Since the announcement of D&D Next over the past year, we’ve seen Wizards of the Coast steer away from the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Their December product announcements describe not a single 4e-based product. One hasn’t been produced since May of 2012. Their recent holiday gift guide didn’t mention a single 4e product, a fact on which some of us even managed to capitalize. We rarely hear any of D&D’s design and development shop discuss 4e. It isn’t hard to see the logic in some people’s statements that “4e is dead”. Even 1st edition seems to get better support these days.
Committing the Same Mistake Twice
Many long-time fans of Dungeons & Dragons; fans who loved 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions; felt abandoned when WotC announced the 4th edition of the game back in 2007. They sacrificed sacred cows. They hammered in proud nails. Fighters fought like wizards. Wizards fought like sorcerers. Dragons became a playable race. Clerics got to do things! (relax Cleric fans, I’m only kidding) It was bedlam for many fans of older editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
It seemed like the designers felt they knew better. They’d seen the rough edges of 3.5 and they wanted to polish it down. They saw how well D&D miniatures worked and wanted to take that quick tactical play to the core of the RPG.
While older fans felt betrayed, new fans were born. Thanks much in part to the Penny Arcade podcasts, many new players began their D&D experience with 4th edition. A divide opened up between many of the fans of older editions and the fans of the current, a wound that never healed. Worse, when D&D Essentials came out, a new divide opened up even within 4th edition.
Now it looks like they’re creating a third and even bigger rift. Unscientific studies based on opinions and anecdotal evidence show that many 4th edition fans feel just as abandoned as older edition players felt as they watch WotC turn its focus to D&D Next. A whole new group of D&D fans now feels like WotC turned their backs on a system that worked perfectly well if not for a few of its own rough edges.
It doesn’t need to be this way. While WotC hasn’t produced any dedicated 4e products, many of their recent products work very well in 4th edition. Dungeon Command, the Map Packs, and the Menzoberranzan sourcebook all work well in 4th edition. D&D Insider, WotC’s paid subscription service, still produces a great deal of 4th edition material. It just seems WotC, the designers and developers, and the marketing department all felt like any focus on 4th edition support would take away from their push for D&D Next, a product that doesn’t yet exist and may not for some time.
This change in marketing, a simple decision about how they talk about things has ended up splitting the rift even further between those who love 4e and those who look forward to D&D Next. They wouldn’t have to change a single product to heal this wound. All they need to do is change how they talk about 4e and how they talk about Next.
The Canary in the Cage: the Character Builder
No one can actually kill 4th edition without some sort of invasion of every nerd’s basement and a massive book burning. The decommissioning of the character builder, however, would show WOTC’s complete disregard for 4e. Many feel that we almost require the character builder to build 4e’s more complicated mixes of races, classes, feats, items, powers, backgrounds, and themes.
To WotC, the character builder could, one day, become more of a complication than a benefit. Even if they do take it down, however, a thousand flowers will bloom. Numerous other tools to help players build 4e characters will likely find their way to the net. 4e doesn’t require a computational character builder, but it sure as hell helps. I’ve no doubt that people will find solutions as long as there are enough people still willing to care about it. And if there is not, than few will care anyway.
There’s Room to Love it All
The commitment to this hobby is not so great that we can’t love it all. Pathfinder has a fantastic set of products. Numenera looks great, as do Dungeon World and 13th Age. We are surrounded by the best RPGs ever published written by the most talented writers. There’s no reason we can’t love them all, steal their best ideas, and run any version we wish. Popularity means nothing. As long as we can get a handfull of other people to play, we can run a fully viable entertaining game even if we’re the only six people on the planet who care.
Saying that “4e is dead” may feel good in some overly dramatic way, but those of us who spend a few minutes thinking about it find a comforting truth to the hobby we have chosen.
There’s no such thing as a dead RPG.