January 25, 2011

Letter from a Player

I received an email from one of my players the other day. To set the stage I have known him for about 12 years; since before that time he has been a RPG player. He has been in my 4E game now for about 6 months. He also works as a computer programmer, some of which involves writing web-based applications. Here is the email…

“I believe the D&D book that would be most useful for me to have is the player handbook v4, correct? I went to wizards of the coast's DND site and it’s really hard to find books because they have so many. I tried clicking on "Getting Started" and "DND Basics" both of which are trying to sell me the old keep of the borderlands original box set, which apparently they are bringing back. What book would be most useful for me to have for your game?”

I am running a 4E game and I allow all the character options available to this point. When we started the campaign I presented the players with a list of all the races and classes with a short description of each (complete with role) so they would not have to browse through all the PH1-3 and other setting books trying to come up with a character concept. I did it so they could focus their search. It worked because he chose the Swordmage and proceeded to use the Character Builder to make his character.

He never actually opened a book while creating his character. He never actually read the rules since it was so similar to 3E and the other players (who had each bought and read PH1-3) helped smooth over any questions that came up during play.

What do I take away from all this?

-One is that he was able to create a character and play it without ever cracking open a book. This is good in that the system works well at helping new players pick things up quickly and makes it easy to run a character. This is because the system does so much for you; it gives you specific codified abilities and presents them in an easy to manage methodology (power cards). The Character Builder is probably the single most powerful (and dependence causing) rule system enabler. And therein lies a problem. People may not actually know how to play the game. They rely on the CB and then rely on the GM on how to play. The Character Builder is the crack of RPGs; you try just a little of it and are then hooked to the point of being unable to do anything without it.

-After character generation and understanding the powers system, 4E is remarkably the same as 3E. Pundits focus on the differences while ignoring how much the two editions have in common. His (and the other players I have had doing much the same thing) ability to play without breaking stride is telling.

-WotC needs to get a better website. Actually, they just need to find better ways to communicate. Take a look at their base website (http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Default.aspx). Look at it like a person that has not played D&D for the last 30 years. Look at it like a 12 year old whose first exposure to the game was the gift he got for Xmas. Look at it like a mother who is thinking about buying D&D for her child.

The website suffers from what I call Intimate Knowledge. The people setting up the website know D&D. They design the website forgetting there are other people out there who do not have all the intimate, “basic” knowledge they do. While I want a website that can be of use to an old gamer like me, I think that at least the first page of the site should make it easy for a brand new player to find the basic information needed to get into the system.

Part of the problem here is a divergence of rule sets within the same system. We’ve all heard people complaining about what the starting point for 4E is. Yes, there are multiple entry points into 4E. Yes, there are some poorly named books that can confuse the uninitiated; the Player Handbook (PH) is a starting point, but the PH2 and PH3 are not required to play so why the misleading book names? Personally, I do not have a problem with determining where the entry point is (as far as product is concerned).

The real issue is WotC’s problem with communicating this information to the masses (both gamers and non-gamers). A simple “Looking to start playing Dungeons and Dragons? This product is the place to start! ” bold and clear on the front page would go a long way toward helping a new player. If an old time gamer, who has actually played the game, can get lost and not be able to find the most basic of information, how much worse can it be for the new player?

-The final thing I bring from all this is that he is enjoying the game; he is having fun. He likes it enough to want to go out and buy the rule set. He could have continued to sit back and take a look at the rulebooks everyone else brings to game night. Instead he is willing to plunk down his own cash for his own set of the game rules. He likes 4E.

What was my reply to him?

“You want the D&D Essentials Rules Compendium. It is a softcover book. http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndacc/247530000. As for your class you would want the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide. However, since I already have it and it is seldom used by me (I only got it for the player class and races) you should be able to use it whenever you want.”
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