D&D Edition Wars (Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline)

Oh man, I’ve wanted to write this post for ages. Also, I swear. Quite profusely.

We all have our favorite games right? We also have that one game that we revile. You know… that game. But why? Are you pissed off at the crap that was Super Mario Brothers 2? I mean, it was the red-headed stepchild of the franchise right, but right now, do you still carry angst towards it? Probably not. But why so much hate for RPGs?

Because of passion. Because RPGs mean so much to us. They are intrinsically part of our lives, part of our shared experience. They mean a lot more to us than a fire and forget video game. Yet way less money per year is spent on RPGs than video games. People routinely drop $60 on yet another rehashed video game edition and play it for 60 hours or less, realize that it’s just a poor copy or translation of previous IP and put it on the shelf and just shrug. “It’s just a video game.”

Your typical RPG core rules book is generally $50-60 and has infinite replay value, limited only by your imagination. In fact, if you don’t like the rules, you can fucking change them to suit your own preferences! You can’t do that with that latest video game that completely sucked now can you? Even better, you’re now late on your car payment because you just had to have that game. Also, RPGs tend to give you the whole playable game the first time around. All the “DLC” actually adds to the game. What a notion.

Role-Playing Games are art. We - the content developers, the writers, the artists, the editors - bleed and suffer for that art. That’s also why they mean so much to us. Most of the consumers of RPGs don’t know the names of the authors or even care. They don’t know there’s a real person behind the screen there who went through real struggles to create the thing they are using. There’s no magical wand of good game design that allows us to shit out content at will. Even those designers you see who seem to, do so at a very high personal cost. For your fucking enjoyment. For their own fulfillment. For their meager wages. For their love of a hobby. Need I go on about this? When we trash on others art, it can be very painful for those who are the creators.

That said, I’m totally going to do that here in a bit. Because I’m a fucking ingrate, and trying to make a point.

Luke Gygax was recently a guest on our Wizards of the Couch show. Luke is the son of famed Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. So he knows “a bit” about the game and the industry. We talked about why RPGs are so personal to people, and he had some great answers. Ironically, D&D and the military have some shared experiences. I’m not going to cheapen what our service men and women do and sacrifice by likening it to rolling dice and erasing hit points on a character sheet, but there is a similarity. RPGs create a shared, emotional bond between people that truly transcends most modern life.

The Ruins of Undermountain - copywright Wizards of the Coast

You remember that time the party was lost in Undermountain, running from Halaster’s summoned minions and unsure which way was the exit. You escaped with a handful of hit points and your hearts were pounding. You care about the characters because you are invested in them. You aren’t a pre-made video game avatar that everyone else plays. This is your creation. That character is what you want to be. It’s your fantasy and you are getting to live it. With friends.

So it’s pretty obvious now why we love RPGs. You probably didn’t need me to spell that out. If you’re reading this, you likely already know. However, I wanted to reiterate that fact as I explain further about edition wars. We fucking love role-playing games and we’ll fight you about what we love because it means so much to us.

D&D is also nostalgia. There’s no shortage of it being sold today (I’m looking at you Fifth Edition and the movie industry). But that’s totally fine. I mean, we all have so much love for all of the classic content that getting to revisit it (and the memories and emotions we feel from those days of yore) is a great thing. It’s also clearly doing well for Hasbro.

Some games (editions) are unflappable, regardless of their failures, and trust me, all tabletop games have failures. You can’t make a perfect system that does everything perfectly and appeals to everyone. The Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a great example. I mean, I absolutely fucking love that game. So do millions of other people and for good reason. It’s a great, simple game that captures the feel of what we all think Dungeons & Dragons is about. It’s so lightweight and free, it quickly becomes your game and let’s you play the damn game instead of tripping over the rules, which is why I really feel it’s a smash hit. Grognards have decried it as “too simple” but I think people who don’t try to learn new rules systems don’t get a vote on what is good or isn’t.

But does it have its flaws? Oh yeah. I still love it though, in spite of those flaws. It’s sort of like one of my children. But I find it funny that people take “official” things as perfection and decry independent publishers so much. How many of you have played Curse of Strahd? Hooooooly shiiiiiit is that unbalanced. The writer really was putting story over rules. I’m 100% fine with that because I understand the flexibility of the system and can foresee the pitfalls as my players face them. But I suspect many a green gamemaster who just got into D&D murdered their entire party numerous times because of the outrageous encounter design. But was it fun? Hell yeah. But did you die?

I’m closing in on my point. Bear with me.

As a publisher myself, I’m friends with a lot of the industry’s best writers and designers. That goes back to my point earlier about how when you shit on something on the internet from the safety of your mom’s basement, it actually has an impact. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, shut your vaporous ass gasket.

It’s OK to love what you love, but you need to understand that other people love things too. Just because they like something you don’t, THAT’S OK! It doesn’t hurt you at all! People need to realize that we can even be civil to each other, even when the other person is wrong. Like really wrong, not just pretentiously tunnel-visioned wrong. Whatever it is that you’re fan-boy angry about, it probably doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. But it matters to you. That too, is OK. Just don’t be a dick about it.

So will I take my own advice and not trounce on a couple of tabletop role-playing game systems? Helllllllll nooooooo! In fact, I only “hate” here to illustrate my points and I really love these things, that’s why I’m so angry. Right? I feel like I was betrayed. I didn’t get what I wanted. Waaaaaaaaaagggggggnnnnnhhhhhhhhhh...

So my first scud missile is lobbed at the Rifts RPG by Palladium Games. Remember me saying above that there’s no perfect system that emulates everything? That doesn’t mean someone hasn’t tried. Rifts is a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. That setting is easily the best out there for gritty sci-fi. The problem is that the game is mired in outrageously antiquated rules that have never really been updated. Let’s ice that cake with the fact that there’s zero fucking balance. So you can play a dirty bum surviving on the streets or a demigod. Whatevs.

In the 1990s we were still catering to a lot of masterbatory powergamer fantasies, but I’d like to think that time has passed. The philosophies of game design have evolved and we are looking at what tabletop gaming means now. It’s a shared story and experience right? It’s now much less away from the biggest dick matches of fielding armies on the table that D&D came from. Well, we’ve mostly moved on. Someone is still playing Warhammer out there. You know who you are. I’m trying real hard not to judge.

I should quickly mention Savage Rifts though. Pinnacle Entertainment has the license to use the Rifts setting and IP with their Savage Worlds system. So if you wanted more balance in the rules and the ability to actually play in the setting, check it out. It’s solid gold.

Anyway, moving on. It’s August of 2008. There’s a new edition of D&D on the horizon. I’ve been playing since 1st edition, but that doesn’t actually mean shit. It doesn’t make me cooler than you, and don’t let anyone who has been playing for a long time tell you that it does. It just puts context in my story. You don’t get medals for being a Grognard.

I witnessed the 1st->2nd edition transition. I was just a teenager and I just did what I was told.

I witnessed the 1st->2nd edition transition. I was just a teenager and I just did what I was told. I hungrily grabbed up the new rules and devoured the content. I loved it. At that time I couldn’t tell you what was better or worse. I was just playing D&D and having fun. Oh how I yearn for such simpler times.

The 2nd->3rd edition transition was great too. We took some new steps at erasing the way things have always been done before and actually evolved the game. At the time, the changes were bold and paved the way for some really cool shit. Wait, are you saying my fighter can have feats and doesn’t have to be just like all the rest of them? We finally made the attacks and AC system make intuitive sense? Holy shit! It was a quantum leap forward in the evolution of D&D.

Then we did exactly what all pre-pubescent power munchkins do. We abused the shit out of a system that allowed us to. And we kept abusing that system for a very, very long time. Until the release of 4th edition D&D…

Now let me tell you my own sob story. I had kind of felt 3.5 D&D was broken as shit. You might not have sleuthed that based on my statements above. So I was really, REALLY excited about the possibility of a new D&D game. One that drove the game forward and fixed the problems that were inherent to 3.5.

Because no system is perfect.

I even began the work on a new campaign setting in this time, pouring tons of time, with a vested interest in being ready for it. Gen Con came, and I snatched up those core rulebooks, excited for what lay within. But my spidey-senses were tingling already. This didn’t look like the art I was used to. It felt somewhat cheaper. But whatever, it’s just art right? [Somewhere an artist is dying inside.]

As we drove home, I began reading the now much-maligned 4th edition of D&D. It was everything I didn’t want from D&D. The races were incredibly balanced, to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. Whaddaya mean that my human fighter is just as strong as a minotaur fighter? The classes felt very much the same as well, with powers that needed use to actually do things and each themselves somewhat similar to the other classes only with different flavor. We ran through the first intro adventure (I can’t even recall the name of it, and I have an almost encyclopedic recollection of gaming material) and my players all decided they had zero interest in ever playing again. One character (the Paladin) even ripped up his character sheet and said he’d have no need for that again. That had never happened, even in a bad session before.

This was not the game people wanted at the time. It was too divergent from the style of play people thought was Dungeons and Dragons. Looking back, I’d play the shit out of that game if it was a board game. Had it been called D&D Tactics, it probably would have been a huge hit. But it didn’t feel right as true-to-form D&D. You’ll hear me cry about how games feel a lot. It’s one of my major design tenets. I’d rather put out a slightly unbalanced mechanic over one that feels wrong. Because at the end of the day, fun is what we’re after. Right?

Looking back too you can see the seeds of 5th edition in 4th. Just don’t tell the kids that now. Yeah, much of the great rules that were obfuscated under the weight of quirky mechanics were really solid. So even though people talk today about how much they hated 4E, we wouldn’t be enjoying 5E nearly as much were it not for the exploratory steps 4E took.

So I get it. You love a thing. And maybe it’s superheroes. Good for you. You feel the need to be super powerful, and I see your need to wear tights while you fight crime - weird. It’s not my game. You can love it, and I can still love you as a fellow gamer.

Maybe, just maybe, we all can play nice and enjoy this hobby together.

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