Friday, January 20, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - D&D Next

New editions cause angst to many players. We all realize that WOTC isn’t going to come collect your books and that you can keep on playing past the “deadline” – and some of us do just that – but there’s a psychological factor for many people (myself included) when your game is “dead” that decreases interest in playing it. I’ve come to recognize it and I am pretty good at working past it though it tends to be easier with older games for some reason – maybe a few years have to pass and then they achieve classic status in my mind. I notice that so far WOTC is being very careful not to call it “5th Edition” as that very name implies a 6th Edition (probably about 2015 at this rate). As the lifespan of each edition has decreased, long term players have commented that they are not getting their money’s worth out of the books they buy and that they are tired of learning the rules all over again. I find this an eminently sensible position – if a game works and I like it, why should I buy all those same books all over again every 5 years? I know how it benefits the company but what problem are we solving here for the player? If it doesn’t make the game better in some clear way then why should I spend that money and time on the new version when I could instead keep right on playing with the old one?

Thus, my two biggest concerns with The New Thing:

One of the stated goals of Next is to never require a new edition. I think that’s a questionable goal. From a business perspective, the easiest money you can make is from printing a new Player’s Handbook. Why would you explicitly state that one of your design goals rules this out? Because on the flip side the players know how that works, and we see it as an unlikely scenario and that leads us to conclude that someone is not being honest about their plans. Looking for nuances, if the plan is to print an updated PHB for what is technically the same edition at set intervals, well, that’s not exactly “not” a new edition if I’m still going to need to buy a new book every few years now is it? Either way it looks a lot like a deceptive approach and I hope someone is thinking this through. If the company was to go to an annual update model (2012 PHB, 2013 PHB, etc.) as I suggested when Essentials came out then I think most players could be convinced of the benefits if they would just be upfront about the plan! They also need to keep it cheap. Additionally, something similar was said about 4th Edition and we can all see how that turned out.

The other goal that concerns me is to present a set of rules that caters to players of every edition and “unifies the game”. It’s a noble goal, no doubt, but it puts constraints on the design that I don’t think a new edition needs. Some of the biggest differences between players of each edition are mechanical ones – they don’t like the way one edition handles things compared to another edition's approach. How is one set of rules going to reconcile something as basic as ascending vs. descending armor class? How about a complete lack of skills (OD&D) vs. a few class‐specific skills (Thieves in 1E) vs. a full‐blown universal skill system (3E) vs. only encounter‐relevant skills (4E)? How about Feats vs. no Feats? Racial limits? Wizards and armor? Clerics and edged weapons? Multiclassing –is it for demi‐humans only? Is it per‐level‐mix‐and‐match‐as-desired like in 3rd? Is it handled via Feats? Prestige classes? Paragon paths? I just don’t see a way to integrate these different systems in a coherent game system short of including them all and saying “pick which one you want”! Guess what? I can already do that! I have Basic! I have 1E! I have 2E‐3E‐4E! I can pick which edition I want to play and start up a new campaign any time I want to! Thanks to the miracle of the Internet so can anyone else! Between PDF sales and eBay there’s a ton of material easily and cheaply available for nearly any edition of any game! Beyond that we have retro clones in a multitude of flavors plus Pathfinder, the biggest “retro‐clone” of all! So to me this new edition is now not just competing to be better than 4E – it’s attempting to be better than all of the prior editions to all of the people that think their chosen edition is the best. That’s a very high bar to set, one unlikely to be overcome IMO.

Additionally I don’t really want the mechanics of the 2013 edition to spend a whole lot of time looking backward to the Cleric vs. Undead tables of 1978 – I have that already, and anyone who doesn't probably doesn't care! If you don’t have something new to say about it then I don’t need a new set of rules. I don’t even need a simple refinement of 4E as my 5E – I’m willing to take a look at a completely different approach if it makes for a good game. What I don’t automatically agree is healthy is the appeal to disgruntled players. Looking at their concerns, sure. Bending the game backwards 20+ years, not so good. Do you think the kids learning to play this decade care how wizards worked in the 80’s? Is that relevant to them at all? Let me tell you from experience – no! Should their interests and expectations be a part of this process? I’d say at least as much as the guys who stopped at 1E and possibly more! The 1E guys have their edition, and in 3 updates since then they’ve said “No thanks”, to the point that some brag about how it's been 20 years or more since they purchased a D&D product! So quit poking them with the edition stick and let them go!

Now despite these misgivings I am interested in seeing what comes out of this whole operation. I've moved along (eventually) with every new edition of D&D and in general I would expect to do the same here. I do see some early signs that have me concerned about the direction of the game but I'm willing to give it a chance. I'd  like to see them look backward for inspiration, but look forward for the design. Don't concentrate so much about pleasing all former and current fans - think about the future and make the best D&D that you can make. Impress us.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - D&D Fourth Edition

By 2007 I had been running 3E games almost continuously since 2000 with a pretty stable group of players and I was seeing more of the flaws in 3rd Edition than I liked. Monster stat blocks were incredibly dense and I found that they had more abilities than I was ever going to use (assuming I could remember to use them in the first place), plus many of them were pointless things for an enemy designed to be killed off in 10 rounds or less. Building new opponents was more complicated than I liked, too much so to do it on the fly and it was limiting my reaction time. The final straw was when people started finding numerous errors in the WOTC monster statblocks in their own monster manuals – if you’re going to come up with a complicated system for monster building for your game then at the very least you should stick to it in your official supplements for that game! If your own design team can’t keep up with it then maybe that’s a hint that something’s wrong! Now looking back, I will grant you that a dragon missing 3 points of Craft skill is not really a problem but by this time I was burning out on 3E in general and these kinds of things only fueled the fire.

So when they announced 4th Edition I was happy to hear it. I felt like we had gotten nearly a decade out of 3rd and I assumed 4th would be a refining and clean up of what had gone before. There was not as much pre‐communication as what we had before so things were a little murky, but what I was hearing sounded good. I preordered the books and waited. Then once I got them I read part way through the Player’s Handbook and hated it, totally and completely. I put it back on the shelf.

Time passed ...

The main reason I picked it up again was my kids. They were old enough to play  so I got them started on the old Moldvay Basic set and we had a really good time. Later,  I decided that as much fun as it was, why load them down with the baggage of all the previous versions of the game? Why not give the “modern” one another try and see if we could have fun with it and let them have their own game instead of making them play mine. So I looked at it again with a new perspective and found some strong similarities to the design approach used in the oldest editions of the game ‐ not 3rd‐ and finally had a breakthrough – I’ve been happy with it ever since.

Now there was a pretty big backlash with 4E. Actually there was a pretty big backlash with 3E and a lot of older players bailed out then, sticking with their 1E/2E/BECMI games, but a lot of people forget about that. There was at least as much change in the 2E to 3E transition as there was in the 3E to 4E transition, and quite a few people hated that – and there’s nothing wrong with it. Any edition change for any game gives people an opportunity to say “I’m done” and bail out. I think a lot of 1E players bailed out at or during the changeover to 2E and went out and played other games. By the time 3E was released, and after hearing that it was good, at least some of them came back in. With 4E I think a similar thing happened – people were unhappy with the change and saw a reason to go play something else. This time there was also the new wrinkle of Paizo’s Pathfinder, giving current players a new option somewhere between standing pat and moving to a new edition and it remains to be seen what the long term impact of that is – we know it helped divide 3E players when it came time to move to 4E, but time will tell how it will factor into this new edition.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - D&D Third Edition

When 3E was announced I had a very strong “sure, whatever” attitude as while we had a 2E campaign running I was pretty sure it was petering out and we were headed for other things. However a funny thing happened over the course of 1999 – 2000. Each month Dragon had an article about some aspect of the new system and each one I read made more and more sense to me. By the time it was released I was ready to fire up a new game and go! Once again, careful and consistent communication wins over a skeptical customer! After reading those previews it felt like they really undertook a serious analysis of what had come before and changed all it all for the better! The unified d20 mechanic made a lot of sense and felt like the game was keeping up with innovations made over the last 10 years. Ascending AC was so obvious – why didn’t we think of that before? Unlimited multi classing! A logical arrangement for saving throws! So many little changes that made the game fresh and fun to play again!

Third Edition quickly became our dominant game once again and stayed there – I was still playing 3E (well, 3.5) in 2009 and I know plenty of people who are still playing it. Now over years of playing a certain system you will find some rough edges and with things moving into the established internet age those edges get uncovered a lot faster than they did in the 80’s. So sure, we got 3.5 in 2003. I can tell you we pretty much ignored and only incorporated it in our ongoing campaigns as players picked up the books and asked to use parts of them. I know some people got pretty agitated about the changes and the timing, but we never really ran into the issues that it solved as we tended to run at lower levels and my guys aren’t really powergamers or trying to break the system. As a result, we never treated it as a mandatory upgrade and that made the whole thing a lot less stressful for everyone.

Campaigns rolled forward and gave us some of the best characters and adventures we had ever had. Our games were both all-new (Scarred Lands!) and retro (Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, White Plume Mountain, The Monastery) and between the regular stream of supplements and the contents of Dragon and Dungeon we had more material, especially adventures, than we were ever able to play. Thank you Goodman Games! Thank you Necromancer Games! Thanks Green Ronin for Freeport! Thanks Paizo for your stewardship of the magazines and the first few adventure paths! Thanks Monte for Arcana Evolved! So much good stuff! So much good stuff still unplayed! Nonetheless, all good things as they say. Maybe there's room for one last 3.5 campaign in my future somewhere...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - AD&D Second Edition

When the time came around for 2nd Edition there were some things we thought could be handled in a better way: Level Limits were too low. Unarmed combat was a mess, initiative as written was a mess,and other parts of the combat system were largely ignored because they didn’t work for a lot of people. Also, after playing Traveller & Champions & GURPS, James Bond 007, and other games many of us thought the lack of a skill system was a glaring omission. So our issues were mostly mechanical ones – we wanted a cleaned up 1st edition with some new things bolted on – like a skill system – and that’s pretty much what we got. The classes were revised, spells were cleaned up, and the combat system worked better – all good. 

It was handled in a pretty good fashion at the time with several articles and surveys in Dragon and then finally a preview pullout section of what was coming ...

... it was a pretty decent way to keep the players up to speed on what was coming.

I know some people were incensed at the content changes - no assassins, no half-orcs, no demons and devils, but we didn't really care - we never cared much for evil characters anyway, and the demons and devils weren't all that common of a monster anyway. Later as we added in the brown books and the Tome of Magic it felt like we had more material than we had ever had in the AD&D days and more customization of characters and just "more" in general so we didn't miss that stuff, and a lot of it ended up coming back later in 2nd Edition anyway.

So we spent the 90’s playing 2nd Edition as our main game –  D&D has always been our main game among my friends, and I suspect that will never change – and it kept us very satisfied for years. It did, however, have some hard edges – cleric weapon restrictions, magic‐user gear restrictions, humans couldn’t multiclass while demi‐humans still had racial limits (even if they were higher than before), lots of save or die effects – and those hard edges began to wear on us as time went on to the point that by the mid 90’s other games just felt like they played better and our time spent on the game began to decrease as other games crept into the rotation. Among other things we played a lot of Shadowrun, which has a very different feel in play than 2E. The biggest indicator of this decreased tolerance for 2E’s quirks is that we still played a lot of fantasy but we were doing it with Fantasy Hero, GURPS Fantasy, and RuneQuest and not just 2E because we liked the way those systems handled things compared to the game we had effectively been playing for 15‐20 years at that point. Dark Sun and Spelljammer seemed like square pegs in round holes. We greeted the Player’s Option books with a yawn – I think only one guy bought them and we only tried them once. Heck, Gamma World 4th edition (1992) seemed like a revolution in system mechanics compared to 2E! TSR flaming out in the late 90’s didn’t help as it was starting to feel like the time for our game had come and gone and we were prepared to move on to other things like Deadlands or Underground or the new version of Shadowrun, keeping other games for our fantasy fix.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - Basic & AD&D

I started with a Holmes Basic Set that I bought in a K-Mart in Tennessee in 1979. I quickly became aware (throgh the toy store in the mall) that there was an Advanced version and over the next two years I started procuring those - it's a longer process when you're running on allowance, lunch money, and Christmas and birthdays - but we typically start off characters in Basic and then moved over to Advanced once every had things figured out. I moved a few times in those years so I started a new group more than once.

I know that at the time I didn't see Basic to Advanced as a different system or an edition change the way we see them now. I saw it as a natural progresssion - Basic covered the basics, Advanced added in the rest. Of course once the Moldvay sets came out, especially Expert, that was clearly not the case, but I was mostly playing AD&D by then anyway. I was happy to play in a Basic or Expert game if someone ran one, but considered my self an AD&D player first and foremost.

For me, the 1st edition of AD&D was a time of excitement – there were new adventures on a regular basis,there was new stuff in The Dragon every month, and my friends and I were doing this all for the very first time! There was a lot of cross‐pollination back then as there were articles on Traveller and Champions in a magazine that was mainly about a different game. We played it for years, constantly playing around with new rules from the magazine or things we thought up or trying out some of those rules we had always ignored before like weapons vs. armor type or the as‐written unarmed combat system, so while it was really never in a completely settled state we always thought of it as the same game and we loved it.

So we spent the 80's playing AD&D as our #1 game and we played it a LOT. Multiple characters, multiple gameworlds, multiple DM's, rules tweaks wise and unwise, and it filled out summer vacations and our weekends and any other days off and even some after school time. We played other games too, but AD&D was the center of it all. I doubt I have played any other game as much, and I doubt I ever will. I like to think we get more out of them now with the background and the understanding that we have now. but I'm not absolutely sure about that. We played a lot, and quantity has a quality all it's own.

As good as it was, by the late 80's there were a lot of things people saw as flaws in the game and when word got out that a new edition was in the works there was both excitement and concern but we were young and eager to soak up any new set of rules - even one for AD&D.

Motivational Monday