There is a schism in the role-playing world. It is only now represented in the forum battles and blog wars between old-school Dungeons & Dragons players and those who just happen to like the game’s Fourth Edition, but I imagine that it was always there underneath the surface. When 4E was released in 2008, many of my friends, quite frankly, thought it sucked. “They got rid of alignment?” “Why are they pushing tieflings and dragonborn?” “They’re selling out to the WoW crowd.” Communities like EN World and the forums at were ablaze.

It took me a while to figure out why people were so vehement about one role-playing system over another. To me, what matters more is who you play with than what the system does or doesn’t do. Give me a crappy system and 5 of my friends, and I’ll still have a good time. I don’t want to reward badly designed or un-playtested systems, but D&D Fourth Edition was neither of those. It had years of research and development behind it from some of the best designers at Wizards of The Coast, many of whom worked on the previous editions. What nerve had they touched to set off such a reaction?

Answer: The conflict between simulation and cinematic.

Older versions of Dungeons & Dragons were built to offer a simulation of life in a fantasy setting. This was mostly due to the evolution from wargaming, wrought by Gygax and Arneson. The rules expected large battles of fantasy troops like wizards and ogres, in addition to the smaller dungeon crawls played on a micro scale. That’s partly why at level 9, all characters receive a “keep” and begin to attract others of their ilk, ostensibly to wage war on similarly stacked armies. The rules also support a low level of magic and power in the world; a “normal” man in OD&D is worth only half a hit-dice and first level characters have a very high mortality rate.

I’m currently playing in Alex Macris‘s OD&D sandbox game, wherein I play Farlagn the Elf. Elves in OD&D are the Fighter/Magic-user class and Farlagn, now at level 7, is just powerful enough to feel capable in either capacity. It took a while, with many sessions spent hanging in the back of the party, making sure that I wasn’t killed. Consequently, I’m much more invested in Farlagn, even if it isn’t always fun to cast your one Sleep spell at the start of a session and then sit on your hands for three hours.


The world of Aura has hundreds of pages written about it (all by Alex) and even though he has judiciously house-ruled various inadequacies, the Original Dungeons and Dragons system holds up well. But the real advantage of the game is that it simulates something tangible, and it feels very real. Our group has a real investment in the world, so much so that when Alex rolled a random encounter that mentioned a plague-ridden caravan, we spent a month of game time and an hour real time tracking it down so that it wouldn’t spread its germs to the major cities. The group has spent almost a year of weekly sessions, almost 2.5 years of game time, making the Borderlands safe, and they’d be damned if one little breakout of Bubonic plague was going to ruin it all.

I personally love the campaign, and it appeals to the simulation gamer inside me. It reminds me of playing Civilization or Taleworld’s Mount & Blade Warband, open-ended videogames that also inhabit a world that operates independently from the player. But sometimes that is not the experience that role-players want to have. They want to feel heroic or accomplish a feat that their favourite characters in literature and cinema would perform.

While I lived in New York City, I played in a campaign using D&D Fourth Edition that was run by an NYU professor. By definition, he was an old school gamer, having played since the early 80s. In the group was his lifelong friend, for whom he was always the Dungeon Master. They asked me to join the group around the time that 4E was released, and my other gaming group disbanded, partly because of the schism created by this new system from WOTC. What immediately drew me to the new group was that they didn’t discuss mechanics at the table at all; the DM embraced 4E without much reservation. I found myself role-playing Heydar, a wizard with a penchant for smoking ceremonial (hallucinatory) drugs by creating flame with his finger.

This game was not a sandbox; many events occurred that the DM had clearly pre-planned and specifically timed. It many ways, it was a railroad, because we were travelling with a caravan that teleported from city to city on a programmed schedule. Sure, we could deviate from the path (the rogue and I had a lot of fun trying to broker a drug deal with some seedy types in one city), but ultimately the DM was in control of the events. The campaign had a defined end-point which we reached before we hit level 8.

But throughout that time, Heydar the wizard didn’t feel underpowered at all. At level 1 or 2, he learned a ritual that expelled vermin and bugs from an area, and he sold this service to his fellow Caravan members to make an extra gold piece or two (to support his drug habit). I was able to select specific feats and powers that complemented each other and made Heydar more effective than if he randomly received spells. In combat, he could lay down fireballs and bursts of flame from his hands to scorch any enemy who threatened his friends. Fourth Edition plays best using a grid, with miniatures representing the positions of friends and enemies, and I find the strategic clarity a lot of fun. Heydar was able to run to barely evade the swing of a dragon’s tail, and find just the right point to lay down a devastating fireball. Just like in the movies.



On the battlefield, D&D Fourth edition plays a lot like chess or Axis & Allies, with no guessing as to what a specific unit’s capabilities may be. But because it’s also a role-playing game, it feels more like a fantasy or action film, with moments of heightened action balanced with the down-time of role-playing or exploration. It’s impossible to create a character in Fourth edition that must hide in the back of a party, doing nothing, in order to feel safe. Even at first level, you will always have something to do and important decisions to make.

There is a cost. In order to make each class balanced and important at all levels, Andy Collins and the design team at WOTC needed to dissociate a character’s powers from the expected reality. We had an argument here in the office of The Escapist about Fourth edition’s dissociative mechanics, with many gamers questioning why a rogue could perform his neato Trick Strike only once per day or what exactly happens when a paladin “marks” an enemy. I agree that explaining these powers in real-world terms is futile. The grognards pointed out that the logic of OD&D is better equipped to simulate how a gritty fantasy world could work.

But that is simply not what all gamers want to play. There is value in a frenetic system that allows each player character to feel meaningful across all levels, capable of cinematic stunts and strategic training, just as it is valuable to inhabit a world that is brutal at first level, rewarding players for longevity with the notoriety needed to attract followers and henchmen. It all comes down to Cinematic versus Simulation. D&D Fourth Edition is more suited to the former, while OD&D (and other earlier editions of D&D) delivers the latter.

So put down the torches and stop the flame wars. It’s possible for 4E and other systems to coexist in the roleplaying game landscape because they offer different experiences to the player. Choosing to play one or the other is a matter of preference, similar to those who enjoy power-gaming, where you maximize the benefit of your character, versus stricter role-playing, where no meta-talk is allowed around the table and every word you utter, your character says.

All of these options are valid, and some of them aren’t even mutually exclusive. If these fly over your head like an ancient red dragon, as a new player, I recommend sitting in a game with as many different GMs as you can. You will soon learn to recognize the differences between their styles and how they use a particular system’s strengths; you’ll be able to have a more informed choice as to which permutation of GM and system is the most fun for you.

Which is what our hobby is all about.

Greg Tito realizes that there are other role-playing systems than the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but he decided confine the discussion for the sake of clarity. Also, D&D rules.


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