Monday, August 11, 2014

D&D Retrospective: The Edition Wars

I haven't been updating the blog because of health issues that have been pretty soundly thrashing me, in case anyone was wondering.  I usually try to get these things written up ahead of time as well.  But enough of that.

Since Dungeons and Dragons is relaunching on August 18th, I figured I'd write a few retrospective type articles about it.  Well, retrospective in the sense of looking how the game has evolved over the years, anyway.  Now, I'm not old enough to have been in at the beginning of the game, which emerged in 1974 with a collection of small booklets in a portfolio.  I don't have this edition of the game, even though Wizards of the Coast released a collector's edition of it last year.  But let's talk about the various editions of D&D.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 1st Edition (1977-1989)

The first edition of the AD&D rules started in 1977 with the publication of the Monster Manual.  It may seem slightly odd to start a game off with a collection of monsters, but as Gygax explains, it's a lot easier to work on a bunch of individual entries a little at a time than collate and edit together all your notes on how the rules work.  So the Monster Manual came out first, followed by the Player's Handbook in 1978, and finally the Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979.  Quite a different release pattern compared to today, where people are complaining about the latest edition being released over three months

What amuses me most is the advice Gary Gygax gives in the book about arguing with the Dungeon Master.  Besides the authoritarian DON'T, he points out that if you're arguing with the DM a lot, you should probably find a different AD&D campaign to play in, maybe even start up your own.  The whole passage is pretty enlightening, since it outright states something that can take gamers many years to figure out for themselves.  I'll let the man speak for himself here:

"You, the reader, as a member of the campaign community, do not belong if the game seems wrong in any major aspect.  Withdraw and begin your own campaign by creating a milieu which suits you and the group which you must form to enjoy the creation. (And perhaps you will find that preparation of your own milieu creates a bit more sympathy for the efforts of the offending referee...)" - Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook, 1978

But I'm diverging from what I wanted to write about.  The thing about AD&D 1e is that Gygax admits in his introduction that he collected together all his notes on how things worked and put them into something relatively coherent.  The books read like a collection of organized notes, unfortunately.  Reading between the lines and taking into account the release order, it seems that 1st edition AD&D was written for people who already knew what RPGs were and how to play D&D/AD&D specifically.  A good deal of assumptions were simply not written out in the system; specifically how play was to proceed.

In other words, when you see that the title pages of the books include the words "Special Reference Work", that was not a joke.  The books are seriously meant to be reference books for specific things, not an instructional work on how to play.  The AD&D 1e books are literally what they say up front: a compilation of rules.  Which makes them extremely difficult for modern readers who are unfamiliar with the conventions of era to read.  Subsequent editions fixed this to varying degrees, thankfully.

(As a side note, I love how Mike Carr's foreword in the PHB refers to the 'sheer bulk' of the book.  I mean, certainly it was large compared to what came before, but modern gamers read that and laugh at the notion of a 128 page book being huge and bulky.)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition (1989-2000)

By the time 2nd Edition came out, Gary Gygax had been ousted (or given the boot, depending on who is telling the story) from TSR and David "Zeb" Cook was put in charge of the rules for 2nd Edition.  The strangest thing about AD&D 2e is that I encounter equal amounts of hate and love for the system.  I'll admit I played it a lot and found it confusing during my teenage years, and yet as an adult I find myself greatly appreciating the sheer simplicity of it compared to 3rd and 4th edition.  Many of the rules that I've heard people complain about as being needlessly complex are actually marked optional in the core rulebooks.  To Hit Armor Class 0 is a bug-bear of the system, but I feel it is explained very poorly in the rules and the actual math behind it is stupid simple (I add the target's AC to the attack roll before comparing the result to the THAC0).

The primary problem I have with 2nd Edition now, as opposed to when I was a arrogant know-it-all teen in the 90's, is that the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are organized in bizarre ways.  There are three different areas a player has to look up in the PHB in order to find out what benefits they get when they level.  The spells are organized by type (mage or priest), then by spell level, and finally alphabetically, making it a chore to find any of the spells.  Otherwise the game plays just fine, if slightly brutal on the player characters.  I seriously wish the Old School Revival guys would grab 2nd Edition and mangle it into a more organized form.

Second Edition had a major revision in 1995, which the editor prefaces by saying This is NOT Third Edition!  Seriously, with the bold red letters and all.  It's explained that the reason for the revised edition is they wanted a new trade dress (how the books look) and went ahead and incorporated all the errata and rules clarifications.  The books were in glorious full color now, instead of a very basic black and white with blue accents.  Having looked at both the original 2e and the revised version, I'm hard pressed to notice many differences, though I admit it is because I am not super familiar with the earlier version.

EDIT: I am told that the 1995 rulebooks were not the major revision.  The major revision known as 2.5 is actually a collection of supplemental books that brought out optional rules, such as one called Skills & Powers, which expanded the non-weapon proficiency system and updates the psionics system.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that some of the fan favorite campaign settings came out during the reign of 2nd Edition.  For me, Planescape was simply the most brilliant thing to come out of TSR.  The way the artwork and writing combined to create this vast atmospheric multiverse from what came before... I'm not sure any other RPG has come close to capturing that same crown.  The Dark Sun setting is a close second, in my humble opinion, because it too was full of atmosphere and was vastly different from the run-of-the-mill fantasy settings we'd seen thus far from TSR.

Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition (2000-2008)

For reasons I'll discuss in a different post, Wizards of the Coast (who had bought out TSR in 1997) dropped the 'Advanced' part out of the game's title and released it as Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.  The game was vastly different from what came before, snatching concepts from AD&D and the Basic D&D game (which is a whole post in itself) and putting in new ideas accumulated from the last twenty-six years of thoughts on game design.  The biggest change, the thing that blew my mind when I first got my hands on the Player's Handbook and read it, was the idea of a Unified Task Resolution System.

In more normal terms, that means that to do things in the game, you don't have to remember different mechanics.  You see, in 2nd Edition, attack rolls and skill rolls used two different mechanics.  Attack rolls were 1d20 plus some modifiers against a target number, higher being better.  Skills, on the other hand, meant you rolled 1d20 and wanted to roll under your target number.  In 3rd Edition,  these two things worked the same way: roll a twenty-sided die, add some modifiers, meet or beat your target number to succeed.  Most of what you have to remember are which modifiers are applicable and what happens if you succeed or fail.

Also making a debut in 3rd edition was the notion of a unified character advancement table.  In previous editions, each class or group of classes had its own experience point requirements to level.  In 3rd edition, all the classes advanced at the same experience point thresholds.  Which streamlines advancement but creates other problems.  Because prior editions did not hold all classes to be equal and the varying experience point requirements were a major balancing point between said classes.  A character with 2,000 XP in 2nd Edition was a 1st level Wizard or a 2nd level Fighter.  In 3rd Edition, 2,000 XP means you're a 2nd level character, period.  Quite a difference when you consider what a Wizard can end up doing compared to the Fighter.

In 2003, 3rd Edition got an overhaul, called 3.5.  There were a lot of subtle changes, many things altered for the sake of clarity.  There was also lots of complaining about having to buy new books so soon after the edition was released.  But overall, the changes were solid, even if the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide got reorganized and was more difficult to use as a consequence.

Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (2008-2014)

4th Edition was to 3rd Edition what 3rd Edition was to 2nd Edition; a very big change in the way things worked.  The game required miniatures, or at least some tokens and a 1" grid to play on.  It so heavily relied on maps and combat that it was more board game than role-playing game.  There was much gnashing of teeth and many cries of "If I wanted to play World of Warcraft instead of D&D, I would play World of Warcraft!".  Which... is a really dumb thing to say because video games and tabletop RPGs have been influencing each other since damn near the dawn of video games, but I digress.

The point is that 4th Edition was quite different in how it played, even if it was a streamlined version of 3rd Edition and sacrificed all the interesting crusty bits of D&D at the altar of balance.  This sacrifice of everything for the sake of balance made all the player classes and characters feel very much all painted with the same brush and color when the game launched.  All the classes blurred together and looked very similar to other classes that fill the same 'role' within the game.  It changed as time went on, but the damage had been done, as most people saw it as a blatant attempt to pander to the MMORPG crowd or a blatant attempt to sell more books by releasing a game system that was incomplete from launch.

This isn't to say that 4th Edition was completely awful; it works wonderfully as a tactical board game.  It just doesn't work all that well as an RPG unless the DM seriously derails the system.  My game group and I both gave it a good solid year of play before we decided it wasn't doing the things we wanted out of an RPG.  At a certain point, Wizards of the Coast simply stopped publishing the game, instead focusing on a series of reprints of older editions of D&D.

Interestingly enough, two cooperative board games came out based on the 4th Edition mechanics: Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon.  Having played both of them, I can tell you that they are challenging and very unforgiving of mistakes.

Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition (2014-????)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons is flattering their top dog rival, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.  This edition of D&D started life with a world-wide open play-test under the name D&D Next in 2012, just as the Pathfinder RPG started with a world-wide open beta circa 2008.  Like the PFRPG did when it started, this new D&D has an uphill battle against an entrenched opponent with legions of fans and a very strong market presence.  The irony being that D&D used to be that entrenched opponent with legions of fans and a very strong market presence; D&D 4E lost the Edition War to Pathfinder RPG.

In terms of mechanics, we only have three things to go on so far; none of which present a one hundred percent complete game.  There is the Starter Set, which is bare bones with an adventure and some dice packed in.  There is the Basic Rules, which contain enough rules to generate characters and the stuff pertaining to characters, is available for free as a PDF, and will be updated to include monsters and magic items sometime soon.  And then there's the Player's Handbook, which is released world-wide on August 18th... unless you're like me and have a Wizard Play Network store and got it on August 8th.

Mike Mearls is the man in charge of 5th Edition, and must really be the head of some kind of wizard cabal, possibly on the coast somewhere (a bad joke, I know).  I say this because 5th Edition reads like somebody took 3rd Edition's unified mechanics and magically blended them with bits of other editions of D&D.  One of the things you might notice is the lack of lists of modifiers to remember; for the most part these have been replaced by advantage and disadvantage.  So far, I like what I see, especially since I'll admit I'm burnt out on Pathfinder and its like.

But, the edition is young, and much needs to be seen to understand its mysteries.