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.


  1. I think a good way to have fun with friends and keep it simple is to use ONE BOOK. This book is... Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991). Yes, it's "basic" dnd, not "advanced" but the rule book collects pretty much ALL the rules you need. Everything is in there. You get to keep it simple instead of faffing about with multiple manuals. And if there's something you need that's not in the book? Make it up- that's the spirit of dnd.

  2. Totally agree.

    I'm a guy around 30. Lots of Computer RPG experience, finally got to try out D&D tabletop in the DND Encounters program. I quit for some other reasons, but my overall impression of the system was good, EXCEPT FOR what you outline above which sorta killed my experience.

    "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."

    It's so true. It killed any will to make a character with any complexity, because basically, I knew that all the little buffs and bonuses and group stuff I was going to be doing would be simply _forgotten_, and therefore almost any character I made that would effectively be a straight up "i run to the monster and hit it" or "i direct heal this person for X and disregard the little ongoing effect".

    Killed a lot of the tactics for me, which was obviously the emphasis.

    Seemed to be designed as a system to make Computer RPGs, but no human DM & players could truly keep track of all the details and actually have a good time.

  3. My friends and I had a phase where we played Shadowrun. We figured out pretty early on that the secret to making Shadowrun awesome was to completely ignore the hideous combat system and just free-ball the whole thing. We were way too young to drink (and many of us are currently straight edge, somehow), but it might have been *even better* drunk.

    In other words, I agree with the end of your article.

  4. 3.5 and derived systems (e.g.) Pathfinder are the top for me right now. There are super complex player progressions and also much simpler ones that can play together.

    AD&D DID have permanent level drain. You could not just park a fighter next to a creature and hit it. THAC0/AC tables, anyone? Different damage dice for different sized creatures? Weird XP scaling factors for race/class combos and other character choices? Completely different mechanics for attacks, saving throws, skill checks, etc.? MFing dual classing? Ugh, no thanks.

    3.0 and 3.5 changed the mechanic completely to d20 + bonus for high target for almost everything in the game. Super easy - this is the version my wife started playing with me on, and compared to her experience picking up 4E much better.

    I know you don't have the 3.0/3.5 experience, but come on, you ARE looking back at AD&D with rose colored glasses. 3.0/3.5 are much, much easier.

  5. Jeff - I love reading your thoughts on this. I still remember loving D&D as a kid (started playing the basic set in the early 80s when I was 8 or 9). I remember reading Gary Gygax explaining in Dragon Magazine how he wanted to consolidate the myriad rulebooks and errata from Dragon or Chainmail back into three books. That was the genesis of 2nd edition. I think 2nd edition ultimately drove me away because of all of the splatbooks. Every time they do a new edition they start out tryin to make it balanced, but then turn it into a Monty Haul game where the players who want to shell out for the most rulebooks get the most powerful characters. I think if they can get it back to one basic rulebook and basic set of mechanics it can be more fun again.

    Like most adults logistics keep me from playing more than anything. I don't have time to get together with friends regularly for gaming, nevermind time to keep up with new rulesets. The more they can simplify that the better chance they have of growing the hobby again.

    That and game balance. Nothing sucks more than a game in which the minmaxer does everything and the RPers are useless.

  6. As I'm sure you are aware, D+D isn't the only game in town. When I was about 13 (I'm now 40) our group switched from AD+D to Runequest and Traveller. Both of which have simpler and more consistent combat rules IMO.

    I'm guessing the new D+D is influenced by 'Magic' card game style combat which uses lots of stacked modifiers. If you want really simple you could always buy an old copy of 'Tunnels and Trolls' :)

  7. I said this in the last thread, but 2nd edition is my least favorite. I agree with you that I like math-light systems that can be played while impaired. I also like math-focused (not heavy, but well-designed) systems like Hero or 3e. What I don't like is crappy transitional systems that are in-between but are good at neither. And that is what 2nd edition is to me.

  8. I'd agree with excartographer: I haven't tried 4th, but 3.0/3.5 seemed to me to clean up an awful lot of the mess from the 1st and 2nd editions. I'd even toyed with an in-house rules mod that would allow you cut out most of the dice-rolling. (Some of my friends were phobic about too many dice and charts.)

  9. For a trip down memory lane:!

  10. I have to suggest Savage Worlds. Because this is the internet and someone is a relevant fanboy.

    The rulebook is one book. Skills are broad. "Shooting" skill covers all ranged combat, whether it's crossbows, regular bows, muskets, assault rifles, or laser guns. You hit a regular foe, it's either fine, stunned, or dead.

    It's generic pulp roleplay, and I find it does most of what I ever wanted out of D&D faster and easier. 'course, the designer was a bit of a grognard who realized there was a market for people who, like him, suddenly had kids, jobs, and no free time.

    At a convention, the maker was doing a demo for their high seas setting, and the group did include the child of one of the players. Kid was a darned good actor, and not the most immature person I've sat a table with. Figure any ruleset grasped by a hyperactive 8-10 yr old may be adequately streamlined. ;)

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  14. @exocartographer Thac0 didn't need a table. That was the whole point of Thac0. It was basically the same as 3E but with subtraction.

    2E: Hit if (die roll + to-hit bonuses) >= (Thac0 - AC)
    3E: Hit if (die roll + to-hit bonuses) >= AC

    Unless you're talking about the "I just leveled up, what's my new Thac0?" table. But that's no different than the "I just leveled up, what's my new BAB?" table.

  15. Also, one thing I really liked about the older versions was specifically that they did use different mechanics for different things (attacks being different than turning being different than saving throws, etc). It made it incredibly modular and easy to remove, replace, or tweak the bits you didn't like. 3E and 4E are harder to do that in since it's all so inter-connected.

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  19. I believe a system of a rpg should be abstract yet full. The more accurate it is, the more details it has and the more you will struggle.

    Simple systems such as Traveller, can pack a lot of dense, logical and unified action in very, simple ruling (excluding the initiative shift). And it stays the same the whole game, even when the characters are progressing.

    And it is a 2d6 system.

    RPG game designers should learn from that (aside from the strange explanation of rules though, lol).

    Eclipse phase, although pretty detailed system, still manages to get a whole lot of their audience.

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  21. I say check out Pathfinder. It's more interesting than 4e, and can be seasoned to taste re: complexity (at least by my way of thinking). I may be biased- I started in 3.0 (came to RPGs via Exile 1, by the way) and made the transition to 3.5 and tried 4e (and had the same problems with it you have, seems like). I have dabbled in 2e too, but it always struck me as too... varied, I guess. Too many different systems competing.

    The 3.0 to 3.5 seems fishy to a lot of people, but I always felt like it was necessary. They clung too closely to 2e with 3.0, not taking advantage of a lot of the system changes- classes were universally pretty bland initially, and 3.5 made steps to change it. Pathfinder is even better in that regard, and has more flavorful options.

    Pathfinder also has the benefit of being entirely available for free (legally, even!):

  22. There's also Castles & Crusades. You can find the quick-start player's guide here:

    I've recently discovered it. It's all of the rules-lite of D&D/AD&D that we played as kids but with a very simple unified mechanic for resolution based on your ability scores.

    Basically, AD&D 2E with some modern game design stuff.

    Converting from old material? Here's how you do it: A monster's AC is 20 minus what's printed. So what was once an AC 6 is now an AC 14.

    Done! Everything else converts as-is just fine... hit points, damage dice, XP, etc.

    As for "creds", it's the old-school D&D clone that Gary Gygax endorsed.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Everything I read about new versions of AD&D lead me to think that every designer needs to sit down and read the entire HoL (Human Occupied Landfill) rulebook and play through a game of that. It may be my personal bias because I went to school with some of the creators, but it seems that they nailed the backlash sentiments to the structure, complexity, and entirely too serious nature that came to dominate PnP RPG play from the early 90's forward. I think it's still in print through some publisher, somewhere, and if you haven't seen it before, you should check it out. Great blog btw. Your interests and humor align very much with my own.

  25. I loved 3.5. Seriously, liked it more then others before and since. A good balance between simplicity and complexity imo. And the computer adaptions like DDO, Baldur's Gate, NWN were all very fun. You should give 3.5 a try.
    The d20 system stuff in general was pretty good.
    You can house rule lots of stuff in to make things more interesting and challenging, as well as creating new uses for neglected ability scores quite easily.

  26. I've followed you for a very long time, first time commenting.

    Have to say that if you missed 3rd edition / 35 you have seriously missed out on the best D&D edition of all time (speaking as someone who started with 2nd edition)

    Ignore the online min-maxers, I have never met / played with one IRL. When played normally 3rd edition is the greatest RPG system I have ever played. I seriously recommend you give it a whirl.

  27. I'd just like to comment that I started at the beginning and played each version untill I settled on 3.5. It's not perfect in many ways, but run correctly it is a real joy to play. Like some have said, it cleaned up the earlier rules into a relatively simple ruleset, which still flexible. 4 was horrendous for me as it became more of a tactical battle game than a roleplay game.

    I want to play a unique character who i can really "get into". I don't want to be shoe-horned into a set role like tank, healer etc.

    For me that's the key to good rpgs, rules which help tell a story, and remember that "roleplaying" games, should be about playing the role of your character, not playing the role of the party tank. You might be the party tank, but you are your character first, the tank second.


    Haven't played it yet, but it seems like just about the simplest system that still feels crunchy enough.

  29. I've played 2E, 3E, and 3.5E... 2E was... clunky to me, had fun with it. 3E was great, streamlined enough but allowing you to go down all sorts of routes to customize your character how you wanted. 3.5 was a pretty big upgrade, but really just boiled down to fixing some pretty big ways to cheat the system. But my true love is pretty heavily houseruled Rifts. What can I say, I'm a technophile at heart....

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