You may have noticed by the list of game studios and indy shops on the right hand side of the blog that I’m a bit of a gamer.
I was born at exactly the right time to gain what one might view as a renaissance education in nerdery. I came into a scene in which Dungeons and Dragons was in full swing, when video games were really starting to heat up and with dozens of old standbys that did not involve 126 page tomes or wedges of plastic that didn’t always translate your will into reality. To top it off, as I was working my way out of the public school system, Magic the Gathering hit and I got some of that too. As a result, I learned a little bit about all of them to one degree or another and came to be a well balanced nerd.
In this education, I quickly came to hold Dungeons and Dragons in disdain. I dabbled in it here and there and quickly learned three things:
– Being a wizard (the coolest sounding concept in the game) sucked.
– The game seemed designed to thwart players rather than have fun.
– THAC0 was dumb as hell.
Yes, narrow learnings to be sure. But, bear in mind I was twelve. What the hell did I know?
Turns out I knew a lot. Because sometime when I was in college, TSR gave its death rattle and a company that was rather high profile in nerd consciousness, Wizards of the Coast (owners of the wildly popular Magic: the Gathering collectible card game), swept in to acquire the Dungeons and Dragons IP – presumably to ‘save’ it. There was a great deal of fuss about this. Hardcore dice junkies were appalled at the acquisition as they believed Magic had ruined fantasy gaming by the introduction of card mechanics and that WotC would kill their darling. Then there were gamers who had gone to White Wolf and Palladium systems out of frustration with the panoply of vagaries AD&D brought with it. They found themselves perking up and dreaming about what a little new blood in the mix could bring. Things simmered for a bit, and around the turn of the millennium WotC gave birth (spawned? summoned? re-animated?) to third edition.
If there was rejoicing, I didn’t hear a lot of it.
But, it did pick up players and adherents, and furthermore it changed the game, bending it into a new shape. Version wars began around that time with nerds on both sides declaring their allegiances and decrying their respective naysayers from the back rooms of game stores or their parents’ basements. THAC0 was gloriously pilloried and burned while others shouted that the new regime was only about milking the last dollars out of the intellectual property like inheritor vultures. Not being in the D&D crowd at the time I observed mostly from the sidelines. There was a brief and torrid affair for me with Ravenloft when the third edition rules for it got farmed out to White Wolf and I sincerely wanted to learn the third edition, but… there was always something wrong with playing D&D. It just wasn’t for me. It’s the same problem I have with the Beatles. Sure, both the Liverpuddlians and D&D established their spheres of influence. However, that doesn’t mean I particularly go crazy over them either. I was one of the White Wolf kids at that point. It was just a giggle to me.
And so third edition trundled on. 3.5 hit shelves while I was working at Borders, making maps integral which was distasteful to me at the time. And for a time their ‘Chainmail’ system grew out, again sparking new arguments and declarations of faith to ‘the one true system.’ I kept playing Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.
And, then something strange happened in 2008. A friend who had only recently come back to the dice side via a friend’s Call of Cthulhu campaign came to us with books from the newest 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. He desired to run a game and was fascinated. He’d played briefly in his own youth but never had a nerd group cohesive enough to stand against his concentration on music (in his defense you meet way more girls in a band than around a nerd table) and had lapsed. He really, earnestly wanted to play though, and I wanted to encourage him. So I joined in with more than a little trepidation.
It turned out to actually be really fun. They’d fixed things. THAC0 (long since banished in third edition) did not rear its ugly, malformed head. Magicians had something to do every turn. Levels were gained at the same speed for everyone, making a Warrior, a Thief and a Warlock truly on the same XP incline. It used maps, which up to that point I did not like, but then saw there was method to the madness. The map actually enhanced the game’s crunch, putting it in pretty clear terms how you could use your specific powers to the best of your ability.
Mechanically, it was amazingly coherent and kept everyone involved. If you were a wizard, you no longer had to hide under the cart after casting a single, unimpressive 1D6 damage magic missile. It was really fun. Fun enough for me to go out, buy the PHB, the DMG and the MM. That’s a hundred dollars worth of books.
We gamed more. We created new characters seemingly every couple of weeks and played Living Forgotten Realms. During this time I created a two-weapon, Genasi Ranger (awesome), a Daeva Swordmage (not as awesome but fun to play) and a Genasi Barbarian (awesome and also dead). Some of us around the table were playing three nights a week on JUST D&D, not including Cthulhu or Rogue Trader nights.
The game is not without its flaws. I am not a fan of the non-combat system which seems to gloss over opportunities for roleplaying. I’m not big on the very limited number of skills. I’m not big on how the guys at WotC would re-release a classic setting then do dick-all with it (Dark Sun, Eberron). But, it satisfied a very specific itch.
And now, hundreds of dollars later (yes – D&D is an expensive ass habit) they’re talking fifth edition.
Now, I’m kind of mad.
I now know how those AD&D folks felt at the beginning of the third edition days. I spent a shitton of cash on this stuff and it will no longer be supported. They’ve moved to a software model – not surprising really as WotC is a Seattle company much like Microsoft. I know I can keep using all my old stuff if I want to. Support for it however will drop off. And my DM has every indication of going to fifth edition when the time comes for it.
They are however taking a tactic I can kind of endorse – going to the D&D community for guidance. This could be both good or bad. It makes me wonder if they will really change things, or forge forward in a vacuum trusting to good old fashioned corporate values (i.e. increasing shareholder value). I would love to see a D&D game divorced from the rigid connotations of class. I would love to see a D&D where you could do something a little less linear (and by this I don’t mean creating a dungeon with multiple forks). I would love to see a system in which gamers could collectively tell stories without having to amass a library of books with dispersed information rather than a centralized core.
Will the fifth edition (or sixth… or seventh? Will I be alive then?) do these things?
Well, let’s find out.