A History of D&D: 4th Edition – Wow, Just … WOW…

What Am I Reading: Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition

Part Four: WOW…

5th ed 1

I started to write a simple review of Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, but it grew into a series of blogs about the history of the game itself! Refer to my previous blogs for some of the terms if you are confused.

Just like everything else in the world, D&D was suffering from poor sales during the economic depression of the mid-2000s. Gamers were leaving the tabletop games in droves to play online. Neverwinter and World or Warcraft (WOW) were the dominant games in the sword-and-sorcery genres. This fit into the isolationist mode most of us were going into with the invention of smart phones. Instead of rows and rows of kids sitting on the benches in malls, now there are rows and rows of kids sitting in coffee shops texting. Probably texting the kids sitting right next to them. Zombie apocalypse indeed…

Sitting at a table with dice and paper was passé; why imagine attacking an orc compound when you can see it in 3D on your computer screen? Wizards of the Coast realized they were losing their gamers. So in 2007 it was time for a new edition of D&D. A version that would attract those gamers back! They couldn’t beat the electronic games … so what do you do if you can’t beat ‘em?

4th edition gets a lot of bad press – has ever since it came out. Once something is pronounced a bomb – whether it be a movie, a TV show or a game system – it cannot recover even if it really isn’t so bad. Go to your favorite browser and type “4th edition D&D criticism” and look at the topics: link titles include “What Went Wrong” and “It’s Awful” -and these are dated 2008 and 2009 when the game had only been out a year or less! I won’t add to the chorus of contempt except to reflect what I have already blogged before.

4th ed 2

                4th edition isn’t a bad system. Some bloggers said if it wasn’t called D&D it would not have lasted. That’s true, but that is the case with MOST non-D&D RPGS.

If done correctly and with players acclimated to the system, 4th edition might even be fun. But it was so vastly different from anything before it … it was hardly D&D at all! It was a table-top version of a video game. WOW on paper. Ironically, WOW had its own tabletop version of itself – with a hardback guide, etc. Its tabletop version of D&D did just about as well as D&D’s tabletop version of WOW.

The basic classes and races are the same – although it took three Player’s Handbooks to get all the classes listed (Barbarians, Monks, etc.). Later Player’s Handbooks added tieflings (a race with a demonic taint), dragonmen, crystaline beings, angelic Devas, etc. It kept the 3rd edition’s Prestige Classes but called them Paragon Paths.

And the role-playing aspect of the game is still there, albeit it is made secondary to combat. From the few modules I read, role-playing is set way back on the list of things to do while playing the game. Way way back.

The biggest changes are in the way 4th edition handles combat. Remember, we’re talking about a table-top MMORP (massively multi-player online role-playing game).

Play with miniatures is encouraged. Some scenarios/modules seem to require it. For the first time since the D&D Basic Set, back when it was a spin-off of Chainmail, players are encouraged to dig out their miniature figures and terrain, whip out their tape measures and roll play. Miniatures never went away, strictly speaking. Gamers could use miniatures throughout all the editions – but 4th edition made it a necessary part of combat. Without miniatures – using a power that pushed back an opponent one square made no real sense without something on the table to help visualize it. How can we know if the push-back pushed the orc back into the waiting arms of an assassin’s blade? Make a luck roll? Miniatures take the guess work out of it. And takes the imagination out of it, too.

Powers? Oh yes, perhaps the biggest change in 4th edition, and the one that makes it seem more like a table top MMORP than anything else.

Each class and race was given powers. These are abilities one can use in combat. At-will powers could be used every round (portion of combat) – Healing Surge can heal you for 6 points – keeping you alive to swing your mace at least one last time. Per-encounter powers can be used only once during combat – and you cannot use it again until the next mob of bad guys come around the corner – Flurry of Blows might give you two chances to hit in a round. Per-day is just that. Until you sleep and recover, you can only do this power once per day – Knock throws everyone to the ground.

It’s like the cool-down period for abilities in WOW – you have some buttons to click that gives you an arcane blast or sword swipe every few seconds, some you cannot use for ten or more seconds, come only once every few minutes.

Even the terminology and class “assignments” come straight out of a MMORP. Rogues are attack dogs – nicking and cutting opponents. Fighters are referred to as “tanks”. There’s a Warlord class that gives other characters plusses just by standing in the midst of combat – there’s no other real reason for the class. Combat combat combat.

With this, were I to play 4th edition, I would like to have all my powers laid out before me on cards. My at-wills to the left, per-encounters in the middle and per-day on the right. Other stats would also be available. That way I can keep track of what I used and when it will be available again. Just like on my computer screen. I go from playing on my desktop to playing on my desk top.

Stats for abilities became uniform. Before, if you had 14 Strength, it would give you a +1 on “to hit” rolls, damage, opening doors, etc.  A 14 Dexterity gave you +1 on initiative, “to hit” rolls for ranged weapons. Now a 14 in any stat gives you a +1 benefit on anything involving that stat. No more lists – if it involved Strength, you get +1 to your roll. I like that. (remember that I am winging it on the numbers here – don’t tell me “a 13 gives you +1, a 14 is +2. Cool, but regardless, if you get my point, let’s move on…).

With 4th edition, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) went with the nuclear option. It stopped producing anything remotely to do with 3.5. It left that to Piazo. Piazo was the company that published Dragon and Dungeon magazine. WotC cancelled both magazines – no one will care about 3.5 once 4th edition debuts!

“Um,” Piazo said, “would you mind if we continue with the 3.5-style game system? We’ll call it Pathfinder and it will be completely different from your new edition.”

“Of course you can, you little upstart, we’re too big to worry about such small potatoes as you…”


                I usually end these blogs with our little troop of characters trying to swing over a chasm. Just use the same ending as my last blog. Since it has nothing to do with combat combat combat, the roll play of swinging over a chasm is unchanged.

But that brings up one of my biggest criticisms – roll play vs. role play. In previous editions, I am a thief named Visilai; in 4th edition, I am a rogue/assassin hybrid with the invisibility character build!

Pathfinder started beating D&D in sales. Bad. Then the Star Wars Role Playing game started beating D&D in sales.  D&D was third overall. From the only game in town to third place. Something had to be done.

They quickly created a 5th edition.

They called it D&D Next. I call it D&D: The Apology.


Copyright 2014 Michael Curry


2 thoughts on “A History of D&D: 4th Edition – Wow, Just … WOW…

  1. That’s a really cool chart, but one thing I’d point out is that Holmes Basic was a compatible (more or less cleaned up) re-write of 0D&D without the supplemental materials. Ironically, some of the early AD&D 1st Ed books, particularly the first monster manual, were more compatible with Holmes than with AD&D (since they were released to stem the tide of 3rd party supplements for Holmes & OD&D while Gary was trying to finish the core rules).

    Anyway, cool blog!

    • thanks for sharing Alex! And thanks for bringing up Holmes Basic. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog – I wrote most of this off the top of my head with little research to make this more my opinion than a “real” history – and I appreciate the input! Thanks again!

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