Friday, January 13, 2012

Strength Is How Strong You Are

Hey guys. What's new?

I have a new Dungeons & Dragons group. My last regular group was during the LA Days, and we played 4th edition. That's the one where the core races & classes are split up over multiple players' handbooks, and everyone gets sweet special moves when they level up. If you get through 2 or 3 combat encounters in a single session, then you're moving at a pretty quick clip.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh toward 4E, then it's because I'm being kind of harsh toward 4E. In general it's true that your D&D game is as fun as you make it, but after running a 4E campaign for a good three months of weekly sessions, by the end it was just lots of searching through papers for the proper power and, to me, a lot of restrictions on what I could make happen on the fly. The encounters in 4E involve a lot of different types of the same monsters -- Kobold Minions, Kobold Skirmishers, Kobold Slingers, Kobold Dragonshields, Kobold Wyrmpriests and Kobold Slyblades -- and a reliance on miniatures that made game prep lots of work and not a lot of fun. In general I'm not a snobby kind of dude, you know? But I think I really decided that 4E isn't for me.

But! After the move to Baltimore I found myself with a cadre of new friends who were interested in some D&Ding. I don't remember now how the idea first came up, but I know that Kate and I invited more people than we thought would/could come, because I figured it was the kind of event where folks would try it, get bored with it, and then maybe half would become regular players. But this very eve we're going to launch our fourth (I think?) session, and so far everyone has come back for more. The players are mostly new to D&D, and I don't think anyone is an RPG aficionado, so I took the opportunity to foist my preferred edition unto their unsuspecting nerd-holes:

In the words of Pierce Hawthorne, "I won Dungeons & Dragons! And it was Advanced!"

I chose 2nd edition partly because I already have a lot of the books, but mostly because my memory of AD&D is that it fosters more role-playing. The rules are there, but kind of loosey-goosey. Even as they expanded into more campaigns and realms of greater PC-customization, there was a core make-it-up-as-you-go to the game that was surely rooted in playing it in high school when no one wanted to actually read the rulebooks cover to cover, but also, I think, inherent to the system. The jump to 3rd edition brought great satisfaction to the players and DMs who wanted every question answered somewhere in the rulebook -- take a look at the size of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, which is built on the bones of D&D 3.5.

It's probably more true that whatever version of D&D you come to first will be your D&D, regardless of the reasons. Wizards of the Coast have just announced "D&D Next", being the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and they did it in the New York Times of all places. 4E came out in 2008, 3E in 2000, and 2E in 1989. That's a slight acceleration of a few years with each new edition, and the reasons are pretty clear. D&D started with Gary Gygax and Dave Arenson at TSR, the product of a couple of guys playing games in their figurative basement. It grew and changed through licensing deals and cartoon shows and toy lines -- re-reading 80s New Mutants comics lately have led me to some rad ads for D&D the game and D&D the product line -- but in the 1990s TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast, who made their mark on the gaming world with Magic: The Gathering. A few years later, Wizards of the Coast was bought by Hasbro, toy and gaming overlords whose history is the same as most successful 20th century corporations/brands. They had success in the mid-century with things like Mr. Potato Head, and have grown since through mergers and acquisitions. This means that the people currently making Dungeons & Dragons have corporate bosses and conference calls and R&D meetings. I'm not saying Gary Gygax didn't have those over the course of his career, or that AD&D is pure and 4E is not because one was homegrown and the other was playtested at Hasbro-sponsored events. But I am saying that the development of a new set of rules is now more about selling a ton of new core rulebooks, rather than collecting new rules and revisions that have been developed organically by the gaming community.

Part of any given Dungeons & Dragons Edition lifespan is now a planned obsolescence. Maybe that was always true and I was too young or naive or disinterested in such things to observe it before. Maybe it's from having a professional life and seeing office politics play out in a number of environments, so that I can understand better the benefits a major rules overhaul would bring to Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro's year-end sales.

But what I feel in my bones is that I'm having friends over tonight to play AD&D, and the only things it's going to cost us is the price of snacks and beer. Kate & I are going to make a pasta bake and a pot of chili and we're going to sit in my office and pretend to be elves and dwarves and kobolds and owlbears. I'll leave the fighting and the pre-ordering to somebody else.

There's a big difference between playing D&D and being an active member of the D&D online community. As with most online communities, it's full of dark corners and bad attitudes -- but there are two blogs I've been reading since getting back into the game that I feel bring enthusiasm to the topic and show their love of the game. One is Grognardia, written by an RPG creator & enthusiast whose allegiance lies with 1st edition, and the other is The Id DM, written by a gamer who returned to D&D after several years away, and who currently plays 4E. Also, The Escapist did a great series of articles on D&D's Past, Present, and Future, the latest of which is a little outdated now after the "D&D Next" announcement. But still worth a read if you're interested in the game and its history and the people who are invested in either. It's especially illuminating with regard to the switch to 3rd Edition, the Open Gaming License, and the resulting "Edition Wars" that are bound to break out all over again when the new version premieres.

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