Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Quitting While I'm Behind

My recent posts on WotC's "Tomb of Horrors" and Gamer Generations both included some not-so-flattering remarks about 4th Edition "Dungeons & Dragons."

Now, long-time readers will of course be aware that I've denigrated many editions of Dungeons & Dragons in the past...most especially 2nd Edition AD&D (which I have often claimed to loathe with a passion) and D20 in both its 3.0 and 3.5 versions. Likewise, I'm no huge fan (anymore) of BECMI or the Rules Cyclopedia, finding that Mentzer's system is a little too "kiddy-fied" for my taste. My preferred edition is B/X, hence the name of this blog, but 1st edition AD&D is the version of Dungeons & Dragons that I played most often in my youth and is the one with which I have the most actual play experience.

Now, a lot of times in this blog I talk about "good game design" and what makes a good game (these are table-top RPGs I'm talking about...just want to avoid any confusion out there). I own a LOT of games, and in the past I owned EVEN MORE, and there are some games I have played that I've NEVER OWNED (like say, GURPS). All of these RPGs were designed by real people, people with the best of intentions (I assume), and when I criticize a game I try to be objective about it.

Often I fail. That's just me...I get worked up sometimes.

However, just because I lambast or beat up or curse a game for some reason or another, it doesn't mean that I don't find something good and (God Help Me) "fun" about it. Case in point: I recently (within the last year) re-purchased Palladium's Rifts, a game I all-but-swore I'd never play again. It's STILL terrible and practically un-playable (except by masochistic 13-15 year olds...at least that was the "peak" of mine and my friends' Rifts experiments). But it's still representative of, not only history, but some real nuggets of powerful imaginary content...not to mention some sweet artwork and the chassis to run a post-apocalyptic Borg game (namely using Warlords of Russia).

And who wouldn't want to do that?

Not every game is good for every occasion...not even necessarily in the genre for which they're designed. Capes is a great little superhero game...unless you and the other players are interested in a superhero slugfest. Then its lack of permanence makes the end result O So Un-Satisfying (I know this from experience). Vampire was great at setting the Dark and Gothic Punk mood/ambience...and then turned into a superhero fang-banger game with lots of running gun battles. Hollow World Expedition (or HEX) is a fantastic-looking game, chock-full of inspiration for running a fast-and-furious pulpy adventure game...unless you really want fast-and-furious since the mechanics of action are a little on the clunky side. Castle Falkenstein appears to be a fantastic game all around...except that every time I try reading it I fall asleep.

These are games that I own and will continue to own, providing inspiration and possibly things to tinker with and get a game going with the right people. In some ways, I'm like the guy who collects old junker cars and has them spread all over the front yard, buying 'em for cheap with the idea that I'll fix 'em up "someday" and either sell 'em for a profit or (at the least) own a classic vehicle that is the envy of the local car show.

Yeah...I'm that guy.

Now regarding Dungeons & Dragons: I have owned, played, and run ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons EXCEPT the so-called "4th Edition." Did my faithful readers know I've actually run a 2nd edition game before? I know I've mentioned I've played and run both 3rd edition and 3.5, both at the table and over the internet.

In fact, D2o may have been my single-biggest RPG investment of all time...though I had almost every Vampire publication ever issued for the 1st & 2nd edition, and I had more than a dozen or so Rifts books at one time (not to mention a ton of AD&D stuff). And that's just the 3rd edition...I never bothered to buy 3.5 books (with the exception of the Complete Warrior and Adventurer books), instead just downloading and updating my 3rd edition stuff with the on-line System Reference Docs (SRD).

However, I stopped buying any WotC-issued D&D product long before 4th edition was even announced...and I mean I stopped buying cold, both new and used. Why? Because I wanted to stop the cash sink from a company intent on sucking every last dollar from my wallet? No...I continue to buy gaming product, both used and new, and even purchased Saga Star Wars last year. The jalopies continue to pile up in my game room, much to the wife's chagrin.

No, I stopped playing D20 because it sucked. Running it as a DM or playing as a PC. On-line or at the table. Every game came down to frustration and eventual disgust. With people that were friends, acquaintances, or even outright strangers.

Fortunately, my friends and I are still friends...we can all agree on our mutual dislike of D20.
; )

What was it about D20 I disliked so much? Well, I blogged about it a lot when I first started writing the ol' B/X Blackrazor, but in the end it comes down to a couple things: it emphasized character crafting over good play, combat over adventuring, and unwieldy mechanics over abstract models...the latter creating a steep learning curve that I find antithesis to creating easy access thus stifling the ability to grow the hobby.

Oh...that and WotC usurpation of every old RPG's system with their shiny D20 system. Yeah, I convert most existing games to B/X if I wanted (and I've known people that converted EVERY game to GURPS or Champions)...but just because you can doesn't mean you should...or that the result will be better.

However, setting aside my ideals and indie-gaming rhetoric for the moment, those other things I mentioned all led to a disturbing realization...the game was looking more and more (or trying harder and harder to be) like an MMORPG. You know, like a certain World of Warcraft game on the market?

Now let me be perfectly clear: I have played WoW. I have played it A LOT in the past. I see the attraction, especially for the lone gamer who, perhaps by chance circumstance, doesn't have a group of people with whom to game. Or for people that want a relaxing way to un-wind that takes no prep, imagination, or stress, yet is still a form of escapism that has an "interactive" quality over chilling on the couch in front of the television.

So yeah, I understand it. I've done it. And I know it for the complete soul-sucking waste that it is. Because at least with table-top RPGs you are connecting with humans, having human interaction, creating a community...in addition to stretching and flexing your creative muscles by being forced to use your own imagination and visualization, to create your own stories and decide for yourself which direction "the quest" may take.

Discussing the best group tactics for handling raids and such in an on-line game is not "role-playing." Planning and execution can be done in chess, too, but it lacks the richness and creativity of real role-playing. Of course, if you've never been exposed to that how would you know what you're missing...?

SO...4th edition. I've never played it. I've never DM'd it. I've never owned it, so I've never read it. I've read a lot of reviews of the individual books over at RPG.net. I've skimmed its core book pages at the local book store or game shop. I've had discussions with people that HAVE purchased it and read it. Nothing I've seen or heard has led me to consider investing in it.

And yet here I denigrate it and piss off the people that profess to play and love it. How dare I!

Well, what can I say? To me, it looks like its designed to appeal mainly to players of computer games. I've said this before, but I'll repeat it in this post: you can't make an RPG designed to play like a computer game that plays BETTER than a computer game. If people want a computer game, they'll play a computer game. Maybe WoW doesn't have a "dragon born" race yet, but when they DO (or something equally cool...like DEATH KNIGHTS), people will jump ship to play it. And if WotC and Hasbro design an on-line computer game that plays like 4th edition D&D...with all the races and classes and spells and magic items and cool powers...well, why would you need to play a table-top game if that were available? And why would WotC/Hasbro want to support it if they could get people to pay a $10-20 monthly subscription?

But, hey, that's just my objection to the game on principle...something I wasn't even talking about in those last couple posts. What I WAS saying (that upset some people) is A) 4th edition is not conducive to role-playing, and B) 4th edition isn't really "Dungeons & Dragons."

I suppose people have a point about the former...I haven't played the game so perhaps I shouldn't judge. However, I can say that D20 wasn't (very) conducive to role-playing, mainly due to its focus and emphasis (resolving challenges with combat and/or D20 rolls). But I suppose that really depends on how you define role-playing. And that's a much longer, and much more complicated post for another time.

As to my claim that "4th Edition isn't D&D," well, I stand by what I said. I suppose in a way this patently ridiculous as it DOES hold the title "Dungeons & Dragons," so it is in fact Dungeons & Dragons. But if Pepsi bought the rights to Coke and re-labeled their own drink "Coke" and burned the original Coke formula...well, is the drink in the can really Coca-Cola? People who'd had Coca-Cola in the past (Old School Gamers) would say, "no."

[and just to continue the analogy, Indie Gamers would ignore it and drink RC while Non-Gamers would drink beer...]

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck...but 4th edition doesn't walk the walk or quack the quack of older editions of D&D. Not even of D20, which was pretty far removed from the original game. It has elves and dwarves and gnomes? Sure...so do a number of other fantasy RPGs. It has classes and levels? Ditto that. You find monsters and fight treasure? There's a lot of RPGs on the market, past and present that operate with this premise...that doesn't make 'em Dungeons & Dragons. It just makes them "fantasy RPGs."

People: you're allowed to purchase and play whatever you want. But telling me that 4th edition is "the best edition of D&D there is" or that "this is the newest edition of the world's most popular fantasy RPG" is pretty absurd in my opinion. When I see people saying that, it reminds me of people who said, "D&D sucks, we should play Dragon Quest instead." Or Chaosium's Basic Fantasy RPG. Or Burning Wheel. Or Dangerous Journeys. Or Palladium Fantasy. Or RuneQuest. Or Fantasy Hero. Or MERPS. Or The Fantasy Trip. Or Rolemaster. Or Tunnels & Trolls. Or Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

Or whatever. A commentator in an earlier pointed out Ron Edwards's article on Why System Matters. I would instead point interested readers to Ron's discussions of what he calls Fantasy Heartbreakers. Now of course, 4th edition isn't a Fantasy "Heartbreaker;" this isn't a handful of guys self-publishing a labor of love that hopes to "fix" what is wrong with Dungeons & Dragons. But it IS similar if one considers the "fix" to be a necessary change/adaptation to the perceived idea of what gamers want in the 21st century. However, unlike the independent Fantasy Heartbreakers, by making use of the NAME (i.e. "milking the cash cow") they can ensure some degree of success, regardless of the content of their game, by branding alone.

At least until they drive the value of the brand down.

And whether or not THAT actually happens in my lifetime doesn't much matter to me, as the 4th edition game is not the type of gaming in which I'm interested.

Okay...that's enough for now. Here I was going to put up something more fun on the old blog and I'm talking about this stuff again. Sheesh!
; )


  1. Coming from someone who has played every edition, who owned 4e and ran a six or seven month campaign of it: your perceptions are more or less correct. I'd elaborate, but I'm tired of wasting my breath on 4e, and have since returned to games that better suit my style.

    And, to your defense, it is possible to gather information and form a fairly informed opinion about something without buying into it. Case in point: the trailers for Hot Tub Time Machine tell me that seeing it would not be an enjoyable experience. Hearing my WoW friends talk about WoW has totally solidified my lack of interest in it.

  2. The irony is that all the people who were defending WotC-4E's claim to the legacy of the D&D name KNOW that they're going to get royally screwed by D&D Essentials VERY SOON while the guys who were smart enough not to invest in 4E are feeling righteously justified. The best part is that the pricks at Hasbro-WotC don't give a damn either way cause boy, that D&D brand practically sells itself.

  3. JB, I've mentioned briefly in places on my blog already about my hate for 2nd Edition. It was really the version that started D&D down the path of "RPG diarrhea." Supplement after supplement, campaign world after campaign world...they even cut the Monster Manuals up and made the crappy Monstrous Compendium! TSR started the flow of crap and WotC picked up the ball with 3.0-3.5 (just the fact that they had a .5 edition was an utterly blatant cash grab, IMHO).

    2nd Edition really pushed the game into being a commodity rather than a game, where you no longer could just be a bunch of gamers who only needed to spend a few bucks on the core books and maybe a module or two (but modules were truly optional, so you could pass on them).

    You mentioned Palladium, and I too played Rifts for a while. I remember getting the core rules and being in awe. Then, the flood of sourcebooks started coming out, faster and faster! It became a joke, how much crap they released as time went on. Some of it was good, but the rest was just pages and pages of stupid monsters and bad character class options. And their other game worlds suffer from varying degrees of the same diarrhea.

    I will be writing a more detailed post on my disgust hopefully soon.

  4. I just want to say I enjoy your blog.

    Now that I've buttered you up, I'd have to say my 4E group would disagree with you. To them it's D&D because this is their first, for the most part, foray into Role Playing. Three of my eight rotating players have played previous incarnations of D&D, only one going back to 1E like myself. We aren't kids, average age 30, and none of us play MMORPG's. We all have a limited window of time to play once a month and want nothing more than to play the game.

    As for the game no longer being conducive to role playing again my group would disagree, we have entire 6 hour sessions with little to no combat.

    In the end every edition is someone's 1st Edition. Is 4E great, no, not by any stretch of the imagination. Is it playable? Yes, and with the right DM & group it's a great time. Min/Max players will of course abuse the system, rule's lawyers will still be rule's lawyers regardless of edition, it all falls on the Players & the DM to make the most of the experience.

    So while I love 2nd Edition, mainly because those for me were the halcyon days of gaming for me. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but to my players who are experiencing the joy and wonder of exploring things like Castle Ravenloft or the Keep On The Borderlands for the very 1st time, this is THEIR D&D and I'm just enjoying the ride.

    Thanks again for the top notch read and an argument that has made me think very hard on my feelings on the so-called "Edition Wars".

  5. I got mentioned in your post? Bizarre!

    I still stand by the "System Matters" article, as people endlessly try and defend 4th edition as being just as roleplayable as any other edition, which is an absolutely silly notion.

    Also, I disagree with you on the point that MMO players want their roleplaying games to play like MMOs. It's akin to saying that people who work in a cubicle all day want to play games that center around paperwork. If you prefer, it'd be like saying carpenters want for every game to have detailed wood-working rules.

    They scratch different itches. But maybe I'm biased? Not every MMO'er cares about the history of the hobby or the OSR or is entranced by Gygaxian prose and all of that fun stuff.

  6. As for the game no longer being conducive to role playing again my group would disagree, we have entire 6 hour sessions with little to no combat.

    You might have 4e books on the table (or laptop) but it sure doesn't sound like you're playing 4e. :)

  7. An hour ago I’m really interested on the 4e, but now after reading too much post and comments I’d rather try not to have the copy. Well I guess too much criticism, that’s why I value other’s opinion. Well I guess I just save it and look for discount coupon where I can get cheaper warcraft gold. thanks for a nice read! Long life!

  8. @Icarus, D&D Essentials is as necessary to existing players of 4e as the Mentzer box set was to folks that were already playing AD&D 2nd Edition. That is to say, not at all.

    JB, I know that you've got a lot more invested in the D&D brand and its style of play than I have. Hell, 3.5 was my first edition, so to speak, and I played it enough to know that it didn't satisfy what I wanted out of a fantasy role-playing game, so I moved on to other lighter and more story-driven games (your Wushus and Inspectres and the like). Since I've discovered the old Basic editions of D&D, I've found that they scratch an itch for a grittier, more strategic type of game, one that I've never played before. But would I use them for high-powered cinematic heroics? No, just like I wouldn't use Unknown Armies to do high-powered cinematic heroics. 4th Edition scratches my itch for that style of play.

    But still, I read games like Swords and Wizardry and Basic Fantasy and want to run them. I'm bidding on a copy of the Moldvay Basic set on eBay right now and a lot of that desire to play it has come from your blog. Shit, I just designed my first dungeon after eight years of roleplaying!

    To play the hyperbolic Devil's Advocate, I've never played or GMed B/X D&D. Based on the opinions of others, I could easily come to the conclusion that B/X is a dumbed-down version of D&D for kids and that I shouldn't waste my time with it, or that Dungeons and Dragons itself is just a hack-n-slash board game and isn't conducive to role-playing. Even though you know I'm entitled to my opinion, it would still sting, wouldn't it? For me, hearing someone offhandedly dismiss a game that you've put a lot of effort into over the years would make me want to at least run a game of it for them so that they could decide for themselves in play.

  9. @ CitizenBen: If 4E is their 1st foray into role-playing than your players sound like their 5th generation role-players. It sounds like you are the DM and have some experience with earlier editions...?

    If that's the case, that's a good thing as you can help them understand what role-playing is...I'm not sure 4E (by itself) could do that.

    @ Nick: I do NOT believe MMO players want MMO in their RPGs. I agree they are two different media, two different forms of entertainment.

    However, the current publishers of D&D seem to have this notion (a "perceived idea" as I wrote above, i.e. a perception, i.e. not necessarily reality) that people that play WoW and people that play D&D are the same type of people ("escapist nerds that want to blow shit up with magic or swing swords and fantasy monsters") and they are gearing their game as if to appeal to this demographic. I agree with you that they are NOT necessarily the same demographic...which is why the re-vamp is so insulting on one level and crazy on another. Personally, I think people sitting at a table want MORE from their RPG than a video game...I know I do.

    @ Jamie: I have heard plenty of arguments against playing B/X in the past, and have poked fun at it myself. D&D itself is in many ways based on a ridiculous premise, so no, it doesn't sting. As far as dismissing it out of hand, all I can do is point out its virtues and if it doesn't appeal, so be it.

    I'm not saying 4th edition isn't a fun game. I'm just saying it's not an especially good RPG (that's A) and that it's not really D&D (that's B). That doesn't mean it's not fun and not worth a play, if that's what your looking for...kind of a complex, skirmish-level war game.

    I wouldn't say I'm particularly invested in D&D as a brand...after all, I don't own stock in WotC or anything, so it's no skin off my teeth if they go belly-up, especially as they're not publishing anything I want to buy anyway. I AM interested in the continuing hobby/industry of RPGs for a variety of reasons, however, and will do what I can to steer folks towards games that promote the kind of gaming community I'd like to see.
    : )

  10. While I agree with your right to say that 4ed isn't a good game, I might disagree with your statement that it is not D&D. More specifically, I would say it is not conducive to *your* D&D, although there are plenty of other people finding *their* D&D in it. My thoughts are elaborated in this post: http://mediocretales.com/?p=872

  11. D&D is a state of mind? So what about the Product Identity Clause that WotC slapped on the SRD? Is that a state of mind too, like chess is a state of mind? So if I made all the pawns move like rooks it'll still be chess right, cause, you know, its a state of mind...

    Way to go trooper.

  12. @ JB, I've been playing since 1st. I completely agree with your statement about Role Playing. 4E does not put a premium on it. In order to get the four women in our group to play though I needed to 'sell' the game as collective storytelling. So I've really made a concerted effort to have the game be about the characters not interesting combat encounters, which is something 4E does do well. Great point.

  13. “...it emphasized character crafting over good play, combat over adventuring, and unwieldy mechanics over abstract models...”

    Very well put!