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Let me start by clarifying "drift". 'Drift' is the process by which a playgroup, consciously or unconsciously, moves away (drifts) from playing the game according to the rules as written (RAW). Other terms used are vanilla (RAW), the opposite of this may be many things, pervy is one of them. House rules may fill gaps or override RAW - they would almost always be 'drift' as well (unless campaign-setting specific, possibly).

I'm not saying that drift is a good thing or a bad thing. I have, however, experienced much frustration with AD&D 2 and the standard rules. From what I gathered from other groups and our friend the internet, this was very very common. Many considered (parts of d&d to be 'bad design'). I'm also not interested in whether this is actually true or not. My question is:

Given your own experiences and general community feedback: are people 'drifting' as much in D&D4 as in earlier versions?

The questions of why/why not etc. I'll leave to other interested parties.

I think a non-subjective, non-community answer is possible, though it might require the marketing / customer service department of a certain RPG company. I'll change it to CW if common perception indicates it should be.

Note that I'm interested because I, as a customer, would be more interested in serious investigation of (purchasing) this game if less drift occurs: as a RPG enthusiast / theorist I also have my reasons.

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vanilla and pervy have been abandoned as terms by their creators, plus do nothing but confuse the issue here. –  Sean McMillan Oct 10 '11 at 15:47
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up vote 17 down vote accepted

My impression is that there's not as much drift; people not only tend to stick to the rules, they tend to stick to WotC-specific material. This is based on the unreliable evidence of reading a lot of forums, plus play in two disparate geographical locations (Boston and Maryland).

The house rules I do see are fairly minor. Example: giving out +1 tokens when someone rolls a 1 on an attack roll, which can then be used to boost a future attack roll.

I suspect this can be attributed to two things. First, the Character Builder is a very good tool for making characters; while you can certainly make characters without it, and while it's no harder to do so than it was for 3rd edition, it's a lot easier to make characters using it. It's not trivial to add house rules to the CB, so there's a natural tendency to skip them. Note that the minor example I gave earlier doesn't affect character creation. Alongside the Character Builder, you've got the Compendium, which has a similar effect: since there's an easy way to look up the canonical rules, drift is effectively discouraged.

Second, the GSL is way less friendly to publishers who want to create what are effectively house rules. Further, third party reaction to the GSL was less enthused than third party reaction to the OGL. (Why it was less enthused is a subjective cultural topic that I'd like to avoid.) Therefore, there're fewer examples of house rules and less support material.

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Bryant's hit the nail on the head there, basically the same answer I'd have given. –  Iain M Norman Aug 21 '10 at 22:12
    
I think it's also a little more difficult to balance the house rules in 4e. This game is much more balanced in combat and things can more easily throw it off. –  C. Ross Aug 24 '10 at 15:56
    
@C.Ross or, things were already thrown off by the rules themselves in 3.x so there was no risk of ruining the non-existant balance. –  Zachiel May 18 '13 at 19:08
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There is a lot less customization in 4E, due to two major factors: 1. The restrictions on third-party material in 4E is far greater, reducing the amount of off-Core options. 2. The Character Builder (which strongly steers you towards "legal" characters). This is bolstered in part by the larger than usual errata in 4E, which makes it far easier to use the CB than to try and build a character by hand.

Most of the drift that I've observed is using "optional" rules (such as the monsters-as-races), some of which aren't quite as balanced as the core rules.

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Systems aside, you have to consider the gaming communities that use each system. We started with 2nd ed in middle school. As far as I was aware, my group of players were the only people in the world playing the game. We played it according to our own interpretation and our own interpretation was the only thing that mattered.

Enter the internet. With a wider community of gamers, we all have to speak the same language. It's a lot harder to talk about the game if every post you make also includes a list of relevant house rules. Furthermore, with this wider community, there's a lot more support for the game. You may still misinterpret a rule, but instead of writing other rules around it, you can easily find the correct interpretation.

It only makes sense to me that systems played in the internet era would value the vanilla rules more than systems released prior to the internet.

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Certainly there wouldn't be as much as AD&D 2nd Edition. The rules in 2E were pretty unclear, so you'd often be starting off drifted, or at least in a different spot from another group.

3rd Edition was cleaned up a lot, and from the start made more sense, but with Unearthed Arcana in 3.5, as well as the shift from 3e to 3.5 you started seeing some optional rules introduced as well as hybrid rules.

4th Edition hasn't had any hybridisation or optional rules, so no easy reason for drift like 3rd Edition, and like 3rd Edition the rules are a lot more clear. What you might see though is people starting out a little shifted (like assuming it's CON bonus for HP instead of CON) and then aligning to how it's supposed to be played, so some reverse drift.

It looks like 4th would have the least drift of all, and I'd be really surprised if it were otherwise.

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The convenience of DDI character creation program is a major factor. It certainly resulted in a near moribund third party party.

In theory D&D 4e should be highly customizable. By creating a different bag of feats, powers, and classes you can create an entirely new feel for a campaign. Look at the upcoming 4e Gamma World. Same mechanics but different feel.

But it is a lot of work unless you are limiting the players to specific choices. More work then most referees want to do for their home campaigns.

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Perhaps D&D4 rules are so integrated that they present additional difficulty in attempts at customization. Change this here, and then track down all the cascade effects here, here, and here...

Earlier editions were arguably more primitive but demonstrably looser, so changes were easier and thus more widespread. Tracking backward, the original edition (the little brown or white box) was in fact so incomplete and so loose that few were playing 'the same game' -- prompting Gygax to comment on that in early publications. Many integral subsystems were in fact left entirely to "DM Discretion".

The current format and comprehensive nature is thus a smooth progression along a decades-old trend.

(btw, the phrase 'suffer as much drift' is negative. Historically, most 'drift' is a positive thing for gaming groups, negative only to market share, i.e. publishers.)

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Good point re: the wording. "Experience" might be a better way to put it; I'd say drift is neither negative or positive. Some people like more, some people like less. –  Bryant Aug 21 '10 at 21:28
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+1 for the last sentence. –  aslum Jan 21 '11 at 5:49
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