I’ve been reading a lot more older D&D books for some reason; most of the findings aren’t unexpected: adversarial GMing, emphasis of the dungeon as the primary campaigning grounds, random charts, and other joys of the Old School Revival. There’s been a few gems. Mostly it’s interesting to see how the game developed—I’m probably behind the curve here, since everyone else was doing that back in 2008, when 4e launched and Gygax/Arneson died, but the Next playtest triggered D&D nostalgia in me. Anyways.
Skimming through my 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual, I find I can lump its contents into three rough groups:
- Mundane creautres: boring crap like mules and giant beavers, dinosaurs, megafauna (e.g., non-dinosaur extinct creatures, like saber-tooth tigers and giant sloths), etc. Regardless of their impressive cultures and tendency to stockpile trade valuables, Dire Lynxes and Giant Beavers are still mundane.
- Traditional fantasy staples: demons, genies, faeries, creatures from ancient myth (medusa, hydra), dragons, etc. Things that were taken directly from mythology,
- FUCKING WEIRD SHIT.
By the latter, I mean the nonsensical creations made especially for D&D. I’ve always liked these more than the others because they’re so out there, and even though you can tell they were made either a.) because it sounded cool or b.) to do something related to the “game” aspect of roleplaying games, that weirder stuff feels the more D&D than the dragons and demons and other basic critters. At the least, they’ve been such a big part of the game’s history because they were made for the game.
Some examples of what I’m thinking of when I say FUCKING WEIRD after the break:
It’s been a few weeks since the D&D Next playtest hit, and I’ve had some time to examine it.
First and foremost, it’s clear that Wizards wanted a cautious approach—perhaps overly so. The rules aren’t so much a beta (such as the many early Pathfinder builds) but are closer to a quick-start beginner module. The characters are pregens, and most of the information we have about the system is from reverse engineering the characters. My hope is that Wizards will release a real playtest edition of the rules in the future, as Mearls’ introduction letter notes, because if this is all we get, nobody’s going to be pleased; the message will be a transparent “it doesn’t matter what you wanted, because this is what you’re getting,” defeating the point of a public playtest.
Of the much-tauted “modularity,” there’s nothing concrete (or even abstract) so far. My feeling remains that promoting “D&D modularity” is like businesses “promoting synergy;” it’s a catchy buzzword and a desired effect for all parties involved, but the real-world implementations… don’t exist outside the realms of some voodoo economics thing. Thus the “modular design” remains in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp—I love the idea, and if they can pull it off, I’ll be duly impressed.
For good or ill, it’s still D&D, still looks like D&D, and probably plays like D&D. (I’m strapped for time, otherwise I might have run it as a one-nighter.) It retains the ubiquitous class/level system, rules unified around one system (d20), it’s high-magic fantasy, and returns to the Vancian system (prepared spellcasting). It also retains some of the least-offensive 4e elements, such as higher character HP, dealing “ability score” damage via abilities (such as on a miss), varied rests and “second winds” to regain HP and facilitate constant adventuring, and sacking fidgety Challenge Ratings for XP-based gauges. And parts of 3e have been included but streamlined, such as combat conditions (thank god), and an overhaul to the Difficulty Class for challenges.
The changes are few, but important. Characters have Backgrounds and Themes which provide neat little abilities and features. The emphasis is on ability checks over skills and saves, which I found a straightforward, logical choice. Instead of tracking various modifiers, and to replicate character merits and flaws, you instead gain Advantage or Disadvantage: rolling 2d20 and taking the better or worse result, respectively. I like that it’s getting away from the modifier bloat, but I can see it turning Advantage into auto-win and Disadvantage into auto-fail if dice rolls are as I expect them. The worst (or least clear) part were the skill checks; instead of multiples of 5-10, they’re now between 1 and 30, which seems too wide a gap. On the bright side, since Next is moving towards smaller numbers, DC 20 is an “extreme” check, making me think stats are more static. It’s clear that this isn’t a complete game yet; the weapon and armor values are poorly edited, it’s unclear if spell effects scale with level, and there’s no rules for miniatures or mapping yet.
The Next rules strike me as a return to D&D’s roots: there’s a strong “back to basics” feel. The game feels like D&D has always felt. The “module” part is the Caves of Chaos, part of B2: Keep on the Borderlands; the monsters go back to the short & simple stat blocks; values (such as for XP) are going down instead of up. Heck, the rules seem much more focused on exploration than tactical combat, taking the game in a very different direction from where more recent D&D editions have gone. If I had to define the game, I’d say it takes 2nd Edition AD&D’s mentality, and backs it up with the three decades of experience D&D has received since then, incorporating a number of 3.x and 4e elements.
Problems? Well, WotC has not produced something that will unify the editions, much less pull back the majority of those already sold on another system. While Next isn’t that bad, it’s not doing anything flashy or decisive to sell the merits of returning to the flock to the many lost tribes. If this was the end-product on sale this GenCon, I think most gamers will stick with the product they sunk the last 4+ years into rather than jump ship to Next.
For the OSR Gamer
While the game has an old-school, return to the roots feel, absence of miniatures rules, etc., it’s still building off modern game design: there are a lot of mechanics that have either been tweaked or incorporated whole-cloth from 3.x and 4e. The 4e rest/second wind/healing surge styles in particular move away from the older Gygaxian simulationism and into more game-y territory. I’m not sure it will attract OSR gamers back to the herd because of its new-design mechanics and style, considering it lacks the same focus of game lines entrenched in OSR circles: Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics, et al. But it does have more of an OSR feel than 3e or 4th. And attracting OSR gamers with “new” mechanics and design is a Sisyphean task if I ever heard one.
For the Pathfinder/3.5 Gamer
Next feels a lot like 3.x, only slimmed down to cut out the rules-lawyering and gaming the mechanics for fun and profit, with some old-school, brand new, and 4e elements tossed in. Most players play Pathfinder for three reasons: to keep using their 3.x material, because they like Paizo (for its world, for its products, for its active and friendly staff), or because they dislike/distrust Wizards of the Coast (e.g., because Pathfinder wasn’t 4e). The last two aren’t groups who will be easily swayed by Next, while the former can incorporate their 3.x stuff into Pathfinder (or True20, FantasyCraft, 3.5) than it will Next. There’s a few great things in Next asking to be implemented into a Pathfinder campaign, but again, the die-hard Pathfinder fans would require Next to offer a free yacht and cure cancer to draw them back. I’m not sure Next is turning their heads yet: Pathfinder fans have strong brand loyalty thanks to the Edition Wars.
For the 4th Edition Gamer
This is turning out to be the hardest sell. 4th Edition was a bold move to take the game in a new direction; I wasn’t thrilled with the specific choices they made, but I see (and support) moving away from Vancian casting, balancing the classes, marginalizing rules lawyering and gaming the system, etc. In most ways, Next is going back to earlier D&D design as if 4th never existed, prying off a few parts and leaving the biggest design changes behind—that’s like a slap in the face to supporters of the last edition, and has the potential to drive away the brand’s stoutest followers. I don’t think Next is as horribly “regressive” as many 4e fans consider it; instead of continuing on the same path that 3e moved the game down and 4e started to flesh out, it’s taking the game back to the AD&D/3.x branching point, and heading down yet another avenue. Less “regressive” (albeit turning back the clock) and more “different.” But difference for D&D fans is seldom lauded. And brand loyalty, thanks to the Edition Wars, is not something to throw away lightly.
Truth be told, I’ve been burned out on D&D and its kin for a while now, though I have such strong nostalgic ties to the game that I’m loath to abandon it. I like a lot of what Next is doing, and it’s going for a type of D&D I’d love running or playing; its new mechanics and goals feel very D&D, but without the rigidity and tactical combat focus of 4th, the cumbersome nature and bad balance of 3rd (there’s still time for that, though), or the disjointed mechanics and simplistic design of AD&D. The mechanics are moving a bit more abstract, more exploration based, but still very crunchy and capable of having a capable tactical combat engine. It’s moving away from modifier bloat—hell, in numbers bloat in general, trying to keep the numbers as small as possible. With luck that will lead to solid internal balance while making a game both fun and challenging.
I can see snippets of more modern and Indie game design in there, such as the hybridizing of fluff and crunch (through background, theme, Dis/Advantage) and giving the DM more adjudication powers (telling when something has Dis/Advantage), which I can get behind. And the snippets of older game design—simpler stat-blocks, the Caves of Chaos, the AD&D style exploration of the unknown (which happens to include dungeons filled with monsters and loot)—that I can also get behind. The Next beta has effectively blended the various eras of D&D into a neat package. But while I like what I see, I’m waiting to learn more about what we’re not seeing: this is so very far from a real product. It feels more of a proof-of-concept quickstart than a rule set.
But the real question remains: “Is this neat package better than the neat package I’ve already spent my money on?” I’m not sure Next has formed a majority, or even a consensus, among D&D gamers. And the way things have been moving, I’d rather pull out The One Ring or go FATE-based if I was running a D&D campaign… if only because those have less baggage of what each player’s “my D&D” should look like, and to get away from everyone’s preconceptions of how D&D acts, by moving into a system more flexible, open, and rewarding of creativity.
Going off my last post a bit, though less about the differences between editions and more about the ongoing move towards more rigid boundaries and a precise regimen of player-controlled abilities, the player-centric design. You can see that this was something the 4e design team noted earlier on and attempted to rectify in the design of another game line: the post-apocalyptic Gamma World.
While the seventh edition of the venerable Gamma World—the one using 4th Edition D&D rules and branding, so I’ll refer to it as Gamma World 4e because I’m lazy—used a lot of 4e’s core rules, it gave them new and interesting twists. The way it handles ammo is beautiful: it assumes you’re saving your bullets for important threats, so instead of tracking individual rifle rounds, you’re allowed to make one free guns attack per combat—”conserving” ammo. If you make more than one, you’d better go to town shooting, because if you used more than one bullet you run out of ammo immediately at the end of combat. Gamey, but it creates a nice risk:reward balance in preserving your supplies without tracking pointless minutiae.
Character mutations came in card form, in two varieties: you get a constant stream of Alpha Mutations, your mutations replacing each other constantly—the corrupted world’s ongoing changes to your genetic structure whenever you wander into a different part of the nuclear, chemical, and/or biological wasteland—and Omega Tech, the bizarre far-future technology of the Lost Ancients, which could run out of power and have to be scrapped. Again, gamey, but I like the idea.
Then we get into the more abstract implementations. Your starting “mutations” are up to player definition. The book’s example is rolling “rat swarm” and “feline:” the book prompts the player to come up with some way to rectify these into a character concept, such as a hive-mind of rats that takes a leonine shape, or a swarm of kittens. Similarly, the gear was all abstract: Light Armor might be a heavy trenchcoat, football padding, or a bunch of mattresses tied to your chest; your Big Club might be a baseball bat, a lead pipe, or a telephone pole.
See what I mean about the design team recognizing the backlash over 4e’s rigidity, and how they attempted to compensate? The abstract elements mean that the game is still player-centric, but it rewards (and expects) more creative input from players in how things look and act. The character cards meant that instead of focusing on your character build—planning five levels ahead for which feats you got, which Paragon Path to take—the focus was on the here-and-now, on the powers you get and how you use them. Since your new “powers” and paths were all random and “leveling” gave flat bonuses (+1 to hit, +5 HP), there was no character optimization to plan. Yet you still get plenty of diversity and options in one character—from new mutation/tech cards every 20 minutes or whatever.
I feel bad for Gamma World 4e. First, consumers bagged on its mutation-changing mechanics, calling it a CCG-style cash grab, since the way to more mutation/tech options was through buying booster packs of ~15 cards. Then, the product line turned out to be one box set, two expansions, and a single ~120 card set, and people complained because there wasn’t enough to the game. Only taking characters to 10th level reinforced that “it’s the red-headed stepchild” view. It had a lot of interesting mechanical concepts retained from 4e, yet had a more flexible and openly creative vibe to it.
I’d love to run it in either one-off or side-game capacity, but that might be pushing my luck: it tends to go full gonzo, even if you’re trying to keep a respectful distance from wacky hijinks to give post-apocalyptic its gritty due. Even as a side-game, the lunacy of the setting has always been almost overpowering… excepting the sixth (d20) and fifth (Alternity) editions, which were Fallout-lite and sucked respectively.
I must have missed it, but back in December, in the days leading up to Next’s announcement, there were a string of articles on The Escapist about D&D’s present and future. While it had a clear bias—the author worked on his own retroclone—it did have some interesting things to say about the game’s focus, the important part (for this post at least) is below:
“I have a theory about RPGs,” Mearls said. “When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said ‘To Hell with that,’ it’s all about players, we’re going to give you some really cool options, it’s all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there’s this meaningful choice.
“I think we’ve hit the second era of RPG decadence, and it’s gone the opposite way,” he continued. “It’s all about player power now – the DM is just the rules guy – and the DM can’t contradict what the players say. [The game] is taking away from the DM, and that’s where I worry because other types of games can do that better. I might as well play a board game, ’cause I’m just here enforcing the rules. Without the DM as the creative guy, what’s the point?”
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. “We’ve lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG,” he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. “There’s this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you’ll still have fun.”
That reflects what I’ve been thinking for a while now; I’ve mentioned it in several posts. The evolution of D&D is a fascinating thing to track, with its ebbs and flows. But in a general sense, it’s moving the game away from DMs and more towards players, in a very strange and roundabout way.
The switch from DM to player was less about how the old games functioned, but more about how they functioned compared to the new ones. (Sure, it took a while to get away from the “The DM is running his story, and you’re all along for the ride” nonsense, but it wasn’t always there to begin with.) 3rd Edition shook up the way people played D&D by giving a wealth of character options: yes, the plot and setting and DM-based stuff is still relevant, but in 3.x and 4th, the character options take precedence in player planning. Back when I played 2e, the character was considered pretty static: your THAC0 would go down, your HP would go up, casters would get more spells, and that was the end of it.
In post-AD&D, the character is in a constant state of flux: leveling opens up options and new routes to take, more feats or powers or abilities. 3.x supplements were often billed by how many feats, prestige classes, and spells they contained—look at the Forgotten Realms back covers; it’s like they had some internal metric to gauge the minimum accepted number of player options. Instead of minor stat accretion, levels changed your character more dramatically, opening new possibilities. You started to look forward to level 4 when you got another feat, or level X when you got that class ability.
This deluge of options means that planning your character’s mechanical route ahead of time is encouraged, to get the specific build you want as you progress down the dungeon corridors. And when some choices are clearly superior to others, it began to defeat the point of offering a huge variety: why take feats designed as new player traps (Toughness, the +2 to two skills feats) when you could take Greenbound Summoning or Vow of Poverty?
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really; D&D has always been more of a tactical combat simulator with parts attached than a true “roleplaying” game, and giving players more opportunities to build something cool is just a logical extension. (Are D&D games more than combat? Yes, much more, but its wargame roots are clear when you compare it to other styles of RPGs.) As a player, that’s a big draw of recent D&D editions—when you want that style of tactical/mechanical construction, D&D scratches that itch. RPGs have always had a “build-a-character” angle, and 3.x opened that up in a big new way for D&D.
On the other hand, it does have its flaws. Naysayers have been claiming since 1999 that the new editions stifle creativity and reward manipulating the mechanics over imagination. Where older edition were vague about how things worked in-game, newer editions have spelled out precisely what characters can do with their abilities; part of why OSR gaming takes umbrage at new D&D design is that it sees this as a restriction of freedom. Not entirely true, I’d argue—it’s assuming that a different approach and mindset will dumb players down and kill imagination, because it’s new and it has more mechanics to emphasize.
But as a GM, it irks me to get players expecting a game that’s boiled down to nothing but its mechanical/combat core, existing in a void of grids, miniatures, and the fluctuating modifiers of character optimization. There’s a mentality where the GM is only necessary to move the enemies around, since the game has clearly structured rules that everyone can learn its rules, and it gets to the point where the GM contradicting the rules (for balance, story, logic reasons) is the bad guy for impeding players’ progress.
And as much as I like character-building, it’s also a turn-off for me; my eternal love-hate relationship with the game. I like options, but I also like wide open creativity and freedom that allows the abstract. When you think about awesome moments in RPGs, usually what comes up are story- or character-based; you don’t remember that one time you rolled a die or used a game mechanic, you remember the situation that caused that one die roll or mechanic to be significant. Games need mechanics, but I don’t think they should be the end-all, be-all.
It helps explain my knee-jerk reaction about 4th Edition: 4e emphasizes things that were never my favorite part of D&D, the things that I never liked about 3.x, namely emphasizing tactical over strategic/cinematic, and the push for player-centric metrics. (Ironic, since my current ideal game is FATE, which gives players more freedom to manipulate the game—which consists near-entirely of mechanics—than in all editions of D&D combined, albeit in a circular, abstract way.)
Again with the new 5th Edition of D&D, D&D Next. (I’m pretty sure it’s more like 8th Edition, if you count all the forms of Original/Basic, and 3.5, but whatev.) Monte Cook’s been doing an interesting series on the countdown to 5th Edition in his Legends & Lore column; a pair of early design docs so far, reinforcing D&D Next’s stated goal of being the perfect edition for every D&D gamer. As always, they’re interesting, if just the tip of the iceberg—these are big topics that need more than the short blog columns on Wizards.
Needless to say, I like the ideas set forth in them—a modular approach would overcome most, if not all, the issues I brought up previously. Which would make the real challenge attracting all the former D&D gamers, OSR gamers, and Pathfinder gamers back to the original brand line before they get too entrenched in other systems. Also, with a modular approach, I can see some people joining games expecting to use Rules X-Z when the GM’s using Rules 1, 2, and 5. Making D&D everybody’s game might not kill off the edition wars entirely; they’d just turn into a Balkanized core product rather than hostile sub-groups.
Oddly, this reminds me of the ’90s—a lot of players hated the 2e AD&D changes, more in tone than of rules, and wandered off to buy Palladium, White Wolf, Deadlands, Star Wars d6, and others, and a large part of the 3.x build-up was scanning competitor products to make D&D the dominant brand again. I remember the statistics showing the 1999/2000 breakdown in gaming popularity; I just wish I could find them.
Of course, as much as I love those fantastic claims of Monte’s, I’ll believe them when they’ve had cold, hard, tangible implementations. Again, it reminds me of the glorious claims of 4th Edition’s electronic connectivity: e-books, e-tools, virtual tabletops, constant stream of real-time errata and updates and services. The e-books died pretty soon in the 4e run, and while the other e-tool packages are still around—D&D Insider, the monster builder, GM helpers—the much-vaunted virtual tabletop was horrid, obsolete compared to the VTs from a decade before, and the “constant stream of updates” turned into the Essentials line, itself a micro-edition war inside the macro-level one. With the switch to Kindles and Nooks, iTunes and Netfix, we’re seeing the growing trend of technical literacy and electronic connectivity come to the forefront; Wizards can’t afford to half-ass that branch again.
Anyways, at the very least, I’m intrigued by the concepts and am looking forward to seeing some direct implementation of them in the open-beta-like-thing. Also intriguing is the high vote percentage for story in games over simplicity (Savage Worlds) and simulation (Gygaxian Naturalism); it sounds like we’re leaning towards a 2nd Edition level of story and world-building with the tactical and character customization complexity of 3.5 and 4th. Which would certainly be interesting.
It’s been several weeks, so probably everyone knows that there’s a new edition of D&D in the works. It’s not a huge shock—it was coming eventually, that’s how these things work—but what is surprising is how soon it’s arriving in the lifetime of 4th edition, more or less proving the various 3.5/Pathfinder conspiracy theorists right (much as it pains me) that 4e didn’t have enough market dominance.
The big thing Wizards is pushing is to try to bring back all the various factions of D&D players. Which I think is where the open-beta will collapse: the finished product will undoubtedly please some fans but not everyone, particularly the groups who divorced themselves from D&D with 4th Ed.
The big two groups are pro-4e and pro-Pathfinder, the louder, more relevant part of the Edition Wars. I read someplace that “3.5 was designed to be the best version of D&D. 4th Ed was designed to be the best tactical roleplaying game.” I think it’s 100% right from a metagame standpoint, and reveals the cause of the gap between fan-bases: from a D&D perspective, 4th Ed is a major shift mechanically from what’s came before. (Of course, if you’ve only played other games, I have to imagine looking at the Edition Wars is like watching two identical twins in different clothes having a slapfight in the back of mom’s station wagon.)
Bringing them together is no easy feat: Pathfinder fans are often generalized as knee-jerk reactionaries so resistant to change that they’re willing to shell out for, and then gulp down, a barely-modified version of the SRD and questionable new content (the Ultimates), while 4e fans are painted as elitist pricks buying into a soulless board game version of World of Warcraft, devoid of roleplaying merit and written for (slow) grade-school students, just because it’s new and shiny. (Or that they’re dumbed down like all the vidya games kids today play, depending on how old your source is.) As with all generalizations, lots of hyperbole and personal bias surrounding small kernels of truth. (Except that last part in parenthesis, which is just asinine.)
Sadly, I think those two groups would be the easiest to gap to bridge, which is a shame, given how polarized the camps are. (Moreso because Wizards, as the preeminent gaming company, needs to continue market dominance to remain profitable for Hasbro, and apparently has to rectify the Pathfinder-4e gap: otherwise, all these 5e press releases are lying.)
Our third faction is OSR: Old School Roleplaying/Revival/Renaissance, depending on the week. I have to say, I don’t really understand OSR because I wasn’t gaming in the ’70s, and spent most of my gaming life with 3.x and World of Darkness. But the one thing that’s come across through all the new OSR games? Straightforward dungeon crawling adventure, random charts, a return to the glory of combat matrixes and everything you meet trying to kill you. A cross between nostalgic charm and the old-school itch that was scratched in 3.x with Dungeon Crawl Classics and Necromancer Games.
You’d think that 4e’s old-school “points of light” setting, akin to Judge’s Guild or Greyhawk, would be a draw, but no: I’ve seen OSR gamers complain that post-Advanced D&D games have too much “roleplaying,” have mechanics based too much on video games, or that everything not left to random chance (e.g., Chartmaster) is storygame swine bullshit. (Of course, these were also old grognards who lurk in the backs of gaming stores near the Warhammer tables and design their own OSR rules based on the Gor novels, so I think it’s safe to say they’re ignorable.)
Lastly, there’s a large faction—er, factions—built up around 3.5. Why not switch to Pathfinder, FantasyCraft, True20? A number of reasons. The aforementioned “it’s just the SRD reprinted with nicer art,” or “I don’t want to pay for rules I already own,” or the stolid “the power-level borders on wish-fulfillment.” Several of the pro-3.5 groups just boil down to “I can’t build character I wanted/optimize how I used to outside of 3.5.” One of my friends got an earful about how Artificers are the most powerful class because they can shit wands and solo dungeons; that’s not exactly the kind of example I’d use to promote a system, but it fits a lot of the remaining 3.5 optimization groups.
I’ve seen many, many people with the delusion that Wizards is going to just reprint 3.5 material for 5e, and go back to that system, in order to “beat” Paizo. I know a lot of people who have this opinion, or wish, and while I agree with them on many other things, that’s… never going to happen, no.
Contrary to popular belief, 3.5 had about run its course—look at MM4 and MM5 and tell me it’s not slammed with filler, monsters with class levels and all that. Yes, they could have done Completes ’till the cows came home… and now Paizo’s worked hard to distance themselves from Pres-Class bloat, rather successfully, making it into a Pathfinder strength. Yes, I would have loved some more “It’s ____ Outside” books to go with Stormwrack and Sandstorm, but look at how well Dungeonscape and Cityscape sold before 3.5 ended. Otherwise, I can point to both the library of 3.x compatible books from respected third-parties, or the rotten quality control with the Pathfinder Ultimates
Wizards only had about a year or two of 3.5 material left, and going back to the system isn’t going to change anything; what’s propelling Pathfinder isn’t its new content—it has hardcover sourcebooks, what, three per year?—but its subscription-based lines focused on their own world of Golarion. Moreso: even if Wizards went back to 3.5, I’d hope that they do a lot of major tweaking there, not just crapping out the books they’ve already printed. And I’m talking FantasyCraft tweaking, not True20 tweaking, rebuilding the system from the ground up to make it new, edgy, and competitive.
In any event, the reason I don’t see a fifth edition pleasing everyone is that each niche wants something radically different from the others. Wizards isn’t going to win back the OSR or 3.5 crowds without reprinting older material; even if that happened, it isn’t going to appeal to either current 4e fans, or the Pathfinder fans Wizards is trying to win back. And Wizards has a tough first stretch: convincing the diaspora factions to return, and collaborate with current fans, after many have proclaimed they’ll never buy from Wizards again. (Of course, those were angry words on the internet: it means jack shit.)
A camel, so my father says far too often, is a horse designed by committee; I foresee that this one—with an already entrenched sense of party politics, squabbling after varying goals—isn’t going to come out like an Arabian stallion. I am curious, of course; I’d like to hope that it’ll end unifying the various factions under a superior game system, the best Dungeons & Dragons edition yet. But I foresee one of three things will happen:
- It’ll be left up to the Balkanized fans, ending up with a version skewed towards one faction, resulting in no change to the Edition Wars status quo and not expanding Wizards’ market like they wanted.
- It’ll try to be all-inclusive, and attempt to match all the groups’ goals—or at least keep the 4e fans and draw back some 3.5/Pathfinder gamers—and end up being a muddled mess that doesn’t please everyone.
- Most of the divergent fan goals will be ignored and we’ll get whatever Wizards’ designers were going to do in the first place. Which, for all I know, might not be such a bad thing.
We shall see. Hoping I’m wrong on this.
(Of course, to make the superior version I’d buy, they’d have to kill too many sacred cows, and would fall into Pitfall One above. Like the antiquated class/level system that, regardless of edition, craps out in the upper-mid-level experience. Either ditch it and revolutionize the brand, or play into the reason people like it—to customize/optimize character builds—and make an edition with a near-constant stream of minor upgrades and enhancements, if not levels, like every encounter or something.)
This is something that’s growing to bother me in the midst of the ongoing Edition Wars D&D is currently plagued with, not just between 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e but also between those and the various OSR factions as well. And the problem would be that “such-and-such mechanics” don’t facilitate roleplaying, dumb down the game, etc., therefore making at least one of the above a Bad Game in the eyes of many people.
What makes it painfully laughable is that compared to my indie-hippie storygames (namely FATE, and The One Ring once I can afford it), hell even compared to the ’90s RPG paradigm shift (Storyteller, roll-and-keep, Deadlands, etc.), many of these same complaints can be applied to all the various D&D editions. In the grand scheme of things, most of the Edition Wars complaints are hypocritical; being based on personal opinion is one thing, but trying to argue that X is logically and statistically the best vision out there comes across as lacking if you bag on things your chosen system contains.
For example, the “X dumbed down D&D,” the prime contender being the skill system introduced in 3.0, modified for Pathfinder, and revamped for 4th. No need to roleplay or improvise; just roll your die, note your result, and wait for the GM to tell you whether you succeeded or not. Or, the “I rolled X and succeeded, now let’s move on” effect.
And it is part of the mentality for a lot of newer players; it was worst in my Tomb of Horrors game, when one of the two/three 3.5 fanatics got vaguely annoyed when I made him try to improvise or roleplay his rolls. Several other players I’ve had drifted into the same category. I wouldn’t blame video games or mumorpugers like many people do, though; it’s more an issue with newer players, or people who like a good hack-and-slasher, and therefore either based on their knowledge of the game or their style preference.
But while you can blame the rulebooks for lacking the emphasis you’d like on roleplaying, or thinking creatively, or putting themselves into character or whatever… This is all up to the GM: if you don’t emphasize those values, teach the player those values, or explain those values to them from day one, it’s hardly fair to take it out on them. If you want them to roleplay their Diplomacy check, tell them that. And cut the guy a little slack, people only get better at roleplaying with practice; it doesn’t come easy for everyone.
And even mechanics that sound bad still have a lot of potential. Take 4th’s Skill Challenges: roll a certain number of successes before you roll a certain number of failures. This is an idea that I thought was idiotic at first, but grew on me. If all you’re doing is making six skill rolls, yeah, it’ll be boring as dirt. Roleplay it out, and make it a little more interesting. The examples under the link have a lot more depth than “roll X skills, total five successes, don’t screw up three times or more.” There’s a series that replicates a prison break, and another about rescuing people from a burning city. Roleplayed out, those could be pretty awesome set-pieces.
Personally, I like pushing for a little more roleplaying, even when doing Pathfinder. The whole “all in-character, no rolling dice” game isn’t my thing—there’s a reason I don’t like Vampire lARPS. Not that I like RPGA/Pathfinder Society mini-module Monty Hauls either. But this is a “roleplaying” game, and even in high-crunch games like Pathfinder, roleplaying has its place. (This is also coming from my Exalted background, where describing actions can net you stunt dice, and from my unnatural ability to yammer in-character when Matt is nearby.)
Another big complaint that comes to mind are the use of miniatures… something that has plagued the game since it split forth from the head of Chainmail and became the Little Brown Books, yet an argument which has reared its ugly head frequently. 4th isn’t the first game to push for using maps and minis in a game; it’s hard to imagine that Pathfinder and 3.5 players have forgotten 3.x, where they’re explicitly pushed for in the DMG, and 3.5, where all the speed values conveniently listed the distance in squares. Or that most versions of D&D had rules for attacks of opportunity, reach, special attacks (charges, trips), and the like. Glancing through my AD&D books, all of those features were a part of the game in the ’80s… even grappling was included, in AD&D’s trademark variant subsystems. Hell, AD&D measured distance in inches. No amount of “NOT IN MAI D&D” can apply to miniatures and maps.
Besides, it’s such a simple thing to leave out if it bothers you: I’m a sucker for maps, so I like to draw out battlemaps or throw down some gaming tiles, but there are a number of situations that don’t need them. Not every encounter is epic enough to necessitate the ~10 minutes spent drawing a tactical map. Minis and maps speed up combat and play, but a large part of RPGs is, and has always been, using your mind. One big bitch about the new Pathfinder miniatures line is that they might not have (because the spoiler isn’t released yet) the all-important commoner miniatures. Proponents argue that they could be put in “rare” slots, so customers end up with 15 goblin raiders instead of pig farmers. Because I love spending $4 to get a “rare” pair of halflings with pigs and pipes.
On the one hand is the argument that games don’t necessarily need maps, and that it should be kept all in your mind, and any deviation isn’t “roleplaying” but some war/board game aberration; the other is that figures can’t sub-in if they have weapons, that innkeeper and commoner minis are necessary to replicate innkeepers and commoners, and that there are enough situations where these are used to require prepainted $4 figures instead of the cheap batches of metal ones several companies put out. These two extremes exist solely to irritate the hell out of the logical center.
Gamers. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
Look, I had my knee-jerk reactionary moments about 4th, and while it’s not my ideal system my opinion of it has softened now that it’s actually out. (That it’s having its own weird Edition War issues between the hardbacks and the Essentials just further complicates the Edition War Clusterfuck, and is pretty ironic to boot.) I also had some knee-jerk reactions against 3.0, but for some reason apparently I’m the only person on the internet who actually thought the 3.5 improvements were worth it. (Then again, I didn’t spend any money 3.0 books; the ones I own were gifts.) It’s not like the game system you’re chest-beating for didn’t have its issues—I seriously can’t think of a game I own that I can’t find a complaint for, however minor—or that it had a short life and deserved more sourcebooks. (Though Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium could have used a character guide.)
The bottom line: there are no bad games, only bad GMs. Well, bad interpretations of rules and game design. No game actually emphasizes roleplaying (well, besides my indie-hippie storygame swine RPGs), and that’s something a lot of people tend to forget. What emphasizes roleplaying is the GM: the way the GM runs the game, the way challenges and skill checks are handled, that kind of thing. The GM has always been the most important part of the game, because it’s through them that the rules are presented and adjudicated, and the simplest resolution to fix any system you don’t like is to Golden Rule it and cut the Rules-As-Written you don’t like.