Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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, 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, 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.
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.