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D&D 4th Edition - Learning from MMOs

Jon Wood Posted:
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D&D 4th Edition - Learning from MMOs

Dungeons & Dragons is considered by many to be the forefather of the modern-day MMO. With the recent release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, we are seeing evidence that new Dungeons and Dragons design is being informed by MMOs. In this article, Managing Editor Jon Wood discusses some of the specific elements of the new edition that draw in elements of our genre of video game.

There is little doubt that Dungeons and Dragons (and other early pen and paper games) helped to pave the way for the MMORPG genre. So much so that when co-creator Gary Gygax passed away, many MMORPGers mourned the loss.

It has always been easy to look at MMOs (and all RPGs, really) and find the influences that pen and paper game like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) have had on them, but the most recent edition of the popular tabletop game turns all of that on its ear. It seems that the student had become the teacher, the circle of life is complete, and a number of other clichés that I could use to say that the recently released 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons looks less like the template for MMORPGs and more like a product of them.

Whether Wizards of the Coast (the current developers of Dungeons and Dragons) designed this new edition of the game to be more appealing to the MMORPG gamer crowd or whether it is simply being informed by a popular game type difficult to say, but there are a number of parallels that should be explored:

Character Roles

In Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the developers have incorporated specific roles for characters into the design of the game. While character role has always been implied by the character’s class in previous editions (wizard, cleric, fighter, etc.), this is the first time that the rules have allowed for more MMO-style definitions.

In DnD 4th Edition, characters are divided into one of four roles: Controller, Leader, Striker and Defender. The idea is that a well-rounded adventuring party (or group) should be made up of at least one character from each of the roles.

Controller: The controller role is filled by the game’s wizards. Controllers have the ability to cause moderate damage to a large number of opponents. They are also good for hampering their enemies in some way (holding, slowing, etc.).

Leaders: The leader role is filled by Clerics and Warlords. Leaders have the ability to heal their party members and to provide other bonuses that help other players in their group.

Defender: The Paladin and the Fighter make up the classes that fill the Defender role. Defenders are your standard tank characters. They can take a good deal of damage and are heavily armoured. Their abilities focus on this and on keeping enemies engaged, allowing other characters to strike more effectively.

Striker: Rogues, Rangers and Warlocks are considered Strikers. Strikers are experts at causing single targets heavy damage. They move and strike quickly using stealth, magic and other means to strategically choose their targets.

MMOs have been using terms like these to describe the roles of the classes for quite some time. Rounding out a solid MMO group is almost always reliant on having characters that can fill each of these roles. While the same has been true of Dungeons and Dragons in the past in a passive way, 4th Edition marks the first time that the game’s design has incorporated it and spelled it out in terms that are so familiar to online RPG players.

Combat Powers

Previous editions of DnD have relied on standard attacks for melee characters with spell casters having a wide variety of choice in the spells that they cast.

Standard melee and ranged attacks have traditionally been made on a hit or miss basis. For example, if I wanted to attack an enemy, I would tell the DM what I wanted to attack, and I would roll a die to see if my standard attack (in this case swinging a sword) would hit or miss. It wasn’t about fancy moves and specific kinds of attack as much as it was a case of I have a sword, I swing my sword, I hit, I swing my sword again.

4th Edition has changed all of that by incorporating character powers into the mix. Non-spell casters can now take advantage of specific attack powers that are gained through level progression in much the same way that characters in a standard level-based MMO gain new attack powers.

Now, instead of simply telling the DM that my fighter wants to attack, rolling a die to see if I hit and repeating as often as is necessary, I am able to say that I want to use “Spinning Sweep” (a knockdown attack) or Brute Strike (a heavy damage power). I still have to roll the dice to see whether or not I hit, but I am able to use more strategy and thought than I ever could before.

It should be noted that 3rd Edition and 3.5 both allowed for some diversity in abilities for non-casters through the use of feats, but 4th Edition is where the combat powers really start to reflect those of an MMO.

Lack of Role-Play Skills

In previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons, mechanics have been put into place to give your characters a certain amount of history or depth. While it may not come up in gameplay, it was possible within the rules to say that my character had spent time on a fishing boat in his youth and therefore had a basic working knowledge of anything related to fishing. In 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, it was through proficiencies. The core rulebooks were short on rules governing the use of these proficiencies, but your character had them and they tended to add to the depth of the character as a person and not just a clump of statistics.

In 3rd and 3.5 Editions, these abilities took on a new relevance as they were folded into the skill system, giving rules to govern these additional skills, growing the relevance of the “other things” a character knew how to do considerably.

In 4th Edition, skills have been streamlined down to skills with practical and useful purposes. Skills that defined the character’s non-adventuring personality seem to have fallen by the wayside in favor of a sleeker system (and to be fair, it is more smooth).

I always felt that this was one of the advantages that Dungeons and Dragons as a tabletop game had over MMORPGs. Most modern MMOs don’t account for anything that doesn’t directly effect the character’s adventuring life. The confines of the medium would make incorporation of specific background details quite difficult. Pen and paper, being a smaller game, is easier to control (DMs can easily tailor situations around a character’s non-adventuring abilities). Depth of character is much easier to not only create, but to bring to life in the world. It’s a shame that this new edition doesn’t account for this with supporting rules.

Monthly Fee?

Ok, the title might be a little bit misleading so I’m going to make one thing clear: There is no monthly fee to simply play your pen and paper game. That being said, Wizards of the Coast is using 4th Edition’s launch to debut a new online service call D&D Insider.

This online service is where 4th Edition takes on an almost eerie resemblance to its MMO cousins. Through this service, players will have access to an online character creator. This, in and of itself isn’t that similar to MMOs, but when you add on the character visualizer, it starts to get really familiar.

The character visualizer allows you to create a character visually in much the same way that you would when starting on an MMO. If you don’t believe me, you can check it out here.

One of the biggest disadvantages of playing table top DnD has been needing to gather your group in one place. When someone in the group moved away, their characters were often, by necessity, written out of the story. In fact, I have heard stories of MMO guilds forming because a Dungeons and Dragons tabletop group was separated and the online environment of an MMO made it possible for them to play together again.

D&D Insider will give players a virtual tabletop so that your DnD group can gather no matter where they’re located.


While it would be hard to make the case that Wizards has used this new edition of their game to create an offline MMO, it is easy to see that the design of the new game was informed by the MMOs of today, which were in turn informed by the D&D games of yesterday.

No doubt Wizards of the Coast is hoping to bring a new generation of gamers to their pen and paper game and bringing in elements of one of the fastest-growing genres of video game probably ins’t a bad way to do it.


Jon Wood