This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifty-One on 5th December 2018.
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is arguably one of the most popular iterations of the rules, but it’s taken some time to get to where we are today. In honor of Art and Arcana, the book released October 23rd that showcases all the artwork and tells the evolving story of D&D over the years, we decided to take a look back at this hobby of ours ourselves and see where it started, and how it’s evolved over time.
In June 2008, Wizards of the Coast released the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. When 4th edition is brought up among D&D fans, what typically happens is many of them will engage in a fierce denouncement or defense of the system, while those unfamiliar with or unaware of the edition sit to the side in bafflement, wondering why and how there are so many vehement feelings about it.
Fourth edition was a pretty major shift from previous D&D editions. The biggest example was the combat system. All of the classes ended up with so-called powers that could be used during combat. These powers were separated into at-will powers that often replaced or enhanced basic attacks, encounter powers (that could effectively be used once per battle), Daily powers that could only be used once and a Long rest was required before they could be used again, and finally generic Utility powers. This system completely replaced and eliminated the “Spell slot” mechanic magic classes had been using in previous editions; all of their spells were now just the powers those classes acquired. Also, most of the power descriptions focused only on squares rather than feet and areas of effect were described in the same fashion, making gridded tabletop combat with miniatures the preferred method rather than a mere suggestion.
Classes, although present, were further defined into archetypes. Essentially the designers set out to answer “why is the holy party a Fighter, Cleric, Mage and Thief?”, and from that proceeded to put classes into one of four Roles. These were Defenders, Strikers, Leaders and Controllers; which roughly correlate to tanks, DPS, Heals and crowd-control, for those of a more MMO or Computer RPG persuasion. Character advancement also changed a great deal. The same six attributes remained along with feats and skills, but the skills were only trained or not, a pattern that survived into 5th edition as the “proficiency” system. While the 3.5 edition had some ability scaling with levels, 4th seriously ramped up the speed: Improvement in skill and attack modifiers was handled not with skill points but by feeding half of the character’s level into the modifiers of trained abilities. So for example, even a character with a 10 in their Dexterity modifier would have a plus 8 to hit with a ranged weapon as long as they were level 16. That would seem extreme but AC was another thing that increased with level, so the level 16 character would be shooting at creatures with ACs starting at 26. Fourth edition also did away with the “prestige class” system that had existed before, replacing it with so-called Paragon Paths that became available at 11th level for all classes, similar to the class archetypes that usually kick in around level three for classes in 5th edition. On top of that, at 21st level (the 4th edition level cap was 30) an Epic Destiny was chosen, granting more bonuses.
Another major change was the proliferation of magic items. Where magic items in previous editions were valuable and powerful but fairly uncommon, the 4th edition dungeon master’s guide recommended that most adventuring parties be awarded 5 magic items per level, and shops selling magic items were assumed to be fairly common in most settings. Eventually, fourth edition released at least two sourcebooks solely devoted to magic items, and most other rule- and sourcebooks carved out at least a few pages for new lists of magical goodies. It’s worth noting that books of magic items weren’t unique to 4e as 2e had similar tomes.
Alignment was something else that was gutted, and the traditional 3×3 grid of Law-Neutral-Chaos and Good-Neutral-Evil replaced with a much simpler system: you were either Good, Neutral or Evil. Nothing in between. At the lore level, fans of D&D mythology were… flabbergasted. Entire pantheons of D&D gods were eliminated wholesale, and foundational aspects of others had been radically altered. The easiest example was that Tiamat, known for being trapped in the nine hells for quite some time, was instead working out of a fortress in a planar dimension near the Shadowfell, with no real explanation of how or why she’d moved from one locale to the other. Numerous other slight changes to long-standing lore continued to crop up as more monster profile and setting guides were released, although the core functions of many creatures remained unaltered. The Great Wheel Multiverse that was established in 2e was thrown out in favor of the World Axis, and we were introduced to the Elemental Chaos instead of the elemental planes; the Astral Plane became the Astral Sea (with all the Outer Planes becoming entities adrift within the Astral Sea), and the Ethereal Plane is eliminated pretty much all together. Further, it was tradition that each D&D edition had a small bit of in-universe fiction to justify the switch-up in mechanics from one edition to the next. For example, 1e to 2e saw a period known as the Time of Troubles, where the god Ao caused a bit of a ruckus, some people fought, and hey-presto the way magic works is different now. The Forgotten Realms saw the most dramatic change in the form of the Spellplague — a move that many have viewed as being incredibly un-necessary. In the Forgotten Realms, the goddess of magic, Mystra, was killed by another god. This sent the weave into chaos, caused a huge magical explosion that saw the two Forgotten Realms worlds of Abeir and Toril merge into one, destroying many well-known cities and landmarks, and creating huge areas of magic-based nuclear fallout, causing anyone caught in these places to be infused with magic, growing physical and mystical mutations. Lots of people died, and the face of the planet was irrevocably altered, leaving many places uninhabitable. Until 5e that is, when they just hit “restore from backup” and forgot the whole thing.
At a high level, many of the complaints about fourth edition suggested “Roleplaying” had been mostly eliminated in favor of “Game.” The harshest critics suggested Wizards of the Coast had bought into the MMORPG fervor of the time and tried to make D&D a “tabletop MMO” instead of a roleplaying game (interestingly, as a side-note, the Neverwinter MMO by Cryptic Studios is based on 4e rules, making it an MMO based off of D&D rules inspired by MMOs, which in turn are based off of Computerised RPGs, which are themselves based on tabletop Dungeons & Dragons rules… yeah. Anyway, where was I?). Almost all of the powers classes could use were combat focused, with non-combat bonuses being limited mostly to feats and some magic item properties. The monsters in the system were also balanced around the idea that the characters would be equipped with magic items as laid out in the DMG, so even if the characters were granted sufficient XP to level up without doing a lot of fighting, they still had to be granted magic items or money to buy them, something that doesn’t always fit believably into roleplaying encounters (For example: “you did very well blending into the crowd and gathering information at that ducal ball. We’re going to say your rogue managed to steal 40,000 gold from the attendees because you’re level 14 and you need at least that much money to buy your gear). Also, they complained that the powers strained immersion by the time higher levels were reached; the descriptions of abilities characters were using at that point made them into demigod-like entities.
On the other hand, fans of the system said that the changes made the game more exciting. If someone in 3rd edition was playing a human fighter, for example, their participation in most battles was simple; walk forward and hit an enemy with their sword or shoot them with their bow and do that weapon’s damage. Flashy, special attacks and effects were the purview of spellcasters, but they usually needed 3 or 4 levels before they could reliably engage in combat without risking death. Fourth edition gave everyone special moves or effects they could use, regardless of class, and spellcasters didn’t risk burning themselves out after a single combat if the fight dragged on.
Another point of contention was cost. 4e had the shortest lifespan of any D&D major release and yet spawned the second-highest number of official publications. As an example, there were three editions of the Players Handbook and two editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Yet another point of contention was the use of “squares” to describe effects and moves also almost required a gridded game board or table be used while playing. Wizards produced sets of artistic tiles that could be used for that purpose, but those were also not cheap. This was compounded by the fact that 3.5 had only come out five years prior and many people had invested quite a lot in purchasing the books and materials for that. On the other hand, groups that invested in them as shared resources or those that hadn’t sunk a lot of money into 3.5 obviously weren’t affected.
Other criticisms were more nitpicky, but for critics they were the final nails in fourth edition’s coffin. Examples are that during first printing, the Magic Missile spell involved a roll to hit, when previously a key hallmark of the spell was that it hit automatically. The first Player’s Handbook also omitted the barbarian, bard, druid, sorcerer, and monk classes, which weren’t made official in a core rulebook until almost a year later. Some Dungeon Masters were put off by the half-level mechanic because for most enemy types, there was a narrow window when they were usable. Kobolds, for example, topped out around level four, after which they were literally unable to injure the players because they couldn’t beat the players’ AC (due to half-level scaling). That meant a campaign about Dragons, for example, couldn’t really use kobold devotees as anything but window-dressing after the lower levels. On the other hand, some players liked the idea of being able to wade through enemies that literally couldn’t hurt them, allowing them to roleplay scenarios like heroes in a movie who powered through swarms of enemies with nary a wound until they encountered a “real” threat. Psionics were also problematic when they showed up, but all sides concede that wasn’t an issue unique to 4th edition.
Some say the amount of criticism 4th edition got was blown out of proportion because it was the first D&D edition released during the “internet age” where disgruntled players had access to public forums to voice their issues. There is some merit to the argument as Fourth Edition materials sold very well through its entire tenure. On the other hand, it’s also widely assumed that the debut of 4th edition directly led to the creation of the competing Pathfinder RPG which, at least in its first edition, was remarkably similar to D&D 3.5, being heavily based on the OGL Rules. Pathfinder went on to enjoy much commercial success in its own right, and has even spawned a 2e ruleset of its own, currently in public playtesting.
But, despite the constant negative press covfefe, 4e wasn’t all bad. It was very popular with newer players, with stories abound of people responding well to the aspect of being able to use unique and powerful abilities right from level 1. Others enjoyed the fact that they didn’t need to worry about managing spells and spellslots with casting classes, making it easier for brand new players to play almost any class rather than telling them they should probably be a fighter until they get the hang of the system. Receiving powerful and unique items constantly and in enough quantities to share also appealed to some players over the experience of going through long quests to acquire a single item of power their character might not even use. It’s also worth remembering all of the positive things that 4e did which then carried over into 5e. Warlock has become a core class and Bards are now a full caster-class. Spellcasters feel a lot more magical thanks to 5e retaining 4e’s “at-will” abilities, now known as cantrips. In previous editions, if a spellcaster ran out of slots then they’d have to resort to crossbows or swords. Thanks to 4e, wizards can now cast Fire Bolt to their heart’s content. Rituals are also a 4e hangover, and the Feywild and Shadowfell are retained, giving lower-level characters the chance to have some planar travels. Dragonborn and Tiefling have taken their place as core-races, the death saving throws mechanic and the use of hit dice to regain hitpoints on a long rest can all trace their origins back to 4e.
The number of pros and cons to fourth edition, and the subjective opinions fueling both, means the debate will, no doubt, continue long into the future until fourth edition is totally forgotten, or until Wizards does something else to split the player community. In either case, learning the lessons from 4e, their golden child of 3.5, and taking the best bits from 1st and 2nd editions, Wizards of the Coast quickly created a new version for extensive playtesting called “D&D Next”. Eventually, Wizards of the Coast published this as D&D 5th Edition in 2014, which is still going strong today and shows no signs of slowing down. Older fans of D&D praise 5e for its “return to form”, whilst many new players appreciate its streamlined process inspired by 4e, making the game incredibly accessible. Looking to the future, it’s hard to say exactly what Wizards of the Coast have in store for D&D, but with the developers dropping phrases such as “there are many, many stories left to tell” and “we want to bring all previous settings into 5e”, it looks like 5e has a healthy future ahead.