One of the more startling changes that came with 4th edition was the game’s look. Perceptive fans might have anticipated some of the changes (stat-blocks for example), but powers with their multicolored striped took many by surprise, myself included. Outside of art and map orders, I have no say about how a product looks. I wonder, though, if 4e had looked more like 3rd edition would folks had an easier time embracing the game?
I do have some experience with formatting matters. Near the end of my time as WFRP line developer for Green Ronin Publishing & Black Industries, I was looking ahead to the 3rd edition of the game. One area I thought needed improvement was the statistics block. Stat-blocks in that game looked simple enough, yet they posed several challenges too. The big one for me was that you couldn’t just run with the stat-block as written. You had to refer to another source to get definitions for the embedded mechanics. For example, an enemy with the Strike to Stun talent would just have that. If the GM wanted to use the talent and didn’t have it memorized, s/he’d have to reference the core rulebook every time. While some mechanical elements were fixed (+10 Strength for example), spells, skills, traits, and talents often concealed exceptions that required reference during game play at least until the player/GM nailed down the exact effect. Not a big deal given the game’s general simple tech, but it was something I had wanted to address.
My first step was to change the stat-block’s structure and holy crap did I get push-back from the fans. They widely hated it and clamored for a return to the old one. I learned inertia was more powerful than I and the invested fans were just not going to embrace even a format change without me or someone else shepherding them forward with assurances and explanations.
Fourth edition’s presentation abandoned nearly everything familiar about the game’s look. Eight years of 3rd edition, I think, created strong expectations about how the game should read and since the game didn’t match the visual expectations, it certainly must not match the play experience. Yes, there are considerable mechanical changes that alter the play experience somewhat, but compare how the game plays now to how the game played in the twilight of 3rd edition. Just look at Tome of Battle, Complete Arcane, and many of the variant rules presented in Unearthed Arcana (complex skill checks, healing surges, and so on). In them you can find the proto-rules that would eventually evolve into the mechanical underpinnings of 4e. They are different, but not as different as I imagine some folks believe. I wonder if those changes might have been more palpable had we shifted back toward the old presentation, even if doing so meant that the game would be harder to learn.
In the attached file, I’m fooling around to see what 4e might look like run through the 3rd edition wayback machine. You can grab it here: Format.
Having looked at the file, what do you think? Does format matter to you?