Sunday, January 16, 2011

Edition Love

I spend a lot of time bitching about games. It takes up an inordinate amount of my time. I’m an equal opportunity bitch, though; I’ll bitch about 3.5 or 4th Edition in equal measures, or World of Darkness or whatever indie game has my attention at the moment. Every system has its problems, and because those problems hinder us in doing something we enjoy doing (playing these games), we sometimes get hung up on what we don’t like.

In this new era of Edition Wars, this takes on a bit of an adversarial tone. If I bitch about something that I don’t like about D&D 4E, then I must be one of Those, the guys that still plays D&D 3.5. If I bitch about something that I don’t like about 3.5, then I get an earful about how Wizards of the Coast is trying to steal my hard earned dollars by releasing crap versions of the Bestest Game Evar. The Red Box Blog has decided to abstain from the conflict, instead focusing on what there is to love about each edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I figured I’d follow suit and write a post talking about the things I’ve loved about each edition of the game.

First Edition

The first version of D&D I ever played was from the Red Box. It’s not the earliest edition I’ve ever played (I spent a few years playing out the Blue Box 1E books), but it was my introduction to role-playing games as a hobby and as an obsession. I was eight years old. I’ve played a _lot_ of D&D since then, but some of my favorite memories from childhood are rubbing holes in the knees of my jeans from crawling around dungeon maps to get books (we weren’t allowed to clutter the tables).

The first thing that comes to mind when I’m thinking about things I loved about D&D 1E was the simplicity of the game. I mean, the rules were pretty arcane and poorly written, but the core of the game was very simple. The game hadn’t been bogged down with things like skills or feats or powers yet. The most complex class to play was either the wizard or the elf (who was a wizard-fighter), because you needed to keep track of those pesky spells. I mean, take a look at this character sheet for a minute:


This is about as simple as a character sheet can get. You have your personal info, your basic stats, the things you’re good at resisting, a single line for special abilities  and your THAC0 chart. On the other side, there’s a box for equipment, a box for magical equipment, a box for notes, a box for your money and a box for experience. That’s it. This was all we needed really needed to keep us gaming for over a decade.

Are the saving throws stupid? Maybe, but when they’re the only things that you ever need to make a saving throw against, it makes some sense to have a separate stat for saving against Dragon Breath. Seems to me that you’d have a different chance to resist turning to stone than you would getting wanded to death.

There was a level of creativity involved in playing D&D 1E that I haven’t seen in any edition since. You had really limited resources, and the game was designed to be deadly. That doesn’t mean we didn’t goof off and do the ridiculous bullshit every other group did, but if you fucked up, you could die. Death was a regular occurrence for 1E characters, and when you died in our games, you rolled up a new first-level character. None of this “starting off at a higher level” for us; you had to work for your level.

I think out of everything, this is the mentality that best categorizes First Edition D&D for me: the idea that you had to work for every advantage you had. If you weren’t vigilant, you fell into a pit trap and fucking died. But that also meant that players were more involved, players were paying more attention, even through the constant refrain of Monty Python quotes. They weren’t checking their Facebook or reading web-comics, they were deeply and personally involved in the game. I miss that quite a bit.

Second Edition

This is actually the edition with which I have the least experience. See, while everyone else was out playing AD&D 2nd Edition, I was still playing Basic D&D. I blame this almost entirely on the fact that I spent my early D&D days in the small town of Stettler, Alberta (Population: 5,600, including the cats). There were no game stores where I lived, and when we finally got one, I didn’t have enough money to buy the hard-cover AD&D books that were being sold on consignment there. I got in some AD&D just after high school, while the transition from AD&D to 3rd Edition was going on, but the game got kind of lost in the maelstrom of my life around that time. Which is a damned shame, because the games I did play in 2E were pretty damned fantastic.

I think the thing that struck me the most about 2E was options. I had been playing a lot of Palladium Fantasy in my hometown (I know it’s busted, but it’s the only game in town, bub.), and that was a game chock full of options, but nothing on par with what was available to AD&D. Dungeon and Dragon magazines were just starting their meteoric rise from “pretty good D&D mag” to “holy shit, Dungeon and Dragon are fucking awesome,” and the number of books, boxes, mags and online supplements that I had at my disposal for AD&D was incredible to me.

AD&D did something I hadn’t seen another game try and do before. It tried to simulate reality to the tinsiest detail. Some of that, for sure, came from the urge to immerse oneself in the game world; there was a mentality around AD&D that said that the more complex and realistic a rule, the better that rule was, because it did a better job of emulating your expectations from reality. It rarely actually simulated reality all that well, but good gods did it try. And in doing so, it created a marvelous maze of rules that were a ton of fun to delve into. AD&D 2nd Edition was easily the most arcane of the D&D games, and I loved it for that. I’m a rules junkie. I love systems. So to have a million little subsystems, each trying to emulate a different aspect of the real world in fantastic form, was a wonder to me.

This was also the testing ground for a lot of the things I’ve come to love about later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. There were products put out specifically to test new rules and systems that no one had yet tried, and that was pretty dope. Things like Arcana Unearthed brought us cantrips and early point-buy systems, a lot of the settings tried things that no one had ever tried before (what do you _mean_ dwarves live on the plains and ride horses a lot? Crazy talk!), and some of the simplest concepts (separating your class from your species, for instance) were put into full swing in Second Edition D&D.

Third Edition

Third Edition, for me, is always going to be remembered as the game that broke the games industry. I don’t mean that in a bad sense; it unified gamers in a way we had never seen before, and it brought in flocks of new gamers who learned to love our hobby. It was accessible and fun, ushered in an era of elegance and simplicity that few game systems could manage in the ‘90s, and it was marketed like something you could be proud of. I remember the first time I saw an add for D&D in a Maxim magazine; I felt like I could point at that and say “Yeah. See that dude with the sword and the bitchin’ armor? I’m like that guy.”

Third Edition brought together a huge swath of the gaming community under a single banner. It was a unifying force. It didn’t matter if you played Third Edition core or D20 Modern or D20 Rome or whatever, it was all basically the same game, and that meant that if you knew how to play one of those, you knew how to play every other one of those games as well. I recall a conversation I had with Jared Earl in the early 2000’s when I was looking to publish a game idea I’d been tossing around for a while. I wrote up a treatment and sent it to him, and his criticisms were basically spot-on (as Jared tends to be). One of the things that he said that really struck me, though, was “Why are you building your own system for this? There’s already a system for this game, and it’s Third Edition D&D. If you publish a book right now, and it’s not for Third Edition D&D, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. No one will play it, because no one will know how to play it.

Third also brought us the most flexibility we’ve ever seen out of a game system. I mean, we’d all seen GURPS, and were understandably impressed by its ability to put on a new skin whenever it wanted and become a different game, but there was a subtle difference between playing GURPS and playing D&D 3E; when you were playing the former, it was flexible, universal and fun, but when you were playing the latter, you were playing DUNGEONS AND FUCKING DRAGONS. That name carries a lot of weight behind it, and everyone who was playing role-playing games during this system’s hay-day knew how to play D&D.

It was also the first introduction to Dramatic Editing I’ve seen given space in a core D&D product. Action Points were given some space in Eberron, which was, for me, a huge fucking deal. I’ve been on this weird love affair with Eden Studios’ Unisystem for a while, and one of the things that I love about Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been the Hero Points system. Spend a Hero Point, and something awesome for you happens. Great! When a system that was similar was published in a Dungeons & Dragons book, I nearly shit myself I was so happy. And the system was, like the rest of D&D 3E, elegant and simple.

Keith Baker’s Eberron is, in my opinion, the single greatest influence on the direction of Dungeons & Dragons since its publication. It brought us the moral ambiguity of the Pulp genre, magic as an every-day thing, magic-tech as an acceptible way to play D&D, and a darker, grittier, points-of-light-in-the-darkness feel that has carried through to much of the next edition’s setting design. D&D 3E also had the benefit of being able to draw from a HUGE catalogue of resources, in that every third party book that was ever published for Third Edition D&D (and remember that there were, quite literrally, thousands) had to clearly mark what content was available for use by anyone. Huge swaths of the material that was not available for use by others was still available for use by Wizards of the Coast, and that gave them the single largest role-playing game system that has ever been published. For flexibility, elegance, saturation of the market and sheer size, Third Edition D&D is one of the most heroic publishing undertakings I’ve ever been witness to.

Fourth Edition

Would you like to run up a dragon’s face and stab it in the eye? How about hurl someone ten feet back with the force of your ridiculously huge hammer? Call down the heavens in a fury of wind and lightning? Fourth Edition has a Power for that.

Easily the most cinamatic of the D&D Editions thus far, Fourth Edition is the edition you play when you want to stop being Gandalf and start being a bad-ass motherfuckin’ wizard, yo. Back in Second Edition, we used to think that the idea of a well-armed wizard was some hep jive. Now, if your wizard is carrying a sword, he’s fucking doing it wrong, because he can blast holes in an army with a gesture of his hand. Fighters used to stand around hitting a thing with their swords. Now, you fighter can stab a dude in the junk, hurl him at your rogue and make sure that Huge Guy with the Axe doesn’t murder you all. Your rogue doesn’t just stab people in the kidneys; your rogue stabs people in the kidneys, dances around them like she’s a fucking professional, flings them back at the fighter and mocks their mother. There is nothing in this game that doesn’t scream “I am a fucking badass.”

Wizard? Badass.
Rogue? Badass.
Fighter? Totally badass.
BARD? You don’t even know how badass your bard is.

The fights don’t quit when your wizard runs out of spells; your wizard can hit a bad guy, automatically, every turn forever. Your cleric heals your wounds by MAKING NEW WOUNDS ON YOUR ENEMY’S FACE. The fighter is a toolbox of punishment and can make sure the rest of your party stays alive long enough to do their jobs. There is not a single class that does not rock in this game.

Everyone has something interesting and powerful to do pretty much all the time, and that is fucking great.

Even the creatures are great. I remember when we were reading about Kobolds before Fourth Edition hit the shelves, and I was exclaiming over the idea that Kobolds are actually sort of terrifying. The little bastards have abilities that matter, now. They shift around, making them harder to hit, or setting them up for powerful attacks of their own. Goblins do the same things. Gnomes can fucking turn invisible. As their initiative roll. This has made combat more interesting, more intense, and much more tactical. Sure, it necessitates miniatures, but people seem to forget sometimes that this is a hobby that was built out of the miniature war game hobby. The tactical side of the game has always been better served with miniatures than without; you can still play without it, but it’s harder. Same was true of Second Edition.

And, honestly, the miniatures add something to the game for me. It is a lot more more interesting to me to see people moving around the map than just kinda sitting there doing nothing. It’s dynamic, it’s fun, it’s strategic, it involves a level of strategy and planning that previous editions have traditionally lacked, and it can add a level of complexity to the game that is otherwise conspicuously missing.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is deceptively simple. It has color-coded abilities, and it has clearly laid out rules and tables. While going up a level is still strangely arcane, much effort has gone into making the classes easy to read and easy to use. Some people may see that as a problem, but for someone who has been playing Dugeons & Dragons for as long as I have (coming on 20 years now), being able to easily and quickly reference the things I’m looking for has been a godsend. It has never been easier to be a Dungeon Master than it is right now, which is a huge step in the right direction, because the more Dungeon Masters we have out there, the more groups we have playing D&D and the more we’re going to be able to spread our hobby to new and interesting people. Simplicity has it’s place, and having rules that are arcane for the sake of being arcane is not going to help us make our hobby more fun to play.


So there you have it. I have said nice things about every edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I have ever played. Which is all of them. ^_^ I challenge you to do the same. It might make this era of Edition Wars a little easier to live in.

No comments: