Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lost Knowledge

A lot of hay is being made on various blogs and forums about this quote from WotC designer Andy Collins:
I've been playing D&D for, well, let's say a lot of years, and my attention span isn't what it used to be either. It's not about youth, it's just about the culture we live in and what we're used to. I can't imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it. And I'm a pretty smart guy, I do this for a living. But it's just a different time.
Now, on the face of it, the quote comes across as ... how do I say this charitably? Well, let's just say that the quote is probably one that, in retrospect, Mr Collins will likely wish he'd never made, since it suggests that people today lack the attention span of those living in decades past, particularly given that what he said was in response to a question about the "short attention span of the new gamer."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Andy Collins wasn't speaking primarily of attention spans now versus those in the past, even though he makes reference to that in the beginning of his answer. More important, I think, is his statement that "it's just about the culture we live in and what we're used to." I actually think he's right about that; the culture we live in, both the wider culture and the culture of the hobby, is no longer very welcoming to the presentation adopted by OD&D, AD&D, or even the various Basic Sets, from Holmes to Mentzer. Those games are written for a different culture and, unless one was raised in that culture and keeps its ways alive, they probably would seem impenetrable, even to "pretty smart" guys like Mr Collins.

"The Old Ways," as I often call them are out of step with what people are used to nowadays. Visit any blog or forum where someone who didn't play old school D&D back in the day takes a look at one of its rulebooks and you're likely to see it called "incomplete," "poorly written," "unclear," and similar things and it's not because the reader is stupid or lacks imagination, let alone interest. Rather, it's because, more than likely, he's used to rulebooks being written in a particular way and the old books don't conform to it. On the other hand, those of us who first experienced the hobby through, say, the Holmes rules find them very easy to understand and to use, their "gaps" being expected, even welcomed things rather than occasions for complaint. By the same token, the way that most modern RPGs are written seem to us to be cramped, unnecessarily complex, and largely lacking in the creative lacunae we associate with the medium. It really is a question of culture.

What this means is that the Old Ways are something that many people no longer know instinctively, including those who once possessed it, as Andy Collins suggests he did when he was a mere lad of 10. Fortunately, the Old Ways are not completely lost; they can still be learned, if one is interested in doing so. Preserving those ways so that they can be passed on to those who wish to learn them is a big part of what I enjoy about writing this blog and, if my email correspondence and comments are to be believed, what others enjoy about reading it. I'd be surprised if other old school bloggers didn't have similar experiences with their own efforts. If Andy Collins is to be believed on this score, we have our work cut out for us.


  1. I'd say his attention span comment is fairly spot on. We are in a realm of instant information and that has shortened all of our attention spans.

    Before I had the internet I went to the library. When I had dial up (well into the time of high speed) it was more that sufficient for my purposes and I had no need to change. When I got high speed I became incredibly frustrated when forced to deal with high speed, and bussing to the local library to do research and what they may or may not have, prompting me to need to go to the next city over for the materials I want? No frickin chance.

    We are definately less patient in regards to our demands for information presentation.

  2. I was there for Holmes back in 1980, and I think that "unclear" and "poorly written" can certainly be applied to those rules. (Moldvay and Mentzer are a different case entirely--in the first decade of RPGing, they represent a kind of high point for presentation and clarity.) I still remember getting on the phone to the high school kids who were playing AD&D to ask what "hit dice" were--and not getting a correct answer.

    Of course, to be fair, the errata for 4E make it clear that 30 years of experience don't make clarity any more likely.

    Building off of your last post, James, I would say that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We learned D&D best with help from more experienced players back in 1980, and my colleagues' kids (the ones I'm running 4E for right now) are benefitting from the same relationship here in 2010.

  3. I don't think it's shortened our attention spans. I think it's shortened our patience and preferences. People can still concentrate just fine, when they're motivated. As for Mr. Collins, I think he's fallen prey to the trap of interpreting older versions of D&D through the perceptive mental software he uses to examine and use the newer versions. Other gamers make that mistake, usually, though not always, ones who never played the older versions in the first place.

  4. I have to say, Mr. Collins's comment leaves me a little confused. Does he really believe those little blue books are harder to digest than the rules-heavy tomes they rolled out for 3rd and 4th edition?

    I'm NOT making any kind of value judgment about either rule-set; I'm just pointing out that those blue books seem, to me at least, to contain both simpler and far fewer rules.

    So...either Mr. Collins didn't really think it through or he's being a little disingenuous. That's not a personal attack; I just don't buy this rhetoric.

    I understand that the STYLE of play presented by the blue books requires a longer attention span - but the rules?

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. I think another thing is bookkeeping. Now you have WOW which pretty much does all your accounting on your character for you. You don't need to know as many rules to just enjoy playing. This effects old RPGs and current ones.

    The other thing I noticed is with older games to powering up of characters is much less than current games (both WOW, 3e, and 4e). I think some people don't see the point in investing time to learn the game if the results are minimal in their point of view. With 0e D&D the more levels you gain the more powerful you get, so you just need to know what does and does not give you XP. Though this might be solely a power gamer POV.

  6. Those rulebooks get described as "incomplete", "poorly written", and "unclear" because... well... Because they are incomplete, poorly written, and unclear.

    And if you don't want to accept that, I'll simply take a moment to listen to your explanation of how XP rewards are supposed to work in OD&D and then accept your apology.

    There are certainly those who enjoy the "creative lacunae" of incomplete rulebooks. Doesn't make 'em any less incomplete.

  7. Do you not think that the old rules could be rewritten in a more modern style? I understand that ambiguity is one of the things that makes RPGs a different beast than, say, board or video games, but I feel like the ambiguity could be made more explicit without the rules suffering for it. Even just adding a cleanly stated rule early on that says something along the lines of "If the rules don't explicitly state how to resolve something, play it by ear and just come up with something. Some areas of the rules have been intentionally left vague to allow greater flexibility for the game-rules to match your group's playstyle.", possibly with a few examples of reasonable house-rules that can be used, would go a long way towards making the rulebook more intelligible in my eyes.

  8. Mentzer shouldn't be mentioned in this way considering its rather comprehensive approach to teaching the basics of the game from both the player and DM sides...

  9. "Do you not think that the old rules could be rewritten in a more modern style?"

    *cough* Labyrinth Lord *cough*

  10. @James

    You beat me to it. The issue is not really attention span, per se. Look at the depth and learning curve for most modern video games. For that matter, look at the complexity of 3E/4E. It's really about a lack patience.

    We live in a society where the niceties of a simple conversation are too much to stomach despite the fact that we all carry telephones in our pockets. Instead, we've devolved to unashamedly brief text messages:


    A far cry from Gygaxian prose, indeed :)

    Full Disclosure: I'm a 4E lover who also happens to adore your blog. Keep up the good work!

  11. The older editions were indeed not as well written as the later ones. But you have to take into account that OD&D and BECM and A D&D were the cutting edge. Very few games had the depth that D&D attempted.

    It's easy for guys like Andy Collins to stand on the shoulders of people like Gygax and Moldvay and pick out their mistakes. The current version of D&D was created based on the empirical work done by countless gamers and game designers. Even the latest two editions of D&D have their share of errata which goes to show that their design techniques are far from perfect.

    One other things they forgot to mention is how they dumbed down the game over the years. Back in 1981, D&D was a real challenge to figure out it was a smart guy's game. Not that I don't think the rules should be easily understandable but when you look at even the 3rd and 4th edition, there's a lot of reading to be done just to understand the basic rules. I am grateful for the later editions ease to read, but I won't forget the work that their predecessors have done.

  12. When I was trying to teach myself to play this new game back in 1981 I found AD&D rulebooks to be incomprehensible to someone who had never seen rules more complicated than Risk. Luckily, I found Moldvay Red Box rules and the rest is history.

    Funny I find the 4E Rules incomprehensible as well.


  13. I had a long and detailed rebuttal of your post James, but inbetween watching CNN, reading the message boards over at, and trying my hand at the 4E online character builder, I can't remember what point I wanted to make.

  14. I think what M. Collins is overlooking is that now--after years of reading and writing game rules as an adult--he has much different expectations of how people learn the game. That is, he probably assumes that one must actually read the rules thoroughly in order to play the game.

    No kid thinks that way, not in 1981 and not now. When my neighbor got the Holmes set for Christmas in 1980 did we all read and thoroughly digest it before we started playing? Heck no. We looked at the pictures, read the cooler sounding spells and monster descriptions, figured out how to roll up characters and started killing stuff and absconding with treasure. It took us a few hours to hammer things out and have fun at it, though it was years before we were really playing the game in compliance with all the major TSR bylaws.

    I doubt my experience is far off from most people's. Kids read/look at what looks interesting, ferret out a few essentials, develop their own notion of how things should work and proceed from there. The game they end up playing might not be identical to the one the designer intends, but if they're having fun, who cares? they'll stick with it and eventually learn the intricacies just like we all did and they'll blow tons of allowance money on hokey accessories for years to come! This model has not changed, even if Holmes could have been better organized.

  15. "We looked at the pictures, read the cooler sounding spells and monster descriptions, figured out how to roll up characters and started killing stuff and absconding with treasure."

    This was exactly my experience.

  16. A couple thoughts directed at the quote:

    1) There is an immediate gratification impulse among youth, and a general lack of patience (I work primarily with the 17-22 age group).

    2) D&D has always been a process-based game. A game about the means, not the ends.

    How do you reconcile these?

    I don't think you can.

    As a game, D&D will always work contrary to his perspective. When set against other entertainment forms, particularly video games, D&D moves about as fast as a glacier.

    3) We need to balance all this out with a reminder not to sell young people short. I recently ran a thief-less, old school game for two of my undergraduates (4E players) and they ate it up. Give them a bit more credit.

  17. I agree with Justin Alexander. "Incomplete" is an arguable one, because the older D&D rulesets are in some sense designed to be incomplete - i.e. no detailed rules for various skills, etc. "Poorly written" is a tough one, but I would phrase it differently - "poorly organized" is something that every old school rule set except the red/blue box D&D rules exemplifies. The DMG by Gygax is incredibly poorly organized in a way that seems to serve no useful purpose. 3e is much better organized than AD&D is, whatever you may think of the ruleset.

    "Unclear" is another one that has the old school rules dead to rights - there are still innumerable arguments about rules or interpretations after decades of use.

    This should be divorced from whether the games, despite these manifest faults, are still better games to play. Just because the rules are unclear or poorly organized doesn't mean the game isn't a good one to play.

  18. Come on, besides Andy, who really picks up a Player's Handbook and successfully learns the game from scratch, regardless of the edition being played?

    I played my first game at a con in 1978. When I bought the blue boxed set the same day, I already knew the game without ever having cracked a book. The rule book wasn't the game -- my friends and I sitting around a table in my mom's basement was the game. We just used the book for gear, spells, monsters, to-hit numbers, and saves -- basically anything you could look up in a table or from an indexed list of items. I never read it cover to cover and still haven't to this day. Everyone I know learned at the table from friends.

    Then or now, very few 13-year-olds could be handed a D&D core book from any edition and pick up the game cold. If any of you did that, my hat's off to you.

    it's not that attention spans have changed. They were never all that long. It's that people have become justifiably impatient with clumsy means of disseminating information. The "cramped, unnecessarily complex" writing of contemporary RPGs, including 4e, doesn't help matters, but doesn't particularly hurt matters either, as long as most people learn the game at the table.

  19. FWIW, I started with Holmes, and I can say with certainty that the book made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever at the time, and I was a pretty precocious kid. AD&D was even more opaque. As others said, I learned from other people, and then slowly puzzled out the rules over the years (but never completely).

    T&T, RQ, even Champions, I had no problem with. Early D&D is freaking opaque, full stop.

  20. Does anyone really think that the 45-page Holmes Basic D&D rulebook is harder to grasp than the 1,000-page 4th Edition D&D core rules?

    And with Moldvay's Basic it just got easier. And Mentzer's Basic was even easier.

  21. Yeah what killed my recent attempts to play 4.0 wasn't that they weren't interested.. it was the lulls in playing. our DM just couldn't spin the tale any faster and every time he'd have to look anything up.. the Cellphones and Ipods would come out.

    We eventually had to just give up half way through our first adventure.. shame cause me and the DM invested about 100$ each in buying all the new books, Dice, DM screen and other supplies..

    I still want to play but everyone else just thinks its "boring" now.. oh well.

  22. I can't say, James, whether Andy wishes he'd never made those comments. I can agree OD&D was difficult to parse. But I have to disagree about Holmes and the basic sets that came after. I did and still do find them quite "user friendly" and we did in fact learn the game from them. For me it's D&D 3 and 4 that fit the comment: "If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it."
    There is a wide gulf between the OSR and current D&D4 design philosophy - hence the popularity of your blog and others.

    On a tangential topic, this attempt to market the new Essential D&D set as retro and "old school" is slightly disturbing. Are we seen as a threat to D&D's market share or are we new market they are attempting to grasp?

  23. I play 4E (which I enjoy), OD&D, 2E and B/X (my personal favourite).

    I know it's apples to oranges but:
    I figured out B/X as a 10 year old.
    Last time I checked the errata for 4E was 88 pages.

    Which version is poorly written?

    In fact I feel a bit ripped off that I bought the first three 4E core books as sooooo much of it has been re-written.

  24. > I can't imagine how the 10-year-old version of me learned basic Dungeons and Dragons from the old blue book games that I got back in 1981. If you handed me that game today, there is no way I would have the patience to learn it.

    Which is a moot point as the starter box (either version) has "Age 12+" on the cover.

    Rather too late to catch many potential RPGers, IMHO; doubly so given the obvious "competition".

  25. Andy Collins has been a disaster ever since he joined WOTC. He revels in his mathematical illiteracy and his rule systems, from Sword and Fist to the Epic Level Handbook, are broken and unbalanced.

    Essentially he is all the ad-hoc, nonsensical rules of Gygax (blasphemy on this site, I know), without Gygax's creativity.

  26. This is poorly-constructed marketing BS. He's trying to justify current WOTC offerings, and the justification just doesn't make sense. Put this in the same bin with Gygax's wacky comments on the premiere of AD&D and the introduction to Deities & Demigods.

    Couldn't read blue book Holmes? Good grief, what a joke. I want to emphasize again my experience prior to blue book Holmes: Nothing. No community, no older gamers, no wargaming, no Lord of the Rings, nothing. I got it totally cold after a review in Games magazine (crossword, logic puzzles). I was the one who read it at age 10, DM'd everything, introduced everyone in my school to it. Emminently doable. Collins' comments make me gag!

  27. "Come on, besides Andy, who really picks up a Player's Handbook and successfully learns the game from scratch, regardless of the edition being played?"

    I did! That is exactly and precisely how I learned the game. And introduced it to everyone else in my community.

    And I didn't even get dice with my blue book Holmes.

    I can't get over these discussions where everyone shakes their head and says my whole community's experience never happened. I just can't believe it.

  28. "And if you don't want to accept that, I'll simply take a moment to listen to your explanation of how XP rewards are supposed to work in OD&D and then accept your apology."

    What are you talking about? You add gold and HD times 100 and split it among the players. What?

    Word verification: sundumbu. Uh, yeah.

  29. Gygax's DMG may well have been poorly organized but to me it's one of the most useful and inspiring game books to have seen print. Even if I'm playing a different edition, if even I'm playing a completely game, I can whip out the 1st ed DMG open to practically any page and find things that set my mind fizzing with ideas for gaming.

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. Just to echo Delta, I was also a "Vector Zero", learning Holmes D&D from the blue book with no prior exposure, no mentors, no nothing. When I bought it, I thought it was some sort of amp'd up choose your own adventure book. Well I was kinda right ;)

    The D&D that I learned from that book, and taught to my friends, was pretty straightforward & by the book. And age 11, for what that's worth.

  32. Since the discussion is "the old editions were poorly written" -

    I suppose some were. 1e since it relied on knowing chainmail (from what I gathered reading this and other blogs), left some head scratching. Gygax freely admits psionics was a real head scratcher, so wanted to do away with it in his 2e (which he never got to do).

    I first played TSR games when I was 9 or 10. I didn't read any rules, I just did what my GM told me to do (he was 5 years older). We met up to a silver dragon, it attacked us, so I dropped me axe and begun to wrestle it (I didn't understand that weapons do damage. I only knew I was extremely strong since I rolled 18 9x for my strength and was continuously told by everyone that I was extremely strong).

    A year or two later when a friend got the BECMI books I got back into it. Couple years later I was GM'ing D&D, Marvel, and 1e (than 2e).

    I suppose I never thought about if a book was badly written. If I didn't understand something (like with 1e), I would just use rules I did understand in place of them (like BECMI rules - I used THAC0 in AD&D 1e). And nowadays I'm such a house ruler that I would just change any rule i thought was "too much" or "old" in its play anyways.

    I started with Basic D&D, so if 1e was poorly written, I would have just assumed back then that's what made it Advanced ;-)

  33. I agree that everyone's attention spans have been degraded by our cultural surroundings since the 70's, but I do find it hard to believe that even a typical modern 13-year-old would struggle with the Holmes Basic set (I've never seen the other Basic sets so I can't comment on them).

    1e AD&D had more problems than simply the language, which I don't actually think would be a major issue. The organisation and editing of the DMG in particular is a much bigger hurdle to picking the game up and playing.

    But the PHB does actually remain a good intro as to how the game was supposed to be played; the DMG lets the side down with its broken initiative and totally missing encumbrance rules. But any kid reading the back of the PHB should be pretty clear as to what's involved in the game.

  34. I think we're going off topic a bit. Most gaming books are poorly written. I love the 4E game, but it's poorly organized and pretty slapdash with some of it's sentences.

    One of the main points that Andy Collins was making was that it's important to evolve the game from a game design point of view so AD&D learns from 1E and 3E learns from AD&D and other roleplaying games developed over the years. 4E from 3E and Stars Wars Saga Edition. 5E will probably borrow from Fantasy Warhammer 3E in my humble opinion.

    Also, nowadays more so than in late 70's suburban America, it's important to create non-European characters in a non-Tolkien setting. World of Warcraft is an international game and it's played in cities as well as suburbs so there's a lot more people playing the game then next white Tolkien readers.

    So Andy referring to 'kids nowadays' I think is referring to a broaders, wiser consumer of gaming products than the old editions of D&D were.

  35. Whew! Lots of stuff to mull through, here. I'm still new enough to my return to this hobby to feel like an outsider, but here's my take anyway:

    [1] WotC wants go retro? Great! WotC isn't going to pull a "TSR" on the OSR. I'm fairly sure they understand that there's more money to be made by having friendlier policies than TSR had back when they were litigation-crazy whack jobs.

    [2] And I think it's because WotC understands the hobbyist mindset, which is that even if we won't use the product, we'll still pay money for it, especially if it helps us scratch whatever nostalgia- or collector's-itch we may have (mine is a nostalgia itch).

    [3] So if they went and republished the old Holmes set, or the Moldvay, or even the orginal 3-volume woodgrain box set, I'd buy them all (heck - even the old modules) because I hate getting them through eBay with someone else's house-rules already marked in and because electronic downloads lack a certain - oh, let's call it a sense of concreteness - that printing them out on copy paper can't fully achieve.

    [4] Regarding the "D&D Essentials" set itself; who cares what it is, really? If WotC wants to appeal visualy to the game's roots while trying to sell its new 4e product, I can't see how this is by definition a bad thing, especially if it points new players towards retro coolness. It's just business; it's not like we're all Fredo in the boat or anything.

    Just some old guy's take. Happy Monday, everyone!

  36. I have to disagree with that last POV. And if that's what Andy meant, than I disagree with him too.

    I don't think fantasy needs to have current North American POV on culture and multiculturalism. I think it needs to be what it is: Euro-centric knights, wizards, and its folk lore.

    Nothing wrong with adding a bit of something from elsewhere, like a neat monster (Ogre Magi), or an idea for a class, like asassins (the Indian Thugee). But to blend it all to make the game more PC I doubt will broaden it in its marketing.

    Years ago a friend got me to watch a Japanese fantasy mini-series called Record of the Lodoss War. Pretty much it's a Japanese take on Euro-centric D&D. People around the world *do* like that stuff. Just like James mentioned how he's into Old Kingdom Egypt.

    I can understand people being interested in other cultures like that. Me, personally I'd rather see the use of later Egypt, when it got all feudal. That sounds much more interesting to me.

    Could the fantasy genre do better without such a Tolkien influence (or better yet, Peter Jackson influence)? Maybe yes.

    I watch the new BSG show Caprica. In it they've taken Sicilian mafia and turned it into a culture on a grander scale, and they seem to be using mostly non-white actors for it (the two main Tauron characters are Mexican and Israeli). That's neat. They don't talk like they're from Jersey, but they're mobsters with a strong family tie, with a tribal aspect (they tattoo themselves with events of their lives - like Pacific islander people do).

    Just because our real world developed the way it did, should fantasy worlds? We had Genghis Khan, but should the Forgotten Realms? Well it did! Did that improve the world setting, cause the feedback I've seen is that it didn't. No one was interested in playing in a Horde. 4e did away with its Aztec, Egypt, and Babylon settings for the Realms too.

    I think better D&D marketing would be WOTC asking the Cartoon Network if they might be interested in a 10 minute weekly cartoon. Just make it a group of typical D&D adventurers in a dungeon crawl. No background story on how they met, or who they are, or world building (save stuff like that for a season 2 and 3). Just a simple 10 minute advertising of D&D. Worked for Clone Wars (and it started off with 5 minute episodes, which were enough to tell its story).

    Introduce the game that way to a new generation. Maybe they'll go off and play WOW after, but maybe they'll play DDO instead. If they do, it's money in WOTC's pocket. The rpg production model could be to just break even, and develop story ideas. Who would of thought that Drow would become a standard race 20 years ago. Probably no one. But they did. And now most fantasy has a dark elf in it. D&D shouldn't be trying to reinvent itself, or use another competitor's idea of what fantasy is. It has its own. It's had it for decades now. And since too few even are aware of its fantasy (and sci-fi) origins, D&D can swipe that, and everyone will think how original they are.

    Worked for Star Wars (aka, Dune meets Flash Gordon meets Kurosawa).

  37. Nuts - sorry about that comment. Doin' a 36-hour day and I meant that for the OTHER thread.

  38. I think some of the responses here brought up some good points.

    I thing there's a general cultural aspect here in modern times that things have to be obvious and spoon-fed to the general audience. The media makers, whether it's film, comics, games, etc. have to make things perfectly clear with characters, plots, origin stories, etc. They don't always give their audience credit and let them work things out for themselves.

    The things unsaid, unwritten, implied are what really stick with your throughout the years.

    Andy's quote, strikes me as a bit odd but a reflection of assumptions of modern times.

  39. Bliss:

    I have to really agree with what you just wrote. Yeah it does feel at times that designers give too much what they want. Case in point - I think it's safe to say at least one marker of 4e is into Celtic mythology. It now has a bigger influence on the D&D game.

    Producers of entertainment keep forgetting that the masses do have an imagination of their own. Take Star Wars; Boba Fett and Wedge are more of a creation of fans. They had minimal screen time, but fans like me still saw Fett as a top bad guy, and used our Luke X-wing action figure to be Wedge.

    Word verification: tythars (very D7D sounding)