Monday, April 21, 2008

Sea Change

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.

Exciting times.


  1. Agree wholeheartedly. Simply put, newer games are not the type of games I want to play. Delving back into the history of rpgs has turned up a number of gems that are.

    It's funny, if you replace "rpgs" with "board games" your whole post could have been written about the "ameritrash revolution" that occured in the online boardgaming community about a year and a half ago. Basically, people were fed up with new games that focused on "elegant" mechanics and balance but were ulitmately hollow and missed the free wheeling fun of the games of their youth. People started posting and suddenly everyone realized there were a LOT of people who felt likewise.

  2. Regarding an old-school renaissance: I've been known to wonder aloud at Wizards giving (from their perspective) their prize jewel (3e) away (SRD+OGL) whilst keeping a tight hold on oD&D, classic D&D, and AD&D. Why wouldn't they make those open content as well? We know Gygax pushed them to.

    Could it be that they expect--at some point--those older properties to become more valuable than the one they gave away?

    Nah! Couldn't be.

    Regarding mechanics: I've noticed something about a lot of games. Some of the best games--that have stood the test of time--have some of the simplest rules. Go. Pente.

    Even Chess and Monopoly aren't all that complex.


    It isn't enough to master the rules to be good at these games. The strategies and tactics aren't laid out for you in the rules. You have to think at least one level above the rules (if that makes any sense) to develop strategies and tactics that make you a good player.

    Mastering the rules is only the first step towards becoming a master chess player.

    So often, I see the opposite in role-playing games. You get complex rule systems. Players expect that mastering the rules is all you need to do to be a master player. (People have even argued to me that you can't use a tactic unless it is explicitly laid out in the rules.) Instead of trying to apply better strategy and tactics, it becomes about simply having more mastery of the rules.

    The result? In my group, it was a divide. Those whose eyes quietly glazed over when the other group delved into the intricacies of the rules. The first group never complained. I think they expected it was a necessary part of the hobby. But I didn't like it. When I brought simpler rules to the table, I found that both groups stayed engaged more. That's what I want.

  3. The reason older properties were never opened is that WotC was only interested in supporting the current version of the game. They had no interest in keeping older games alive or encouraging people to stick with them rather than move to 3e--in fact, they were seriously concerned that people might NOT migrate to the new edition, as their research showed that a lot of people were still playing 1e at the time.

    Based on what I know this plan was wildly successful, and the core books sold millions of copies. Compare that to current sales of WotC D&D books which are probably in the 25-50K range.

  4. If someone asked my *why* I enjoy OD&D so much, I think I would've been at a loss trying to describe my preference. You've hit the nail on the head with this post. "Fun isn't a formula. Fun is what you bring to a game."

    Good stuff.

  5. I had no idea the world of boardgames was rocked with similar sorts of "philosophical" debates, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

  6. "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..."

    I'm not quite as convinced as you on this point. I suspect you're likely to be correct, but in my more dour moments, I remember the fumble that was the first edition of Star Wars d20. The game was still playable, of course, but issues like armour made it just a little silly in spots. It showed a lack of polish and attention to detail. My nightmare vision of 4e is a game where the optimal party is a pair of warlords and a bunch of rogues and warlocks, and where a monster being an orc or a demon matters less than it being "artillery" or "controller".

    But that usually happens only when I let my bloodsugar get too low. ;)

    I'm very curious to know, though I doubt anyone here can answer, whether we find the "old school" games fun because they conform to our expectations of RPGs (created by us or our original DMs learning these games first), or if they do, in fact, represent an optimal balance between rules and openness. I suspect it's probably a mix of the two. Within a certain amount of wiggle-room, the most important factor towards fun is the group and the GM. But beyond that, players must have certain issues dealt with in terms of realism or game pacing before they can relax and just enjoy the rules for themselves. That is to say, some are just fine with a vague background for their character, others need a list of feats or skills spelled out for them, while still others get grumpy if every facet of their character, from learned abilities to physical or emotional defects to philosophical outlook are not modeled in some way by the mechanics. Where you fall on that continuum dictates what sort of game best allows the fun to happen for you.

  7. “I remember the fumble that was the first edition of Star Wars d20.”

    It’s kind of sad. Wizards win a huge license. Maybe one of the few that are worth their effort. With the potential to reach huge numbers of potential customers they might not otherwise.

    Yet they put—maybe not a minimum of effort—but not as much as they probably should.

    RPGs based on licensed intellectual property is a whole ’nother issue, though. So, ’nuff said.

    “I’m very curious to know, though I doubt anyone here can answer, whether we find the ‘old school’ games fun because they conform to our expectations of RPGs (created by us or our original DMs learning these games first), or if they do, in fact, represent an optimal balance between rules and openness.”

    When I formed expectations for RPGs was when I fled “old school” games. To come back, I had to change my expectations.

    Remember that Arneson and Gygax weren’t rookies. (Nor a bunch of other pioneers.) They’d both had games published before D&D. They both made up this game to play with their friends.

    (I might be tempted to argue that wargame designers had a much...I dunno...wider...base of knowledge and draw upon than most present-day RPG designers—for whom it might be more narrow and deep. “Wargames” covered such diversity including things for which the “war” part didn’t really fit.)

    Optimum? I don’t know. Well crafted and playtested? Yes.

    Gygax’s closeness to the material and the limitations of the cost of paper may have meant that it wasn’t communicated as clearly as possible. We have the benefit of lots of out-of-band communications to help us appreciate that the game itself was—and is—awfully good. In my case, in spite of my expectations. (^_^)

  8. James,

    I hope you don't mind me hijacking this thread with a personal post.

    I found my way here via Jeff's Gameblog when I saw a comment you had posted there. If you don't mind me asking are you the James M. from SMC in the 90's? If so, (or if not as well, though it will mean much less to you) this is Terry Lago from the same place.

    I had no idea you were an RPGer! I have been getting interested in the hobby again, especially since I've seen this retro-D&D renaissance (mainly through games like Castles & Crusades and reading through Jeff Rients' and philotomy's web-musings), and I've been pining for my old-skool days of D&D in high school.

    If you want to drop me a line you can get me at dulac3-at-yahoo-dot-com. If you are someone else entirely...please ignore me and sorry for the intrusion! :)

    Take care!


  9. Re: design of 4e

    I remain convinced that 4e will achieve all of its design goals and do so elegantly. I dissent from the view that it will be the bestest edition of D&D ever because I don't think those design goals will serve D&D or its fan base very well. I think there's simply a lot of confusion, even among professional designers, about what D&D is, why it's unique, and why it continues to have such a powerful appeal after nearly 35 years. I also think the wrong lessons are being drawn from the observation of D&D's "children" -- video games and MMOs -- and that those lessons will deform the vision Gygax and Arneson had back at the beginning. Of course, I'm not sure anyone at WotC cares about that vision anymore.

  10. Re: "wargames"

    This is a very good point. OD&D self-identifies as a "wargame" on its covers and did so right up till the appearance of the Homes Basic Set. The reason for this, despite the idiotic claims of the 4e crowd, is not that D&D was a miniatures game or that it was solely focused on combat -- neither of which is true, either philosophically or historically -- but that, at the time, "wargame" was a broad term for games that were clearly not boardgames and that had grown out of wargaming proper (both miniatures-based and hex and chit-based). Diplomacy is thus a wargame, as were the proto-RPG "Braunstein" games.

    In any case, this just hits home once again that we really do need someone to write a scholarly history of both RPGs generally and D&D in particular.