Kobold Press

1,000-Word Rebuttal: Against the Fetish of Progressive Design

220px-Action_Comics_1This blog hosted “Penny Dreadfuls: Against the Nostalgia Fetish in Fantasy Roleplaying” yesterday, a pleasant-but-perhaps-confused rant against nostalgia in roleplaying game design, and in favor of progress and modernity. Maybe I’m just old enough to see the upside of the conservative worldview, but let me be the first to say “bah, nonsense!” and offer this brief rebuttal in the voice of reason. I fully realize that in doing so, I can expect to insult every active gamer in a slightly different fashion than Mssr. Hebert did.

Yes, roleplaying games in general and Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder RPG in particular do revel in the antique, the ancient, the dusty tomes—as part of the genre, and as a focus for world building. But this is hardly a fetish for nostalgia or a clinging to the outworn and lackluster rules of yesterday. It’s just part of the character of its novels and settings. Fantasy RPG fans also like Renaissance fairs, medieval weapons, and tales that lean toward sagas and hero-quests. Comes with the territory.

Steady Improvement
But RPG fans preferring antique game design? Not at all, and to the contrary. Most gamers are happy to recognize and embrace a core of functional, pleasurable, and workable rules, rather than chasing after every gaming fad and novelty.

Yes, sometimes these are the core rules you learned as a teenager. Some people are still playing OD&D, or AD&D, or Basic. But it’s a small-but-vocal minority of people who master the rules once, and then refuse to tinker, update, or adapt them.

More often than not, though, D&D fans are fairly quick to abandon the old in favor of the new and improved. Every edition of D&D depends on this–and I will bet if there is ever a 2nd Edition of Pathfinder, fans will first scream “heresy!” and then rush to see how things might be tweaked and improved. Certainly, the hobby will never advance quickly enough for some who shout “Faster! Modern! Discard your d20 class-and-level chains!”, but those gamers are perfect-rules-questers. They are always moving from one system to another, and the search for novelty is never satisfied, because by definition, once you have found it, it is no longer new to you.

Now, it’s true that some D&D players and Pathfinder fans are, in fact, delighted with the Old School, and the Old School Renaissance is even more hidebound in its delight in the old stuff. People enjoy games they understand, and once you have mastered a system, it takes a little work to change your rules and your play style. Not much work, though, and many gamers like nothing better than ripping into a new book of crunchy rules or a tome that brings new flavor to a setting we love. That is no crime: It’s comfortable and pleasant to revisit worlds and characters that delight us. The exact same human instinct explains the sequels to books, comics, and movies we love. Superman is 75 years old: The premise still works. D&D is almost 40 years old, and it is still fun to roll a 20 and clobber the orc.

In other words, a new or modern design is not always better. There is no guarantee of “progress” just because a copyright date is recent, and publishers release terrible games with distressing regularity. Treating newness with a little skepticism is the healthy sign of someone who has seen gaming fashions come and go: Remember all those crazy dice pools? Diceless RPGs? The peculiar fascination of the Comeliness stat? Many gaming trends have done okay for a while. But many new ideas wither and die, and the wise designer learns from the history of the field, tracing the evolution of styles and mechanics. The D&D style has been an enduring one. Perhaps that means it does some things absolutely right for its audience.

Experimental, Not Reactionary
I’d argue, further, that gamers are hardly nostalgic as a breed. Sure, everyone loves the adventures that introduced them to the hobby. (And why shouldn’t they? The wonder of the first time!) But rather than hewing closely to nostalgia, most fantasy gamers are tinkerers and homebrewers. They’re always dabbling, trying out a new mix in their campaign, adding supplements, dropping subsystems, and houseruling like crazy. The most popular genres and styles are also the most active laboratories of game design, and they are the crucible of what works, rather than what is new.

And this “what works” style is premised on a foundation of older things that, probably, have worked for decades: simple ability scores, a d20 system or a percentile system, a class-and-level framework or certain types of point-buy radicalism. This isn’t fetishizing old rules. It’s proper respect for things that the hobby as a whole points to and says, “Well, it might look a little odd, but it’s really great fun to do it this way.”

The core archetypes of fantasy—the wizards and warriors—are not subject to a lot of change. The rules we play by may slowly drift and ebb and alter, but the wise gamer does not chase every passing fad. The good ideas in game design will stick around for long enough to find their way into houserules and small-press releases, and—if they are truly great—find their way into the next edition. The junky, flashy progress of untested and unplayable systems fades away. This is, after all, why Kobold Press fights so hard to playtest as much as possible: Real play burns away excessive rules, design indulgences, unwise world-building decisions, poor choices in tactical maps. Only a fool discards the weight of accumulated experience.

What you call “fetish” and “nostalgia,” Dear Mr. Hebert, is what I call “time-tested” and “proven to work.” I’ll be happy to play any wild and progressive design you like, and I would be happy to find new ways to play faster, better, livelier games. But I’ll think carefully before I throw away the games that got me here.

Wolfgang Baur feels officially older than the hills after writing this essay. But dagnabbit, a d20 is a good tool for beginners and advanced players alike.

54 Replies to "1,000-Word Rebuttal: Against the Fetish of Progressive Design"

Foghammer

May 21, 2013 at 7:07am

I moved to Pathfinder in the light of 4th edition because I was comfortable with 3.5’s rules, and I liked the balance between crunch and fluff that it offered. I always shied away from “x per day” kinds of abilities because they broke my immersion, and come to find out that 4e was built on that.

That isn’t to say 4e is bad; I know at least one guy who loves it. But to me it just seemed like progress for the sake of progress, changing the game simply to be making a change.

I’m 25. I only started playing D&D around 19 or 20, and I started with 3.5e. I’ve branched out and tried other games, and they’re okay, but I always come back to that or Pathfinder (well, just Pathfinder, now). It’s not nostalgia, it’s just that I have found something that works, as you say.

Neal Hebert

May 21, 2013 at 7:21am

Wolf, I don’t think you’ve actually rebutted me; I’m in agreement with most of the above.

Mechanics aren’t good or bad because they’re old or new; design can be progressive without being the product of game designers in 2013. The problem with the nostalgia fetish is decidedly not that people like old games – it’s that a (loud and unrepresentative) subset of people who like older games think that their subjective emotional responses to games they played when they were 13 are the only way a fantasy RPG should be designed, even when those subjective emotional responses were not a function of specific mechanical implementations. And this group of gamers (who give other gamers with similar tastes but much better social skills) has decided that people who like different things in the same game they like shouldn’t get cool new stuff because that cool new stuff is insufficiently “D&D” because FEELINGS. I suspect that, were the “It’s Not D&D” committee to take to message boards trashing the Midgard Campaign Setting because it violates the Vancian-Gygaxo baseline from which all fantasy RPGs evolved – “Central European myths aren’t D&D because E. Gary Gygax was more into Lovecraft, Moorecock and Vance” – you would be a bit miffed, and speak disparagingly at them while sitting at the country club lighting Cuban cigars with $100 bills.

As you well know, Mr. Baur, I still hold to Greg Stolze and John Tynes’s Unknown Armies as one of the pinnacles of progressive design (a game fourteen years old). It’s not for everybody (or even most people), but its mixture of flavor and systems-lite mechanics still challenge me – even though the second edition is 10 years old. If Atlas announced a UA 3e, I’d be ecstatic: and I’d be willing to accept a variety of mechanical implementations that actualize the game’s principle of “You did it” while retaining the philosophical distinctions between the post-modern magick of adepts and the Jungian archetypal powers of Avatars. I would even be open to a new vision of magick, given that in the ten years since 2e the Internet and global communication has created new paradigms of thinking – and in a humano-centric occult game that stuff is par for the course.

The essence of a table-top roleplaying game isn’t really mechanics – it’s the underlying fiction or story that the game facilitates. People might prefer certain mechanical implementations but those preferences (among the rational) aren’t nostalgia-based but utility based, with the utility being “can I tell the same sorts of collaborative stories I’ve told in past editions of the game I liked.”

Foghammer

May 21, 2013 at 7:48am

A game’s mechanics should enhance, promote, and allow creativity to thrive not constrain it and allow it to stagnate; new mechanics that are simply that – new – are not necessarily good. I think everyone agrees on that.

This vocal minority that is being represented as remnants of a by-gone era whose hokey religion is merely a springboard for their rants on the newest gaming fad is really just trying to express the desire for continuation of a product that they love. That doesn’t make their campaign of hate against new games right, but it definitely changes them from “villains” to “anti-heroes.”

Let’s face it: businesses have to stay relevant, and changing the system is one viable way to do that, no matter how some of us may not like it. But that’s okay because the nature of these games is that they are a *framework*, and they are open to modification by the players, and that same nature is what allows them to be reused over and over again. They don’t expire. The advent of a new system does not make the older one unusable! The arguing over which edition is better or worse is totally irrelevant, because you don’t have to convince anyone but the people you are going to play with. I a company makes the decision to move to a new version of a game, you are not going to convince them to go back on it AFTER it’s announced. The plan will follow through, period.

The answer is to either embrace it, or the dust off your old collection of books and save money, and work on perfecting the version you love.

Newcomer

May 21, 2013 at 8:23am

I would like to point out that not one troll was harmed in the making of this rebuttal. Thank you Mr. Baur.

Christina Stiles

May 21, 2013 at 10:09am

Get off mah lawn, Baur! :)

I love games in general, so I’m sure I’ll check out 5e (I’m way behind on the playtest materials) when it comes out. I haven’t followed the vocal folks on what is or isn’t D&D, and I loved playing earlier editions, but I don’t currently play any of them. So, I don’t think I’m in the population that Mr. Herbert was addressing. Still, I believe there is “something, I know not what” that is D&D in mechanics. 4e went beyond that bar of “D&Dness” for me, and so the game did not resonate with me. If it had been released as a game with some other name, maybe I would have been more welcoming in accepting its departure and just enjoyed it for its new gaming concepts. I didn’t. I played it twice, and because it didn’t “feel” like D&D to me, I stayed with 3.5.

So, anything that is called D&D drags along this edition baggage, and that makes it a harder sell in going toward a new edition. Unfortunately, no one can see Plato’s true Form behind this game; D&D truly means so many things to so many different people, and I don’t think you can please them all.

Personally, regardless of whatever 5e turns out to be–and I know some great designers are working on it–I will check it out. And I will play it whenever I can, certainly. The hard part is going to be convincing me long-term why I should play it over playing Pathfinder. In my mind. Patfhinder is D&D without the title. With working full time and having a freelance career, I have so little gaming time as it is, and I have a 13-year-old campaign still going (from 3.X to PF), so changing systems long-term is not in my best interest. And when it comes to competing for the FEW dollars that I do have, I will have to send them toward what the home campaign is running. As a game designer/writer, of course, I’m getting the main 5e books! It’s future purchases that are in the iffy zone.

I’m still waiting on the Wolfgang Baur RPG. That’s when I change over my campaign. He may be an old fart (I think he’s a year older than myself), but he sure knows something about designing games!

Dmitri

May 21, 2013 at 11:17am

W. Baur makes a good point, but let’s not forget that the original article was probably aimed at the most diehard of the old-fashion fans that raised their nostalgia to an absurd level. People tend to do this in real life as well as in make-believe. That said, I agree with this point of view – progress doesn’t always mean improvement (though the d20 modern verse certainly worked, at least in my games), and that we shouldn’t dismiss the old in favor of the new so abruptly either.

Neal Hebert

May 21, 2013 at 12:34pm

What I find interesting about the fallout – particularly with the launch of D&D 4e – is that so many RPG enthusiasts were bending over backwards to articulate what “felt like” D&D to them, and the organic talking points that developed/coalesced around people that didn’t like this past edition.

I bring up the above because D&D was never about a specific mechanical implementation, at least for me. It was a window into roleplaying in a fantasy milieu, which is my favorite genre of novel. I’ve always had a problem with earlier editions of the game because certain mechanical implementations worked against genre emulation – which is what D&D meant in my 14 year old brain. For people like me, the mechanics of the past (barring a few monsters) are frequently reminders of ways that D&D failed at genre emulation; for other fans (the vast majority, I suspect), D&D was a game that they liked some aspects of, and editions are “good” insofar as they enjoyed playing the game.

This attitude is what I take to each edition of the game – to what extent is genre emulation facilitated? 4e was the right direction for me insofar as it discarded simulationist design in favor of more narrative mechanics, and I was hoping for something similarly radical (albeit simpler) in 5e and assorted new games. I’m not opposed to legacy elements such as owlbears and gelatinous cubes, but I’m most interested in holistic mechanical changes that further embrace genre emulation – with knobs and bells that can be tweaked to deal with subgenre concerns (high fantasy, low fantasy, military fantasy, and so on).

I think that a lot of the conversation online, particularly edition warrior parlance, centers on the way that D&D “failed” or “succeeded” with the last edition, with the implication that D&D is a static thing. But for me, D&D is like a credo or design philosophy about genre (storytelling in the fantasy milieu centered on saving the world). Editions don’t fail; rather, D&D can be failed insofar as editions facilitate fantasy storytelling and genre conventions.

This is a minority viewpoint, however.

Christina Stiles

May 21, 2013 at 1:30pm

Neal, in terms of this statement, “D&D is like a credo or design philosophy about genre (storytelling in the fantasy milieu centered on saving the world),” I think that’s an argument for “any” fantasy game sufficing. I can create the same “save-the-world” effect and good stories just as easily in Castles & Crusades, Savage Worlds, GURPS Fantasy, Pathfinder, Dragon Age, 13th Age….

D&D, therefore, is “more” than storytelling. That’s why I think the mechanics of it do play a part in its definition. I can emulate novels and stories just fine in other systems. They don’t all ring true as D&D-like–save C&C and Pathfinder. Those are games that share mechanical elements of the versions that came before. Whereas the others just seem to be “fantasy” games. Of course, I have no experience with 13th Age, so I’m generalizing there.

Mark Patterson

May 21, 2013 at 1:42pm

Game mechanics are part of what I call the “taste” of a game. Rolling a d20 to avoid a fireball, is part of the taste of D&D and Pathfinder. It gives the player an active role in his defense. Like parry use to do in 2nd edition (from the Complete fighter’s handbook).

It doesn’t mean that a game will be bad when it won’t have this sort of mechanic, but it does mean it won’t have the same taste as D&D/Pathfinder.

When I buy a RPG, I might be looking for a taste, simply because my players and I like it. It is not nostalgia, it is knowing what we want and like.

Mechanics can be changed and a be taste preserved, and sometimes not. It is not an exact science since this is more of a feeling than anything else. But change is risky and sometimes it means a taste is not reproduced.

For 4e, I think designers consciously did not try to reproduce the taste and Paizo tried to. People followed their taste. This divided the gamer community and now WotC wants to reunite it under one game. We will have to see how they manage to combine different tastes into one game.

Christina Stiles

May 21, 2013 at 1:47pm

Somebody should send me some 13th Age books!

Neal Hebert

May 21, 2013 at 2:21pm

Christina said: “Neal, in terms of this statement, “D&D is like a credo or design philosophy about genre (storytelling in the fantasy milieu centered on saving the world),” I think that’s an argument for “any” fantasy game sufficing.”

Actually, it’s quite intentionally an argument for “no” fantasy game sufficing given that no fantasy game actually models narrative/genre effectively. 4e, Dungeon World and (to a small extent given its emphasis on 3e’s base) 13th Age are the most successful at meeting my criteria, but all fail to live up to the credo to a certain extent because of their choice to hold on to certain sacred cows that work at cross purposes to narrative emulation. They just fail less than most of the others – or, to be more charitable, they fail better for my taste.

While I appreciate that you can emulate stories effectively in numerous systems, I find that it’s not that easy. I’m a Forge-ite at heart, and I do believe that system matters a great deal – so while I certainly can hack a system to do genre emulation, frequently I find myself wondering whether I should do it rather than just moving to a different system. Could I hack them and make them more like what I like? Of course I could. But at that point, what am I paying professional designers for if I have to heavily modify systems to match my playstyle (a heavily Narrative/Gamist playstyle with no emphasis on Simulation)?

Alphastream

May 21, 2013 at 2:56pm

There’s nothing wrong with people being passionate about a kind of game they enjoy. There is plenty wrong with telling others that their game is inferior to the one the person prefers.

The first blog seemed to want to say that, but itself fell into the trap of decrying those that love older editions. We should celebrate that our hobby is so diverse.

I really doubt any individual is able to infallibly predict how any new edition will be received over time. The good news is that we don’t need to foretell the future. Playing/reading new games, regardless of whether they are tremendous successes, average, or inferior, helps everyone advance the hobby. We learn what works, we get inspired, we learn what we don’t like, and we create new material. That unpredictability should be celebrated – it keeps our hobby from being boring. The discovery itself has value and gives back to the hobby.

What Wizards does, what Paizo does, what 13th Age does, what any RPG company does is all contributing to the betterment of our hobby. In a similar manner, those that are passionate about where the game came from are also contributing. As historians and lore-keepers, as reminders of forgotten elements and styles, these individuals are another great part of our evolving hobby. Let us celebrate all of it.

Neal Hebert

May 21, 2013 at 3:28pm

Alphastream noted: “The first blog seemed to want to say that, but itself fell into the trap of decrying those that love older editions.”

I think this might be a bit of confirmation bias, because I certainly didn’t state that everyone who loves older editions is spending time on message boards asserting that their nostalgia should be the only design imperative for future fantasy RPGs. Most of the people of my acquaintance who play old school games are super cool, and don’t give two craps about where the hobby is going: they’re happy with where they are, they like the games that they own, and they aren’t interested in switching games because they’re quite happy with things as they are.

Old Geezer on RPG.net is sort of the archetype of the kind of old-school fan I know, and his attitude toward gaming is the coolest thing ever – he gamed with Mr. Gygax, likes early editions, and doesn’t understand why people get hung up on tradition and things of that nature because they just “made shit up that [they] thought would be fun” forty years ago. They’re still having fun with the framework (in part because they like the different assumptions about gaming attendant on the earliest editions, which have a strong war-gaming influence), so who cares where the game is going now since they liked where the game was back then.

Now, I certainly am decrying those fans of older games who go on message boards and demand that a game conform with their foggy half-memories of playing their unintentionally-homebrewed version of 1e (in my case it would be 2e), and that any derivation from this memory of what D&D was like was a betrayal of the game and its founders.

If you felt aggrieved, then there really isn’t much I can say other than I’m sorry you felt this way; you’re the expert on your internal, subjective reactions to things and I am insufficiently positioned to assert anything to the contrary. But perhaps my column did a poor job explaining that opposing the nostalgia fetish is a VERY different thing than saying that people who like older iterations of games are wrong for so doing. Word counts are terrible things, and inevitably some nuance is lost.

Tim B.

May 21, 2013 at 5:47pm

Neal, I was curious about your statement that 13th Age’s emphasis is on 3e’s base. I don’t have a lot of experience with 3.x, but have played 4E for years, and see a lot of 4E in 13th Age. I view 13th Age as something of a “spiritual successor” to 4E, rather than a throwback to 3.x. Would you please elaborate on the aspects of 13th Age that you feel are more 3.x-influenced than 4E-influenced?

Steve Winter

May 21, 2013 at 6:33pm

I think many members of the “that’s not D&D” committee make a common error in thinking that the joy they experienced while playing D&D in their youth depended on some element that was hard-coded into D&D’s rules. The fact that no one can agree on what that element was — the fact that we played D&D, AD&D, variant AD&D, Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, EPT, and Tunnels & Trolls pretty much interchangeably with equal amounts of enjoyment — says to me that the feeling I’m nostalgic for didn’t come from the structure of the rules.

I certainly get what Neal and others are saying when they claim that systems do affect the game experience. But systems don’t DETERMINE the game experience (other than those that produce a universally bad experience). The experience people are nostalgically longing for is never going to spring genie-like from any rulebook, no matter how pure it may be.

Neal Hebert

May 21, 2013 at 7:11pm

Tim, I’m referring to comments made on multiple forums by Wade Rockett, the PR person for Fire Opal. When asked whether 13th Age was the spiritual successor to 4e or intentionally iterating on 4e (which I also thought was obvious given the state of the rules) I and others were informed that any similarities to 4e were the result of serendipity rather than an intentional choice to further iterate or refine the styles of play encouraged by the last edition of D&D. Per the official line at Fire Opal, 13th Age is intended to be Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet’s version of fantasy roleplaying – and not to read any more into it.

I was quite puzzled by this, given the number of fans who were responding to the elements carried over from 4e and the 4e-like content for the Kickstarter causing the Kickstarter to explode in support (particularly the Battle Captain). It seemed pretty clear that the market was willing to support an attempt to further iterate on the assumptions of 4e by fixing some of the many problems with the system. But Fire Opal has been quite clear on this since this past December that 13th Age is what it is, and the only comment that they can make re: the shape of future support is that it’s Rob and Jonathan’s game so they’ll decide/approve the shape of future iteration. You can check RPG.net threads on 13th Age and Something Awful’s thread for confirmation.

Like you, I was quite confused by the statements made by Fire Opal on this point – and I have to say that my enthusiasm for 13th Age went down from a 9 or so to about a 3. The issues I had with 13th Age were, I assumed, going to be ironed out in playtesting given that most of them were legacy aspects of the rules inherited from earlier editions of D&D; once I found out these were features of the game given its status as Tweet and Heinsoo’s pet project and not the sort of thing that was up for debate I shelved my 13th Age games and decided to wait and see before spending any more money on the system.

Scott Brown

May 21, 2013 at 7:25pm

I remember a couple years back a group I was playing a Stargate SG1 game with. We had played the ame campaign off and on for a few years using the generic Masterbook system. When we picked it up again last time, the question as to what system to use was passed around, but we decided we couldn’t use any other system because it just wouldn’t “feel” like Stargate to us. Also, another group I played with was used to the old West End Games D6 Star Wars RPG, and just couldn’t make the switch to the newer D20 system for the same reason, even though most of the same players played D&D 3.5 just fine. So it’s not that the system necesarilly sucks, but there is definitely something to the notion that a game’s mechanics are part of the feel of the game, or perhaps “nostalgia” is the right word.

Scott

Tim B.

May 21, 2013 at 8:14pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on 13th Age, Neal. Like any system, 13th Age has some areas I’m not crazy about, but I find them few and far between. Additionally, the conversational tone between Jonathan and Rob in the sidebars makes it clear that GMs are welcome…expected, even…to house rule portions of it that they don’t like. There are even suggestions on alternate approaches to various rules, which I appreciate. It’s at the printers now, so hopefully you’ll get a chance to review the final version soon!

Henry W

May 21, 2013 at 11:37pm

Can’t speak of the “That’s Not D&D” contingent as I don’t frequent the boards at WotC, or even major watering holes for RPGs like Enworld or RPG.net. I have recently followed a number of OSR type blogs. While I will not presume to speak for those blog writers and contributors, I can list a few key points I noticed came up between the “nostalgic” camp and the “progressive” camp, at least according to the view of some of those blogs.

– Narrative control: Older systems provided fewer character abilities and less defined skills systems. More reliance is placed on the DM/GM to call for rolls and actively arbitrate situations. Meanwhile, players are able to ask about those situations and come up with novel resolutions not hardwired into a specific skill or predefined roll.

– Character resources: Older systems provide fewer abilities, more mundane abilities vs the exceptional and supernatural abilities more prevalent in modern systems, average hit points are capped earlier, characters have fewer magic items. Crafting is not a hardcoded system. Player knowledge of these systems is not guaranteed. Character deaths in general are more common in old school systems, at least demonstrated with standardized benchmark encounters. Difficulty in all editions is as always up to the DM/GM.

– Rules Amount: Older systems tend to be “lighter” than recent edition systems. This much is obvious from page counts and the sheer number of character abilities and options. Any character stat block from earlier edition is relatively quick to put together compared to 3E and 4E. There is an element of system mastery in order to play 3E and 4E effectively.

Game groups can certainly use any system new or old to run a game of any style they choose. Adaptations can always be made to accommodate any gaming style. However, a system can make the job easier, dramatically easier in some cases. In a way one can claim one system favors a particular style, a tone can be inferred from the rules. The OSR folks feel that difference matters and gravitate towards systems that facilitate their style.

The nostalgia fetish article mischaracterized a segment of gamers by claiming their preferences were not progressive (thus regressive perhaps ?). It is a mistake to equate a shift in design as a mark of progress. Later rules sets have not demonstrated superiority (despite WotC’s claims) or even improved adoption to be considered progressive (more on this later). There is only preference.

The old school/nostalgic camp does not sits at a stand still. While some do continue to use the same rules, there is also a strong tradition of homebrew rules and modifications. The OSR specifically also has retroclone systems, which despite the regressive sounding name do improve on organization of the rules compared to older D&D editions. In some cases, these so-called retroclones even streamline certain rules, thus improve on old editions. Then there are the neoclones, which are fresh interpretations of D&D’s source materials (sword & sorcery fantasy) using d20 style rules. In a sense, this is all progress building from the same base as D&D.

A failure to progress could be seen in 4E’s inability to proliferation within the edition divergence, portion of players remained with 3E, some went to Pathfinder, some to OSR type games. Competition is rampant despite WotC’s marketing muscle and venerable brand recognition. For whatever reason 4E did not succeed in the present market (at least as far as WotC is concerned). The design team is gathering ideas and sentiment from their player community to establish the next edition. The “that’s not D&D” group is a part of that community. If WotC caters to that segment, then perhaps that segment is more significant than a vocal majority. Hopefully WotC has ways to filter some of the signal noise to feel the true pulse of their community.

The Next design team is being progressive by asking their customers to help them shape their product. Paizo did an open playtest for Pathfinder. WotC is doing the same thing for Next. Theoretically, the final product should be what the majority of customers want after design guidance and refinement by the design team. This is perhaps the only progress that matters.

Neal Hebert

May 22, 2013 at 8:16am

Henry W noted: “This is perhaps the only progress that matters.”

I’m not so sure that designing a game to match the tastes of a niche audience that, according to some industry analysts, appears to be shrinking is what I’d call progress – and if it is, it certainly doesn’t strike me as progress that matters. It’s stasis, certainly, but not progress.

I’d be more comfortable if WotC – or any major company – would say something like “We know millennials and core gamers in other industries enjoy computer games – how can we create a system that will be familiar enough to be popular with younger gamers (through mechanics that are based on MMO roles or that embrace archetypes of fantasy games) yet give them something a video game can’t by leveraging the strengths of tabletop as a medium?” This would, of course, cause wailing and gnashing of teeth among existing customers – many of whom would launch into nerdrage and use the tired rhetoric that “WotC is firing me as a customer” or something.

But the goal should be to embrace new ideas – with history as, perhaps, a baseline informing flavor – and grow the hobby by bringing in new gamers. Nostalgia is something that appeals to existing customers – not new customers. Legacy mechanics appeal to those who appreciate the legacy – not people who have never gamed before.

So yeah, I’m not convinced that an “open beta” is particularly progressive – it’s a way to get the people who are already buying games to continue spending money. A progressive approach would be to do something that would bring in new players, presumably by doing something that other games haven’t done particularly well in the past.

I don’t know what that thing is. I suspect no one will until someone gets lucky and gloms onto the right idea. But I really don’t think that the golden ticket – or progressive design – will be whatever “feels like” D&D to a bunch of 30, 40, and 50 somethings. If I’m wrong, and if D&D 5e causes an industry boom that makes non-gamers suddenly become gamers, I’ll happily write a column detailing all of the ways that I was wrong and apologizing to everyone who read my column. Seriously, I will. I’d love nothing more than to be wrong – an industry boom would likely cause Wolfgang to give me a pay raise for producing content for this Web site!

Henry W

May 22, 2013 at 11:28am

WotC tried what you outlined with 4E. For their own reasons, whatever those may be, they’ve decided to move on to the next edition. We can infer what we want from this choice to move on to 5E. I’m inclined to believe 4E did not meet the goals WotC set to accomplish, so much so that they felt moving to the next edition is the best option.

Your entire argument hinges on a set of assumptions with nothing to support them. You believe millennials and video gamers are innately opposed to legacy systems and will only play tabletop systems that utilized MMOisms as a framework. We have no evidence to support this. WotC tried this exact approach with 4E, the success of 4E is unknown, even questionable given the choice to switch to 5E at such a short interval. If 4E was fully successful, it would stand to reason 5E would be developed further along the lines of 4E without regard to the “That’s not D&D” crowd no matter how loud they hollered.

You hold the belief that legacy rules are flawed in the present environment. They should have no basis in the Next edition. We have no evidence MMOisms or video game inspired design elements enhance the tabletop experience beyond legacy rules for the majority of players, old, new, or potential. You’re saying WotC should start fresh with new ideas, which would somehow automatically make them superior to old rules despite being untested or unasked for by WotC’s existing customers. You assume the designers will automatically know what new rules to implement to maximize appeal to new and old players without mass testing via open beta.

Nostalgia may not be quantifiable, legacy rules may only appeal directly to old customers, but you haven’t accounted for the possibility the framework they provide could be a useful catalyst for new players to get into the game as they did years ago for those old players. You haven’t accounted for the vast difference between video games and tabletop games, one major one being tabletop games require a DM/GM.

How does game adoption spread within a population of gamers? There’s advertising and general hype, where WotC is unlikely to match the multimedia extravagances of video games. There’s word of mouth, where D&D could thrive since it is a group activity. All it takes is one person in a group to get the group interesting in playing D&D. I’d argue even WotC forgot to account for this during their chase for new players in 4E. This social proliferation applies to 4E. It also applies to Pathfinder or OSR style games.

What do those legacy players now in their 30s, 40s and 50s have that could help D&D expand rather than shrink? They have kids who are what, 10-20 years old, the prime ages to introduce them to D&D. I’m not saying this is the primary route for D&D growing their player base, but it is one route to consider.

You say you don’t know what that “something” in a successful rules system is until someone gets lucky. I think that is the one point you may be right about. WotC doesn’t know either, they’re throwing stuff at their customers in the open playtest to see what sticks. That is a logical approach compared to designing in an ivory tower and then unleashing it as the new edition with a mostly closed playtest. That approach mirrored 4E’s development, which was nearly done by the time most players had the chance to look at it. If WotC had unlimited resources, designing successive novel systems and releasing them as iterative editions until one finally goes viral would be a viable solution. Unfortunately WotC still operates within a budget, they have to make sure whatever rules they publish for the next edition will appeal to their existing customers as a foundation with a reasonable outlook for expansion to new players.

If the rules did not appeal to enough of their existing customers, WotC essentially does “fire” their existing customers. There’s nothing rhetorical about this, people will leave the brand and move to something else. If there is a demand, someone will supply, ergo Pathfinder and other games to appeal to the legacy crowd. And it is a crowd, considering years ago no game could even look up and dream at achieving numbers comparable to D&D in sales, or rankings, or events at conventions, or internet buzz, or brick and mortar store placement.

Joddie Noblit

May 22, 2013 at 12:53pm

there is not a lot to add to whats already been said here, but i would like to add this… when i get into a car its reasonable to expect there to be a an accelerator pedal on the right and a break in the middle/left and a clutch on the far left if its an automatic.

if a game system is going to be called d&d then it should play like d&d and the basics of the system should be there and play like they always did. if i wanted to play something that was different then i would play something different. not to say that the game cant change but there should be the core of the game there and to work as expected,

without those things then its just not the same. its like eating ice cream made out of goats milk, yeah you can call it ice cream but its just not the same.

TOZ

May 22, 2013 at 12:57pm

HERESY! *BLAM!*

Neal Hebert

May 22, 2013 at 2:15pm

There’s a non-trivial segment of the RPG fanbase that won’t rest easy until the next edition of D&D is accompanied by a tear-stained apology note, personalized and signed by Mike Mearls, swearing that WotC is done experimenting with narrative mechanics, they won’t take D&D to a “bad place” ever again, and that the only rubric that matters in the future is the personal verisimilitude of the now-appeased Edition Warrior, pinky-promise. Some of these people have commented on the past two columns, actually, and you can find them on every RPG forum online.

While I don’t assume that this group of fans is synonymous with the contingent that claims what D&D really needs to grow as a brand is to preserve the nostalgia of 30- and 40-somethings, I do think both have unrealistic expectations of the world in which we live. For the hobby’s sake I sure do hope the percentage of younger customers that can be persuaded to buy and play something constructed around preserving the nostalgia of people that are no longer young is sufficiently large to prevent Hasbro from shelving the line for a decade; I sincerely hope that loads of young people in college will seek out the venerable elders among us, invite us into their dorms, and allow us older gamers to lecture them about why legacy mechanics that are (perhaps) dissociated from the larger mechanical framework are an important callback to the early days of the hobby, that these concerns are more important than broad appeal across multiple demographics, and in so doing teach these youngsters the right way to have fun pretending to be an elf.

I doubt that they will, though.

Alan

May 22, 2013 at 3:27pm

I think Henry has done an excellent job addressing the points at the root of all this. But from my own perspective, I find your reliance on the term “progress” to be troubling. Framing changes and shifts as “progress” because they align with your opinion or desired direction doesn’t make them better, nor does it make them “progressive”, “progress” being a subjective term. I don’t consider myself a grognard by any stretch but I understand the mindset of the subset of people you were writing about in your original post. There have been some changes to the game system which have been improvements in ways that are hard to argue against, but these have mostly been simplifications (in my opinion: ascending armor class, 3rd edition saving throws).

I don’t really see the point to most of the 3rd edition and 4th edition changes, the latter in particular. I don’t think they were “progress” but rather “changes”, albeit ones some players ended up preferring. Now THIS is going to sound crotchety, but why do people have to change D&D, especially in areas where it wasn’t necessary to begin with? Where it didn’t streamline things, and make it faster and easier for people to play and understand?Why couldn’t it just be accepted on its original merits like, say, Monopoly? There are plenty of other games out there to play (or write!) …why the need to meddle?

It all comes down to this product’s identity as THE role-playing game. Some want the rules of the hobby flagship shifted in their preferred style direction to prove to everyone that they are right about “progress” and the industry is following. I think to some these designs come off as over-thought, over-designed, pseudo-intellectual, and in their insistence that the “legacy rules” are expired, even arrogant.

WOTC, on the other hand, simply wants the rules shifted in whatever direction will sell the most books.

Henry W

May 22, 2013 at 4:57pm

Arguing for the “Progressive” take on the game to dominate the next iteration of D&D is as nebulous as the “That’s Not D&D” grognards doing so for their preferences. That’s a fair enough desire, just don’t think people aren’t going to point it out if it’s wrapped in positive sounding words like progress and modern, while tagging words like legacy and nostalgia fetish to older styles of the game rules.

I’ll admit I’m not well versed in 4E, but I don’t see players commonly characterizing 4E as a narrativist system. From what I know of the system and what I hear, it’s still a very gamist system with its focus on balance and character abilities. Interestingly, I often hear some of the OSR people argue the rules lite systems they use cover just enough of the gamism to make the game outcomes interesting/unknown/dangerous, while leaving skills and roleplaying between the DM and players, thus a whole segment of the game is essentially narrativist in nature. The whole “we used to play an entire session without rolling dice” discussion. The old schoolers feel the modern systems with their focus on player abilities and codified skills is counter to their relatively rules lite ‘narrativist’ version of D&D. Go figure. Different strokes for different folks.

It wouldn’t be wise for WotC, but Hasbro could afford to shelf D&D for a decade as it isn’t their biggest brand, they brought WotC for MtG anyway. This doesn’t seem to be the case as Hasbro is fighting to reclaim the movie rights for D&D. We needn’t worry about that.

There’s a bit of fear-mongering in wondering what will happen to the RPG hobby if WotC shelves D&D for a decade after (if) this appeal to the old school fails. Nothing will happen to the hobby. It will continue as it is now. D&D will fade as other systems and games take over. You can bet these systems will try their hardest to grow the hobby. Why do you assume these other systems and companies aren’t doing the same thing as D&D and WotC are trying to do?

Neal, you asked what if those 40 year old gaming geezers aren’t invited to college dorms to guide the young padawans on how to properly roleplay elves the old school, nostalgia fetish way. Did you read what you wrote? Is there any sort of valid argument there or just some fuzzy straw man you’re gnashing harder than the “That’s Not D&D” crowd you claim commits that very transgression.

How do you know for sure modeling D&D further to MMOisms and “progressive design” will appeal to broader demographics of new and younger players? How do you know younger players are looking for their tabletop experience to mirror their video game experience. How do you know for certain going back to legacy style mechanics will sink the D&D brand into irrelevance and drag the entire hobby along with it? What evidence do you have?

It’s possible the better design fails to be adopted (Beta-max vs VHS), but only WotC would know for certain since they hold the sales numbers. For the time being the evidence we can infer from how 4E has progressed more closely aligns to the legacy crowd being right. If 4E was a smashing success in its outreach to new players, why the need for 5E. Or why the fear of 5E catering to the old school if we’re certain of 4E’s obvious superiority in proliferating into the current and future RPG market.

James Thomas

May 22, 2013 at 5:03pm

:)
Games such as D&D and Pathfinder inherently inspire innovation and innovation promotes change.
Over time, the best things will endure.

Neal Hebert

May 22, 2013 at 7:02pm

Henry wrote: “How do you know for sure modeling D&D further to MMOisms and “progressive design” will appeal to broader demographics of new and younger players? How do you know younger players are looking for their tabletop experience to mirror their video game experience. How do you know for certain going back to legacy style mechanics will sink the D&D brand into irrelevance and drag the entire hobby along with it? What evidence do you have?”

No one knows for sure. Absolutely no one. I don’t know for sure whether the sun will rise tomorrow, or whether the world will exist tomorrow night. I can infer from past results, however. And I guess my response to your question is that we’ve been trying your preferred solutions for the past two decades (with a couple year blip) and we’re in a situation where the hobby is contracting. I acknowledge that I’m not a businessman; I’m an academic. But it seems to me that trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time is madness. If I was trying to capture the interest of new players I’d base my efforts off the stuff that they like, see what can be adapted (different than translating), see what can be improved on, and go from there.

I pulled MMOs out of my ass because I assume that’s what hot – I don’t play them – but other games like Skyrim and Dark Souls (and Mass Effect) might also have something to teach TTRPG designers, and might result in a better assumptions about new players’ tastes than older editions of D&D. Or it might not. But I’d look to newer media before I jump to the idea that the lack of existing gamers’ decades of nostalgia being reflected in design is what’s preventing new gamers from deciding to play TTRPGs.

There’s also strong evidence that D&D has performed best in recent history when it’s bucked tradition. For the first two years of 4e the game was cracking the New York Times’ nonfiction best sellers’ list, so in terms of hardcover/hardcopy book sales the edition was doing extremely well – and with DDI generated cash hand over fist, it seemed like a decent enough job. This changed with the shift to Essentials (which was discussed as an attempt to cater to fans of older editions and scale back some of the changes), and 4e kind of died on the vine. We had a similar blip – albeit without the sales numbers reflected on the NYT list, although I could be mistaken about that – with the launch of 3e. Both editions were paradigm shifts that represented a large break with tradition, and both seemed to lurch when the course change came (3.5e, Essentials).

I think it’s quite telling that you keep saying “How do you know returning to legacy mechanics won’t work?” Clearly you want me to say “I don’t,” and this admission will somehow validate your position because I can’t guarantee you’re incorrect. Well, I don’t know but I also think that it’s very likely that your desired solution will fail; if legacy mechanics were going to work, then any of the existing games that utilized them would have caught on with the wider public by now and the hobby wouldn’t be in need of new blood. We know that two very public, very intentional attempts to break with tradition were successful: 3e and the d20 move being one, and as noted earlier 4e was catching on given publicly available sales indicators. But revisionist history now spins the release of 3e as the moment that history and tradition were finally realized, while 4e was decried because a nontrivial number of fans were and still are carrying on about how WotC “fired” them and conducted a years-long campaign against the game (for what it’s worth, I appreciate that you point out that you aren’t familiar with the system).

Personally, I’ve had some pretty good success introducing people younger than me to RPGs with 13th Age (a narrativist/gamist system like 4e, albeit rules-lite and more explicitly narrativist); I’ll let you guys know whether Dungeon World works, but people are excited about the promise of freeform storytelling and archetypal characters. Each of these two games are progressive – which, Alan, I’m not using “subjectively” but, rather, to designate that they’re intentionally iterating on contemporary game design (whether you think that non-progressive games are good or bad is subjective, however; I’m not convinced they’re inherently one or the other) and thus causing design to progress forward (which, again, is not necessarily a value judgment). I don’t think anyone with a charitable bone in their body would say that 13th Age or DungeonWorld are rejecting the heritage of D&D – but they’re leveraging that heritage to try something new mechanically rather than letting that heritage constrain them mechanically.

(It’s worth pointing out that kneejerk reactions to my position because of my insufficient deference to Owlbears and wandering monster tables has led people to react to my points as if I’m suggesting that D&D turn into Amber Diceless Roleplaying, Dogs in the Vineyard or Maid: The RPG. I’m not. Doing something like 13th Age, DungeonWorld, Radiant RPG, and so on would be fine by my book – contemporary games that retain tradition but don’t allow tradition to prevent the designers from trying new mechanical solutions to old problems. Hell, the magic system in Ars Magica is pretty kick-ass, too – and might be more relevant to younger gamers than Vancian systems given the lack of interest in Vance’s actual novels. My beef isn’t with nostalgia, or even the things you like – it’s with the belief that nostalgia is something that can be designed for given that it’s a feeling that emerged from games facilitated by a certain system, not a feature of any system)

Henry wrote: “Neal, you asked what if those 40 year old gaming geezers aren’t invited to college dorms to guide the young padawans on how to properly roleplay elves the old school, nostalgia fetish way. Did you read what you wrote?”

Actually, no, I didn’t. I just hit keys in a random order and hoped it formed words. I’m doing that now, too. It’s a miracle. adalkj as . asm. Sometimes it doesn’t work too well, though. ioujop asfa

Perhaps I was too oblique in my comment. You seem to be quite committed to the notion that legacy, heritage, and what feels like D&D to you need to be preserved in the next edition. You like it, so obviously it COULD work if the young people just played it, right?

My position is no, it couldn’t work – in part because it HASN’T worked thus far. Younger non-gamers are choosing to not play – and, because I assume that people are fairly rational about their entertainment (each person is an expert on their internal, subjective emotional states and perfectly equipped to determine whether they enjoy something) and that they’ve rejected RPGs because they don’t like them (or, at least, because they don’t like D&D – either what it is or what they’ve heard about it). The return to legacy and nostalgia is a return to something that young consumers have already rejected – hence my joke about a gamer with every purchase. Perhaps you have had a lot of success telling people who’ve decided they don’t want to buy something that they were mistaken, and that this thing they have decided isn’t fun actually is fun – but in my experience, the product has to change substantially before consumers who’ve already dismissed the product will give it a second look.

I’m not naive; I don’t believe that I could convince people who dislike Unknown Armies, 4e, 13th Age, or any other game that they were mistaken about that assessment. As I’ve stated consistently, individuals are experts on their own internal, subjective experiences, and I am insufficiently positioned to tell someone who isn’t me that they are incorrect about what they like and dislike. Launching a new edition with the promise of it being like editions that new gamers have already rejected and expecting them to like this new edition because of its similarities to games new gamers are choosing to not play strikes me as a poor decision. WotC’s attempts to depart from tradition bore fruit in the past with new gamers, however, so I’m inclined to believe that moving forward (with a respect for the past) will have a better chance than staying the course and hoping that new gamers find the things we get nostalgic about interesting. Again: nostalgia is only effective upon those who have knowledge of the original because people who don’t have that experience definitionally can’t be nostalgic; tradition only matters to those who are invested in that history (new gamers are probably like me: they don’t think of D&D as this history-laden activity, but as a means to kill monsters and take their stuff in fun ways).

Henry also noted this: “For the time being the evidence we can infer from how 4E has progressed more closely aligns to the legacy crowd being right.”

Not really. We could also infer that the first two years of 4e were quite successful, but the launch of PFRPG scared WotC into creating Essentials as an attempt to bring back lapsed fans – only Essentials failed to catch on, WotC created their own competition through bad PR and moves that were clearly boneheaded with the benefit of hindsight, and 5e’s announcement with its marketing-speak masquerading as design goals was announced as a last-ditch attempt to stave off another round of Christmas-time firings by promising to dominate the market again (Ryan Dancey suggested something to this effect, and this interpretation is popular on RPG.net and various other forums). It fits the evidence just as well as any other theory, and in some ways it fits it better. Ultimately, none of us are sufficiently positioned to know which interpretation is right so I’m not convinced that discussing this is particularly useful. That being said, given the revenue generated from DDI (which users on various forums have been able to estimate), I can say with great certainty that I would personally love to fail like 4e failed (and is failing right now given how large the DDI subscription pool is – I could pay off Sallie Mae and have enough to live on to finish my PhD next year with a single month of the DDI revenue).

But honestly, it’s not like any of this matters all that much. I’m not going to convince you, and you’re not going to convince me. One of us will be proven right should this legacy-centric, “It Feels Like D&D To Me” 5e succeeds. Should 5e have multiple source books appear on the NYT Best Sellers List for a period longer than two years, and should there be a significant marked increase of young players during that time I will write a column for KQ (no matter where I am or what I’m doing) apologizing to you personally, Henry, and all of the nostalgia fetishists generally for doubting their ability to save the hobby (I choose these metrics because at that point 5e will have overperformed 4e by every metric we can observe since WotC keeps everything else close to their chests). My words to God’s ear, and Wolfgang can be the guarantor of this, I’ll do this and I’ll do it sincerely. Wolf’s known me for a few years and knows my word is good – I’m not too proud to admit when I’m wrong, and I hope to God that I am for the sake of the hobby. But I really don’t think I will be.

Chris Harris

May 22, 2013 at 7:51pm

The passive-aggression and broad generalizations don’t really serve your arguments like you may think. Keep in mind that whatever forum fights you’re into don’t exist everywhere, like here, or Paizo (at least not much), so leaping straight into use of terms like ‘nostalgia fetishists’ and so on is a big turn-off to those who might not be as entrenched. Hell, it makes me glad I mostly play Pathfinder.

Henry W

May 22, 2013 at 9:24pm

I didn’t actually say many of the things you think I said. ;)

For the record, I do own a copy of Dungeon World (yet to read it I’ll admit), some 4E books (to date the best price to page deals I’ve gotten in RPG books), preordered 13th Age (what I’m currently browsing through, but waiting for the completed PDF to dig in), kickstarted the Diceless RPG spiritual successor, Fate Core, Hillfolk/DramaSystem etc.

I’m not really arguing for the nostalgia side so much as I’m just arguing against your statements that D&D and RPGs can only survive in a world of video games and sundry other hobbies through some undefined “progress”. Also your mischaracterization of “nostalgia fetishists” clinging to legacy rules for some unidentifiable nostalgia label, identification of those factors noted in my above posts, further supported by a few posts from other discussion participants.

Bone-headed moves by WotC aside, the two year blip of 3E and 4E doing well is because they’re the new release of the current D&D edition of their time. Of course sales will be strong. We would have a huge problem if initial sales weren’t strong. Yet if they were as rock solid as we infer, Pathfinder’s release should not have mattered at all.

If 4E continued to grow with new players or returning players, a 3.5E retroclone shouldn’t matter in the long run, not enough to disrupt their winning formula. Even if the miscalculation with Essentials threw a wrench into their plans, 5E should at the least to be 4E+, taking a winning design, tweak the parts that needed a refresh, and release. Why are we having this conversation otherwise?

I don’t believe WotC would change their direction in such a drastically manner due only to a bunch of “loudmouth curmudgeons” shouting for the old school. Even if the jobs of the designers were on the line, why switch to an old system if the successful current system could form the backbone of the next edition. It doesn’t make sense they would turn market speak into actual design goals unless there was a known benefit to do so.

As for DDI, I’ve seen those impressive figures too. I’ll freely admit I’ve no explanation for the numbers, other than perhaps subscribers are in it partly for 4E, but also partly for the settings and other articles. Maybe 4E always has performed fine, but WotC just wants more, numbers to be found within the old school population. Still doesn’t make sense they would “fire” their current players to go back to lapsed players if the market didn’t exist.

It’s true I haven’t kept up with the development of Next/5E. Last I heard it was a modular, scalable system that had an “old school rules lite” version that gamers can enhance with subsystems and options to move it in-line with modern editions. I didn’t see legacy mechanics, but was under the impression it was always a modern system merely emulating the old school flavor. There was even a background-based pseudo-narrativist-style subsystem. Revisions could have changed this. Correct me if I’m wrong on the current progress of 5E development.

‘Til this point I thought you were merely decrying the verbal/textual negativity of the nostalgia camp, but this insistence on their eminent threat to progress makes me think a “vocal minority” conducted a coup to remove large portions of current edition inspired design from the 5E framework, then that’s a significant change. Did they?

Unless they have, then you’re just crying wolf. :P I fully expect 5E to be a “progressive” system built along 4E (more than 3E or previous editions), just with a 5E-lite variant to facilitate new/old/lapsed gamers, those possibly of a certain ‘nostalgic’ persuasion.

Neal Hebert

May 22, 2013 at 10:08pm

Henry said: “Til this point I thought you were merely decrying the verbal/textual negativity of the nostalgia camp, but this insistence on their eminent threat to progress makes me think a “vocal minority” conducted a coup to remove large portions of current edition inspired design from the 5E framework, then that’s a significant change. Did they?”

I’m definitely against the verbal/textual negativity of a certain subset of gamers. But I think that the vociferous Internet reaction – and the success of Paizo – has caused a certain retrenchment at WotC vis a vis 5e and it’s attempt to turn back the clock on D&D and return to the style of play earlier editions facilitated.

I think that, if one reads the comment threads of (certainly) the earliest polls conducted by WotC on their Web site you’ll see that LOTS of comments were of the type I describe in my column – an alarming amount. When this is coupled by gaming with sociologists and others who are pretty savvy at surveying methodology, there’s a real sense that the “open playtesting/surveys” aren’t really assessing opinion so much as they’re attempting to provide cover for design decisions that have already been made (and typically those design decisions are to de-emphasize aspects of the game introduced with 4e).

So I don’t think that a vocal minority conducted a coup, although large sections of the playtest that offered non-nostalgic takes on classes (non-Vancian arcane casters, in particular) were removed from subsequent playtests. I think a vocal minority bloodied the waters of discussion about RPGs, and then a (mostly separate) minority jumped ship to a competitor offering the biggest budget, best produced retro-clone ever in PFRPG. But the vocal minority didn’t really have to conduct a coup with the playtesting of D&D 5e: the survey responses and designer interviews have been consistently clear that catering to fans of the last edition isn’t a priority, that their play preferences are relegated to (mostly) optional modules that have yet to be given a playtest, and that “what feels like D&D” seems to mean “stuff that isn’t 4e.”

But I wouldn’t particularly be interested in 5e if “Unite the tribes” meant “everyone’s going to love to play this iteration of 4e with some D&D fluff from classic editions.” I wouldn’t be interested if it meant here’s D&D 3.99 and we’re calling it 5e because we want to unite the tribes. I’m of the opinion that uniting the tribes is a fool’s errand because it assumes that the tribes can/want to be united: system matters, just as taste matters, and my playstyle is the exact opposite of someone who’s into the nitty gritty of simulation, the breadth of Pathfinder, or the impartial “neutral” referee of old school games. All that would happen if we played together would be a bunch of gamers who are dissatisfied with playstyles not cohering. My way of playing is decidedly not better than anyone else’s, neither is anyone else’s decidedly better than my own – but any attempt to downplay these playstyle differences is WotC setting before themselves a task that dwarfs those of Hercules.

Chris Harris wrote: “The passive-aggression and broad generalizations don’t really serve your arguments like you may think. Keep in mind that whatever forum fights you’re into don’t exist everywhere, like here, or Paizo (at least not much), so leaping straight into use of terms like ‘nostalgia fetishists’ and so on is a big turn-off to those who might not be as entrenched. Hell, it makes me glad I mostly play Pathfinder.”

First off, I’m also glad you mostly play PF – it’s great that you have found a game that lets you participate in games that produce a playstyle you like. System matters, and I’m glad you’ve got a new system.

On the first point, they most certainly do serve my argument the way that I think that they will. The use of “nostalgia fetishist,” as I’ve defined it, is not someone who wants D&D to retain some of its legacy and past fluff, nor is it a slur aimed at mocking the OSR – they don’t equate nostalgia with gaming mechanics; they play games that they enjoy, and don’ really see any reason to change what they’re doing now. A nostalgia fetishist is is someone who fetishizes nostalgic elements to the extent that they want the next game to be solely about producing nostalgia in the game such that the game “feels like D&D” to them. If this is considered a reasonable design goal by WotC – and there are signs that this is something the playtest is looking at – then the odds are looking bad for 5e. It seems like we’re getting Mechanical innovation (which could be TRUE Vancian casting, or non-magical healing to demonstrate that HPs aren’t necessarily Wound Points) being subordinated to nostalgia preservation, rather than getting a good game that is attractive enough to new games that in ten years they’ll be the ones who want their nostalgia catered to.

Perhaps that game will be 5e. I hope it will, actually. But I’m not bullish on its chances.

Christina Stiles

May 23, 2013 at 10:44am

Making something more MMO-like to interest millennials won’t work. At the end of the day, tabletop requires you put the gadgets down and come face to face with the other players and socialize. Millenials socialize over their electronics. They’d rather text each other than phone or video chat.

I work in academics, as well, and academia is looking at ways to bring gadgets and eLearning into the arena to keep these students’ attention to the material, not find ways to make the classroom teaching styles more like an MMO. We are now embracing the gadgets, and embracing ideas that the student does not need to be in the same room as the teacher or even experiencing the lessons at the same time. While distance courses have been around a good while, it has really been the presence of these particular learners that has influenced the push for eLearning and its associated formats.

So, if we attempt to cater D&D to this group, then making the game’s rules “like a computer game” is not what will bring them to the table; rather, it’s making a tabletop game into a computer game which will–and, as we know, this has already been done and continues to be done. These younger folks are playing video games; they like their gadgets, and they like to socialize through them. Face it, the millennials are just more comfortable with technology being their gateway to their recreation. Sitting in a face-to-face game, no matter the rules, is foreign to them, whether it be D&D, Savage Worlds,13th Age, or even a boardgame. Tabletop games in general–not just D&D–face the problem of catering to an aging market segment.

Bringing the younger crowd to the game is going to take their parents bringing them into it. Kids brought up to play face-to-face games will play whatever their parents are inviting them to play. And they won’t know if something is “legacy” or “new,” as it’s all new to them.

So, the moral of the story is to get your kids playing Faery’s Tale! ;-)

Neal Hebert

May 23, 2013 at 1:09pm

Christina, I agree with a lot in your post. That being said, I don’t think the reliance on tech is a sign that people are uncomfortable with face-to-face contact (although this is something that I’ve found older academics frequently say, including graduate students who are older than me). The integration of tech into daily life is a sign that younger people have a completely different understanding of what it means to be “present” (and that physical proximity is no longer required for presence) than older people do.

It’s because of this that I very much think that the 20-30 year old cohort are reachable – putting off the problem onto parents and resigning ourselves to a drought of new gamers until existing parents raise their kids to be gamers a generation from now doesn’t strike me as a good move. It’s the difference between saying “we have to teach people to like what it is that we do” and “the thing that we do is something that people can like without being taught to like it.” I believe the latter very strongly, but I’m also getting my PhD in Theatre History and have taught about 1000 18-23 year olds throughout the past four years, so perhaps I have a disciplinary bias toward the broad appeal of collaborative storytelling because of the ways that I’ve seen collaborative story-telling get 18-23 year olds so excited throughout my time in the academy.

Despite their cell phones and iPads and whatnot, the generation currently in college loves playing improv games; they love superheroes and fantasy (look at the shows that are hot right now!); they love telling stories. They’re persuadable, and I’ve run games in public places near college (never a game like PF or 4e which each require system mastery in different ways) like 13th Age and had more people wanting to play/watch than I ever suspected was possible. Stuff like this is why I believe that people can like gaming without being raised to like gaming, and why I believe part of our response to this situation (younger people for some reason choosing to not play TTRPGs) as gamers requires RPG designers to adapt their thinking to include/be conciliatory towards the new paradigms of presence, increasing system accessibility, and embracing new levels of technological mediation that younger gamers will bring to the table. The 20-30 year olds at my tables are using their iPads, MacBooks, tablets, and assorted other devices to play the game and to access information they can use at the table; it took a bit of adjusting to for me as a GM, but I’ve become much more bullish on tech-integration into gaming than I was several years ago.

I think that the MMO/computer game comment I made is being taken a tad too literally, or I made it unartfully such that it was taken literally. My point was that Byzantine rules can be a barrier to entry. I think one of the cooler things about older editions were their frequently disconnected and Byzantine rule systems; that being said, this is an acquired taste and not the sort of thing that I look for in games now that I have options that aren’t Byzantine/require extensive system mastery. As a young gamer, I navigated these systems because that was what I had to do to game; now that I don’t have to do that, streamlined rules are very much the preference of my players (including players of 1e).

Not all players will be like mine, of course. But given the number of games already on the market with extreme complexity, I’d like to see the world’s most popular fantasy roleplaying game shy back from the complexity of the competition (and to its credit, 5e seems to be trying to do that when nostalgia and tradition allows them to). I would like this to go further: opening up rule systems to be more approachable to the experiences of new gamers rather than relying upon existing customers’ familiarity with older systems and those systems’ legacies strikes me as necessary; when I talk to some of my students about gaming and ask them whether they’ve gamed before, one of the more frequent things that gets said is that they thought that the rules would be hard to learn. Using computer games’ approach to mechanics as a touchstone or entry point for RPGs doesn’t seem particularly crazy, especially since for many computer games D&D is an acknowledged inspiration.

While there is a significant segment of the gaming populace that will read this and think, “kids today are lazy; gaming is an intellectual activity and doesn’t need to have a lower barrier for entry because we shouldn’t dumb down the hobby,” I would suggest that this sort of attitude is why it’s getting harder to bring younger gamers into the hobby once they’re out of their formative years. If there’s someone out there who’s persuadable or could decide that the hobby might be fun for them, they’ll almost certainly assume that Dungeons and Dragons is the only brand of roleplaying game out there (and try it before learning about and moving to other systems). From where I’m sitting, nostalgia, tradition and assorted other things are only valuable insofar as they facilitate creating an accessible game for new players – and part of accessibility (in my estimation) is embracing more modern design paradigms (and moving away from the 300 page tome being required reading to attain the system mastery necessary to build an effective character and pretend to be an elf well).

I’ve alread seen that my position triggers the immediate reaction of “new isn’t always better” and tired parables about “New Coke” and whatnot. But there are cases where embracing more contemporary solutions in gaming has been a good thing for players: for example, I don’t think that anyone would say that grappling is a subsystem that 3.X did better than 4e or PFRPG, or that THAC0 is simpler to grasp than an additive system (even if dealing with charts is, technically, easier than doing arithmetic, the lack of needing to cross-reference is perceived as easier). 13th Age is a great example of the kind of modern design I’m talking about, even if I have qualms with the direction of the game and its future support: pick a race, pick a class, make up any backgrounds that you think are important without referring to a list, and say why your character is unique in the fantasy world. Everything else – the number crunching – comes from the creative act, and the game is clearly focused on the freedom of narrative not offered by a computer game. A 4e-like character builder (applied to a game with a considerably simpler system) would also be great in this regard: technology would be leveraged for the creative act, and the systems make themselves transparent through the process of building a character.

Once again, does nostalgia and tradition have a place in all of the above? Yes. But if nostalgia and “but it doesn’t feel like D&D” are being used to argue against making the hobby more inclusive and leveraged against appealing to newer or first-time gamers, then I think that the best thing that can happen to D&D is that it stops feeling like D&D to the squeakiest wheels.

I suspect that none of us of a certain age were raised to like D&D; I certainly wasn’t, and my parents had to write to TSR and get research materials before they’d even let me touch 20 sided dice. The notion that gaming is now this sacred thing that can only innovate so much lest the tradition of the hobby be betrayed, and that we have to raise the generation after the current generation to like games because this tradition is so important, strikes me as a markedly worse idea than going with design paradigms that give non-gamers a point of entry into the world’s most popular roleplaying game. And again, while I can respect individuals’ assessments that specific iterations of D&D “didn’t feel like D&D” to them, the nebulousness of this phrase (and the differing interpretations each and every gamer will have regarding to what extent something feels like D&D) don’t strike me as the touchstones the hobby needs to grow and be more inclusive; no designer can design for feelings with any accuracy, and it’s not clear that to me that these sorts of value judgments from existing customers are more valuable than producing a system that new gamers will be able to play without the benefit of an older gamer teaching them the history-laden significance of any specific legacy mechanic.

Christina Stiles

May 23, 2013 at 5:33pm

Whether or not this generation loves stories or not, I have no way of knowing, and I haven’t seen demographics on who is attending all the superhero or sci-fi movies. If playing games in public can interest this generation in gaming, then that is one wy to bring them away from the computer games and to the table. I really don’t think such players would have difficulties in picking up AD&D 2e as opposed to 4e or Savage Worlds–or whatever game is being played. If they did, wouldnt all card games and board games start trying to emulate computer games?

The one argument that we will agree upon is that exposure to TTRPG is paramount to getting another generation interested–no matter their age. I just don’t agree that it has to be the game flavor that you prefer to play that is the best or only entrance point for them into the hobby. Nor do I think legacy-related system necessarily are. I have no clue. We’d have to do a study to find out. Until then, I think the money trail is clearly leading toward Paizo’s version of the game as being the current most popular one, and they are making efforts to appeal to gamers of all ages without alienating their own customers. Their marketing fu is strong.

John "Sir Seskis" Wright

May 23, 2013 at 7:18pm

Neal, Neal….

First of all congrats on the new column here! But be sure and save a few words for the big book you must soon produce (caveat to all readers – Neal is one of my best friends, is finishing his PhD in the same theatre program I did mine in, and he was in my 3e D&D group in Baton Rouge for years – a finer role-player and gamer you will not find).

Second,

DUDE!!!!

(I shall call and we shall debate in more detail:) )

But just FYI, while I understand reactions against the most vocal and hidebound of reactionaries, no matter what the system or edition (and there certainly are plenty – “absolutists” abound who can even argue whether D&D is only “pure” if you stop using the little books from the original OD&D box set before or after you add supplement IV, whether Unearthed Arcana was the “1st heresy” etc.), what you run the risk here of doing is, as Wolfgang’s rebuttal implies, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You know my preference well, I play C&C and have been involved in that community now for several years. There is never a shortage of debate on what “makes an RPG good,” and as you correctly note, it does involve a lot of personal taste. What strikes me as strange is that, whether intentional or not, there would appear to most readers to be a certain absolutist, or at least claim of primacy, of “what D&D should be” in your assertion of the faults of the “what D&D is committee,” and inherently an assumption that there SHOULD be similarity in experiences even within the realm of 4e.

Now, I recognize what you are saying here is really specifically about the development choices being made in RPG design as relates to the open-sourcing/play-testing of 5e/D&Dnext and also in disagreements with other routes to RPG philosophy that might occur with 13th Age or other games. You are specifically arguing that you think WotC is making a mistake by trying to APPEAL to all eras of nostalgic interest, and that this can only lead the flagship brand name “backwards” rather than “forwards.” I, too, have my strong doubts about the ability to please all factions with a unified system, but I’d be careful in so easily dismissing what you refer to as the negative influence of “nostalgia.” You really need to save up and come to GaryCon in Lake Geneva next spring – where you would see 4 days of gaming awash with what you identify as nostalgia, especially “Gygaxian” nostalgia (as the con is in memory of Gary), that is an energetic and vibrant experience, and with each year there are growing numbers of young players. There is a richness and resonance in the history of the game that I think you miss out on above, and while I have doubts as to how successful I think WotC can be, I applaud their attempt.

As I said, will call soon and we can debate more!

Chris Harris

May 23, 2013 at 7:42pm

Christina Stiles wrote: “I really don’t think such players would have difficulties in picking up AD&D 2e as opposed to 4e or Savage Worlds–or whatever game is being played”.

You’re right, and they don’t seem to have any difficulty. In Austin we have two Pathfinder Society nights going, each at their own location, Mondays and Thursdays, and then an ‘informal’ Pathfinder day going in one of those stores on Saturdays. I haven’t been able to make the Saturday games yet, but the PFS nights typically run 5-6 tables each. Of those players most are under 30, and kids make up a respectable portion of that.

System mastery isn’t, as you say, Neal, a requirement by any stretch. It’s a requirement to *design*, certainly. It’s a requirement, though less so, to run a game that fits in a time slot. It isn’t a requirement to play and enjoy, however, and there have been many tables run there consisting largely of children playing for the first time with parents, most of whom have returned as far as I can tell. It’s anecdotal, but very little in the conversation hasn’t been, so…

Chris Harris

May 23, 2013 at 7:47pm

Something else that hasn’t come up, but bears mentioning: according to much of the game-related journalism of late (I’m not googling them from here, sorry) MMOs are on the decline now. That certainly doesn’t mean that video games in general are, but that particular type is doing less well these days than it has been. Food for thought.

Also, the notion of developing TTRPGs with MMOs in mind seems odd (even if it is an old one now) considering that so little in them wasn’t directly lifted whole cloth from TTRPGs, primarily D&D.

Neal Hebert

May 23, 2013 at 8:44pm

John,

Why don’t you just use that Dean mojo of yours to create a job for me in Wisconsin? We can game together every weekend, and I’ll attend GaryCon with bells on. The book’s coming along fine, and my first single-authored pub is going to be out in Oxford University Press’s first-ever Handbook on Dance and Theatre before I’m on the job market – and now that I’ve seen the table of contents and how many heavy hitters in our field are being published in it I have confidence that the anthology will be a success. I’m working on a co-authored piece for ASTR’s Performance and Philosophy working group, am presenting on a panel with a few Ivy-leaguers at ATHE (the title is “Glamour Boys, Drag Queens, and Straight-Up Freaks: The Performance of Queer Masculinities in Professional Wrestling”) and might make another go at MATC depending on the funding situation at that point.

But on to gaming-talk, which is what really matters.

What I love about Old School players is that, with very few exceptions (although we’ve seen representatives of those exceptions post replies here), they’re absolutely not members of the “That’s Not D&D!” Committee. I think that, once you have fans with long enough memories, there’s absolutely NONE of the absolutism you see from the people I specifically have a problem with. There’s a lovely story of Old Geezer’s on RPG.net (who used to game with Mr. Gygax) about how he used to homebrew PC rules for Balrogs and Fire Elementals and stuff for members of his group who wanted to play as something different. Rather than decrying Wuxia or anime weeaboos (or whatever slur is being thrown around now when someone wants to play as a dragonborn or genasi), the attitude was to make shit up that gamers thought would be cool because that’s what D&D was about – the game was sufficiently elastic to accommodate anyone.

Although I personally quite dislike the idea of an impartial referee as opposed to a DM whose job is to be a fan of the PCs and help them have fun, I do love the notion in the earliest editions that the referee was the only arbiter of what happened at the table – their table, their rules, and no one else can tell that referee that her version of D&D isn’t D&D enough.

But strangely, it seems like that Old School attitude and approach to roleplaying – an approach I find quite liberating – isn’t what those arguing for more nostalgia elements in the next edition are talking about. For them, nostalgia has become associated with specific mechanical implementations – and, of course, preventing certain other mechanical implementations from being present in the next edition because of their relationship with ideologically impure ways to pretend to be an elf. This is unfortunate given how awesome the Old School’s laissez-faire approach to roleplaying and fun. This approach, I think, is the most important thing to come out of early editions of D&D: say “yes” to your players, as long as saying “yes” is fun for everybody. Although the current standard of “Does it feel like D&D?” seems like a dead end for a design philosophy (given the fact that these answers will always be subjective), a return to the Old School ethos of “Make shit up that you think will be cool” would be quiterefreshing, especially paired with the idea that D&D is so sufficiently elastic a game that it can handle anything gamers wanna make up. This OSR stuff makes a much more compelling design philosophy than “Unite the Tribes” and “Does it feel like D&D?” It broadcasts a return back to the fact that every table the runs D&D is trying to have fun their way. – which is all I want from a game, even if that game might not be for me.

Henry W

May 23, 2013 at 10:22pm

The recent posts brought up many good points.
I still think Neal is a bit enamored with rules innovation (in part modeling TTRPGs to MMO or video game tropes) being the key to success for increasing adoption of TTRPGs amongst the younger generation.

If the rules aren’t completely obtuse (yes, there is a personal spectrum involved), the mechanical barriers to entry are relatively low. In part that’s what the old school crowd are rooting for. Some see modern systems, despite their innovations, have gotten complex and unwieldy. The rules lite older systems, despite some idiosyncrasies presents a snappier, simpler game, which they believe can facilitate introducing the hobby to new people, young and old. I would have to examine the 5E playtest materials to be sure, but I don’t imagine they would be including THAC0 and more esoteric and derided legacy mechanics.

Beyond unclear mechanical concepts, innovative mechanics and legacy-inspired mechanics (given a refresh withing the overall 5E system) probably hold the same affinity or aversion to those unfamiliar with D&D. Neal points out the fault of legacy mechanics needing old schoolers to highlight their historical significance in order for new players to grasp the meaningful contribution they have to the game. Likewise, innovative mechanics would probably need their advocates to show why they’re better. How would newcomers really know? Is their attention held by deep analysis of a game new to them or rather learning the game and having fun doing so. Where does this focus on innovation ultimately stem? Forum posters arguing these merits in intellectual and pseudo-intellectual discussions? From Wotc’s marketing speak? I’ve seen that sort of marketing speak before, the results have been subjective for every edition.

in fact, how innovative is “innovative”. Over the Edge/WARP designed by Jonathan Tweet was considered innovative. It inspired many RPGs afterwards. Elements of it inspired 13th Age (Tweet is a co-designer). OtE is 20 years old. In that time, with all those RPGs it inspired, all their computations and trials in the market, the various editions of D&D and its derivatives have held the top of the RPG hill. I feel arguing legacy mechanics in some way inhibit the initial hobby entry process is tenuous. If I had to put my money on why, I’d say it was all marketing, in part from D&D’s “legacy” position.

I think the major barrier to TTRPGs remains obscurity. Despite being a household name, D&D, the most iconic tabletop RPG, doesn’t have the marketing budget of blockbuster movies or video games. Thus it doesn’t break into the mainstream. People have heard of it but may not have seen it played. Those who want to play may not have an available group or know where to find one. Contrast this to a video game where a person could toss the game into their console and start playing immediately.

This is where technology could come in, virtual tabletops, character builders, etc. Even a solid video game based on D&D, especially this as anecdotally I know many gamers who entered the hobby from playing the Black Isle/Bioware CRPGs, and the SSI games before that. This entire area needs to be more robust. WotC had some partial successes here, but also a failure to really develop a strong, permanent, supportive presence in this area. This is an innovation that has yet to be fully seized on. Other companies are moving in. Whoever catches that wave may be the game taken for a ride to the top of relevance.

Speaking of MMOs, Chris Harris is right, those are fading as we speak. WoW has hit its peak and is losing players at a rate D&D would be grinning eyelid to eyelid if it gained that number. Those players aren’t headed for the tabletop, however. One of the big new (well not so new) game genres on the block is MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas). They aren’t a particularly innovative thing, they borrow the framework of MMORPGs in an arena setting and were even initially based on modified maps of Starcraft I/Warcraft III line of games. What’s important about them is the game client servers, matching players to other players on the server looking for games. There’s also the support of sites to broadcast these games, building “e-sports” as a spectator activity.

Chasing video game genres to emulate can become disastrous if an edition releases based on the previous popular genre and people have already moved on. What’s more beneficial is to see what those successful genres offer their players to build their following in the first place. MMOs aren’t different from tabletop in that people still need to find other players to game with if its to be multiplayer.

It also helps players to be able to see how a game functions without actually playing it (not knowing how to play a game before playing a game is a barrier). I’m still surprised Green Ronin’s Dragon AGE TTRPG appeared on the YouTube show Tabletop before D&D (4E, Essentials, or 5E). The PAX D&D session from two years ago reached 448K views on WotC’s own channel, the AGE session on Tabletop reached 400k in 3 months on a channel not focused on RPGs and actually took time to explain how the game worked. WotC should be doing this on their own on a regular basis, possibly with some celebrity guests.

The point about current gamers teaching their kids or younger relatives to game was not about it being some sacred rite of passage passed down from elder generation to next. It’s not something we have to wait for next generation, it’s happening now. Just as tabletop boardgames are seeing strong growth. Family game night is one factor in this. It’s not THE factor RPGs should depend on, but it’s A factor that shouldn’t be ignored or inhibited. From the blogs I frequent, kids learn to game (and have fun) from legacy systems or OSR retroclones just as easily as PFRPG, 4E, or whatever. As long as the system isn’t inept or daft it works. What’s needed is more engagement of new gamers with good proven gaming material (whether it be some OSR’s cleaned up version of D&D Basic, Pathfinder’s Beginner Box, 4E or Next). The people helping that engagement process can offer a boost, whether they’re friends, family, or a video on the internet.

Charles Carrier

May 24, 2013 at 8:05am

All the people who hope (or fear) that adjusting the rules will somehow draw smartphone-addicted youngsters to our hobby have missed the point.

This latest generation has learned how to use their electronics to sustain a remote presence. (Something I’m still working on, but getting more and more comfortable with it every day.) If WotC, Paizo, or even Kobold Press wants to improve D&D/PF’s appeal to these kids, then create a multiuser live video sharing app that will let the players see and hear each other in real time.

Forget about all the elaborate “electronic tabletop” stuff that developers keep wanting to do. The MAP isn’t the game, the PEOPLE are the game!

Yes, I really do think it’s that simple.
If you build it, they will come. :)

Greg

May 24, 2013 at 3:12pm

This is being made FAR more complicated than it needs to be.

Asking the question, “What is Dungeons and Dragons” is imminently reasonable. Everything has components that go into making it what it is, whether that be a Chevy Camaro, America, Neal Herbert, or D&D.

Different people have different ideas as to what some things mean, but there are “shared ideas and meanings” for virtually everything. Will somebody else has a slightly different idea of what a Camaro is than I do? Probably, but there are also some things that we can all agree on which make a Camaro a Camaro, and which make D&D what it is as well.

These ideas are mutable, and can change as we age. What D&D means to someone who grew up on 3rd Ed is going to be different from what I grew up on. As well, this “feel” is not exclusive to the first time or three playing. D&D and AD&D was able to retain it’s feel for myself and others for years, long past my first experience playing.

However, what goes into the makeup of something includes intangibles, it includes a “feel” or an aesthetic. If you don’t believe me, take some product marketing classes. “Feel” is very important, and is not a throwaway idea. In this particular area (Table Top Gaming), feel most definitely can be affected with the tangible framework of the rules, but also through artwork, layout, word choice, world development etc.

With any product which has a legacy, whether that’s a Camaro or D&D, staying true to brand, and the evocative feeling which accompanies it is key. You don’t want to lose your old customers by drastically changing a brand. For some, perhaps this is what happened with D&D 4th.

But for Wizards, actually asking people what D&D “is” to them, and what that evocative “feel” is which D&D has for them is very reasonable.

It’s not nostalgia fetish to communicate what that feeling is and ask Wizards to retain that brand feel any more than it’s progressivism fetish to ask for change.

Every brand has a feel, every brand has a definition. Some of what goes into brand make-up is less important. Other factors are crucial and non-negotiable. That’s what Wizards is trying to figure out: what are the non-negotiable aspects of what makes D&D what it is. I think we can all agree that a Camaro would not be a Camaro if it were a truck, even though if Chevy insisted on calling it that. Fans of the Camaro might understandably be upset, and ask Chevy not to change the Camaro into a truck. Now Chevy would never do that, because it has a truck, for those customers who want one. So, perhaps Wizards should simply develop another game aside from D&D for those customers who want something which strays too far from what D&D actually is. Too expensive? Probably…

So Wizards is asking people what D&D is to them. Very reasonable. Part of what /anything/ is involves an intangible element, a “feel”. Reasonable. People are communicating what that “feel” is and is not to them. Again, reasonable. Wizards collects the data and determines what the “core” of the D&D experience is. Reasonable. Wizards chooses whether to create a 5th edition which aligns with that core, or does not. Reasonable.

Neal Hebert

May 24, 2013 at 9:21pm

Greg said: “It’s not nostalgia fetish to communicate what that feeling is and ask Wizards to retain that brand feel any more than it’s progressivism fetish to ask for change.”

I completely agree, which is why I explicitly never stated the above. Referring to my column you’ll note that I said the following: that those engaging in nostalgia fetishism believe that “the type of fun roleplaying games facilitated should be subordinated to nostalgic purity (in general) and their particular nostalgia (in specific)” and that for such people “[h]istory and nostalgia have become Gygax ex cathedra, rigidly constraining our understanding of the hobby’s past and constricting the mechanical designs that will define our hobby’s future.” As John helpfully pointed out (albeit elliptically), these features are in no way reflected in older editions of D&D – and indeed, these features’ absence from the earliest editions is in my view the most commendable thing about early editions of the game. I sincerely bemoan the loss of that attitude.

Once again, the issue isn’t that people like old games or that they have nostalgia for old games. It’s that, for a vocal subset of the gaming population, history and nostalgia are equated with specific, concrete mechanical designs rather than their feelings about past games (feelings that may or may not actually have had anything to do with the mechanical designs of the games about which they’re nostalgic).

I think that, perhaps, the disconnect between my opinion and those of many others is that, as I note in the column, I place absolutely zero value on nostalgia because I view it as an emergent property of a subset of rules that has more to do with the people I was playing with at those times in my life than I do with any edition of D&D. This is, perhaps, compounded by the fact that I view the “brand identity” of D&D as nothing more complex than “heroes gather together to kill monsters and take their stuff,” and accept that there are many valid mechanical approaches to realize this. I recognize that many gamers view nostalgia as much more important than I do, and equate the “feel” of D&D with certain mechanical implementations (their favored edition) than I do; thus, my suggestion to modernize the game’s mechanics while retaining the core of killing monsters and taking their stuff is, to some gamers, not what I intend it to be. I view my position as admitting that the core of the game (its essential characteristic of heroes killing monsters and taking their stuff) is strong enough to grow as mechanical designs grow each year; others think it’s tantamount to saying that their feelings about D&D are not valid.

Ultimately, it’s worth noting, I do believe that other gamers’ feelings about D&D are not valid! But only at my gaming table, which is as it should be (and firmly within the spirit of older editions of the game). I hope that my thoughts about D&D (should they diverge from anyone else’s feelings) are equally invalid at their tables, in the grandest tradition of the game. Your fun isn’t my fun, and each of our attitudes about roleplaying have absolutely no bearing on whether we have fun when we play that game (unless we play together). I don’t get more or less joy from knowing that people everywhere are playing the same game that I do, or playing it in the same way; that doesn’t rate.

Now, there is one other quibble I had with your post. In your final paragraph you note that “So Wizards is asking people what D&D is to them. Very reasonable. Part of what /anything/ is involves an intangible element, a “feel”. Reasonable.”

While I absolutely grant the first sentence, I absolutely deny your contention in the third sentence that part of what anything is involves an intangible element on philosophical grounds. Metaphysically speaking, it’s not at all clear that what you’re stating is true: If you ask me what a table is, I would tell you that it’s an elevated surface that things can be set upon, around which there are frequently chairs. How I feel has nothing to do with the identity condition there.

Leaving the philosophy aside, however, if your point is that, in marketing, it’s reasonable to do this then I’ll happily take your word on this and grant the point. But my larger contention – that these feelings arise from mechanical design as an emergent feature of that design (these feelings also involve non-design aspects such as the composition of the group, the point in group members’ lives when these events took place, the quality of GMing/roleplaying, and numerous other things) rather than being directly caused by specific mechanical implementations – is that nostalgia isn’t really all that helpful to designers. I could design a game that, word for word, appears to accommodate a given set of readers’ nostalgia for a prior rules implementation that nonetheless misses the “feels like D&D” mark; indeed, 4e’s existence and reception militates in favor of this point given that, on paper, it seems like a perfectly robust system for running dungeon crawls of the kind that were awesome back when D&D was a board game. In reality, a lot of people hated it. To use a less edition-war loaded example, consider DungeonWorld: a fine game in the spirit of old-school D&D, but its reception has been mixed given that the game places no emphasis on simulating a world or gamist concerns.

Like I’ve been saying (but not overtly), I’m not opposed to people saying “I really liked having a class-based game that worked either with or without a grid” – designers can do something with that! Or “I liked being able to make a character in 5 minutes and start killing monsters!” Again, a designer can do something with that – these are mechanical preferences. Even “feats are a deal-breaker” or “no warlord, no buy” work, even if they’re a bit strident – I can work with both data points and design something based off that feedback. But when you start saying things like “Well, it just didn’t/did feel like D&D to me” that isn’t helpful to me as a designer. Tell me what mechanics work and what mechanics don’t work for you such that I can get an idea of what mechanical implementations meet/do not meet with approval.

In this regard, game designers have to be kind of like doctors – “I don’t feel well” is an invitation to a deeper conversation about what kinds of pain are felt, what the symptoms are, and so on such that a prognosis can be made through eliminative questions, a bit of intuition and (in worst-case scenarios) dumb luck. The same goes for my attitude toward “It doesn’t feel like D&D!” The person saying it is absolutely correct in their assessment of their individual taste, but the proper response from a designer is to move past that as quickly as possible such that information that is relevant and useful to design can be given (and, hopefully, implemented).

Greg

May 25, 2013 at 2:34pm

Hey Neal,

Thanks for your reply. For me, you seem hung up on the word “nostalgia” vs. feel. I have a feeling that those you accuse of having a “nostalgia fetish” might not characterize their opinions in the same way you do. I’m not sure if there is actually anyone holding the opinion you are characterizing “nostalgia fetishists” as having. So I think that may be a bit of a straw-man. If you can point me to someone who believes, as you state ‘”that “the type of fun roleplaying games facilitated should be subordinated to nostalgic purity (in general) and their particular nostalgia (in specific)” and that for such people “[h]istory and nostalgia have become Gygax ex cathedra, rigidly constraining our understanding of the hobby’s past and constricting the mechanical designs that will define our hobby’s future, ”’ I would appreciate it.

But the feel of a game, and what a game “is” certainly have something to do with the rule-set and mechanical elements of the game. There are multitudes of games out there where “heroes kill monsters and take their stuff.” If this is what you are claiming D&D is (as it seems to be you are – apologies if not), then are you saying that all these games are D&D? Certainly not. So clearly there is more to what makes D&D what it is than simply the core concept of “killing monsters and taking stuff”.

As an aside about metaphysics and philosophy, there /is/ no “table”. There are an arrangement of molecules and atoms, that many in this world, with our limited sensory inputs, choose to refer to as “table”. That does not mean that if we had more varied ways of sensing reality that we would see it the same way. It also does not mean that everyone agrees on what a table is vs. a desk or a bench. In many ways, it depends on interpretation, and on what “feeling” that entity evokes within us. I think your example actually goes a long way to showing that “feel” is crucial in how we define what we sense in our environment.

And yes, I agree that 4th Edition “in theory” based on mechanics should have been considered a fine example of D&D, but again, it failed to evoke the “feeling” of what D&D actually is, and was just…something else…for some. This is because Wizards failed to live up to a legacy brand identity. And again, there is no way of getting around the fact that a product which has been around for 40 years has a brand, it has an identity, and yes, it has a specific aesthetic (refer to my Camaro example).

In my experience, those who say 4th didn’t “feel” like D&D aren’t really vague at all. They can be quite specific in why it missed the mark for them. From what I’ve seen, Wizards is trying to address this by asking specific questions about what D&D “is” and “is not”. That makes sense, and will enable them to figure out those core aspects, for most people. of what it means for a game to be Dungeons and Dragons.

They certainly aren’t settling for “well, 4th didn’t feel right. I don’t know why. Change it back.” That wouldn’t make any sense for them to do so, and the people at Wizards (contrary to the opinion of some) aren’t idiots.

In the end, yeah, it will come down to a battle royale of “feels”, and ultimately, that’s ok. Democracy and all. But Wizards wants to make money, and you can bet that if assigning what you classify as a feeling of “nostalgia” to the game won’t make sell and make them money, they won’t do it.

Happy Gaming!

Neal Hebert

May 25, 2013 at 7:37pm

Greg,

I’m hesitant to do as you ask and point out specific people who hold to the beliefs I’m criticizing. This is not my Web site – it’s Wolfgang’s – and I don’t think he’d appreciate me using my position to “name names” or start inter-Web site rivalries. Multiple message boards have this policy against inter-forum drama, and I think that it’s a good one insofar as it encourages civility and discourages pissing contests.

What I am comfortable doing is noting that it’s a trend I’ve seen on multiple blogs dedicated to gaming, multiple message boards (RPG.net has had posters that advocate this; EN World has had such posters as well; various other boards, too, if you dig through the moderators reports and find various posts that got people banned for edition warfare), and expressed in the comments sections of Wizards earliest Web polls discussing results. This is not to say that many people hold this view (or that such views are demonstrative of overall opinions on any of the boards listed, or that such content amounts to the boards’/Web sites’ official stances), and I do think the fact that only a niche group of niche consumers (online RPG enthusiasts are just a percentage of the small audience buying RPGs) lends itself to the most vocal minorities appearing to have outsized influence; essentially, a niche group (nostalgia fetishists) of a niche group (RPG fans who talk about them online) of a niche group (table top gamers) that that do hold this view are toxic to the hobby, and I have run into them offline as well (at my town’s only FLGS) where they’re equally toxic to other customers or those playing “ideologically impure” games.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that no one ever says outright “I am a nostalgia fetishist” in much the same way that people don’t usually cop to holding other extremist beliefs – it’s something that you have to construct from the things they say. Something Awful’s forums have a thread dedicated to republishing these sorts of comments without naming names called “grognards.txt” that should be illustrative on this point – because it avoids naming names (except when those posting are public figures in the hobby and have ceded anonymity), it’s something I’m comfortable directing your attention to. Wolfgang didn’t know this stuff existed either, and when I directed him to read Grognards.txt he was scandalized after reading only a few posts: be warned, catgirl rape dungeons and in-setting fiction valorizing the Ku Klux Klan are only the tip of the iceburg, and quotes from people posting on other Web sites about what D&D should be are almost as shocking as the sexism, homophobia, and racism on display.

Please don’t think from the above that I’m not responding to the criticism that you worry that I’m addressing a straw man: given this Web site’s decorum and my sense of respecting the space Wolfgang has built, I’m not particularly comfortable just providing you the type of proof you request (although I think from the stuff I’ve provided you can start to get a sense of the RPG community you are blessedly unfamiliar with). Furthermore, I teach philosophy, publish within the field (I have an article in the anthology “Philosophy and Dungeons and Dragons” with fellow gamer and occasional designer Jon Cogburn), and am familiar with informal logical fallacies – so I do strive to not commit them in print. I think this is less of a “Neal is arguing against something that isn’t real because I haven’t seen it” and more of a “Neal is responding to a vocal minority of gamers that are quickly banned from discerning (or well-moderated) message boards and Web sites that discuss D&D.” Believe me, if you’ve never encountered someone online that told you you were pretending to be an elf in the wrong way you’re going to the right places for RPG discussion.

On a larger, professional ethics note, Wolfgang wouldn’t have hired me (or, ultimately, allowed a column to be printed) if I was allowed to lie with impunity, straight up troll people with my columns, or argue against straw men (and commit logical fallacies). Our Web editor Miranda wouldn’t have allowed it to go to print if she thought I was making stuff up. This Web site has a strong reputation within the industry (how many ENnies have we won at this point?), and I’m allowed to publish opinions that are controversial and that will frequently be rebutted; but I can’t just write anything I want and get it posted because we all take the reputation of the Web site seriously. Were I not talking about something real, the column wouldn’t have been posted and Wolfgang wouldn’t have spent 1000 words rebutting my points (albeit feebly and ineffectually ;) ). This Web site, my editors and I hold these columns to as high a level of scrutiny as anything else that appears on Koboldpress.com because, even though my opinions are controversial, the Web site is allowing them to reach a large number of readers and the quality of the argumentation does reflect on the Web site. Someone can disagree with me and think the argument is shit, no question – but it passed through the hands of multiple designers and editors who aren’t me and generated a rebuttal from the EiC that dealt with the substance of the column rather than spending 1000 words disputing that I was telling the truth. So if you don’t trust me yet, trust Wolfgang: I think Wolfgang’s response to engage with the content rather than dispute the validity of what I’m discussing is telling.

Philosophy aside continued: “As an aside about metaphysics and philosophy, there /is/ no “table”.” I dunno, Greg. My Master’s degree is in philosophy and that’s what I teach at Uni right now (well, it and theatre courses, of course). I would just state that if you believe the above then you hold very different philosophical commitments than I do, and that your view isn’t what I would call mainstream or uncontroversial. Which is fine insofar as diversity of opinion is important and whatnot – but it’s not an argument winner, you know, because this isn’t a settled debate. I suspect there are some post-structuralists who would agree with you, but unlike most in my field of Theatre History I’m not a post-structuralist (I am probably an Aristotelian at heart, but I fear going more into this tangent than I have already will induce snores from everyone else).

Greg also said this: “There are multitudes of games out there where “heroes kill monsters and take their stuff.” If this is what you are claiming D&D is (as it seems to be you are – apologies if not), then are you saying that all these games are D&D? Certainly not.”

It is what I’m claiming – and I would say “Certainly so,” actually. I don’t think that PFRPG fans would take seriously the contention that they’re not playing D&D – their game might have a different name and not have access to the corporate brand owned by WotC, but they’re demonstrably playing D&D (I suspect if you put video of people playing 13th Age, 4e, PFRPG, and 1e side by side there would be no real debate from non-enthusiasts that all people were playing different versions of D&D, branding be damned). I’d say, given my parenthetical, that the same goes for 13th Age fans. And Castles and Crusades fans. And fans of retro-clones. These games aren’t officially part of the brand, no, but they’re all still playing in the same ballpark. On my column, there were comments noting that my call for less nostalgia elements was like changing baseball into soccer – I hold that the difference between 3e, PFRPG, and 4e are more like the distinction between baseball with the infield fly rule and baseball without said rule. Consumers, no doubt, can speak with their money about which iteration of baseball they like better or “feels” better to them – I don’t dispute that. But I also don’t take the equivalent of “4e/3e/2e/1e don’t feel like D&D to me and thus [edition x] is bad/betrayed the spirit of D&D/and so on” as particularly important or noteworthy.

So my attitude on “feelings” constituting the brand is a bit more complex than the attitudes of some others. WotC might own the D&D brand now, just as TSR owned it in the past, but it’s become like the phrase Kleenex: in my part of the country, every type of tissue (no matter the brand) is called a Kleenex. In some areas of Louisiana, every type of soft drink is called a Coke – even Pepsi. People who I brought into the hobby with 13th Age call our sessions “Playing D&D,” and I didn’t see any reason to correct them other than semantics.

What I’m saying is that OD&D, 1e, 2e, 3e, and 4e all “feel like” D&D to me insofar as they meet D&D’s essential properties.* I’m nostalgic about all editions of the game. Do I prefer some mechanical implementations of the concept more than others? Duh, I think everyone does. But my happy memories of games really have NOTHING to do with mechanical implementations – they’re always due to gaming groups, inspired roleplaying, a lucky critical hit, and so on. Maybe some people really, really get into the gamist aspects of the game and their feelings about the game are tied up in mechanical implementations – I suppose that’s possible. I’ve just never met anyone for whom that was true, never seen any discussion online about these things online wherein people’s memories were subject to or derived from mechanical design, or anything like that. The plural of anecdote is not data, and I suppose I have to take your word on it if you know people for whom this is true, but I read a LOT of RPG blogs and message boards and I’ve never come across this sort of person in the wild (so to speak).

*Side note: it’s worth noting that, if you want to get really precise about what I think D&D is I’d need to put much more thought into it than a Web comment. As John noted above, I’m writing my dissertation, and am really firing these comments off as fast as possible to keep discussion going. I’m not getting paid for this stuff, so that’s why these comments might seem slightly rushed, jumbled, rambling or imprecise. My precise writing, with rigorous argumentation and clear definition, by necessity has to be saved for my scholarly work or my columns. So any infelicities, inconsistencies, brusqueness, or incompleteness of response isn’t because I’m dense or rude, it’s that my mental energy is a bit divided and RPGs and discussion thereof are my hobby not my profession. Also, I’m planning on running DungeonWorld next week and have no freaking clue how to translate some of the game’s lingo into something that makes sense to run, and I think everyone can agree that playing RPGs is infinitely more important than talking about them! :) .

Rambler

May 26, 2013 at 8:05am

I honestly think the success of PF has everything to do with the great people at Paizo and nothing inherently better, nostalgic, or “more D&D” in their rules (despite their rules pretty much being 3.8e).

Sure, the warm blanket of backwards compatibility with 3.5e got people to take a chance, but it’s been the superb adventure and product support, the almost addictive subscription plans, and the PR between designers and customers that sustains them. Had my beloved 4e been treated with the same respect and, much more importantly, CONSISTENCY, instead of all the changes in direction, the tech and PR debacles, and a more open channel between designers and customers, we’d have a far more robust and better-supported D&D at the moment. The secret is really in steady, quality “stuff” gamers can spend money on and Paizo has no end of that.

I think it rubs people the wrong way when a PF fan uses a defense like “feels more D&D to me” for the implications other editions somehow are less D&D. “to me” really doesn’t cushion that sting. It smacks of something negative. Too sensitive? Yeah, maybe, but this is what the edition wars are made of, how closely all of us keep our hobby preferences. Similarly, when a 4e fan says something like “Its so much easier to DM and prep” it implies that other editions are harder or less efficient, which is also taken as an indirect insult. Speaking to what Neal was actually talking about last article, I think everyone can tell an obvious troll as a troll, no matter how grog. It’s one thing to love what you play, quite another to tote it the best there is, and when someone calls modern gamers “pea-brain WoWers” I don’t think anyone takes that person seriously.

Unfortunately, I think current times are forcing all of us to take sides, even designers, as they must choose what to play and support in the ever-diversifying market. It leaves them uninformed of those systems they don’t and less able to sympathize and relate to growing segments of gamers. It’s natural, but unfortunate, especially on all-encompassing sites like Kobold who try to be for “all versions of the game”. There can be no universal sites anymore, not unless staff includes gamers of every edition, each supporting their version with content, then extending any publishing they do in equal shares amongst all those represented editions. But that isn’t economical or humanly realistic. Things must hew largely one way. I’m not knocking Kobold. I really do love you guys, but the occasional Age, 13th Age, 4e, or OSR article doesn’t change the fact you’re a Pathfinder site that supports Pathfinder via its publishing first and foremost. Nothing wrong with that. At least you’re nice about it.

From everything I’ve seen of the gaming masses, civility is not their strong suit, no matter how gracious the designers might be. Clans, tribes, these are accurate ways of describing fan bases in certain shops, conventions, and especially online. And even though we all play multiple games, we all have our favorites. Come on, we do. They’re the ones we play and purchase the most. Nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong, though, is when fans of one edition justify why someone else’s edition “failed”, why they are a miniscule minority of the larger whole who actually managed to have fun with this ‘thing’ that was not really D&D, and how all signs point to a return to “their edition”. That really rubs me the wrong way. I think Neal might have been speaking toward that sentiment, which is woefully prevalent in many circles and forums.

I don’t know what it is that stirs inside all of us and makes us want to edition war. I guess part of us almost wants to be offended so that we can have it out with someone else and prove that our fun is valid and real, that the edition does work, that numbers or experience or money or popularity validate our experience. It’s an ugly thing, but we all feel that urge.

Ultimately, I think it all depends on the quality of your playgroup. If you have a good, or great one, then all of this doesn’t really matter. Except when someone directly or indirectly knocks what you’re doing by making digs on your preferences. It’s like an attack on you and your friends. It’s like they’re trying to invalidate your fun when you obviously had fun. Yes, I’m beginning to see where that urge comes from now…

Lewis Pulsipher

May 26, 2013 at 12:31pm

Mechanics are secondary to the “spirit” of the game and of the players. Look at widely agreed generational differences (there are many, many individual exceptions to the generalizations): Baby Boomers are competitive but are able to be patient and persistent in ways largely foreign to Millennials, who tend to quit when the going gets tough rather than “bear down”. Gen Xers like to go it alone, and admire the “lone hero”, while millennials (Gen Y) prefer to share and work together but have been brought up to shy away from competition – and have been brought up to believe that “new” is necessarily better (think of all the advertising, for a start). The editions of the game reflect generational differences. 1st/2nd edition D&D was played by Baby Boomers. 3rd edition is the Gen X game, and 4th is the Millennial game. I don’t see how WotC can accommodate fans of 1e/2e and 3e and 4e, because gameplay depth was important to many 1e players, self-expression and one-man-armies was important for 3e (fantasy Squad Leader), 4e is all about tactical battles (where it’s really hard to get killed, relatively speaking), and variety has become the main interest in 3e and 4e.

In 1st edition you wanted to overcome the thrill of fear. The referee’s job was to scare the snot out of you, usually by threatening your character with death, soometimes by threatening to take or destroy your stuff, though his job definitely was NOT to actually kill you. 2nd edition was similar. 3rd edition became a contest to find rules that enabled you to construct a one-man army, and then the game was about you showing off the super-duper-ness of your one-man army. If you try to “go it alone” in first or second edition D&D, you are probably going to die, later if not sooner. Then third edition came along, designed to let each player be a one-man army that could succeed on his or her own. Where in 1st edition most of those unearned advantages would not even be allowed, they had become the main reason for playing 3rd. Your OMA was too tough to be scared.

Referees can always alter the tendencies of the game rules, of course. You can play first edition as “brain fever” fantasy, you can play it so that players really have no worry about getting killed.

1e (and 2e) could be played as a wargame, with tactics. We always played with a board and counters (or miniatures, occasionally). 3e is kind of fantasy Squad Leader, but leaning toward letting one-man-armies show off how “bad” they are. I once heard 3e described as “Fantasy Squad Leader”, which seemed apt. But the big difference between 1 and 2 on one hand, and 3 on the other, is that in 3e the “one man army” idea was worshipped, and the combined arms cooperation that was vital to 1e was abandoned. I suppose that might be part of “Everquestifying” the game. The one virtue of 4e is that cooperation is once again vital to survival, but in large part it has been “WOWified”.

4e is very tactical, but it’s been arranged so that it’s also very easy, with little real threat to the characters, hence it doesn’t require much tactical acumen. And there’s virtually no strategy, because virtually all the capabilities you might have used in 1e to do things outside of battles, have been eliminated or “neutered”. (My favorite quote about 4e, from Desslock: “Only dolts turn a tabletop game into World of Warcraft”.) Video RPGs have attracted a vast audience because they’re easy to play, you don’t need to worry about lots of rules because the computer takes care of it, and you cannot lose, all of this appealing to contemporary (Millennial) tastes.

I don’t see how WotC can provide easy paths to playing in all of those ways, and so far “D&D Next” hasn’t addressed the problem at all.

“Old school” is often about how you play, not really about mechanics. So as a Baby Boomer, I don’t find that 3rd or 4th edition “feels” like the D&D I knew. But younger people have likely had different experiences. Though no doubt there are players who do focus on keeping the same mechanics they’re familiar with.

Players are quick to abandon older editions because they need to find players for their games, and the new rules being sold in shops are more likely to be familiar to possible recruits. Typical players buy and use whatever the current edition is because that’s all they can buy (new). You have to work at it to stick with an older edition. It’s a practical matter, not a willingness or unwillingness to adopt new mechanics. WotC will continue to come out with new editions of D&D because they have to sell product, and a new edition offers so many opportunities for sales. If an edition is successful it might last longer. 4e evidently hasn’t been sufficiently successful.

“Progress” is not inherent in new game design. But as designers keep trying new things, inevitably they’ll sometimes come up with ways of doing things that are more interesting to current players, than the old methods were.

Neal Hebert

May 26, 2013 at 1:40pm

Rambler said: “I don’t know what it is that stirs inside all of us and makes us want to edition war. I guess part of us almost wants to be offended so that we can have it out with someone else and prove that our fun is valid and real, that the edition does work, that numbers or experience or money or popularity validate our experience.”

I have to confess to being somewhat surprised by the reception to my column and Wolfgang’s response; I was talking about a lunatic fringe of the hobby rather than mainstream civilized gamers. I’m guessing your analysis above is explanative of the subsequent reaction to my column by mainstream civilized gamers. I was even surprised by Wolfgang’s “rebuttal” since he didn’t actually rebut anything I said so much as respond to me; the pieces were complementary rather than confrontational.

I suspect I underestimated the extent to which some gamers look for things outside the table to validate their fun, and take WotC’s experiment with 5e’s open design as support for this view. I’ve often told my friends in the industry that the entire marketing of 5e was a misreading of a consumer like me: I don’t want an edition that everyone will compromise to play because I don’t understand why a compromise benefits anyone who isn’t an employee of WotC. To the best of my recollection I wasn’t party to a class-action lawsuit regarding the “true soul” of D&D, and don’t understand why I have to compromise on anything for the next edition: as a consumer, I’ll decide whether I want to buy it and then do so irrespective of any compromise reached between the designers of 5e and a portion of the fanbase happy with what they’re seeing. I mean, I didn’t burn my rulebooks of older editions when 5e was announced, and WotC didn’t freeze my paypal account to prevent me from buying 13th Age or DungeonWorld (or Pathfinder). I have no incentive to compromise with anyone who isn’t a player at my table, and I don’t feel the need to do so because my games don’t get better if people I’ll never meet and play with happen to play the same system as me; other people’s games don’t get better just because my group in Baton Rouge, LA has made the same system choice as they have.

Given some of the reactions we’ve seen from gamers on this Web site, that perhaps some others disagree and that their fun is impacted by the opinions of third parties to their individual games (perhaps the esprit de corps that comes from being one group among many fans of a system) – and thus it’s important that their view of D&D be designated with “official” status of “feels like D&D” to others.

I think your comments about the difficulty 3rd party publishers faced in being edition war neutral are accurate. I was an editor for KQ and Open Design, so please understand that the following comments are solely my own analysis and that I do not speak for Kobold Press, Wolfgang Baur, Shelly Baur, the Baur children (who are being raised, if I’m not mistaken, to just say no to edition warfare), or anyone or anything other than myself as an individual. Speaking for myself only, I believe that some vocal members of the Internet RPG supplement buying audience during the height of the edition war seemed to think they were in a hostage situation rather than a more-traditional consumer-publisher interaction: edition-agnostic products (and any multi-edition product by numerous other 3rd party companies) had to meet some sort of arbitrary edition “quota” or else these edition warriors would take their business elsewhere. This was, of course, necessary lest these purchasers support ideological impurity vis a vis pretending to be an elf.

While customers have the right to spend their money in whatever manner they chose and using any metric they wish to employ, I personally never understood some of the angrier reviews of KQ and other products found on the RPG Bloggers Network a few years ago: I never found the edition specific content as “useless” as some reviewers claimed to find it. Far from 50% of the magazine being “worthless” to a 4e fan, I found myself incorporating a lot of the ideas from PF/3.5e articles into my 4e campaign without a problem (and perhaps five minutes of homebrewing to adapt the content that was reliant on mechanics). I know PFRPG/3.5e players who felt the same way about the 4e content, too.

Mark Smylie

May 26, 2013 at 3:48pm

Neal: I have not been following the 5E Playtest but followed the link in Wolfgang’s KQ newsletter (hi, Wolfgang!) out of curiosity, and I have to admit that several strains of argument in your various posts strike me as curious.

“We could also infer that the first two years of 4e were quite successful, but the launch of PFRPG scared WotC into creating Essentials as an attempt to bring back lapsed fans – only Essentials failed to catch on, WotC created their own competition through bad PR and moves that were clearly boneheaded with the benefit of hindsight, and 5e’s announcement with its marketing-speak masquerading as design goals was announced as a last-ditch attempt to stave off another round of Christmas-time firings by promising to dominate the market again (Ryan Dancey suggested something to this effect, and this interpretation is popular on RPG.net and various other forums). It fits the evidence just as well as any other theory, and in some ways it fits it better.”

Regardless of the popularity of this interpretation on RPG.net, I would suggest an alternative history is readily available, and it’s one that Dancey (as the man behind the OGL) himself has already floated and is better supported by much of the available evidence. 3e sold much better than 4e, and did for longer, in large part because a) despite some grumbling from 1e grognards, it was actually more-or-less backwards-compatible with previous editions despite the addition of skills & feats and b) the OGL allowed an entire industry to spring up providing support products for the game and helping to increase and hold its popularity. In moving to 4e, WotC announced that the new edition would *not* be backwards-compatible (potentially alienating a large portion of its customer base) and that it would be largely ending the OGL arrangement in regards the new edition (and then on top of that seems to have butchered the Forgotten Realms setting for no apparent good reason, at least according to the FR die-hards I know).

Even at the time it was easy to track what the outcome would be; within weeks if not days of floating their new licensing option, virtually every 3e OGL support company publicly stated that they would not support 4e, and many announced their own competitive RPG systems. A fracturing was predictable and in some ways the only question was whether or not there would be a mass exodus of D&D players to another system that would become dominant. WotC probably assumed that the Brand was the thing; even if the rules were different and the game wasn’t backwards-compatible, they figured the Brand would win out in their quest to make everyone buy new game books all over again and then buy into a MMO-style monthly digital subscription (WoW envy is a terrible thing). And sure, initial 4e sales were pretty strong, as many players bought the books to check out the new rules; and clearly many of them read the rules and chose to play other games. Paizo’s decision to release Pathfinder and directly challenge 4e with a D&D 3e spinoff game was hardly a sure thing, but in retrospect I think it can be said that it proved out what a lot of people were saying then: that there were plenty of D&D players that would prefer to play something that they consider to have the “feel” of “D&D” even if it doesn’t carry the D&D name (which is surely what Pathfinder is, as you and others have noted in your posts) and a lot of them were not very happy about the idea of a subscription digital service (despite your claims that WotC is making oodles of cash from it, which appears to be based on some speculative posts on a message board? Really? All that cash is why they’ve shut the service down?).

I would suggest that the reason that WotC is trotting out 5e is both a signal once again of their core sales strategy (get people to buy new rule books) but also a clear signal on their part that they understand they f*cked up and are trying to get back players that have abandoned them for Pathfinder or the OSR games (an analysis which I think is buttressed by their decision to release their entire 1e/2e library digitally). And actually, all the industry scuttlebutt and numbers that I’ve seen for some time has pointed to a simple fact: Pathfinder has been measurably outselling D&D for at least two years (starting in Jan 2011 as reported by iCV2 and Ryan Dancey on EnWorld, and the sales trends were identifiable before that). The NY Times bestseller lists, incidentally, are not going to be reliable indicators here; the Grey Lady has only begun trying to figure out how to track non-book-store sales of comics and hobby games in the last few years and they’re still struggling with the metrics and data collection. For a long time, any sales recorded in gaming stores or in comics stores were invisible to the powers-that-be over there, and sales reporting in the Times for our hobbies is unreliable at best. iCV2, which has consistently tracked the hobby gaming and comics markets for a couple of decades, has noted four back-to-back years of growth in the gaming market (coming, interestingly, as board games have taken off and MMOs have started to falter, perhaps indicating a moment when a younger generation is seeking more face-to-face gaming experiences). Admittedly iCV2 can be cheer-leaders with a vested interest in promoting good news, but I would tend to find them on the reliable side (they base their charts on direct talks with distributors and retailers). Probably a lot of people are holding back on D&D with Next on the horizon, but it’s even slipped to third (behind Pathfinder and Star Wars) in recent quarters:

http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/25373.html
http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/25377.html

Personally, I think this is a great time for games (though it can be bad for individual game companies), with so many different styles and rules choices available to players. Indeed, despite the fact that you are bemoaning the future of the gaming industry and the potential loss of young gamers, it would appear (both from industry reporting and from the anecdotes mentioned by others in these two columns) that the overall hobby games industry is growing and plenty of young people are discovering RPGs both via their local shop and via Kickstarter; they’re just not discovering the games and playstyles that you seem to hope they will discover. You have mentioned in several posts (in quite a lot of detail, in fact) that you consider yourself an academic; and yet you also wrote in a follow-up post on your original column the following:

“Dausuul said: ‘I can’t help but suspect your real gripe here is that while 4E took some steps toward your preferred style, 5E is going the other way.’ No, Dausuul, my real gripe is that there are people who maintain that the goal of mechanical design is to “feel” like D&D, generally because they mistake nostalgia for something that’s rule-derived. Which is exactly what I said. Given that I am the expert on my internal subject preferences, I am the person best-positioned to assess what I meant and what my real gripe is.”

Come now, sir; an academic, particularly one grounded in the liberal arts, should surely be aware that there’s a hundred years of psychoanalytic theory that suggests that we are often the least reliable and worst-positioned people to assess ourselves and our own true intentions. In fact it took me reading through every single post on these two columns to find your admissions that you are a “Forge-ite at heart” that has enjoyed what you have termed the “narrativist” style of game-play introduced into 4e and that you presumably are hoping to continue seeing in 5e, and further that the outrageous examples of old school reactionaries out to drive the heathen from D&D that you would like to cite if only you were allowed to are apparently posts from obvious trolls that are a peculiar minority often banned from message boards. Really?

Hmm. A man who teaches philosophy and studies theater accuses others of “nostalgia fetishism”? Ah, irony. The Lady doth protest too much.

Fizzygoo

May 26, 2013 at 4:32pm

I think the issue with the original article by Mr. Herbert is that it wasn’t clear that it was about a “lunatic fringe of the hobby” and since nostalgia is a common human emotion, using that term to describe that “lunatic fringe” did not help add clarity to what the author intended.

The original article starts out with “Fans of disparate…styles of roleplaying have been contesting and debating the merits of each edition to assess whether elements of that edition should be included in the Frankenstein’s monster that is Next.” at the end of the first paragraph and then the next sentence states “The results have been ugly, retrograde, and entirely predictable.” So that, all gamers (at least of any version of D&D), who are the fans of disparate styles, are debating on Next and the results have been bad. Which isn’t true. As has been clarified by Mr. Herbert in a comment post to a Rebuttal-ish Article to his original article; there is a minor subset of the population of gamers that has engaged in ugly and retrograde debates.

The very next sentence is just as bad; “Wizards of the Coast’s promises of modularity and freedom of choice have all been silenced by the advent of the unelected “But that’s not D&D!” committee that lurks on every forum.” This implies that the company that is engaging with its customers (effectively or not on their end) to create a modular and freedom of choice game has been “silenced” by these “ugly,” “retrograde,” “debates,” by “fans of disparate styles.”

The very structure of the opening two paragraphs leads gamer-readers into being included as a part of the problem.

Perhaps a follow-up article that makes use of the clarifications provided by Mr. Herbert in the comments would be appropriate (but understandable if not feasible at this point in time)?

On another note, in a previous post, Mr. Herbert says;

“But my happy memories of games really have NOTHING to do with mechanical implementations – they’re always due to gaming groups, inspired roleplaying, a lucky critical hit, and so on.”

Aren’t the use of critical hits a mechanical implementation of the rules (and by the nature of their design are “lucky” and most likely to be remembered when they also coincide with a dramatic in-game event)?

Neal Hebert

May 26, 2013 at 5:20pm

Fizzygoo says “Aren’t the use of critical hits a mechanical implementation of the rules (and by the nature of their design are “lucky” and most likely to be remembered when they also coincide with a dramatic in-game event)?”

Critical hits are, by this point, a constant between every edition of D&D I’ve played (and most other games I’ve played too). I would say that they rate as a “mechanical implementation” as much as pretending to be an elf does.

Fizzygoo says “Perhaps a follow-up article that makes use of the clarifications provided by Mr. Herbert in the comments would be appropriate (but understandable if not feasible at this point in time)?”

No. It’s not feasible with the features schedule of the Web site, but I’m also not convinced it’s appropriate in this case. This sort of expansion/refinement is what the comments sections are for, actually – and why I’m trying to be very active in the comments (even seven days after the first column is posted). I’m enjoying actual engagement with readers who care enough to keep commenting and foster a dialogue – what we’re doing right here is, I suspect, a lot more valuable to the community than a second column rehashing this would be. The discussion is awesome, as is the contestation of my points. The columns are intended to be things that start a dynamic discussion on the larger Kobold Press Web site – which might result in me walking back a few claims, or readers convincing me I made a decision too hastily, or readers convincing me that I didn’t go far enough in my original column. I’m fairly certain that, for later columns only, Wolfgang and Miranda are considering allowing Kobold Press readers/commenters to write featured rebuttals, too.

Abdul Alhazred

May 26, 2013 at 6:04pm

Well, this has been a long and relatively sane set of discussions! Of course the thing is in the long run it all just boils down to preferences. You can ‘rough hew it how you may’ but in the end its still just about some people like one flavor of D&D and other people like a different flavor. Lets also remember that a LOT of people, probably the majority, don’t care that much about mechanics. I’m virtually certain I could speak for all the people that play in all of my D&D games (mostly 4e now, one is using DW, another sometimes playtests DDN, and we’ve all dabbled in 13th Age and a few others). There’s no argument in these groups, someone will usually suggest starting a game using a specific rule set, or maybe just a desire to play a game in a given genre, or put out an idea that evolves into some game play and what system gets used is fairly arbitrary.

I really do understand what Neal is saying. There really is a very regularly expressed “D&D should only be like [some specific vintage] and other stuff isn’t D&D.” This was expressed constantly as virtually the singular response to questions about less strictly traditional mechanics in the DDN forums, to the point where I and many other 4e fans simply stopped bothering to post. You could have a discussion about some mechanical feature and at some point anyone in favor of some post-2e way of doing it generally was shut off with “that just isn’t D&D, 4e failed, we can’t have that newfangled stuff, maybe you can have some supplement and try to tack it back on.” I’m pretty sure that’s what the complaint was about to start with. Its narrow and stultifying.

In the long run, somehow, everything has to change in order to evolve and keep living. This is the other half of Neal’s point IMHO. Its perfectly fine to say “this way of doing things is the ‘old fashioned’ way and we find it superior.” That’s great! What you can’t expect is that D&D can survive when virtually every aspect of it is cast into that sort of inalterable mold. In the long run it will simply become another piece of dated culture gathering dust in the collective attic, joining cane chairs, 9 pin, wingtips, and zoot suits.

Ultimately, I think DDN is a product of fear, not a product of innovation. Its a reaction, a retrenchment, and a retreat from a spirit of innovation and growth into a defensive sort of preservationist mentality. I can almost smell the museum smell…

Fizzygoo

May 26, 2013 at 6:47pm

Mr. Herbert wrote; “Critical hits are, by this point, a constant between every edition of D&D I’ve played (and most other games I’ve played too).”

Gotcha. I think I understand where you’re coming from. From my vantage point, when WotC asked for “what feels like D&D to you,” assuming they were asking all players from across all editions, then some things, like critical hits which weren’t introduced into a Player’s Handbook until 3.0 in 2000 need to be understood from their historical perspective (if only to understand where other gamers and their comments may be coming from), because it means there’s 25 years with 4 editions of players that essentially either didn’t use critical hits or did so through the use of house rules or non-PHB printed materials (I didn’t check 1st and 2nd ed AD&D DMGs to see if they had an optional rule, I think 2nd ed does).

But then adding the following sentence confuses me, “I would say that they rate as a “mechanical implementation” as much as pretending to be an elf does.” primarily because of the use of “pretending” which to me implies the imaginative process of role-playing that species/race within a fantasy world setting and not the mechanical ability bonuses, attributes, etc. that are applied to characters of that species/race. Additionally, from the history of the game view, elves appear as playable races far earlier than critical hits.

To me, there are two primary aspects that make a game uniquely “that game.” First, in no particular order, is the mechanics and second is the “world.” By world I mean the base (campaign) setting or lack there of, the flavor-text descriptions of the things within the game. Etc. Not following mechanical rules within a single game (i.e. one edition or another of D&D) should, generally, be done with care and with group/DM approval. Not following world “rules,” on the other hand, are often done and approved of by the group/DM.

So, using the playing an elf example. The +2 Dex, +2 Wis ability score bonuses, the speed of 7 squares, Low-light vision are all a part of the the mechanical aspect of elves in 4e. While “[elves] are easily moved to delighted laughter, blinding wrath, or mournful tears” is a world aspect of elves in 4e. If a player makes an elf character and doesn’t take the +2 ability bonuses or adds +4 to both abilities, etc., then technically they are playing it “wrong” according the to mechanics rules as written. If a player makes an elf character that is stoic, reserved, and rarely emotional then that is playing it “wrong” as far as the flavor text goes. (I used wrong in quotes because I only want to draw the line that the player is going against what is written, not that it’s bad, and in the example above, as a DM I would ask a lot of questions starting with “why” regarding the mechanical changes the player wants to make [with the right as DM to over rule that choice] and “cool, can’t wait to see your character in the game” regarding the world changes to the character).

So which, or both, or something else that I’m not seeing, do you mean when you say “”mechanical implementation” …as pretending to be an elf”?

Discussions are good :)

Neal Hebert

May 26, 2013 at 9:10pm

Fizzygoo, “pretending to be an elf” is fairly common Internet RPG-discussion slang for playing D&D. So are variations on that phrase (referring to the act of roleplaying as “elf-pretend”, etc.). Hence, in my original column,when I said something about “ideologically impure ways of pretending to be an elf” I was making a comment about those obnoxious people who claim there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to roleplay. If you haven’t encountered that phrase before it would explain why you got so literal about things. But yeah, critical hits were in the version of 2e I played (my first edition), and carried forward as well through multiple mechanical implementations, so I view them as non-mechanically relevant as roleplaying itself – it’s kind of cool that they might not have been in the earliest editions! I believe they were in the boxed set “Dungeons and Dragons” that my parents bought me, but I don’t know for sure and it’s been a LONG time since I played that.

I find your concept of “world rules” interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever followed them in any game of D&D I’ve run. Wolfgang has heard me rant (in this case, over honey wine at an Ethiopian restaurant that’s one of my favorite dinners ever, a meal we shared when I last went to Seattle and Wolf saved me from a boring academic conference) about the fact that I think, almost without exception, that D&D is the absolute shits at building worlds (in specific) and fluff (in general); even the campaign settings that people like (Ravenloft; Planescape; the holiest of holy Eberron) have never motivated me to play. I never wanted to do anything with D&D other than make my own world with my friends and play around in it, and part of creating a world was doing our own thing no matter what the default setting assumed. In the interest of full disclosure, this dislike frequently extends to homebrews by friends as well; as Wolfgang can attest, I’ve reviewed fantasy novels before and have read just about EVERYTHING in the genre (or tried to read), and I have strong likes and dislikes within fantasy.

For example, unlike many gamers I intensely dislike Tolkien, hate Jack Vance, and find traditional epic fantasy really boring – and, I’m getting the vibe from your comments that others associate the inspirational source material with the vibe of the game in a way that I never did. When I found out about D&D, I was excited because I had a fantasy system that let me make characters like those found in Orlando Furioso, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and assorted other fantasy narratives (I didn’t even notice the appendix of source material until a few years ago from participating in discussion boards about D&D), so a lot of the genric assumptions others make were never part of the game for me. If I were to name fantasy novels now that I adore and steal from for my games now, Steve Erikson’s worldbuilding in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, R. Scott Bakker’s take on elves (“nonmen” in Bakker’s world) in the Prince of Nothing/Aspect Emperor series, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (duh), China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, Joe Abercrombie’s mood in his books set in the world of the First Law (especially his novel “Best Served Cold”), Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (particularly her concept of Faerie as a realm).

Because of my attitude to what you call world rules, I don’t think I ever observed them or associated the fluff with the game in any real way; I just thought some of the rules only mattered if you chose to accept the fluff. This is probably why I didn’t have the negative response to 4e that others did – I thought the fluff that came before was kind of shit, so discarding a lot of it in favor of stuff that was more like the fantasy literature I was into was great – in particular the Warlord. John Wright can tell you that in the final game of 3e he ran for us before leaving Baton Rouge I tried to create a Warlord-like character based on Zhuge Liang from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a strategist, but with supernatural rituals at his disposal), but had difficulty modeling this given that this age-old fantasy archetype was never supported in pre-4e editions; Wade Rockett can confirm that the Battle Captain in 13th Age was in part due to me raising holy hell about it on multiple message boards (and emails, and playtest reports, and much more) about the fact that 13th Age was constricting the types of stories we could tell as a group through their decision to eliminate the archetype. The fact that 4e’s fluff was completely separate from the mechanics was even better, because I could finally just change stuff without having to invalidate the inessential bits of game design that interacted with it (detect alignment was a spell I never allowed because alignment was philosophically incoherent, for instance), and lack of rules for outside of combat let us have some freedom to roleplay rather than having to deal with mechanical modeling of social interactions. If I’m not mistaken, this is considered a virtue in the earliest editions of the game as well.

But yeah, as should be obvious, I generally homebrew everything on a campaign-by-campaign basis based on my players’ character concepts, and Wolfgang and I have a head-to-head planned in a few months debating the merit of campaign settings. At some point I’m supposed to whip up narrative-quickstart rules for 13th Age (if they’re still interested) that allow for the creation of both characters and an entire campaign world in 30 minutes – something I’ve done in multiple pick-up games of 13th Age. As should be obvious, I’m of the opinion that it’s more fun to make up a new world for every game (with some holdovers or constants like a pantheon or a map with lots of blank spaces); in our head to head I think that Wolfgang will argue that a campaign setting is great (and we’ll again have a not-quite rebuttal, but an invitation to further conversation). I think that for some playstyles Wolfgang’s right, but my playstyle preference goes VERY far the other way. Then again, despite the focus on narrative and being able to create my own fluff answer for games, my playstyle is really well-suited to making new players want to play the game and their characters to the hilt!

Someone may well read the above and say, “Neal, you were playing a very different game than D&D because of the extent to which you disregarded aspects of the books.” And my response to that would be that I’m just doing what they did back in the old days: making shit up that I think will be fun for my players. It works for us, too.

But maybe all of this information about my playstyle give you insight into why I hold the beliefs about D&D that I do – and why I react so poorly to people who say “that’s not D&D!” I can give more concrete examples of my “ideal” world-building session if you’re genuinely curious. But for now, I have to sign off and watch another episode of The Wire, Season 4. Believe it or not, I’m getting ideas for a D&D game from it….

Fizzygoo

May 28, 2013 at 1:17am

Hehe, yeah, wasn’t aware of the euphemism “pretending to be an elf” (though I do remember the D&D ad that said [paraphrased] “If you’re going to sit in your basement pretending to be an elf the you should have friends there” but that was the only place I saw it used).

Yeah, I’ve never know anyone to play/run a game that adheres strictly to “world rules”/fluff text (I prefer to use world rules or something different than “fluff” or “flavor-text” as I’ve mostly encountered that as disparaging towards the text being referred to/or people take it as a slight when used in referring to text that they like). Where most players and DMs that I’ve encountered assume that the world rules is “typical”, “usual”, “commonly”, etc., representative of what it’s describing. So the 4e description of elves I quote before would be interpreted as “{Most} [elves] are {generally} easily moved to delighted laughter, blinding wrath, or mournful tears.”

But then, for example, if the campaign is set in the Forgotten Realms, then DMs might default to 3rd or 2nd edition descriptions as being the general rule to which there are many exceptions.

I checked the original red boxed set of D&D and the expert box set and they did not have critical hit rules (the red box set, in the intro adventure characters only do 1 point of damage and then it is said that they do 1d6 on further adventures and not until the back of the book are the rules of variable damage weapons introduced). But I wouldn’t be surprised if a Dragon Magazine from that era introduces them. It was definitely only 3rd edition that introduced critical hits as a “cannon” (non-optional) rule in the Player’s Handbook.

When I was three or four years old friends of my parents gave them their SPI wargame Swords & Sorcery because “it was too complicated.” That was my introduction to fantasy (which indicates I have a bizarre foundation as the game was serious on it’s surface/in the art, influenced/play-tested by Gygax, but it is rife with silliness like leaders named “Tim the Enchanter,” “Unamit Ahezredit,” and “Logarithm Son of Algorithm” and locations named “The Nataly Wood,” and “The Stream [river] of Consciousness.”) At seven years old I got the red boxed set of D&D and by 8 years old I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine. I didn’t read Tolkien until after 8 years of playing/reading [A]D&D. So, like my familiarity of music (I tend to have heard Weird Al’s parodies first and the originals years later), my reference foundation is with [A]D&D first, typically and what it’s been influenced by later. I’ve been playing the most current version of [A]D&D since approximately 1983.

I like epic fantasy games, as well as non-epic, and so on. But when WotC asks what do you think of as classic/representative of “D&D” then I enter a Tolkien/Vancian epic fantasy frame of reference (even though I’ve never read Jack Vance) because that was the inspiration of early D&D with many of the elements having carried through to later editions. But if I were asked what I want out of a newer edition of Shadowrun (my 2nd most commonly played rpg), then I would want gritty rules where no matter how powerful the PCs get they still have to worry about a 15 year old kid killing them with a good shot from a hand gun (which is different from latest editions of Shadowrun). And if I were asked what I want out of a new edition of Sorcerer then I would have to default/not-comment because I’ve never had the player base that was interested in testing out my (now) dust covered copy of the game because despite how interested I am in the game system, I haven’t actually played it.

I also tend to play in and/or run long term continuous campaigns (in chronological order) DM/GMing:
* 3 years 2nd edition AD&D (Greyhawk/Forgotten Realms 1990-1992),
* 3 years 2nd/3rd edition Shadowrun (1992-1994),
* 1 year 2nd edition AD&D (Forgotten Realms 1995),
* 1 year 3rd edition Shadowrun (1996),
* 2 years 3rd edition D&D (Greyhawk 2000-2001),
* 6 years 3rd edition D&D (Forgotten Realms 2002-2008),
* 1+ year Pathfinder (Beta-testing my own campaign world 2012-present).
Player:
* 1 year 2nd edition AD&D (Forgotten Realms 1991),
* 2 years 3rd edition D&D (Forgotten Realms 2002-2003),
* 5 years 3rd edition D&D (Forgotten Realms 2003-2008),
* 2 years 4th edition D&D (Forgotten Realms 2008-2010) which then switched over to Pathfinder for the last 2.5 years (Forgotten Realms 2010-Present), and
* 1 year 4th edition D&D (Undefined 2010-2011).
I’ve dabbled in (played less than 6 consecutive months):
* Gamma World (original and 3rd edition D&D version),
* Palladium systems,
* Marvel (TSR version),
* Star Wars (West End, and 3rd edition D&D version),
* Star Frontiers, Hero System (player in over a year long campaign, and DM a 6 month campaign),
* T.W.E.R.P.S., and
* Mechwarrior (and maybe a few others).
And I’ve always wanted to try Paranoia and Sorcerer.
(my Shadowrun edition dates may be off.)

I wrote up an initial description of the problems that 4e was facing here http://fizzygoo.com/blog/2012/01/11/dd-5-0/, after the announcement of the release of 5th edition.

What I find interesting from your comments, Neal, is that you’ve felt 4e has lent itself to a narrative style of role playing (I’m familiar with Edward’s System Design ala http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/system_does_matter.html).

Since I’ve played primarily with “gamists” and “simulationists” the extraneous “world rules” from previous editions helped those DM’s deal with my narrativist needs. In other words, my experience has been opposite to yours. The lack of “world rules” details, the dropping of support to campaign worlds like Forgotten Realms, Planescape, and Greyhawk, has led DMs in my campaigns to focus on the gamist and simulationist aspects as they don’t have any guiding text for them to be able to create a game-night that satisfies the narrativist (unless the DM has narrativist inclinations in the first place).

This is not to say that either of our experiences is right or wrong…only to illustrate the disparate backgrounds from which we are approaching WotC’s request for what is “essential D&D.” While my preferred edition (for playing a heroic fantasy setting) is 3.5/Pathfinder, I’ve enjoyed 4th edition, 2nd, 1st, and basic. And if my DM says they want to play a gritty non-heroic fantasy game then I’d suggest not playing any of the version of D&D (save maybe OD&D or 1st AD&D as that shit just kills) but instead try to use a different system all together.

So while claims that you or I are “playing it wrong” I will dismissed as fanboy fantatism, the additional clauses to those sentences I take at face value (just as I’ve taken your comments and have attempted to have the clarified so that I can understand given my own prejudices and biases caused by my history with the game). If players say that it isn’t D&D if it doesn’t have encumbrance, or THACO, or level caps for “demi-humans,” … I have to say that those are valid points of view…it’s what those players are used to and like (even if I don’t). And if the majority of (any-version) D&D players say that THACO, level caps, and sexist terminology are essential to D&D then I have to accept that the majority of (any-version) D&D players are THACO loving, level cap embracing, die-hard sexists…even though that’s not my ideal of D&D (and I’m definitely against the sexist terminology).

But I still vote in the poles (even if they’re terribly constructed poles) because I don’t want “lunatic fringes” from appearing as the majority (and fully accept that on occasion my votes may lie within one or more of the lunatic fringe’s ideologies).

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