Monday, February 27, 2012

The Grognard's Anthem

There's an Australian band called Tripod who wrote a Dungeons and Dragons opera. On that album, Tripod vs. the Dragon, there is a song entitled "I will still play." The lyrics towards the end of the song proclaim:
Laugh at me that's nothing new, it was always that way.
Change all the rules to the game from what they were in my day,
but I will still play. I will still play.
 (For the curious, here is Tripod's website)

That is the perfect encapsulation of the way I feel about modern D&D. I started playing D&D when I was young, probably at the age of ten or eleven. Before that I made up my own roleplaying games based on the SNES games I loved (like Link to the Past) using only six sided dice. I discovered D&D at my grandfather's house where a stray book was lying around. I don't remember what edition it was from, but my father thought I was too young for it. So I didn't start playing then, but the images in that book had entered my brain.

It wasn't until a year or two later that a much older neighbor (he was at least 16 and I was probably a young 12) caught me and my friend pretending to be wizards in the yard. We would run around with sticks and staffs, casting spells on things and making secret wizard pacts. That summer he told us that he had been given the power to use magic for real. At first I didn't believe him, but I wanted to so badly. I think I must have been convinced by the end of the summer, because he and my friend secretly decided to trick me into it with stories of what the older kid could do.

So that summer I believed in magic. I believed that Peter Falconer, the guy who lived two houses down, could make the woods freeze or burn at his whim. I wanted that power, of course, but I also wanted to see it in action. One day, Peter brought us into his garage/room and sat us down on his hard cot and opened up a box. Inside that box were the Dark Sun setting books. He drew out a PHB and told us that we were going to make characters. I, of course, made a wizard. My friend Vinny made a thief who instantly tried to steal from me. And we played something that wasn't quite D&D for a few hours.

Later, I learned that Peter had made up most of the rules just to pit us against one another. That was fine, because what he really did was spark my interest in D&D. I was and have always been an avid reader. My poison of choice, of course, was Tolkien and I knew that in order to be happy I had to be able to make the same kinds of worlds that he did; to involve every aspect of history, culture, botany, philosophy, and linguisics. D&D provided a sudden and brilliant insight into how I could do that.

I bought the Realms. I bought the PHB. I played D&D throughout all of 5th and 6th grade. People told me that I was going to lose interest. I never did. I played D&D all through 7th grade, making my own world then for the first time. It wasn't a good world, but it was mine. Eventually I started making more and more complicated settings, and the rules were just a way that we could explore them. I was always the DM, because I relished running things more than playing in them. For me, the purpose of the game wasn't about the escape offered by playing a character but rather about the fantastic possibilities of crafting a place to inhabit and being beyond a god there: being the ultimate rule, the very fabric of the universe itself.

We played other roleplaying games of course, but we always came back to AD&D. We wanted a level of verisimilitude in our D&D, and things were generally violent and dangerous, without coddling or fast experience advancing. Being stupid could get you killed, while being smart and planning ahead could save you from almost certain death. I read the High Level Campaign Guide very early, and used every dirty trick in there. My monsters were smart, they made use of tactics, and they challenged the PCs. Those were good days.

Then Wizards bought TSR. They were going to stop supporting AD&D, though my friends didn't see a problem with that. They told me that we should just keep on keeping on. The rules were working for us, we liked everything about them, there was no reason to switch. I wasn't so sure. I was afraid that without support, AD&D would flounder. I demanded that we try to switch to the new system. I bought all the books (I always bought most of the books, being the perennial DM) and forced everyone to learn the weird new shiny system.

We wondered at the fact that there were no charts of results and far less information was codified in hard and fast rules. The game seemed more approachable to us, which was instantly a bad sign. Everyone had more HP, kits had become full classes, and things just seemed out of control. We tried it, though. We tried it valiantly.

We discovered that the game had become less about the actions of the characters and more about the characters themselves. Many changes were made because they seemed "cooler" or to overcome perceived weaknesses. There was an obsession with balance between characters, something that we had never even thought needed to exist. We played 3e for a few years, switched to 3.5e even, but we never really enjoyed it. We returned, in the end, to AD&D.

And then 4e was announced. Everyone heralded it as a return to the older days of gaming, with more adventure and excitement and less cartoon-y rules that would allow for grittier feeling games that had a higher death ratio once more and allowed the DM to make the all-important rulings that are what allow a roleplaying game to function rather than being stuck in a bog of rules from different sources. That was one of the major sticking points for me; 3e seemed to have given the reigns of the game to the players (after all, the books suggested, it is their game) and taken them away from the DM.

Wizard's lies about their digital game table aside, 4e was nothing like the previous editions. If anything, it had taken the direction of 3e to its logical end, and that end was nowhere near where I or the people I played with wanted to be.

It had changed. It was no longer about inhabiting a strange and different world with a deep history and stepping into the shoes of your character. It seems now to be about having a respectable distance from your character (well, I'm not charismatic, but my character is; roll some dice for me) and sending them through a series of combat challenges to a goal. Game design has overridden world design. Foremost in the AD&D books was an attempt to present a system that mimicked the way the outside world worked. In those days, the meat of the setting (the fluff as some GW spawn call) was inevitably bound to the mechanics of the game (the crunch).

Those two terms are deplorable. Fluff and crunch suggest that there are things which are more important, more satisfying (namely the rules) and that any kind of candyfloss bullshit can be overlayed on top of that. Addressing what is wrong with that notion is probably a whole different blog, but suffice to say for now that the disunity between the rules and the lore grates more than ever before in the newest edition of D&D.

Do I trust Wizards to make a 5th Edition of D&D that I will enjoy? I do not. There is a simple and abiding reason why I will never buy any wizards product again unless it has been vetted by those who worked on the editions I liked, and that is this: Wizards of the Coast is a company that set out to make money. The people who worked at TSR did it for the love of the game.

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