Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dungeons & Dragons & Decisions

So the world's oldest roleplaying game is at a major branching point in its evolution, these days. As anybody who's likely to be interested has already heard, the 4th edition of the game is coming out damned soon (June, apparently), and the whole fanbase has been in the expected uproar since it was announced (several months ago). We've received quite a lot of information about the new game, and it's been by turns tantalizing, discouraging, divisive, and intriguing.

All of this, of course, is completely expected. The game's been through a bunch of different revisions over the years (if we're being honest, it's really had a few more than four editions), and there'd been rumors of a new one on the way well before it was actually announced. But there's one thing that makes this revision qualitatively different from previous ones: the Open Gaming License.

While it's extremely uncertain whether the new Dungeons & Dragons will be released under the OGL, the important thing is that the previous edition, version 3.5, was. This means that people can (and surely will) continue to legally develop and distribute new material for the old version of the game, regardless of what the game's actual owners are up to. Furthermore, new games have been (again, legally) based on D&D's system, and will continue along their own lines of evolution after the release of D&D 4.0.

To me, this is a really interesting situation, and it presents me with pretty big decision: Which branch of D&D-derived fantasy gaming will I spend my limited RPG time on?

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook v.4.0 cover
Dungeons & Dragons, 4th edition
From everything we've heard about 4e, it looks like an extremely fun, fast, and easy-to-run game with a strong focus on combat, but also some new and interesting systems for skill challenges and social conflicts. There are some places where I'd say the developers didn't really range far enough from past editions (for God's sake, they've still got armor decreasing the likelihood that you'll be hit, rather than how much you'll be hurt when you are), but I do think they've been pretty damned daring, and I'm sure it's a great game for what it's intended to do. Also, while it's still saddled with character classes, there's good reason to believe that they'll be pretty easy to hack into a more freeform system.

Thing is, I'm just slightly put off from 4e by the general ethic I'm seeing behind its development. To put it simply, it's clear the good folks at Wizards of the Coast set out to build a game rather than a simulation. I really don't want to get into the GNS Theory, here, so I'm just gonna say that there are a whole bunch of mechanics--even in the small amount of solid info that's been released so far--which just grate on my suspension of disbelief. Things like powers that let you project a divine forcefield on one character by hitting another character with your weapon. The idea is that combat is boring if you don't get to directly attack something every round, but even if that's actually true . . . damn, it's just kind of silly, isn't it?

So I dunno about D&D 4e.

Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook v.3.5 cover
Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd edition (and the d20 System in general)
You'll never hear me say that D&D 3e is a perfect game, but it is damned well serviceable. It brought me back to D&D--hell, back to RPGs in general, now that I think about it--after years away, and for every flaw I can find in the system, there are three or four brilliant fixes available on the Internet or in some third-party d20 product. And that's 3e's real strength right there: oceans upon oceans of mechanical options and additional content, much of it available for free (and much of the rest about to drop drastically in price when 4e comes out).

So I know that if I want to put in the time, I can do just about anything with D&D 3e. Also, thanks to the OGL, I'd be able to work on my homebrew projects in public without getting cease-and-desisted.

True20 cover
This is the big wildcard. True20 is a D&D derivative that's too radically different to still be a d20 game. It's flexible to the point of being genre neutral and very nearly classless. There are extremely few design decisions in the game that I disagree with, and that's an amazing accomplishment, because I am seriously never satisfied.

Its main drawback is a lack of supplemental material. There just aren't all that many True20 books out there, and the system is different enough (it doesn't even use hit points, for one thing, and the whole magic system is drastically different) that it wouldn't be easy to adapt d20 materials to it.

Vile and dangerous experiments in unholy hybridization
Of course, I've always (always) got the urge to just forget about the benefits of easily-usable supplemental materials and Frankenstein together my own system. There's a large part of me that just wants to take Dungeons & Dragons 3e, apply some 4e ideas and a generally True20-style ethic, throw in a dash of Spirit of the Century influence, and then try and convince my group to actually play the tottering monstrosity. Even now, as I sit here worrying that I'd never even manage to complete such a project, I know it's what I really want to do. There are just so many great ideas out there begging to be stolen!

...But, hell, there are such awesome things going on in the wide world of RPGs that aren't related to D&D that this whole question might be moot.


Whirly / R00kie said...

I'm not sure about D&D, 4e. I've heard a lot about it that suggests the main objective behind it is to print money. This isn't neccessarily a bad objective, but as a gamer with limited resourced I'd prefer to spend my money in an efficient fashion. When two packs of random official 4e miniatures cost more than a hardback copy of Spirit of the Century - and I can't even be sure of getting a miniature I want I begin to think Wizards don't have the players' good will in mind when they make many of their decisions.

I'm not a big d20 fan as things stand - but it does strike me we have several ways we could go.

There are several 'improved' versions of D&D3e or D&D3.5e out there. For example you could carry on playing:

Iron Heroes
Arcana Evolved
Paizo's Pathfinder RPG
or use
Monte Cook's Book of Experimental Might

Alternatively there are rule sets which have taken d20 and modified it heavily, such as

True 20
Mutants and Masterminds 2e

but recently I've begun to wonder about playing d20 at all. Its servicable, but is it good? Does it offer anything we wouldn't find in Exalted, The Shadow of Yesterday, Weapons of the Gods or Spirit of the Century beyond a more tactical approach to combat

I have D&D4e on pre-order, but I'm not excited about it. I just know that someone is going to run a 4e campaign so I may as well have the books. What is exciting me at the moment? Things like: Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, Dr Who, Starblazer Adventures, Bliss Stage and The Dresden Files RPG.

Maybe its just that my love of games has been drifting from Simulation to Story-game slowly over the last 20 years. I still have a soft spot for AD&D - but somewhere along the line I lost my love for the newer products in the D&D.

Its worth noting that the Wednesday game I am currently running used Iron Heroes, and I am getting more and more annoyed with the d20 based mechanics. At the next big break I'm going to move the game wholesale from d20 to FATE. I love the characters, the backgrounds etc and my playerare having a great time, but the mechanics are getting in the way now.



Matt Sheridan said...

Oh, man, don't I know it. All of it.

The huge array of alternative d20 systems out there is one of the major point's in D&D 3e's favor, of course. There are so many wonderful, hackable components out there I'd just love to play with. The system is so easy to mess with, and I've really got an unnatural love for tinkering with game mechanics.

As for 4e . . . well, I'm not too concerned about the price of miniatures, 'cause I'm pretty likely to just end up playing with folded up paper markers. But the focus of the game just ain't really lining up with my tastes, from the look of things. I dunno. I'll have to wait and see what I can do with it.

But, yeah, there are absolutely too many incredibly interesting things out there to stay focused on d20. For example, I've really got a suspicion that the fantasy supplement for Starblazer Adventures might give me everything I need in a fantasy RPG. Reign looks damned interesting, too, although for more specific purposes. Also, I really dig the ideas behind Donjon.

It's a damned crime I've only got one weekly game.

Whirly / R00kie said...

I haven't played reign yet. I bought it when I was all fired up about wild talents and ORE based systems in general but somehow never got round to playing it. Its one of those games which eternally hovers around 4 or 5 on my must play next list but never migrates to the top.

These days I'm much more excited about FATE, but Monsters and Other Childish Things does look very nice and might reawaken my ORE love.

Having said that, like you I have too many games to play, and only one weekly session.

Matt Sheridan said...

Oh, yeah, Monsters and Other Childish Things looks like a hell of a lot of fun. I know my group would be all over that game. I'm not so sure how ORE would go down with some of them, though. Its central dice mechanic is pretty weird. ...Then again, I think the player who'd like the mechanic the least is also the one who'd dig the concept the most. I oughta bring it up with the group, some time.