Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: Edition Wars

I ran my my first game of Fifth Edition (D&D Next) Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday for a small group of friends and family.

D&D has been a part of my life for years. I was born in 1974, and, as hard as it may be to believe now, Dungeons & Dragons was once pretty mainstream. It's what the kids in E.T. were playing, after all. You could go in to just about any store and find the books on the shelf. I remember looking through the Monster Manual for the first time in a local hardware store in about 1982.

My friend Tim moved to my town when we were in the second grade. He had already played D&D at his old school. For our first adventure, I played his 10th level ranger ("Strongbow") through the Tomb of Horrors. I managed to avoid killing myself with the Sphere of Annihilation,

Me: I stick my torch in the gargoyle's mouth.
Tim: It is "completely and forever destroyed"
Me: All right, then.

but Strongbow's came to an ignominious end when he touched some trap that reversed his alignment and gender, which effectively ended his her career as a ranger.

We played a little bit, but he moved away when we were in the fifth grade, so that mostly marked the end of my time playing first edition.

Second Edition: I found some fellow gamers in high school. We were those kids with more money than sense, who bought every expansion that came down the pike. There were days in the summer when we played D&D every day for a month. After my last day of high school, I walked directly to a friend's house, and we continued our campaign.

You seldom see much love for Second Edition online. When it was released, it was scarcely different from first edition. It cleaned up the weirdest of the rules (1st edition Bards, I'm looking at you), but it was a small change, at first. The big differences came with the supplements, The Complete Fighter's Handbook (and Complete Thief's, Paladin's, Ranger's, Druid's, Cleric's, Bard's and Magic User's Handbooks as well) There were so many option to customize your characters.

Also, Second Edition marked a sea change in the presentation. In First Edition, you were just assumed to be wandering murder hobos, kind of like off brand Conans or Grey Mousers, who didn't have goals any more grand than looting the ruined castle down the road. Second Edition assumed you were important and had grand goals and plans.

This is the edition which I have played the most. In addition to the campaign during high school, there were several after I graduated and moved out. I played with my friend Dave, other friends, and briefly with my coworkers when I worked at the comic book store.

Third Edition: This was a pretty substantial revision of the game. First and Second edition were cobbled together with a million legacy systems and special case rules and this was a big move towards a unified system.

I own a ton of third edition books, but I played only a handful of times. I still played RPGs; just not D&D. The reason that  I have so many third edition books is that a couple years after it was released, it was followed by Edition 3.5.

I might be getting some of the details wrong, but my understanding of the situation was that third parties could produce supplements, but they had to be compatible with the current version of the game. When 3.5 was announced, they realized that the wouldn't be able to sell those supplements written for 3.0, so they dumped them on the market at fire sale prices. It didn't matter to me. 3.5 was still largely compatible with 3.0, so I bought a bunch of books for prices as low as $1.

Most of my exposure to 3rd edition comes from video games. Neverwinter Nights was based on 3.0 rules and Temple of Elemental Evil was based on 3.5.

Fourth Edition: I was not a fan of this one. My friend Eric quoted someone as saying that Third Edition killed a couple of sacred cows, but Fourth Edition slaughtered the whole herd. I bought the books on Amazon, because they were cheap, looked through them and lent them to a friend a couple day. He returned them while we were hanging out with other friends, and I immediately lent them out to somebody else. I'm not sure where my books are, and I don't particularly care.

Part of my problem was the presentation. Other people have called it a tabletop MMO, and, while MMOs were certainly one of the influences on the game, they weren't the only one or even the dominant influence. The rules tended to explain things using MMO terminology because that's something with which the reader will be familiar. First edition used wargaming terms for much the same reason. That's not bad, in itself, but I think it does tend to skew the mindset of players towards that playstyle.

Also, the promotional material was aggressively negative towards earlier editions. "You know that game that we've been making and you've been playing for eight years? It's crap, and you suck for liking it! Luckily, we're releasing Fourth Edition to give you a second chance."

I don't like it, because game balance went too far. The characters seem homogenous in a way that wasn't true for earlier editions. The powers seems so banal and mechanical. I'm going to quote Grognardia, a blog that articulated my problems with Fourth Edition better than I could.

Take, for example, the old standby -- and something even I will admit is a rip-off from Tolkien -- the elven cloak. This is what OD&D has to say about it: "Wearing the Cloak makes a person next to invisible." Next to invisible? What does that mean? Contrast this to AD&D, whose description of the item, now dubbed the cloak of elvenkind, is much more specific:
A cloak of elvenkind is of a plain neutral gray which is indistinguishable from any sort of ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when it is worn, with the hood drawn up around he head, it enables the wearer to be nearly invisible, for the cloak has chameleon-like powers. In the outdoors, the wearer of a cloak of elvenkind is almost totally invisible in natural surroundings, nearly so in other settings. Note that the wearer is easily seen if violently or hastily moving, regardless of the surroundings.The description then goes on to give specific percentage chances of how invisible the wearer is, from 100% in heavy growth in natural surroundings to 50% while underground and illuminated by the continual light spell. I'm not keen on this degree of specificity, but, even with it, there's still some wiggle room for the referee -- and players! -- because what constitutes "heavy growth" as opposed to "light growth" is a matter of opinion. You can see, though, that, even with all the expansive physical/metaphysical description of the cloak, its functioning ultimately comes down to a D100 roll.

Third Edition, as it so often does, pares down Gygaxian flavor text and reduces AD&D's baroque mechanics to banality: "This cloak of neutral gray cloth is indistinguishable from an ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when worn with the hood drawn up around the head, it gives the wearer a +5 competence bonus on Hide checks." Fourth Edition is even more laconic: "Gain an item bonus to Stealth checks equal to the cloak’s enhancement bonus." There's not even a nod to flavor text.
I suppose that emphasis on mechanics is what soured me on the edition. I like tabletop games, but I like computer and console RPGs too, and 4th edition seemed to be emphasizing elements that are handled better in computer games. So, while I can respect certain elements of its design, I'm never really going to like it.

Fifth Edition: Well, I ran the first part of the adventure that comes with the boxed set. But that will be its own post. Look for it soon.

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