Posted on by Scott Delahunt

This entry is going to veer away from the visual medium. Reboots don't just happen on screen. Adaptations can still be informative even when in a different genre. In the case of this entry's subject, a reboot can be polarizing.

In 1974, Tactical Studies Rules, a small company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, released what would become a culture-changing phenomenom. The original release of Dungeons & Dragons was a three-booklet boxed set, adapting the company's previous Chainmail fantasy miniatures rules for fantasy role-playing. As the game's popularity grew, the rules were revised and expanded. The expansion resulted in a split as Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons were released. The former kept to the previous rules; non-human characters were classes in and of themselves. AD&D, however, allowed non-humans to take on roles such as fighter, thief, magic-user, or cleric.

The game exploded in the 80s. Ads for the game appeared in comics, in magazines, even on TV. AD&D entered the cultural subconscious. To be fair, it was never a smooth ride. People looking for a scapegoat latched on to the "D&D is Satanic" bandwagon. (Oddly, that didn't hurt sales. Something about forbidden fruit being the most tantalizing.) Sure, the game got tagged as a nerd pastime, but those who played enjoyed it.

After about a decade of rules revisions published through various supplements and through Dragon Magazine (TSR's own house publication), a new edition was released. The second edition brought together the various rules updates and cleaned up some of the problem spots. Around this time, TSR's licensing included computer and video games, cashing in on the new trend that was inspired by AD&D. The 90s, though, saw a boom in the number of RPG publishers competing with TSR for the top spot. Although none really came close, several companies, including White Wolf (Vampire: the Masquerade) and Steve Jackson Games (GURPS), rose up with their own systems and gained their own followings.

During the 90s, where various activist groups such as Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons failed, upper management succeeded in the destruction of TSR. As a result of some poor decisions by upper management, the company declared bankruptcy. Its assets were sold off; the biggest asset being the D&D trademark. The game was picked up by Wizards of the Coast, the creator of Magic: The Gathering.   A new edition came out, called Dungeons & Dragons. The system changed the mechanics drastically, switching to a pure d20 plus modifier core mechanic, but kept the key ideas (classes and levels, Vancian magic) intact. Overall, D&D 3rd Edition was successful; the game was still the 800 pound gorilla of the industry. WotC also released the rules as part of an Open Gaming License, letting other companies use the core rules for their own settings. The 90s saw many small companies releasing settings that used the d20 rule set.

With the very brief history of D&D out of the way, we come to the subject of this entry - Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. As with the previous editions, the third edition rules gained a lot of cruft, adding to the complexity to an already complex game. In 2000, a fourth edition was released. The d20 mechanics were kept, but characters' abilities had undergone a massive change. Vancian magic, that is, magic where the caster forgets the spell after casting, was gone. Instead, characters of all classes gained powers at each level. Wizards no longer were a one-shot wands of Magic Missile at first level, nor did hostile cats pose a lethal threat to them. Fighters saw their abilities with swords improve with each level; no longer were they the meatshield at lower levels and cannon fodder at higher ones.

The potential drawbacks were vast. Would the new rules be accepted as D&D? Internet flame wars still rage over that very question. The new mechanics also saw a return to D&D's miniatures heritage. The new edition almost required minitures on a battle map. Gone was the exploration aspect of previous versions; the fourth edition changed abilities to an encounter-based economy. A good DM could bring in exploration, but the core mechanics didn't allow for a random encounter. With the new rules, a wizard could take a hit from an orc with a longsword and still fight; whether this is good or bad depends on the player.

Not all the changes were accepted by players. One common criticism is that the game feels more like a collectable card game (CCG), not a role playing game. Each power, whether a wizard's arcane spell, a priest's divine miracle, or a fighter's martial exploit, had a set of rules of its own. With the character builder, software to assist in character creation, players could print the power cards and play them like a CCG. Various players' books have been released, with some players and DMs feeling that they need to get each one to stay current. And, yet, D&D is still the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG industry. The game continues to evolve with the release of the Essentials line, a streamlined version of the fourth edition rules.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition shows that there is a limit to how many changes a fanbase will expect. A too large change of focus can alienate fans. Yet, the current version of the game is successful. New players keep coming in, partially through the efforts of WotC's Encounters  series of games which play to the strengths of the new rules. It is possible to overcome a gap an adaptation creates by supporting the new fans. And sometimes, it is impossible to avoid alienating a portion of the existing fanbase, no matter what is done.

Next time, a young boy and his hero's adaptation.

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