I’m not an edition warrior, and edition wars make me sad. I know they’ll always exist, but I hope for a day when they are barely noticeable.
I came to D&D too late for the last edition war. I played a little bit of 3rd Edition in 2002 or thereabouts, but didn’t really get into the game until early 2010 with 4th Edition. Thus, my information about the 3e to 4e edition war has come after the fact, when 4e was already well-established and people had taken sides. I missed the “people forming their opinions” stage of the war and have only personally seen the “cold war” state of things.
It seems to me that there are certainly facets of 4e that people who dislike the game actually dislike. However, a lot of those have become less prominent with the introduction of the Essentials books (for instance the “sameness” of classes and martial classes with daily powers).
It also seems that people who don’t like 4e dislike the way certain things are presented in the books. For instance, they feel that there’s too much emphasis on tactical combat and not enough on flavor, exploration and wonder. A fair criticism, and also something that’s gotten better in later books, but it’s something that’s not an inherent problem with the game itself, just its presentation. A good 4e DM can have plenty of flavor, exploration and wonder in the game.
Thus, I think a lot of people who hate 4e could potentially have a lot of fun playing the game if they wanted to. But they do not want to – strongly.
So why are there such strong negative feelings toward 4e in some quarters, rather than just apathy? If a game doesn’t appeal to me, I generally ignore it. I don’t complain about it.
I think it’s clear that a big source of the vitriol against 4e was the poor public relations (PR) surrounding the launch of the edition. I didn’t see all of the “4e is the new edition” PR when it actually came out in 2008, but I’ve seen bits of it quoted in edition warry forum posts and such.
It was bad. WotC seems to have really alienated a large part of their player base. This isn’t always a bad thing for a company – sometimes you’ll have customers whom you’re not really interested in serving, and it would be better for the company if those customers went away. But I don’t think that’s the case with the customers WotC lost in the 4e transition. I think they screwed up by alienating that many people, and I think they’d agree that they screwed up.
Thus, my plea: Please, WotC, as you move forward with the D&D game in all of its incarnations, whether that’s 5th Edition or something else, please make PR a priority.
Note that I’m taking the term “public relations” at face value here – relations with the public. I don’t mean marketing-speak or alternate reality games or weird PR stunts or anything like that. I mean, think very carefully and put real resources into building and maintaining good relationships with the gaming public as you work on new projects.
To be clear, I think Mike Mearls has done a very good job of this so far. I think the hiring of Monte Cook, clearly a fan of older editions, is probably a step in the right direction (although WotC will need to delicately handle the message here to folks who LIKE 4e; Monte’s columns have the potential to alienate them). But I could see it blowing up, badly.
Stay positive. Don’t bad-mouth other editions of the game or other games (like Pathfinder). Talk about what’s great about your new projects without dwelling too much on the perceived “problems” you’re solving . Think carefully about how your words will be interpreted before you write them or say them in public.
This is not an easy task, of course. One extreme would be to say as little as possible and to make sure that everything you say is carefully vetted. That’s a mistake, too. Openness of communication with the gaming community is a hugely important way of building goodwill. But you have to make sure the people who are doing that communicating have the right attitude.
Be nice. Be welcoming. Develop a thick skin (because haters gotta hate). Acknowledge what’s good about other editions and other games.
Even if you don’t get waves of people migrating to your game, good PR will keep you from seeing waves of people migrating away. And from reading comments online, it sounds to me like a lot of people who don’t currently play 4e are open to the idea of considering WotC D&D in the future, if it’s done well. Bad PR will make sure that those potential customers never give your product a shot. Be positive, open and welcoming.
You can do it. Good luck!