I have happily sat on the sidelines during most conversations about Errata in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. However, I finally feel like I have something to say on the topic after the latest Update from Wizards of the Coast. My goal is not to classify errata as “good” or “bad.” I want to understand it, and specifically want to understand how it affects the mechanics of D&D 4e and the players that use them. Perhaps more importantly, I want to understand how errata alters the relationship we have with a game like 4e. This final point is what I find the most interesting, and I’m going to attempt to explain why below.
First, what is the definition of Errata? I went to Dictionary.com and pulled the following definition:
A list of errors and their corrections inserted, usually on a separate page or slip of paper, in a book or other publication
Errata fix mistakes. They are more commonly known in everyday life as Corrections. Your local newspaper, the New York Times, peer-reviewed scientific journals, broadcast news and other such media run Corrections all the time. For example, the media makes an error in some fashion and later posts a Correction to fix it. The Correction alerts their audience that the media source was wrong. The Correction reduces the likelihood that the audience will be misled by the information moving forward.
So if errata list errors and make corrections, then someone or something must be wrong. But who is it? It would seem the company, in this case Wizards of the Coast, is acknowledging that their were design flaws in the game anytime a piece of errata is released. However, it’s not that simple to me. It seems that whenever D&D 4e Errata is posted by Wizards of the Coast, there are a percentage of players that lose the ability to play the game the way they have been playing it. Errata in this case does not apply to errors, but to individuals.
Character Builder Lockdown
One of the unique features of D&D 4e is the ability to use the online Character Builder tool to create and manage your player character (PC). I cannot stress this enough - I love the Character Builder. The tool allows you to quickly design a PC without worrying about various calculations. The tool organizes your actions and powers into cards that summarize the important details so you do not have to consult numerous books at the table. I cannot imagine managing a character without the program.
A nice thing about running and playing 4e is that I can pretty much ignore errata. The Character Builder automatically updates with the new stats and powers. Oh, Magic Missile is an auto-hit again? Cool, no problem. I can use Sneak Attack multiple times per round now? Great! Before today, I never read a single piece of errata from Wizards of the Coast and I’ve been playing D&D 4e for almost two years. But I rely on the Character Builder; the tool basically does some of the DM and player job for me. Since Character Builder is so tied into the creation of PCs for the majority of 4e players, it comes with a price.
The price is that any errata Wizards of the Coast enacts in Character Builder affects everybody. Imagine you have played D&D for multiple years as a Cleric in a long-running campaign. You’re Epic Tier now and have formed such a tight bound with your character in not only a roleplaying sense, but also in a tactical sense. Your Cleric knows their strengths and limitations on the battlefield, and you have developed a chemistry with your party. Perhaps you even focus on a few powers that really seem affective and allow other characters in the party to “do their thing” more effective. You’re Level 24, but breached Level 25 last session. You now sit down with the Character Builder to Level Up, and find that multiple powers for your Cleric were changed by Wizards of the Coast. At this point, you really only have two choices.
- Stop using Character Builder to Level Up and manage your Cleric. If the DM accepts the old build, then you have to start managing your Cleric without the useful tools in the online Character Builder system. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s an issue.
- Accept the Character Builder changes and move forward with the errata. However, perhaps you can go backward to redesign your Cleric to your preferences with the updates to the Class.
Either way, all Errata directly affect the players that play that Class and use the Character Builder. As mentioned, I previously just thought, “Meh, whatever, I’ll keep ignoring it,” but I now realize that the dynamics of D&D 4e make it more difficult to ignore errata. Most players are tied into the online Character Builder to manage their PCs, and since errata automatically updates in the online Character Builder, the result is players have no choice but to address the errata in some way, shape or form.
Errata & The Gaming Relationship
Again, I believe you could buy the original Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual to play D&D 4e and have a great time. You could use just the options in the old offline Character Builder and still have a great time. And, yes, you can use the online Character Builder with the sporadic errata and still have a great time playing D&D 4e. I am not saying that all errata are bad. With so many options for players to build their character, it’s inevitable that certain combinations or powers by themselves will cause problems. I completely understand the need to continue updating the game as more data presents itself.
But errata not only corrects the game, it corrects the players. Whether intentional or not, the updated errata indicates to players, “You’ve been making a mistake and playing incorrectly. Let us fix your game and tell you how to play moving forward.” The relationship between the player, the game and the company that owns the game feels quite unique. I’ve been trying to think of another game where this happens.
When you buy Monopoly, you know that the rules will never change. You’re not going to get a letter in the mail that says, “We have a great new feature. Instead of rolling 2d6 for movement, you now roll 2d8.” I previously played computer games and Patches would be available to eliminate bugs. I never played the MMORPGs, but I assume they had Patches that affected certain characters in the game, powers, etc. I guess a patch that applies to an online game would be the most equivalent to the errata changes in D&D 4e.
And this brings me to the ultimate point, D&D 4e is alive. Dungeon Masters and their groups have always had the choice to houserule anything from the materials provided. However, the design of Character Builder limits player choice. If you have a Cleric in the group that does not want to use the latest errata, then that player is a bit out of luck. The player has to change how they interact with the game. Ignoring the errata means you have to forfeit the benefits of Character Builder.
Final Thoughts & Questions
This is an issue that should be discussed going forward. My first thought is that players should have the option in Character Builder to filter the numerous Errata that have been provided by Wizards of the Coast. The filter could work in the same manner that a player can filter sourcebooks. This would ensure that players who have happily used a class or power for years are not forced to change.
My second thought is that the latest update posted on Wizards of the Coasts does not include the word errata once. Not once in the article and not once in the PDF with two pages of updates. Perhaps I’m focusing too much on semantics, but Wizards of the Coast should label the changes what they are - Errata. Updates seems like a way to sugarcoat the implications of the changes. Be honest with players. If a certain power was broken, then include a paragraph to explain why. The article presenting the Cleric today is phrased in a very positive fashion and does not address the issue that two pages worth of Cleric abilities have been altered, and some powers have been altered dramatically. I think it’s reasonable for players to ask a simple question, “Why?“
Why make the updates in the first place, and why force all players using Character Builder to use them?
Why can’t Character Builder be updated to allow players to filter Errata and maintain a level of independence apart from the design decisions by Wizards of the Coast?