I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another since the late 90s. Granted, this doesn’t give me the lengthy pedigree of a truly veteran grognard (look it up) but I’ve seen a few editions come and go. More importantly. I was playing regularly at a time when one edition (3.5) went out the door and the new one (4th) came in. And I played that new edition for the majority of its life cycle.
Many words have been written about why 4th edition isn’t good. It was deeply polarizing in the player base. It was too video game-esque, too much like World of WarCraft. On and on, the forum arguments go. I’ve come to realize that none of it matters.
The truth is that learning how to play 3.5 and earlier editions of D&D was a nightmare. I remember pouring over the books I had for hours, trying to reverse engineer how all the math worked out to understand how characters worked. Even after I created my own characters, it was a constant struggle to remember “okay, so I add this and this to that, and this condition applies so I get that, so I do . . . how much damage again?” It wasn’t until I’d played for a while, with an experienced group, that I finally saw how it all worked out.
To be honest, 4th edition isn’t that much easier to figure out, but at least they have a nifty program that does all the math for you and just tells you “roll this and add this number.”
But even that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that the structure of the tabletop RPG can’t do what everyone is trying to make it do. There will never be “one system to rule them all.” And even if there was, you know what? It has an incredibly finite lifespan.
Here’s how it works. The core books that you need to run the game are released. So you buy those. The first supplement books come out and add neat stuff like new classes, new archetypes, or whatever. Some more books come out, and those are cool too. But there’s a tipping point. There’s a peak level of purchase-interest in any game system and once you’ve passed it, new books become less appealing. Maybe it’s because you’re starting to resent the amount of money it’s costing or maybe you just have everything that you need.
My personal theory is that eventually, the books just start getting too weird. 4th edition had this problem in spades. You needed the first player’s handbook to play the game and it contained the basic classes. Okay, great. Players Handbook 2 contained a lot of well-liked stuff that was left out from the first one; classes like the barbarian, bad, druid, and sorcerer. Even the new classes still made sense and fit into the traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy archetypes. Okay, cool.
But by the time the Player’s Handbook 3 rolled around, you’ve got a book filled with classes like the ardent and the battlemind. There is no one who can tell you what those are supposed to look like without refering to the book. There’s no fantasy archetype that’s being fulfilled here, which is what classes are supposed to do.
What happens from here? Honestly, I have three different sets of RPG on the bookshelf behind me that are some variation of the “Player’s Handbook, Gamemaster’s Guide, and Monster Manuel” trio. (D&D 3.5, D&D 4, and Pathfinder, if you’re curious). How many more times am I going to buy a Player’s Handbook and a Monster Manuel? It’s starting to feel a little old.
Let’s just say I don’t envy this particular business model too much.
Maybe when the books are finally released, I’ll be blown away and rush out and buy them. I remember when the 4th edition books were so new and shiny and I couldn’t wait to play them. That was a good feeling. I’d like to recapture it again . . . but at this point, I’m starting to think it’s all same dance, different song. Or maybe it’s the same sing, different dance. Whatever. You get my meaning.