Monday, July 23, 2012

The Virtues of "New D&D"

My wife just got back from Paraguay. During her many hour flight she had the opportunity to view The Hunger Games as an in-flight movie. She and I have both recently read the book (on the recommendation of a friend) and she remarked how amazing it is when casting choices for characters end up being completely different from the image you picture in your head when simply reading text.

Imagination is a funny thing that way. I do this double-take all the time. Especially when you spend as much time reading blogs as I do, you get funny images of what you think folks look like, especially when they don't have photos of themselves attached to their forum posts. And who knows why exactly we picture the people the way we do. I mean, other than simply associating them with what they write.

For example, I've never met Mike Mearls, and have no idea what his real life appearance is, but I pretty much picture him as kind of Mario Brothers-like figure. A bushy dark mustache, a battered painter cap, a kind of pudgy/dumpy appearance...basically a shmuck. I realize that's not very complimentary, and that it's probably a far cry from what he actually looks like, but I'm just being honest. Whenever I read something Mr. Mearls has wrote...or something someone has written about him...I picture a human version of Luigi. And I can only theorize this is because everything I read about the guy makes me think of him as a putz, and the original Mario Bros. were kind of putzy little icons.

The most recent example of this was Steveman's comment on yesterday's post:
I've been following the 5E playtest, not playing it...I get the distinct feeling that 5E is a stalling tactic and this rerelease is kind of "testing the waters". D&D brand manager Mike Mearls has made it exceptionally clear that he loves classic D&D, and would love nothing more than to put AD&D or the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia back on the shelves in packaging that would sell in today's market.
I don't know if that's true, but if it is that's just stupid shit. It may be time to take another hard look at this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

For reference, you might want to read (or re-read) Ron Edwards's essay "A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons." There's quite a bit of good insight in it, even if it's not always strictly accurate (Moldvay wrote his book in 1981 and has sub substantial differences from Mentzer's 1983 version, for example) and even though it wanders into opinion and perception of D&D and its degeneration both as a hobby and subculture. For my two cents, here are the important things to take away from the Edwards article:

1) Up until a certain point in time (Edwards lists that point as 1989 by pinning it on the Advent of 2nd Edition AD&D, but I think it was true even earlier for some by as many as four to six years)...up until that point, D&D texts were reflective, not prescriptive of actual play.

2) Game play evolved in individual groups over time (the "Cargo Cult" phenomenon), and was played in wildly different fashion even when using the same texts as a reference for play.

3) Part of the fun and popularity of the game (at least in the early days of the hobby) can be attributed to each group individually forging Social Contract while working out exactly how they were going to manage to play this game; i.e. figuring out (through actual play and rules tinkering) what exactly role-playing meant to them and how it got done within their particular circle.

Now Edwards was writing prior to the rise of the OSR and certainly had a different agenda from being an Old School (or "old edition D&D") historian, regardless of any statements to the contrary in his essay. Consequently, I feel there's been a lot more ground covered (historically and philosophically) about Dungeons & Dragons subsequent to his essay. But these three points I list are still valid and important ones to remember...and all too often we (OSR folks) forget them when we get all ranty about which edition is our favorite or preferred version of a fantasy adventure game.

My own D&D upbringing was as much a mishmash as anyone's. Starting in 1981 or '82 with the B/X set, we quickly added the Monster Manual and DMG to the mix and played with just those volumes until circa 1984 or so when we discovered the PHB and switched over to playing "AD&D only." However, our AD&D play was mostly informed by the simpler, more stream-lined rules of B/X (so much so that whole swaths of the DMG were "cut" save for random tables)...and round about '86 we added rules from Mentzer's Companion set to our games, specifically domain and mass warfare rules, plus new magic items and high level monsters.

Our game group...which lasted up until 1988 or so...also made use of a variety of Dragon magazine articles and (very rarely) non-TSR publications (like Sechi's The Compleat Adventurer). Our campaign world was half-Greyhawk and half-homebrew and our adventures ran on for so long that we considered adapting the Mentzer Immortal rule set (one character in our campaign was already seeking divinity a la the Deities & Demigods guidelines, and Mentzer's book seemed to provide a way to "continue play" even after achieving godhood). Texts for play (i.e. rule books and magazines) were passed around between players, and those with the most books (and thus with the most rules/references) tended to get the responsibility of being Dungeon Master...though all adventures took place in the same campaign world (and the results of one DM's adventure would impact another).

It was a hot mess in other words...but a helluva' lot of fun for all of us (or most of us, anyway). I think I'm probably the only one from the old game group that still plays D&D (or any role-playing game) anymore, and while the others may still pursue creative pursuits (fiction writing, for example) I think there's a real sense of finality one feels when they realize that the magical moment of their past just cannot be regained, because you've lost too much, learned too much over the years. As with other pastimes, you have to find a different way to play (like playing flag football after your full contact days are over or transitioning to a teacher rather than an active participant)...which isn't a terrible thing, by the way (life is about growth and development and change); but if you can't accept it, you're in for a world of hurt.

But I don't want to digress too much: our games were a hot mess because AD&D (and all it's associated books up until about the time Gygax left) were a hot mess. Players were role-playing in SOME way, shape, or form and they were using the texts to help them, but it was fairly haphazard stuff. Talking with Heron the other day, he reminisced that the D&D games played by girls he knew featured "a lot of druids and unicorns" which were quite different from his own games. My buddy Steve-O told me they really had no idea how to play the game: his DM just had them pick monsters out of the Monster Manual to be their characters and they went a-bashing and a-thrashing for treasure. My own game group (in my youth) tried to adhere as closely to Gygax and AD&D as possible, even using speed factors, helmet rules, weapon vs. armor tables, etc....and we still dumped rules or changed things we didn't like (for example, making clerics memorize their spells at the start of the day like a wizard just seemed dead wrong).

Which is why Mearls attitude (if reported accurately) is so putzy. This is why republishing the original three AD&D volumes (which I still haven't removed from shrink wrap, by the way) is such a win-win-win for WotC:
  • Cash Cow: people who played the original game will purchase it for nostalgia or a collector's item; players who missed it will buy them out of curiosity and/or as a collector's item.
  • Good PR: smooth over some of the hard feelings from the hard core grognards who've been angry since 2000...or even since 1989!
  • No Competition: people without a basic understanding of D&D, or years of social contract creation, or the benefit of older "teachers" will look at these rules and say WTF? How do you play that?
Because that's the problem: it is so crazily organized that few folks with 21st century sensibilities are going to have the patience to make such a thing work. Even though these three are (as I told the cashier at Gary's the other day) the only things you need to really play AD&D...heck, they're all we used for a number of years...that's NOT true. You need to pour your own heart and soul and imagination into it to make it work. You need to be willing to adjust and kitbash and house rule the have to be able to create social contract within your group, coming to a consensus on how rules will be applied so that everyone can have fun and enjoy the thing. No, you don't need any more texts, but the texts alone do not suffice to teach the game.

And so it is we come to the title of this post: the virtues of "New D&D." Some of you are old enough to remember the introduction of New Coke into the market (circa 1985...I had to look that up), and the backlash that led first to "Coke Classic" (my preferred drink of the late 80s...God, even then I was resistant to change!) and later a simple return to the original brand/formula as the flagship soft drink of the company.

I don't want to get into drawing any parallels between D&D and Coke, except to explain my phraseology: I'm tired of referring to post-2000 D&D as 3rd edition, 3.5, 4E, etc. From now on, I'm going to refer to ALL "new" D&D editions, from 3rd edition forward (including Pathfinder) as "New D&D" because (as with New Coke) these later editions represent a new formula for the company.

Please understand that New D&D and "D&D Classic" (for pre-2000 editions) is NOT the same dividing line as Old School and New School. 2nd edition AD&D is definitely of the New School of role-playing games, for example, especially with its rules supported emphasis on player characters as heroic protagonists as exemplified by the attention to character "bloat" (and I'm not just talking about the infamous Players Options book, but instead the various "kit books" and the change in experience points and advancement), not to mention New School sensibilities when it comes to an emphasis on coherent IP-protected settings. However, despite being "new school" AD&D2E is easily recognizable as the same "classic" D&D rules found in earlier plays the same, uses the same or similar tables, has the same magic system, etc., etc.

New D&D had wholesale changes from the way D&D was played in the past. The D20 system is a radical departure, as is the "all numbers ascending" philosophy. Skills and feats, monsters that use the same system as player characters (i.e. having skills and feats and ability scores), unified experience point tables, a three-prong saving throw system, unified ability score adjustments, etc...this is a sweeping sea change in design philosophy for the Dungeons & Dragons game line. And I'm going to write something now you might not have previously read on this blog:

The designers' basic idea was a pretty good one.

That is to say that the philosophy that led New D&D's designers to adopt a radically different system for Dungeons & Dragons (rather than reiterating all the prior tropes found in AD&D and 2nd Edition and BECMI/RC, etc.) was both GOOD and ADMIRABLE. Not just the intention...I've written before (and recently, though I can't find the post) that I think the intention of each edition has been to make each new edition BETTER than the edition before. But here I'm talking about their actual strategy: reconstruct the game from the ground up, make it coherent and consistent in both structure and system, provide a complete system of rules that both A) explains how the system is to be played (complete with plenty of good examples), and B) requires no other text or periodical or mentoring to understand gameplay or "make the game go."

These people, ace designers who I have derided in the past for their execution of the rules (because of the effect it has on-play and the way the mechanics turns the game into soul-less number crunching, etc., etc. cue standard rant)...these ace designers had the right idea. They took a hard look at Dungeons & Dragons and decided the game needed a complete over-haul, NOT just a face-lift. And they were right. Just as AD&D2's designers were right that AD&D 1 needed a reorganization for ease of comprehension (even though they neutered the game in the process...cue that standard rant), it was perfectly commendable for New D&D's designers to take the approach they did.

And they did a GOOD JOB, too. They accomplished their design goal. Yes, New D&D IS over-long, over-complicated, mechanically soul-less, clunky, and spits on many of the original parts of what made D&D great (like challenging the player rather than the stat block), but it does provide a game that explains how to play, provides consistent rules, a fairly coherent system, and a lot of nifty, internal consistency without a lot of controversy or argument or house rules needed. You can pick up D&D3 (and presumably D&D4) spend a few days reading it and then sit down and play...without any prior experience being necessary. It even provides plenty of flowery prose explaining individual classes and races raison d'etre for adventuring. All in a "far and balanced" way.

That Mike Mearls (who was Lead Developer for 4th Edition(?) according to his wikipedia article) loves the "classic" edition of the game and would like to see them again on the shelves, presumably as an existing, living line of gaming shows a remarkable lack of understanding of his own brand's history of design. We DO have to adapt to the 21st century; this IS a different world/society/time in which we're living and those who cut their teeth on the early editions aren't getting any younger. The way I see it, bringing back "the old line" really isn't an least not if one wants to grow the hobby (or at least keep it alive and thriving). Truly, I really only see three options for this concept called "D&D:"

1) Build Your Own: the tactic I've decided to take (writing my own version of D&D, i.e. "D&D Mine"). I've already explained (at length) why one might choose this route and you can still play D&D while cutting WotC completely out of the mix. Fire up your word processors, folks.

2) Keep On Keeping On: WotC will continue to mismanage the brand, drawing some fans, alienating others, while people who prefer older editions play those or retroclones or mishmashes of editions. Basically allow the game name to become a caricature while maintaining the "spirit of D&D" in the same Cargo Cult fashion with which it entered the world back in the 1970s.

3) Epiphany & Apotheosis: WotC can tear it all down and rebuild it (again) from the ground-up taking a "new classic" approach to its design parameters. Using 21st century design sensibilities with regard to organization, layout, and explanation (of role-playing, how-to-play, etc.) while reverting to the Old School Art of imagination (leave the skills and computer game sensibilities behind) and player challenge. I know this probably won't happen: too many designers are married to the idea that these mechanical systems are necessary and expected in a table-top RPG these days, even though A) many of them are hand-waived or treated with laissez faire attitude at the game table, and B) the best thing to emphasis in an RPG (in my opinion) are those things that a computer game cannot do...the free-thinking, the imagination, the social negotiation of "what happens" in the fantasy world. Take the New D&D approach but wrap it around the nuggets of gold that once fired the imagination (and enthusiasm) of players from many walks of life.

But that #3 probably ain't going to happen. I know, I know I've said mean things about a guy (Mr. Mearls) who I've never met, don't know, and is probably a perfectly fine and dandy human being (he's a gamer and game designer so that's a big plus anyway) based on hearsay of what he might or might not think. The truth is, I sincerely doubt that Mearls (or anyone currently tied to the WotC company) knows who I am, and if they do I doubly doubt my opinion means anything or makes a difference in any of their choices. As people working for a corporation, their main concern is (and should be) the company's bottom line and marketing strategy...and if that strategy says "involve on-line followers with the play-testing and design of D&D5 because that's our target market (i.e. people who follow WotC on-line forums and articles)" then So Be It. We'll end up with a game that appeals to a small segment of the population (if they can do so in a way that doesn't alienate their fan base for some unfavorable misstep or other).

The POINT of this long-winded post is that, after consideration, much as I prefer "D&D Classic" to "New D&D" (due to my Old Fart sensibilities and history with the game) I don't think it would be a good idea to start republishing the AD&D game (1st or 2nd edition) as a living, breathing game line. I think that there is actually some virtue to NEW designers looking at an old, beloved system and saying, "wow, this just really doesn't WORK" when it comes to creating an actual game you can play out-of-the-box. And the hobby NEEDS that if it's going to be sustained over the long haul.

We need a New D&D approach with Old School sensibilities. Unfortunately, what we seem to be getting instead is an Old School approach (grass roots play-testing) with New School expectations. From where I'm standing, it looks destined to end in more ugliness.


  1. I'm no expert, but from what I've played so far, D&D5 feels like #3 to me.

  2. I'm really pulling for the next version of D&D to achieve your #3, but it is probably a long shot. I'm not really into the playtest, as I have limited time and would really prefer to use my limited gaming time to run my beloved Castles & Crusades. But I am hearing some not-so-bad news coming out of the WotC playtest. I suppose I'll have to reserve judgement until I read the game they actually release.

    As for C&C, I think THAT system should be D&D Next...or rather, it already is, IMHO. It captures the old school mentality with a more modern mechanic structure. Again, that's my opinion.

  3. You know, at first, when you quoted me I thought you were going to go on a tirade on how dumb I had to be for believing his words; if you want some more first handinformation, try to find some panel appearances on youtube he flat out says his dream version of D&D on the shelves would look a lot like Basic D&D at the announcement of 5E - also you'd see he looks kinda like Monte Cook, if Monte Cook ate Zeb Cook.

    This post, however, just reinforced why I like Basic Fantasy RPG so much. It is a volume I think you can pick up, spend a day or two with and start playing without an mentor to teach you. Of course it also simplified the combat maths, yeah descending AC is not hard, at all. Nor is it bad game design, but when teaching someone to play any RPG, I feel its best to not complicate with more than two or three different subsystems.

  4. before your portrayal casts me as some sexist butthole, I should say that was a very SPECIFIC game I played in and the girls were probably in 6th or 7th grade. But did seem to revolve around horses and pegacorns much more than the games I usually played in.

  5. @ Steveman:

    I know that (at times) I've taken opportunities to bash Mearls in this blog, but I don't think he's alone in voicing that hope/opinion...heck, the thought's crossed MY mind...but it would be wise to consider just what AD&D is and was. And Mearls should probably know better, based on his position (or he's really looking at the past with rosy-colored glasses).

    I don't really care what he looks like, by the way...Luigi and Mario are fine images to have dancing in my head.

    @ Heron: C'mon man, no one thinks you're a sexist. That kind of play you described is perfectly valid (in my mind) and perfectly illustrates how widely divergent "fantasy role-playing" can appear when working with a crazy-ass set of rules. Jeez.

    ; )