I think I’ve figured out what it is I like about Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. To me, they’ve managed to laser-focus on the things where D&D is in fact better than most other RPGs. They’ve turned it into a combat-oriented dungeon-crawling game par excellence. If it’s not as strong on role-playing elements as some prior editions, there are plenty of other games that were better than D&D at such things to begin with, and it was never part of D&D’s paradigm to stress such things mechanically. Basically, I’m looking forward to playing 4th Edition with my friends because it’ll be a novel experience for me. We played 3rd edition some when it first came out, but otherwise we’ve pretty much abandoned it, and playing such a “game-y” and clearly-defined RPG would be something new after playing long campaigns with Fudge, Truth & Justice, and OVA.
Reactions to Changes
I will admit to having engaged in what Judd calls 4enfreude — grim enjoyment of other people’s distress over the changes to the new edition. Pretty much the only RPG forum I go to that hasn’t had any to speak of is Story Games. From my perspective a large portion of the complaints seem a bit trivial. Admittedly, none of the races or classes I was ever particularly interested in playing got cut (for the aforementioned game with my friends I’m playing a half-elf Fighter, if a rather eccentric one), but then the changes to the selections of such things aren’t any more severe than in prior editions. AD&D 2nd Edition didn’t have any half-orcs, monks, or barbarians. 4th Edition is also aping MMORPGs (but I don’t want to explain why), doesn’t have enough items, will run over your dog, and completely fails at being 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 3.5 editions, much less white box or Rules Cyclopedia.
I’m not in any way attached to the prior editions–the very few d20 and AD&D2e books I have I keep around more for inspiration, or in the case of Planescape unbridled awesomeness–and unlike my friend Chris’ roommates I don’t have a long-running campaign that’d be impractical to port over. When 3e got rid of THAC0, I saw it as a major step forward in terms of being willing to discard artifacts of the earlier versions’ idiosyncratic design when something new would just plain work better. You can debate the relative merits of “balance” in RPGs, but I really, really like the idea of wizards always having something useful to do and fighters having more options than just swinging a sword.
Market Type Stuff
I do wonder about D&D’s popularity and moreover its dominance in the hobby. Not because I think it’s a bad game–far from it–but simply on the fact that it’s remained such an overwhelming hold over RPG fandom as a whole for the entirety of its existence. Video games thrive on variety; each generation has at least two major consoles, and each console strives for a game library encompassing hundreds of titles in every genre available. There are people who like a narrow range of genres, and people who have some perennial favorite they keep on playing, but on the whole video gaming as an industry moves forward through new stuff. In particular, the video game industry has to invent new genres periodically, since the older onces become calcified and cater to an ever-shrinking hardcore audience. I don’t know board and card games that well, but my impression is that there’s new stuff coming out all the time, and even casual players (1) don’t stick with just one game, and (2) are occasionally willing to give new stuff a try. Wargames and MMORPGs have their dominant games (Warhammer 40K and World of Warcraft), but these are relatively recent games that essentially took the core of the established hobby and found the right mass appeal to take off.
Of course, if you look at the different editions of D&D as separate games (and certainly entirely too many people have a habit of decrying the latest version as not being “real D&D”), you might argue that TSR and WotC have managed to do just that. The so-called “kill things and take their stuff” approach is simple and accessible, and all the more so with the new edition’s emphasis on setting up encounters.
When I posed the question of why people play D&D exclusively on Gaia Online’s Tabletop Gaming forum, very few people actually said they did so by choice per se. There are a lot of people who just want to play some kind of RPG, and D&D is the only one they can find a group to play with… Which in turn sends me to the question of why it’s hard to find groups playing stuff other than D&D, which then puts me back where I started. “D&D dominates the RPG hobby scene because it’s the dominant RPG.”
But there are people who just refuse to give other RPGs a chance, and I still wonder how one can think that way. I mean, I seriously can’t think of an analogue that I can relate to. Even when I don’t like a genre, I can usually find something within it that I’ll enjoy (Shawn of the Dead, Uno, Halo, etc.), and even if I can’t, I’ll still give it a chance if a friend recommends it (hence although I’ve concluded that wargames do nothing for me, I have in fact played Warhammer 40K a couple times). When I do like a genre, I’ll go through periods of going all-out researching what’s out there on the internet and such (ask me about how I wound up doing a research paper on Godzilla some time). I seriously just can’t wrap my head around why someone who likes one role-playing game wouldn’t give any others a chance.
But What Is D&D Really Like?
One interesting thing that’s coming out of all this rumination on the validity of the new edition is that it’s harder than you might think to make assumptions about how people want to play the game. Part of why people are taking issue with 4e is its tighter focus doesn’t appear to mesh as well with how they want to do things. It’s hard to say anything definitive about early D&D because different groups interpreted and approached the rules differently, and houseruling was a way of life. Here are some different accounts I’ve gleaned from different places:
- Sociologist Gary Alan Fine reported that when he studied gamers in the Twin Cities area, he found relatively few people actually spoke in character, and many used the games as outlets for violent and even sexual urges.
- From what I’ve been reading in forums, one account says that Gygax meant for characters to use lots of hirelings and to move on to more of a leadership role as they rise in levels, yet he was surprised to find them remaining adventurers indefinitely.
- One person said that dungeon crawls were about avoiding combat as much as possible in favor of achieving a stated objective.
- Another recalls being docked points in a tournament game for using guile to deal with a monster rather than killing it outright.
- And when AD&D came along, Gygax wrote a long column in The Dragon about how if you play AD&D with house rules, you’re not really playing AD&D, likening it to trying to push a variant of chess into an official tournament. In general he seems to have done a lot of ranting about how TSR’s D&D was pure and gamers should avoid the bastardizations provided by APAs and such.
- By the time 2nd edition came around, Gygax was no longer with TSR, and from what little I know of that time the company seemed more inclined to deal with other companies trying to make D&D-compatible products with lawyers rather than snark (hence the “T$R” moniker used relentlessly on BBSes and usenet). 3rd edition came after White Wolf had already made its mark on the hobby, and you would routinely see people bragging about how they’d spend sessions of D&D wholly immersed in role-playing and intrigue sometimes (which makes one wonder why they’re using the D&D rules at all).
In a sense, the new edition does a lot more than the previous ones to divert gameplay towards what the designers felt was the optimum mode of play. More styles of play are left with little to no mechanical support (in the matter of the 3e court intrigue games), but the core style is supported exceptionally well.
On the other hand, the last two editions have done a lot more to remove some of the particularly Gygaxian notions about how the game should flow. Third Edition tossed out level and class limits for non-human characters. The argument was that it was a balancing factor intended to ensure that human characters would take center stage in the game despite demihumans having inherent advantages. This in turn relied on the assumption a group would play the game regularly for a very long period of time and characters would improve relatively slowly; if you were to play the game for less than a year, the level limits were unlikely to actually come into play in the first place. (Also, I’m one of the people cheering for the demise of Vancian magic in D&D).
In conclusion, this turned out to be much longer and more rambling than I originally intended. I’m looking forward to playing the new version of D&D. It’s a very good game, but I can’t comprehend why anyone would consider it THE game. On the other hand, the haters are silly at best, and undignified at worst. This is doubly true of the ones who like an older edition, and triply true of the ones that like 3.5 and have no sense of the history of the game. (Guess what? Barbarians and half-orcs weren’t in AD&D2e either!)
For my group we’re going to start at 1st level (and one of the things I like is that 1st level PCs aren’t so goddamn weak), and we will be using maps and miniatures, albeit on the cheap (I have Chessex battlemats, one of my friends has a couple boxes of old pewter minis, and the rest will be cardstock I’m sure). On the other hand I totally want to get a special set of dice for the game, including a Crystal Caste metal d20. I will post a bit about my experiences if/when I have something interesting to post.