Chad Perrin: SOB

22 March 2009

D&D: The more things change, the more they change.

Filed under: Geek,Review,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 09:42

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

This isn’t meant to be a salvo in the “edition war”. It’s meant to be a historical meander through the eyes of one gamer (me) and, probably, many other gamers like him (me). In the context of the ongoing “edition war”, however, I hope those who have arrived at different conclusions about how things have evolved will learn something about my perspective, and why I hold the opinions I have on the subject of the comparative benefits of different editions. If you can at least understand my point of view, even if you don’t agree with it, I’ll consider this lengthy ramble a successful endeavor.

Bear with me. There’s a lot of personal history in this.

OD&D

When I first started playing D&D, I used the single-book Basic Set with a green dragon on the cover. It was a very simple and straightforward way to design a roleplaying game, which makes sense considering its evolutionary proximity to the very first publication of Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t have a copy of the game at that point — I was just playing it with a few acquaintances of my innocent youth in a roller rink on the Hawaiian island of Maui. I also didn’t play that edition for long.

One day, when I got my very own D&D Basic Set as a gift, it was the red box set. Frankly, I don’t recall the differences, other than the fact that the red box game was split into two books — one for the player, and the other for the DM — that came with solid color plastic dice and a crayon for coloring in the numbers yourself. By this point it was probably about 1984. The following sets in the series (Expert, et cetera) followed, each set covering a higher level advancement range than the last.

In those halcyon days, the monsters and an implicit campaign setting (starting in the humble home town of Threshold) came in the same purchase as the rules. Images associated with the Elf Class (there was no difference between race and class then) and the Fighter Class are still vivid in my mind, lo these many years later, as well as the later sets’ variant classes (the original precursors to Prestige Classes, I believe) such as my all-time favorite OD&D class, the Avenger. Alignments were along one axis only (L/N/C, none of this Good/Evil crap). I think I still have those books and that box on a shelf somewhere, but the dice and crayon are surely gone forever.

AD&D 1E

Eventually, I was exposed to the quirky tiny text, narrow margins, and florid prose of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons first edition. I couldn’t even tell you what year that was; the date is lost in the mists of time. It differed quite significantly from the D&D Basic Set, and the first thing I noticed was that race and class were now separate from one another. What an innovation . . . ! That second axis to alignments appeared at this time, providing a matrix of nine alignments, and spawning far greater debates about what any given alignment meant than ever seen before.

AD&D 1E not only separated player knowledge from DM knowledge, but also separated out the campaign world and the monsters into two more books, and each of them was a separate purchase. The construction of the game mechanics was expanded into what seemed, at that time, a dizzying array of options that could be combined in myriad variations to customize a character. There was a set of core books (PHB, DMG, and MM) that were pretty essential to the game, though I suppose one could squeak by without the MM for particularly abnormal campaigns. Additional books and boxed sets could be bought for more player options as well as premade campaign setting materials.

My first exposure to AD&D was, as with OD&D, via someone else’s books. Eventually, though, I got my own — with the new cover art. The books were all basically identical to the previous cover art version, aside from the cover art (obviously), as far as I recall. There are clearly more substantial differences between AD&D 1E as a whole and OD&D (Basic Set and beyond), which can largely be summed up with the statements that it got more flexible, with more options for the players and a greater attention to fine details that helped to add a lot of color to the game; that it gained a somewhat darker, harsher tone; and that the construction of the game mechanics got more byzantine — that is to say, (at times needlessly) complex. There were a lot of things you could do with 1E that weren’t really presented as options to OD&D players, at the cost of a lot more complexity and twisty turns of thought. A major win for AD&D was the fact that it broke the PCs free of the narrow cookie cutter definitions that limited them to very strict little zones of potential in OD&D.

AD&D 2E

The way different types of rules got broken up into separate purchases, when AD&D 2E came out it seemed to be less flexible and possessed of fewer possibilities than 1E to those of us who had been collecting books for a while. The truth was quite the opposite, though, because the foundation of the game was reworked to provide an even less limiting system for constructing characters based on concepts in the players’ heads, with the various classes, races, and acquired abilities being even less subject to the confines of a cookie cutter array of options. Ultimately, it became obvious to many just how much more flexibility had been gained, and how many more options there were, when the non-core books started rolling out, including the Complete Handbook series that provided examples of how to create class-modifying “kits” to further customize a character.

Then came the Player’s Option books for 2E, which really threw the game open to a lot more variation and customizability. There were so many different ways to do things — different approaches to character creation and development that were compatible and could coexist in the same gaming group — that it boggled the mind. Despite all this, though, 2E also managed to simplify the game mechanics significantly, generalizing from many of the exceptions and (sometimes mutually exclusive) special cases of 1E to create a series of broad rules that applied across much wider swaths of game play. In short, we gained options, flexibility, and customization, and what we “lost” was primarily difficulty and confusion. Oh, yeah, and TSR stepped away from a lot of the family unfriendly material from 1E, including the apparent obsession with chainmail bikinis and the inclusion of such unsavory terms as “demon” and “devil”. Some of these family-oriented changes seemed pretty silly, and even annoying, but the rules changes were largely significant enough improvements to prompt me to overlook the “sell-out” stance on mature themes and cheesecake.

Rules Cyclopedia

I took a brief lateral move into a separate branch of the descendant family tree of the OD&D Basic Set, and started playing some games using the Rules Cyclopedia shortly after it was first published. It integrated the previously separated character advancement levels of OD&D into a single set of rules and, at the same time, overhauled the rules somewhat to provide greater flexibility and customization of characters from the very beginning of play. It offered a refreshing change of pace for a little while, because its take on increasing flexibility and customizability was different from that of the AD&D branch of the family tree, but the available options did ultimately pale in comparison. I tired of it after a while, and went back to 2E.

The Rules Cyclopedia approach was to have a significant effect on future development of the D&D game line, however, as you’ll soon see.

D&D 3E

I’ll refrain from differentiating between 3.0 and 3.5 here. The changes between 3.0 and 3.5 were improvements, but not terribly significant or relevant to this discussion.

Some of the concepts from each of 2E and the Rules Cyclopedia were combined, along with a number of new changes, to produce what the D&D line’s new owners (Wizards of the Coast and, ultimately, Hasbro) called the third edition of the game. They dropped the A (for Advanced) entirely, and simply unified all new D&D game publishing into a single line with D&D 3E. In many ways, it was the best of both worlds, with the glaring exception that concocting high-level NPCs on the fly became a nigh-impossible task for the average DM, because of the incredible number of interacting options present in the game.

Despite this, however, the trend set with the previous editions of AD&D mostly held true, with 3E presenting an increase in the customizability potential and flexibility of the rules, enabling greater ability to make concepts manifest without having to bend them as much to suit limitations in the rules (or make up new house rules just to accomodate such concepts). Obviously, as long as there are game rules that a modern human being can mostly hold in its head and use without the help of a bunch of specialized software, there’ll surely always be some need to bend concepts to the rules (or change the rules), but with 3E the game again reduced the extent of that necessity significantly. It further reduced the problem of cookie cutter character creation, added new categories of options, and while doing so actually streamlined the game mechanics as they’re employed in play.

. . . mostly.

There are some warts on this edition’s nose. As I already mentioned, the increase in available options for character creation greatly added to the complexity of creating high-level characters from scratch (rather than “growing” them from first level through long-term play), which made NPC creation for high-level games damned onerous. In addition to that, there were some parts of the rules that simply failed to achieve much good, such as the truly incomprehensible grapple rules of 3E. For many, though, it was easier to house rule (most of) the warts away than to house rule the kind of flexibility found in 3E into earlier editions. Thus, the trend of increasing flexibility, reducing the cookie cutter limitations, while still making the game mechanics smoother and less unwieldy overall held true.

D&D 4E

4E seems to be where the trend went off the rails, and has really left a sour taste in my mouth as a result. Part of the trend is intact — that of streamlining the rules, generalizing them to produce greater effect with fewer structural quirks and special cases than in previous editions. From some perspectives, the other major part of the trend (that of providing more variations) may appear to have been continued as well, with the “powers” system used for class advantages and the segregation of what is now called “Rituals” from the combat spellcasting capabilities of spellcaster classes providing a more widely usable set of options for realizing customized character concepts in the form of a set of stats. Such perspectives ignore a lot of what made the flexibility and variability of character creation in 3E so appealing, though.

While homogenizing mechanics usually produces a more smoothly playable game, which is generally an improvement, some such changes in 4E have actually homogenized the flavor of the nominally different classes, making them feel less differentiated in some ways. Where they are differentiated, it feels like we have taken several steps backward, as each class has an increased sense of being little more than a cookie cutter used to stamp out largely indistinguishable characters amongst those that have the same broad categorical choices made for them during the character creation process. In fact, not only has the cookie cutter regained a fair bit of its lost prominence in the way the game mechanics are structured, but it has even been more blatantly presented with the “Role” convention as employed in 4E (incidentally corrupting the very term on which this entire gaming hobby is built, “roleplaying”).

Where previously “Leader” was a term used to describe a character to whom other characters defer for decision-making under certain circumstances, largely a roleplaying consideration, in 4E it is now a term used to describe a tactical purpose for a given character in combat. That tactical purpose, meanwhile, is not something chosen as a means of fleshing out a concept or assigned by way of interactions between characters; it is, instead, an inherent part of the choice of class for that character. Gone are the days of the berserker War Priest who wades into battle to lay about him with his battle axe, chanting the thousand sacred oaths of his order to curry divine favor — now the cleric class is relegated tactically to the “Role” of a “Leader”, whose job it is to be an automated “buff/debuff” dispenser.

Gone, too, are the days when you could make a fighter class character, a martial man of arms, whose expertise lay in winnowing enemy troops down from afar using ranged weapons before engaging in melee to lay enemies down with a single blow, aided by allies in tactical co√∂peration with them — that’s the job of the ranger, a “Striker” with a talent for ranged weapons, while the fighter is relegated tactically to the “Role” of “Defender”, soaking up damage so that others can do the dramatic work. Gone, as well, are the days of the wizard (or mage, depending on edition) whose core competency is in gathering intelligence, plying his trade through illusion, enchantment, and divination to ferret out clues — that task is essentially absent from the game now, and the wizard’s assigned “Role” is “Controller”, managing the tide of battle through area effects and similar broadly targeted spells that do almost nothing but deal damage and make enemies more susceptible to others’ damage.

. . . and what do we gain in exchange for this damage to our ability to customize our characters to suit our imaginations? Apparently, what we gain is rules that have a slightly simplified structure, that might occasionally provide some minor benefit over 3E in terms of the smooth flow of play (okay, major benefit in that regard in the case of grappling), but utterly fail to eliminate the major downfall of 3E as compared with 2E: the onerous complexity of on-the-fly high-level campaign management for DMs. It feels, to many long-time D&D gamers who have grown accustomed to (and perhaps been spoiled by) a venerable trend of improved flexibility and customization supported by the evolving rules of new D&D editions, like one step forward and two steps back.

Pathfinder RPG

Rather than follow the edition increment into a game with the D&D name that lacks what I hoped for in a new edition, I have chosen to take another lateral move similar to that of my brief foray into the realm of the Rules Cyclopedia. This move is likely to prove more permanent, however, as — unlike the case with AD&D 2E vs. Rules Cyclopedia — I actively dislike the branch in the family tree I’m abandoning. Meanwhile, even though it is pretty much compatible with D&D v3.5 (the final Wizards of the Coast revision of 3E) and only introduces relatively minor changes in the rules (minor enough to be usable side-by-side with the previous iteration of the rules, akin to the changes between 3.0 and 3.5), Pathfinder RPG’s changes really do seem to be unmitigated improvements in the core system of the game.

Thankfully, one of those changes involved fixing the train wreck of 3E grapple rules in a way that fits with the overall trend of D&D evolution: it generalizes concepts to produce a more flexible — yet more streamlined and unified — system that provides 100% positive advancement (all benefit, no detriment) over the preceding version. More to the point, grapple rules actually work now.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License