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Saturday, February 12, 2011

4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons vs. Pathfinder and why history is repeating itself

Taking a break from Warhammer for the moment I thought I'd delve into the schism that is now brewing in new school D&D, but from an outsiders perspective. You see I say outsider, because I'm not on either "side", mainly because in this fight no one is on "mine", nor do I have much vested interest in who wins.

Damn Cool cover if you ask me!
The reason why I don't really care who "wins" is that the impact of either game means relatively nothing to me as I don't play either game. Pathfinder is the logical extension of D&D 3.0/3.5 once Wizards of the Coast went in a alternative direction with 4th Dungeons & Dragons. Pathfinder took the cast offs who weren't going to 4th edition and provided them extended 3.0/3.5 (more or less, debating it is largely semantics). The fact that Paizo Publishing could do so via the OGL is nothing if not ironic. By all accounts Pathfinder is doing well and taking it to Wizards of the Coast in terms of sales. For many of us long time gamers, Dungeons & Dragons ceased being relevant to us with the release of 3rd edition, for some older folks it was 2nd edition. In my case I bought the Core Books for 3rd edition, played a bit and found it "meh". Then 3.5 got released right after that.  It felt like a video game on paper as time goes by it became like World of Warcraft more and more.

The other part that seals it for me is the very idea of "character build" with the word "optimal" often in there. Sorry, but any pen and paper game that uses those phrases is either going to attract MMORPG / WoW players or its going to emulate that paradigm, whether by design or accident. Its too difficult and near impossible these days to untangle the concepts of a video game and the pen and paper games of today. 3.0/3.5 started it, and 4.0 finished it off. Those that dismiss it out of hand are a tad hyper defensive about it. Now this is not to say that you couldn't do this in older editions of the game, but that wasn't the focus. All too often characters are planned out with an eye to you guessed it: a specific build. When you take a step back from it and look at it, if 3.0-4.0 D&D didn't set out to emulate computer RPGs and MMORPGs it did anyways. I don't think that's an accident either. I've yet to see a compelling argument that 4th edition isn't World of Warcraft. And oh yeah your characters end up looking something like this:
I think he/she needs a few more pieces of equipment there...
In short later editions are about the "build", and the predetermined structure he will follow to achieve that path.  In todays role-playing it has become about what you can "build" rather then what you play or act out. Sure there are some that will also role-play but it seems that takes a back seat. To me that's a shame.

Now, lest anyone think I'm a stubborn "old school gamer", hardly. I've played up to 3.0 and 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons and quite like d20 Star Wars, much more so then the old d6 version of the game from West End Games. I have no axe to grind against WoW or anything like it, Hell if I had more time in my life I'd probably be playing a ton of it. I don't hang out at the Knights and Knaves Alehouse and disagree with many on Dragonsfoot. I'm also of the mind set that if you want to play an edition of the game then do so, play what system you want. I truly believe that, unfortunately not everyone else does. And with that said its important to note that history is repeating itself with the Dungeons & Dragons vs. Pathfinder split: its basically the rift from 1st edition to 2nd edition AD&D of the late 80's early 90s magnified. For those not in the know Gary Gygax left TSR in 1985 after Lorraine Williams assumed control and wrested the company from Gary. Now there is no 2nd edition player that I know of that would take her over Gary (I wont go into details on her here,  but Gary's account can be found all over the web). The problem for us 2nd Edition players is the fact that she was in control of Dungeons & Dragons when 2nd Edition got released. Sort of being judged by the company you keep rather then your own merits. Again I would have preferred Gary's 2nd edition game as was alluded to in Dragon Magazine before his ouster, but alas that was not to be; not that I dislike what we got instead from Zeb Cook. To cut a long story short as it been hashed out and beaten to death many times: the fan base fractured and split setting the stage for edition adherents much akin to religion. Some could argue that this happened even before this, that's not the point. The rift was the biggest that the game had seen thus far and there it was. Basically what happened was over politics rather then differences in the editions; because when you look at it there is not much difference between 1st and 2nd Edition D&D.

The point of all of this is that the Dungeons & Dragons vs. Pathfinder split is basically the same story as it was in 1989: "same circus, different clowns" as I like to say. I wonder that if as a line of pen and paper games Dungeons & Dragons is reaching its end of its rope. Certainly its past its apex. Now the Old School Renaissance would have you believe that the older games and their retro clones are gaining momentum, in a small sense: maybe. By "small" I mean that its never going to be mass market again, the older systems that is, nor the retro clones. And add to that the overall market has been shrinking since it's heyday in the 80's. That's not expanding that's just diving up into ever smaller less in common sects if you will. Instead  of unity it's an ever fracturing base that gets smaller and smaller as each edition goes by, especially as advances in computer/console games continue to apply further outside pressure. 4th edition shares a lot from 2nd in the sense that its shaping up to be another demarcation line in the sand.

I'm also tempted to say that Pathfinder is going to win this. I think when you look at it, really look at it without bias it's apparent that Piazo has the momentum. Wizards has the "name" of D&D but no momentum. As more time goes by Pathfinder is gathering more steam, more momentum. The investment path of Pathfinder is such that people can use a lot of the existing material from 3.0 onwards. When Wizards releases 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons I have a sneaking suspicion that its going to be nothing like 4th creating further problems for their dwindling fan base. Because the fans are going to be repurchasing their books. Makes the "repurchasing" books from 1st looks like small potatoes in comparison.

Its interesting to not that the very concept of "Edition Wars"is largely a Dungeons and Dragons thing. Take Warhammer for instance, sure there are people that aren't happy with 8th edition Warhammer by by and large the community moves to new editions. Dungeons and Dragon? Not so much.

Bait and Switch for old schoolers????
In closing the game used to be about what TSR/Wizards/Hasbro did, they were the "800 lb gorilla" in the room, now they seem to be screwing up like QuarkXPress in the early 00's. Question is will Pathfinder take its place like InDesign did to Quark? Tnen you add the mess that is essentials? How is this thing making things easier? That's right it isn't.

So once again its "1989, my thoughts were short my hair was long..." oh wait this isn't a Kid Rock song. Rather we appear to be at a once every 20-year event in the industry where the D&D market fragments. And unlike 20 years ago the rift is going to be, far, far bigger. Last time it was about Gary getting ousted, this time its going to be (already is) about two companies going at it and its fans seem to be drawing sides. At least 20 years ago the two editions were still close enough that they required only minimal rework. I've often maintained that 2nd Edition AD&D was really 1.5 in the sense that it just cleaned up 1st; nothing too radical was released, that wasn't until 3rd that the game really changed.

As a (somewhat) interested observer I'll be watching to see how it unfolds. I say somewhat because neither makes a product I'm looking to buy. I'm not alone either and it will be interesting to see what Wizards does, because I have a feeling they are going start having less and less customers, this year might be the tipping point. And if they have a 5th edition that diverges even further from the 3.5 break point its going to get ugly for wizards.



  1. While I'm almost two years late to the party (I found this blog entry while researching Pathfinder and D&D), I find your entry on this subject very well thought out. What you say makes a lot of sense, and even though I was not around during the first to second edition schism of D&D, your explanation and comparison to what is happening today proves true, and seems that your predictions and insights from two years ago are correct! Kudos to you.

    1. No worries, I appreciate the heads up even a while later. Glad to have also been a destination for your searches on the matter.