Since sometime last summer, I've noticed an indefinable change in the hobby, something that was lurking beneath the surface and that finally burst free in the weeks and months after the announcement of 4e last August. That's certainly when it all started to fall into place for me. As I told some friends of mine this weekend, I think 4e actually came at the right time. People were ready for a new edition of D&D, especially people who'd been playing 3e since its release in 2000. I was one of those people.
And then we started to hear more about 4e and it seems as if it left a bad taste some people's mouths. Some of that, of course, has to do with WotC's execrable PR for the new edition. They seemed never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity and many people began to wonder if maybe the game were similarly ill-conceived. Not badly designed, mind you -- I have little doubt that 4e will be an extremely well-designed game, perhaps even the best designed edition of D&D ever in an "absolute" sense -- but tin-eared and missing the point of why people actually play and enjoy roleplaying games. Or at least missing the point with regards to a sizable minority of gamers.
That's what's really different this time around. It's been 34 years since the release of OD&D, a generation and a half. That's a lot of time -- time enough, in fact, for the grandchildren of the oldest gamers to have been born and take up gaming. While "this ain't your grandfather's D&D" sounds exactly like the kind of slogan I expect WotC's marketing department to come up with to promote 4e, the reality is that, for some gamers, such a slogan is exactly why they feel wary and exactly there's there's been this strange, indescribable undercurrent to the hobby over the last year.
My gut tells me, though, that we're on the cusp of a change. I'm reluctant to go all-out and say there's a full-scale Old School Renaissance in the offing and yet it certainly feels as if that's the case. Just take a look at my Links of Interest on the right and you'll see quite a few blogs, forums, and companies that are dedicated to the spirit of old school roleplaying. And those barely scratch the surface. Certainly, they're a minority within a minority, so maybe it all doesn't matter in the end. Still, it's interesting to see how many grognards and neo-grognards have started to come out of the woodwork and, rather than just sniping from the sidelines and complaining about those "damn kids," they're actually engaged in some really interesting and constructive projects, things that actually celebrate this hobby. They're not just bitter beardos writing jeremiads anymore -- they're guys and gals who love the history and traditions of this hobby and are working to preserve them for a new generation. That's really exciting.
Speaking only for myself, I can tell you of two factors that finally drove me back into the loving arms of OD&D. The first is that, quite frankly, I increasingly find modern RPGs too restrictive and too driven by concerns to build an exploitable IP rather than anything having to do with the simple joy of playing games. The second is that computer and video games have now reached the stage where there is simply no point in trying to beat them on their home turf. D&D combats are never going to be, solely based on game mechanics, as interesting and as engaging as those of many video games. But then I've never felt that the heart and soul of D&D -- or any RPG -- was in its mechanics. Trying to compete with video games on the field of "pure" gameplay is a recipe for failure.
Early RPGs, though, aren't about game mechanics. Certainly, such things have a role to play, sometimes even an important one, but anyone who looks at OD&D combat mechanics and hopes to have, simply on the basis of dice rolls and combat matrices, an exciting and memorable combat is setting themselves up for disappointment. RPGs live or die by the passion and skill of their players, particularly the Game Master. This is a simple yet often overlooked fact. It's one of the reasons why some people can talk about the most poorly designed games in glowing terms: they played them with a great GM and a bunch of imaginative friends. There's no way to make a formula that guarantees good gameplay every time. RPGs are notoriously "swingy" entertainments. No company, not even WotC, can ensure that every session you play will be memorably fun. That's the nature of the beast.
What I am seeing, though, is more and more gamers are realizing that fun isn't a formula. Fun is what you bring to a game. If that's the case -- and it is -- why not play games that don't merely encourage but demand that the GM and players alike have to engage it in order to create a fun experience for everyone? That, I think, is part of why we're seeing the return to old school games. It's not just nostalgia (though I'm sure there's some of that); it is, I think, a realization that, somewhere along the line, something's been lost in this hobby. Maybe it can't be found again but it's worth looking for nonetheless. I am hardly surprised to see gamers rediscovering the roots of roleplaying and finding that, despite what collective wisdom would have them believe, older games weren't in fact so bad at all. Indeed, they might just teach us a thing or two we've forgotten.