No, this is not about 4th edition. In fact, it has nothing to do with edition wars at all. Dungeons and Dragons is dying and we are all to blame. Even now, as we see it coming, there is nothing we can do to stop it.
In the Beginning
When I started playing D&D, the rule books were nothing more than vague guidelines. Every game was run differently from every other game. Each group had their own interpretation of the rules, their own house rules, and their own unique play style.
Each edition further defined the original rules, added new rules, and incorporated endless optional rules. Still, every group’s game was different. No matter how much was covered by the rule books, there was always endless situations that were not covered or were open to interpretation. Each group continued to maintain their own set of house rules and customized the game in whatever ways made it work best for their individual group.
Usually, this entailed throwing out rules, changing entire subsystems (such as spells and spell casting), and adopting sweeping changes. These changes made every game different and exciting.
Creativity is the Lifeblood of D&D
The creativity and individualism of each group has always been the greatest strength of the game. Each DM, as well as the players within each group, brought along their own creativity and molded their interpretation of the game into something unique. You could play in two different campaigns, run by two different DMs, and feel like you were playing two entirely different games.
We Need Technology to Make it Better
Being a long-time computer nerd, I wrote numerous programs to aid me when I DM’d games. I had character generation programs, treasure generation programs, dice-rolling programs, monster databases, magic item databases, everything I could imagine to make my job easier so that I could focus on the game. And I wasn’t alone. A great many other DMs did the same thing.
When the internet became a household word, many of these programs started becoming available to non-technical DMs as well. Once they had tasted the power of technology within their games, everyone wanted more and more.
The internet also brought us chat rooms and forums. Now DMs and players, from all over the world, could discuss how they ran their games, how they interpreted rules, what house rules they used, etc. This was heralded as a fantastic boon to D&Ders everywhere. Discussion and the free exchange of ideas is generally very beneficial. However, it can also foster conformity of ideas.
The Digital Era was Born
TSR (and later WotC) began developing some wonderful tools. Everyone now had access to a dice rolling program, a character generation program, a leveling program, monster databases, magic item databases, and much more. Best of all, these programs are maintained at the source so (theoretically) they are as complete and up-to-date as possible. And everyone has access to the same information. Thus, the seed of the problem began to take root.
Convert or Die
These wonderful new digital tools all had one inherent drawback. They had little or no allowance for customization. Every DM had to decide whether to continue gaming as they always had, with creativity and uniqueness but without these new tools, or to embrace conformity and play exactly as dictated by the rule books in order to be able to use these digital aids.
These new programs, viewed almost universally as indispensible, swept through the community. House rules were set aside. Custom races and classes were abandoned because they were not listed in the character creation program. Others were adopted simply because they were listed.
In a wider sense, DMs began adopting rules which some didn’t like simply because they were listed in the rule books. The official rules became law. The DM had always been the final word in all matters. That no longer was true. Players began to cite the rule books and the electronic databases as the ultimate arbitrator and tell the DM that she is “doing it wrong” if a ruling deviates from the official material.
The forums, at WotC and elsewhere, serve primarily as a source for new DMs to “learn how to run a game properly”. In the past, each group taught themselves the proper way to run a game. In each group the method they came up with was unique and wonderful. The forums, intentionally or not, curb this individualism and impose the mindset that everyone must run their game just like everyone else.
The problem has now progressed to the point that you regularly see posts, on any D&D forum, from DMs that need someone to find a rule for them to handle even the simplest situation. These DMs are clearly of the belief that they aren’t “allowed” to make a decision themselves; they believe that they have to find and abide by whatever the “official” stance is on everything that occurs.
As I said in the beginning, this is not about 4e. The problems described began in 2e and became much more prevalent in 3e. However, the advent of DDI has made the problem epidemic in 4e. It doesn’t have anything to do with the version though. If there was a DDI for 3e, the problem would become just as widespread there. Even without a 3e DDI, the mindset is spreading.
How Do We Fix It?
In my opinion, it’s too late. The current generation of D&Ders have already adopted the mindset that the rules books are the final arbitrator and that house rules and customization are evil and should be avoided at all cost. DDI isn’t going away and as long as it’s available people will use it. That means that any meaningful change has to start with a new version of all DDI tools that allow for extreme customization, alternate/optional rule sets, and a searchable library of user-supplied customizations. Unless WotC sees a benefit in developing such an upgrade, I don’t foresee it happening. A third-party alternative would work but I can’t envision WotC licensing such an endeavor.
Sadly, my conclusion is that D&D has contracted a fatal disease from which it will not recover. Find a group that is not infected and screen new members carefully.