Archive for the ‘ D&D 3E ’ Category

Post Gencon (NSFW)

Upon my less-than-triumphal return from Gencon I was greeted with a badly damaged car (sideswiped while parked for the weekend), a house turned upside down (ripped up floors and walls, a friend crashing on my couch while he’s in between apartments) and chaos at work (I apparently did not note my vacation on the work calendar correctly, thus screwing up the department schedule; mea culpa). It’s kind of almost back to normal, though my house is in a bit of an uproar and I’m trying to find time to finish my novel rewrite before proposing some pulpy sword and sorcery adventures to a couple of other publishers. I’m also feeling kind of worn out and icky, possibly a side effect of overexertion and a bad diet over the weekend. We’re none of us as young and resilient as we used to be.

So that’s what SniperWolf looks like without the uniform…

But still in all I’m feeling pretty good. Though we never once caught a glimpse of Wil Wheaton, I didn’t get to any of the writing seminars that dotted Gencon, and there was more line-standing than I like, I still had a very good time and actually did a couple of useful businessey things, such as contacting some editors and old friends looking for more freelance writing opportunities.

Like Gencon ’06 (at least I think it was ’06; maybe ’07), the focus this year was definitely on Dungeons and Dragons and its various spinoffs. The opportunity to play the game (or at least the engine) in three different and distinct incarnations — 4E, D&D Next (aka 5E), and Pathfinder (aka 3.75E) — gave me some enormous perspective on where the hobby has gone, as well as where some have wanted to take it.

My previous discussion of the 4E game laid out a lot of my concerns — the powers-based system, the lack of roleplaying, the frequently-argued “skirmish wargame” aspect and so on. Our D&D Next playtest, however, suggested the route of a wayward train that missed an important crossing, heading north instead of west. Upon realizing that it was going in the wrong direction, the train is forced to slow, to divert to a switching yard, all the cars are uncoupled, the engine is put on a turntable and aimed back south, reattached, and sent on its way, where it reaches the missed crossing and heads due west, the direction that it intended to travel in the first place.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s Pedobear.

The 4E train is taking a very long time to slow down, to the extent that WotC is still promoting it and releasing some cool, very lushly-illustrated drow-based products for it, along with its Dungeon Command skirmish game, which Beth and I played and enjoyed considerably (I found the price tag a bit steep, but hey, it’s an expensive hobby). However, the railroad employees are busy preparing the crossing so that the train will smoothly transition, bearing back toward its original destination, on tracks parallel to the sleek and speedy Pathfinder express.

WotC and my old colleague Mike Mearls are definitely listening to the playtesters, adding some cool mechanics to the fighter class and streamlining other aspects of the new/old game to suit their players. Once more, I’m seeing a more flexible and variable system that has the potential to be as loose and unstructured as original white-box D&D or as complex, combat-heavy and locked-down as 4E, if that’s your thing.

Bronies have no shame. Nor should they.

Pathfinder continues to cruise, and the question is whether the new edition of D&D will eventually supersede it (the brand is still very valuable and recognizable despite recent missteps), or whether there’s room in the world for two major d20-based frps. My ideal world is one in which they’re both at least broadly compatible, so that D&D products can be used with Pathfinder and vice versa. I’m not sure whether that will happen, or whether the corporate mindset that wanted to squash the OGL and d20-based products in favor of the cool hip-hop bling awesomeness of 4E, which of course all the kids and their cool friends would want to play.  I’m hoping that everyone maintains a live and let live attitude that not only helps the hobby, but allows me to continue using the $5,000 or so worth of old 3.5E books that still grace my shelves.

I think I can safely guarantee that no one like this attended Gencon I back in 1967.

I’m both amused and bemused at the reaction of many fans to the open playtest of 5E. While I think the consensus is that what we’re doing is exactly what it’s been sold as — a playtest of a relatively new game system that is based upon familiar mechanics, there are those who have been exploding with outrage at various aspects of the game, rather than responding in a calm and methodical manner and letting the test proceed. One commenter over at described the playtest as a “trainwreck” primarily because he didn’t like the new sorcerer character class, for example, and the outrage at how WotC had “nerfed” the fighter in the first playtest was almost palpable. I’d remind the folks who are unhappy with the current state of 5E that they’re just trying out mechanics that may or may not make their way intact into the new edition. But then I suppose not everyone is familiar with the playtesting process.

So what did I learn at Gencon? Besides the fact that Bronies are pretty much everywhere, not much really, though I did come home with a lot of swag and did indeed make a couple of contacts with people who might actually give me some work. That aside, I had a blast and did what one is supposed to do at a gaming convention — gamed. And yeah, I also took pictures of cute cosplayers and watched women take most of their clothes off. Sorry for the less-than-stellar photos — this simply points up why I want to eventually buy a nice new SLR and some decent lenses.

I got a picture of this young woman in the dealer’s room. Her tat, like so many other things that I like, is both sexy and creepy at the same time.

In other news I actually got about 8,000 words on paper for my rewrite yesterday. At that rate I could write a novel in 12 days and I’m sure there are folks out there who can. However, it’s not really a pace I could maintain for long, especially while working 40 hours a week. Besides, a couple K were recycled from the previous version of the book.

The final word count is around 97k, which is about 9k shorter than the last draft. I hope I haven’t stripped the book of any deeper meaning or significance, damaged character or plot development, etc., but I guess the final judgment will be with the publishers and agents I send it to.

On a purely mundane level, repairs to my sideswiped car are covered (after a $250 deductible of course) and come to about $2300 or so. Sheesh.

Home repairs continue and I think we’ll be back to normal in another week or so. Tev, my buddy and drummer crashed with me for a few days while the apartment he’s getting with his gf is being prepped for occupancy. I didn’t mind — not even when he brought the hyperactive little corgi-chihuahua mix dog who felt that every lap in the room was her personal property.

My daughter is off to sample the Burning Man festival, which I’ve come to the conclusion is a modern-day rite of passage for the alt-culture set. I cautioned her not to do anything that I wouldn’t, though I’m not sure whether that’s going to help at all.

And here is a picture of actual gamers, gaming, to prove that I didn’t spend the whole weekend photographing motorcycles and pretty women. Truthfully, wouldn’t you rather look at cosplayers?

Work is kind of a drag, but I’m persevering. If it was up to me I’d live in a timewarp where it was always Saturday, but that may have to wait until retirement.

I’m heading off for an isolated island well away from civilization to do my final polish on my book next weekend. No, really — it’s supposed to be a very nice place. It’s called Bloodslaughter Island. I’m not sure why.

I close my eyes, it ends too soon.

My Own Private Edition Wars, Part 2

So on to part 2 of my reflections on the 3E/4E conflict and my own experiences trying to change editions. Again, this is really gamer-intensive stuff and probably won’t make sense to non-gamers, but it seems like a good time to consider the changes of the past few years and the likely ones of the future. And once more, it’s just my opinion.

To start with, I think that the whole concept of “Edition Wars” is kind of silly. In the end it comes down to a conflict that, while not unique to the Internet, is typical of on-line interaction. Regardless of whether the argument is over whether video games are art, whether Trek is better than Star Wars, whether women heavier than 100 pounds can be attractive, or if My Little Pony constitutes a great work of television drama, most of the discussions come down to one statement:

“Stop liking what I don’t like!” (Or, conversely, “Stop not liking what I like!”)

I think that the so-called Edition Wars are a case in point. Either you liked D&D 4E or you didn’t. And if you did, that wasn’t a reason for the next gamer to like it too. If you hated 4E and everything it stood for, expecting another random gamer on a forum page to agree with you was like expecting him to change his mind about his favorite color. There was plenty to both like and dislike in 4E, as with 3E before it, and every edition previous to it as well.

All that preface is just another way of saying, “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” My reaction to 4E was really a reflection of my tastes as a gamer, rather than absolute fact. That I felt it was a failure doesn’t mean I’m expecting anyone else to agree with me. In fact if you are one of the many who thinks that 4E was the bee’s knees, I will defend to the death your right to do so. Just as long as I get the same courtesy.

That said, in 2007 I was among those lucky few at Gencon to witness WotC’s announcement of the latest (and, we were assured, greatest) incarnation of our favorite game. D&D 4th Edition, we were informed by the odd Frenchman who narrated the introductory film, would be everything that the previous editions were and more. Not only would it be a ground-up redesign of the old and by-now clunky mechanics of 3.5E, it would also be fully supported with a robust on-line community and web-based tools, centered on the gaming community site Gleemax and the new Dungeons and Dragons Insider website.

Though I was one of the new system’s earliest supporters and looked forward to its debut with excitement, I had to ignore the growing sense of unease I felt as details of the revision emerged. The entire on-line community thing bothered me, especially since much of Wizards’ hype suggested that you really couldn’t fully enjoy 4E  if you didn’t join DDI, and other tidbits, such as the fact that the new rules essentially required the use of miniatures, implied that there would be wholesale changes in both mechanics and culture.

When the game finally arrived in 2008 I ordered a copy from my friendly local game store, took it home, opened it up and was somewhat baffled and more than a little crestfallen at the extent of the changes. I futzed with the rules for a couple of weeks. My friends had also invested in the rules, but within a couple of moths both Dale and Victor, both valued gaming companions and excellent game masters, had sold their books and decided not to make the change. Rumblings of dissatisfaction were felt and heard throughout the gaming community, though I reminded myself that gamers are just like everyone else — fearful and suspicious of change.

There was no doubt that Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins and James Wyatt — fine gentlemen all — had created a masterpiece of simplicity and consistency. The old rules were largely swept away, though the core d20 mechanic remained — clean, efficient and simple. The 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was a fine piece of game design.

But what had these new rules turned the game into? Both cries of joy and howls of derision echoed across the Internet. The game was better, faster, more efficient, said the supporters. Clunky old rules had been replaced by straightforward, easily-understood ones. The learning curve was less steep and player enjoyment greater. Sketchy elements of 3.5E such as skills, Vancian magic, confusing feats and wildly disparate class abilities were gone, and what remained was elegant and modern — a roleplaying game for a new era.

On the other side the anger was palpable, however. Perhaps 4E was a good game, but was it D&D? In redesigning the game, had WotC gone too far, transforming our beloved game into something foreign and unfamiliar? Had they strayed from the elements that made D&D what it was, adopting the principles of MMOs and catering to the short attention spans of the Internet generation to instead make it World of Warcraft: the RPG?

My first instinct was that they had, that something fundamental had changed about the game, and that it was no longer really Dungeons and Dragons, but instead a cunning, intricate miniature combat system where positioning on the battle grid and judicious use of cool and awesome powers was the most important thing while skills, personality, alignment, race and class were rendered somehow secondary.

I reminded myself that change isn’t always easy. I shared my fears with friends in the industry, and was essentially told to put my money where my mouth was and try the system with an open mind. I agreed that this was probably the best way to go and leaped into the deep end, joining in a brand new campaign run by my friend Travis.

Gleemax was gone, having never really gotten off the ground, so I joined DDI, spending $15 per month for the privilege. That this was the same cost as a subscription to an MMORPG did not escape my notice, nor did the fact that most of the promised features — the character visualizer, virtual gaming table and character generator — were absent or present only in very rudimentary form. Later developments at DDI were uneven, and it looked as if WotC’s foray into the digital world was a mixed success at best.

I began play with a Dragonborn Warlord and we launched the new campaign. Almost immediately I hit a snag. As our ship was sinking in a storm in the first session, I decided that since Warlords are considered “leader” types, I would organize the ship’s crew and build rafts to escape the foundering vessel. To my surprise I found that 4E’s revision of 3E’s skill rules had removed such skills as Profession (sailor) or (soldier) as well as any kind of building or crafting skills. If I wanted to take command of the panicked survivors and get them to build rafts, and to sail those rafts away from the sinking ship, we would have to wing it. Needless to say, Travis did a fine job fielding my troublesome demands, using the thankfully still-present Diplomacy skill to help me command the survivors and improvising other skills to simulate the building and sailing tasks, but the lack of hard and fast rules for even this simple situation left me concerned.

In actual practice, Travis’ campaign went perfectly well, but still felt quite different from what I was used to. All four player types seemed to be variations on the same theme — most abilities were combat-oriented and each class could make a single attack each round that did a little damage, a few that did more, and a couple that did a lot.  There was a sense of sameness to the character classes, despite their disparate and now mandatory roles.

The game’s power level was among my other concerns. In the designers’ understandable zeal to make all levels of play fun and interesting, they had crafted a game in which player characters start off cool and awesome, then stay cool and awesome as they advance in level. Personally I actually enjoy games where lower-level characters feel vulnerable and underpowered and have to struggle to survive. There is a sense that as a character advances and becomes more powerful that he is actually earning something, rather than simply trading his cool and awesome powers for different cool and awesome powers that have slightly different cool and awesome names. Again, as with most of my other concerns, this simply represented an area where my gaming tastes differed from those of the designers. Unfortunately, the rigidity of the new system prevented us from making any changes that might improve the situation, and we were stuck with WotC’s “everyone’s fucking cool and awesome even at first level” design philosophy.

In a brief exchange with the designers at a local con I used the phrase that I’ve heard elsewhere (most notably in The Incredibles) that “if everyone is special, then no one is special.” To me this complaint seemed to fit the big problem with 4E to a “T.” In an attempt to level the playing field, 4E had managed to homogenize the character classes, making everyone a general but no one a private.

While there was some roleplaying, particularly at the beginning of the campaign, the game’s emphasis on combat usually meant that an evening’s session was little more than the prelude to a big miniatures battle which we all came to expect at the conclusion. And to be sure, these grand melees were exciting, with miniatures scooting everywhere, one PC’s abilities triggering others in a massive domino effect, Eladrin teleporting left and right, spells bursting, shells flying, flags waving and fireworks exploding overhead. Indeed, 4E combat was a spectacular thing — so spectacular in fact as to overshadow just about every other aspect of the game.

Some things rankled. The strange and inexplicable powers, many with downright silly names and descriptions (“Fangs of Steel,” “Cruel Cage of Steel,” “Wandering Tornado”, “Beat Them to the Ground”), many of which resulted in slightly ludicrous effects and made little sense. Many seemed to have similar effects despite their colorful names — this attack slides the enemy back a square, this one lets me shift a square, this one lets one of my allies shift a square, this one triggers a healing surge, this one lets me move and attack, this one prevents my opponent from moving, etc. The collection of powers seemed random, and their effects sometimes illogical.

As an example, I offer the Warlord daily power “Knock Them Down,” with the eloquent description The rhythm of your enemies hitting the ground is music to your ears. If the warlord succeeds in attacking his opponent using this power, not only does he inflict 3[W] damage, but he also knocks the target prone. Fair enough, but once that’s done, every ally within 10 squares can now move 3 squares and attempt to knock down their opponents as well.

How the hell does that work? How does my knocking down my opponent make it easier for my friends to knock down theirs?

I understand that this is a fantasy game. Yet I still prefer at least a small degree of plausibility. I’ve fought in SCA wars and once or twice I have knocked my opponent down (though more often, I have been the one on his back struggling like a turtle). How in the world would my success at knocking down an opponent during a war battle or grand melee allow all the other fighters on the An Tir side within 50 feet of me knock down their opponents? The illogic of this and other powers made it difficult for me to view 4E as more than just a clever board game.

And I haven’t gotten to the best part. Even if my Warlord misses, HE STILL KNOCKS THE OPPONENT DOWN AND INFLICTS HALF DAMAGE!

Yes, if you’re a Warlord with the “Knock Them Down” power, you too can knock Cthulhu down without even trying. You too can knock down giants, titans, demigods, heroes — all of them. Even if you miss. AND you get to wound them in the bargain.

I loved using this power, but every time I used it I felt silly.

I could go on and on about these powers, but this isn’t a review, so I’ll leave it at that. Powers were a good idea that was taken too far, like so much about 4E.

More bothersome than the occasional goofy power was the lack of options and flexibility. Heinsoo, Collins and Wyatt clearly had a style of play in mind when they designed the game, and that style was all but locked into the rules. Miniatures were required as were parties of four to six, with each character having a specific, pre-defined role — fighters were called “defenders,” wizards were “controllers,” rangers and rogues “strikers,” and clerics and warlords were “leaders.” Parties had to contain a mix of different types and if you wanted to step outside of your assigned role — play a fighter who used a bow, for example — you were pretty much SOL.

The same went for style of play and setting. The world was a dark one, based in the ruins of ancient empires, with settlements as “points of light” in the gloom. Magic was everywhere, and PCs were expected to delve into the darkness, wary of the monsters that lurked around every corner. It was pretty standard D&D stuff.

Unfortunately, it seemed to me that the rules largely required one to adopt this cosmology or else throw out entire sections. If you wanted to play in the ancient, light/dark dungeonpunk world that the designers envisioned, great. If you preferred to play in a low-magic, low-tech world like Conan, or in a more heroic setting akin to “Lord of the Rings” you were once more out of luck, and would have had to make wholesale changes to the rules in order to do so. If you wanted to do a game with all PCs playing a single class, you were probably equally screwed. The game, I felt, robbed its players of options and with them much of the ability to be creative or innovative.

After a few months of this I had decided that if my friends wanted to run 4E games, I would be more than happy to play, but that I had little to no interest in running my own. I found the rules far too limiting to do the kind of things I wanted. I acknowledged that 4E seemed to be a commercial success and that many people were playing it, but after my purchase of the three initial books, I decided against any further participation. I let my DDI subscription lapse and did all my character generation by hand.

All the while Paizo Publications was developing its own entry into the D&D sweepstakes, the OGL-based Pathfinder. Utilizing familiar rules and crowdsourced playtesting, Pathfinder was to me everything that 4E wasn’t — alive, detailed, flexible, adaptable, with many options for both players and GMs, and the ability to play just about any desired fantasy setting, regardless of technological or magic level. Once the final version of the Pathfinder rules came out, I embraced it with enthusiasm, sad that I could no longer call Dungeons and Dragons my favorite game, but also glad that the things I’d liked about 3.5E still existed.

Then a strange thing happened. Pathfinder caught on. Within months it had caught up with 4E in terms of sales, and in many cases had equaled or surpassed it. Despite what we had been told about how ancient and clunky the game had become, there was life in the 3.5E engine after all. The tweaks that Paizo made improved the game further, and many of them reflected similar changes made by WotC in creating 4E (streamlining the skills system, for example). In in Paizo’s case however a careful effort was made to keep the game compatible with the previous edition. Now at last, my $5000+ worth of D&D 3/3.5E books were useful again, and I didn’t have to start from scratch purchasing brand new books to go with my brand-new system.

For the past couple of years I’ve been a devoted Pathfinder fan, and most of the 4E enthusiasts in my gaming circles have gone back to it. 4E remains an option, but so far it’s an option we haven’t turned to very often.  The release of D&D Essentials seemed like an attempt to mitigate some of 4E’s more serious issues, but for me it came too late. I had already changed systems and wasn’t likely to switch back.

And then, just a few weeks ago, WotC officially announced that it was working on yet another incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons. Whether it is called 5th Edition, D&D Next or just Dungeons and Dragons, it’s pretty solid proof that 4E simply didn’t perform as well as its creators had hoped it would. To my surprise, I learned that work on the new “edition” (or whatever they’re going to call it) began in 2010, a mere two years after 4E’s release, further bolstering the sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment that many have felt about D&D’s latest version. Statements from the new design team are very encouraging, and it sounds as if those of us who had issues with the extent of 4E’s changes as well as its lack of variation and flexibility were not voices crying in the wilderness after all.

While the time for postmortems and Monday morning quarterbacking is over and the gaming world needs to move on, a discussion of what went wrong and how it can be fixed might yet serve some valuable purpose. I’ll go over my own thoughts on 4E’s successes and failures as well as my hopes for the next “edition” in my next entry. In the meantime, as always, happy gaming.


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.