Thursday, April 12, 2012

Left Behind

As I feel as though I've had an inordinate amount of fiction recently (most of it not even medieval!) so I've thought long and hard about something gaming related to talk about. What I've hit upon today is that very thing which drove me to write this blog in the first place. I feel like there is a certain sector of the pen and paper population that's being driven away by Wizards and their marketing strategies, of which game design plays a large part.

I first articulated this feeling in a letter to Wizards nearly a year ago now. The purpose of the letter was to ask for permission to use the trademark AD&D freely within the now-defunct Grognard magazine to which, of course, Wizards refused. The efforts of people like Mearls to "unite" the apparently warring factions of D&D players now sheds some light on their refusal; they themselves are trying to draw people back to the fold who have long since been left behind. I fear they will never draw me back, though, and that is what I want to talk about.

What exactly is it that drove me from the loving arms of the corporate world of D&D? Steve Winter has discussed the poisonous release cycle espoused by Wizards, but that's not the core of the issue. It has exacerbated my problems with the alterations that have been made to Dungeons and Dragons over the past several editions, but the problems themselves come not from the dangerous re-iteration and reshaping of core ideas simply to wring a buck out of the D&D crowd, but rather from the exact direction they have taken.

That direction is simply this: Dungeons and Dragons has become less like the fantasy I want to run and experience. The baseline of D&D has shifted from my fondest days (AD&D 2e, of course) away from the grim fantasy I love and towards flashy action-fantasy. We are told in the most modern iterations of D&D that things like monster ecologies are a waste of valuable ink; they never become relevant, so we do not need to trouble ourselves with them. This is the very attitude that wrongheadedly informs the new iterations of D&D over and over. But why?

I believe I have an answer, or at least part of an answer, and that is demographics. Dungeons and Dragons became arcane and obscure as it aged through the 80s, the secret horde of cackling Dungeon Masters and a special breed of intelligentsia. It grew from wargaming, and was always at its heart meant to be played by people who were in college or who had graduated college. It included things like charts, tables, and (gasp!) math more complex than simple addition. It began with a do-it-yourself quality of devoted players who created the system around them in order to deal with problems as they arose.

The D&D of today isn't like that. It is open, accessible, and cool. Wizards of the Coast has experience marketing to teenagers, as its massive bread and butter operation (Magic: the Gathering) has always been geared towards a younger crowd than D&D. Not to say that Magic is juvenile, but its marketing platform has long been one of sleek designs and action-oriented artwork.

This mentality has infected the heart of the new D&D. It's entire existence is an attempt to draw in younger players and thus to dilute the most complex elements of the game (the simulationist elements, as GNS would have it) because they aren't sexy or easily marketable. The game has fallen prey to a larger marketing strategy; what should have been an attempt to sell a more complex game has instead become neutering of a more complex game to get it to sell. Design has been suborned to marketing for a wider demographic.

There's always a risk in attempting to educate a marketing demographic, that is to present them with a more complex product that has more options. The cowards path is to change the product rather than to change the marketing to meet the task. I fear that's what has become of my beloved Dungeons and Dragons and, in the course of that transformation, this new sleeker style has been mistaken not as a type of presentation but as a genre of fantasy; Dungeonpunk, I'd call it, representing less the considered and sober fantasies that perhaps I wanted. The lack of verisimilitude (or even the attempt to achieve it) smacks of marketing to me, all flash and no substance.

At the end of the day, I tend to compare editions of Dungeons and Dragons to food. Third and Fourth Edition are, in my opinion, candyfloss. They're a desert. They can be fun, but are essentially without substance. That is why I will always return to a more meaty meal to satisfy me: AD&D.

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