An Oral History of D&D Discussion Online

There are plenty of things that annoy me about how RPGs in general and D&D particular are discussed online, from edition warring nonsense to the notion that D&D is THE RPG because I can’t find anyone to play other games because D&D is THE RPG. Lately I keep feeling like I’m the only one who remembers anything about how things went over the past 15 or so years of online discussions. A lot of new concepts have entered the discussion, including the stuff the OSR has championed, that have vastly altered the discourse.

In the mid to late 90s I saw some discussions on BBSes, usenet, and finally the web, though in my family we were lagging a bit behind in computer technology. Lots of people played and liked D&D (and made fan material and netbooks and such for it), but the overall consensus seemed to be that it was a game for mindless hack and slash. It was the arrogant, brainless, undeserving 800-pound gorilla, and thank god the likes of White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games, Chaosium, Palladium, etc. were giving us games with some room for actual role-playing or something. While people would sometimes cite D&D sessions without any die rolling, from what I saw the standard rebuttal from D&D fans was simply, “But we like dungeon crawls!” This was actually my first exposure to what would become the “badwrongfun” meme, and it really changed how I looked at RPGs, for the better. This was also the time when TSR was the great villain of the industry, even in the eyes of many people who liked D&D, with constant complaints about the company’s money-grubbing business practices and penchant for shutting down unauthorized fan activities. Some people accuse Wizards of the Coast of putting profit motive first today, but that minority is nothing compared to how just about everyone could type “T$R” with the dollar sign with a straight face and no fear of even being criticized for it. (“Micro$oft” has gone out of style too, come to think of it.)

3rd Edition and d20
When TSR went out of business and Wizards of the Coast bought the rights to D&D, people were decidedly mixed on the news. I remember meeting a group of gamers in 1999 or so who were still playing their heavily houseruled AD&D1e, and they told me they were “probably not even going to play third edition.” When 3rd Edition did come out, a lot of people liked it, and a lot of people completely and utterly lost their shit over it. John Wick posted a very long, in some cases factually deficient, and decidedly undignified screed against it as a two-part column, and there was no shortage of reviews that just listed stuff about the new edition while acting as though they were horrible somehow, something that made a major comeback in 2008. Complaints about the layout of the books (with their tiny text and rampant use of brown) and the “dungeonpunk” art were commonplace. (And you’ve got to admit, the sorcerer with a zillion belt buckles and no shirt did look kinda ridiculous.) People didn’t like the increased healing, the new take on alignments, the skills, the lack of limits on race/class combinations, and pretty much anything else that was different.

The d20 STL also deepened the backlash from D&D anti-fans. Publishers were suddenly falling over themselves to put out d20 material, and as I understand it distributors were indiscriminately snapping up d20 stuff and passing on non-d20 stuff for a while. There have always been gamers who don’t like classes, levels, inflating HP, XP based on killing monsters, etc., but now D&D’s rules were infecting the rest of the game industry. It was easy to feel justified in holding d20 in contempt, considering just how many mismatched and sub-par d20 products came out. There was some legitimately good d20 material out there and even some good d20 adaptations of things, but even some respected publishers put out lousy d20 products. Shoehorning the likes of DeadLands, BESM, and Babylon 5 into the system were the kind of bizarre decisions that only the d20 boom could’ve created. Gaming survived the d20 boom and bust of course, but I think it’s telling that all of the d20/OGL titles with any longevity at all are the ones that broke the mold and made new and separate games. The likes of Midnight, DragonStar, Scarred Lands, Nyambe, and so on are all but forgotten, while Mutants & Masterminds is one of the top superhero RPGs, and Pathfinder is one of the top RPGs period. But whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s another thing that attracted massive vitriol that’s since been basically forgotten.

Old Is New
One of the major things 3rd Edition did was to update D&D to late 90s style RPG design, with skills, more flexible character creation, and so on. This is more of a change from prior editions of D&D than many people realize. Some people act as though D&D had continuity from white box to 3.5 and then 4e broke it, but the “skill check paradigm” of 3rd Edition was a massive change to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and its multiclassing system and the removal of many of the game’s prior character restrictions were a huge change too. Although by all accounts 3.x was a big mess in terms of balance, it introduced the idea that PCs should be balanced at any given level rather than across a campaign. There was still the “linear fighter/quadratic wizard” thing of course, but the relatively small benefits of being an elf didn’t mean that you stopped gaining levels at a certain arbitrary milestone, because being a human got you a couple of nice things too. These changes did not sit well with AD&D fans at all, and there were an awful lot of usenet and message board posts where only a little bit of search and replace could turn a rant against 3e into one against 4e. The characters were now superheroes, it was spitting on Gygax’s legacy, the layout of the books looked awful, and so on.

When 4th Edition came out, to me it felt like it was 2000 all over again, except the Great Edition War of 2000 had been erased from time except in my memory. People forgot that when asked what he thought of 3rd Edition Gary Gygax said he didn’t like it, and in one or two cases some people stooped so low as to say that “4E Killed Gary.” People were saying things about it that were obviously untrue (“every class plays the same”) or mean-spirited (“This dumbed-down game is for WoW kids who have no attention span”) once again. I don’t know what else to say about it that wouldn’t involve dumb edition warring on my part, so let’s move on.

New Thinking on Old Games
Where I think the OSR has had the biggest influence is in how we talk about D&D, especially older editions. There was a time when people tended to think of gamers who still played AD&D1e as weird and rare “cargo cult” gaming groups, and even the fans of older editions didn’t manage to actually articulate what it was they found appealing about those games. Reading the old letters columns in The Dragon (before it became Dragon Magazine), it seems eminently clear that we’ve all gotten vastly better at discussing our experiences in RPGs. Some Forge discussions claimed that gamers tended to be irrationally, vehemently against properly analyzing their play, and certainly looking at TD it felt like people were talking past each other a lot and thinking too much in terms of rules on the page and not enough in terms of the game happening at the table, even when they were playing a game that cannot provide a coherent experience with rules alone. The OSR puts a lot of emphasis on things like “rulings not rules” and developing skills and structure within the basic framework of the rules. A lot of people no doubt arrived at this style of play on their own, but from every account I’ve read of D&D play back in the day, it was all over the place. Old-school D&D bred some really phenomenal old-school DMs, but other people arrived at a random and violent experience with minimal role-playing (especially when the “party crier” system was used). Where now the OSR has built up an effective and compelling “theory of old-school play,” for a long time there was no coherently articulated argument for older editions. People would look at older versions of D&D, wonder how the heck you play an RPG without any skills,[1] and not get any particular answer, in part because they’d already moved onto an RPG that did have them rather than actually asking the question.

The other thing I think has changed is that game design techniques for RPGs have improved. That doesn’t mean that newer RPGs are inherently better–it’s in the nature of tabletop RPGs that the quality of the experience is dependent on several other factors in addition to the rules[2]–but I don’t see how anyone could look at the game mechanics being produced now and not find them clearer and more mathematically sound than in the past. This in turn means that another change in online discussions is that more people are pointing out the mechanical shortcomings of 3rd Edition. In my gaming group’s flirtation with 3rd Edition we never really dug into the mechanics too deep or tried to exploit things all that much, but by all accounts the rules got eminently exploitable and fantastically imbalanced. The people who still prefer 3.5/Pathfinder have largely responded to this by saying that balance is unnecessary or even detrimental to good gaming. The clarity part of newer game writing is in some ways the more important bit though. OSR games can use the same kinds of mechanics as older games, while clearly communicating the rules and especially the informal techniques of play that were often left to trial and error in the past. I think that’s a huge, important thing right there, because good GMing techniques badly need to move beyond merely being a sporadic oral tradition.

What’s Next?
The discourse around D&D Next/5e isn’t all that different when it comes down to it. WotC has said that they want to appeal to players of older editions, which has rekindled some of the edition warring. For 4E fans a lot of what’s coming out of the Legends & Lore columns sounds like going backwards on the progress that 4E made, but of course there are still plenty of people who don’t want martial dailies and whatnot. The info on the new edition is still vague enough that no one can really comment on it coherently (not that that’s stopped people of course), and the only prediction I’m really willing to make is that the year it drops will look a lot like 2000 and 2008. Edition war. Edition war never changes.

[1]I know it took me a while to figure this out. BESM kludged a skill system on in its 2nd Edition, and was worse for it, because although the designer was playing it fine without skills, he apparently couldn’t explain to anyone else how to go about it.

[2]Plus there are rare games like Call of Cthulhu that got things so right the first time around as to need virtually no changes at all.

1 thought on “An Oral History of D&D Discussion Online

  1. Man, I’ve read letters in old Dragon issues from about the time Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition came out, and they were exactly the same as the 3rd Edition flame wars, or the 3.5 transition flame wars, etc.

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