on what you mean by Unique? I’ve always seen it as “every barbarian has X at this level” while in 4E there are build & power choices to customize your concept. Is it a “Since there aren’t mechanical ways to differentiate, people are more pressured to be creative” or is it a “Everyone has Encounter Powers, so it feels the same” thought? Again, this is my bias but I’ve heard this about 3E several times before and haven’t found a sane & stable voice to explain what they mean by it. Seriously…I was mostly forged in the fires of 4E & the RPGA….so I’m curious what I’m missing when I simply read the books of yesteryear.

    PS: And yes, a player like me is kind of scared at the notion of the DM just making it up. Your liberation is unnerving, but again, I suspect that’s a generation gap thing.

  6. Thanks Shawn, it’s a nice article. Of course all our experiences are a BIT different. I played some in the days before AD&D, when the rules were REALLY obscure and nobody quite knew what an RPG was, and that was more IMHO like what you describe. You HAD to design a game, there were only bits and pieces there (OD&D didn’t even have a single established combat system). 1e felt pretty well codified, the rules were just obtuse, but the level of houseruling seemed pretty mild IME. No more ‘Arduin Grimoire’ and such. In fact we did a lot of casual homebrewing, mostly grafting in stuff from other games just to do silly things (like Car Wars, Fight in the Skies, and Gamma World mixins). I agree about 2e, it didn’t really change much in our world.

    I have to say I basically skipped 3.x entirely. Not from some deep philosophical dislike for it in concept, other games just took over our interest around here. 4e did hook me back in.

    I’ll be honest though. I find a lot of the noodling on the differences in versions to be somewhat overly analytical. What I see is people constantly analyzing what they’re doing instead of just doing it. I’m not so sure from observation there’s a really large difference in what my group does now than they did in 1980 when we first assembled. The rules are more readable and easier to interpret. Things work slightly differently, but frankly the adventures I run nowadays are not hugely different from the 1980’s ones. Many things are just easier.

    Of course I’m probably a mutant amongst gamers… I just like to run games. Tinkering? Meh, TME.

  7. Shawn Merwin says:

    @quirky and Chris: Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think that great many gamers who have seen many editions (and many different kinds of games) feel similarly in at least some ways.

    @Jared: Love your work sir! Thanks for the feedback. What I meant by uniqueness had more to do with skills, multiclassing, and feat selection in 3e than anything. I think powers in 4e give an illusion of customization, but in the end the characters were fairly similar, if not in playability then in flavor. If you remove the role that optimization played in both editions (the tendency to force players to all have the same elements because they are “best”), I think 3e allowed a more diverse group of characters. My best example is one of my 3e characters (yes, I am now going to tell you about my Living Greyhawk character. Try to run and I’ll shoot you down.) It was a sorcerer who used all hand-to-hand spells (shocking grasp, chill touch, etc.). So when we formed tables at conventions I would tell people he was a magic-user, and everyone assumed he was the stand back and use magic missile type. But he was a tank who usually had the highest AC at table. I would be hard pressed to do that in 4e because it would be outside the “role.” And that is not a knock on roles, because I think they are not a terrible thing.

  8. Thanks for the answer….and I think I see what you mean.

    I try when I can with Outsider to point out how to break from those roles in 4E, but I admit that it’s not as….obvious? I’m not sure that’s the right word but I have to work to show people that _____ doesn’t have to be _____. Or so I try. As a player I’m a sucker for classes with vague or bendable roles…Fighter, Druid, & Wizard have been great for that at the table. Your example is great though that I’d still argue about (playfully because it’d involve me telling you about my Living Forgotten Realms characters that surprised people at the Convention table) but now I get your meaning.
    With that in mind, the concept of Roles is a big thing I see in 4E that isn’t there in the past.

    Pro: When people put parties together, they had to think about their role anyway so 4E makes it easy to see what the party does & doesn’t have.
    Con: Shit, you may be right. Particularly on the topic of Skills. I forgot how frightening that looks to me, though obviously its breeds skill diversity.
    And, now that you mention it, my only Living Greyhawk character was a Batllemage named Guard who wore heavy armor & wielded a Polearm-looking staff to NOT look like a magic user until it was too late. That’s….not something I’d do in 4E, partially due to mechanics & partially due to the ephemeral something we’re addressing here. Food for thought.

    By the by, I only now just realized all those “touch” spells from previous editions aren’t here anymore. Which is…surreal now that I think about it. ::adds to trivia bucket::
    “who still doesn’t 100% agree with you but totally sees your point”

  9. For me skills were a big part of what 3E offered in customization. You could choose to define yourself as a master of stealth, a master of tracking/survival, etc. You did this each and every level by placing your skill ranks in the places you favored. For high skill rank PCs it could really tell a story.

    Some feats could also tell stories. Feats were often larger versions of the “gain a power” 4E feats and tended to chain together. This ended up defining you as a certain style (like a wand user, a chain fighter, a crafter, a giant fighter, etc.). Multiclassing, which could be done several times, also helped tweak your PC to paint a picture. Prestige Classes (similar to paragon paths) often were deep affairs with a lot of color. The Arcane Trickster (a rogue/arcane hybrid) was a really deep exploration when compared to the Paragon Path of the same name. There may never be an edition that could so completely and accurately bring together your PC’s picture into a mechanical reality as 3rd (and Shawn gave good reasons why that may be a very good thing).

  10. @Alphastream
    My only criticism of what you’re describing is that it looks like you have to plan very far in advance which Prestige Class you want to qualify for. I see the appeal of making them something you have to earn, but in my one 3.5 game I remember being kind of sad that the math & skills required for the thing perfectly for my character was something I’d never be able to achieve unless I’d thought of it at level 1. That was my experience, so it might not have been universal….but 4E brought me joy with the Paragon options that had relatively few requirements, if any.

    It’s interesting though…this chat is pointing out a lot of stuff I’ve seen but not realized never materialized in 4E. In some cases (chain fighter I am looking at you) that may have been a good thing, but not universally.
    Damn you folks for being civil & wordaliscious, which is totally a word.

  11. There were a half-metric ton of downsides to it. (Which we can say for many editions). All those options together spelled doom for balance. On the upside, it meant that the prestige class really fit. Compare to domain feats in 4E – most PCs (not all) choose the strongest power that appeals to them, not the deity that appeals to them. While we certainly saw pClasses everyone chose (Radiant Servant, etc.), there was often a bit more flavor to the choice and it contributed/prescribed? more over time. PPaths seem to just be an initial choice and then forgotten other than “oh, look, I get another power in the Builder at this level”. Ying and Yang and I think plenty can be borrowed and discarded from both versions.

  12. Maybe I’m an odd case. I played all the older editions & never enjoyed any of them as much as I wanted to. It’s a bit of a wonder that I still play any RPGs, but I always thought they had so much potential.

    The people I played with were part of the problem, obviously. I felt like they never even gave the rules a chance, so it was a while before I discovered their inherent problems. But I always had faith that there was a game there that worked without a DM imposing his own bias and wild houserules.

    I sold my books in the mid-90s, but I came back to 3/3.5. Finally the rules were complete and workable enough that a DM didn’t have to change anything & if they did I knew to be suspicious of their motives. I turned into a real jerk, trying to get them to adhere to rules that I believed were fair and workable.

    Largely they were. I never encountered an insurmountable issue with 3.5, but I knew that some classes & races were “weak.” I abhor optimization, but I disliked that the designers had deliberately hobbled certain choices.

    I got out of my rules lawyering, by and large. It helps that I tend to DM and I /think/ I’m fair. I don’t houserule, but I say “Yes, and” as much as I can.

    4th was balanced & I dove into it gladly. There are few truly bad choices or combinations, almost none if you’re careful. The stuff the game needs spelled out (combat & a short list of skills) work fine & non-combat encounters finally had support. Everything else was very abstract allowing for a table to fill in many details as they liked. I loved it. I’m baffled by people who found it restrictive, because of the early problems I had with “broken” systems that my table patched badly.

    I’m planning not to resist this change, despite the disappointment I feel at the rejection of the good with the “bad” in 4th edition. Perhaps the good will carry on in some way.

  13. @pdunwin

    And yet, in my own experience, I found 4e a much worse environment with regards to optimization than I found 3/3.5. While few of the classes are truly “weak” due to the Roles-based designs, you do end up (and incredibly so in Essentials) with some classes that have numbers that stack ridiculously well, and some that are pathetic. The Archer Ranger subtype in Essentials does less damage than any other class in the game, regardless of feat choices, and it’s listed as a striker. The Scout and Hexblade, by contrast, are more effective than nearly any other class in the game, simply by virtue of the automatic powers and passive benefits they get.

    In 3e, I found that my players tended to pick up on those distinctions and instinctively tend toward optimization less; I think partially because the Core 3e classes weren’t explicitly designed around roles. You can play a high-AC wizard who gets into the thick of things, or a Cleric with a lot of combat feats and the War domain, turning you into a magic-blasting frontliner. You can play a Fighter and out-damage an Archery Ranger, if you pick your feats right. Each of the classes was, in my mind, much more iconic and much wider in aspect than the 4e classes, which tend to be highly narrow specializations that, rather than letting you piece together your own vision of a character, interpret the character you want, and give you a mechanically pre-determined path that more or less gives you what it says it does.

    Now, I’ll admit–sometimes, that works. I love the Monk in 4e, I love the Psion, and I love the Invoker. Those are all cool classes that feel very different from anything you could do in 3e (the Monk in 4e is a wholly different beast than the 3e Core class of the same name). And yet, sometimes, it doesn’t. The Bard loses a lot of his charm and famed versatility in 4e, where he clumsily fits into the Leader role. The Paladin becomes just a high-defense fighter with radiant attacks instead of melee damage. The Wizard looses what was a glorious repertoire of unique, interesting, creativity-inducing spells in 3e, and replaces them with a loose assortment of various energy-bolts. (I admit, many years on now, the supplementary content that’s appeared for Wizards, especially in Essentials, has made them quite fun. But when 4e first came out, I hated them.)

    But all of these are simply personal observations. But I’m as excited as Mr. Merwin when it comes to D&D Next, and am wishing just as hard that Wizards will succeed in their monumental task.

  14. Shawn, Great Post–I really share your enthusiasm. One thing I am thinking about tonight–perhaps in response to your observation that the change from AD&D to 2nd Edition did not seem like a big change & the 3rd was where I really felt like D&D had ‘evolved’ AND perhaps in response to your observation that D&DNext will be your child’s game [my son learned 4E] is what about the players that do not think we need a new Edition. The ones that learned 4E, moved to Essentials, are showing up at Encounters every week–are fairly happy with the hobby and now are being challenged to evolve again. Are we listening to their needs? They do not necessarily have the long view of you or I. I doubt that they have any interest in going back to read 2nd Edition Rule Books [let alone track down copies of Chainmail], in fact many of them [my son included] are concerned about having to spend US$100 on new books more then anything else in the new game. How do we address their play style. How do we include their goals in D&D Next?

    When you say:
    > I have much hope for what the game can become.

    I am struck with the thought that maybe, just maybe, D&D is fine the way it is…

  15. I agree with the entire premise of the article, really. Loved it!

    But what I loved most was this quote: “A “character optimization board” was the piece of wood the DM hit you with when you thought your PC was so cool and invincible.” Gave me quite the chuckle. Here’s hoping the next edition really can combine the previous four versions into something great because that would be a sight to see.

  16. Aggro the Axe says:

    Wow, I don’t honk I ever heard anyone say the 4E returned power to the DM more than 3E did. I just can’t see it myself. Although I freely admit, 3E, couple with the mass communication of the internet, ushered in a new age of player entitlement…

  17. Aggro, you will see many different takes, but I have heard many DMs say that the way 3E allowed the PC to define their PC often ended up defining the entire campaign. Crafting rules changed the economy while other rules provided ways to buy or construct buildings or hire powerful companions (through the Leadership feat). DMs often felt they were competing with their players… and losing. 4E strips away some of that realism, such as crafting, and also the strength (half price!). 4E also makes it very easy to compensate for power levels. Adjusting for broken characters was incredible work in 3E – especially at high levels. Some spellcasters were really just invulnerable except under very specific conditions. 4E has a more level playing field, confining how spells work (as an example). You really can just pour damage at the problem, for example, or add more monsters with a higher to-hit bonus. You just don’t have shapechange issues, blasphemy, etc. The problem areas in 4E, such as conditions or interrupts, can be accounted for with monster powers (such as Action Recovery).

    I heard the 4E designers speak to this at a convention shortly after 4E’s release. They said 3E was a great way to be realistic and simulate the fantasy world, but that realism was often in the PCs’ favor. 4E tried to simplify rather than simulate, and to establish boundaries that prevented players from dominating the DM.

  18. excellent article!
    exactly my thoughts.
    I have total faith in 5th ed.
    bring it on!

  19. CrowOfPyke says:

    Shawn, thanks for writing this article. I have also played them all, and you do a great job of boiling it all down its real essence and summarizing. You have excellently captured all my hopes about what 5th edition can be, or should be, as well. “I would love to see the streamlined balance of 4e, the players’ ability to create a truly unique character of 3e, but the power for the DM to bring about an inspiring and fun story that was enjoyed most in those earliest versions of the game.” Well said sir, well said.

  20. Very good points. On editions prior to AD&D one reason the DM’s had so much control was the rules were not just vague – they were outright contradictory, so someone had to resolve the contradictions.

    On the transition from AD&D 2nd to 3rd I think there was another major change that greatly impacted the focus from playing a story to playing a set of rules: ironically, the changes to XP tables. While I’m not sure I would like to going back to having hundreds if not thousands of encounters to level a character, it totally changed the feel of the stories you could tell per level when you went from escalating numbers of encounters to always just having 13.3 encounters per level in 3.x and 8 or so per level in 4E. That pretty much means you get just one boss monster per level – OK for adventure path stories but it kills the sandbox style campaign so prevalent prior to 3rd edition. The death of sandbox campaigns really changed the feel of the game, in my opinion.

  21. @Ryan

    The Archer ranger in Essentials is a controller, not a striker.

    My issue is not with optimization (though I’m not really a fan of it) but with certain classes and races simply not even being on the same basic power curve as others. The issue of “linear fighters and quadratic wizards” is fairly well known. Even if not optimized, a wizard (and most other full spellcasting classes) can outstrip a fighter easily.

    I would believe there are ways of dealing with this; I’ve talked with people who claimed it wasn’t a problem at their table. It never really was at mine because we stuck to relatively low levels. Others who might have found it a problem may have just done what the article suggested, and changed the rules to suit themselves. I’m just saying that I would prefer a system that at its base has everything relatively well balanced with no clearly bad choices requiring things to be thrown out just to make it work. If the new game is modular in such a way that one can take that core and do with it what one wants, then it will probably be fine.

    My personal feelings about the classes are different from yours. I think it’s possible (and preferable) to bring in one’s own personality, rather than lifting it from the quirks in the rules and (lack of) balance.

  22. I think this summary is excellent.

    Having played a long time. 1980s, till now, a lot of my early game experience mirrors yours. D&D – AD&D was a lot of fun, primarily because choices for players lay in how the dm laid them out, the rules offered very few options, so it was up to the group, but mainly the DM to decide how to deal with the 4th dimension of gaming, (unscripted events that no one could have planned).

    3E was the tipping point. It introduced a lot of the concepts that 4e has become famous for, maybe even infamous. The rules specified a lot of new concepts and combat mechanics that could only be resolved with a battle mat and minis. Tons of new choices were introduced, skills, feats, and so forth that fi would say forced, others might say strongly encouraged choices based on mechanics, rather than on gameplay. 4e carried this further by introducing so many new feats, powers, classes, and races that I stopped even trying to know all of them. The mechanics are so dense, I actually rely on the tool set from wizards to remind me if all of my bonuses stack or apply. Some might argue, I’m lazy, but to me it feels like the game that 4e became is a distant relation to the D&D I grew up with. 4e seems to force meta-gaming from inception to play. Most gamers I meet now pick classes, races, weapons and powers based on combat effectiveness rather than an abstract idea of what type of character they wanted to play. And from my perspective, 4e created this problem.

    This isn’t entirely a bad thing. I’ve met some terrific new gamers, some of whom never even played the old D&D, and I’ve run a few games, and played a bit too. One of my favorite characters ever is a 4e Monk.

    But, it would seem that the trend since the 90s has been to emulate the specificity of computer RPGs. Rather than emulating the strength of the tabletop experience, which is abstraction. A computer game can never be derailed and rerouted the way a tabletop game could. From what I’ve heard, this is where #dndnext is headed.

    I just wanted to see if you would agree that 4e didn’t seem to return any power to the dm, quite the opposite, Skill challenges, mechanics for everything from breaking a door down to climbing a wall.

  23. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Alhazred Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am glad that you found the game play similar between the editions and that your games didn’t change much. Much of my noodling over the differences was out of necessity. I had to think about how the rules affect the game play while administering or writing for several Living campaigns. As you say, much of this is very dependent on perspective. AD&D definitely codified much over the earlier forms of D&D, but compared to other games–and especially more recent games–the rules were more guidelines than rules. This is a good thing for some groups and a bad thing for others. That’s why I am so torn on my thoughts about what is positive and negative (in my experience) with each edition.

    @Jared I’m glad I was able to get my point across, even if we don’t agree with each other 100%. Like I said, everyone’s experience is going to be a little different depending on what else they have played, what kind of groups or campaigns they are used to, and where they put the emphasis on the game.

    @pdunwin I appreciate you taking the time to give your views. One thing I left out of my article (on purpose for length reasons) is something that your comments bring me back to: the more robust and specific and balanced the rules are, the more protected players are from “bad” DMs. I say bad to mean the opposite of good, which I will define in this case as a DM who is able to run a game that is fun to both himself/herself and to the players. The more the rules answer questions, the less the DM has to make up. So in that case 3e and 4e rules were good. However, those strong and specific are like steel bars: they can support a campaign without breaking, but they also can be a cage. Sometimes I saw DMs try to step outside the rules in ways that would have made the game more fun and exciting and the story more entertaining, but the players saw this and couldn’t accept it. Out came the rulebooks and the arguments ensued. No rules set can fix problems with people wanting to play different types of games at the same table. But hopefully a rules set can offer enough options to make it easier for tables to communicate about how they want to play, and maybe even mesh different styles better.

  24. Shawn Merwin says:

    @David Excellent question about the players who are happy with 4e. Do we have an obligation to listen to their needs? Quick answer: absolutely. To their needs only? No. I think there are a lot of reasons why we need a new iteration of the game. Part of it is business-related, and I do not begrudge Wizards that, as someone who works in the business world. Part of it is game-related, and I recognize that, as someone who also works in the game industry as a freelancer. I am hopeful and fairly confident that the DND Next design team recognize the need to maintain the playability of 4e while trying to improve it.

    @Hydra Thanks for the comment. That line came to me very late one night, and it is more true than it sounds. Even though there was a lot less min-maxing to be done in AD&D than in later editions, our group when I was young really self-policed when it came to putting individual power ahead of the fun of the group and the story. I didn’t realize how much that has stuck with me through the years.

    @Aggro I didn’t mean to imply that 4e completely returned the power of the game to the DM. And I don’t mean to say that the DM has no power in 3e. I am speaking in general terms based on the experiences I saw. I think of it this way. In 1e and 2e, most of the interaction between the players and the DMs was the players asking, “Can I do this?” or “What happens if I try to do that?” The DM would then make a ruling–usually associated with a die roll–and the game would continue. In 3e, my experience was that instead of asking questions of the DM, players were instead telling the DM what happened based on the rules the character was using, generally accompanied by reference to 4 or 5 rule books referenced because the rules were quite convoluted in some cases. In 4e, the player still does more telling than asking, but at least the rules are a bit more streamlined, which lets the DM focus more on story than on following a line of rules logic through many hoops. And I say this without any ill will toward 3e, because I loved how those rules gave players so many options that they could play with. Players could have hours of fun away from the table just envisioning how to use rules to create the perfect character (either in terms of story or in terms of power).

  25. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Sjap and @Crow Thanks so much for the comments. I’m glad that there are people out there who share my vision. So many years have passed since I started playing that I am lucky I can remember how to roll dice, much less what those early experiences were like! 🙂

  26. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Keith Thanks for sharing your comments and experiences. To answer your question, I didn’t mean to imply that 4e gave the power all the way back to the DM, or even enough power. I just feel like, as a DM running a campaign, 4e returned to me some of the aspects of the game, especially in terms of campaign direction and story, that 3e gave to the players. Not a lot, mind you, but some. And it simplified and streamlined enough rules to keep my face out of books. Monster design is a big one. Magic item creation is another. Like I said in an earlier comment, for me running 1e and 2e campaigns felt like DMs guiding PCs through an interactive story. 3e felt like the players telling the DM the story with the backing of many rules. 4e, in the non-OP campaigns I’ve run, really felt like I took back a little of that narrative control from the rules. Not a great deal, but enough to notice.

    Of course, all of this is just my own experience and based on my own preferences. 3e DMs and players who have worked it out and enjoy the experience have to make no apologies, and I can certainly understand it people think 4e was no more DM-centric than 3e with all the powers to swim through.

  27. Jeremy Grenemyer says:

    Great article all around!

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with your summation of what 3E did for players and how it became a headache for Dungeon Masters–when I look at the long lists of NPC spellcasters, which is to say their spell lists, and remember what it was like to keep track of all those spells…

    I wonder though if the D&D rules really can become a better all around game. It seems to me like all each edition can really do–or rather, can really be–is a reaction to the previous edition.

    TIme will tell.

  28. Thanks Shawn for a great article, that seems to resonate with many of the older gamers, or the ones that have played several of the iterations of the game.

    It seems that, even at this early stage, those charged with bringing the “new version” to life are raising the banner of “modularity” as they way to create a game that will appeal to all the generations of players of what, for me, is still the greatest game in the world. I agree with all of those who want a modular system so that each DM or group can cherry pick the parts of the game that they want to use. If this is going to be the system structure that is adopted the game’s creators are going to be faced with the difficult task of drawing the lines between the various modular pieces. What concerns me is that I think their may be a conflict (which is going to be very difficult to solve) between modularising on a logical basis and modularising on a historical basis.

    What I mean is that the way the game has developed has resulted in some fairly obvious logical modules. Firstly one can imagine a simple core module that relies only on a basic D20 mechanic and Ability bonuses. It follows logically that a later module could add the complexity of power choices, feats, skills which can be hard coded to race and feat selections, or could be more freely chosen, once again, according to a group’s particular tastes. The problem that arises is “What do we do with spells?” Logically they would be inlcuded in a module that offers powers, feats etc. But historically, D&D started with a discrete magic system that was essentially diceless. So if you are following a historical model you would need to inlcude in the basic module, a Vancian magic system. The logical system would ask “Why not then have Vancian skill use and Vancian combat?”.

    If WOTC is seeking to recover a large market of hoary old gamers who are still hacking remakes of AD&S rules, what concessions to history do they make at the expense of logic?

    Personally I hope that they take the best from all the versions, and combine it using logic as the deciding factor rather than nostalgia. We old gamers also need to be honest with ourselves. Are we hankering after something simply because we want to recapture the past, or do we genuinely want D&D to be the best game ever going forward into future when new generations of gamers will be grabbing and holding in their hands shiny tomes that promise adventure, mystique and excitement in the comfort of their living rooms.

  29. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Jeremy Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts. I think it is natural, especially in our current communication age, to fall into the trap you describe, of simply reacting to the strongest criticism when creating something new from something old. I do feel reassured a bit, that the design team is looking not just at 4e or 3e when designing DND Next, but going all the way back to see what was fun about all the editions, as well as other games.

    @ Torqradio I am very much with you on everything you are saying. I think it is important, as I just said above, to look at all editions when designing the new game, not just reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the complaints about the previous edition. And as you say, and as I tried to account for in my ponderings, nostalgia is always something to be wary of. I understand your distinction with “logical” and “historical” modular design, but I think that rather than falling into a trap of one or the other, the designers can still look at history for clues about what worked while distilling that into logic.

    I am in a bit of an awkward position because of my NDA. I know how I would do things with modularity, but saying how I would do it might intersect with things I cannot talk about, so I am left talking about these things vaguely. And there are many things I am completely in the dark about, which is my natural state. 🙂

    Like you, I share your desire for a D&D game, which I love in any edition or play style, that is attractive for new generations of gamers. if it brings back lapsed D&D players in the process, so much the better. We will, unfortunately, have to bear with the fact that no matter what the final product looks like, it is going to be compared against past editions, which are in some cases almost diametrically opposed. I just hope that people can judge it for what it is, and not what it isn’t.

  30. I’m late to the game but I loved your article. Since we’re about the same age, our path through the editions are similar… although our conclusions may have ended up differently. I’ll share some in the upcoming series starting next Thursday.

    Great work, can’t wait for that road trip next week my friend.

  31. “Personally I hope that they take the best from all the versions, and combine it using logic as the deciding factor rather than nostalgia. We old gamers also need to be honest with ourselves. Are we hankering after something simply because we want to recapture the past, or do we genuinely want D&D to be the best game ever going forward into future when new generations of gamers will be grabbing and holding in their hands shiny tomes that promise adventure, mystique and excitement in the comfort of their living rooms.”

    Well said.

  32. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Chatty Thanks sir. And I am ready for the trek. Just get here safe, and I’ll get you the rest of the way there.

    @DavetheGame Thanks to you and the rest of the Critical Hits crew for letting me ramble here.

  33. I’ve played and run Basic and Expert D&D, 1st ed, 2nd ed, 3rd ed and am currently running 4th ed. I have found 4th ed is easier to improvise with than 3rd as the mechanics feel less heavy and interconnected. It’s much easier to grab a creature with appropriate abilites and reskin it to whatever is needed on the fly in 4e.

    However, the detailed combat systems of 3e and 4e make some adventure types more difficult to run in my experience (in different ways).

    A core system that’s mechanicallty lighter may allow more freewheeling adventures without bogging down in lots of extraneous detail.

    I think 4e adventures tended to be poor, which hurt the line a lot, especially as there is nothing intrinsic in 4e to make this so. The next D&D needs some good initial adventures which effectively display the possibilities of the system and are accessible to new players and veterans alike.

  34. StarKiller says:

    Nice article; I well remember those quasi-freeform days of AD&D and the great amount of inventiveness a DM needed. I mostly skipped 2e, got back in with 3e and learned to hate it. I came back again with 4e and love the team-based aspect of it as well as the break from some of the old rule & fluff anchors from editions past. I would like to see a way for the new edition to keep the character roles and teamwork of 4e along with the streamlining of rules but speed up combat and bring back some of the flexibility and non-codified aspects of AD&D and 2e. (I can’t think of anything I want from 3e except for more Eberron.) Definitely more of the very creative and interesting adventures & settings from ’80s & ’90s.

  35. nice article, good read, and so very true. I learned to play on the 2nd edition rules of the game when i was 8, and my god THAC0, i hope it never comes back. I began DMing on 3rd edition, so i must say i cant fully understand how DMs felt about the rule changes from 2nd to 3rd editions, but as a player i found the customization to be a godsend. While the rules favored the players in many ways (which i agree can be a big problem) i continue to enjoy to this day sitting down and creating different concepts of different classes/prestige classes from 3.5. A lot of which i had people raising an eyebrow at me wondering what abomination i had created this time and telling me that the concept would never work (often being proven wrong). However powerful characters were not my goal, rather a memorable character, and everybody knows that the more memorable and more fun to play characters were the ones that had a flaw or two. This in turn encouraged the use of tactics to work around those flaws, not just be able to say “well this character is not good, re-roll”. But that is what this game had become, an elitists dream where the players had the ability to create characters that were all-powerful and could bend the rules around the DM.

    I became excited at the announcement of 4th edition and immediately purchased the core rule books to find them a real waste of money. While i had noticed a lot of the power had been taken from the players and given back to the DM, it had taken away a very fundamental part of what D&D had given me with 3rd edition: choices… endless possibilities… an unending maze of character options that often made characters not only different in what people perceived as their characters personalities, but different on paper, and different on paper meant a different way of approaching that beholder through the next door. True 2 characters could have 8 levels of rogue and 10 levels of assassin, but while one has 1 feat and the other has a different one, there would be differences in how they may approach such a situation given their ever-so slightly different builds, but on top of that, you could drop most of your rogue levels altogether and opt for something way out there like sorcerer or even cleric, and face it what cleric of Nerull wouldn’t want a few levels of assassin. The beauty of it was nothing was beyond anyone.

    In conclusion i would like to say that im holding even more anticipation for 5th edition then what i did for 4th because Wizards is going through it step by step with the players (way to go guys). I only hope the outcome can find a happy medium where a player has his endless options and can be whatever he wants to be regardless of how he started out, but the DM can retain his firm grip on the way things run in his world, it is going to be interesting to see what comes of this


  1. […] Critical Hits’ Shawn Merwin talks about how the internet has changed the game with D&D.  Choice Quote: “ I would love to see the streamlined balance of 4e, the players’ ability to create a truly unique character of 3e, but the power for the DM to bring about an inspiring and fun story that was enjoyed most in those earliest versions of the game.” Agree.  I’d take it one step further.  I’d like to see the story elements that powers and character advancement offered in the earlier editions.  I want my keep.  🙂 […]

  2. […] Shawn Merwin and Bartoneous at Critical Hits. There are some really great quotes in Shawn Merwin’s article. […]

  3. […] Shawn Merwin at Critical Hits thinks he knows where D&D is heading. It will definitely be interesting to see if he’s right and where we are in a couple of years. […]