My Own Private Edition Wars, Part 1Posted by Anthony Pryor
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.