I still have a head cold, so I'm feeling miserable, which may explain my current crankiness. Mind you, the latest excerpts from 4e, to which everyone keeps sending me links, certainly haven't helped my mood. I don't have much to say on this score that others haven't already said, but, reading them, I was reminded of a couple of things I'd been meaning to post about, things that say a lot about where our hobby has been and where it's going.
A lot of 4e's design decisions seem to have been made to address "issues" I've never had with Dungeons & Dragons or indeed gaming in general. That's because these issues are in fact features of the hobby. They're not things you can simply extirpate through good game design and, if you try to do so, you'll wind up ripping the heart out of why I game rather than making the experience more fun for me.
The first issue 4e looks like it was intended to tackle is the "swinginess" of gameplay. "Swinginess" is a function of the fact that D&D uses dice as random number generators and, being random, there's no guarantee that the outcome of any character's action, whether player or non-player, will be what anyone wants/expects. Sometimes, this is a good thing, such as when a character makes a saving throw at just the right time avoid certain death, while at other times it's not, such as when a wandering monster that slaughters the PCs as they are preparing to take on the evil necromancer who's holed up in the dungeon they're exploring.
For me, swinginess is part of the fun. I wrote earlier about the oracular power of dice and I stand by my contention that swinginess, even when it swings against my character, is essential to the magic of roleplaying games -- or indeed games in general. Rolling dice is the closest to risk taking that we can get in RPGs and there's a thrill that comes with knowing that it's always possible, however unlikely, that something monumentally bad could happen to your character when you toss those polyhedrals. At low levels of D&D, the likelihood of a bad outcome is quite high and so there's a sense of "danger" that I've always felt formed the basis of a unifying experience for all players of the game. The war stories of how your now-higher level PC narrowly escaped death at the hands of a fire beetle or a lowly kobold is one of those things that used to be commonplace. And what elevated those stories about your standard "let me tell you about my character" tales is the understanding that, for every character whom the dice favored, there was at least one whom they did not. PCs slain by random chance were a part of life, the somber backdrop against which one drew the story of a successful character's career.
That's just one example, of course; there are many other examples of "swinginess" in action and I'd speak glowingly of most of them. I like the unexpected in my games, even when it's bad. Sometimes -- many times -- dumb luck has a better sense of drama than I ever could. Sometimes -- many times -- the game is enriched by the fact that stuff happens for no reason at all. I can't shake the feeling that 4e is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by trying to provide a formula for fun, whether it be in making low-level characters more "robust" or in ensuring that just the "right" amount of magic items are distributed to the PCs as they level up. I think the quest for a more regular, even play experience will suck the life out of the game.
Which brings me to my second concern: hand-holding. Some will say and indeed have already said that much of what I see and object to in 4e is easily eliminated by an experienced DM. The guidelines I hate are there to help novices, to train them in the fine art of Dungeon Mastering. To that, I say hogwash. You cannot learn good refereeing from a book and I could argue that there's no better evidence that a lot of game designers never bothered to understand Gygax than the continual desire to turn the latest edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide into a how-to manual for DMs.
The ability to referee a RPG is a skill like any other. You get better at it by using it and that includes making mistakes and getting hung up on the consequences of your mistakes. It also means learning from others more skilled than yourself. When I started gaming in the late 70s and early 80s, there was an unofficial apprenticeship system to become the DM. You learned at the feet of more experienced DMs, like my friend's older brother and his father, until you were ready to try your hand at it yourself. In turn, you would train others in the ways of the Dungeon Master, thereby repaying your debt to your own teachers. I get the sense this system doesn't exist anymore and that people somehow expect the rulebooks to give them everything they need to be able to run a fun and satisfying adventure every time.
Well, it simply doesn't work that way; it never has. Conservatively, I'd estimate that, especially with less experienced groups, at least half of all RPG sessions end in failure, with "failure" being defined as a disjointed, possibly nonsensical, and certainly frustrating few hours. That's just the nature of roleplaying games. I don't think you can mechanize this away. There's no magic formula or recipe I can put in the shiny new DMG that will guarantee that every session is as satisfying as a finely-crafted R.E. Howard story. That's simply impossible and I think the sooner we teach new gamers that "successful" gaming takes time, effort, and a lot of luck, the happier we all will be.
For some, tabletop gaming will simply be inadequate approximation of literature, movies, or video games. So much of the success of gaming depends on intangibles and unpredictables; there is no way you can put that in a box and sell it. Gaming has too many "rough edges" that can't be pounded smooth -- and shouldn't be. For those of us who love this hobby and have stuck with it, those rough edges are what keep us coming back. We know that there's a chance -- a good chance even -- that almost given session won't be all that enjoyable or even coherent. But we also know that, when everything falls into place, when everything clicks, it's an experience unlike any other, an experience to be savored and remembered for a lifetime.
I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I think the hobby has taken numerous wrong turns over the years, but, even with all those errors, I still think the core of our hobby, the one Gygax and Arneson created back in 1974, is still very compelling. Especially now, when so much of our entertainment is slick and computer-generated, when fun has been reduced to a formula or an algorithm, there's a more a need than ever for something that's random, unpredictable, and often frustrating. The quest to make RPGs like every other entertainment is a deal with the Devil in my opinion.
I don't know about you, but I don't want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it's not. Most of us, I think, if we're honest, understand that we like rough edges -- we need rough edges. Something that's too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis. I realize I'm just a crazy, aging gamer, but I've been at this hobby a long time and I've tried a lot of stuff and I can tell you one thing: there is nothing more truly fun, either as a player or as a referee, than watching a D20 turn up 1 and continuing the game anyway. Failure, even death, is not the end; it's an opportunity. But to seize it you need to embrace randomness, laud unpredictability, and understand that fun cannot be bottled and sold.