Saturday, February 11, 2012

Building a New Dungeons & Dragons (Redux)

Look, folks…

A couple/few days ago I got incensed by something I read and I got a bee in my bonnet and I said, hey, I can come up with Three Pillars that are a lot better things to consider “across areas of design” than the WotC design team’s Combat-Exploration-Roleplay model. But as I said (initially) I’m just a lone voice ranting from the darkest backwater depths of the internet.

WotC doesn’t care who I am or what I have to say: they’re already getting paid.

Folks who’ve canned everything post-1987 or post-1983 or post-whenever your personal favorite edition was issued probably don’t care (much) about what I have to say: they’re already playing their edition of choice (with or without) house rules.

Folks who are Shills for the Man, or Completists, or Fair Shakers, or Eternal Optimists, and who already plan on buying WHATEVER WotC puts out (they bought 4th edition, anyway), almost certainly don’t care what I say: they’ve already voted with their wallets.

SO…who does that leave? Anyone?

Well to those who ARE listening and don’t think I’m patently ridiculous…to you, Slim Few, I say unto thee:

I can build a “new” edition of D&D…and hell, you can, too.

You can. You really, really, REALLY can.

The more I look at it, the simpler it gets. In fact, the more I roll the idea over in my head, the more I like it.

Allow me to indulge myself for the nonce: a while back I wrote this-and-that about “fantasy heartbreakers,” and even came to the conclusion that I wanted to try my hand at writing one…a game that was a total knock-off of D&D, destined for no more than the trashcan ‘cause, you know, fantasy heartbreakers aren’t viable in any sort of commercial or economic way. It was purely a project of vanity.

Then I started getting some delusions of grandeur: “Wow,” thought I, “maybe I could sell this for some scratch! Maybe Barnes & Noble would carry it!”

Then I woke up from my folly. I considered not only that such thinking was the height of silliness, but also that I really didn’t want to “rewrite D&D.” The things that D&D had “missed on” the first time around were things I found, frankly, quite charming…like the lovable quirks and idiosyncrasies of your friends and family. Anything I really couldn’t live with I could f’ing well “house rule” if needed. That what I do already.

In other words I found I wanted to play D&D.

THEN I really started to fall in love with the idea of campaign settings (and something set me off, though I can’t remember what it was), so I decided to write a very specific one for B/X in the form of Land of Ice. I was thinking of snow and Vikings at the time. ANYway…it was while doing Land of Ice that several things happened at once:
  • All the hubbub about 5E started
  • The AD&D reprints were announced
  • I started playing in Alexis’s AD&D game (and was subsequently canned)
  • I started playing in Randy’s Labyrinth Lord game
  • I re-read the OD&D Supplements I-III
And then there was this Three Pillars thing (in which I take a closer look at “what makes D&D tick”).

And ALL of that roiled and boiled together and spilled over into an idea...a minor epiphany...that, hey, you know what? Not only do I like Dungeons & Dragons…the kernel that is its core, the core material of most every edition…not only do I like D&D and have ZERO interest in writing my own “fantasy RPG” to replace it…not ONLY that, BUT this:

I, too, can write a “new” edition of D&D. It’s not all that hard. After all:

Gygax did it.
Holmes did it.
Moldvay did it.
Mentzer did it.
“Zeb” did it.
WotC did it (several times).

And I would say all these “retrocloners” (Proctor and Raggi and the S&W and OSRIC folks, etc.) have done it, too.

NONE of these games that we call “D&D” (or facsimiles thereof) are “exactly like” any other. I doubt that anyone playing D&D anywhere is playing strictly Rules As Written…I certainly don’t and I’ve long been a big (and loud) proponent of RAW.

The fact of the matter is this:

There is no one, true, complete, baseline edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There are the pillars that form the foundation of game play (Challenge, Reward, and Escape is how I label ‘em). There are the stylistic tropes we’ve come to recognize (XP, class, D20 combat, hit points, saves, etc.). And then there are the players at the table who have a loose agreement on “how to play” based on a common understanding and a (hopefully strong) social contract.

The players say:
“You will be our DM…you will interpret the rules. It is your responsibility to challenge us, to reward us, and to provide us with escape.”

The Dungeon Master says:
“I will accept this mantle of responsibility. I understand that my challenge is to challenge the players, my reward is in seeing my vision come to fruition, and my escape is in the creation of that vision. I will endeavor to share this vision as an impartial channel and arbiter.”

And play begins.

It’s too bad we don’t begin the game with some sort of ritual like this: ritual is a powerful thing, and a real bonding process. You can see it in the rites of a Mass or church service, the pledging of allegiance in classrooms, the swearing on a Bible or holy book…even the singing of the National Anthem, coin toss, and post-game handshake at a pro-football game. RITUAL to open and close a game session would be a cool thing in my opinion…but then again, I’m Catholic and dig on ritual.

But that's a post for another time.

Perhaps what every table needs is its own Game Bible, filled with one’s own interpretation of “the original adult fantasy role-playing game.” That is what I’m actually talking about when I say I can build my own “new” edition of D&D. I really don’t think it’s all that hard to do: pick an edition that you like as a BASE and then write out the differences for your game. How tough is that?

Do you really need to keep sucking at the corporate tit to get nutrition for your imagination?

It’s just as Alexis said (or implies anyway): you really don’t. Waiting for a 5th Edition or a 6th or a 7th or a reprint of earlier books is simply staying dependent on someone else…in this case, a soulless corporate entity whose main concern is baseline profitability due to the reality of being a publicly traded company with shareholders.

I mean, that’s the fact of the matter folks. The ugly truth. Unless you’re brand-spanking-new to the game, just pick an edition you like and rewrite it to taste. Anything less is…well, it’s kind of intellectual laziness, and possibly a bit childish.

And don’t think I’m not calling myself out here as well…I’m as lazy as they come when it comes to organization and getting my shit together. It’s a lot easier to criticize than to actually f’ing DO something. Just because I'm a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to tell it like it is and hold it up as an ideal.

It just means I’m not a very good role model.

So by all means, why don’t we just do it? Build our own “D&D Next?” What are we waiting for? What are we afraid of? Don’t we have word processors and printers at our homes, schools, work?

Have you folks not seen Planet Eris (just as an example)?

I’m doing it…I’m f’ing going to do it. There’s really no excuse not to. I’m going to do a small supplement book (like Greyhawk or Blackmoor or, yes, Planet Eris) and it’s going to collect all the rules I use that describe how the game is played at MY table. No thief skills, for example. No weapon restrictions. D6 damage. Allowable classes. All that good stuff. Heck, maybe I’ll do my own illustrations (I can draw a little bit, and I do have a scanner at home). I’ll save it as a .pdf and make it available for my players as a download for their tablets and smartphones. If rules need to be changed (due to breakage discovered at the game table), I’ll update the book. A small “House Rules Bible.”

Call it, “D&D Mine.”

When will I get to this? Who knows…soon, I hope. I really don’t think it will take that long, as I don’t need it to be a masterpiece of prose, just cut-n-dry rules (maybe a random table or two). I know how to play, I just need a reference document.

And I’ll tell you this: building my own D&D will be a damn sight better, more fun, and hella’ cheaper than waiting for WotC’s new version, and then figuring out which modular supplements I need to run a game. I mean, when you think about it, isn’t it kind of ridiculous?

Ballsy of ‘em? Sure. Done with super-good intentions? More than likely (at least on the part of the designers). Done with love and care for the game? Probably…as best they can given the constraints of their corporate overlords.

But I can project into the future and see myself being disappointed by the whole thing. Wanting to like it, saying O What Neat Artwork and Presentation…and still being frustrated by the whole experience of it. Eventually falling back on My Own Way of playing or an older edition or house-ruling the shit out of whatever-it-is, modular or not.

‘Cause that’s what happens with EVERY edition one plays.

So, yeah, I’m going to head ‘em off at the pass. Maybe I’ll work up a generic template for others to use (maybe…that might be a little too ambitious) so that I’m not the only one on this Quixotic journey.

Anyway…that’s just where my head’s at right now. I know some folks would say, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." I've decided to go for the third option instead.
; )


  1. Yeah man, sound that barbaric RPG yawp across the rooftops of the blogosphere! I too have been meaning to pull together my house rules and share a short PDF of them with the gang out here. Why the hell not? What the F are we all doing out here if not keeping the flame alive and pumping each other up, helping to get everyone excited to play this great game in all it's multitudinous forms?!

  2. Yes, this is exactly what I do already!

    For example, this is what I'm playing now:

    I love house rules like Planet Eris, Outland, and Small But Vicious Dog. One danger though is that it is easy to go overboard. I mean, it's cool and all to put together a digest booklet with illustrations, but all you really need is a page of house rules. It's really easy (at least for me) to end up at the Scylla of overambitious (and thus never finish) or the Charybdis of verbose infodump (which is then never read by players).

    This does seem to be orthogonal to any discussion about 5E though. I mean, you can do this now using your rule set of choice. Or you can do this using 5E as a baseline when it comes out. By the way, your list of 5E buyer categories is missing one important entry: people who are new to tabletop roleplaying and will be starting with 5E because it is what is on the shelf or at the top of the Amazon sales rankings.

    I was even recently thinking about writing up a campaign manifesto. A list of bullet points, no more than a paragraph (though printed large on a single sheet of paper) making clear what the nature of the game was etc. Then I would throw this down in the middle of the table at the beginning of every game. Sort of like your discussion of ritual.

    For those who are interested in making digest booklets, I recently came across this link over at Planet Algol:

    I haven't tried it yet, but it looks interesting.

  3. Love it. The trick is to get started now, while you're all fired up. Starting is the second-hardest part. (The hardest part is knowing when to stop.) Good luck!

  4. I think you should do it. But from reading similar projects (and they're starting to stack up) I know I don't want to sit through reiteration of all the things about the game I already know, just so I can pick out the slight changes. I'd rather have a stated foundation (OD&D white box, B/X, or whatever) followed by ONLY the rules that are changed/added. "white box, but with the 10 second round as Moldvay/Cook", etc...

    At the very least, that's the version you should supply to players, even if you do want an all-encompassing volume.

  5. Damn, is it just me or are things starting to make sense out here again?

    My idea from the start.

    My edition was AD&D1e but when my project is complete I will never play another system. There will be no need. It never goes out of print, changes only when and how I like and can have as little or as much support material as I desire.

    Then, if others are interested, it will be made available for sale.

    It's what I've been saying for weeks. There is a lot of fine work already out here that you can use and just add a house rule notebook to so you can add and make changes as you play.

    And always keep your players in the loop. That is your primary responsibility in that area. Always make certain they are kept up to date on changes = happy player group.

    God, let this snowball keep rolling down hill...

    (and I believe JB you mentioned that Monte was capable of making good product... He already has (along with others)'s called 3.x-the most widely played system/edition on the planet. Start counting how many systems, OSR or Industry, have that OGL in the back. If WotC had a brain they would get with that program.

    The Lego of RPGs, my base starts with Microlite because it's like building a muscle car from the frame up. Lean, mean and stripped to the bone-a great framework to start from.)

  6. D&D Mine. Love it. This lights a fire under my butt like nothing else in recent memory.

  7. I'd love to see something like this as a shared community project, kind of like the Petty Gods supplement.

  8. FYI, the one point that I like to hammer on is this one: Differences of opinion about the SCOPE & COMPLETENESS of a homebrewed ruleset all boil down to who the intended audience is supposed to be.

    If the audience is fellow grognards who still hug their red boxes at night (now there's an image)... then just a one-page list of "deltas" is all you need.

    If the audience is people who've never played a tabletop RPG before... then it's convienient to reinvent the wheel a bit and make it a self-contained rulebook. Yes, even with an eye-bleedingly redundant "What is a Role Playing Game" section. This is the route I'm going, since it lines up with the people that I think I'd be running the game for. But I'll also include that one-page list of deltas up front for my OSR peeps! :-)

  9. I agree with Cygnus on the "who's your audience" approach, and I agree with the Iron Goat as well: for us grognards, just give us the list of house rules. We don't need it buried in an entire reworked retroclone, unless one really thinks they're bringing something revolutionary to the table.

  10. In thirty years of doing exactly what JB is proposing, I've made so many rules, and so many changes, and so many 'refinements,' a total retroclone eventually became necessary. Yet it is still recognizable to the players, and the refinements are easily fit into the player's thinking. It helps that I'm consistent, and it helps that every refinement has been argued over by a host of players over a long, long time. And I'm still doing that. I still encourage players to test the bounds of anything I rule.

    Rewriting the game, as complicated as this, is an eventual necessity.

  11. Great blog post! Like many in the OSR, I subconsciously did just that - created D&D Mine with all the little wonderful things I love and none of the irritating crap that I don't. Works like a charm.

    Here's to the third side!