D&D’s Fluctuating Sphere of Influence

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.)

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