The Seven-Sided Die

The D&D 4e rust monster is a bag of stupid

Posted Thursday June 04, 2009 at 07:16 PM

People have said that 4e is no different than previous editions in preserving verisimilitude. I beg to differ.

Edit to add: The comments there are a microcosm of the edition wars. What I don't get is the people who say, "If you don't like 4e, don't write about it!" Has criticism suddenly become the sole province of the loyal fans? That doesn't make any sense at all. Should Roger Ebert only review movies that he likes?

Comments (19)


Thursday June 04, 2009 at 10:18 PM

I had high hopes for 4E, and still find the theoretical side of it -- the character building -- very intriguing, but I've since faced the fact that it's not a roleplaying game with elements of a tactical board game, but a tactical board game with elements of a roleplaying game.

But, on the other hand, no edition of DND ever managed to persuade me that it had a particularly high degree of "fantastic realism" (I prefer that term to verisimilitude) to begin with. Which is why Planescape is still the best way to play DND, as it lampshades a lot of the bizarre stuff. (I mean... alignments? Seriously? Faugh.)


Friday June 05, 2009 at 02:12 AM

I did figure out what alignments originally meant at one point. They were inspired by, among other things, the Elric of Melniboné stuff written by Michael Moorcock, where the powers of Chaos and Law were in celestial war and champions were literally aligned with one side or the other. That's why OD&D had only Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic as alignment options.

Which is to say that some of the things that seem odd won't undermine verisimilitude if you're working with the same (but unstated) assumptions as Gygax and Arneson were. What I find really makes the difference for verisimilitude is whether the players and GM can reason about the fictional meaning and consequences of any rule or ruling. TSR-era (A)D&D was (mostly) designed with that as a basic assumption, while WotC D&D has generally not been, especially 4e.

That's not to say that 2e and earlier were a paradise of verisimilitude. High hit points + falling off a cliff was always stupid, among other things. 4e isn't even trying anymore though, since it's simulating dramatic action-adventure movies rather than a fantastical but naturalistic world.


Saturday June 06, 2009 at 07:35 AM


So your blog post is basically a redirect to week old post on another blog? Doesn't even point to a comment you made.



Saturday June 06, 2009 at 02:35 PM

"Should Roger Ebert only review movies that he likes?"

No. But he should not review movies of a genre he doesn't like. Roger Ebert does not like vampire movies. He should not bother going to see one for the purpose of reviewing it. I can't place any value in his review because anything he might have to say about the detail is already clouded by his view of the foundation.

Similarly, if someone does not like 4e to begin with, why should anyone give a wererat's derriere what they might have to say about the 4e rust monster? Their view of the system already clouds how they approach any detail or element within that system.


Saturday June 06, 2009 at 05:30 PM

Well, this certainly isn't surprising!

As a general rebuttal to the complaints, current and future, from 4e fans:

"If you don't like my post, why are you commenting on it?"

Doesn't make much sense, does it? You're commenting because you disagree and have something to say. Ditto for me writing about 4e.

@Tom: My point is that I endorse the linked-to post, and I don't think its incredible age of one week is terribly relevant to that. You see, "hyperlinks" (as the hip kids call them) are a uniquely-suitable method of disseminating information, endorsing other World Wide Web pages, and creating a "hyperlinked network" of these "web" pages. Kind of like a spider's web, even!

Welcome to the bloggertubes, Tom. Your newbie information packet is in the lobby on your way out.

@Glenn: Are you starting with the assumption that I don't like the genre of high fantasy? (If so, you're not a regular reader.) The only other way your rejoinder could make sense is if you're claiming that D&D 4e is a genre unto itself, which is a stretch. (If you are claiming that 4e is its own genre and have a solid case to support that, you might have a point.)

Assuming the first, I write about 4e because I like D&D. I see problems in the basic assumptions in WotC's designs of what a roleplaying game is about and for. The rust monster is a good example that demonstrates the principles underlying all of 4th edition.

I was also ridiculously excited about 4e when I got it, but I became disappointed with how it played after using it for a couple of months. That's the other reasons I'm "allowed" to write about 4e: I have this thing I own on the shelf that I'm unhappy about, and generally people talk about those sorts of things.


Sunday June 07, 2009 at 09:14 AM

There is a compelling argument for 4e to be a genre in and of itself.

Consider it a genre of rpg design. The exception-based design is something fairly rare in rpg design, at least when combined with almost formal combat system and rules that mainly preserve balance and player-fiated character concepts.

Tommi’s last blog post: Edition and playstyle wars

MJ Harnish

Friday June 12, 2009 at 08:51 PM

What Tommi said.

I hear you about being disappointed with 4E though - I bought into it too but got bored pretty quickly with the playstyle and "balance."

MJ Harnish’s last blog post: An excellent blog article on scripting in Burning Wheel


Monday June 29, 2009 at 07:06 PM

@Tommi: You have a point there. Even given that, though, my love of the D&D genre assumes that "D&D genre" refers to the style of the settings it produces rather than the rules themselves.

If 4e is to be considered a genre of design unto itself, I don't think that exempts it from criticism and commentary. How D&D is designed has been the subject of debate and criticism from the very first pamphlets, and the game and the hobby have been the better for it.

@MJ: I just found that the rules and the fiction were often at cross-purposes, so much so that I couldn't rely on them to sync up without a lot of extra work. I see that being a direct consequence of WotC's current design philosophy, so 4e is riddled with problems for how I would use it.

That close cooperation and consistency between rules and fiction that I want is what led me to start an 1st edition AD&D campaign and then to follow it with Burning Wheel games.


Tuesday June 30, 2009 at 03:52 AM

I don't like the Jurassic park movie because it has fairly shallow characters, not nearly enough philosophy or chaos theory, and it skips many scenes hence making some of the ones in the movie irrelevant.

Or I could just say that I generally prefer books to movies, and here's a bunch of symptons that occur in this particular conversion.

If I judge a movie by the same standards as a book, it will almost always fall short. Further, saying that this movie is not a book is not a valid way of saying that this movie sucks. It is not really useful criticism.

4e is a new game. Treat it as such. It can be criticised for what it is, in addition to criticising it for what one wanted it to be, which is not very edifying.

Tommi’s last blog post: Pathfinder society: Testing the waters


Tuesday June 30, 2009 at 07:06 PM

I gather your point, but I'm not sure if I yet agree. There's the other consideration, which is the role that 4e plays in the industry and in the games ecosystem. I think its relevance for that is somewhat muted for you because you have a very strong tradition of homebrewed systems, personally and where you are.

Here in North America the games and groups that deviate from the gaming "mainstream" that D&D represents are few and far between. 4e is a very different beast than earlier editions and most other roleplaying games. Since it has the lion's share of players, though, those groups and their 4e-influence playstyles will, and already are, redefining what "roleplaying" means to match this beast that is unlike any other roleplaying game.

I can keep on keeping on, with my preferred games and with like-minded people, but I do have to object to the design of 4e, the philosophy behind the design, and the play style that it heavily encourages. I don't think it furthers roleplaying as a hobby that teaches skills and creativity. I'm concerned that the definition of roleplaying as "play my guy, extract maximal mechanical benefit from the system, and go home and don't think about it" will become widespread and drown out the meanings that make it a worthwhile hobby.

I do think that growing the hobby is a good thing, but I don't think it's worth changing the hobby fundamentally to do so. It's the easy way, which is why WotC is doing it, but it's also the short-sighted and self-defeating way.

Thursday July 02, 2009 at 05:25 PM

You've got a new angle there (as far as I am concerned, at least).

I'll try to summarise what you are saying; correct if I get it wrong.

4e creates play you don't enjoy. Particularly, it creates play that you think teaches less useful skills and creativity than other play. You consider this to be bad for the hobby.

That done, and assuming no major mistakes on my part, a few questions and points.

I think the major feature that distinguishes roleplaying from (most) other hobbies is that it requires active participation and creation of one'e own entertainment, as opposed to merely consuming what someone else has provided. I'm not seeing 4e being more harmful in this way than, say, 3rd edition or plenty of other exhaustively "supported" and detailed games. You evidently see the key point as something else or disagree with what I am saying here. Do you want to clarify?

Then there is seeing the hobby as an entity in and of itself. People will continue roleplaying, but the scene as it is today might very well dissolve in future. I don't think the scene itself is worth fighting for. It is nice, I guess, and I am part of it, but my blog would not disappear without the scene and my gaming would not radically change. Maybe the situation is different elsewhere. Oh, yeah; people will continue roleplaying. The old school folk and the post-Forge community, for example, will go on even if something radical happens. They might even get more room to grow for all I know.

Finally there is the thorny question of what authority you or I have of judging the entertainment of others. I hold books in much greater value than movies (thus far I've seen one movie such that it would not have worked well as a book and it was worth paying for). Still, I don't have a crusade against people who are great film connoisseurs. I've got one as a friend, even. So. 4e is not identical to what has been before(, though neither do I see it as wildly divergent). Are you qualified to judge it? Note that if you judge it as inferior, you are also judging those who enjoy it more than what was before as in the same way inferior.

All that said, I'm not sure I disagree with you, either. I'm mostly trying to figure out where you are coming from.


Monday July 06, 2009 at 06:30 PM

You've summarised me accurately, I think.

You're right that, in terms of creativity and participation, 4e isn't any different from 3e or other heavily supported games. The key difference that I'm looking at here is in the risk/reward equation. Before, (A)D&D was a game with high risk and high rewards. The question that play answered was whether you succeeded as well as how. 4e eliminates most of the risk and guarantees the rewards, making the question only how one succeeds. Some of that began with the styles of adventures written for 3e, but it's baked right into the system in 4e. The Rust Monster expresses the underlying design philosophy of 4e, part of which is that players should not face risk.

I think I'm qualified to judge 4e and its effects inasmuch as anyone is allowed and qualified to evaluate and comment on a game system. I'm almost required to by certain perspectives, since I'm a long-time D&D player and someone who makes a hobby of publishing my opinions in a blog.

As controversial as it might be, I'm OK with calling 4e and the play it engenders inferior, but only on a scale that might not be relevant to others. For instance, that it's inferior for simulationist play is, I think, an entirely uncontroversial statement. Turned the other way around, 4e is superior (on one scale) to the things I play because 4e players are getting far more play for less work than I am. It's a better game for lightweight gaming entertainment than what I like to play.

Which actually reminds me of a separate "key" problem I have with 4e, which is that it's much less adaptable than previous versions for a variety of play styles. The default play style that 4e engenders is not only one I dislike, but it's also deeply encoded into the system. Yes, it's a tighter, better integrated system, but looser systems (like 2e and prior, and 3e in some ways) are much easier to play in a variety of ways without undertaking major rewrites of the system. My objections to the default play style of 4e wouldn't be nearly as great if it was as flexible as its ancestors. That hard-coded play style means that the system makes people's games more uniform in play style, which is a major change from the past 30 years of gaming.

But you make a interesting point that takes some of the passion out of my (as you name it) crusade against 4e and its effects on the scene/industry. Yes, the current scene will pass at some point, regardless of what I wish, whether I keep playing and blogging, or even what WotC does to with the D&D brand. Thanks for that; the long view is always helpful for restoring perspective and cooling passions.


Monday November 30, 2009 at 07:07 AM

My players would learn of the full value residuum, capture a rust monster, then feed it items they didn't want specifically to sell the high market value dust groan.


Sunday January 31, 2010 at 02:04 PM

People who argue off the bat that criticism should not be engaged in are nuts. In addition, it's just not a very interesting topic. I don't care if your considered opinion about 4e is that some blogger should shut up! Gimme some food for thought I can use in my game whether I agree with you or not, whether or not you frame it sensitively, like the "bag of stupid" guy who hates how the rust monster turned out. And while the ensuing debate about whether 4e is a genre unto itself or whatever is certainly a valid and interesting one in some context or other, in the context of this thread I'd be more interested in hearing why these people think the 4e rust monster isn't stupid, especially if they play(ed) previous editions of the game. Nice post.


Sunday January 31, 2010 at 05:56 PM

Thank you for this comment. That's a perspective that is so rarely expressed that it took me completely by surprise. I've been grinning since the comment showed up in the moderation queue despite it disagreeing with my take on 4e so strongly, which is a trick!

That's a point I'll keep in mind when disagreements get heated: the RPG blogger community would be really boring (and pointless) if we all agreed.


Tuesday February 02, 2010 at 05:41 PM

Oh good! After I hit send I was a little worried I was too brutal and snarky after things had already been smoothed over. Maybe you're right about it being a trick in more ways than one. I actually agree with the content of your Rust Monster critique, as much as I think it'd royally stink to have my magic bastard sword eaten. I just didn't want to completely neglect to give at least a nod to the "if you judge it as inferior, you are also judging those who enjoy it... inferior" guy. I don't agree with that statement (about what you're saying), but it's definitely cool of him to care about ruffled feathers. I've got several major problems with 4e, starting with Dragonborn (Boom!), and have modified some of the aesthetics of 4e heavily - as I'm sure WotC expects DMs and players to do. These modifications are simply what my players know to expect when they play in my campaign. It works out fine because mine isn't the only campaign our group is playing - so if anyone wants to play a standard 4e Dragonborn, they still can. NOT THAT ANY OF THEM WANT TO!! Oooh! Pwned!

Corner of your mind

Wednesday March 17, 2010 at 01:03 PM

4E is a self-referencing trainwreck of a game, driven by marketing and "branding" compromises, half-baked wrongheaded design philosophy and myopic understanding of what makes D&D worth playing in the first place. The designers are incompetent and tasteless, yet have the nerve to put the D&D name on the cover of their fantasy heartbreaker and pretend that it's a legitimate successor to the D&D legacy.

Shame WOTC, shame.


Wednesday March 17, 2010 at 10:33 PM

I wouldn't go that far. Obviously a lot of people enjoy playing it, which means it has a (large) niche to legitimately fill. Most of that play doesn't look like the same hobby I'm in, but some of it is still definitely roleplaying as I understand it.

I do agree with you that 4e is relentlessly self-referential. 2e and earlier were definitely well-rooted in fantasy literature that established the genre of D&D, while 4e (and 3e to a certain degree) seem to take their genre foundations from only D&D itself. I don't think that the designers are incompetent, just that they didn't really understand (or care to understand) the foundation that they were building on.

Sometimes it seems like 4e was less of a game design project in its own right and more of a knee-jerk reaction to the (perceived) flaws in 3e.


Thursday March 18, 2010 at 04:02 AM

"Self-referencing" is a pretty good call. I created a Google doc called "4e Looks Stupid Because It's For Kids" for my players that explains why I change race aesthetics in my campaign (I'll share if there's interest: it's mostly a better Dragonborn design, some Warforged fluff & style options and the beginnings of an attempt to make the Devas into something one can grasp and care about - doesn't quite get there on that 3rd count, but I try). It's titled the way it is because I think it's the naked truth about the game to a large extent - an overhaul meant to bring in the kids (who are really into X-Men, gaahhh!!) and ensure a future for the game. Probably the biggest reason I play 4e is because I only have so much time and I feel I need the support of the character builder. Anyway, this goofy self-referencing where-on-earth-are-they-getting-some-of-this-stuff, uh, stuff does put me off a bit. Something I'm doing to counteract that to some degree (besides my own heavy modifications and picking and choosing) is running my game in Eberron. I'm sure some will disagree, but for me, Eberron has enough pulp/horror/sci-fi influence to help give it a bit of a backbone, which brings back some I-give-a-damn during play. But then I am a Lovecraft whore.