Posted by : David Guyll October 01, 2010

Edited to make it easier to understand who is saying what.

Thom, aka Azzkigar, intended to post this lengthy-yet-courteous message under one of my postings. For some reason he couldn’t, so instead emailed it to me. Now, not wanting to post it myself (which would take awhile and have to be split up), I figured I’d make it its own blog post and address some points in the process (which is what I’d have done, anyway). I omitted the parts where he posted a link of an image of himself (not sure if he wanted that to be public), as well as some youtube videos that point to a D&D cartoon, the GenCon celebrity game session, and the Mearls interview (and original transcript) by The Escapist. The bold text is Thom.
THOM: I love what Wizards has done with D&D Essentials. In my opinion, it is the first step in the right direction that they have made in a long time and (hard as it is for me to believe) this Red Box is the product that ends my self-imposed boycott of WotC merchandise that started in 2008. Most of my complaints about 4th edition were addressed by this product, and looking back, I feel like my critique of your Pathfinder review and 4th edition as a whole may have been just a little bit harsh... but more about that later.
ME: Why do you like Red Box so much? It’s 4th Edition with restrictions to a few classes. Specifically, what was addressed by Essentials.

THOM: Not long ago, a good friend of mine named Larry Elmore was approached by the Wizards design team with an idea. They wanted to recreate the good old D&D of bygone days. They wanted to not only use his artwork, but also gather some of the TSR old guard and find out exactly what made D&D such a hit to begin with and why so many people feel so strongly about it.

ME: See, I never got that from the video. I’m not sure if you were explicitly told this, or you derived it just from watching. From reading OD&D and actually playing Basic and 2nd Edition, I do not believe those D&D versions were good games at all. I had fun playing them in the past, but that was because they were the only games that I had access to. Eventually I was able to play Rifts, Beyond the Supernatural, Palladium Fantasy, Bubblegum Crisis RPG, WEG Star Wars, Shadowrun, and some others that escape me, all of which I had far more fun playing than 2nd Edition. It wasn’t until 3rd Edition that I got back into D&D. Finally, from both personal experience and what I’ve seen on the internet (ads, internet celebrities playing for the first time, or picking it back up again), the game appears to be vastly more popular than it ever was.

Still ME: Now, Essentials plays nothing like older D&D editions with the partial exception of 3rd: skills, feats, class powers, and more clearly differentiate. The only real similarity is that the martial classes seem to make lots of basic melee attacks (the routine attacks of past editions), but those still get modified by at-will powers. So, if Wizards was attempting to recreate the nostalgic feeling of an older edition, then to me they failed. Looking at the classes it tugged at the strings, but playing? Nope. Lot’s of hit points (with no Hit Dice or rolling), defenses, skills with clearly defined functions, point-buy, weapons that don’t obviously overpower each other, and well, everything about the system goes against what you did in the past.
THOM: WotC is not some "evil empire" after all. It's not like they changed things around just so nerds could have something else to rant about on the Internet. You see, for me, and a lot of people D&D isn't just some game. A game to be sure, but one that was played on rainy afternoons with long lost friends, with old memories of first-time adventures and summer vacations. Of course it has changed over the years, and change isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one of the best things about 4th edition was it's attempts at making the game run smoother mechanically, which I even I have to agree it certainly has. The problem that I had with it was that it changed so much all at once. Anyone can sit here and argue the finer points of which edition did what better, but frankly it doesn't really matter. It's just as easy to look back at older editions with rose colored glasses and gloss over huge design flaws. (Why did all druids have to be a human or half-elf, while elves were not allowed in 2nd?)

ME: I've always known that Wizards wasn’t “evil” or going for a “cash grab”. I take issues with your first sentence, as it seems as that the only reason you’ve come to this realization is because they’re doing something you want. I've always pegged them as the sort that are very passionate about games, and are doing what they feel is the best (which is likely what Hasbro wants them to do, seeing as if they make the best possible game they stand to make the greatest profit). I started out with Basic D&D, or whichever one had Zanzer Tem's dungeon in it. I recall races-as-classes (a major pet peeve of mine), and a global level cap of five. Each new edition I got into made clear flaws in the previous edition that I almost always just put up with, outright ignored, or changed in some fashion. Sometimes, I wasn’t even aware of the flaws. Additionally, I've felt that each new edition has made many improvements over the previous one. I’m glad that they took such drastic action with 4th Edition, as to me 3rd Edition was their way of streamlining older editions into something more elegant and logical, but still had numerous problems. With that out of the way, I’m glad the designers sat down and completely overhauled the entire system, saying fuck-all to what was done in the past in favor of what makes the best possible game.

THOM: The point is this; with Old School D&D, AD&D, 2nd Edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder you can look at them all side by side and see an overall design aesthetic that really appealed to gamers. Each time a new edition was released there was always great care taken to build upon the foundations that the last one set down. I remember having difficulty calculating THAC0 the first time I played the game after class in middle school; then when 3rd edition came along with the d20 BAB system I felt that it was a logical step in the right direction. Nothing changed that dramatically, all the good old classes were there and you could still recognize the things that changed (Thief/Rogue, Back stab/Sneak attack, A Rose/Any other name).
ME: Ability scores, racial features, saving throws, skills, attacks, overall class structure (and abilities like spellcasting), feats, and how many spells were all changed to one degree or another between 2nd and 3rd Edition. Fundamentally, the only real consistencies are that various racial features may have survived, albeit with some changes, but in some cases did not (for example, the dwarf’s magical resistance). We haven’t even gotten into changes in experience and leveling (as well as sources of experience points), traps and their function, and the complete overhaul monsters received. Despite all the major changes, I liked 3rd Edition a lot more than all of the older editions. I also liked 2nd Edition far more than OD&D or Basic. See, I would rather a company make huge design leaps if the end result is a more functional, elegant, balanced game. By moving away from what they did in the past, they maintained the style and genre; an action-adventure fantasy role-playing game where characters can rummage through dungeons killing monsters and gathering loot. It’s certainly better than paying for a whole slew of books with minimal changes, which is what Pathfinder did.

THOM: Then, we get to 4th edition and the perceived problem that is really causing all this bad blood between gamers...When someone looks at the 4e Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook for the first time they see a digital drawing of a dragon person next to a woman of indeterminable class looking at something in a cave. When you open the book for the first time, you see crisp white pages, and descriptions of core classes and races that simply did not exist before. When you play the game you use powers and abilities that are structured in a way to be balanced mechanically; but bear little resemblance to real life. Thieves and fighters have abilities that they can only use so many times, everyone one can heal themselves, minions all die with one hit, role playing involves skill challenges ect.
ME: As a nitpick, Wayne Reynolds does all his work via acrylic, though there is absolutely nothing wrong using digital medium (and I find it odd that you point this out). Also, dragonborn were in 3rd Edition before 4th Edition and the woman is obviously a wizard of some sort since A) scantily clad woman with staff and fire in her hands often equals wizards, but B) there is only one class in the book that uses staffs. Every race and class in the book was present in 3rd Edition with the exception of the warlord, though some might have modified origins and/or appearances. All of the abilities that I’ve seen are easily understandable and feasible for their power source; fighters can use their shields to bash monsters in the face, while rogues can easily find chinks in an opponents armor/carapace/whatever to make it easier to hit them.

Also ME: It’s clear that your issues with the use of exploits, minions, and cinematic healing stems from your perception of the mechanics and implementation. For example, martial characters that use daily attacks aren’t actively declaring their intention and acting upon it; the character (not player) doesn’t decide that he’s going to hit a monster “really hard” to deal a lot of extra damage. Rather, he swings his sword, as he often does, and lands a very telling blow. Think of it like granting the character narrative control, kind of like Action Points in Eberron, or somewhat like the Fate system. Frankly, it’s no different than a rogue using defensive roll (3rd Edition rogue special ability). They can only use it once per day, so what’s the explanation there? I’m sure there were other examples, but I don’t want to browse through over 90 books.

THOM: When someone looks at the cover of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, they see a Fighter and Magic-User battling a dragon in a dungeon. When they read through it they see Clerics, Fighters, Wizards, and all your old friends with shiny new variations of old fan favorites printed on faux age-worn parchment paper. When you play the game it's not at all different from the editions before it, where balance takes a backseat so that players can act out the roles of characters from fantasy and myth. Wizards can blow things up instantly only once per day, clerics heal the wounded, everything has hit dice, and players use "simulation skills" to determine whether or not they truly are skilled in non-combat related activities ect.
ME: The 2nd Edition cover had a fighter, or perhaps paladin, riding through a canyon with some other people. The 3rd Edition cover had no image at all. The 4th Edition cover clearly depicts a humanoid, reptilian warrior of some sort, either a fighter or paladin, along with a woman that is clearly a wizard. There are other people behind them. All of the classes you cite are in there as well and are, especially in the case of the fighter and cleric, far more fun and balanced to play than they were before. There are some arguably “classic” omissions, as far as 2nd Edition and perhaps 3rd Edition is concerned, but that’s understandable since each class is much more flexible and has many options to choose from. I would like to point out that in 3rd Edition wizards got many spells per day, but before they only got one. Why did no one have a problem with that? They can also wear armor and cast many spells without any penalty. Otherwise, clerics still fulfill the same function and can fight, while Hit Dice is just another name for level.

ME, Again: Finally, simulation skills is arguably a matter of taste. For all the people that claim never to use them, someone always goes on about how they, “constantly use them, all the time”. I find that suspect. We used Craft to build a raft in one game, but we didn’t need a skill to “allow” us to do so, and it wasn’t any skill that anyone had. I’ve also not seen any adventures that call for them (which makes sense, since you cannot do Profession checks without the specific skill). Otherwise, 4th Edition has other simulation skills to help determine character potential and capability.
THOM: One of the reasons I like Mike Mearls so much is that he's the first to admit that there was a problem. He views the Paizo team as respected game designers and has decided to stop beating the war drum that Wizards started when they yanked the Open Gaming License and pulled Dragon magazine away from Paizo. You see, Larry (who painted the final cover for Dragon magazine btw) and my other TSR friends were very vocal about how "the community" felt about what Wizards had done. It was a tumultuous time, and people's lives were altered because of decisions that were made behind closed doors at Hasbro. Wizards needs to make money as all businesses do, but the reason for all the great change was ultimately decided by a few people, and it's quite clear that those decisions were a mistake.

ME: I’ve read the Mearls interview on the Escapist. The initial review was spotty and easily misinterpreted. There’s a part where the author highlights the statement, “There's nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened two years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled - but what I can do, what's within my power, is that going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you're saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again; to get back to that core of what makesD&DD&D”, when in fact it was prefaced with “If you’re a disgruntled D&D fan…” I didn’t get anything out of the interview that indicated that Mearls thinks so highly of Paizo, or that he is trying to pull the brand back to the way it used it be (30 odd years ago), but perhaps you’re privy to information I’m not. If so, I’d like to see it.

THOM: In your reviews you often use a lot of inflammatory comments such as "grognards" and refer to the Pathfinder team as "money-grubbing." Are you aware that those money-grubbing grognards were in danger of losing their jobs because a corporate suit decided that there was more money to be made if WotC could sell more handbooks? Who cares what Wizards does with their own products? How about the people who had been working on Dragon & Dungeon magazines for years who were suddenly out of a job?
ME: See, this is the funny part. When 4th edition was announced, before the game was even out, people were already decrying is nothing more than a cash grab, that 3rd Edition could have continued on for another 5 or so years, that they were remaking it for kids, etc. Anyone writing for D&D as it was could have easily learned the new rules and continued to write content for the new game. In fact, many authors did (and some new authors cropped up as well). Time moves forward. I’m glad Wizards did that sooner than wait to squeeze every last dime out of 3E with substandard supplements (which many claimed they were doing) before moving on. My statement is because what everyone accused Wizards of doing, Paizo did: they slightly modified the 3rd Edition rules, called it Pathfinder, and claimed that you could use all your old books with it, bince all the races and classes get additional abilities to one degree or another, you cannot without houseruling official D&D options with more abilities of their own (unless you don’t care that wizards get at-wills and more class features and the like).

THOM: Then, Wizards began a systematic smear campaign against anyone who questioned this, defending it by branding anyone who opposed them as trolls. This was largely a straw man argument, as the chief complaint was never that a new edition was coming out, it was that WotC was cutting all support from a beloved system in lieu of one that many felt was a poor substitute. 

ME: Smear campaign? Really? They spent a good while telling people to give it a fair shot before making a single cartoon that, rightfully so in my opinion, poked fun of everyone that was upset before even seeing the game. Having been on the Wizards and Paizo boards a lot during that time, I’m going to step forward to say that many of those people were just trolling, too. They continually labeled (and some still do) those who play 4thEdition as retards, or immature children with ADD, or obsessive WoW players, and so on and so forth. Some were a lot worse than others, sure, but come on; they reviled the game before it was even previewed at D&D XP. The confusing thing is, again, they claimed that Wizards was just trying to make a quick buck, but lauded Paizo for taking 3rd Edition, slightly updating it (but still failing to fix the problems), and reselling them the same game. I’m sorry, but I’d call that hypocrisy.
THOM: They also made a habit of ignoring complaints against the new edition, largely because they really didn't have a choice. 4th Edition was out, and they were going to sink or swim upon it, but the fact is that 4th Edition is not the most popular edition and it never was. Sure, it has a very vehement fan base, "Antioch" can attest to this himself, but the results of the latest ENie Awards should be at least some indication as to how "the community" truly feels about Pathfinder.

ME: I gotta disagree with you here, on all points. They aren’t going to change anything if only a minority is complaining about something, both because it’s bad for business to cater to the smaller crowd, but also because if most people like something about a game, it’s probably more fun anyway. I will point out some major changes, like the tiefling’s infernal wrath and magic missile as some pretty sweeping changes. As for the Ennies, you are assuming that the majority of the market is both online, keeps tabs on this sort of thing, and bothers to vote (which I did not). I myself don’t need the internet to tell me that the game I play is good, and I’m sure that’s true for most players: they will play what they like regardless of what rating their game gets, or who else plays it. I for one do not care for World of WarCraft one bit, but a lot of people play it.

THOM: Walk in to any Barnes & Noble or similar bookseller and check out the role playing section if they have one. I almost guarantee that you'll see an entire section of shelf-to-shelf 4e D&D handbooks sitting on the shelf. There will be a wide selection of them because they aren't moving. Sure, Wizards always makes a profit whenever a new Handbook ships because the players want them, but nobody is buying the core rulebooks any more because anyone who was interested already has one. The sales of the game have stymied at an alarming rate, while Pathfinder goes through multiple printings in order to meet a demand that WotC used to fill with 3rd Edition.
ME: My local Powells and Borders has D&D books, nothing for Pathfinder, and a lot of books by Jim Butcher. I’m not sure how much of either moves, but in my experience you keep the popular stuff in stock. However, this ignores digital front, which many people go to for convenience, whether to avoid rude employees or for the heavily discounted prices. Hell, I often purchase from because they usually get it to me a day or two before the store stocks it, though recently I’ve been going to the local gaming stores because they’re allowed to sell weeks earlier than online stores and book stores, so location and that are other things to take into account.

THOM: Now, WotC takes a long hard look at what it has done in the past and realizes that in attempting to rejuvenate a franchise, it has insulted the very people that keep D&D alive, and they are trying to rectify their mistakes. It seems to me that as this is a blog where 4th edition players are welcome, so as king of the Grognards I encourage you to give D&D Essentials a shot. 4th edition irks me, yes, but the new Red Box is taking that first step towards bridging that gap that turned people like me away from 4th Edition to begin with. This game does not play like an MMO, it's all around fun, and best of all it really does look and feel like Dungeons & Dragons felt when I was a kid.
ME: I take issues with your first sentence, as I’ve been playing D&D virtually from the start and have never felt insulted, nor that they’ve “made mistakes” (by which I assume you mean 4th Edition). I’ve given Essentials a shot, writing 3-4 posts about it. I disagree that it plays differently than 4th Edition, since the only truly appreciable difference is that martial characters have greatly restricted options when it comes to combat actions, though they get stances or tricks, which are reminiscent to warrior stances in World of WarCraft. I am curious as to why you think that D&D plays like a MMO at all, and why you think that Essentials doesn’t; marking is still there and fighters and rogues can still only do specific actions in a restricted timeframe (power strike and backstab). This is something detractors often cite but have as of yet been unable to back up. I disagree that it feels like OD&D, Basic, or even 2nd Edition, as the classes and races are both balanced and there are meaningful choices to be made. You argued about the lack of “simulation skills”, but they are also missing here, as well. In fact, everything about Red Box is the exact same as 4E aside from the lack of at-will attack and daily exploits.

THOM: My first impressions about it were tainted by the bad blood, but after seeing the reactions of real D&D people and the bravery of Mr. Mearls for steering the ship in a different direction, I honestly hope that D&D Essentials sells out quickly and more people experience the game this way. My only gripe is that I feel the adventure is a bit rail-roady... but honestly, it's doing what a Red Box is supposed to do, and it's not a bad adventure. It was also nice to see Larry dust off "Elrod the Red" again. ; )
ME: What do you mean by “real D&D people”? I hope that D&D does not steer solely in that direction. I enjoy Red Box as a way to get people into the game slightly quicker and with less fuss, but the classes feel restrictive compared to others. The new people, having heard what Liz’s rogue and Josh’s seeker can do in my other c ampaign, already want me to scrap the Essentials campaign and run Dark Sun with the “bigger” classes. I think that if Wizards goes solely in the direction of Essentials that the game will be much worse for wear with “samey”, boring classes. I do like the random treasure table and item rarity, but if my only major choice when making a fighter is if I’m using a two-handed sword or two-handed axe?


THOM: The more people who experience the Red Box, the more people will enjoy playing the hobby. There are many artists, writers, and designers who do work for both Paizo and WotC, so what is good for one is likely good for the other. The air between the two companies is one of mutual respect right now, and I feel that it's mutually deserved considering everything they've gone through in the past couple of years.
ME: Why do you believe this to be so? Everyone who I’ve ever gotten into 4th Edition has enjoy it a LOT more than older editions. Why will the artists, writers, etc be better served by a game that is identical to 4th Edition with a few changes to a few classes? Again, from my experience there are many more people enjoying D&D now than there were before.

THOM: I still love the crap out of Pathfinder, The Advanced Player's Handbook is the best RPG supplement to come out in a decade, but I like D&D Essentials too. Whichever side of the fence you're on, enjoy the Red Box and spread the word. If you hated 4th edition, this is Wizards' way of saying they're sorry and they want you to come back. Everyone can play the sorts of games they want to play now.
ME: You might think so, but again: disagree. I like nothing from Pathfinder, period, and like virtually everything that’s come out for 4th Edition (though I don’t use Manual of the Planes or other “planar” books much). If people hate 4E, I'm guessing many will continue to do so judging by the OSR blogs that now claim Wizards is trying to whore out their childhood memories for a shitty substitute Red Box. I think that Essentials is doing about as much bad as good.

{ 7 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Your experience of leaving D&D and being dragged back to it by 3rd edition is the same as mine. I ended up leaving again because it still wasn't good enough, but I certainly wasn't driven away from the hobby by 3rd ed - quite the opposite!

  2. The formatting of this post makes it hard for me to figure out where Thom ends and your responses begin (or which post he is referring to.) Just saying that I really want to read it but am too dumb to take it apart in my head.

  3. This post is really hard to read in my browser. I'm not sure if it's the font you're using, but there isn't enough differentiation between the bold and non-bold text. You might try indenting the quotes or using italics or a different font or something.

    At any rate, I'll throw in my opinion: I like 4e and I like Essentials. I think the essentials line is a great option for people who want to get back some of the old-school feel of AD&D, and I also think it's a nice "lite" option for new gamers and kids. I'm excited that I'll to get to play a knight in an upcoming game. There were some things about some of the 4e powers that never sat well with me. It wasn't just that martial classes had dailies, it was that some of the powers effects really made no sense. My friend's warlord has a power that lets him slide an enemy 5 squares. How does he do that? It's not a push, he can slide him in any direction he wants! The fighter in the same group has a power that lets him pull people towards him from across the map. I'm still not sure how that one works, either. I always picture Scorpion from Mortal Kombat when he uses that power. These are minor issues, but they still bug me when they come up in play. I think essentials will address that.

    There are a handful of balance issues that seem to pop up with Essentials. Notably, the Mage seems to out-Wizard the standard Wizard in pretty much every way. His at-wills are better, his spellbook is better, and his class features are better. Haven't seen a down side yet. Also, Essentials fighters (both the knight and the slayer) are very, very good when paired with Warlords. The knight has a few powers with mark-like effects that don't actually count as marking, which allows another party member to mark the enemy, causing the "double-jeopardy" problem (there are a few non-essentials ways to do this, too.)

    There are still a few guys in my group who aren't into 4e. In most cases, I think they feel burned by having a new edition come out so soon after 3.5, rather than have actual issues with the 4e system. Our resident powergamer hates 4e, which he says prevents him from making a "competitive" character (personally, I see this as a benefit.)

  4. Sorry about that. I cut and pasted it from MS Office. I changed the font and labeled each paragraph in case that font is still craptastic.

    @Paul: I'm guessing the power you are referring to is Come and Get It, which pulls all enemies within 3 squares 2 squares towards you (so long as they can end adjacent to you), and then make an attack.

    Again, I consider this to be narrative control. The power states that "you call your opponents toward you and deliver a blow they will never forget." From that, I derive that he probably shouts something, makes a lot of noise, or something similar to appear much more threatening, perhaps taunting them. Whatever the case, the monster(s) rush him in an effort to take him down. He isn't yanking them over or magically compelling him. The warlord does something similar, challenging a monster or feigning weakness.

    I believe that wizards can take mage powers (and vice versa), and I know that wizards got similar power boots (burning hands deals half damage on a miss, for example). I think that stuff like the pyromancer's "ignore all fire resistance" is a bit much.

  5. The post looks much better now.

    Yeah, I was talking about "Come and Get It" - I have some issues with that power. For instance, if you assume that it's a challenge, as the power describes: "you call your opponents toward you and deliver a blow they will never forget", then does it work on deaf enemies? Or mindless undead? Or animals? Or guys that don't speak your language? Or those that have an alien mindset and don't even understand what a challenge is?

    The power clearly seems to have a magical effect - pulling people over to you, with no attack roll required, I might add. In theory, you could make a case that this would be a good Cha vs. Will attack. But fighters don't do that, because they're not a Charisma class, and they don't have attacks against will. So, he gets to auto-pull guys.

    I would also note that this problem was continued somewhat in the Essentials line. There are a set of Fighter powers based on the Intimidate skill that have similar effects (although none of them are attack powers)

    The Warlord's power is equally silly. I don't have a big problem with martial characters being able to push guys a couple squares. In fact, at the epic levels, I think they should be able to throw people around like comic book heroes, because that's epic. However, when a martial character is sliding an enemy around all over the place, it really makes it hard to see it as anything other than a game maneuver.

    The idea that these powers are narrative control ceded to the player is interesting, and I'll admit that it's a handy explanation, but there's nothing in the books where they explicitly come out and say that. D&D is not a game where narrative control gets handed off. It remains the province of the DM, throughout. So, while your explanations are good ideas, they're house rules. In addition, I've asked players to describe how their characters are pulling these moves off, and they aren't really able to do so. I flat out asked the warlord guy to describe his character's action to me during last Friday's game, because I couldn't think of a way to describe it, and he couldn't either. Maybe I'll try asking the players to do this more in the future.

    Wizards can take mage powers, and they did get a few power boosts, but the mage is still better in nearly every way that counts. they get an expanded spellbook, and some very good school-specific abilities.

  6. Indeed Essentials are still 4th edition, but as Mearls pointed out here and there the presentation is much different

    Red Box: for a real novice is a great way to try out the game and learn it a little bit by a little bit

    Slayer, Knight and Thief: are not very different from other classes, still have a lot of option but they are easier to understand to whom think that magic is magic and "un-magical" character shouldn't have "powers" (the fun thing is that in a way the old Martial-Arts from 1st ed Oriental Adventure had all sort of zany things), anyhow as I was saying it's just simpler to think that since your Knight is in a particular martial "stance" that let him do more damage (or whatever) than to think that he got a power

    the central part of the full Mearls escapist review is were he says that for a newbie player it's easier to play thinking "in character" even for his powers than to have to switch continually from power abstraction to "in character" play

    best wishes, Fabio

  7. Whatever Thom is smoking I don't want any of it.



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