Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Game Divided Against Itself

There has been a lot of news on the 'net about the Next Iteration of D&D (WotC is not calling it 5E, even if the media and fans are, and I will support this view for as long a I feel like it). The coverage has been interesting, but one thing I've seen a lot of is that the legendary Edition Wars of 4E/Essentials versus 3/3.5/Pathfinder have "split the hobby".

To which I have to say - this is news?

Most of D&D's lifespan has consisted of D&D product competing against itself, usually (but not always) against other D&D product produced by TSR/WotC competing against itself. Here's a partial listing that comes to mind of the story so far:

Original D&D versus the various Basic Sets. What is now called Original D&D (the little books in the little woodgrain or white boxes) originally showed up in hobby stores and mimed miniature rules of that era in format, presentation, and structure. The various early Basic Sets (later subdivided as Holmes, Moldvay Basic, Basic/Expert) were flat boxes with more frontage, but started out with a limited number of levels (introductory crippleware, if you prefer). Those who were weaned on (O) D&D were a bit skeptical of these new kids with their easier-to-understand, more mass-market game (something you're going to see many times here). Only the extinction of that OD&D caused them to move on, and then to AD&D (see below).

D&D versus other FRPs - The  Success of D&D brought about a small host of Fantasy RPG competitors, but let's keep this to the obvious D&D knockoffs. Some of these were attempts to improve/fix/expand the game game (Arduin Grimoire) comes to mind, while others were more about cashing in. The most notable of these were Mayfair's roleaids series, which not only used the D&D rules, but (through reasons I'm not sure of - I wasn't there at the start, but got sucked in over the years), could continue to do so, as long as they put something on the cover saying that TSR did not approve of them using those rules. Sort of a Bizarro license - they were allowed to publish, as long as it was clear the licensor had nothing to do with it. Some were good, many were bad, some were adventures written for conventions. Minor, but this continued into the 90s.

D&D versus AD&D - Most people know of the split between the Arneson/Gygax D&D and the Gygax only AD&D, which again, had its roots before I got to the company. For most of my (O)D&D gang, we made the switch over the two years of release of AD&D. D&D, at one point, was planned to be opened up into a wah-hoo over-the-top game (One of the older artists hit me up at a convention and wanted to know if I had known about it when I did Spelljammer). As it turned out, the version of D&D known as BECMI (Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters/Immortals) produced a steady expansion of rules into high-level play, an excellent one-volume Rules Cyclopedia, and a well-organized campaign setting called the Known World but eventually renamed as Mystara.

AD&D (1st Edition) versus AD&D (2nd Edition) - This split is not nearly as bad as you would think, in part because we made the case when we released 2nd Edition AD&D was more of a collection of "stuff that worked" from 1st edition, and existed in part to reduce the entire weight of what we were covering. (I joked at the time about how you needed your official AD&D fork lift to haul the stuff around. How little I knew then ...) Stuff went away and other tweaks showed up, but it was a relatively smooth transition. There were those who preferred 1st edition AD&D, but in those early Internet days, the conflicts between the two editions were minor.

AD&D 2 versus (AD&D Multitude of Worlds) - This is hailed as being a horrible, horrible thing by modern conventional thought, in that creating all these worlds thereby created too much choice, and spawned all of these smaller worlds that demanded attention and brought back limited results. Yet for a while, AD&D ruled the roost bycapturing and dominating shelf space and player mind-share. This was a time of the "Flavors of Fantasy" ruled the roost, and TSR attempted to be all things to all gamers by providing options. Looking back on this, I think it was a good move, and I learned a few things (but which merit a completely different post).
AD&D (1st/2nd Edition) versus D&D (3rd Edition) - This was a major break, the transition made easier by a change of management (and location) and a willingness and ability of the new guys to pillory the previous editions (Most of all the revised 2nd Ed of its later years). Those following previous editions were simply ignored for the new shiny, the idea being that if it was cool enough the old grogs would come back to the fold. The business plan did not care, to quote one executive 3rd". "If any player of 2nd Edition came over to 3rd.". We had T-shirts made mocking 2nd Edition weaknesses. And it was successful.

D&D 3rd Edition versus the OGL - The OGL, short for Open Gaming License, kicked off a glut of games from other publishers using the D&D Engine. Originally one of the in-house selling points for the OGL was that the smaller companies would pick up the small stuff - adventure modules and support product that would be of marginal profitability. What happened, of course, was that third parties launched full-fledged into hardbacks and full product lines, without the benefits of scale that a larger publisher provided.  Note that while having a huge host of competing campaign settings and rules was a BAD thing for 2nd Edition, it was just dandy when those settings and rules were published by others. No, I don't get that logic, either.

D&D 4th Edition versus (3rd/3.5/Pathfinder) And this is the huggamugga you've heard about, the most recent of the splits, the great Edition Wars. 4E in many ways tried to launch the same way 3E did, but the fan base wasn't going to have it (making fun of the involuted 3E grappling rules didn't win any allies, even if it was true (and hilarious)). And furthermore, with the OGL, they could still have new products not controlled by the company holding the D&D name. As a result, D&D is supposedly broken between them. People playing different games with the same name is a problem.

And it may only be solved by (wait for it) a new edition.

Looking at the listing of the various internal conflicts above, I have come to the conclusion that D&D has always had self-created, often internal competition, and that this is a feature of the game, not a bug. And furthermore, it is a good thing. It creates a robust environment that can bring in new ideas. (Remember THAC0? That wasn't an in-house thing, but rather came from tournament games that needed to quickly figure its to-hit numbers). It allows for flavors of fantasy that reach out to many different styles of play. It provided growth and evolution of the game over time. And it allows the game to reach out to new generations through that growth, and those new players to take "their" version of the game to heart, as they know it is superior to all that has come before, and all that is to follow.

And those are good things, all in all.

More later,