(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.
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.
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.