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.