by Nicholas William Moll
I’ve been playing Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons for a number of years now. My book shelf is overflowing with a collection of books spanning most of the edition. And I don’t have any plans to purchase Fifth Edition. Not because I think Fourth Edition is the best role-playing game ever made. Or that I believe Fifth Edition is somehow inferior to Fourth Edition (it’s really far too early to tell what Fifth Edition is, let alone its strengths and weaknesses – play testing is one thing, but let’s see how far the global sum of Dungeons and Dragons players can really push its systems). It is because I think that Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons does Dungeons and Dragons well in its own style and right.
Thinking of things enjoyable about Fourth Edition, combat in particular comes to mind. Over a game of Marvel Heroic Role-playing just a few nights ago, a friend of mine turned to me and said “gee, Nic, all this characterization is great but I really just want to roll some dice and hit stuff. Can you make me a Fourth Edition dungeon for my birthday?” Naturally I said yes. And in that moment my friend had aptly summed up what most people think about when they look at Fourth Edition: miniature combat, a role-playing game with a heavy dose of war-gaming in its action. And that’s true. Fourth Edition, for a good many games, was heavily based around miniature based combat sequences. And there is nothing wrong with that. Fourth Edition did miniature based combat very well and the combination of miniatures and battle maps made the experience of role-playing game combat – often one of the more complicated or time consuming aspects of any role-playing game session – as smooth as any good war-game. And also as equally characterful with all players – from Wizard to Fighter and Dungeon Master (so often forgotten as also a player in the game, and there to have fun albeit in a slightly different role) too – presented with a range of curious abilities for use in battle.
The smoothness, clarity and character of the combat system were some of the strengths of Fourth Edition. But in terms of narrative, Fourth Edition was certainly a curious beast. The Powers were admittedly rigid and required a bit of imagination from the player and the Dungeon Master to be anything other than combat-orientated. And the Class system was quite unyielding. Chances are a Paladin would always be quite similar to every other Paladin within their type, even with a Multi-Class Feat (Hybrid Classes also proved to produce less in the way of variations between classes than a whole new Class of the player’s own design – something I both adored and applauded). There was also little point in sending low level monsters against high level characters, and vice versa. It didn’t matter how many Goblins, for instance, there were or how clever the Heroic Tier heroes plot against that ancient Dragon or hoary Storm Titan was. In either case, the higher level would lead a massacre! That being said, the clear and deliberate pacing of the level system in Fourth Edition gave progression a certain structure. And I found as a Dungeon Master, a world builder and a storyteller there is a certain neatness and symmetry about Fourth Edition with the steady and absolute mathematical experience system along with the ridged classes and levelling. Plotting the campaign, once mastered, became easy, with certain regions, monsters villains and problems foreshadowed in the mechanics of the game. The whole system – with its triune division of Tiers – has the feeling about it of an epic fantasy trilogy. It was a structure that was, in short, archetypical and ultimately evocative of Joseph Campbell’s mythic cycles that presented players and the Dungeon Master with a clear journey of the hero from humble beginnings to immortality.
Over the past few years those are the two things I’ve come to love about Fourth Edition, war-game style combat and narrative structure built into the mechanics. And with a Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons now available it is the prudent time to discuss the future of Fourth Edition. It seems unlikely that Fourth Edition will be reincarnated through rebranding in the manner that Third Edition did as Pathfinder. It never quite achieved the same following that Third Edition did. Perhaps it was just how different it was from previous editions. Perhaps it was just a difference of timing. Advanced Second Edition came out in 1989, with Third Edition released eleven years later in 2000. Compared to its predecessor, Third Edition looked and played new, shiny, sleek and modern. The Open Game Licence created a huge investment of activity, money and business from players turned publishers along with the gaming industry as a whole – literally reshaping the face of role-playing. Third Edition made a mark and it was certainly a tough act to follow for Fourth Edition, a mere few years shy of a decade later. It never achieved the same popularity and I don’t think I want Fourth Edition to have the same lasting appeal of Third.
Fourth Edition needs to become niche and cultish, played by a small but vibrant fan community of players who genuinely love this edition of Dungeons and Dragons for all it is and who continue to play and develop it out of that enjoyment. Future editions – Fourth Edition-point-five or whatever – should be released as living, fan-written rulebooks living, written and maintained by players, on internet fan sites. This attitude might seem insular and restraining. And to a certain degree it is. But one of the things I have seen and continue to see with Third Edition and Pathfinder is its multiplicity through applications to games and genres other than Dungeon and Dragon’s particular brand of High Fantasy. It is like Gurps or Savage Worlds or Cortex a generic role-playing system. Fourth Edition took the trope of the High Fantasy narrative trilogy and translated it into a role-playing game in manner that was not simply evocative of the setting (or general idea of a High Fantasy world) but mechanically the progression of the narrative as well. And I want Fourth Edition continued by people who understand that.
Nicholas William Moll is an Australian academic at Federation University Australia, currently undertaking his PhD and fiction writer, managing his small press role-playing game line and company, Frankenstein Atomic Frontier from Owlman Press.