Not The Gold Standard

 Posted by on June 26, 2014  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments
Jun 262014

The Gold StandardFor this month, I was going to spill some ink about earning XP for finding treasure. I had nearly 2,000 words in place, all ready to go. Something else, however, had been stomping around in my little attic and making so much noise, I felt compelled to go upstairs to find out what it was. So here we go. The post that I did not intend to write.

Here’s a confession: I have a really weird relationship with D&D. It was my first RPG. It was the game that hooked me. It’s the game I prefer to play over any other. I’m happiest when I’m working with the other players to explore a dungeon, fighting monsters, finding treasure, and adding the XP to my character sheet. I love solving puzzles, mapping dungeons, and drawing upon my encyclopedic knowledge of the game and its lore. I love the classic experience. And it is in this world where I am most at home. So why then do I have all this frustration? Why can’t I be happy?

To get this right, we have to go back to the beginning. My first experience with D&D was with the adventure Rahasia. I had nothing else. So, instead of pressing my parents to get me the rules, I just made them up. I called it Passages. It was super easy. I think you rolled a d6 and if you rolled some number or higher, you killed the monster. You gained a level every time you moved onto a new map.

It wasn’t long after that my parents presented me with the red box. I still remember pulling off the thin plastic and removing the lid, finding the two booklets, some inexpensive dice, a crayon, and an ad for the RPGA. I looked through the player’s book and discovered, to my dismay, D&D was nothing like the game I had made. It looked complicated and had all sorts of strange rules. I was disappointed.

My friend Landon, however, was a big-time D&D guy. I remember seeing him run AD&D on the playground for some other kids. They had strange books, the Advanced ones, and I clearly remember them discussing Oriental Adventures and the cool stuff it contained. I was intrigued. I wanted to join them, to have the same experiences, to find out just how many flavors of dwarf there were. I want to play, too. Landon, I suppose, sensed my interest and invited me to spend the night at his house. We talked about comics quite a bit. Eventually we sat at his kitchen table and ended with my first D&D character, a fighter named Booger. I landed on the name Booger from my disdain for the entire enterprise. Character creation bored me to death. Later that night, when the lights were off, and I was drifting off to sleep on the floor, I had decided that D&D was not for me. I was, again, disappointed.

The next Friday, Landon invited me over again, this time to play. It was just me and Travis. Travis had his two characters, and I had Booger and a magic-user Landon had put together for me. I named the magic-user Pardu after Tom Hanks’s character from Monsters & Mazes. The game began. Within minutes, mere minutes, I was frantically erasing the name Booger from my character sheet and was scrawling Ator in its smudged place. I was hooked. From that day on, I went to Landon’s house or he went to mine. We swilled Mountain Dew and Sundrop. We devoured chili dogs and lasagna. And best of all, we had awesome adventures in a world of our imagination.

The takeaway from this charming anecdote is the manner in which I became hooked. I took one look at the rules and character creation (laughably simple now of course) and was ready to quit before I had even played a single session. But once I had dice in hand, once the story began, I never wanted to stop. The experience of playing, the genuine fear I felt for my character when we faced down the gnolls for the first time, the excitement I had when I found a +1 two-handed sword: all this had sparked my imagination and would eventually launch my career.

So with all that love, I’m left wondering what the problem is. In suspect it’s that for the last 15 years or so, the most important part of the game has not been playing but rather creating for it. Character creation used to be something you had to do before you could have the fun. The mechanics were the necessary evil, the gauntlet you had to run. In recent years, the fun has moved from the time you spent at the table to the time you spend thinking about the table. Sure, back in the old days, I made plenty of characters for games I played and games I wanted to play but never really did. It was just like doing math problems. They had solutions. You just had to roll the dice, make the choices, and plug the information into the sheet. But hasn’t been that way for a while.

It seems the fun for many is in putting the different pieces together to create something new. Clever play now occurs in isolation. The player earns the greatest reward not from having a good idea at the table or thinking to look behind the wardrobe and finding a magic item, but from the discovery of a winning combination of mechanics, the perfect marriage of two spells, skill and feat, class feature and widget. The pleasure comes from realizing the broken combination and from putting the mechanical abomination into play. No delight is sweeter than that which is experienced by watching the expressions of those who must bear witness to your creative horror. Does it matter that the loophole makes the game unplayable? Does it matter that such shenanigans immediately put the beleaguered Dungeon Master on the defensive, to the point that he or she flails because the game no longer seems to work? Not at all. Why? Because the game wants you to break it. It begs for you to dig in and explore the options. The endless parade of new mechanics demand you to pick them up, peer at them in the light, and plug them in. It’s a game made for the tinkerers. Oh, you just want to play? Well, you’ll need these ten books, this character generation tool, and on and on and on.

The prize for being the best player goes not to the creative mind, the cunning tactician, the burgeoning actor, but to the best mathematician. Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along. The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters. As the game evolved, it was no longer sufficient for the fighter to become more accurate or to attack more often: the fighter had to do things beyond swing a sword or loose an arrow from a bow. The game needed rules for every situation, for every scenario, and with each new rule came a new exploit, a new opportunity to bend the game into something terrifying.

This has turned rant-ish and for that I apologize. I do not believe there is a right way or a wrong way to play this game. I know a great many people love to tinker, to build, and create. They see the character sheet as a blank screen, eager for new code, a canvas craving the brush. And that’s cool. But for me, I don’t want that experience anymore. I crave lighter fare. I want the thrill of discovery. The excitement that arises at the table. The hilarity of defeat and the thrill of success.

So here we are, at the dawn of the next edition, an edition I, in some part, helped to create. When I was brought onto the team, it was with the understanding that I would fly the 4th Edition flag, a game I had worked hard to support through the countless articles and supplements throughout the life of that game. Looking back, I find it strange since I have all but divorced myself from the 4th Edition rules, largely for the reasons I outline above. While I enjoy 4E, it scratched a different itch for me than the one D&D had for many years. As I worked on 5th Edition, I shed my 3rd Edition and 4th Edition influences. I abandoned conceptions and beliefs about design that I had held as truths for years until I returned to my roots, to a place where the most important part of D&D is not what’s in the book but what happens at the table. And so, I look forward to the coming months, to see what I hope will become a return to the glory days of D&D to a style of play both familiar and new. I believe this game preserves just enough of the customization elements that defined the 3rd and 4th Editions to be recognizable to newer members of the audience, while having reclaimed the heart of the game from the earliest editions and put it back where it belongs. It should be an exciting future and one that I am proud to have helped create.

More awesomeness...

Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb is a freelance game designer and developer with a slew of works to his name, and you can find more of his work in the next incarnation of D&D. When not making fun, Rob spends far too much time listening to music and holding up the bar at his favorite watering hole. You can follow Rob on Twitter, become his new best friend on Facebook, or check out his website.

  112 Responses to “Not The Gold Standard”

  1. Great article Rob! I think it’s up to us as DMs to encourage and allow the creative minds thrive, the cunning tactician to succeed, and the burgeoning actor to automatically succeed after a great speech. From what I’ve seen, 5th edition allows for this, it’s up to us to implement it and make actual gameplay more rewarding then clever character optimization.

  2. There are those who never left behind ‘Men & Magic’, ‘Monsters & Treasures’ and ‘Wilderness Adventures’ but instead simply side tracked back to where you started – with homebrew rules. I be one among those. For 30 years I’ve played my one and singular* set of homebrew rules and my world … it has the advantages of continuity for the world (it’s been two long campaigns – the first one, The Iron Legions of Telgar, ending in 1984, and the second one, Elthos, is ongoing). It’s an amazing hobby, and an amazing craft. I love about it all the things you mentioned at first, and despise all of the things that it became afterwards, and for much the same reasons you mention as well.

    In the old days, we didn’t even tell our players the rules, or their Character requisites at all – we wanted them to focus on their Characters and the events in the world – not the numbers. That went splendidly for the duration of my first Campaign. Elthos, on the other hand, called me in the direction of tactical combat, for which the players needed to know their stats, and I felt it fair for them to know the rules. That has been going well ever since because the rules I use are designed toward simplicity, and my GMing style further encourages a focus on story, rather than mechanics in most cases non-combat related. For combat, it turns out, I’ve come to prefer a tactical layout. It helps to mitigate confusion among the players and debates about what coulda/shoulda/woulda happened if the player had actually understood that “off in the distance” meant “out of bow range”. Anyway, I’m curious to see how things progress with the hobby and what you’ve written gives me some hope that after all this time perhaps the pendulum is swinging back the other way, finally. Thank you for your thoughtful, engaging, and above all, quite honest and refreshing post!

    Edit – * Actually, this is slightly misleading. In 2006 I substantially reduced my rules system down to a mini-system. While the rules structures remain the same, all the numbers and math are small-numbers, and some of the formulas have been simplified. Its essence, though, is much the same.

  3. Nice piece Rob.

    Having played D&D since ’76, I have seen the game devolve from a role playing game to a roll playing game. Earlier (i.e. less complicated) versions of the game allowed the player to describe what (s)he was going to attempt to the GM without consulting an endless stream of skills to determine if the character even stood a chance of completing the feat. It was these creative approaches to resolving problems that I enjoyed seeing as a GM and posing as a player.

    I’m hopeful that the new version recaptures that atmosphere.

    • I have seen literally hundreds of gamers do exactly this with 2nd edition AD&D, 3rd edition, 4th edition, Next playtests, and even 2e+Skills&Powers+Spells&Magic (yes, really – I’ve DMed at a lot of conventions). If you lost this ability at some point, I’m really sorry to hear that, and I’m very happy that you have a game that works for you, but I’m also really tired of hearing people claim that a thing I have personally experienced and seen others experience over and over and over again somehow can’t exist because it doesn’t work for them.

      There are tons of great games out there. Find one or two or dozens that you like and trumpet their virtues for all the world to hear, and I’ll happily pitch in. Just don’t do it by telling other people that they’re playing wrong, please.

  4. Failure is the key issue. If you get things wrong in D&D, the best case is that nothing happens. The worst case is that the character your spent so long trying to get to work is taken away. You mention the “hilarity” of failure, but the people making those monstrosities don’t find failure hilarious, except when they’re causing it to happen to others. Fix that, as some of us have, and you fix vast swathes of problems with the game. I’m not saying “remove failure” I’m saying “make failure interesting.” Start with XP for missed rolls, as in Dungeon World and go from there.

  5. Great article Rob! My experience match yours in that the more and more i played and playtested 5E, the more i felt i was going away from more complex 4E system in favor of lighter one. I even run a 2E core campaign with no kits or or most optional rules and the core system is pretty easy too. Cheers #ClankingMug

  6. The thing is, 4e had people doing charop but it was a lot less necessary- it was hard to create a significantly underpowered character, because the system was pretty rigorously balanced and there were fewer trap options than before. Doing well or doing poorly in it was largely a question of decisions made in play, not in chargen.

    I’m not quite seeing that same commitment to balance in this edition, which makes me think that even with the simpler rules, there will be traps and superior choices and all the mathematical stuff you were opposed to.

    You’re making the error of assuming 4e fans just liked that edition because of the customization elements. A lot of us liked it because it was the most balanced edition to date, and I’m not seeing that in Next or in any other fantasy game on the market. That’s a real tragedy.

    • I don’t think I will ever understand the idea of balance in RPGs. Balance is something I look for in the design of competitive games. If it exists at all in RPGs it is something of a skill that every GM has to learn. It can’t be baked into the rules. I’ve played or run every edition of D&D since Moldvay-Cook BX, and I don’t even remember the last time I thought something was broken or unbalanced… Maybe some where in the waning days of 2e? It’s been a long time. The GM is the arbiter of balance between the players so everyone has a good time. Occasionally one might find a critter that’s over or under powered, but I’ve never had a problem with fixing that on the fly.

    • Usually- and arguably through much of D&D- some slight imbalance between classes isn’t too much of a problem, but if you get to a point where the player next to you can turn into a bear, attack alongside their bear companion, and thanks to Natural Spell summon even more bears, you may start to feel kind of redundant. (And that isn’t even a particularly esoteric CharOp build- it’s the sort of thing a player might just blunder into because it sounds neat.)

      Now, in classic D&D, the casters becoming godlike at higher levels wasn’t too big of a deal since by the time you got to that point, fighters were raising armies and the characters were starting to manage kingdoms rather than keep delving into dungeons, but support for that side of the game waned over the years, and increasingly more the game has assumed that you will just keep fighting monsters and looting treasure, and in that kind of tight encounter structure the ability of an overpowered class to end an encounter instantly by casting the right Save or Die spell is frustrating.

      Balance is a way of ensuring that whatever character concept strikes your fancy, you can play it and be assured that you can contribute as much to the party’s success as anyone else. That doesn’t impede players contributing through creative improvisation, it just gives them a few more fallback options.

  7. That blog post did more than any bad preview to sell me off 5E.
    I think I will stay with sometimes playing 3E and game mastering 4E.

    • Wow. That wasn’t my intention at all. I mentioned that I don’t think there’s a wrong way to play, didn’t I? Also, 5E provides plenty of ways to customize a character. The optional feat system and background elements and big choice point in class enable players to build a characters to match their concept. The post, really, was more about my relationship with the game and less about being a sales pitch for D&D. So, I very much hope you give the game a spin. Or don’t, if you have already made up your mind.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. Great post, Rob! I quite agree, especially as one person’s appreciation of the game can change over the years. I ran a very large amount of 3E and 4E, but at this stage I’m running an AD&D campaign and looking forward to 5E – and enjoying having friends who love Pathfinder.

    There are many ways of playing this game – it’s just a case of finding the one that suits you best. And that can change!

  9. Oh I never expected such a fast answer. Thanks for taking the time to answer Mr. Schwalb.

    I have played D&D for nearly 25 years now.
    A edition that I won’t read and give a spin doesn’t exist…;-)

    I will give a fair chance to pull me in like I did with the editions before. But to be honest for the first time it looks grim. The beta for the game felt to much like a mash up of already done things and reintroduced old problems I don’t want to see any more in a D&D game (Alignment I am looking at you.) I wanted to see new things and a logical progression for the game. 5E feels to me to much like a game I already own and have on my shelves.

    My main long time group didn’t like at all what was done to the non spell casting classes as we played the beta and don’t want to switch either. They quickly refused to play further beta games too.

    The final previews in the release don’t do much for me either. I already see problems with the saving throw mechanics, magic items and classes.

    So while I will still read the core rules the chances are high that with 5E I will skip a D&D edition for the first time.

    • My main long time group didn’t like at all what was done to the non spell casting classes as we played the beta and don’t want to switch either. They quickly refused to play further beta games too.

      I wonder how common this was, and how much it impacted the playtest? I had a similar experience, with multiple tables that gave up on the Next playtests. I’m sure most of us will take a look at it when it comes out, but I really don’t know if we’ll play it. I suspect we’ll try the convention/launch material and then make a call, but I polled the group at a 13th Age session this weekend, and basically nobody was excited.

      On a related note, there’s a distinct impression among my tables that Wizards isn’t really excited about 5e either. There’s a bit of hoopla around blog, twitter, and facebook posts, but nothing substantial. GenCon’s launch offering looks solid but not stellar compared to 3e and 4e, and PAX Prime looks outright weak. I’m curious about Our Generous Host’s opinion (if he can share it) – is Wizards slow-playing the 5e roll-out, or is this the continuation of a reduced fervor for the tabletop RPG aspects of D&D across the board?


    • Alas, I wish I knew. I parted ways with Wizards in April and have not had contact with them since. So I have no idea what the plan is. I’m glad you’re giving it a spin though!

  10. Thank you for the post Robert I really enjoyed it. I have played since 1975 in one form or another. Much of that was DMing. When 3rd and 4th edition came out. I took a hiatus from the game as it wasn’t as interesting to me anymore. This new edition is sounding like my kind of fun again and I will be picking up the starter set now because of your shared thoughts. Have a great day!

  11. Great article Rob. I forwarded it to my D&D group, and they all thought you nailed something that we have felt for quite a while now.

    Thank you.

  12. You can never go home again…

    I can appreciate the differences between oD&d, 3.* and 4e, but putting down 3.*/4e just to get that nostalgia again… I have seen nothing in 5e playtest that is not covered by any other version of D&d yet (hope that changes with the books) that would make me open my wallet for it. As the defacto gm of my group, I am definatly going to miss the balance that 4e had, and the speed of which I could create encounters that would be challenging and require minimal hand waving/GMO.

    Here is hoping 5e is more than a modern exercise of nostalgia.

  13. Nothing in 5E I have seen does anything to make what you describe happen. If anything it is AD&D III – A Rule For Everything (Except when there isn’t), I mean….Knights of the Dinner Table has been in publication since before 3rd Edition was anything more than a fever’d dream of TSR fans and the actual comic is full of stories about CharOp breaking the game and the letters in the back full of even more over the top stories. Hackmaster is an obvious satire on the whole thing – Breaking the game has been a fine tradition since AD&D came out.

    Can you elaborate on what you discarded in terms of design process from 3.x/4 that would make 5E a better game to play at the table? The choice for ‘natural language’ seems to bring back the very worst of the Gygaxian rules lawyering of yore.

    • There seems to be a misconception that I was somehow a lead designer on 5E. I wasn’t. I was on the design team through its various incarnations. My influence on the design waxed and waned through the process. And in April, I parted ways with Wizards. As far as I am concerned, whatever flavor of D&D people like is fine with me. If the edition isn’t your game, OK.

  14. And that’s what’s depressing about present and ex-WotC staffers, especially the most prolific ones. They pump out the very splats they later decry as not aiding the spirit of the game, or whatever.

    I agree with those who say that 4e, at least upon release, was the quickest ever to get people playing and make decisions at the table rather at home brooding over char-gen. And the spirit on which its lead designer based the game is pretty much what we get in the blog entry above:

    But thanks to dozens of DDI articles by Schwalb and co, the game is now bloated to the point of being near unplayable, and it takes DMs a solid 20 minutes to de-click all the useless articles and splats they wrote up. Cheers!

    • Wow. Thanks for reading!

    • A bit of clarity. You suggest that 4E had lowest entry point of all the editions. The sameness of play experience from character to character certainly gives strength to your argument. After all, if I play a ranger or I play a rogue, the difference, really, lies in the story overlay. My character’s primary contribution to game play lies in the ability to dispense buckets and buckets of damage, often outpacing those who, according to the narrative, wield the very power of the cosmos.

      But the disconnect between the story and the mechanics aside, I find it interesting that you think the game was simple to learn and master. For starts, using the 4E PH by itself, how many decision points does a brand-spanking new player have to make?

      Ability Score allocation using point buy
      Choose skills
      Choose one, maybe two feats, one of which had better be an accuracy boost or you’ll lag.
      Two or three at-will attack powers from four or six options
      One encounter power from the four options presented
      One daily power from the four options presented
      Other equipment
      That’s in the vicinity of 10 decision points. Oh. And I’m sure you remember writing our your character by hand, plugging all the powers in on your sheet.

      Once you climb over this wall, game play does become fairly simple in that you essentially have the same set of options on your sheet and the difference from encounter to encounter becomes the order in which you push the buttons.

      Now. You blame me (and others) for bloating the game. Fine. I’ll climb on the cross for you. But as I hang there, you might consider that this game uses an exceptions-based engine. The audience demands more exceptions to the rules, the ability to have every possibility made available to them. Were there stinkers? You bet there were. If you’re in the business of putting out 2,000 widgets in a year and you have a 1% break rate results in 20 broken widgets. Is that too many? By 10,000 widgets, who can keep track of them all?

      This happens in Magic The Gathering all the time. How many busted cards slip through the cracks in each set? How big is the ban list now? This is a byproduct of the entire design. It’s not a bad thing in my opinion b/c this is what the game set out to do in the first place and it achieved it admirably. Create avenues for content creation that use a standardized language to manage development and constrain power bloat.

      My job was to provide content and that’s what I did. And, regardless of what you think, I believe I produced largely good work.

      All that said, the main thrust of this article is that 5E makes an effort to step away from the 4E model with lots of little pieces floating in its ecosystem and instead group those smaller pieces in larger chunks that reinforce the narrative and avoid duplication that made 4E so bloated.

      The substance of my blog post was not to convince you to play 5E or to become friends, though I suspect if we sat down and talked like civilized people instead of leaving nasty comments on a blog post we would become good chums, was more about my experience with D&D having had the privilege of working directly on D&D products since the middle of 3.5 to the present.

      I hope my clarifications here help. But, seriously, thanks for reading.

    • “A bit of clarity. You suggest that 4E had lowest entry point of all the editions. The sameness of play experience from character to character certainly gives strength to your argument. After all, if I play a ranger or I play a rogue, the difference, really, lies in the story overlay. My character’s primary contribution to game play lies in the ability to dispense buckets and buckets of damage, often outpacing those who, according to the narrative, wield the very power of the cosmos.”

      This tells me more about the design ethos of D&DNext than any number of “official” blog posts. The utter inability to conceive of spellcasters as anything other than deities-in-training who wield “the very power of the cosmos”.

      As a friend of mine put it, in Dungeons and Dragons both spellcasters and non-spellcasters are only limited by your imagination: If you can think of a reason why a wizard should be able to do something, he can; if you can think of a reason why a fighter *shouldn’t* be able to do something, he can’t.

  15. Great blog post! I am a bit of a charop guy myself and do like creating a good character, but I only like making strong, not overpowered characters. Overpowered characters are no fun. 😉

  16. The conclusion that fighter players ruined the game by asking for features equivalent to the over-complicated, over-powered wizard–facts about the wizard that the article freely admits–takes willful ignorance.

    Either give the fighter player the same seat at the table as the wizard player or put some controls on the wizard so it doesn’t take over play. Preferably, do both. 5E, with the advent of its laughably weak fighter features and the return of save-or-die spells–does neither.

    We just had an edition of D&D that did that. If you had focused on building on that edition and repairing its flaws instead of taking equal turns tearing it down and neutering its new ideas, and then acting like 3E is “classic” D&D, I would be a lot more excited about 5E, or in fact interested at all.

    5E already looks poorly balanced and will inevitably have the same option bloat that 3E and 4E have. At that point the hypocrisy of this article will speak for itself. All the same architecture is in place as before–endless feats, for example, being a great source of grief for anyone who wants an elegant, simple D&D. This talk of a simplified, classic experience rings hollow.

    • Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m not trying whitewash anything or create controversy here. But I suppose I failed, yeah. Oh well. There’s always next time.

    • Put some controls on the wizard?

      This is the kind of comment that shows ignorance of the game prior to 3E. I have no problems with wizards dominating in OD&D or B/X.

      3E introduced most of what made wizards so overpowered in the first place.

  17. Great article Mr. Schwalb! I started with the 1st/2nd edition books many years ago but I bowed out of playing RPGs when 3rd Ed came out. I never really thought much about why it lost its appeal to me but I think your post goes a long way towards expressing how I felt (and still feel). I’ve never bothered with any of the current stuff like Pathfinder or 4th edition and I don’t see myself trying 5th edition (I’m happy with my geek life as a board gamer) but I do want to say thanks for your hard work and I wish you continued success. I sincerely hope that D&D can re-capture the fun from the old days.

  18. Let me start with this: I’ve been playtesting next since the encounter with 18 rats, to Vault of the Dracolich and beyond, all the way to Dead in Thay. It has not been an enjoyable journey. I’ve really tried, I swear, to make an awesome Rogue, and when that didn’t pan out I tried Fighter. Nada. Meanwhile in our Dead in Thay run that’s likely about to finish (we’re up against a Lich who has Time Stop and Meteor Shower), the two teams have been carried exclusively by Warrior Cleric and a slightly altered pre-gen Wizard. The rest of the crew are just there to mop up whatever the two ‘Walking Apocolypse’ classes leave crippled.

    Then I read this blogpost, and I see that the problem wasn’t just noticed, but met with a throwing up of hands and ‘Eh, it’s always been like that (except in the edition that must not be named), whataya gonna do?’

    Everything I’ve seen in the playtests feels like 5e was made solely from happy memories of when the designers were 17 while completely ignoring the breakthroughs since then. There have been monumental breakthroughs, from computers that help make formatting a snap, to indepth study of balance from 40 years of gaming, to realizing that aesthetics count and making things easy to read and reference, to realizing it sucks having to swap back and forth between two books because of monsters that use spells.

    Everything up to this point has felt like a desperate bid for nostalgia, and you’ve explicitly stated that (1) 5e was knowingly created a sub-optimal product because “that’s the way it’s always been”, and (2) when presented with the opportunity to rectify the known issues of past editions, the designers opted not to because “Gosh, math and balance is hard work!” and “It’s was broken and I still enjoyed (*cough* because I played a wizard or cleric *cough*).”

    I know the playtests already presented sufficient evidence, but thank you Mr. Schwalb. This article has been eye opening.

  19. Giving fighters options isn’t even about something “other than loosing an arrow”, it’s about giving the fighter any gameplay at all beyond standing still and rolling a die to get a yes/no answer as to whether you hit a thing. Most games of D&D I played before third edition dissolved at about level four or five as half the group had become bored of having no real recourse other than attacking. Most of my 3e games dissolved at around level seven for similar reasons. 4e is the only game that has sustained campaign after campaign where every single player at the table is satisfied with their initial choice of character all the way to level 30.

    Yes, 3e and 4e’s plethora options might be a bit much – I know I stopped buying books for each after a while simply because there was too much cruft. To cut it all the way down to the non-gameplay days of campaigns that dissolve due to sheer unrelenting boredom with what the rules have given us, and to lay the blame for the system’s bloat at the fighter’s feet when the imbalance between them and spellcasting classes is a huge portion of the blame for hurt feelings and disappointment as only some people at the table get a game to play, all but insures a return to the days where most campaigns dissolve without resolution – even when players are invested in their characters as people.

    Everyone at the table can roleplay. Everyone at the table can come up with cool plans, or improvise. Every player can create a fun and interesting character. But not every player gets equal treatment from the game system, purely because of choices made during the first session, and that will never create a game that lasts at our tables.

    • For the record, I agree with you for the most part. I believe weapon-using characters benefit when they can make interesting choices in combat. I have much more to say about that, but later this month.

  20. This post is…so terrifically disheartening. Reading such words coming from someone of moderate significance in 5e’s development is…I’m sure I’ll say a lot about it, but I struggle to find words that clearly articulate how disappointed I feel now.

    First, before anything else: If the post turned into a rant, don’t just leave it the way it is and apologize afterward. Change it so it’s not a rant. If you genuinely don’t believe there is such a thing as a wrong way to play D&D, just…don’t say things that mean that! Express your opinions, your enjoyment of a style, without disparaging what is different. It’s not an easy process, I understand that, but it’s worth doing. Making a bunch of disparaging comments and then apologizing for them afterward gives a conflicting impression, as if you really DO believe there is a right way and a wrong way to play, but you know that belief is bad to have. The cognitive dissonance is weird, and significantly detracts from my ability to hear whatever non-disparaging message you were trying to convey.

    Second: Sometimes, with the number of things I’ve seen from the current and former designers of 5th Edition, I really honestly wonder if there was ANYONE who legitimately, sincerely was “flying the 4th edition flag” while designing 5e. Can you blame me or others for feeling like the positive lessons of 4e have been ignored, disparaged, or discarded when the person who was apparently supposed to champion it had “divorced [himself] from the 4th edition rules” and “shed [his]…4th edition influences”? This might be an unfair characterization, but if this is true, it would go quite a ways toward explaining why, as a 4e fan, I’ve long felt that 4e’s influence on 5e has been superficial, barely more than lip service (and occasionally not even that).

    Third: “The prize for being the best player goes not to the creative mind, the cunning tactician, the burgeoning actor, but to the best mathematician. Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along.”
    I am a mathematician after a fashion (getting my BS in Physics). I’m quite comfortable working with numbers, and in fact enjoy learning about and using mathematical forms. This has literally diddly-squat to do with my enjoyment of 4e, which you have in my opinion erroneously lumped into the same “character optimization destroyed the game” category as 3e (and unfairly ignored the munchkin-y behavior found in earlier editions, too). The reason I like 4e and its commitment to mechanical balance is that I no longer need to care about the math whatsoever. The math takes care of itself. I can enjoy whatever character archetype or storyline I like, because I can rely on the game to not pull the rug out from under me–neither the “gotcha” of “oops, you picked a stupid class!”, nor the “gotcha” of “welp, looks like you committed the cardinal, game-ending sin of writing the words ‘Druid’ and ‘Natural Spell’ on your character sheet.”
    4e removed that double-minefield feeling for me. Instead of winning character creation–which I fully agree is a problem in several editions, though you can make the argument that randomly rolled stats are “winning” character creation as well–I feel like 4e puts huge incentive on winning by decision-making. You have to play as a team, you need to use your abilities with caution and intention, you get a great deal out of using your surroundings (terrain, hazards, traps) to your advantage. The game empowers you to make informed decisions, rather than requiring you to possess encyclopedic knowledge of the books (all of them, for 3e; the monster manual for most prior editions) or subjecting you to failure that could neither be controlled, mitigated, addressed, or helped. With the ability to make informed decisions, I can learn from my mistakes and improve my game experience with my own effort, not through the trial-and-error (or trial-and-gotcha) that I have been told is central to older editions, nor the “plan EVERY level before you start” situation that heavily influenced 3e play.
    I honestly don’t care about playing a “powerful” character or the like. I care about playing a meaningful character, about having a useful impact on whatever situations my character and my party will face. I care about having a character that I can feel invested in, about telling an interesting person’s story as they overcome obstacles, stumble on occasion, and taste both the sweetness of success and the bitter brew of failure…and living on to win or fail another day, too. 4e gives me that, more than any other version of D&D I’ve played, and that’s a huge part of why I love it. (I also love the flavor of Dragonborn and the specific mechanical implementation of the Sorcerer and Paladin classes, to be fair.)

    Seeing Mark Rosewater’s comments reminds me, yet again, of how deeply I wish that there were more cross-pollination between the designers and developers of Magic and of D&D. Just about everything I’ve read suggests that he really understands where I’m coming from, despite being the designer of a game I don’t play and have no particular interest in! It feels tragic, to me, that two teams can work under the same roof while appearing to have so little influence on one another.

    Anyway: I hope I haven’t become exactly what I railed against above, a Ranty McRanterson etc. I certainly hope that you, and all the people who resonate with this post, find a game that they can enjoy–if not in 5e, than in another.

    • “…that I have been told is central to older editions…”

      So, you’ve never actually played older editions of D&D? Then how do you know? You’re arguing in a vacuum. That’s not good. Try old school D&D before you write another word about 3rd or 4th edition.

      Also, 3.0 (from my experience) wasn’t about character options/optimization or crazy combinations. You simply played a class with a whole bunch of feats and made a lot of 5′ steps. Wasn’t until 3.5 that stuff went crazy.

  21. Your rant is just fine 🙂

    I appreciate your affinity for 4th Edition and, in many ways, I share it. My frustrations with 4E was the open-endedness of the exceptions, not fundamental game play. As you and others have pointed out, there were exploits in previous editions. The difference, though, was that it was easier to contain them. In any event, the good news is that 4E can still be your game and the amount of content for that game is enormous.

    Thanks for reading and I hope you read again

  22. Don’t worry about some of these responses Robert. As soon as this was linked at, the usual suspects were out in force complaining yet again how 5e sucks, and they’ve moved on to here. Seeing as how many of these usual suspects don’t even play D&D, I wouldn’t worry too much about their complaints here. Worry about the people who actually play the game, and not so much on the theorycrafters.

    • Ah, yes, denigrate the opposition as an excuse to ignore anything they might have to say.

    • This is dismissive and rude.

    • Denigrate the opposition Evan?

      Fact: this blog was linked at
      Fact: the usual suspects began to tear into it, like they have for the past 2 years or so since the first info of 5e came out (all the threads are there)
      Fact: most of those usual suspects have admitted they haven’t even played a single session of 5e playtest.
      Fact: shortly after being linked there, some of them came over here to tear into Robert

      Those are facts. Sorry you don’t like them, but they are in fact true. Ironic that you’d accuse me of ignoring anything they have to say when it’s you who has ignored all of the above factual points.

      My point is that I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight into the opinion of someone who hasn’t even played the game, and has done nothing for a LONG time but hurl complaints and attacks at the game and anyone involved in designing it based on nothing but their own subjective opinion of how an RPG should be played. What you might consider “great advancements” others consider bugs and flaws.

    • In a post about the game, you’ve decided to talk mostly about petty RPG site politics. Who cares if it was linked on RPGnet? It’s been linked in a lot of places, a lot of eyes are on it, and your “facts” address absolutely nothing of what is actually said.

    • I don’t know how any of this is addressing the substance of criticisms about the system. If you think the system is balanced and mathematically rigorous, make the positive case- don’t just write off the opposition based on ad hominem.

  23. Ah. It becomes clear. I didn’t realize that this had been linked. Long time lurker on that site.

    • I wish more fans of 5e shared that sentiment, sir. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, not in quite so many words, that I’m not a real D&D player because I care about rules design, and that the vast masses of real players don’t care whether a game is designed well or not so my points are always specious and unimportant. 🙁

    • Well, I would never say that. And that’s terrible. A strong and solid set of rules is vital to the longevity of a system and one that prevents discord at the table over the murkiness of rules interpretation.

      Really, ezekiel, this is just a nostalgia post. And one that has no D&D political angle or one intended to be dismissive of 4E, 3E, or any other flavor of our favorite game.

    • Believe me, I truly appreciate hearing all of that, straight from the horse’s mouth. Not sure you’d believe the vitriol I and others got for pointing out that this was nostalgia. As you can see, this is unfortunately a hornet’s nest of a topic and there are lots of strong feelings on both sides…so incensed rhetoric is commonplace.

      Even more than the nostalgia bit, though, it’s truly heartening to hear a designer specifically state that a robust and transparent ruleset is vital to a healthy game. I hope you don’t mind if I continue to refer others to this in the future, because it really is a point in need of defense.

  24. Hey Rob, just saying hi really. Long time no speak.

    You’ve certainly rattled a cage or two with this one!

  25. Howdy Dan! Every day’s a circus!

  26. Nice article it sums up many of my feelings about where Dnd went and why I didn’t follow. The good thing is 5e definitely has me back despite walking away entirely with the advent of 3.5.

  27. You’ll have to excuse me for starting up a new post, as I don’t see a way to reply to you in your nested comment.

    However, I am dead serious.

    Since I doubt you’re referring to the playtest preface in the first paragraph, let’s get down to the meat of the matter.

    Your quotes:

    * “The prize for being the best player goes not to the creative mind, the cunning tactician, the burgeoning actor, but to the best mathematician. Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along. The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters. As the game evolved, it was no longer sufficient for the fighter to become more accurate or to attack more often: the fighter had to do things beyond swing a sword or loose an arrow from a bow. The game needed rules for every situation, for every scenario, and with each new rule came a new exploit, a new opportunity to bend the game into something terrifying.”


    * “So here we are, at the dawn of the next edition, an edition I, in some part, helped to create. When I was brought onto the team, it was with the understanding that I would fly the 4th Edition flag, a game I had worked hard to support through the countless articles and supplements throughout the life of that game. Looking back, I find it strange since I have all but divorced myself from the 4th Edition rules, largely for the reasons I outline above. While I enjoy 4E, it scratched a different itch for me than the one D&D had for many years. As I worked on 5th Edition, I shed my 3rd Edition and 4th Edition influences. I abandoned conceptions and beliefs about design that I had held as truths for years until I returned to my roots, to a place where the most important part of D&D is not what’s in the book but what happens at the table. And so, I look forward to the coming months, to see what I hope will become a return to the glory days of D&D to a style of play both familiar and new. I believe this game preserves just enough of the customization elements that defined the 3rd and 4th Editions to be recognizable to newer members of the audience, while having reclaimed the heart of the game from the earliest editions and put it back where it belongs. It should be an exciting future and one that I am proud to have helped create.”

    – combined with what we’ve seen in the playtest leads me to believe that the playtest and leaks we’ve seen thus far are nostalgia trip for one that happen to have a hostage audience. The argument inducing ‘Natural Language Spell List,’ the necessity of reading the 1/3 of the book devoted to spells even if you’re a non-caster because god help you if you go up against something with spell-like abilities, the hilarious disparity of classes between the non-casters, casters, and the Wizard/Cleric God Squad, and the fact that the game *again* drifts away from being a damge-centric game and going to ‘Alpha-Strike Spell Battle – people with swords need not apply’ leaving several classes out in the cold past level 6 or 7 are all issues that have been dealt with in the past – and they’re all back in cold print right out of the gate in 5e. The 5e material we’ve seen thus far, combined with this line:
    [When I was brought onto the team, it was with the understanding that I would fly the 4th Edition flag, a game I had worked hard to support through the countless articles and supplements throughout the life of that game. Looking back, I find it strange since I have all but divorced myself from the 4th Edition rules, largely for the reasons I outline above.]
    – and this line:
    [Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along. The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters.]
    – paint a picture of people desperate to go back to a time before they realized how poorly D&D actually runs. Instead of trying to fix these game and player breaking problems, they go back to old rules while ignoring that the only reason they enjoyed them was they were oblivious to how bad the actual mechanics are.

    When you make a game environment that’s hostile to new players and rewards tired game-breaking strategy from editions past, you hurt the hobby. And the 5e we’ve seen is actively built to do just that. The ‘you’ in that previous sentence wasn’t you personally, by the way.

    I should also add that I’m not holding you remotely responsible for how horrible my 5e playtest experience has been. I am hurt that you, the guy who’s job was to represent 4e, admitted to dropping the ball, but since what you liked about 4e (fiddly char-op wonder shop) and what I liked about 4e (make any combo of race/class/weapons you want, odds are it’s quite playable) are drastically different, so I guess I never had a dog in the race to begin with.

    • Hey man,

      Your anger bleeds from the screen.

      One, I’m really sorry you have read so much into this blog post. I don’t work for Wizards. This isn’t a Wizards’ pitch. This is me opening my gamer heart about what I liked about other games and expressing some of my frustrations that have come from later editions. It was an exercise of reflection. Nothing more. I have no agenda. I’m not kicking your dog. I love that you love 4E. And, now that you ask, I too loved the customization elements from 4E, and how you could put all the pieces together. In fact, I did my damnedest to make it easier. Hybrids (admittedly they came with challenges) and the last round of multi classing options in Dragon.

      Two, I’m really sorry you feel let down by me. I do the best I can do with what I’m given.

      Three, fiddly char-op? C’mon. Really?

  28. One of the fascinating things about the history of D&D is how the game was split early on into two lines: Basic and Advanced. With the 1981 basic+expert set (Moldvay + Cook), D&D had a beautiful, fairly elegant system. Meanwhile, AD&D – ruleswise at least – was something of a mess. (See rules for Initiative, Surprise, etc.)

    But for me, and I presume the majority of players, AD&D was the main game in town. What did it have that D&D Basic didn’t have? Lots of options for players.

    And that’s been the game ever since: expanding the options players have to build their characters. Of course, it also leads to the potential of combinations… which for some makes it all worthwhile. Others couldn’t care less, but still want the options. What can you do? Mainly, just understand what is going on, I believe. I’m pretty sure the designers of each of 3E, 4E and 5E were concerned with the effect of lots of options – see bonus types in 3E, a slighly more limited power array in 4E for spellcasters, and the spell concentration rules in 5E – but even so, combinations will exist.

    It isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a thing – which for some people will be bad, and for other people will be good.

    • What I’d really love is for an actual reprint of Basic. That game was awesome, and there’s a reason the Basic box is, hands down, the best selling edition of D&D ever.

      Sadly, all we have is a scan of the Rules Cyclopedia for $30. And the newly retitled ‘Basic’ is just a restricted demo of AD&D. Such is life. 🙁

    • “But for me, and I presume the majority of players, AD&D was the main game in town. What did it have that D&D Basic didn’t have? Lots of options for players.”

      This is something that gets stated a lot in AD&D circles (because AD&D vs Basic was the original edition war that frankly never ended) and it’s untrue.

      Basic outsold AD&D by, like, a *lot*. If you traced game sales, Basic is the clear winner throughout the entirety of D&D. As much as AD&D fans like to tell themselves that they were the golden child, they really weren’t. I often wonder what would’ve happened if WotC built on BECMI rather then trying to make AD&D 3e.

    • You may well be right. Shows how I’m still hostage to the beliefs of my youth. 🙂

  29. Nice article. Sorry they came out in force to crucify you over it, but please don’t take them too seriously. After all, they can continue to play their superior version of choice for as long as they want. Their own nostalgia can lead them into their own “rose colored” happy land of perfectly balanced games. And you and I can be excited about the new edition. 🙂

    Party on sir, party on.

    • I don’t think it’s particularly respectful or appropriate to talk as though anyone who disagrees with Mr. Schwalb’s message, or who found it problematic, has come here to “crucify” him. Such sensationalism is part of the problem as well. I don’t feel that I’ve been disrespectful, and I certainly don’t feel that I’ve made him out to be a bad guy. Is it necessary for you to speak so of others?

    • “Now. You blame me (and others) for bloating the game. Fine. I’ll climb on the cross for you. But as I hang there, you might consider that this game uses an exceptions-based engine.”

      His words, not mine, dear ignorant child.

    • Alright, he used the word cross, I’ll grant you that. I don’t appreciate being referred to by such foul language. Was it necessary for you to flagrantly insult me, with a four-letter word? I have done my best to be respectful. I’d appreciate being treated to the same. I’m sure Mr. Schwalb would prefer not to see such language on his blog.

    • Good thing I edited it long ago, wasn’t it?

      Now, did you have any points to make, other than scolding others over whom you hold no authority or false appeals to civility when you’re blatantly bashing some guy for badwrongfun?

    • I have not accused anyone of that, and I have specifically stated that I hope people find a game they find fun–5e or not. I spoke in defense of something I value, and which I felt was being unfairly characterized. Mr. Schwalb responded in a way that affirmed my perspective without compromising his own, and given his responses to my posts compared to others’, I don’t believe he feels I was insulting him. I’m not bashing anyone, blatantly or otherwise.

      As for further responses to Mr. Schwalb himself? No, I have nothing further to say at this time. He’s clarified his position, and given me some food for thought. Do you feel the same?

    • Were any of your friends on able to identify me? Would you like my home address so you can properly separate me from other Bob McDowells that Google might bring up?

    • Honestly haven’t looked. Only asked because I was curious; thought perhaps you might be someone I should be aware of. I’m terrible with names, so it wouldn’t be the first time I’d failed to remember one. As for any other information, no. Not my place to know.

    • Oh Bob, don’t forget that ezekiel and the peanut gallery of 4e lovers are all exceptional game designers who know far more than anyone else at WotC. I wish they had published a game I could use as costly toilet paper!
      Obviously nobody is entitled to not like 4e, but they ARE entitled to piss on, say, 3e and 5e.
      ezekiel, your (and your ilk’s) passive-aggressive and condescending tone is really, Really, REALLY, off-putting. It’s easy to act this way while you are anonymous, isn’t it?
      A word to the wise: don’t forget that you may be talking to people who has been playing D&D for far longer than you have been alive (and I know from your posts that you are in the mid 20s). Experience DOES count. And a game is not built only on “balance” (whatever that is) and mathematics, simply because of the HUMAN factor (and I am an expert mathematician who routinely works with fairly complex statistical problems; so when I say that game balance is not all, I say it with full knowledge of what I am saying.)
      Grow up, child. Grow up.

  30. One of the things I like about running 1e is that the rules themselves are so cruel and capricious, just kicking the players in the nuts over and over again, that I as DM am the good guy! The players PREFER to play “mother may I” with me rather than play by the rules. They’d rather experiment with magic items to find out what they do rather than resort to the 1e Identify spell. They’d rather poke and prod to find a secret door or trap rather than rely on the 1/6 chance to find secret doors or the 20% chance for find traps. I know this sounds totally backwards in a sense, but it’s really fun for us. Especially for me as DM, which is good because I’m the most important participant.

    I feel that at some point the purpose for the rules in D&D changed from “helping the DM put pressure on the players” to “helping the players put pressure on the DM”. The rules in 1e make the game more cruel and more surprising than it would be if I were just making things up. I think this is a very important thing for the rules to do. The rules in 3e and 4e (at least the skill/power rules) seem like they’re there mostly to give the players ways to make things happen without having to negotiate with the DM about how they happen.

    I don’t think that mathy tinkering or power fantasy escapism (“I make this happen now”) are bad sorts of fun as such, but I don’t think they’re great things for D&D to try to do. D&D is an inherently social game and it should focus on the types of fun that are enjoyable by vicarious experience. It’s more fun to watch people gamble than it is to watch them do math problems, or even play a game like chess or a eurogame. D&D needs a good gambly component because it’s more fun to watch. This is especially important if you’re going to ask one player to not have a character and just watch the whole time.

    • I surrender. This was supposed to be an innocuous confessional and nothing more.

      1) The point was to share how I got into the hobby and why I loved it
      2) To explain my frustrations about the hobby
      3) And then share a bit of my hopes for the future

      I’m not trying to sell you. I’m not trying to win you over. I’m also not advocating one play style over another. I most certainly am not trying to insult anyone. This is not a post on behalf of any corporation. It was merely a chance for me to share how I feel about gaming these days. That’s it.

      Thanks for reading.

    • Hi Rob,

      I think you misread me. Maybe you think I’m being ironic when I’m not? I’m being a little tongue in cheek when describing how hardass the 1e rules are but I do really like them for that and am really running a fun 1e campaign right now. I liked your post and it made me feel more positively about 5e. Just felt like sharing some thoughts occasioned by your post.

    • How strange that it was a supporter, not a detractor, who laid low the designer.

  31. I understand that you’re not pitching for Wizards, but it bothers me that you say this:
    [I know a great many people love to tinker, to build, and create. They see the character sheet as a blank screen, eager for new code, a canvas craving the brush. And that’s cool. But for me, I don’t want that experience anymore. I crave lighter fare. I want the thrill of discovery.]
    -and all that we’re seeing for it is a mountain of baggage collected from old editions, your words sound pretty hollow.

    Next on the agenda, you hooked me in: What is it that you love about 4e if it isn’t having a plethora of options with which to make the ‘_____’-est flavored character to strut out of the tavern? Combat? I’ll admit MM3 – particularly the business card that followed – was a huge turning point into the amazing for 4e combat.

    Finally, I can assure you that most of the anger you feel bleeding through the screen is merely a byproduct of playtesting D&D Next. I’ll keep it polite by saying it’s been a painfully eventful playtest.

  32. “The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters. As the game evolved, it was no longer sufficient for the fighter to become more accurate or to attack more often: the fighter had to do things beyond swing a sword or loose an arrow from a bow. The game needed rules for every situation, for every scenario, and with each new rule came a new exploit, a new opportunity to bend the game into something terrifying.”

    Is the idea that fighter players wanting something to do “beyond swing[ing] a sword or loo[sing] an arrow from a bow” the reason that D&D went wrong shared by the rest of the team?

  33. Basically whether this was an innocent ramble apropos of nothing or not, it fits a pattern that many people closely watching 5E development see. The pattern is:

    -“The game should not be balanced, because early versions of the game were not balanced”

    -“Martial characters should not be as interesting as spellcasters, because early versions never were”

    -“We want to get back to a simple D&D, but we’re leaving in all the framework from the last 14 years that make character generation bloated and full of redundant/trap options”

    I also participated in several 5E playtest seasons. Every character was boring, but martial characters were easily the most boring. You rolled a d20, looked to see if it hit, and that was your turn. About the only way to make a fun non-caster was to exploit certain option combinations, or play classes that hadn’t really been balanced. Sound familiar?

    It seems clear to those of us looking for a D&D that incorporates modern/sensible design that the ship’s course is being influenced by designers and fans who worship sacred cows. The designers nerfed the 4E second wind mechanic down to the point of near-uselessness–cue old-school players *still* complaining because the fighter had any healing at all.

    There are some things I like about 5E’s course–such as baking in backgrounds and making them about the RP benefits they give. This stands in stark contrast to 4E characters picking backgrounds and themes based largely on what synergizes well with their “build.” Advantage is a cool concept. Introducing bounded accuracy is useful.

    But it’s clear that purposefully broken classes and a general disrespect for sound character math are back in a huge way, and there’s no intelligible justification for it except “tradition.” When the designers talk about the “classic” D&D or “uniting the editions,” it never appears that their memory goes back farther than 3E.

    • Dakka, that’s a blatant lie. My 5e fighter gets to role TWO d20s and see if they hit! With Action Surge, FOUR! And if any of them hit, the d8s join the party, oh yeah!

  34. Rob: thanks for one of the most interesting and insightful gaming blogs I’ve read all year.

    I can’t wait to start playing Dungeons and Dragons again.

  35. I enjoyed reading your post Rob. You shouldn’t need to apologize for liking what you like. The issues with charop are certainly valid but these issues go beyond who is the “bestest with the mostest” and how deal with optimizers and non-optimizers in the same group.

    What I’m talking about in a nutshell that I’m not sure if 5E will deliver or not is putting the PLAYER back in control of playing the game rather than as a slave monkey to the dice. When we play OD&D (3 LBB no supplements), the players get a little edgy when the dice come out. It is a signal that the fate of their characters is, at the moment, partially in the fickle hands of fate.

    The last couple of editions of D&D, while being very different in terms of charop and balance, have been universally push button. Choose option (usually from character sheet)- roll to determine outcome. The player actually has very little playing to do at the table because everything is so formula driven. A mechanic for everything has led to a player culture that feels like there isn’t any play happening if the dice aren’t rolling. It is a sad and lifeless playstyle.

    Areas aren’t explored, they are dungeoneered or search checked. NPCs aren’t communicated with they are diplomacized, bluffed, or intimidated with an appropriate check. That approach is the part of player culture that has been accepted by so many that bores the living hell out of me.

  36. Good post, Rob. Don’t sweat the haters. Sure there’s stuff in 5e I’m not completely head-over-heels about: I’m no rulebook slave, though, and I know I can just tinker with the things I want to tinker with. But from what I’ve seen thus far, 5e looks solid. Ya did good, kid, and your intuition about what makes a good D&D has served you well.

  37. It’s not the haters that have driven Rob Schwalb away. It’s the toxic fans.

  38. I feel bad for you, Mr. Schwalb.

    I, too, started with Mentzer OD&D, but I fortunately got the Red Box prior to Rahasia. I then grew up, and I only discovered Sundrop when I entered college in 1993 (10 years and thousands of dollars after I started RPGs). Everyone played 2e there. Pfft. Level-based RPGs… _in the 90’s_? People had only vaguely known of Call of Cthulhu or my other favorites. How pathetic. I mean, this was AD&D, the lowest common denominator of dross for unsophisticated…
    …and then I played. I played Warriors, and Rogues, and Priests, and Wizards. I homebrewed a Sorcerer class. 3e came and I lapped it up, even as I quit playing D&D. I submitted a setting to the “let your imagination go wild!” setting search, and then (of course!) lost immediately as they were only looking for settings that were variations on the usual kitchen sink stuff. 4e came and acquisition continued. My DDI subscription was worth it at first; seeing “Schwalb” on a Dragon article made me smirk with glee. No mere iteration of “2[W]+CON and push CON squares” would be found therein. Instead, sublime flavorful nuggets of mechanical goodness would be discovered. Ah. Those were the days.

    But… I feel bad for you, Mr. Schwalb. Not only are people going to (and are now) misinterpreting what you wrote as some sort of disparagement of their system of choice, but they are also going to completely miss your other points. They are going to blame you for their crappy playtest experiences, which (as we have seen from the leaked pre-gen character sheets) have everything to do with unpolished beta rules & misdirected organized play and little to do with how 5e will actually be when published. They are going to blame you for dropping the standard of 4e in the heat of battle, when the diplomats were already redrawing the borders. They are going to blame you for everything negative they see (or fear seeing) in D&D, whether it’s 3e, 4e, 5e, the fact that WotC changes (or doesn’t change) or whatever. I can only imagine that it’s frustrating and bewildering.

    Don’t worry, though. I think some folks get it. That RPGs are most fun when they are about what players do, and not what mechanics characters have. That DMs can be arbiters, not input/output processors. That it’s OK to homebrew monsters, encounters, cities, worlds, and anything, even if there isn’t a table or formula to ensure that it’s automatically “balanced” or that it’s a risk of shoving another gear into a tightly sprung watch. That it’s OK as a player to _not know_ what you _can’t do_, even if the rules are silent. Then you can take risks, and in risking, claim the stakes when your bet pays off. Or fail in a hilarious and memorable fashion. Win/win, right?

    For what it’s worth, I thought the 5e playtest was gruesome. Why bother to switch from FantasyCraft or something? But those pre-gens… [Wistful sigh] I don’t even like the Forgotten Realms, but I’ll be danged if I don’t want to be that Fighter with the axe. Even if I don’t have a list of solutions to every tactical puzzle via game mechanics. Or aif I have n explicit method of switching into an “Cleaving Cutthroat” at level 6, which means that at level 13 I’ll have 1.5 better DPS than if I go straight Fighter & pick up “Greater Blade Buddy” at 10 OR the entire “Hack Chimp” feat chain. Or that other characters can do some things that I can’t.

    Nope, I wanna carve some goblin necks with that axe. I wanna utilize the resources the game world gives me (“can I chop down a tree and crush those goblins?”), not allocate some meta-resources that the game gives my character. I wanna spark my ape brain to creatively be victorious versus nearly overwhelming odds by being a clever player, not by merely operating a meticulously-built character. Don’t get me wrong; I want that Fighter to chop goblins, survive being stabbed by goblins, regain his noble standing by defeating goblins, and lord it over some petty village that he has saved from goblins. He’s gotta be good at all that. But it looks like he’s ready for me to try to steer ’em that way.

    So, I feel bad for you, Mr. Schwalb. I mean, I’ve already taken the melee Fighter. That only leaves the other pre-gens or rolling your own left as options to play. Sorry! If I had a glass-bottle Sundrop, I’d almost have a tear in it along with the orange pulp.

  39. Thanks for writing this, Rob. I can appreciate where you’re coming from. I think it’s very easy to get to caught in creating a rule for everything, and in the result making things more complex, and more of a barrier to entry and to a good play experience.

    I really hope that 5e does offer the options and allure that earlier editions of D&D promised. The “push-button” issue seems spot on, and probably one of the biggest issues I had with 4e. The improvisation, the taking loosely-defined talents and prevailing, the idea that there wasn’t a complex formula to each group and encounter–that was not encouraged by 4th Edition, in my opinion.

    If individuals see math, min/maxing, and elaborate character construction as a big draw for D&D, I think it’s just a different game than the one I want to play. I think they have that in 4e. I know many of us are hoping 5e is a happy alternative for the rest of us.

    Either way, enjoy what you love, and thanks for sharing. I really appreciate you taking the time to do so.

    • The improvisation, the taking loosely-defined talents and prevailing, the idea that there wasn’t a complex formula to each group and encounter–that was not encouraged by 4th Edition, in my opinion.

      My experience differs drastically. 4E is literally the only edition of D&D that has had mechanical incentive for taking loosely defined talents and prevailing. It’s the only edition with page 42 so you can easily improvise damage without having to work out the details and have the damage be effective but not overwhelming. It’s the only edition where you can have a new DM confidently handle just about any complex plan due to the skill challenge rules (that said, the guidance for them sucked). It’s the only edition where the brush pass is something some level 2 thieves can do – while literally anyone can be good at picking pockets because of the utility power structure and skill structure. It’s the only edition where swashbuckling is other than foolish – because powers didn’t make you roll checks. But all of this was, admittedly, buried under quite a lot of bad adventures and bad guidance.

  40. I’m another person who found this to be a hard “sell me off 5E” article with a side order of “The designers didn’t understand their own edition last time – so I’m pretty sure they won’t this time either”.

    First, my experience of AD&D was very different from yours. Munchkin was a game based on 2E – the edition that gave us The Complete Book of Elves and Skills and Powers. I found there was little less incentive in the AD&D rules (either edition, and they are significantly different) to optimise than there is in 3.X (any of the three versions). The game with the lowest optimisation requirement is 4E because if you pick straight to a theme you’ll come out OK at least through heroic tier. And having playtested multiple packets of Next, it didn’t bring back the “Played when I was a teenager and half made the rules up as I went along” experience at all. The only game that’s done that has been Dungeon World – because you do half make it up as you go along, with good guidelines. (Its parent, Apocalypse World, is a tour de force of game design and one IMO every RPG designer should try).

    But to say that build matters more than tactics is directly contrary to my 4E experience. My experience of a game where we used to have competitions to push monsters into their own pit traps. My experience of a game where I would deliberately provoke attacks of opportunity from monsters because this enabled the fighter or warden to cut them open. My experience of a game where I dominated the bad guys with Storm Pillars three sessions running and had the DM frustrated enough he actually decided to charge and destroy them, taking the damage.

    And Next, to my dismay, has reverted D&D to a game where you do not swashbuckle – and if you want to try you need to churn through rules. Also if you want to play anything offbeat. Which is a huge pity. To illustrate what I mean and why I found the non-casters in the playtest packets utterly bland I’ll give my two most recent characters. Both started at second level (round here we like the utility power).

    Most recent was Andreas, a level 2 Thief. The thief’s encounter attack power is Backstab – and they don’t have a Daily power. Not a lot of options- but Andreas was more of a thief than I’ve seen played in literally any other version of D&D. Why? His level 2 Utility Power was Quick Fingers – meaning that he could make a Thievery check as a minor action. In other words he could walk through a crowd and lift someone’s wallet without breaking step. At level 2. (In 3E of course you can take -20 to your Sleight of Hand to do this, meaning you should be able to when the wizard gets Teleport at the earliest, and in AD&D your pickpocket check was absurdly low). He was a charming rogue, conman, thief, and swashbuckler. Swashbuckler? Yes. The ability to do things without rolling is essential to swashbuckling – otherwise they just become silly things to do. Andreas had Sneak’s Trick and Acrobat’s Trick (going without Tactical Trick for the challenge) One of his favourite stunts was the “Death from Above” – climb diagonally four squares above the enemy from hidden (stealth needed, no climb needed), then drop off the wall for a “charging” Sneak Attack landing on the enemy. He pulled this off three times in the session. He would recklessly provoke, something that works in 4E because of fighters – and is far more fun than simply tumbling. And one of my other favourite stunts was his Charge of Glory which no one else saw coming. He’d tossed a dagger from in the tree line and hidden again – then the enemies lined up the next round. Allowing him a seemingly suicidal bounding, tumbling charge through a double rank of halberds to skewer the mage behind them. That worked on raw speed and stealth rules. I can’t do that either in Next from memory; it would be suicide. (And doubly so because he couldn’t survive the enemies turning round afterwards without 4e level hit points). None of his high moments are at all possible in Next – and all of them occured at the table.

    And the character before that was for a horror game and shows what optimising is actually about if you get the balance right enough you don’t need to keep up with the overpowered wizards. The DM made a horror pitch, so I ran a horror movie monster as a PC. Iron Maiden – a vampiric warforged brawler fighter. Who’d grab her foes, stick a spike into them, and feast on their blood. This was again a second level PC and agreed to be the creepiest thing in the adventure, largely because I roleplayed her to the (bloody, dripping) hilt. Next, with its first feat at level 4 won’t create synergies like that because it simply doesn’t give the options.

    Anyway, that is the game I’ve been playing for the past five years. High tactics, high roleplaying swashbuckling adventure where optimisation was unnecessary but added a lot of flavour (although there were too many feats by the end) and where the proof of a character was in the playing not the designing. I’m sorry you missed out on the game you were a freelancer for. I’m doubly sorry you were unable to do the job you were, by your own admission, brought in to do – and it explains a lot about what I have seen out of Next. Including why after being highlights of 4E the fighters and warlords have been turned back into plodders. As for the game needing rules for every situation, page 42 and Skill Challenges covered most of them – with Exception Based Design meaning the DM had free license to do what they wanted.

    • Fortunately you can still play your high tactics, high roleplaying swashbuckling adventure game, at least until Mearls busts down your door to whisk you of to the 5e re-education camp. I mean it isn’t like anyone still plays 3e today, or 2e, or 1e, or OD&D.

      Seriously man, welcome to grognardia. It’ll be fine. You’ll be okay, I promise.

    • I expect a visit from Mike Mearls’ handpicked Elite Otyugh Squad in August to seed my bookshelf with .303 bookworms 🙂 Which doesn’t mean that when Rob literally said he was brought onto the Next team to fly the 4E flag and decided not to, clearly having missed most of the good parts of 4E by this post, I’m not going to call him on it.

  41. Just checking, but when you say “After all, if I play a ranger or I play a rogue, the difference, really, lies in the story overlay. My character’s primary contribution to game play lies in the ability to dispense buckets and buckets of damage, often outpacing those who, according to the narrative, wield the very power of the cosmos.”

    Are you complaining about the fact that rangers and rogues can do more damage than the wizard?

    Or are you saying something else entirely?

  42. Nooooooooo! Rob, you were my 4th edition hero. I’m saddened to see you disillusioned about 3rd and 4th edition. Don’t get me wrong, I’m giving 5th edition a chance. Only because I’m hoping I can turn it into a miniature based tabletop game. You’ve read Stephen Radney-McFarlands old blog about D&D Next- where he says AD&D was fast, furious and sloppy as nachos (I really like Mr. McFarland) but it’s the future. I started with the pink D&D box at the age of 6. I love the nostalgia of D&D but I love D&D miniatures more! 3rd and 4th nailed down all the nasty ambiguous (more like missing) rules from the AD&D days. I was no longer at the mercy of a DMs opinion of the rules- the rules were spelled out. I love 4th but I never optimized. I found the options staggering and wonderful to choose from but it did it based on how I felt my character miniature would perform in combat. Of the three tiers Mearls talks about- combat is king. Even in the AD&D days it was combat that lured me into spending countless nights playing. Take care Rob- you rocked 4th. Your best article was on Jubilex!

    • Except in (A)D&D combat was only 20% of the XPs you got. The rest was from treasures. There wasn’t a strong incentive on combat. In fact, the rules for combat (and character’s combat abilities) are only a fraction of the total page count, quite the contrary to what happens in 4e.
      Since the game is played by humans, there’s no need to spell-out everything, because it’s practically useless.

    • That’s a half-truth. In 1e, most of the XP was for treasure. In 2e they relegated XP for GP to an optional rule hidden somewhere in the DMG – while leaving XP for monster-killing. By default in 2E the only person who got XP for GP was the Thief. Which is one of the reasons I’m unimpressed by 2E.

    • @antonio- I meant that is what I got out of AD&D (combat). I wasn’t trying to say that AD&D was all about combat. I just ignored the role playing and exploration tiers and focused on killing monsters, leveling up and acquiring treasure. 3rd edition, and especially 4th edition, expanded and perfected the lack of combat rules in AD&D- as you said the rules for combat were just a fraction of AD&D.

  43. Wow you did start a firestorm Mr. Schwalb. 🙂

    I think people get tired of one thing and want another. I know I was really excited about 3e and eager for it’s arrival. I enjoyed some campaigns using the system and I still think it did a lot of good things. Now though I’m thinking it went too far and I’m more in alignment with your blog post. I like what 5e is trying to do (my only complaint right now is healing). I do want the player as his character to be more of a focus instead of just the numbers. Realistic or not we are here to have fun.

    I never really liked 4e though I gave it a good shake. I was tired of 3e before PF even arrived so I didn’t go that way. So 5e’s focus on the simple playstyle of old school D&D is welcomed by me.

  44. Hey Rob, just wanted to check in and say that I love the post and totally identify with it. Don’t let the haters get you down. Passions are running hot with 5E on the verge of launching. People are getting worked up over something they love, and some of them are a touch misguided as to where they direct them, as has ever been the case in D&D fandom.

  45. Don’t worry Rob, all the people who claim you just “sold them off 5e” were sold off 5e since the original announcement and have been resold off 5e with every playtest document and every L&L article since then.

    Kudos also for speaking your mind.

  46. It was nice to hear your views on the new edition Robert and your thinking on how different the game play can be when things are more or less codified in the rules.

    It’s always a treat to read insight from a game designer so I hope the negative vitriol doesn’t turn you off of sharing your thoughts with all of us in the future.

    Thanks for contributing to D&D and have a wonderful summer!

  47. Thank you for taking the time to open up about your experiences both playing and designing D&D.

    Much of what you had to say resonated with me, particularly your comments about playing at friend’s houses and being on the wrong side of a creative build that lets one player take over and leaves the DM wondering just what the heck to do.

    I hope the negative commentary won’t dissuade you from posting more blog posts like this one. I found your blog post to be both informative and a great motivator to try out 5E.

    Thanks again.

  48. Great post, Rob. I agree wholeheartedly with it. Be aware that the non-gamers of RPGNet are all pissed at you, and you’re going to get dogpiled by them.

  49. Hey Rob,
    excellent post! as always.
    One of the reasons I can’t wait for 5e, is because you worked on it! In fact i already pre-ordered 6 copies of the PHB already.
    I’ve been following most of your posts (on your blog and here) and you’re always spot on!
    I liked the 10 minutes character generation in Gamma World. The 1- Shtick monster.
    I like your ideas on making Rpgs less “clunky”… (the clunkiness -is that a word?- is what made our group stop RPG ing for awhile).
    Simple is better for me (and my one braincell), because I can enjoy and experience the story fully, instead of constantly looking at my character sheet wondering what combination of powers my PC has to use now (analysis paralysis) which totally removes the feeling of immersion.
    I’m sad that you don’t work at Wizards anymore, because I was really wanting to play an adventure you would have written…
    … but I hope somebody there can continue using your ideas and views…because it’s your ideas and views that will make D&D a succes!
    signed: your biggest fan.

  50. Rob,
    First off, nice article and I agree with your points whole-heartedly.

    Second, had a chance to pop open the new basic rules PDF and got to say I’m impressed by what I read. Gives me hope for the new edition — rules that will let me run a fast and loose game!


    • It was in my eight grade year when the monsterous compendium came out for 2nd edition AD&D. It has been the coolest thing I ever bought for D&D (except for 4th edition’s Adventurer Vault). A concept never repeated. I carried that sucker with me everywhere. Many thanks for 2nd edition AD&D.

      I agree. The rules for 5E look very elegant and smooth to play. Heck of a job from all who contributed.

  51. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for this, it was very thought-provoking.

    Our group has been struggling with many of the issues which you raised; the tension between pure story-driven play and the desire for a fair, balanced, and solid/crunchy ruleset is one which has bedeviled us for years now, and we haven’t found an answer that we’re all happy with.

    I think that a big part of the problem we are experiencing isn’t so much the rules – and we’ve tried many – as it is the number of times we’ve gamed.

    It takes a truly inspired GM to create something new and fresh after 30+ years of gaming, and it takes a dedicated and engaged set of players to embrace story threads and run with them instead of getting bogged down in dice rolls and feat selection.

    You wrote about trying to recapture the joy we felt when we first entered those 10’x10′ rooms to fight the dastardly kobolds guarding the kidnapped village children who were next on the menu… I wonder if any system or mechanic can truly bring back the wonder of our youth? I worry that my grumpy middle-aged man is starting to drown out my inner child, and I don’t know if any system can solve that particular problem.

  52. I love articles like this one – entering the mind of developers (so to speak), learning what they thought about while preparing their game gives ma an additional perspective and better understanding of the game itself, of what it is supposed to be.

    Thanks for that.

    Oh, and btw – it’s obvious that it’s impossible to create a massive game that matches all needs, tastes and expectations. I think that plenty of people should finally get over this.

  53. Excellent article Robert. I was having a similar conversation with my 13 year old daughter who has only ever played 4E until last weekend. She loves 5E because, this is a quote, its a role playing game that’s focused on role playing instead of combat…

    We used the character sheet as an example. If my 4E sheet is 5 or 7 pages long at 2nd level and all but two of the pages are my powers, what does that tell me about the game? It’s obviously all about my powers, which are mostly useful in combat.

    When my sheet is two pages long with more “fluff” than mechanics and includes things like traits, flaws, bonds and ideals, it’s obviously about the role playing.

    • When my sheet is two pages long with more “fluff” than mechanics and includes things like traits, flaws, bonds and ideals, it’s obviously about the role playing.

      Then, since only some 4e sheets and no 5e sheets talk about exploration, obviously neither game is about exploration. Right?

    • Oh don’t be so literal… no character sheet ever had stats for exploration. You are totally missing my point.

    • I didn’t intend to be so flippant in my response; my apologies to you (Matt) and to Rob.

      At heart, what I wanted to convey was this: you get out of a game what you put into it. If you approach 3e or 4e as a combat-focused tactical game, that’s what you get out. It’s pretty good at that, and the designers explicitly focused on making those parts try to accomplish certain goals at the table (leaving the rest to you). Earlier editions of D&D did exactly this same thing, focusing on specific parts that their designers thought wanted the support of mechanics and rules, while leaving the other parts up to the people sitting around the table.

      Rob’s point, as I understand it, is that he has come to a point in his life where he prefers to emphasize the experience at the table, rather than the preparation beforehand. This is perfectly reasonable and is a great way to play 5e, even if other people prefer other things. As gamers, DMs, and designers, we should all be happy when people find something they like, even if it’s not exactly the same things that we like and/or the reasons we like them.

      So far, 5e seems like a great game for people who want to streamline and remove the overhead and get right down to the experience at the table. That’s wonderful. It does not, however, have magical powers to make or allow people to inhabit a role or be creative where other systems prevented such. People who are missing roleplaying should totally look for ways to get it, but counting on a new system to make that happen is a pipe dream. Without ever having met you, I can say with a very high degree of confidence that your system is not stopping your table from roleplaying. With %100 certainly, I can tell you that many, many people have real roleplaying experiences with every version of D&D that’s been put out so far.

  54. Rob, I may be coming to the game when everyone (including you) is already battling the exodus traffic in the parking lot, but I frakking *love* this post. I played 4e throughout it’s life. I have every Dragon magazine and always remember reading your name on the content and knowing that I was in good hands. I expected and always received incredible fluff that made more than assuaged my disgust for more of the necessary bloat to keep the game (and by extension, your well-earned paycheck) going. I just felt the need to thank you for all that you’ve contributed.

    This blog post really resonates with me for the very reasons you listed. I’m excited for 5e, and I’m grateful that you were involved in it’s making. Good luck in future writing; and I hope to see some freelance articles of yours for our upcoming favorite game.

  55. Hello Rob,

    Nice post. I started with Rahasia too, but with the rules. 🙂 I completely agree with your point about character generation as the hurdle before the fun starts.

    I play with a group still today, longtime friends and great role players all. We are all about story. Not saying it’s better, just that it’s our preferred style. We play Warhammer 3rd edition and really like it.

    In fact, when lots of my friends were moving from D&D to AD&D, I moved to WFRP 1st and SW and MERP. I tried many different games still, but WFRP remains my favourite. I guess my point is that it seems to me D&D has evolved into a very heavy ruleset and that it is that game’s signature, which means that if you aren’t into diving into a sea of options for your character, maybe you simply need to play another game.

    D&D was rules lite and fun for the ten year old I was. But it wouldn’t do today. For a game to be about “Products of your imagination”, it needs to support freestyle character concepts with very flexible and robust mechanics that support that amount of creativity. And of course that help convey the tone and flavour of the game world, that of the setting of the story.

    Maybe D&D suffers from not being tied to a specific world?

    In conclusion, the desire to go back to more story, and your belief that being able to interact and be part of the story is what makes RPGs unique I agree entirely with. I am quite curious to see what D&D 5e is made of, but I suspect other games are still better suited to a story focused styled of play simply because they have been designed from the ground up for that very purpose.

    D&D, with its history and legacy, has its hands tied when it comes to a fundamental system overhaul. And if you change too much of it, why even call it D&D?

    Lastly, in response to a middle aged grognard doubting that the magic of his first games of his youth can come back, I answer definitely. I’m having much more fun playing today then I was before. We are better players, I’m a better GM, I know so much more of history and the human nature today, and all that feeds our games. Because that is the thing with story based games, it matures as you mature, and gets better as you get older, if you put your imagination at work.

  56. Nice article Rob.

    I’ve played, and enjoyed every edition of D&D over the years, each for different reasons. I feel like the changes in the game over the editions has nearly mirrored my changing tastes and influences. When it comes to the latest edition I’ll admit that the playtest left me feeling like it was finally time to part ways with D&D. However, after reading the Basic Rules and picking up the Starter Set, I’m hooked once again.

    I’ve had the chance to run parts of the Lost Mines of Phandelver for a couple of different groups now, each made up of gamers of varying degrees of experience. Several things have immediately jumped out at me. This rule set is extremely easy to learn (although unlearning old editions does take some effort). The combat-aspects of the game play considerably faster than the previous two editions. Death is a real threat (in our first 3 encounters eight death saves were rolled by 3 different characters). And most importantly for me, the game seems to have the perfect balance between player options, mechanical features, and just loose enough rules to allow for easy and intuitive ad hoc decisions.

    For me and my group, this edition is going to see a lot of play. I know what my current wants and needs are as a gamer and this edition delievers it.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>