Since its release in 2008, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition has come under a lot of fire from seasoned D&D players who dislike many of the changes the new edition has made to the three-decades-old rules set. Yet others have defended D&D 4e as a necessary re-invention to keep an old game up to pace with current times, and one of the designers has claimed D&D 4e is better for classic gaming than its immediate predecessor, D&D 3.5. The Escapist was excited to sit down with Andy Collins and Liz Schuh from Wizards of the Coast to talk about the real strategy behind Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Andy Collins manages the design and development of 4th edition and was also on the team for 3.5, while Liz Schuh is WoTC’s brand director and oversees all D&D products from novels to games and miniatures.
On The Escapist side of the table is Publisher and old-school D&D aficionado Alexander Macris, along with Games Editor Greg Tito.
Read on for Part One of our two-part exclusive interview and find out why 4th Edition came out when it did, as well as the real reason tieflings are a core race. Part Two can be found here.
Alexander Macris: Why did 4th Edition come out when it did?
Liz Schuh: As you know, there were eight years between 3rd and 4th Edition launches and, you know, the world is speeding up, I think, in every aspect of it, so if anything I think we’re not keeping pace with the speeding up of the world but we just felt that it was time for a new edition, so we went forward.
Andy Collins: Frankly, I think the intervals between editions is more coincidence than anything; it’s not like there’s been one unified body behind the timing of Dungeons and Dragons since 1974. It’s gone through a lot of different hands, a lot of different people managing that, so there seems to be a pattern there, but I think that’s more perception than reality.
And as far as the transition from 3rd to 4th, the thing I like to say is it took the company going out of business for going from 2nd to 3rd, and we weren’t really eager to replicate that business model. So rather than wait until it was too late, we decided to be a little more proactive there.
AM: What is the audience for today’s Dungeons and Dragons, and how is that different from the audience for my Dungeons and Dragons, growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s?
AC: One thing we certainly saw over the course of 2nd edition was the audience did tend to age along with the game. The game was a very playable, a very entertaining system, but it didn’t necessarily speak to the people who were coming up into the optimal RPG age category through new ways. When we were all playing 1st and 2nd Edition, we didn’t cut our teeth on MMOs or console gaming or Facebook or any of those things. At best, maybe we had experience playing Monopoly or games like that, Risk, so that D&D was a totally foreign thing. That’s just not true anymore.
People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics … they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.
And I’m not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that’s a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we’ve been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer.
AM: It seems like a lot of the design decisions in 4th where you moved away from 3rd Edition or Classic seem more similar to World of Warcraft or similar computer games. Was that a very purposeful, strategic choice because of, as you said, people coming in with certain assumptions from entertainment they’ve already consumed?
AC: Some of it was that and some of it was simply a measure of – as professional game designers, we look at all games for lessons. Certainly, the lessons we learn from online games are going to be the most obvious ones because they have a lot of people familiar with the sources, but there’s also lessons about turn management from European board games, interface ideas from card games.
We try to look at all sorts of games for “What can we learn? What makes this game work well? Or not work well? And how could we adapt that, how should we adapt that to the roleplaying game format?”
AM: That’s awesome. Can you give an example of something you learned from, for example, a European board game?
AC: One of the things that I like a lot about Euro board games is their presentation of rules and turn formats. They try to be very upfront about, y’know, “Here are the win conditions for the game. Here is what you do in your turn. Here are some graphics that show how you interact with the game board,” that sort of thing. That’s a little esoteric, I realize. Some of these are a little hard to put in words. They’re the kind of things that you understand it when you see it.
Greg Tito: So, games like Settlers of Catan, where there’s a defined, “Here’s what you can do on your turn,” were inspirations?
AC: Right, understanding how much attention should you be paying to the game when it’s not your turn – that’s a very interesting balance to make. There are some games that are … when it’s not your turn you can get up and walk out of the room and come back in 20 minutes. There are other games where you are all playing a Solitaire game at the same time. Some of the old-style rail games are like that.
Even Dominion, a game that I love a lot, has been called – and rightly so – by a number of people, like four people playing a Solitaire deck-building game simultaneously. And there are places where D&D has been like that. Where when it’s not your turn, as long as the monsters not attacking you, you go play Xbox or what have you. We didn’t want a game that was quite that far in that direction so we really worked to experiment with places where, “OK, you need to be more active, at least more away, when it’s not your turn.”
AM: Is that part of the whole “short attention span of the new gamer” as well?
AC: Y’know, it’s not even just the new gamers. I’ve been playing D&D for, well, let’s say a lot of years, and my attention span isn’t what it used to be either. It’s not about youth, it’s just about the culture we live in and what we’re used to. I can’t imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it. And I’m a pretty smart guy, I do this for a living. But it’s just a different time.
AM: What about from a more aesthetic point of view – a lot of esoteric races now made core to the game. Like the eladrin, their ability to teleport. What was the thinking there? Was that to attempt to introduce the anime feel? Was it catering to this manga taste that has developed? Was it something else, just trying to not be Tolkien?
AC: We wanted the Players Handbook to represent a broad crosssection of races, not only from an in-game cultural standpoint but also from players psychographics. And this is a good lesson you can learn from a lot of online games, MMOs. You don’t want all your races to look the same, you don’t want them to all act the same. You want different kinds of players to be attracted to different kinds of races. So there is a niche out there for the evil-curious, slightly bad-boy type of character.
The tiefling fit that really well for us, better than any of the other races that we felt really comfortable bringing into the core. So we felt like, “This is a race that has a lot of attraction, it’s been around in D&D a really long time, maybe it’s time to give this one a promotion, bring it up to the big leagues, so to speak, so it can play with the elf and the dwarf. And give it a very clear, different choice.” The players say, “Y’know, none of these old races I’ve seen for the past 20 or 30 years kind of fit into the character I want to play.” That’s why you see things like the dragonborn and the tiefling.
The eladrin is more recognition that the elf race historically in D&D has really been two races – it’s been the sort of super-smart, arcane, Elrond style elf, but it’s also been the primal, woodsy, archer-Legolas type elf. We wanted to make that distinction more apparent to the reader. And for eladrin we had a name and a concept for sort of the super-fey sitting out there and we felt that that was a good one to tweak a little bit and turn into a character race.
AM: So what’s your vision for D&D in the new world? And how does the business model change?
LS: You know, I think one of the big things we’ve done to change how D&D operates in this new world is the addition of Dungeons and Dragons Insider. We’ve added digital tools that help both your at-the-table play but also your out-of-game prep. And I think we see more and more that people bring technology to the table. They’ve got either a laptop or a smartphone and they’re integrating technology into their tabletop experience.
AC: Soon they’re all gonna have iPads.
LS: For us, that’s where our game does hit with a lot of these trends that we’re seeing.
AC: Ultimately, the advantage that the tabletop roleplaying game experience continues to have over really any other gaming experience out there, particularly online and computerized, is that social camaraderie. There’s always going to be a place for, “Let’s get a bunch of the guys together and hang out for a few hours.” And people’s lives change, the culture of gathering changes.
We don’t want to ignore the fact that there are other ways for people to get together and game, but fundamentally that getting together around a table is something that you – so far at least – can’t replicate anywhere else. Even when we’ve got holographic avatars sitting around a virtual table, it’s not going to be quite the same as being able to hit the guy across the table with a Cheeto.
GT: You guys mentioned D&D Insider, which I do think offers some really great tools for D&D. Wizards has talked for a long time about creating a virtual tabletop – where are you guys with that?
LS: Well I can tell you that it’s still part of our plans, we haven’t announced anything yet, but we will.
AC: We unfortunately learned the hard way that it is often best to wait until you are really, really ready to announce digital offers, so we’re taking the conservative approach.
LS: But it’s definitely still part of our plan.
That concludes Part One of the interview. Here is Part Two, where we talk about Tomb of Horrors and the return of the D&D Red Box.