I know that I’ve talked about 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons before on the site. When this new edition of the classic franchise made its debut back in May of 2008, I can remember comparing it to MMORPGs. I remember talking about how this new iteration of a classic RPG concept would help to revitalize a flagging pen and paper franchise by making it more appealing to the swath of new gamers that are flocking to today’s MMOs. I remember thinking that, all in all, the system had its problems but that in the end, it was going to be a good thing for both Dungeons and Dragons and MMOs.
I’ve since changed my tune. After taking a good, hard look at 4th Edition and taking in all that it has to offer, I have come to the conclusion that some of my initial impressions were right. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was clearly designed to be an MMO on paper. Among other things, it makes use of and actually recognizes classic MMO archetypes (healer, tank, DPS, etc), and it is designed in such a way that group play is necessary. The problem is that, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition actually comes to represent a lot of what is wrong with today’s MMOs:
Looking at the rules, and playing through them, it becomes clear that they are nothing more than an elaborate combat system. All of the diverse array of skills and other rules that appeared in earlier editions have been scaled back and boiled down to “what’s useful in combat”. Gone are the multitude of roleplaying-based skills that appeared even in the most recent edition of the game that made characters feel unique, not only in terms of what they could do in combat, but also in terms of who they were, as people.
In previous editions of the game, and most specifically the 3.5 rules system that came before, if I wanted my character to have spent some time learning how to be a master painter, there were rules to accommodate that. If I wanted my character to know about architecture, or engineering, there were rules for that too. Not only were there rules, but in order to have those hallmarks of individuality, in order for my character to have spent time learning how to cook, or paint, or dance, time had to be taken away from combat and combat related training. It was a conscious decision to lean toward roleplay that the old rules facilitated nicely. The new rules, not so much.
If, under the new rules, I want my character to be able to do any of the above mentioned activities, I can just make it up. The books and the game’s supporters will tell you that you don’t need specific rules or tools provided by the game in order to roleplay, in order to flesh out your character to a place beyond simply combat statistics.
While it is true that roleplay, whether in pen and paper or even in an MMO, is what you and your imagination make of it, not supporting rich characterization with official rules makes those of us who care about more than just the combat die rolls feel forgotten. Why create a rich, diverse world when the rules system that the game is built around really just hopping from epic combat to epic combat?
Now, I fully realize that combat is a big part of the fun, both in Dungeons and Dragons and in MMOs, but it hasn’t been strictly the combat that has kept me playing with my D&D group for the last fifteen years, it’s been the world and the characters. The combat, as cool as it often is, and as much fun as I always have doing it, I enjoy it more because I am personally invested in the fictional person that I have created and grown so that the cool combat and all of the kickass things that he can do actually have long term meaning. When the game rules don’t support both aspects, the character building and the awesome combat, I start to lose interest. That’s why I’ve “cancelled my subscription” to D&D 4E.
The problem, my friends, is epidemic and doesn’t stop in the lands of Dungeons and Dragons. If 4th Edition was indeed, as I suspect, built to be an MMO on paper, its mistakes put a magnifying glass to the larger problem surrounding today’s MMOs. They are, essentially, just elaborate combat systems moving characters from one combat encounter to the next with no real time, thought, energy of God forbid, development time focused into figuring out how to make players personally invested in their characters so that they might stay invested in the games over the longer term.
Are hardcore combat systems disguised as roleplaying games (either online or at the table) pushing product right now? Obviously the answer is yes. Otherwise a savvy company like Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast wouldn’t have drastically changed their D&D formula and MMOs would be more personal character-centric. Are those same systems resulting in the long-term retention of a loyal customer base? Well, I know that Wizards of the coast has already lost at least one long time customer, I can’t really speak for anyone else… And how have subscriber retention numbers been holding out for MMOs these days when compared to their initial box sales? Not so good friends, not so good.
I’m not a business guru, and I can barely add two numbers together properly, but I always thought the name of the game with MMOs and PnP RPGs was retention and profit over time… Maybe someone should look into that.
All of that being said, if you, like me, are looking for new rules that support role-playing in the same way that 3rd edition and 3.5 D&D did, I highly recommend checking out Paizo’s new product, Pathfinder (http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG). It’s a continuation of DnD the way that I, and I suspect many other long-time DnD players, like the game, with a good balance between combat and world and character building rules.