Emergence & Reentry


Hello everyone! I’m Chris Sims, former Wizards of the Coast designer and editor. You might know me from my editing work on the 3e D&D game (Rules Compendium), my design work for the 4e game (Martial Power, Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2, and so on), or from D&D Insider. I’m joining my friends here at Critical-Hits, because I enjoy talking, thinking, and writing about games and generally geeky stuff.

I want to write what you want to read. That means I’m open to questions and topic suggestions. Feel free to send me either or both at my Critical Hits email–chris at critcal-hits dot com. Also, I want to start helping you with your games and design questions, which might even form a whole new “mailbag” column if it receives enough response.

I also want to to play the “identify the classic AD&D monster and source” with my author bio. You identify it first, and I’ll tell everybody you did. I’ll try to change up once a week.


I’ve been thinking about entry-level tabletop roleplaying games a lot lately. Looking back on the start of the 4e D&D game, and the amount of material that’s already out for it, I wish it had been developed and released in a more controlled manner.

I realize that the 4e game isn’t really entry-level. However, it was produced with the intent of gaining a whole sector of new players. It failed to be as good as it could have been in that area of design intent.

An entry-level game must give the potential player setting and rules material that are comprehended quickly and easily. The player needs some control of character creation and play through choices. But an entry-level game needs to limit choices to the point that they’re digestible.

By limiting choices, I don’t mean eliminating choices by making character creation extremely random. Randomness isn’t simplicity; it’s choices made for you by a roll of the dice. Numerous modern video roleplaying games allow a lot of choice during character creation without resorting to such a crutch. A modern entry-level product has to acknowledge that. Random systems all too often force a character into particular molds, limited by the designer’s imagination and page space. Such a lack of choice won’t fly with most modern gamers.

Numerous modern tabletop roleplaying games, and even more video game RPGs, instead provide ideal starting points for a player in the form of archetypes. You want a troll mage? Here’s the perfect set of initial abilities for that character. (Even the 4e D&D game has such archetypes for a starting character, but the information is easily overlooked in each character class entry.) The good modern games allow you to tinker with and eventually outgrow the archetypes as you grow in play proficiency. They do it without overwhelming you.

Speaking of overwhelming, the 4e D&D game had a cumbersome amount of legacy material and audience expectations. These pressures didn’t serve the design process as well as they could have. It seemed to me that the possible forms the game could have taken overwhelmed even the designers themselves. A 4e that took a few more of its cues from the old-school red-box (Moldvay 1981 revision) D&D Basic Set might have been better in the end.

For character creation and development, that game had several classes, a little randomness, and limited scope. It also had a range of information that at least implied a setting, as well as enough challenges and rewards to get one started as a DM. Sure, looking at it with modern sensibilities makes its flaws even more glaring. At the time, though, that red box had an approach that was sheer genius–simple, limited, and modularly expandable.

The tendency today is to try to give players everything possible at once, maybe even with a little new hotness for spice. That’s a wrongheaded approach, especially given the evidence of how people digest and play with tabletop roleplaying game material (slowly). It’s also wrongheaded approach if you, as a designer, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.

Too many players think that a new version of a game needs, at its inception, all the options the previous, mature system had. They’re wrongheaded, too. The way people learn and play a new system (slowly) doesn’t bear out this desire to have it all as soon as possible. It’s also wrongheaded if you, as a player, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.

Imagine if we could roll back time to the initial release of the 4e D&D game. What if the first Player’s Handbook had, at most, 160 pages–about the size of Martial Power and similar books. Let’s say it had the expected races (dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, and human) four core classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard), levels 1–10. It’d also have all the rules the current PH1 has, along with some clearer “entry-level” stuff such as archetypes. (All this would indeed fit in a 160-page book, along with a little new hotness, such as a new race or three and maybe another class–to taste.)

Before you decry or support this utter fantasy, imagine also that the release schedule modularly expanded the game. Six months would give you, as a player, a few more builds, classes, and races. A year later, at most, you would have access to the first paragon tier material. Year two would show you epic tier in all its glory. (The fact is, though, most current 4e players aren’t yet beyond heroic tier, even now.)

It would have been better for the designers and for the players. And that’s not even mentioning a utilitarian release schedule for DM products. It’s also ignoring that an entry-level game also has to be simple and fun, which I think 4e is. But that, and perhaps expansion on some of the topics touched on here, is a topic for another day.

40 thoughts on “Emergence & Reentry

  1. TheMainEvent: Well, cost can be mitigated. I’ll have to look into WFRP’s rules.

    pworthen: There’s no doubt that a smaller rollout wouldn’t have been accepted by existing fans. That was a major influence on the design as it is. It’s also why the PH was probably about as good, from a fanbase appeal standpoint, as it could have been. If one made the first PH the way I suggested, the four classes would have room for at least three builds.


  2. Hi Chris, great first post, you big ol’ ogrillion!

    I really wonder if a smaller rollout of 4e would have been accepted by the legions of players making the switch from 3.5. I know in my group, there was some muttering right from the start about “not enough options” and “limited choices”. I think that lasted until the first set of “Power” books came out – which expanded the options enough to make all the classes really viable. Now, perhaps if the rollout had included 4 classes with expanded options for each class, that might have really worked out well. As it stands, I think the initial offerings were very good.


  3. @Chris: The cost criteria you mention for WFRP is valid and something I didn’t really consider as an entry level criteria. I guess though that the core system itself is very light on page count, robust yet simple, and doesn’t pretend to have ‘high level’ stuff included.


  4. Jevhad: Truth is: I don’t know of a *good* entry-level system, despite thinking about that issue for even while writing this essay.

    Arcade: Your statements, in some ways, support my points despite your disagreement with them. You also espouse an attitude that I said was unhealthy for the game, then support that point. Several of your problems wouldn’t exist had the original release been more limited. Your struggle to find applicable feats and interesting magic items would likely have been nonexistent. One controller wouldn’t have mattered much–there would have been one version of each role. And, forgive me, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly that any player needs PH1, PH2, and all the power books to have enough to play and enjoy the game fully.

    Every version of every RPG on the market is created in the hopes that players will continue to buy the products of the game’s line. To consciously and honestly make a game that utilizes that model to ensure the games lifespan and health isn’t any greedier than making cliffhanger Lost episodes. It’s not wrong for the manufacturer and designers to make a game model that encourages you to at least want the new stuff. Without revenue, the game dies.

    So, it’s actually a problem for Wizards that you ever feel disinterested in the new content based on what you already own. It’s also a problem for you if you want the game’s life to continue, vitally and innovatively, into the future.

    On the flip side, a larger book that included the core classes from 3e in heroic tier might have been a viable alternative to anything I’ve suggested. That might have been exactly the middle of the road solution 4e needed.

    Secret DM: You’re correct in your assessment of what 4e is, and you put it well. It’s entirely true that designers need experience with a new system, just like players do. It takes time. The design has been getting sharper and sharper, and I hope the Essentials line give the game a new edge.

    Andreas Rönnqvist: Good luck! Your system won’t have the expectations “baggage” 4e had.

    Blue: True. One of the advantages 3e had was a basic version that came out, if I remember correctly, before the initial. Keep on the Shadowfell wasn’t the same or, I fear, enough for 4e.

    Robert Fisher: Interesting point. The messaging on the initial release could have been stronger along those lines. Nobody suggested 3e was worthless, though, or that 4e was perfect. Wizards, including me, did say 4e was better, and I still think that’s true. Today the word out of Wizards tends toward “keep playing D&D, no matter which edition you play.”


  5. The proper way to handle a transition like 3e ? 4e, IMHO, is this: You recognize that the new edition is going to take time to get “up to speed”. You actively encourage existing players who use all the extra stuff to stay with the older edition until the new one is able to support their needs.

    I know this is 100% counter to the “knee-jerk” school of business, but it actually works fine. There are plenty of existing players who are going to be happy to early adopt. There are plenty of existing players who stick pretty close to “core” and can switch immediately. (Heck, these people are a big justification for the new edition. The ones who tend to buy little beyond the “core”.) So, you’ll get plenty of sales, and your customers will respect you more for recognizing that the game they’re playing isn’t worthless and admitting that the new edition isn’t perfect.


  6. Chris, I think you hit it on the head what players were expecting with a new product. From comments here and from when 4e was released, a trimmed down version would have encountered a lot more resistance from the existing fan-base then there already was for people coming from the mature line of products from 3.x. Perhaps instead of one-size-fits-all of having a product that would satisfy novice and seasoned gamers alike, a split like they are trying with the D&D essentials line. Have 4e D&D as the streamlined system to attract new blood as well as satisfy the casual gamer, and bring back the venerable “Advanced D&D” brand for a more in-depth. Keep them compatible such that new products and adventures wouldn’t require two separate lines (though it still would take additional work / cost). D&D could be a gateway for AD&D for those interested.


  7. Hiya!

    First of all, awesome article and infact the exact conceptual schedule we are working on and around for a Swedish RPG system. It will include four races (humans, elves, dwarves and halflings) and four classes (fighter, cleric, rogue and wizard) and will be covering the first 10 levels. The idea is to expand the base material with 2 races and 2 classes at the Heroic level in the first year, then offer a paragon expansion for the first book.

    We’ll see how this fares in the year that is coming! 😀


  8. Wow, I’m late getting to this party! Glad to see Chris Sims writing at Critical Hits! And what a way to start!

    I have no doubt that what I’m about to say has already been said by someone, but I’m actually way too lazy (self absorbed?) to double check and make sure I’m not repeating something. Besides, I love the sound of my own keyboard. 🙂

    Chris: Your article offers some exceptional insight into the design process of 4e, as well as offering an honest opinion on the game’s market status, along with your own thoughts on what could have been done differently. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective because, as a fan of 4e, it’s reassuring to hear some of my own thoughts on the subject echoed by a person with a more personal connection to the rules system.

    I was always on the fence about 4e — in fact, it wasn’t until a phone conversation with Mike Mearls that I experienced an epiphany and fully embraced what 4e had to offer. I wasn’t a 4e-Hater; I just had a problem with certain design elements I felt were unnecessary. I believed, like a lot of people, that 3.5 needed to be revamped — that D&D had gotten away from itself and needed to be streamlined — but I didn’t think dragonborn were the answer.

    I understand the dragonborn now (in fact, I incorporate their storyline into every campaign I build and encourage their usage), and I’ve gotten over any residual 4e-based resentment. Like a lot of people, I was anticipating 4e to be an improvement over 3.5 — similar in design to Star Wars Saga Edition. What we got instead was a complete reboot of D&D, which is exactly where the frustration stemmed from. I wasn’t approaching 4e as a new game system; I was poring over the rules looking for the familiar elements, and feeling betrayed that those elements had been taken out.

    What’s amazing to me is that 4e, for all of it’s improvements — leaps and bounds from the game’s initial roots — is experiencing exactly what the game’s initial launch must’ve been like, back in the days of either Chain Mail or the original Dungeons & Dragons. It’s design was a little clunky; the rules needed to be amended, revised, and improved upon within months of the initial launch. It wasn’t quite the entry-level game that people were hoping for. And it’s taken several years to move it in the right direction, with the pending release of the Essentials line later this year.

    It took me a couple of years, but I understand the broader picture now. I used to be part of the chorus chanting “It’s not D&D”; I realize now I was wrong and that it IS D&D; what it isn’t is “4e” — rather, it’s the 1st edition of a new D&D…and like all 1st editions, it’s going to have some rough spots, especially with the roll out, use of, and playability of the rules. It’s a learning experience — not just for the players but for the game’s designers as well — and in time, the kinks will get hammered out and the system will be improved upon — culminating with the release of a revised version — a 2nd edition, if you will.

    I look forward to purchasing those rulebooks; in the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the version of 4e that’s currently on the market. 🙂
    .-= The Secret DM´s last blog ..Hello, World. =-.


  9. Add my praise to the article. And of course, my own disagreement and spin.

    Limiting the first book to heroic tier would be fine. Great even. They focused DMG2 on heroic tier, so that would have been a great time to do the same with PHB2. The magic item section would have shrunk down to levels 1-14, which would be perfect.

    However, I disagree with reducing the number of core classes. When I read the PHB, I felt tlike I was only getting half of the game. There was only a single controller. You’d struggle to find the 6 or 7 feats you would even want to take each tier without picking the exact same ones every time. Even the magic items, for as many of them as there were, didn’t look to provide a lot of excitement. In 3E, you could play a game with the core rules and feel like you had a full game available. 4E didn’t feel like that- it was the game meant to get you to buy more books if you really wanted to play.

    Once I got PHB2, and the first set of power books, I felt the game had hit a normal level where more choices weren’t necessary. In fact, it was possibly just past that point. But at that point, I thought that this was the point where if you didn’t have anything but these books to use, you could play and enjoy a full game and have everything you need.


  10. Really interesting view point, I agree (and that’s a strong argument of why I don’t play 4e).

    But talking about suggestions for your columns, which are good entry level systems? Or which products are good entry-level options in particular games?

    Like many in D&D & RPGs I’m reaching to point of having to teach the next generation and I’d not mind investing in some easy new systems.


  11. Welcome Chris, and thanks for a very thought provoking first article.

    Its interesting to look back at the launch of 4E and imagine what it could have been. I can only wonder at the difficulty the 4E designers experienced as they tried to make the newest edition something that would not only attract new customers, but would also retain old customers, when each target market had such diverging requirements.

    As you said, new customers would need to be attracted by a setting that grabbed their attention, a system that was easy to understand and a price point that didn’t scare them away. While retaining older customers meant there had to be enough crunch and fluff to keep their sometimes jaded expectations excited about the new and wanting more.

    I think its impossible for WotC to have hit a home run with both of their target markets. In hindsight, offering an Entry Level Boxed Set at the same time they launched the (almost) Core Books (PHB, MM, DMG) was probably the only way. Its sad to see that in the end they shattered much of their existing customer base and seemingly came short of their expectations for bringing in new players.


  12. Thanks for the discussion and the welcomes, again.

    TheMainEvent: I’m sure you’re right about the game’s qualities–at least for educated gamers such as my WotC friends who like the game. I have a hard time believing the current edition of WFRP even begins to qualify as an entry-level game, though. The price is a barrier, mostly because the components are such that I can’t just buy the player portion. One could argue that The Adventurer’s Toolkit will fill that need, but I’m skeptical.

    Level1Gamer: Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that 4e is great for learning to DM, and it can be a lot easier to learn overall than other editions. I also find your scaling mechanics idea on the right track, although I don’t know if I’d go as far as you suggest. Applied carefully, yours could be a valid approach, along with limited content on the game’s side. Limiting a game’s content at the outset makes it easier on the designers and players to expand over time in a way that doesn’t overwhelm players with the choices that content implies. Contrary to being a convenient “money-grab” scheme (as some, not you, might call it), although the business involved might make more money, it’s a release design that encourages incremental expansion at a reasonable and usable pace. That means longer life for the game edition itself.

    Michael (Kid Gamer): Good points, and the basic game should at least give you hints as to how to put a game together. It can’t give you a ride, of course. I did, and would if I were you, introduce all the kids on my street to D&D when I was about 10. They all chose to play, at least intermittently–so I’d recommend taking a chance on friends who like fantasy. Let them decide on D&D. Your point number 3 is why I advocate for usable products priced at or below the $20.00 mark, with modular content. Player Essentials does one but seems like it might fail at the other since it includes levels 1-30 and so on.

    Fabio Milito Pagliara: The boardgames are great ideas for introducing D&D concepts to would-be players. A potential DM can use the boardgame and then say, “If you liked that, we should try D&D!” I helped playtest Castle Ravenloft, and in addition to being fun, it definitely works in that vein. The problem I see is that the boardgames (D&D Heroscape notwithstanding) aim at the high-end boardgamer market and not at new gamers.


  13. I advocated the kind of 4e launch you “what if” about on ENWorld back around the time of the 4e launch. I especially thought it would have been much better—given the “time release” plan of 4e anyway—to concentrate the first releases on the first tier. That idea was not well received.

    Yeah, maybe you’re right that the customer isn’t always right.

    People also kept telling me that World of Warcraft players would never be satisfied with the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert. Yet now I’ve got three WoW players playing exactly that edition, and they can’t get enough.


  14. I’m a little late to the party (4 days without power after the cyclone put me way behind!) but welcome.

    Excellent Article, it really touched on what i believe are some crucial points for Game developement.

    I’m tempted to even go back and reduce the amount of info and options that i’m about to give my players for my next homebrew creation.

    Thanks Chris


  15. It seems that people have been talking about kids playing games, so I’ll give you my perspective as a kid gamer.

    Background Info: I first played D&D at summer camp about 4 years ago. Our DM was our cabin counselor who had the core books, and while I’m not sure which edition we played, the PHB had some sort of guy riding a horse out of a goldish-yellow with the words Advanced Dungeons & Dragons above it. I DMed a short campaign of D&D with my friends (3.5), and then I moved.

    The biggest challenges as a kid gamer are (1) getting to where you need to go and (2) finding people to game with. I haven’t played a game for 3 years, but I still keep up with the game by checking blogs and reading the reviews.

    (1): Getting to where you need to go is kinda hard because of the fact that I’m close to, but not yet at the age to drive. Obviously, this is kind of a problem, because even if I had a game, I couldn’t join it.

    (2): Finding people to game with is also hard because I don’t think I really want to play with people out who are past high school. While my friends like fantasy, I don’t think they’d really like D&D.

    (3): Actual physical gaming products is also hard because I do not have a steady supply of money. This means that I have absolutely no gaming books whatsoever because I cannot buy them. Just getting the core books costs about $100.

    I hope this did not come across as a complaint, but I do think that this product would be AWESOME, as long as its price range isn’t outrageous. I hope this was helpful.



  16. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, because I am a new gamer. I played D&D for the first time last June. And I write about my experiences on my blog.

    While I agree that 4th edition isn’t completely friendly to the entry-level, it’s much more friendly than the other versions of D&D I’ve played (3.5 and OD&D (via Swords & Wizardry). For instance, it’s the only RPG that I feel I could DM with any reasonable ability, yet it’s the version of D&D I’ve played the least. I disagree that what keeps 4th edition from being a true entry-level RPG is the plethora of options for character creation. Limiting the number of classes or races or levels in the first release of the PHB wouldn’t have solved the problem.

    As I see it, the real problem with 4th edition is that it has no level 1. Of course, there are level 1 characters, but to a new player it feels more like level 5. Even the “simpler” classes have at least 1 or 2 At-Will powers, 1 Encounter, 1 Daily, Second Wind, and an action point, as well as concepts like marking or Hunter’s Quarry. That’s a lot for a new player to deal with when they are still trying to figure out how to roll a basic attack. “Which one is the D20? So I have to roll an attack, then I roll for damage?” It’s a lot to deal with in combat as well as character creation.

    For 4th edition to have been truly entry level, these concepts should have been introduced level by level. For instance, a Fighter should start with 1 Encounter Power and that’s it. Add At-Will powers, Dailies, marking, etc. as the character levels up.

    Summing up, an entry-level game needs to limit choices to the make the rules more digestible. Instead of doing it by limiting classes or races, do it by limiting choices at level 1 and introduce new choices and new mechanics each level after.
    .-= Level1Gamer´s last blog ..My week in gaming =-.


  17. In terms of a game with a very simple to grasp mechanic and highly modular release, I have to bring up Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I’ve introduced to a number of long time D&D players and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It has a few fiddly glitches, but the players grasp the mechanics quickly and intuitively and it doesn’t try to pretend its a completely supported game in its paragon/epic equivalents.


  18. Newbiedm: It is the Fiend Folio, but nobody had said till you did.

    Bartoneus: My ultimate point is that those who’ve played video game RPGs have a certain amount of “sophistication” with regard to RPGs, regardless of whether they’ve even seen tabletop games. So a whole lot of potential tabletop gamers already have expectations that no entry-level game can play against successfully. One of those expectations, for instance, is a certain amount of character customization–customization that starts simple and becomes complex.

    On the settings topic, it takes dedication to read setting material, especially in a video game. In a tabletop setting, D&D fights a battle against those who expect a campaign setting to description of a living world without acknowledging that the living world they perceive exists only after years and years of development. Setting material like that is also overwhelming to newbies. Players, especially log-time ones, forget that game-relevant information comes first with a game. The story of the world occurs when you play the game.

    Dave Tavener: You’re correct . . . anecdotally, and also when you say the core mechanic is easy in D&D. I also think 4e is relatively simple to learn, although the Player’s Handbook can seem daunting. In some ways, 4e is simpler than the Moldvay red box, but it’s presentation doesn’t always let that simplicity shine through. But I suspect you and your buddy, like Nicholas, acted as a buffer between your kids and the more complex elements of the game. Anything is easier with an experienced (at D&D if not 4e) and enthusiastic teacher whom you trust. I’m glad your kids have that! =)

    Nicholas: It’s not easy to teach yourself, and the presentation of 4e doesn’t help sometimes. My hope is that James Wyatt’s new red box will bridge that gap and do so better than the “starter set” did.

    Daryl: The Essential line might surprise you. It is sure to introduce some newness. See my response to Mike Shea.

    Chris Gardiner: Your overwhelming point is one of my own. It would have been better for players and DMs, whether they believe it or not, as well as the health of the game, to have a slower, steadier, modular release cycle. Getting that right while keeping the existing fans happy would have been very difficult, but probably worth it. Certainly, the designers at Wizards would be in a better place now. So would some of the game elements, such as those you mention.

    Matthew Arcilla: I’m asserting that too much emphasis was and is placed on pleasing a fanbase that wants and unhealthy design process. Pathfinder has the same problem, only worse in some ways (3e existing products) and better in others (fewer sales needed to be seen as successful, and so on). Few people, if anyone, were jumping up and down and gnashing teeth over Green Ronin’s Dragon Age and its modular release process. Why? It’s as simple as the (potential) fanbase had no solid expectations. Pramas did the right thing by incrementing the release of that product line–the right thing for players and the right thing, hopefully, for his business.

    Mike Shea: The Essentials line is, at least I hope, what an initial release of 4e could have been if Wizards’ designers hadn’t had so much fighting to do against fan expectation. It should be good for the game, especially for those I wish it had occurred sooner. In my opinion, the game is too young to already have its third 220+-page Player’s Handbook.

    The major problem I see with Essentials is the retention of the “1st-30th” level mentality. My point in this essay is to get people thinking, maybe, all that expansiveness in level isn’t “essential” for a new player. It can, in fact, be overwhelming. If Essentials really is a “separate pathway into the game” for the “next generation of gamers,” introducing that next generation to higher-level content over time should have been just fine. That, and the products wouldn’t be 300 or so pages each. (A minor problem is that the new red box only goes through 1st and 2nd level, which seems a bit slim. Another minor problem is that the DM materials are too high in price point.)

    This “new path” still doesn’t acknowledge the way new players will consume the material (slowly) because, and Wizards needs to be extra careful with its marketing on this point, Essentials isn’t just for new players. I can’t be. Wizards is still caught in that whirlpool of trying to meet everyone’s needs and expectations. They, unfortunately, don’t have the luxury of doing otherwise. This is why the player material for essentials will contain new class builds–probably to the exclusion of old ones. It’s why the monster vault will include new monsters (not just revisions) and tokens.

    Rest assured, if you’re an old hand at D&D and own a lot of 4e material, you’ll probably still find more than a few reasons to pick up Essentials. That’s okay with me, as an owner of almost every 4e product. I want to see all the new stuff.


  19. Hi Chris!

    In your response for queries, I sent you an email regarding solos and their use at paragon and epic tier. I’m still not finding them easy to run to make them feel like real badasses instead of poor dumb oafs with a bucket over their head and a kick-me sign on their ass.

    Regarding your second part of your post. What do you think about the D&D essentials line that is coming out? Do you think it will hit the mark? I’m looking forward to a simplified and self-contained D&D to get some of my non-D&D friends into it or to bring on a trip with the wife and I. What’s your take?

    Welcome aboard!

    Mike Shea
    .-= Mike Shea´s last blog ..Harrowing Halls Terrain Effects =-.


  20. Most everyone made all the points I wanted to make:

    * That the hardcore fanbase would be even more ridiculous if the debut of D&D 4e was in a more accessible format that restricted the number of classes and races, simply because of a wrongheaded perception that the launch iteration of the game must always reflect the complexity of its previous edition.

    * And that it’s a little too late now.

    In my opinion, 4e achieved most of its design goals, but it did not succeed in terms of expanding the market. Even if we were to overlook the late arrival of the Essentials line, the core books do a poor job of getting people into that pick up and play setup. Sometimes I think the written copy of 4e is schizophrenic — it’s written with an assumption that you know how RPGs unfold in play, but have never played one before — making it difficult to determine whether you’re supposed to read it as a newb or a grognard.

    This strange writing style made the game perfect for me. I’d owned pen and paper RPG products but never found someone to play with. It’s not entirely a pick up and play product, but it works for anyone willing to teach themself but unwilling to deal with the insane amount of variables that 2e/3e had become infamous for. Unfortunately, the target market I represent is probably very small.

    Great editorial, Chris.
    .-= Matthew Arcilla´s last blog ..State of The Game: March 2010 =-.


  21. Great article.

    I love 4e, and am a fairly experienced player, but I feel that the range of choices available now in character creation, once you combine all the DDI stuff and Power books, is just overwhelming. The pace of supplementary materials has been breakneck.

    And I can’t help but wonder if a staged, tiered release like Chris suggests might have been beneficial for design. I certainly wonder if some aspects of the game (like skill challenges – which now are at a great place but weren’t in the initial DMG – prestige paths, and masterwork armour) would have benefited from more development time and the irreplaceable data of huge numbers of people playing the base game for a while.

    Seeing the core books take a breather for the Essentials line was actually quite a relief for me, and I’m really excited to see what happens with Essentials. A slightly streamlined, entry-level system that can benefit from 3 years of play and developing design sentiment? That could be something really special. Depending how it ends up, I might even switch to that from core D&D for future games. I’ve seen a few (excellent, creative, enthusiastic) players totally turned off by 4E character creation, and that makes me a sad norker.


  22. When I saw the upcoming Essentials line and the lack of releases for the “core” products through the fall, I was quite discouraged, and concerned about the overall health of the edition.

    However, further thought took me back to when I started playing D&D, which was with the purple boxed D&D Basic Set. It was cheap, self contained, and my brother and I played the **** out of it. Being from a small town, we played that game for years before we saw something called the Expert Set on a trip to a big city, which of course opened a whole new range of game play (read: monsters to kill and treasure to get) for us.

    There is no way we could have bought the Advanced D&D hardcovers at that pre-income generating age, nor would our mother have let us start into such an expensive hobby so young. If the essentials line can get the young kids (late elementary/Jr High) into the system then great. I’ll spend the fall catching up on insider articles and working with the sups I enjoy and have underutilized.


  23. Whenever I introduce a player to the system I attempt to act as a buffer between the player and the rules. I usually sit down in front of the character builder and ask simple questions like “do you want to be up on the front lines defending your friends or standing in the back manipulating fights?” Going on like this we eventually work out race, class and build without the new player ever getting overwhelmed by rules. I have noticed a huge improvement versus introducing players to 3.5.

    With that said, I don’t know what it is like for those who just pick up a book and want to teach themselves to play.


  24. Hey Chris my man! Welcome aboard!

    Awesome home run of a first editorial.

    Ya know? I keep saying that 4e is an Indie RPG (albeit an extremely well designed one) that tries really really hard not to look like one by hiding out in the open underneath the biggest brand of them all.

    So yeah, not an entry level one. The intricacies of mastering it’s design possibilities astound me. I feel like these competitive Magic the Gathering players that one day step from being ‘strong among the weak’ into ‘weak among the strong’.

    I’m really interested to see where the game will go… and I hope DIY guys like us can help it along with external ideas/products.


  25. I kinda disagree about 4e not being entry level. Early last year, my old college roommate and I decided to come back to the game after a 20 year absence. The catalyst of this decision was that we each had kids that were finally old enough to play the game (around 12). Having not paid much attention to D&D since the start of 2nd edition, we searched around for what the best version might be to teach to the kids. We considered 1st ed AD&D and even the Red Box rules, but when we finally explored 4e, we realized that this was the simplest edition to teach to a new player. The core mechanic was easy to understand. The defenses made sense, and the philosophy that everyone in the party could contribute in some way during an encounter (no more wizards blowing their 1 1st level spell in the first room and sitting around for the rest of the day…).
    In fact, we realized that not only could the 12 year olds easily grasp the system, our younger kids could as well. My home game consists of a 14yo, 12yo, 10yo, 8yo, and even a 6yo. Admittedly, the 6yo needs to sit next to the DM to keep him from trying to take out the minis with a d20, but he gets the essence of the game and is excited to play. No other version of D&D would have been this easy to teach and to grasp.
    As they grow in ability, we add in new aspects of the game (PHB2 characters for instance). The modular design approach of the game is ideal for this.


  26. Hey Chris, welcome to Critical Hits!

    I love the discussion about new-entry into RPGs and especially the relation to videogame RPGs because I play both so regularly. I’ve also frequently discussed with Dave and our other friends about similar issues when it comes to entering a game in a specific campaign setting (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, etc) and how for me it replicates some of the early problems of getting someone into RPGs in general but with a more specific angle of getting them into a certain world and setting. I believe often in videogames this is fixed through cinematics, cut scenes, and lots of text the game provides and I believe some DMs could learn a lot from such comparisons.


  27. Thanks for the welcomes. Ogrillon is right, and maybe too easy (?), but nobody’s identified the source.

    Maybe I should have said “imagine if D&D were new to the market.” Does that change any perceptions?

    David: Good point–and I fully acknowledge that it was impossible for the designers to make what I suggest in this post.

    Scott: Is right in that perception and expectation from the fans can be hard to anticipate and design for while maintaining a low barrier to entry.

    Krypt0ian: On the other hand, like you suggest, 4e could have been a more user-friendly game.

    I have high hopes for the Essentials and the new boxed set. I know James Wyatt was going back to basics on the new red box.


  28. I’ve been playing with some “entry-level” concepts with the intent of introducing both younger (<10 yrs old) and traditional board game players to D&D. A couple design principles that I'm focusing on are the removal of most of the math and keeping the dice rolling down to one or two tosses of a d20 per turn. Most RPG veterans would consider this dumbed-down, but the intent is to capture the fundamentals of gameplay without overloading players with foreign terminology and rules.

    I must say, I'm impressed with the new editorial approach that Critical Hits is taking, and I think landing an industry professional like Chris Sims is a huge coup for you guys. Bravo, and keep up the good work.
    .-= Kameron´s last blog ..The Gulthias Tree =-.


  29. I agree with the need for an entry level ruleset, but rather than eliminating choice in the book, rather provide a first chapter of guidelines to enable this. Limit initial choices to 5-6 classes, and use preexisting builds only. Then suggest the new players game opens as they feel comfortable with the initial line up of choices. A bit of handholding for those that need it.

    This tact leaves the game intact for seasoned gamers, but does not alienate new folks.

    I know I would not want to wait for the Paragon rules a year later, in order to cater to new gamers.

    Welcome Chris! Ogrillon it is! =)


  30. Welcome to the Hit Squad, Chris. Good to have you on board.

    I agree that the while the 4e rules are rock solid and great fun in play, the presentation (particularly of the PHB) is lacking. I’m hoping that the new D&D boxed set fixes that in ways that the D&D Starter Kit also… uhhhh…. didn’t. Third times the charm, eh?

    And newbiedm has it: Ogrillon! Darn, that brings back memories.
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..And your brain makes brum brum noises =-.


  31. David,

    I think you hit on an important point there – catering to the fanbase’s (often terribly flawed) view of what the game should be like is a good way to damage the quality of your game. Yes, they’re your fans, and yes, they pay your bills, but unfortunately they’re often unable to restrain themselves from judging your product long enough to actually see what it’s like in play. It’s fortunate that the 4e designers kept themselves in check when it came to fan expectations and demands, or we might never have ended up with the power system and other novel mechanics.


  32. Excellent article! It’s always interesting to me to see the perceived strengths and weaknesses of something in the eyes of someone who helped create it. Great to have you on board, sir!

    P.S. I’m guessing the monster this week is a Shetland Ogre. Am I right?
    .-= Vanir´s last blog ..Emergence & Reentry =-.


  33. When 4E was first launched there was alot of public outcry for the “omission” of gnomes, druids and barbarians. I can not imagine the outcry if even more was taken out.

    Alot of it is perception. If the launch was lite the perception would have been WotC was looking to gouge the consumer by requiring them to buy more books to be “complete”. Would the game have been fun and enjoyable with only a few classes and races? Yes, but perception would have turned people (the pre-4E crowd) away.

    Perhaps if they had produced a lite version with only the core/core classes, Mage, Fight, Rogue, Cleric and “core” races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, and released it along side the PH it might have done what you are talking about. Sort of like the Essentials line they are coming out with, only a few years too late.

    And nice to hear from you!


  34. I’m a big believer in D&D having to appeal to the kid market in order to survive. It’s my belief that the game has aged alongside its audience at least since the days of the red box, through 2nd ed, and ultimately 3rd and 4th.

    I sit here now as a 36 year old holding 4th Ed. books and finding that it is a less-complex game, not necessarily a dumbed down game, but less complex than 3rd (which I tended to avoid due to its algebraic-like effects on my feeble mind) and find that it is just what I need. I have little time to prep and 4th gives me the ability to create adventures in between my time as a dad and working stiff.

    Is it entry level? No, it didn’t launch as such. Can it be an entry level, yes, I believe it can, much as you say, by stripping it of so much availability.

    The question I ask is how much of a willingness is there to pull in the entry level player vs. the willingness to keep the current player and string him through editions of the game?

    Welcome to the blogosphere, you Ogrillon!
    .-= newbiedm´s last blog ..Ways You Can Help Your Players =-.


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