Wednesday, October 27, 2010

4e and AD&D - The Best Comparison

I was browsing through RPG Blogs today, and I came across this little gem.

The best part of this article is a single line: It’s like modern (i.e. 4th edition)  D&D is software, while the first edition of AD&D was tax code, becoming more byzantine the longer it existed.

So that makes Basic D&D what, programming instructions for a VCR, translated poorly from Japanese?

I jest, but only a little.  4e really is software, though.  As a software tester/seller, I can tell you that for certain.  And many of the issues that people have with it are issues that apply to complex software, as well.  The biggest being "The Errata Issue".

Because of DDI and digital distribution, WotC has the technological capability to quickly and comprehensively update their "software" in a way that has never, ever been possible for an RPG publisher.  Indeed, in my old online 4e campaign, there were no paper character sheets.  In fact, no paper was used in the making of the entire game, except a few pages from my notebook when doing adventure planning.

I was aware of the fact that errata was coming out, but it rarely had any kind of impact on me.  As a DM, I rely on my players to inform me of the capabilities of their characters. I do random "drug testing" just to make sure that things aren't being abused or misunderstood, but really, why bother to learn everything about every class?  I didn't do it when I DM'ed 2e, or Vampire, or Warhammer.  So the inclusion of the errata doesn't really make a difference to me, one way or the other.

But many people don't use the DDi tools, and don't do the digital thang.  So we also have all these paper copies of the "software" floating around.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that the analogy is slightly off.  4e is like software + manual.  AD&D is straight manual.

Before I continue, let me tell you a bit about the company I work for.  We make specialized database/management software for Fire Departments.  We update our software frequently (once a week or so) and our software manual is about 5,000 pages long.  I shit you not - it's 2 massive 3-ring binders, completely stuffed full.  It's modular software, so nobody uses everything, but somebody uses every part of it.

In terms of market share, we are probably Palladium - kinda niche market, but popular enough.  But we have a system set up that is almost EXACTLY like what WotC has going with 4e.  Many people use the program, some keep it updated, some do not.  Some use the hard-copy manual, some do not, and rely on the digital manual.  So I have much experience regarding the issue of Errata.  

Therefore, complainers about errata, listen closely and learn exactly why WotC releases so much errata:

1) It costs them very little to do so.  With digital distribution, once you have the infrastructure, the cost of updating is negligible.  A little writer/programmer time, and you're done.

2) Some people want bugs fixed.  This should be obvious, but somehow, on the issue of errata, it isn't.  Just because you don't use the "Jaws of the Wolf" power or whatever, doesn't mean that somebody doesn't want it fixed up.  And lets be clear - if something is broken and isn't fixed, it can be a real problem to the people that use it.

3) Users are not required to install all updates.  If you are happy with how the system is running, you don't have to install the updates.  Sure, you might get some new little features with them, but it's not necessary.

4) You can also keep the printed manual up-to-date, if you want to spend the time.  Personally, I think it's a waste of time/money when you can refer to the digital document, but that's just me - you can if you want to, but it's in no way a requirement.

5) It's dirt cheap for users to get the updates.  Hell, I tend to subscribe to DDi for 1 month every year or so.  I update Character Builder (and I can update it 6 times - so my group updates their character builders), I update the monster builder, I dump Compendium into Masterplan.  I just got 1 year of content for what, $12?

So, if you don't like the errata, or all the changes that WotC make to 4e, give your head a shake and think the following:

I don't have get the update if I don't feel I need it.

If I do feel I need it, it's cheap and easy to get.

If I must have the hard-copy update, it's a bit of a pain, but doable.  It wasn't really even an option in earlier versions.

None of this stuff was ever an option before - the fact that it is now is of great benefit to users.  It's a living, active, supported piece of gaming software.  If it's not your cup of tea, fine - but don't bitch about it being a cash-grab - the 3e model was much, much worse - just print more books - all hard-copy manual, all the time.


  1. Excellent explanation. Really breaks it down clearly and simply. Nice job!

  2. Thanks. The more I thought about it, the more the parallels became clear. I've always found it interesting how many clients don't install updates when we send them out.

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    I'm the author of the linked piece over at Digital Monkey Shines and I thought I'd throw some more fuel into the mix. I'm not a software developer, but I have spent my time reading U.S. tax code in a prior career so I'll elaborate on that comparison.

    Because of the process of legislation, the Tax Code is continually becoming more complex. Special circumstances and tax breaks are added to the system every year by lawmakers. In the first edition of AD&D, you see some ideas show up late to the party, like Non-weapon proficiencies, which happen to be scattered across no less than three different manuals (OA, WSG, DSG).

    Just like the U.S. Tax Code in 1986, the game system eventually becomes unstable and gets reformed. Do you use the Paladin as written in the PHB, or in UA? Which random encounter table should you use, DMG, FF, or MMII? AD&D's 2nd edition was an attempt to clean up rules and improve the coherence of the whole. I didn't play much beyond the core books, so I can't really comment on their success or lack thereof.

    Ultimately I'd intended my metaphor to reflect the business model of the publishers. TSR initially sustained their business by producing new sets of rules for the first edition (even going so far as to market two different rule sets of the same game), then shifted to "content" production in later editions, like the class kit books in 2nd, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for the link and the commentary.


  4. Thanks for commenting, Bill. The software we design is a lot like the tax code that way - lots of special circumstances and options are always being added.

    Even though your metaphor is a good one for the business models involved, it works equally well as one for rule-sets. Indeed, if you look at a software program like Quicktax, you are basically looking at DDi, except sold by a 3rd party instead of by the government.

    Which is actually a great idea, now that I think about it.