The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

The Secret of Successful Games

A very successful game.

A recent post by Sarah Darkmagic has me thinking of a somewhat older post by Sean Malstrom. Darkmagic says that 4E fails because it splits the game from the world; Malstrom says “Content is the WHY people play games. Gameplay is the HOW people play games.” Of course, Malstrom is talking about video games. But are they really that different?

Take Malstrom’s example of Alpha Centauri:

Compare the two games of Civilization 2 and Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri, no doubt, had superior gameplay and far better ‘flow’. But Civilization 2 was just more fun (Alpha Centauri never became remotely near as popular as Civilization did). Why? It is because of the content. Civilization was about history, about elements that people found recognizable and familiar such as gunpowder or chariots. Alpha Centauri was more about elements people did not find recognizable or familiar.

As a hardcore Civilization player this example really resonates with me. But more to the point, could you not just change the names and have a perfect explanation of the struggles 4E has faced? Even many of its detractors will admit that the rules are very elegant, but that admission is not accompanied by any love.

The rules rock, but what else can you do for me?

What’s Not in the 4th Edition PHB

One thing in the 4E Players Handbook that has always struck me is the shortness of its weapons list. On the one hand the weapons they decided to include probably represented greater than 99% of all PHB weapon purchases made by 3.x players. But on the other hand, having an extensive weapons list gives the world a feeling of depth; that there is more to the world than just what the players are doing. (the same could be said of the skills list, equipment list, ritual list and monster manual)

And I suspect part of the reason that so many people feel that 4E rules are meant to be played as is (unlike previous versions, where it was well understood that tinkering is the norm) is the lack of fluff. The 4E rulebooks read like technical manuals, and so people interpret them that way.

I have yet to look at any of the new products that Wizards has been bringing out in an attempt to bring estranged players back into the fold, but I feel safe in saying that if they are trying to fix the rule set, they are attacking this problem the wrong way. The rulebooks need to be rewritten, but not because of the rules – the secret of successful games, video and pencil-and-paper, is that they have rich worlds.


October 13, 2010 - Posted by | 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , ,


  1. So, I really don’t think 4E failed except in that people often don’t understand that there are two layers at work. It’s true, to allow as many variations in game play as possible the core of the game books lacked a lot of fluff. This gives the DM and players more control to create their own world and stories and makes it easier to provide setting books that customize the world to different tastes.

    Comment by Sarah Darkmagic | October 17, 2010 | Reply

  2. My apologies for misrepresenting your view; I had reread the articles I linked to in the order they appeared, meaning I read the Malstrom article just before setting about writing. Malstrom uses the word “failed” for products in ways that most other people would not, and I think if he were a D&D player he would call 4E a failure.

    I really should have clarified what was meant by that term (and by “success” as well), both so as to not misrepresent your position, and also to avoid any confusion about mine. (I don’t think 4E failed in any normal sense of the word, only in the Malstromian one)

    Comment by The Red DM | October 17, 2010 | Reply

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