This last May saw the release of a new edition of the popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. Since version 3.0 was released in 2000 and the more properly fleshed-out 3.5 saw the light in 2003, you might argue it was about time for an update. But where a fairly straight line could be drawn from the earlier versions of the game to the 3.5 edition as created by Wizards of the Coast, this new 4th edition seems to turn its back on a lot of tradition and is taking the game in a new direction.
The changes in the 4th edition turn D&D into a more up-to-date RPG with many elements we know and perhaps like from modern computer games like World of Warcraft or Oblivion. A great deal of effort has gone into rebalancing the character classes in the game and many features have been added that first appeared in computer games. Many quirks and complicated rules that didn’t work too well have been removed. The game will be supported with software that will allow players to emulate tabletop sessions online, or use the tools to render the playing field more realistically than using the kitchen table and a whiteboard marker. But does bringing the game closer to computer games actually make it a better table-top game?
An interesting article by Alvan Monje on Gamasutra called “Dungeons and Dragons: The Pen and paper videogame” draws some interesting parallels between old school D&D and computer games. His point is that computer game designers could learn some valuable lessons from D&D. But what also becomes clear is what will forever set D&D (and its kind) apart from any game that is designed for the computer: D&D was designed to run on very specific hardware, your brain. That’s where it gets all its strengths, but also some of its weaknesses.
It’s those weaknesses that spawn the great variety of pen and paper rpg’s. Everyone has their own ideas on how the rules could or should be improved to give the game more depth, without ruining the odds of it running well on your wetware. The direction Wizards appears to be taking doesn’t just do that, however. It also introduces a set of tools to run on your computer, that take away part of the process from the wetware to make life easier.
It’s a valid idea and it will be interesting to see what it will end up becoming, but in my opinion it has precious little to do with the game of Dungeons and Dragons. Mind you, I am not saying I oppose the use of a computer in playing the game, but I feel the software used should support the game as it could be run on your wetware, instead of requiring computers to be played at all. I’m an avid user of DM Genie and from time to time I peek at projects like Fantasy Grounds.
Apart from the ‘computerization’ argument, I have another problem with 4th edition D&D: its lack of backward compatibility with 3.x products. Wizards has been very prolific in their release of D&D 3.x products, none of which are exactly cheap. If 4th edition would build on the same ruleset and maintained backward compatibility, I might be more inclined to give it a go. But forcing my player group to shelve their 3.x material and getting a whole new set of books and expansions is something I would much rather avoid.
Luckily, Paizo (of Dungeon and Dragon magazine fame) are going ahead with Pathfinder. Pathfinder takes 3.5 and also makes some changes to remove needless complexity and rebalance. But overall the changes are not as revolutionary as Wizards’ and backward compatibility is maintained (or clear instructions can be given on how to convert old material). It will be interesting to see what Paizo can do with Pathfinder, especially now that they have Monte Cook working for Paizo as a rules consultant.
Monte Cook played an important role in the creation of D&D 3.0 and has been known to criticize Wizards for its commercial decision of releasing 3.0 early, necessitating the 3.5 release shortly thereafter. Between Paizo’s experience with the game and the vision for the game of people like Monte Cook, Pathfinder could be the way to go for all the fans of pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons for years to come.
(if you’re interested in Pathfinder, you can download an alpha version of the Pathfinder manual at their site, which contains a large part of the rulebook that will soon be released in print as a beta version of the game)