Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Life's Tour Through Dungeons & Dragons, Part 2.

(This is the second part of my tour through all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons I have played. The first part can be found here.)

After many years of playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the unthinkable happened. A whole new version came out. Everything was different. Our minds were truly blow. "Remake all of D&D? Is that even possible?"

Turns out, it was.

Second Edition (1989)

Second Edition took fifteen years of hard-earned design experience with RPGs and used it to round off all of the rough edges in the system. It still basically played like First Edition, but with less insanity. A wimpy giant spider could no longer instantly kill you with poison. Undead didn't drain levels permanently. Freshly minted wizards could now cast an amazing TWO spells per day. That's twice as many as before!!!

However, the combat system was still very vague. If you had someone in your group who had never played before, you could give them a Fighter to play. All they had to do in combat was pick up their figurine, plop it down next to a monster, and roll a die to attack. If the dungeon master said they hit, they picked up a different die, rolled it, and said the amount of damage. And that was it.

It is this potential simplicity (playing other classes was more complicated) that I miss most about the old game. There was a simple way to play. There isn't one anymore. Considering D&D was mainly played by groups of friends getting together for a relaxing evening, perhaps with a drink or two, this is an enormous loss.

I'm going to make an Official Proclamation now:

If a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have an option which enables it to be easily played by a moderately inebriated person who isn't good at math, it is a failure.

Second Edition was, while still flawed, my favorite version. Then Designers got their hands on it and started, you know, Designing. God help us.

Third Edition (2000)

Never played it. Too busy with babies.

Version 3.5 (2003)

Never played it. Also, Point Five? It's enough of a change to buy new books, but not enough to be a full upgrade? Isn't that a little fishy?

Fourth Edition (aka 4E, 2008)

And then, after an absence of over a decade, I returned to D&D, only to find that the universe has completely changed. People say that Fourth Edition is trying to copy World of Warcraft, but, to be honest, I don't see it. I really don't. Instead, it feels like the hardcore wargames I played way back when I started gaming. With all the good and bad that comes with it.

It's very detailed and tactical. Everything has been formalized. Nothing is left to chance. Every movement, every action, even the act of role-playing, has been codified and given its own rule-set. It's Dungeons and Dragons and Control Freaks.

Old gamers have a reputation for only loving the version of D&D they grew up with and hating everything else, but I went into 4E determined to enjoy it. I played in a single campaign of it for over a year and had really quite a lot of fun. Dense rules? Piles of cards and abilities to keep track of? Tons of algebra? My brain was made to handle this stuff. It was great. For a while.

But if I had to come up with one word to describe the rules of 4E, it would be "undisciplined." Sure, it's a solid system, and every little thing is covered in the rules. However, there is too much going on for people to actually keep track of what is going on. The longer you play, the more cards pile up. The more abilities accumulate. The more things you have to keep track of with every single attack and damage roll.

Every single action seems to result in an effect like, "Everyone gets +1 to hit to attack the target next round, if they attack with a missile weapon, and the target is bloodied, and it is Tuesday." It gets maddening.

The last night of the campaign I played in, we were seventh level. At that point, we had three people keeping track of the state of play. The dungeon master took care of the monster actions. I kept track of initiative and effects on players. Another player kept track of effects on monsters. And even with three adult, lifelong gamers riding herd on the game, we STILL forgot stuff. All the time. Then we quit.

And teaching regular humans to play this stuff? Forget it!

I know there are many who will virulently disagree with this analysis, for whom 4E is the One True D&D. And, before you tear me apart in the comments, I will only say this. 4E has only been out a little over three years, and they have already announced another complete redesign. Don't say it's just for money ... They could make a mint releasing expansions, dungeons, campaign settings, etc. I think that already tearing everything up and starting over is a de facto admission that the design just wasn't working.

A Brief Aside and Unwanted Design Advice

A friend of mine was applying for a marketing job as Wizards of the Coast. To help her prepare, I ran a one night 4E game for her and her friends. I DM'ed a game for six women, as my daughters watched and wished they could play. It was the dream of a lifetime, come true.

However, these women were, while bright, social, and eager, not lifelong gamer nerds. Trying to teach them D&D was a fascinating experience. Based on what we went through, here is my one piece of unasked-for advice for the team designing Fifth Edition:

Whenever you write a new rule, picture a young man trying to explain it to his willing but non-gamer girlfriend, whom he has finally convinced to try out his hobby. Hell, try to explain the rule to one of your parents. If the most likely result is a confused look and glazed-over stare, just make the damn thing simpler already.

I can't say it's possible to make D&D a more mainstream hobby again. It may not be. But, if it is possible, this is the path.

What I Want, For Anyone Who Cares

For me, D&D is a chance to sit around with friends, toss back some Maker's Mark, shoot the breeze, and occasionally bounce dice and kill some bad guys. It's a social game. The more time you spend re-explaining rules and poring through huge books to try to figure out if you can charge on a triggered action, the less time you spend just relaxing with your friends.

So, kids, if you ever wonder why old folks get all nostalgic for the old rule sets, it's because, as crude and poorly designed as they were (and don't get me started on the art), they were aiming at a specific sort of play experience (loose, fast, casual), and they delivered it.

I want to teach my kids how to play D&D. I could teach them how to play Second Edition. 4E, not a chance. That makes me genuinely sad.

In ten years, when I actually have time to play again, I'm really looking forward to seeing what Eighth Edition looks like. It'll be fascinating. And, if it doesn't work for me, I still have all my old books in the basement, waiting for the End Times.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Four Things To End the Week.


I have a big article about the indie games biz up on Gamasutra. I'm quite happy with how it turned out. Enjoy!


Everyone all justifiably atwitter about how Tim Schafer raised upwards of one million dollars on Kickstarter to make a new adventure game. It's a great proof-of-concept for the whole publicly funded game thing. If Tim Schafer couldn't pull in some coin to make an adventure game, nothing else has a chance.

I think it's brilliant, and it ties well into what I said in my Gamasutra article. The secret power of indie devs is to exploit underserved niches. Expect other Kickstarter-funded games in future. I only hope the results match the expectations.


Heaven forbid that I should be thought to criticize Notch or Minecraft. (I won't even point out that the whole end boss/enchantment/potion/combat system is taking the game in entirely the wrong direction to please exactly the wrong group of people.)

But, about this.

Hey, I wouldn't presume to give them advice. But, after I make my 30 million dollars, I'm not going to rely on Anonymous to finish my games for me. Just sayin'.


Every once in a while, I read someone's critique of OK Go as a band, focusing on the fact that they basically fine and only have one decent single. (Don't click that link. You've seen it already.) But that misses the point. They aren't a band. They're much more interesting than that. They're a meme-generation factory, and really good at it.

So here is my legally mandated one link a year to an OK Go video. Yeah, like you have something better to do with three minutes and fifty-four seconds.

Look for my next link to them in roughly fifteen months, when they play some pleasant and non-threatening power pop by shooting kittens out of a cannon into steel drums, or whatever.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Life's Tour Through Dungeons & Dragons, Part 1.

I will never, ever forget that day in fourth grade. It was recess, and, as all the other kids ran outside to play, a few of the boys pulled out sheets of paper, some odd-looking dice, and a thin blue book with a dragon on the cover. I asked what they were playing. Something called Dungeons & Dragons. I asked if they would teach me. They said yes.

It was at that moment, to borrow a phrase from Stephen King, that I put my hands on the lever of my destiny and began to push.

(You may expect a self-deprecating joke at this point, something about how I played it until I discovered girls, or something like that. If you expect any signs of shame in my D&D obsession, you have come to the wrong damn blog. And I only dated girls who enjoyed playing the game with me, thank you very much.)

I almost never play tabletop RPGs anymore. I would like to, and my friends have been nagging me to run a game for years. But adult life, especially when you are a parent, is merciless. Happily, I will someday be retired, and then I can run all the campaigns I want for any D&D fans who are still alive.

The recent announcement that they were starting work on 5th edition D&D made me think back happily on all the different flavors of the game along the way. Come! Join me on a little tour through Back In the Day ...

Dungeons & Dragons (White Box Edition, 1974)

Never played it, as I was practically an embryo. I have read the rules, though, and they read like they were dictated during a fever dream.

First Edition (1977)

Which is to say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as opposed to the Basic Set, or the Expert set. Things got a little confused back then.

Old people like me look back with great nostalgia on early D&D. This is the version I've spent the most hours playing, and remembering how exciting and new it was tends to make us forget the problems the game had.

Enormous, epic problems, caused by the fact that its creators didn't have decades of RPG design to draw from. Don't be fooled by the mutterings of the grognards. First Edition was only playable with piles of house rules and plenty of spit and duct tape. Everything about it was rough.

What was wrong? Where to begin… how about that new wizard characters (called "magic users," in a glorious lack of poetry) could only cast one spell a day. These players spent the rest of their time running to the store to get chips and Coke for the kids who were actually doing things.

Or how, when a poisonous monster bit you, you had to roll a high number or your character just died. What? You rolled a 7 instead of a 12? That's it for you. It must suck to be such a terrible player.

Or how most undead, when they hit you, drained your levels away permanently. It was as dreadful as it sounds.

It was, in gamer-speak, super hardcore. And you know something? Sometimes I miss it. You were genuinely scared of monsters back in those days. It was exciting. And, now that I think about it, characters should die more often. It makes things more exciting, and you get to try lots of different classes.

In the end, after years of play and feedback, it was clear that much had been learned and that the rules should lead to a lot more fun. Thus, Second Edition.

(To be continued in the next post.)