Thursday, September 25, 2008

No-Brainer

In light of the rather unexpected level of response to my post yesterday about the 4e paladin, I realized that I ought to do a post about what I'd have done if I'd have been given total freedom to create a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm a bit busy at the moment and thus unable to write up a comprehensive post just yet, but I did want to offer up one thing I'd do that strikes me as a no-brainer: bring back the Basic and Advanced "brand names."

One of the oddities about D&D naming conventions is that AD&D was created when there was no Basic D&D. Neither OD&D nor the Holmes edition call themselves "Basic." By the time that there was a true Basic D&D, AD&D had been out for several years and the two games, though related, were no longer designed or marketed as being on the same "continuum." There was a family resemblance between the two games, sure, but there was never any formal connection between them, at least as far as TSR was concerned.

As far as the fans were concerned, though, Basic and AD&D were two sources of ideas and adventures and most people who entered the hobby during the period between 1979 and 1984 tended to make little distinction between them. Indeed, I've still never been given a satisfactory answer to exactly why TSR bothered to maintain two separate lines, given the large amount of crossover between the buyers of both.

In the crazy world where I was given total control over D&D, there'd be a Basic D&D game covering levels 1-5 (or thereabouts) that'd come in a box and sell for under $20 in game and toy stores. It'd be aimed at children ages 10 and up (or thereabouts) and would focus primarily on dungeon adventuring. Advanced D&D would be aimed at older kids (14+) and would follow the traditional three-book model. The important part of this plan is that the rules of both Basic and Advanced would be the same, with Basic necessarily being, well, more basic in terms of complexity and presentation, but they'd still be completely compatible with one another. This approach would necessarily mean that the rules would have to be far simpler than either WotC edition, but that's a good thing in my book.

The icing on the cake would be that both versions of the game would be one-shots. That is, there's the boxed set and there are the three books, but that'd be it. There would certainly be adventures and possibly miniatures, but there'd be no supplements or additional rules beyond whatever fans or third parties produced (I'd make the game almost completely open BTW). Every few years, there might be new "editions" with new art and errata integrated into the text, but nothing in the way of changes to the way the game plays, because it's important that when a kid finds his Dad's old copy of the game, he can still play it with his friend who got a shiny new copy for his birthday. That's the way to ensure that the hobby survives and prospers from one generation to the next.

But this is all a pipe dream and further evidence of why I'll never be put in charge of D&D.

39 comments:

  1. I am not saying, but I am just saying. You know what I am thinking.

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  2. Pipe dream? Nah.

    Grab the 3.x SRD. Tear it apart and build your BD&D and AD&D with it. Name it something snarky, like "Doom & Devils" or similar.

    Find someone to do layout and art, then publish it on Lulu.com. Or, pitch it to a publisher.

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  3. I actually think Palladium books has in large part gone down this path. Even though I like their old stuff much better then their new stuff, something I bought hot of the presses today is close to 98% compatible with something I bought over 20 years ago.

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  4. Actually, "basic" D&D was never the title of the game.

    The first set of the D&D line was the D&D Basic Set. After that came the Expert Set.

    This was most fully realized with the Mentzer edit, which ran Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortals. Those were the five boxed sets of the complete Dungeons & Dragons line.

    They were later collated into one book, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia -- which doesn't mention the word Basic at all, as far as I can recall.

    So, the actual division was between D&D and AD&D, although people do commonly believe that the D&D line was called Basic D&D.


    Okay, so now that my pedantic outburst is over, I agree that there should be a "basic" or "starter" D&D set. And please, not like the 3.0/3.5 ones, with only one pre-programmed dungeon that really isn't any fun at all. (I got the 3.5 one to run for my girlfriend after her first (short) game of D&D 3.5. What a waste!)


    I also agree that the game should be published and then left alone; i.e. no new books every month.

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  5. I'd agree about banning the splatbooks, but I think there's room for Dragon in there. I'd even say that the occasional "best of" collection would be acceptable, but these would always be optional.

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  6. ...also, if you're not publishing supplements and adventures, that makes the supporting magazine more attractive. Have a good open submissions policy at the magazine, and you've got a community to do all your research and development and writing for you.

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  7. My favorite part of the proposal is the bit about not publishing supplements. Leaving it all to the periodicals puts all the bells and whistles clearly in the house-rules box. This would make it--ahem--philosophically clear what's going on. The rules would always belong to the shared exercise of imagination of the DM's and players. That's part of what made it feel like the game was *ours*, back in the day. (It also puts the DM in the driver's seat--world builder rather than a referee or judge.)

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  8. I approve of this idea.
    But please, at least let Dragon or something similar come out.

    Hm... come to think of it, This would be an interesting shared project to do. *hopeful*

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  9. As someone who has played D&D one time (fourth edition right after it came out) but has become fascinated with the game and interested in playing more, I think this sounds like a great way to get people started with the game. I like the idea of not putting out a deluge of supplements and keeping it down to the Dungeon and Dragon magazines.

    I would love to hear more of your ideas for D&D! I really enjoy reading this blog, especially since I missed out on the early, "Grognard," days (mostly because I wasn't born yet!).

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  10. I love this post. You hit the nail on the head. The current level of corporate memory loss at WotC is ridiculous. BAN SPLAT BOOKS should be a frakin RPG blog badge. Hmmm...

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  11. Will,

    You need never apologize for pedantry 'round these parts? :)

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  12. but I think there's room for Dragon in there.

    Yes, you're probably right, but I was thinking purely in terms of a product line from a single company. I think something like a support magazine should be licensed out to someone else, for a variety of reasons.

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  13. This would be an interesting shared project to do. *hopeful*

    Had I infinite time, I might pursue this more seriously. For now, it's just a thought experiment, but you never know.

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  14. I would love to hear more of your ideas for D&D!

    I'd need to have more coherent ones first! More seriously, I do have some fairly clear ideas about certain aspects of the game I've outlined above, but there's also a lot I haven't yet considered about how I'd do this. Still, it ought to generate some interesting posts.

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  15. It strikes me as curious that splatbooks are so widely resented (perhaps because one feels one has to buy them all to stay current) but nobody seems to be proposing the GURPS model. Why not have supplements, even supp/adventures, which detail some chunk of territory, or a guild, or an exotic race or class or whatever, and make it a strictly optional bolt-on? Not a second or canonical world, like Dragonlance, but another chunk of gamespace to loot? The much-maligned Oriental Adventures was something like this, I guess, and maybe that's traumatised people, but I'd say SJG has proved the model can be a commercial and artistic success.

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  16. addendum: having a good, simple core ruleset might make a huge difference to the idea too, of course. Skeletal, even. GURPS lite is a disaster, imho, because it doesn't contain enough to be a game, has too complex a core architecture, and doesn't describe its terms. But if you started with a small core and expanded, why shouldn't it be great?

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  17. but nobody seems to be proposing the GURPS model

    I've considered the GURPS model myself, actually, that model only works when you have a "culture" that understands and supports it, as the GURPS community does. After years of being deluged with splat books, D&D fans need to go cold turkey for a number of years to shake the bad habits of the last decade or more.

    (There's also the issue that even the GURPS model is a very top-down consumerist one, whereas I want to get back to roleplaying as first and foremost a hobby)

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  18. But if you started with a small core and expanded, why shouldn't it be great?

    I agree. The key to the Basic/Advanced divide is that Basic is the "core" game and Advanced is an expansion of it. Most attempts at a "Basic Rules" for D&D in the last decade or more have been stripped down versions of more complex games and that strikes me as an example of the cart pulling the horse.

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  19. I think there's room for Dragon in there

    IMO, the retro-clone crowd is pretty darn close to this model already. While Fight On! is not system specific, it is essentially trying to provide open and fan-based resources for players of certain types of RPGs and we know which ones those are, don't we?

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  20. Your idea for D&D is pretty similar to mine. (Interestingly enough once my AD&D House Rules project is done I plan on doing a follow up to it with my idea of how a D&D aimed at getting new players yet supporting old ones would go.)

    Except for me, I would aim it mostly at the Wal Marts with the big fun box with goodies.

    Basic with 5 classes and 4 races all the way to 20 and all the essential rules. (Bards have to be in there. I like Bards.) Expert just adds more cool rules, expands out of the dungeon, and throws in more classes and races. Master finishes the core set line.

    A rules compendium book comes out a while later, and a Companion book comes out as an optional book with all the overly complicated gonzo rules some people seem to crave.

    Then its nothing but adventures, minis boosters, and a White Wolf styled setting book each year with a self contained setting and that world specific races and classes in it. (Id probably go 1 every 6 months and NO SUPPLEMENTAL BOOKS to the worlds. First book would be the D&D Universe and be effectively 32 page quickie gazeteers on all the essential settings and cosmologies. Planescape, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Mystara, Birthright, Eberron, Spelljammer, and any other WOTC owned worlds, with maybe a friendly mention in an appendix about 3rd party worlds like the Iron Kingdoms and whatnot.)

    That would be it. Its enough new product to keep the line active, but not enough for the splatfiends.

    And I LOOOOOOVE the idea of keeping the same system and just tweaking it over the years. Warhammer 40K has done that and their game system has finally reached the point to where its a solidly fun game because of it.

    Of course places like RPGnet seem to INSIST we need new editions TO SAVE THE INDUSTRY every 3-5 years or so, but I disagree with the fury of a 1000 suns going supernova on that.

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  21. IMO, the retro-clone crowd is pretty darn close to this model already.

    You noticed that, huh? And here I thought I was being subtle :)

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  22. This is not a horrible idea from a player's standpoint, but it is suicide for a business. There are only so many players out there, after they all have the 'core' game, you get no sales. Game stores would not want to carry it. Why should they? They sell a copy of each core book to all interested players and then never see them again. As a former owner of a game shop, no matter how much I like the game, i'd have to steer people toward a game that actually made them want to come back. Heck, i'd probably not even stock it on my shelf.

    That being said, it'd be great as a side project for someone who has another means of support.

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  23. "There are only so many players out there, after they all have the 'core' game, you get no sales."

    Yeah. Like Monopoly.

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  24. I believe, given some agressive marketing, it would be a tenable business model - but a very different business model than today's supplement treadmill. 1980s TSR invested heavily into acquiring new players, and became tremendously successful. The "occult" angle helped, but it was just one factor in D&D's success.

    Today, there is a much more feeble strategy to get new folks on board... maybe a bit better than in the mid 3.x era (I've heard Keep on the Shadowfell is not half bad as an intro product), but still lacking. It results in an era of attrition (which 4e will probably encourage after a while), but making a turnarond towards trying to get D&D on all store shelves from Vancouver to Vladivostok is a turnaround the business (or really, the game designer) types would never, ever approve.

    And let us not forget: D&D is ultimately owned by Hasbro, but, as I have heard, it has no presence at all in major toy stores. It is not going to get the opportunity.

    My prediction: rendered irrelevant as a commercial brand within 10-15 years, and shelved in the "Dead Games Owned by Hasbro" secret warehouse along with the Avalon Hill line.

    --Melan

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  25. I think something like a support magazine should be licensed out to someone else, for a variety of reasons.
    Agreed there.

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  26. Also note Legends & Labyrinths by Justin Alexander which I hope to be an interesting middle ground between rules-light systems and full-blown D&D 3.5.

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  27. It'd be aimed at children ages 10 and up (or thereabouts)

    Great idea, but one cavil... It should instead be marketed to "adults 10 and up" like the old Moldvay Basic book says on the cover. I was a precocious 11 when I bought it, and felt immeasurably gratified that someone out there recognized that and had created a game for "kids" like me. The game may have been called Basic, but it never treated you like a child :).

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  28. @ Neil the Ork : you said: "Heck, i'd probably not even stock it on my shelf". How is this idea any different from a gamestore owner stocking games like Axis/Allies or Settlers of Catan or anything else for that matter. The problem is the whole business model for RPG games, IMHO. This idea that there has to be a constant stream of (rehashed) new ideas, (rehashed) new rules to feed the monster (customers). I guess where there is a market for it, there's a supply - so maybe the problem is really the players themeselves.

    I vote for a core rules game system supported solely by a monthly or quarterly Ezine or print/lulu zine with an annual hardback best of supplement. Its a compromise, but the boxed set could still be sold at toy stores and draw new players to the game.

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  29. RE: Monopoly and other Board Games.
    Monopoly has the bonus of being 'collectible', so (if you care about the game) you want to buy several different versions of the game.

    Most Board Game companies put out many different games, knowing that eventually their one game would slow down in sales. Even big games, like Axis and Allies, eventually slow down, which is why they make many more board games. They are trying to attract that crowd with more 'similar but different' games.

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  30. Although I'm only adding to the chorus, I wholeheartedly agree that supplements (splatbooks) seem to detract from RPG systems.

    I'm not even completely sure why this is. Perhaps it would me more accurate to say that supplements subtract from RPGs as I enjoy them.

    To me, there's something satisfying about an immutable (even Bible like) core that provides a basis for the game. That said, I enjoy new settings or periodicals that contains tweaks or extras.

    Perhaps its simply a result of building a splatbook. -You need to fill it with something. When a new race is presented in a campaign setting, it's done in a limited context, and has a essential quality to it. Similarly, a new race presented in a periodical is usually the exploration of a compelling idea, and is obviously optional, only to be put to use if it enhances your particular game.

    When a new race is presented in a splatbook however, it is usually presented alongside others, and not only are the reasons for presenting them somewhat less compelling, but the presentation suggests by default they should be used unless you opt out.

    Splatbooks give you more material, come with more authority, but typically lack the substance that drives quality game evolution.

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  31. Leaving it all to the periodicals puts all the bells and whistles clearly in the house-rules box

    Heck, to be really blunt, just call the periodical House Rules.

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  32. MK said...

    Although I'm only adding to the chorus, I wholeheartedly agree that supplements (splatbooks) seem to detract from RPG systems.


    It's because they try to add "ever more" but the actually add "ever bigger". When you add new classes that do the same thing as the base classes only better (or, these days, "cooler"), who would bother using the old classes?

    When you add a heap of new weapons (as Mercenary did for Traveller), you get people who will only use the new weapons. When you add a new option, but only for the people/groups that buy the new book, you leave people out.

    This is something that has always bothered me about RPGs. It's something that always will bother me, too, because it's never going to change, much as we like to rail against it.

    At the end of the day, I just play the game I want to play, using my own house rules, and everybody else can just stay home.

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  33. Well, James, I'm sorry if circumstances keep you from pursuing it. i have an assload of free time, but not really the experience. If, perhaps, I could get a few collaborators, I would be willing to do as much of the work as I was capable of. (Credit, of course, would go to James too, this is his idea and I'd want him to be a part of the creative process to whatever extent he'd be willing)

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  34. My prediction: rendered irrelevant as a commercial brand within 10-15 years, and shelved in the "Dead Games Owned by Hasbro" secret warehouse along with the Avalon Hill line.

    Sadly, I think you're being overly optimistic on the timeframe for this to happen. I expect it to occur much sooner.

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  35. It should instead be marketed to "adults 10 and up" like the old Moldvay Basic book says on the cover.

    An excellent point I readily concede.

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  36. Heck, to be really blunt, just call the periodical House Rules.

    That's a superb idea.

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  37. Rach,

    If this is something you want to pursue, you don't need my blessing to do so. Go for it! I'd be happy to offer suggestions and advice as I can on anything you do, but, right now, I'm a bit too busy and distracted to take up this project myself in the way that I'd like to do it. I will get round to it sometime; I just don't know when.

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  38. *nod*
    I didn't mean to imply like I felt I needed your blessing, this is a shared idea, after all. I just would appreciate your input on the system whenever you can offer it.

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  39. Sorry for the necromancy, but the D&D/AD&D product line split was a consequence of the legal dispute between Arneson and Gygax over crediting and royalties. Why it persisted so long, I'm not sure.

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