4ed Problems: Splintering, Part 1

Before I can talk about this problem I need to outline to you just what problems were going on in D&D 4ed.

4th Edition D&D was a long-running game, and it was successful. It grew the game during its run and it tried, tested, and improved on a bunch of stuff, like online sales. Remember, when 3rd edition hit the shelves, WOTC had their own retail outlets, the Wizards Stores – and they were still going until 3.5. The needs of 3.0 and 4ed were very, very different beasts.

4ed was, based on release dates, about as long-running as 3rd edition. I personally consider 3.0 and 3.5 incompatible games – 3.0’s balance formulae were all hecked up, you couldn’t port anything, really, not even feats, and 3.0 characters couldn’t hang out with 3.5 characters. The monsters, feats, and character options weren’t compatible, so they were as different, in my opinion, as 2ed and 3ed. That is to say, 3ed lasted 3 years, 3.5 lasted 5 years, and 4ed lasted about six, better than both of them.

Now, you might point to the Essentials books as the ‘3.5 of 4ed,’ but that’s rude, don’t point, and also you’re wrong. Essentials characters and rules were 100% compatible with 4ed. A character built in Essentials could adventure alongside a character build out of the PHB and be, largely, as functional. The whole common spellbook wasn’t rewritten with different versions of everything. Cavaliers and Paladins are the same class, by the letter of the rules, and can even borrow powers from one another. Essentials wasn’t a new game, it was the same game, repackaged and reprocessed to try and make it more approachable.

Our problem here starts with one of expectations.

Back in 3.5 D&D classes weren’t balanced against one another, and they didn’t have clear, defined roles for how they interacted with one another. You knew clerics healed (more conveniently than druids) and that druids and bards could heal too. You knew rogues could sneak and do damage just like rangers, and fighters did damage, either with one big weapon, two medium weapons, a weapon and a shield or sometimes one small weapon depending on the Flynn-ness of your Erroll. And Wizards could do everything, pretty much.

These assumptions were great for getting players who never played the game in and I don’t begrudge them but the game doesn’t really back them up. For example, the rogue is explosively high-damage compared to its compatriots in melee, the druid and cleric were such juggernauts healing was best done out of combat by stick magic, and the fighter should go home for a nice nap. When 4ed D&D introduced party roles, it assigned each character a role which was meant to make the game easier to start. No more parties with two fighters, a paladin and a barbarian that all folded to a single mind flayer.

Immediately fights started.

Some people didn’t like the idea that fighters were defenders, and they didn’t like that rangers were damage and ‘controller’ was nonsense and boy howdy did a lot of people coincidentally seem to dislike the idea that the ‘healers’ (ie, support characters) of the last edition were now the ‘leaders.’ In fact, I have a whole hypothesis that one of the unspoken points of resistance for a lot of players to the terminology was the idea that support characters were actually important enough to warrant being called something other than ‘support.’ Fighters should be damage! Paladins should be damage! Everything I like should work the way I want it to, and what’s even going on with the druid?!

Lots of people were real mad.

Now, I’m a big fan of the role system and I also like that essentials is cross compatible – but these two things combined did bring about one of the biggest problems 4ed D&D has: Splintering, which we’ll talk about more specifically next time.

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