Monday, March 03, 2008

Premature Pontifications

Ok, just for the record, I haven’t gotten to play 4.0 yet. I’ve not even been in the same room as someone who has. But looking at what’s come out of the D&D Experience, and playtester comments, I feel justified in making some observations about the game and the industry. I may be waaaay off base, and I’m sure y’all will enjoy making me eat crow later if I turn out to be horribly wrong.

Please bear with me as I harken back to the days of 3rd edition D&D. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m more and more impressed with how holistically that game was managed in so many of its aspects. Even now, some of these are only coming to light. For instance, we’re all familiar with the marketing strategy embodied by the OGL. All RPG roads led to D&D, was the thought. With the OGL, WotC hoped to create synergies in the market that would tie everyone more closely to their brands. By spreading the d20 goodness as broadly as possible, it would be easier for players to move from system to system, and the more open they were to other games, especially games based on d20, the more likely they were to purchase WotC books.

But this strategy was not formed in a marketing-office vacuum. The promise of the OGL was woven into the very rules of the game. This can be seen most clearly in the eradication of verisimilitude-inhibiting game-isms.

Ok, what the heck is the Trollsmyth talking about, throwing around all these five-dollar words? Well, a classic complaint about D&D has long been that the rules had all sorts of wonky limitations in them about what you could do with your character. For instance, in just about every previous version of D&D, wizards couldn’t wear armour or learn how to swing a sword. It was simply forbidden, which meant that you couldn’t play Gandalf, clearly one of the best known examples of the archetype. The games were riddled with things like this. Probably the most bizarre was the 2nd edition prohibition against elven druids. If any race seemed tailor-made to worship the spirits of the wilderness, you’d think it would be elves. Nope, sorry. You couldn’t do it.

The reason given for the existence of these bizarre rules was game balance. In order to balance the powers of every race and class, restrictions were needed to keep any race and class combination from dominating the game. The results, of course, were mixed, but most people understood the reasoning. Still, the reaction was the creation of a number of competing games heavily focused on simulation-style play. These games attempted to bring as much realism and verisimilitude to RPGs as possible. The best of them, games like GURPS and Traveller, are still with us today, recognized as giants in the hobby.

However, 3rd edition needed to be all things to all people. If the OGL was to truly dominate the hobby, d20 needed to be seen as a universal gaming system. It couldn’t afford to be pigeonholed as any particular type of game. And so the game-isms were purged from D&D. Every race could aspire to every class, though some clearly worked better than others. Every race could also advance in every class as far as they wished, though at different speeds. And with 3.0, for the first time, every class could wear heavy armour and swing swords, though not always without penalty. The out-and-out prohibitions were replaced with choices and costs that retained, to a certain extent, the balance, but didn’t poke holes in setting by asking players to accept arbitrary rules that lacked any rhyme or reason within the context of the worlds we played in.

Success, of course, was spotty; just ask anyone who tried to play a ranger out of the 3.0 PHB. But most of the old criticisms of D&D were silenced. The game was positioned to straddle all different styles of play. Gamers still had their min-maxing and number-crunching victories, while simulationists were no longer forced to endure arbitrary limitations that required pretzel-like twistings of logic to explain. Those who desired a more storytelling experience were not actively catered to, but this was probably a good thing. You could still play the game for hours without touching the dice if you wanted to, while the gamers and simulationists were not forced to justify bonuses derived from eccentric behavior. And True20 proved how easy it was to bolt on a virtue/vice and “hero point” mechanics to the d20 chassis.

And, for the most part, it worked. There were d20 versions of all sorts of games created. Even the giants of simulationst games, like Traveller, and storytelling games, like White Wolf’s World of Darkness, had d20 versions. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to tell just how much these sorts of synergies benefited the individual publishers and the industry as a whole. And some games were smashed into the d20 mold that never should have been. Star Wars, for instance, was always a clumsy match for the d20 system. So things were far from perfect, and it was impossible to tell just how much harm or good was really being achieved.

So I suppose it’s no surprise that the designers of 4th edition have left all that behind them. D&D is returning to its roots. New arbitrary limitations are in the rules. Things like per-encounter abilities are included without any sort of verisimilitude-saving justifications for their limitations. Why can’t I use this ability all the time? The rules say so. No longer is D&D pretending to be all things to all people. Instead, it’s settling back squarely on what it does best: rollicking action-adventure, number-crunching gaming.

We can argue whether or not this is good or bad. What is undeniable is that, as D&D shifts away from its long-held middle-ground, it creates vacuums other games will fill. GURPS remains well-positioned to reclaim the simulationist crown. I expect folks who prefer modern and sci-fi gaming to return their focus back to GURPS, which has long held their loyalty.

Even more interesting are prospects on the storytelling front. There really isn’t a strong contender for the story-focused fantasy RPG. D&D’s focus on complex tactical challenges promises to make every encounter memorable, but it also alienates folks who are more interested in context and emotional arcs than 5’ maneuvers and tactically significant terrain. Honestly, I’m not sure things could be more perfect for Ryan Dancey’s storytelling game. The sour taste that 4.0 is going to leave in the mouths of these gamers will make them far more likely to cast about for something new that caters to their preferences.

The OGL may not be dead, but the marketing realities it tried to create are. As they continue to crumble, I expect to see a lot of dynamic activity in the RPG hobby. Unfortunately, it’s likely to lead to a lot more splintering as players, once united by a D&D that tried to command the middle ground by straddling all different styles, retreats into specialization, inviting other games with very different styles and assumptions to reclaim the territory WotC has abandoned.

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