4E and New Players

Note: I want to be clear up front that this is not a review of 4E in general. I am critiquing it as a vehicle for introducing new players into roleplaying. I am not saying it’s a bad game or that you are a bad person if you like it. Nor does this bear upon Green Ronin’s plans to potentially support 4E with product. That’s a whole other discussion (the gist of which is, if it makes sense, we’ll do it).

D&D; occupies a unique place in the RPG ecosystem. It was the first RPG and created the entire category it continues to dominate. It also tends to be the entry point for most people into the hobby. While there have been some alternate avenues, most notably Vampire: The Masquerade, most roleplayers get their start with D&D.; Despite this D&D; has a checkered history in attracting new players since the days of the original Basic Set. TSR and WotC after them have had acquisition strategies that were either confused or ineffective. When I heard that 4E was going to radically rebuild D&D;, my biggest hope was that the new iteration would be good acquisition game. The hobby needs more roleplayers, plain and simple, and I hoped 4E might help deliver them.

My assessment after having the books for a few weeks: it fails.

I say this because ultimately the new Player’s Handbook is not a viable entry point for most new players. Now I know there are some entry products coming down the pipe, but to my mind a new player should be able to read the PHB and learn how to play the game. Entry sets come and go and stores may or may not have them in stock, but the Player’s Handbook will always be there. It is the cornerstone of the line, the book that sells better than all others. It should be approachable and friendly to new players.

The 4E PHB, however, has some issues. Let’s take a look at them in detail.

No Sales Text: I remember when we got in the 3E PHBs at WotC. I immediately flipped mine over to read the back cover text. I was appalled that it made no attempt to sell D&D.; It basically said, “Hey, it’s the new edition of D&D.;” Imagine my surprise to find 4E repeating this same error. Most of the back cover is empty. There are two short paragraphs of text and again they do not even try to sell the game. They don’t explain what a roleplaying game is or why it’s fun. It is apparently assumed that anyone looking at this book already knows that. You can tell someone that the book “provides everything players need to create and run heroic characters through legendary dungeons of dread,” but that means nothing to folks new to roleplaying.

The Great Wall: Chapter 1 does have a reasonable, if short, intro to the game. Then the book gets into character creation. It’s a little hinky that the races chapter has a bunch of powers in it when they haven’t been explained yet, but I can see why they are there. The trouble starts in Chapter 4: Classes. This chapter is a killer. Since each class has 80-90 powers and all of them are nested here, this chapter is enormous and daunting. It is 125 pages, or almost as long as the entire 1st edition PHB. I’ve been gaming since I was 10 years old and my eyes glazed over the first time I tried to make it though Chapter 4. The powers soon started blending together. Also, a huge number of them use the [w] notation and this is explained nowhere in this chapter. You don’t find out what it means until Chapter 7: Equipment, in fact.

No Newb Class: In every previous edition of D&D; there has been at least one easy-to-play class that you could start people off with, fighter being the classic choice. 4E gives an equal number of powers to all classes, which means that playing any of them is like running a spellcaster in previous editions. There are at least some suggested builds for each class, so that’s something but playing a 4E character for the first time still requires a more decision making than I think is advisable for new gamers

Not Enough Examples: Good rulebooks should have a lot of examples. You might think a rule is clear when you write it, but it often isn’t as crystal as you believe. There are very few examples in the PHB until the combat chapter and even that really needs more. There is no character creation example that follows through the entire process and no extended combat example. Showing a new player how it all comes together is key, so leaving these out is a mistake.

Poor Reference Tools: This is a 320 page book and it has a 1 page index. Not helpful. Nor does it have a glossary of terms. Oh, and all those powers in Chapter 4? There’s no alphabetical list of those with page numbers so you can look them up by name. All of this is bad enough for experienced players but it’s deadly for newbies.

Core Experience Is Hardcore: All the preceding could have been mitigated to some degree if the core experience was easy to get into. Unfortunately, 4E is for hardcore gamers, not casual players. It seeks to provide a robust system for tactical combat and in so doing it makes the game fairly unapproachable. Or to put it more simply: the game is too damn complicated. There are powers and feats and class abilities (which can be like feats or like powers!), there are multiple temporary modifiers that need to be remembered and tracked, and there are ultimately too many choices for new players to make. I learned (ironically enough, when I was working at WotC) that limiting options is often better for new players, as offering too much choice can paralyze them.

What is perhaps most perplexing about these choices on WotC’s part is that their new publishing plan involves releasing one big hardback book per month. That being the case, they could have easily pushed the more complicated elements into the supplements and made the core game a whole lot more approachable. That would have given the hardcore gamers what they want, while not pushing away the newbies and the casual gamers.

Now I understand 4E is selling well and this is no surprise. We are talking about a new edition of D&D; here. It’s a brand so powerful that even WotC’s godawful marketing campaign for 4E couldn’t make this a non-event in the world of nerdery. Only a tiny fraction of the people buying the books are new players though. The vast majority of them are current or lapsed gamers. They want to check out the new edition of this classic game and see if it’s for them. The real test will come a year from now, when the newness will have worn off. Then we’ll see if 4E really sticks.

I am sure, however, that WotC will end up with a healthy audience for 4E. Will it succeed in really bringing in new players though? That I am much less certain of. I do not think the PHB is the introduction to D&D; is should have been. Titles like the Basic Set may help somewhat, but it’s likely that true acquisition will continue to come from existing gamers introducing others to the hobby. That’s a shame because I think 4E had a real chance to bring in the new blood the RPG industry desperately needs.

36 thoughts on “4E and New Players

  1. I think a lot of this has to do with the kind of audience WotC feels they can attract with 4e.

    I guess that a couple months ago I was thinking that 4e might do to the RPG community what the Wii did to video gamers: by appealing to the casual/mass market, the Wii sold like hotcakes to kids, alpha moms, and established gamers, even while the latter group now moan and complain that hardcore games on the system are few and far between (and generally lacking in quality). As such, the last think I would have expected to see was that D&D; failed to appeal because it was not noob-friendly.

    Looks like maybe I was wrong about the audience they were going for, though. Maybe the idea is to appeal to the casual MMO player, who will likely eat up the classes chapter like a fresh box of hot pockets during an all-night raid.

    Full disclosure: I’m presently doing research on video games, literacy and learning. I think what WotC may be relying on with 4e is a certain amount of video game literacy, which now comes practically built in to males in the 11-24 age demographic. No doubt this is the group that WotC are shooting for.

    As such, I’d be interested to see if the uptake of the system differs between kids and adults, and how that relates to experience with video games, and other forms of media. . .

  2. I agree with Chris. I really think they kind of dropped the ball on this distribution. They’ll likely scramble on the playing field trying to call back the player, but right now it’s looking ugly.

    I like 4E though. After running it, I see a lot of potential whereas I was disgusted with 3rd Edition. What I do not think they did really was play the MMO field. I honestly don’t think you’re going to change the habits or playing preferences of an audience like that. They’ll likely scoff at picking up 4E.

    What I do think 4E is going to do all right at is definitely pulling players back that went away from it because of its inane system and setting features. 4E feels like a much more robust game to run and play in now, despite its obvious failings as a vehicle to be understood well.

  3. The PHB is especially baffling because the DMG, generally speaking, is much better in this regard, being a surprisingly decent primer on running games. But that only works if potential DMs also know how to run it.

  4. Was the goal of 4E to be more accessible to the new player? If that was the goal then I would totally agree that this failed but in looking at how badly it failed in this regard I doubt that this was the goal.

    I would think that, these days, the D&D; miniatures game probably does a better job of bringing in new gamers. Get them going with that, introduce the rules without having to worry about the roleplaying part of the equation and then move up to the big leagues.

  5. WOTC has let us retailers know that the launch of 4E is aimed at veteran gamers.

    New players will be targeted in a separate marketing campaign in the fall, likely coinciding with the new starter game in November.

    Reviews so far and my impression as a store owner and a long time D&D; DM is that it’s looking pretty darn good.

  6. Here’s a question.

    If given the WoW CDs and the 4E player’s handbook, which would you consider HARDER for a newbie to pick up?

  7. I don’t agree that the aim of 4E should have been to target new gamers. Perhaps I’m biased being an older gamer, but what about the players they would have lost if they had appealed to the new guy.

    I mean, the game is already really simple as it is, sure there are some layout/organization issues, but the game isn’t hard at all. My 13 year old son picked it up and learned it in a day…

  8. You’re argument that there is no “newbie” class is the worst explanation I have ever heard of a class that is boring compared to everyone else.

    Don’t worry, play a fighter, they’re easy! Just walk up to the monster and hit it. That kind of thinking worked 20 years ago.

    Print out player action cards and the options become easy. Granted WOTC is missing a huge demand by not selling combat cards.

  9. I too feel that had the PHB been simplified and made much more “noob-friendly” by limiting choices even more than they already have, it would be a MASSIVE turn-off to older players, and they likely would NOT have come back to buy supplement after supplement to get the advanced options they wanted from the start. Already there are many complaints about the limited number of choices from gamers used to 3.5, and I know a number of players who are so disappointed with the simplification of the core 4e books as it is that they don’t plan to buy any supplements.

  10. I just hope the folks who scorn a newbie-friendly D&D; realize that a game aimed at hardcores is going to have a shrinking player base. And the smaller the player base, the smaller the print runs. And the smaller the print runs, the higher the price tag on each book.

  11. Chris, thanks for the well-thought out comments on 4e.

    I tend to agree with you that 4e will sell more to the current RPG player than a new one. Like many old time players I have owned and played all the editions since 1st so 4e is no exception. However, once the veteran player realizes that 4e is not the D&D; they have grown to love, the passion will end and so will the purchases.

    The main issue I see with D&D; 4e is that they changed the rules so much from 3.5 and took away so many of the “core” classes and races that it does not appeal to current gamers of 3.5. In fact, they could have easily created a new game with the 4e rules and called it D&D; Lite or Munchins and Monsters and it probably would have appealed to the same customer.

    This is going to be a major problem for WotC because the hard-core gamers (us) are not going to buy support products for 4e. They just won’t work with 3.5 without a ton of modifications.

    I for one was really excited about 4e from the start and now that I own all the books and have played twice (once as a player and once as a DM) I can say for sure that I find no reason to switch.

    I’ve also heard a ton of buzz about Paizo’s Pahfinder RPG so I downloaded the free alpha rules and WOW! this is D&D;! They kept all of the original classes and races and “fixed” them so they’re more balanced as a whole and it actually makes it difficult to choose what race/class combo to play.

    I wish both WotC and Paizo luck in the next year to see who comes out as the RPG leader for the hard-core gamer. WotC seems to have taken a massive U-turn and are putting all of their eggs in one bag of holding.

    I also think companies like Green Ronin and Goodman Games are going to have to make some tough business decisions soon on which flavor of D&D; to support because with 4e, the player divide is bigger than ever.

    -Joe

  12. I’m not disagreeing with your point about the books themselves, but at the gameday I participated in last week, we had lots of new players – young, old, new, experienced, male, and female! – and they seemed to all pick it up reasonably well.

    –Eytan

  13. Everyone is going to have their personal opinion of 4th Edition, but from a macro perspective, from the buzz from blogs, podcasts, forums, and the almighty sales dollar, this is looking like a very successful start.

    The perceived lack of choice, non-functionality with 3.5, and simplification of the rules is EXACTLY what a lot of people are looking for. 3.5 is a clunky toolbox of rules with the illusion of balance and objective design. There was no way to create a simple path from THAT.

    Lack of choice with character classes creates iconic characters that can’t be hand built to fail. Rogues sneak. Fighters fight. Clerics heal. I’m finishing up a 3.5 campaign now with a “social” rogue with no trapfinding skills, a neutral cleric who doesn’t channel positive energy, and s multi-classed characters that promises to be effective at around 12th level (we’re at 7th). This is typical and it often comes from newer players, not veteran power gamers.

    Simplification of the rules makes the game more fun. For example, Dispel Magic went from 110 lines of description to 10. Sit down and read 110 lines; now imagine 5 people staring at you impatiently on their one night off while you do it. Grappling no longer feels like computing vector movement in Starfleet Battles. So far this is looking pretty positive.

  14. Gary, I agree with you that 3.5 can be a clunky mess sometimes but for the veteran game it offers many more choices.

    Now, there are many things I like about 4e, don’t get me wrong but I almost like it as a different game. I could easily see myself playing both a 3.5 campaign (with fixes for some of the spells, grappling, etc.) and a 4e campaign.

    My main problem is time and money. I have no time to play both and I have to choose one. Guess which one I choose? Yes, the one that I own $1,000 worth of books for. 🙂

    I’m actually glad the 4e stuff is selling well for you and other stores. I seriously hope it brings new gamers into your store that become long-time patrons.

    Good luck with future sales.

    -Joe Rapoza

  15. I sort of agree. I think a better statement is that “The D&D; PHB is not newbie friendly.” I think the *game* is newbie friendly, especially given the video game literacy of kids these days. The vast majority of what they can do is sitting on their character sheet, and for the most part, what they can do is pretty fun and nifty, even if it is focused on a more tactical, grid combat system.

    So again. The books aren’t newbie friendly, but the game is.

  16. Yeah, I have to agree with some of what BlackDiamond says: 4e definitely restricts player choice (in character creation and in character use) in very newbie-friendly ways. The choices made at character creation come from some very short lists of options.

    (…Unfortunately, this is entirely maddening for me. I’d much rather play in BlackDiamond’s 3.5 campaign full of unique, sub-optimal weirdos.)

    That said, Chris is right about the hardcore nature of 4e’s tactical focus: No newbie is going to grasp the tactical implications of fiddly little positioning issues until they’ve got a few combats under their belt. A first-time player–or even a gamer new to miniatures-focused D&D; combat–is going to look at a lot of these abilities and think “Why would I even care about doing that?” The PHB really could have used some “Here’s why it’s handy to be able to shift one of your allies one square” cheat text on the low-level abilities.

    But, hey, there’s always D&D; for Dummies, right?

  17. But the early game enemies are designed to ease you in to the sort of tactical thinking that 4e thrives on. Super flanking kobolds and constantly shifting goblins are clearly there to introduce you to the building blocks of tactics. You’re supposed to learn by doing, starting with a first level character and appropriate enemies.

  18. Interesting. My experiences so far suggest the opposite.

    I agree that there is an increased tactical element but I think this actually make it friendlier to gamers who aren’t RPGers, such as card players, computer gamers or wargamers. This is the audience I think 4e is trying to tap and I think WotC is clever in doing so.

    So though I agree that 4e will not be friendly to people who don’t game in any form, I do think it is very friendly to nonRPGing gamers.

  19. In general, I tend to agree with the entire article, but the “not enough examples” point rings especially true to me. I picked up the core books on launch day, and so far my gaming group of 4 have played through 3 sessions.

    3 sessions in, and I’m still not convinced our characters are put together correctly. Understand – I don’t mean optimally… I mean *correctly*. With no character creation example and bonus stacking and modifier application rules buried in sidebars, etc… I’m never sure that I’m applying all the modifiers correctly.

    Oh yeah – I’ve having all this trouble and I’m not a new gamer. I’ve played dozens of systems, including the 2, 3, and 3.5 variations of D&D; (and a bunch of those hippie story games, too).

    I love the new edition, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like the PHB could have been put together much more clearly than it was.

  20. The only thing I happen to disagree with is that this game is for Hardcore Gamers and not Casual Gamers. Two of my players are the wives of two of my other players. In the past, these two girls have pretty much had their husbands make their characters and help them play because the 3.0/3.5 Core PHBs confused them. Both of them have told me that they can actually understand 4th edition, whereas they didn’t 3rd. They even made their own characters for my campaign! The first time they have been able to by themselves.

    There are a ton of options, however, those options have been put into specific perspectives and lead you down a set path…and is IMHO closer to previous editions than 3rd ever was.

  21. The introductory 4th edition miniatures rules actually do a good job at introducing new players to D&D; combat. They start out with simple examples, using pictures and plenty of “we’ll explain this other stuff later” hand-holding. If they can release a product that does this with the basic character creation and role-playing concepts at well, they may do better at bringing in fresh gamers.

  22. I do think it is interesting this argument that the rules for a game shouldn’t, y’know, actually explain how to play the game in a clear, easily understood manner. (i.e. suitable for newbies.) It seems some believe this particular version of the rules is for those of us who already know how to play — I’m glad Monopoly doesn’t make the same assumptions.

    Of course, I’m also a little disturbed that so far in the DMG I have yet to actually see any discussion of how to make all these monster roles, encounter/xp laundry lists and nifty terrain choices actually fit into, say, a STORY that you are supposed to be telling – the whole thing that makes RPGs interesting to me.

  23. Dungeons & Dragons is clearly not for everyone. It’s a rules heavy game for those who like their games that way with a release cycle of crunch that turns off those who can’t keep up. How embarrassing that it’s also the dominant RPG, owning well over half the market. What to do?

    WOTC can’t lose the core, so they’re marketing to that audience first with the core rulebooks. Come November we’ll see a box set version designed for new players, much like we have for 3.5. The 3.5 basic game version is an excellent introduction, and I expect the 4.0 version to be even better. It’s the gateway for beginners. I suppose the real argument should be why they didn’t release this at the same time or first.

    Don’t get me started on the wreck of game that is Monopoly.

  24. Chris-

    I don’t think the core PHB is meant to introduce new players to the game, but at least at retail, it’s NEVER been meant for that.

    I think we may need to reserve judgment on WoTC’s new player acquisition strategy until we see what the wofrthcoming new Basic game looks like. The box set is what we always hand to new players and/or parents who want to know what D&D; is about, never the PHB.

    You need ot spend over $100 to get the core rules,a nd that’s not an intro buy-in. Assuming the basic set comes in at $35 or so complete with rules, minis, tiles, etc, THAT should be the product you judge how they do on… for my part, I’ve always thought the 3E basic set was a really, really good product, and we sold tons of them.

    Like a big nox store doing a ‘soft’ opening before the big bells-n-whistles grand opening, it’s probably not the worst idea to get all those gamers pounding on the system for a few months before boiling it down to the basics for the intro box set.

    At least I hope that’s how it’ll work… I would love to sell a bunch of these for Christmas.

    One final note is that while yeah, the Classes chapter is a bear, I suspect people read those a lot more like cookbooks than instrcution manuals, skipping over the stuff they’re not going to use right away if it doesn’t do something to immediately hold their interest. I don’t think it’s as much of a problem as it seems at first glance.

    And how did YOU feel about the DMG? I was really impressed, they’ve taken what’s traditioally the most unweildy and meandering boook and turned into a book that actually tells you HOW to run a game. It’s certainly the first time I’ll have been itnerested enough to actually READ most of it in ~25 years of D&D; playing.

    -Jim C.
    Modern Myths, LLC
    Northampton, MA

  25. Though I see much value in your critique, I couldn’t disagree more with your overall assessment. The 3.0 books are totally incomprehensible to new players and 4E is a vast improvement.

    The 3.0 PHB starts with the character sheet and gets technical right away; this is the kind of design aimed at experienced players. The ‘what is D&D;’ section on page 6 is less than a quarter of a page, is practically invisible and totally inadequate.

    The 4E book is obviously designed to teach what a roleplaying game is, and I believe the first chapter does so very well. The beginning chapter is legitimately an introduction chapter. And, the DMG is legitimately a guide to dungeon mastering.

    Just look at the difference in the size of the type! Just look at the difference in layout!

    -roddyriot (on WoTC’s forum)
    -Pierson Lowgal (on ENWorld)

  26. Jim, I’m sure that WotC didn’t intend the PHB to be an intro book, but I find that irrelevent. Their intentions won’t stop newbies from picking up a PHB and trying to figure D&D; out. That’s why I think it should be friendlier to them than it is. The DMG has some good stuff in it, but folks who never get beyond the PHB will never see it.

  27. Roddy, you seem to think that my critique of the 4E PHB was a defense of the 3E PHB. It was not. The 3E book had many of the same problems.

  28. I haven’t picked up 4th ed yet, and haven’t been in a rush, in no small part because I keep hearing how they made all of the combat rules “clearer” and more “mini-on-a-grid driven”.

    When I DMed in 1st and 2nd ed, the rules were basically “this is your chance of hitting, from how far away, and this how much damage you do.” When there were questions about whether the players could take a parting shot at a fleeing foe, I made a decision! If there was a rules lawyer there, well, there weren’t any applicable, so he had to suck it up.

    When playing 3rd ed, we found that when that same critter fled, we got into long debates about the listed mechanics for Attacks of Opportunity, weapon reaches, whether flanking bonus kicked in when the critter ran between people, ad nauseum. Rule lawyer’s heaven.

    If I was really looking for a tabletop combat game, rather than a role-playing game, I’d stick with warhammer.

    Pfft.

  29. Addendum –

    I’m not bashing D&D; as a system there, I still enjoy it more than any of the other RPG systems I’ve tried [and there’s been quite a few].

    I just find that the more they try to make combat rules for every situation, so that it’s always mechanically sound, predictable, “fair”, “balanced”, etc. the more those rules dominate the system as a whole, and the player perspective on the game as a whole.

  30. It's very interesting reviewing this. The people who like 4e are basically hardcore tabletop wargamers, and that's how they play D&D.;

    The people who dislike both 3e and 4e would probably be happier with a rules-light system, period — I'm not sure if there's a good fantasy system like that right now, but several have been invented over the years. Hell, try Amber Diceless.

    The people who like 3e and don't like 4e (like me) want a fairly rules-heavy system, but want such a system for OUTSIDE OF COMBAT.

    4e made the decision to go very very rules-heavy in combat and very very rules-light outside combat. This satisifies only a very specific and relatively unusual type of player and GM.

    Most players who like it rules-heavy like it rules-heavy both in and out of combat, and most who like it rules-light like it rules-light both in and out of combat. This neither satisfies the role-players leaning towards freeform *nor* the role-players leaning towards highly structured.

    Incidentally, if I want 'how to run a game' for a beginner GM, 'D&D; for Dummies' did a rather good job at it.

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