Archive for the ‘ Original D&D ’ Category

Kickin’ It Old Skool

(Notice how I spelled it “Skool” to demonstrate how very contemporary I am?)

Anyway, it’s a bit late and I’ve got work tomorrow, but I just completed my first playtest of whatever the latest incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons is called — Fifth Edition, 5E, D&D Next (which seems to be the semi-official working title) — or whatever. While I do need to go back and check my NDA to see specifically what I can and can’t say about the edition, I think I can safely stick to generalities and basic reactions and say that it looks very promising.

THIS is how we used to roll, biatches!

When 5E was announced I found myself wondering exactly what the designers planned. Would it take 4E mechanics and rules and try to improve on them? Would it roll back to older mechanics such as 3E or even 2E? Would it be something entirely new? The hints that WotC let out were tantalizing and to the effect that they were hoping for a stable, simple “core” system that could be added to, bringing in elements inspired by various other editions for the game that each individual group and DM could make their own, as complex or simple as they wanted.

The playtest materials consist of the current version of this “core” system, which reminds me of the old joke about how you carve a ship model out of a piece of wood (you carve away every piece that doesn’t look like a ship). This version is D&D as lean and mean as WotC could make it, with the absolute minimum needed to run a game — no cumbersome at-will/encounter/daily/weekly/monthly/yearly abilities, no voluminous list of skills, no elaborate feats, no specialized prestige classes. This is the bare foundation of what D&D has become. Rather than melding 3E and 4E, it feels more like the 3E mechanic integrated with 2E/1E rules — simple, straightforward and open to interpretation and DM modification. Presumably some form of these rules will end up being “Basic D&D 5E” and the player or DM eager for more detail, realism and/or complexity can then purchase supplements to add such things as tactical combat, complex magic, feats, skills, and so on. If this is the future of D&D, all I can say is bring it on — after living in 4E’s “World of D&DCraft” for the past several years, it can only be an improvement.

Our party consisted of five pre-generated characters and ventured to the venerable Caves of Chaos which veteran D&Ders will remember from the classic Keep on the Borderlands module from the paleolithic era of AD&D. A fighter, rogue, wizard and two clerics pretty much cleaned out a kobold lair, and almost died in the process, fleeing from the now-devastated caves with the angry Kobold King screaming in anger behind them. I cut them some slack here — everyone was wounded, they were out of healing spells, and the king and his bodyguard would have mopped the floor with them. It felt like the D&D I used to play, with vulnerable first-level characters battling large numbers of low-powered monsters and escaping with a handful of hit points between them. It most assuredly did not feel like 4E, where character advancement seemed to consist of “Dude! You start out AWSUM and KEWEL, then as you gain levels you get EVEN MORE AWESUM AND KEWEL!!! WORD!!!” And no, there’s nothing wrong with playing that way —  I object to the fact that if you play 4E it’s the only way you can play.

That said, it also occurred to me that a very interesting thing has happened to D&D. In just a matter of months, the pendulum has swung in a surprising direction. D&D has gone from trying WAY too hard to be contemporary and hip, to being retro and Old School.

My beautiful and awesome girlfriend, who is one of those gamer/nerd women you’ve heard so much about (and knows way more about computers than I do), suggested after visiting GenCon last year that we consider getting into some of the Old School RPGs. These include Castles and Crusades, Swords and Wizardry, the upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics, and a host of small-press Indie games that want to bring back the look and feel of gaming in the 70s and 80s. While I’m not about to come up with a serious and scholarly analysis of the movement, it seems to me that some elements of this Old School movement include very basic rules that aren’t airtight and can be interpreted, changed and modified as GMs and players see fit, and emphasis on simple adventures like dungeon bashes, wilderness exploration and the like, and very basic, unpretentious physical design and layout that mimics the old crude publications of yore, but also improves upon them with modern typography, editing and publishing technology.

This is the lovely Anna Logue, whom the Internet misses horribly. Yes, I KNOW I'm writing about D&D 5E, but I'm afraid I might lose your attention. Does anyone know what happened to her, by the way?

No full-color hardbacks here, and no complicated rules that require the use of miniatures, and try to nail down every last detail of combat, chaining you and your players to a square grid every session. No immutable powers and rigidly-defined rules, no fanciful encounter designs that require a mathematics degree, no attempts to be more like online MMOs… Old School rpgs want to bring back the feel of gaming in your parents’ basement, passing around chips and wondering what it would be like to really kiss a girl. It’s odd that there is such nostalgia is associated with such desperate and unhappy times in one’s life, but there it is.

But it’s more than just nostalgia, I think. I always felt that the more complex, elaborate and dialed-in a set of rpg rules became, the less freedom I had to experiment and make it my own. This was and is my chief complaint about 4E — that as admirable as its goals and as talented its designers were, in the end I was expected to play in a certain clearly-defined, plainly-explained fashion. Each adventuring party had to contain a “Controller,” a “Leader”, a “Defender” and a “Striker.” Only rangers could excel with a bow — if I wanted a fighter or a warlord who specialized in ranged combat, tough luck. If I wanted a fighter-rogue like Fafhrd (or Wulf for that matter) or a warrior-sorcerer like Elric, too bad. If I wanted to create a world that was magic-poor and barbaric like Hyborea, well I was just plain out of luck. And so on.

Mind you I’m sure that many of these desires could have been created using the 4E rules as a starting point, but by the time I’d finished tweaking, shifting, recasting and redesigning, there wasn’t really any point. I had OGL, I had my old 3E books, and I had Pathfinder. There wasn’t any real compulsion to play 4E except to pretend that I was a World of Warcraft character.

Old School changes that — we’re back to basic, flexible, slightly ambiguous rules, and we’re back to relying on the DM to provide his own unique interpretation. In complex, clearly-defined games, the role of DM feels kind of like traffic cop — one who directs traffic and can to some extent oversee drivers’ behavior, but has no control over when the light turns green, or which streets are one-way.

There used to be quite a lot of complaining — and, for that matter, there still is — about how older rules were ill-defined and open to interpretation. And this was entirely true, but now that we’ve seen the future, the case can be made that this was one of the things that made them so much fun, and which turned newer games into algebra homework. Like so many things, old school games’ weaknesses could also be strengths, depending on how one looked at them.

So here we are, coming full circle, transforming the grandfather of all roleplaying games into something that can be Old School, New School, neither or both, depending on how many supplements you care (or can afford) to purchase. I like the idea myself, and I’m hoping that they succeed with it. And hell, I’d love to start writing for D&D again… Anyone out there who’s looking for freelance support, feel free to contact me :) I’ll be at Gencon with business cards and a can-do attitude.

Fight on.

 

 

The Mysterious Pinsom

Remember 1981? For me it was largely a blur. I was busy licking my wounds after my first couple of less-than-successful relationships (and given what an utter twerp I was and what dumbass decisions I’d made, it wasn’t surprising, and today I have little or no sympathy for myself), I was attending gaming and SF cons regularly, still flirting with the SCA, and (I think) trying to find a happy medium in my gaming after my original D&D group had been taken over by fanatics, and my second had fallen apart due to my own lack of diplomacy. I hadn’t yet met the woman who would be my first wife, we were still cleaning up ash from the Mount St. Helens explosion (in fact we had to drive south across Washington in the immediate aftermath of one of the secondary explosions when the mountain blew during V-Con in Vancouver), Ronald Reagan was telling us that he was SURE Mt. St. Helens put out LOTS more pollution than all the US factories combined (wrong again, Ronnie… But who cares? He’s so NICE!) and in Lake Geneva TSR was busy propelling D&D into its first golden age, while E. Gary Gygax wrote bombastic articles and made snide remarks about other gaming companies.

Dragon Magazine introduces their latest comic strip, Pinsom. I think this cover speaks for itself, don’t you?

Around this time, Dragon Magazine (which they very carefully did not call “THE Dragon”, though I’m not sure why) was putting out some very good articles, many of which are still of enormous use today. There were also reviews of games, of miniatures (in a short-lived column called “Figuratively Speaking” — yuk, yuk), fiction, ready-made dungeons, and all sorts of other fun things. And oh yeah, Dragon also had comics. The classic Finieous Fingers, one of the first ongoing D&D-based humor strips and the surreal, exquisitely rendered Wormy, about a very strange dragon and his friends, drawn by the talented Dave Trampier. There was also a fairly long-running graphic story called Jasmine by Darlene, that qualifies more as a lushly-illustrated work of prose fiction than an actual comic strip.

In Issue 46 however, Dragon chose to introduce a brand new strip, titled Pinsom, by one Steve Swentson. I’ve been unable to uncover any information about Mr. Swentson other than the fact that he was an artist on Chaosium’s classic fantasy wargame White Bear and Red Moon. The creation of Pinsom appears to be Mr. Swentson’s last contact with the outside world and though he appears to be a fine artist, Pinsom itself isn’t exactly the sort of note one wants to go out on.

For some reason, this stupid comic strip has stayed with me for years, possibly because my 20-year-old self was so fucking appalled by it. And now, as I revise steampunk stories and try not to be too impatient while my magnum opus urban fantasy novel makes the rounds of various high-profile literary agents, I figured it might be time to have some nasty fun with this gone, forgotten and thoroughly unsuccessful comic strip.

Page one. Don’t worry, there were only seven pages ever published.

Things kind of go wrong from the start. The strip opens with a nice cosmic zoom, from galaxy level down to our hero’s star system, his home planet, continent, and so on. This world, we are told, is called “Morningswish.” It’s the birthplace of magic and the source of all children’s imaginations. No, really. That’s what it says. So when your kid imagines “Gee, I wonder what it would be like if I set the cat on fire,” you can blame the good folk of Morningswish.

Like I said, there’s serious problems arising even now, in what we’re assured is only the Prolog. Consider the name of the planet. “Morningswish” is probably supposed to be pronounced “Morning’s Wish” as in a wish made first thing in the morning (such as “Oh, god, I wish I didn’t have to go to fucking work today”) but as I’m sure you can see, it’s just as easily pronounced “Morning Swish” which conjures up an entirely different image.

Well, the planet Morning Swish has three continents, the largest of which is Terragarden (and in the very next panel, as an alert reader pointed out, the continent is referred to as Terragolden), ruled by regents who swear allegiance to King Amarian and Queen Evalor, but there are some rebel regions that consider themselves separate countries, including some good places where people have huge jug-ears, ride polka-dotted donkeys and wear overalls, and others that are evil (and look a hell of a lot more fun) where apparently people lounge around all day watching naked women dance.

This is apparently someone’s idea of an elf.

(Ever notice that when you want to show how evil and decadent people are in fantasy and religious movies, they always show them watching women dance the hoochie-koochie? I mean hell, I’m not above hitting up a strip club every now and then — I spent one very fun evening identifying the exact species of all the different sea creatures a woman had tattooed on her once — and I don’t consider myself especially evil. Decadent maybe, but definitely not evil.)

Okay, prolog’s over. It may be that the prolog was going to make some sense or somehow relate to the story somewhere down the line, but unfortunately Pinsom was abruptly cancelled before it could go anywhere. And given what the next few pages hold, that was probably for the best.

Okay now we’re into the real meat of the story, and we’re introduced to our handsome, athletic, and oh-so-charismatic hero.

In the kingdom of Unpronounceable (okay, it’s actually called “Perstamonee” but it’s never really important anyway), two young elven knights, sometimes friends, sometimes rivals, sometimes lovers… No, wait… Ignore those last two words. They’re not lovers. Not at all. Not when anyone’s looking, anyway.

Okay, sorry. They’re elves named Nawdian (the ladies call him Nawdee… tee-hee) and our soon-to-be-cancelled-soon-to-be-hero, Pinsom.

And boy are these elves distinctive. JRR Tolkien elves they are not. Instead, our elvish heroes are tall and spindly to the point of emaciation and their faces…

Oh, god, their faces. Apparently Morningswishian elves (is that right, “Morningswishian”?) are part dog and part bat, for they have enormous, grotesque bat-like ears that rise above their heads like gigantic microwave towers, and spread out from the sides of their faces like hideous fungal growths that threaten to consume their entire bodies. In addition, they have the cutest little doggie noses, all black and wet and wiggling. Attached to otherwise human-seeming faces, these black noses are unbelievably creepy, a strange combination of realism and over cutified Saturday-morning squishie caricature.

And worse still, Nawdian, the secondary character in this epic, is a hell of a lot better looking than Pinsom. Nawdian has long, flowing blonde locks and a manly square jaw to go with his freakish ears and disturbing doggie-nose, while Pinsom has a chubby round face, adorable pink cheeks, a dumb smile and a fuzzy white-guy afro.

Well, Pinsom clearly doesn’t care that he looks kind of like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter with huge ears and a puppy nose, and tells his buddy that the last one who makes it to the clearing is a “Slug Moth.” Now apparently them’s fightin’ words, for Nawdian takes them very seriously, and on page three decides to take a shortcut, with predictable results.

As his friend lies bleeding and probably dying at the foot of a nearby cliff, Pinsom happily bounds into the clearing, ready for some hot swordplay. No, I really mean that. The caption said that they were going to do some sword practice. No. Really.

Finding that Nawdian is nowhere to be seen, Pinsom is alarmed, for he smells magic (I guess the doggie nose is good for something), draws his sword and prepares to make whatever monstrosity that lurks in the clearing sell its life dearly.

And so ends the thrill-packed first installment of Pinsom. We have learned that Pinsom and the other elephant-eared, dog-nosed elves live on a planet with a weird and easily-mocked name, and that there are evil things on the planet that like to sit and watch women take their clothes off. And that Pinsom’s kind of a jerk who goads his friends into taking absurd risks.

After the exciting and extra-special three page intro, Pinsom switched to its regular format of two pages per issue. Dragon 47 saw the next thrilling installment.

In the first panel (badly scanned in my official Dragon PDF collection on CD I’m afraid), we’re told that Pinsom is “flooded in that rarest of emotions… AWE.” Yes, a weird old Gandalf-wannabe is standing in front of him, waving his hands seductively and putting on some kind of Pink Floyd planetarium laser show for Pinsom.

“Put down your weapon,” he says (and I imagine him sounding like Sir Ian McKellan). “I am your chosen teacher and we have much to do.”

I’m not sure what I’d do if this happened to me. Probably run screaming, or possibly try to run the old nut through with my blade, but Pinsom does neither. His doggie-nose, we’re told “turns dry” as his hand “loosen’s it’s grip” (sic and sic, btw). He gazes up at the mystical old geezer and says “Gulp… Ah, yes sir.”

Now I have to admit that’s pretty sensible. Old guys putting on laser light shows and floating six feet off the ground can get pretty cranky if you don’t do what they say, especially on planets like Morningswish. And they also have a tendency to give incomprehensible speeches.

This old guy is no exception. “Pinsom,” he says, “there are many things you perceive to be that aren’t, and thus there are many things you don’t that are.”

Wait… What…?

Could you please go over that one again, strange old man?

Oh well, we’re too late. Our brillo-haired hero is pretty much out of the story for good, since now we cut back to his buddy Nawdian, still lying in a broken heap at the foot of a cliff. But wait… His situation is suddenly getting better, cause he’s been rescued by a very sexy-looking elf woman. Well, sexy other than the oversized ears and dog-nose, but to each his own.

“From the blackness of unconsciousness comes a vision of loveliness most real!” declares the caption as our hot elf chick gazes down at Nawdian and says, “You are alright, my handsome one!”

“Aside from a headache as fierce as the red dragon’s flame, I’m doing fine,” Nawdian says.

“I am Leaina of the gypsys (sic),”  she says. “If you can walk I know something that will help you forget your pain.”

Oh, yeah, baby! Apparently gypsy elf women are known for picking up strangers at the foot of cliffs and helping them to forget their pain. Yes, indeed!

Okay, one last panel with the mystical old guy, but no Pinsom, saying “Little elf, your innocence and joys are to be tested severely for at this time many are the actions occurring which must change the course of your life’s path and perhaps the destiny of our world!”

My god, he is a wordy old duffer, isn’t he? I’m not entirely sure exactly what that means, but at least he’s through talking for a while.

Okay now the story takes  a huge 90 degree turn, as we cut to an ornate hallway, with a horned trolly-demoney guy sneaking down it. This, we’re told, is General Naranzu, and he’s about to take action against his king, months ahead of schedule.

While he sits outside the king’s bedchamber door, Naranzu spends a couple of panels repeating some exposition to himself, that Tafu (who I guess is the king) has given in to decadence too quickly, lost the loyalty of the troops, and deserves everything that he’s about to get.

Okay, I get it. On with the violence. Naranzu kicks in the bedroom door with a WHOK, shouting Tafu’s name. The fat, horned demon guy in the bed sits up with an indignant expression, and Naranzu shouts, “You can be my puppet or you can be dead!”

While this isn’t quite as clear-cut a choice as “cake or death,” you’d think it would be relatively easy. If I was offered the chance to be a puppet while retaining my decadent lifestyle, with women of several species decorating my bed, I’d probably hand Naranzu the strings and say, “Start pullin’, big boy,” but to learn Tafu’s choice we’re going to have to wait another 30 days, for that is the end of this installment of Pinsom.

Now you may have noticed that for a strip called “Pinsom,” Pinsom really isn’t in it that much. Right now he’s in the clearing rapping with Obi Wan Dumbledore, while his injured friend is getting all the hot gypsy girl action. Perhaps this will change in the next ep.

Nope. The next page opens with fat old Tafu calling for his guards while the blonde human woman beside him cringes under the covers. By the way, I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance with this strip. The opening suggested it would be cute and whimsical (the imagination of children, remember?) but so far it’s been dark and rather violent. Don’t worry, it gets more violent. Not exactly Ichi the Killer violent, but violent nonetheless.

Tafu and Naranzu exchange the usual banter, with Tafu calling for his guards, Naranzu telling him he’s gotten soft and weak, Tafu slapping on his armor and weapons, and Naranzu taunting him while drawing his weapons.

“Tafu,” he says, “you are a shortsighted peasant who has let the seeds of power drop to the wayside for me to pick and plant!”

Okay, this dialog is really starting to drag here. I think that both the old guy in the clearing and General Naranzu both need a good editor before they start monologing.

Now, back to Pinsom… No, I was wrong. Pinsom is still in the clearing, and since this is the last installment of the strip, will be trapped there forever. We cut to the far more interesting story — Nawdian and the oh-so-cute gypsy girl, and what she plans to do to help him forget his pain.

“My beautiful Leaina,” declares a chubby human in a stereotypical gypsy outfit, “gone for but part of an afternoon and to return with such a catch!”

Leaina seems proud of herself, but there’s another guy in the camp, a rather hard-to-discern figure leaning up against a wagon, cradling a whip like a lover cradles his love.

I don’t know, Nawdian thinks. This guy seems to (sic) friendly, and Whipboy over there looks like he’d like to practise (sic) on me.”

“My long-eared friend,” continues the fat guy, “you have good timing, for I’ve just found a very rare healing root and tonight is the dance of the Changing Time! But now, to the wagon and… hee-hee… rest!”

I think he knows what’s about to happen. Apparently Leaina is bringing injured elves back to her wagon and making them forget their pain with some regularity.

Nawdian (and in the first panel I swear his ears have grown even bigger… Maybe it’s just the proximity of the beautiful Leaina. You know how those elves are.) has some misgivings, for as Leaina leads him into her den of sin (aka her wagon), he asks, “Who’s the guy with the whip and the hate?”

“Oh,” says Leiana with a blase expression, “that’s Tarnor. The most jealous of my lovers.”

Aw crap, lady! What the hell kind of game are you playing? I’ve been used to make lovers jealous before, and believe me it ain’t no fun, especially when said lovers come after you with a horsewhip or a castration tool! I’m really not liking Leaina very much, are you?

Okay, both Pinsom and Nawdian are out of the story now, as we get back to the titanic duel between Tafu and Naranzu. Tafu clumsily swings his axe, cleanly missing, and in a very hard-to-comprehend sequence of small panels, Naranzu leaps up and kicks him in the knee, then guts him with his longsword, kung fu kicks him in the face, and moves in to finish his king off with a dagger.

“Damn! Cough!” Tafu says. “I thought you — gasp — faithful!”

“Always,” Naranzu replies, grinning evilly, “stupid.”

And now in the final panel of Pinsom ever published, we see our titular hero standing before silhouette of the creepy old wizard, his baldric snapping and his scabbard falling to the ground (for what reason we’ll never know) while the old guy says, “But enough of this depressing talk.”

The end. Pinsom and the far better Jasmine were both unceremoniously dumped after this issue, only one issue after both had been lampooned by Fineious Fingers in the Dragon’s April Fool’s issue. Will the mystery ever be solved? What the hell did the old freaky guy want? And did Nawdian get laid? And if he did get laid, did the guy with the whip then try to castrate him or something? Or did the overly friendly fat gypsy guy try to sacrifice him to dark gods? And what of the treacherous General Naranzu?

Three decades later, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never know. The story of Pinsom, and the identity of its creator, remain hidden in shadow, a strange riddle wrapped in an enigma that will haunt the gaming world forever.

Or at least until you finish reading this post.

More later. Stay cool.

 

My Own Private Edition Wars, Part 1

Today’s entry is pretty hardcore, and its mostly for gamer geeks and people who actually PLAY D&D and related games and so may not quite carry the same import for the rest of the world.

Since I’m now listed with some gaming blog networks and I’m mostly writing about gaming, this might be a good opportunity to write on a topic that I’ve wanted to do for some time — my personal reactions to the changes in Dungeons and Dragons editions over the years and my thoughts at a moment when the rpg world seems poised for yet another major change.

I remember years ago noting that the conflicts within small hobby or interest groups are every bit as furious and vituperative as those in the rest of the world. Once I idly mentioned suspecting that stamp collectors had feuds that made the political firestorms in SF fandom and the gaming world seem tame in comparison. How little I knew — some years later a friend who was a member of the American Philatelic Society described to me a vicious, scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners campaign for president of that august organization that included one candidate accusing the other of being a Communist (based on a very sensible measure — i.e. the number of hits obtained when one Googled his opponent’s name and the word “communist” together). Like the rest of the world, gamers aren’t immune to this kind of thing either.

Dungeons and Dragons went through a number of different incarnations over the years, starting off as simply a “Fantasy Supplement” to the “Chainmail” wargame rules and finally evolving into the overwrought monster that is today known as 4E. As I’ve noted elsewhere, my first exposure to D&D came in the ancient “white box” days when I played on an illegal photocopy of the original rules booklets. If I’d had the sense (and the money) to actually purchase a real copy I’d probably be sitting on a gold mine today, as battered copies of “Greyhawk” and “Eldritch Wizardry” are sitting in the display case at Guardian Games priced at $65 each.

When what Gary Gygax chose to call “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” came out, I was there and ready, since I actually had money to spend, and bought the original “Monster Manual”, “Player’s Handbook” and “Dungonemaster’s Guide” the moment they came out. In 1979, in fact, the DMG was priced at the then-outrageous cost of $20 American, which I thought was downright absurd.  Mind you, given that the average game book today is much higher quality and priced at $35-$40, that is actually not that bad a rate of inflation, all things considered.

The so-called “Advanced” D&D rules really weren’t advanced so much as centralized and codified. In the end, many believe that Gygax’s consolidation of the rules and their new name was done, among other things, to prevent co-creator Dave Arneson from making any money off the enterprise, a wrong that was not righted until much later, when WotC finally took control.

Certainly the guiding hand of E. Gary Gygax was apparent in many aspects of AD&D, both in its mechanics and in its culture. The old (and to me, disliked) notion that roleplaying represented an antagonistic relationship between players and GM was amply demonstrated by the assertion that the DMG was for referees only, and that players were explicitly disallowed from reading or owning one. Of course, like most of Gygax’s other dicta, this guideline was generally ignored, and we all had copies of all three of the main rulebooks.

In retrospect, this was a rather self-defeating strategy and in many ways it demonstrated that games used to be designed and marketed by gamers, rather than corporate suits. From a financial perspective, this seemed incredibly short-sighted. A gaming group consists of three or more players and only a single GM, so why market the largest and most expensive rulebook to a group that represents only 20-25% of the total audience?

Aside from the usual Gygaxian bombast and florid overwriting, the older D&D editions also revealed their wargaming roots with their disparate rules and almost modular nature. Combat used one mechanic, saving throws another, thieving skills another, magic another, psionics (always a VERY uneasy fit with the world of fantasy, I thought) yet another.

The system was contradictory and hard to boil down to a single mechanic. High die rolls were good in combat, but not for saving throws. High hit points were good, high armor class was not. The rules emphasized combat and had no real way of dealing with esoteric things like social interactions, skills and economics — these were left to the GM who had to wing it most of the time.

And honestly, we kind of liked it that way. If someone needed to do something that wasn’t explicitly covered in the rules, we made something up. And if the very next session we wanted to use a different mechanic to determine the same outcome, hey… what the hell? It’s only a game. The current revival of “Old School” roleplaying seems to confirm that this attitude is still with us.

D&D’s second edition, created well after Mr. Gygax was shown the door, ironed out some of the ambiguities, introducing a rudimentary skill system and such horrors as weapons expertise, as well as the much-loved and -reviled concept of “THAC0” (the number required “To Hit Armor Class 0”), a term that I rather liked. It was really just a refinement of the system that already existed — take a PC’s THAC0, subtract the target’s armor class and presto! We know what he needs to roll on a d20. Unfortunately we still had that irritating “low armor class is good” concept that it took another company and another edition to finally overcome.

Though I owned all the 2E books my games were infrequent and campaigns rarely got off the ground. By the time Wizards of the Coast entered the picture, I was wondering if I’d ever be able to run more than two or three sessions in a row before giving up in despair.

D&D Third Edition was a quantum leap in more ways that one. I personally believe that it was the pinnacle of rpg design up to that point and took the game system about as far as it could go without even more seismic changes (an assertion that I think 4E proved, largely to its own detriment).

The most innovative element of 3E was what made it successful — the realization that the game revolved around the venerable and exotic 20-sided die. In a stunning move that probably shocked most of the old guard, WotC’s design boiled D&D down to a single mechanic. Roll a d20, add a modifier, and if you overcome a difficulty number determined by the GM, you succeed. If you don’t , you fail.

This was in fact the original D&D combat mechanic and it was that game’s most notable feature.  Rebuilding the entire game around this single kernel   transformed D&D into something new — a universal task resolution system that was easily understood and quickly grasped.

Not only did this clear vision of game design open the way for greater things, WotC’s nearly socialistic attitude toward the community was something new as well. No longer would outside designers have to disguise their products as “suitable for all fantasy gaming systems” or face angry cease-and-desist letters from TSR’s battery of lawyers. Now all they had to do was conform to some pretty simple guidelines and they too could publish all the D&D products they wanted, with the single elegant D20 logo on the cover.

The years from 2000 to 2003 were something of a golden age for roleplaying, and I now remember them with an almost Camelot-like nostalgia. For one shining moment, it seemed that we were all united. We all spoke the same language and it was called D20. And a rising tide lifted all boats — the prosperity of one was translated to the prosperity of all, and publishers rose like ripe wheat, nurtured in the sunshine of the Open Gaming License.

But like Camelot, it was not destined to last. All too quickly the dream became a nightmare, starting with the ill-timed and -advised release of 3.5E in 2003, far too soon after the initial offering of 3E. Products designed for the old edition were left high and dry, and though the changes were not huge or overly sweeping, they did render many publishers’ supplements obsolete. Significant money was lost and a lot of feelings were hurt. The seeds of future conflict were sown, and the rest was history.

And here at last was the realization that D&D (and roleplaying in general) could be the victim of its own success. The takeover of WotC by Hasbro made many people wealthy, and put a huge amount of corporate muscle behind the world’s favorite roleplaying game. But it also turned it from something that was made by gamers for gamers into something that I think was a bit more sinister.

Hasbro turned D&D into just another product.

Keep in mind of course, that all games, and in fact everything sold in this capitalist paradise of ours is product. Businesses exist to make money, and to make money you give people what they want. The darker side of the profit motive becomes apparent however when the need to be profitable trumps the desire to follow the desires of the spirit and the requirements of art.

This I fear is what drove many questionable decisions made by Hasbro, WotC and others. The premature release of 3.5E was just a taste of events to come, events that culminated in the string of missteps and miscalculations that came with the release of the shibboleth we now know as D&D Fourth Edition.

No one disputes the need to make money. In his usual bombastic fashion, Gary Gygax defended TSR’s right to make money, and rightly so. Yet as noted, he made a number of decisions that were driven by his view of how his game should work rather than how to make the most money. Today, you would never hear WotC/Hasbro insisting that the DM’s Guide is “for GMs only.” The rules (which Gygax believed should only be KNOWN by the DM) are available to everyone and the “Player’s Handbook” is actually the core ruleset, required by both player and DM. Though sensible and an acknowledgement of reality, it is one sign of how much things have changed.

There were of course other factors that contributed to D20’s decline, among them the inevitable holes that wore in systems when played too much, the desire for something new, the contempt that familiarity breeds. By the middle of the decade, D20 was in decline and WotC was determined to do something about it.

As for me I gritted my teeth, bought my 3.5 books and gave my old 3E books to my daughter, the burgeoning gamer geek, and for the next few years I stuck with them, relatively happy with the changes (except that damned “weapon size” rule… I HATE that one).

All went well for a time. I ran with many other friends and DM’d my own “Viridian Legacy” campaign set in Necromancer Games’ version of the Judges’ Guild Wilderlands setting. I even wrote for a couple of late 3.5E products. Then came Gencon 2007 at which WotC, with a rather bizarre short film hosted and narrated by a strange French-accented man, announced the next phase in the game’s evolution. Dungeons and Dragons was going to have a Fourth Edition. It was going to be the system we loved so much, only better.

In development since 2005, 4E was designed by Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins and James Wyatt, and almost completely revamped the system introduced in 2000 with 3E. As we all  (or at least most of us) know, these changes were welcomed by some and shunned by others, creating a rift in the D&D gaming community that has yet to heal, and was made worse by the success of Paizo’s D20-based Pathfinder rpg.

My personal journey from 3E to 4E was not an especially happy one, and I’ll write more of that in the next installment. In the meantime, happy gaming.