Better Than I Expected

Dungeons & Dragons has been around a long time. I started playing it in 1982, with Tom Moldvay’s Basic Set red box and Dave Cook’s Expert Set blue box. Introduced to the game by some friends at school, I was instantly hooked (and obsessed) with D&D. Over the next year, I picked up the AD&D hardbacks and spent long hours reading the Gygaxian prose and trying to figure out all the many intricacies and contradictions presented in the texts.

I have purchased and played every edition of D&D since then, and even gone back and played a short game using the original D&D rules. And that continued all the way up until the current (5th) edition was released.

D&D 5th edition had a long and public playtest period. This did wonders for Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the game, as it got a very large number of players heavily invested in the next edition long before it was available for sale. Online surveys were conducted regularly throughout the playtest, letting fans feel that they might have some say on how the edition would eventually be designed. It was great marketing, and it was wildly successful.

And it drove me away from the game.


Now, I feel that every edition brought something new to the table, and the overall D&D game was stronger for it. And the two editions that were the biggest departures from what came before was 3rd edition and 4th edition.

Third edition brought a somewhat more simulationist slant to the game—monsters, for example, were created using the exact same rules as player characters. It also heavily relied on tactical combat, requiring grids and miniatures for any combat more complicated than a couple of guards in front of a door. (Previously, miniatures were purely optional—even Gary Gygax didn’t use miniatures the vast majority of the time when running D&D.) And the character-building mini-game became a thing for the first time.

4th edition brought in across-the-board class balance. It codified a lot of additional races as primary options that had only been minor options in previous editions (e.g. dragonborn, tieflings, goliaths, etc.). It also relied heavily on tactical combat, and got rid of minor battles—if you were going to get into a fight at all, it wouldn’t just be with a couple of guards in front of a door anymore. It introduced possibly the best and easiest way to present monsters, as discreet stat blocks that contained all the information needed to run the creature, with no need to reference other rules (like spell descriptions) in the midst of a game.

But both of those games were released in the age of the internet. Third edition had a pretty large backlash from players of previous editions. On the Dragonsfoot forums, dedicated to earlier editions of D&D, the 3rd edition was referred to as TETSNBN (The Edition That Shall Not Be Named), and detractors across the web often complained that it was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

4th edition had the misfortune to be released after social media had become pervasive, and those who didn’t like the game had even better tools to amplify their own personal dislikes. Not surprisingly, I guess, many of those who had loved 3rd edition then attacked 4th using the same stupid complaints that they had faced about their own favorite game a few years earlier—that the edition was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

I’ve made it no secret that I think edition wars are stupid, pointless, and ultimately harmful to our hobby as a whole. Our hobby is small enough that I cannot even fathom the mindset of those who need to separate us into ever smaller groups, such “true roleplayers,” “dirty storygamers,” “munchkins and min-maxers,” and other similar bullshit.

It amazes me that people can’t just enjoy the hobby without constantly trying to tell others that they are playing games wrong. There is such a sense of entitlement to these people, as if they feel every game, every company, and every roleplayer should cater to their personal likes and desires.

The need to tear down the current edition of a game (whether it was AD&D 2E, or D&D 3E, or D&D 4E) just because it made some changes a person doesn’t like is moronic and needs to die in a fire.

And I feel it’s even worse when a company engages those people, amplifies their ridiculous ideas, and caters to them.

Paizo Publishing did just that during the 4E era, which ultimately gave rise to their own Pathfinder game. Their willingness to encourage feelings of betrayal by WotC in gamers—as dumb as that idea really is—actually helped them define their initial core market for Pathfinder, and they enjoyed great success with it.

But I felt that when the WotC developers of 5th edition also engaged in edition warring, against an edition that some of them had previously worked on and designed material for, the hypocrisy was too much for me. The fact that they engaged some online “personalities” (i.e. people who scream their opinions the loudest) who are known for their divisive, narrow, and silly views on what makes a roleplaying game made the situation even worse.

I watched the development of 5E—I’m still a D&D gamer, after all—but I found that their marketing of the new game was insulting to those who actually enjoyed the previous edition. They parroted back the words of the loudest complainers, rather than addressing the specific, and real, issues with the 4E rules.

Ultimately, it appeared that D&D 5E was heading back in the directly of the second edition of A&D, and trying to pretend that all of 4E was some kind of mistake, despite some great innovations and additions to the game that had been introduced in that set of rules.

And so, I gave the playtest version of the game a few tries, but I came to the conclusion that this edition wouldn’t do anything that AD&D didn’t already do. And so there was no real value in me investing in and learning a new set of rules when I was already highly familiar with a set of rules that would produce the same outcome at the table.

And I certainly didn’t feel like giving WotC any of my money.

So when I launched a D&D campaign with my son and his friends last year, it was the first edition of AD&D that we played.

But 5E is the current edition. It’s the edition that is in game stores and on Amazon. It’s the edition that is getting promoted in marketing by WotC. And, inevitably, other kids at my son’s school started playing it. And so he joined a new 5E campaign, and started asking me questions about it (as I’m the RPG expert in my house). And then one of my son’s friends got the D&D 5E Starter Set box and the Player’s Handbook for Christmas, and asked me if I would help him learn the game.

So I downloaded the basic rules and read them through, and then I grabbed an old 3E adventure, The Sunless Citadel—I had no idea it had been reprinted as a converted 5E adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal—and I showed them how to create characters and ran them through part of the adventure.

And despite my earlier experience with the playtest rules, it was actually good.

I found the rules were quite simple, and we didn’t run into any edge cases in our session, so I ended up running the game without ever needing to actually check the rulebook (other than using the 5E monster stats). Now, I’ve been gaming for a lot of years, and I’m familiar with a large number of different systems, so I have an advantage in that I can pick up a new RPG and get playing faster than someone without that level of experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game provided an enjoyable play experience, and the whole thing hung together really well.

In fact, it’s far better than I expected considering the mess that was that public playtest, the dumb statements by some of the developers, the poorly-designed surveys, etc.

And so, I picked up the three core rulebooks from Amazon, and I’ve run the game a couple more times now. And I have to admit that the end result is a decent game that does provide that feeling of earlier editions. And the rules are simple enough that the learning curve was pretty much non-existent.

I have to acknowledge, though, that this has been a bit of a moral conflict for me. I believe in voting with your wallet. And so I was conflicted over WotC’s handling of the switch between editions—I didn’t want to reward their ridiculous behavior during the playtest and early promotion of the game. Paizo’s participation in and encouragement of edition wars is one of the first reasons why I don’t give them any money—their ongoing behavior in various other ways has only reinforced that decision (but that’s a separate discussion).

Ultimately, though, I feel that I’m in a position to encourage and coach new roleplayers. And the big game, the one that everyone is currently playing, and the one that is available in all gaming stores, is D&D 5E. I can certainly introduce them to other games, and I most definitely will at some point, but I feel this is the best way to get them into the hobby and cement their love of roleplaying games.

There will be time to show them all kinds of other games from other companies. I can’t wait to show them some great sword & sorcery action with Khepera Publishing’s Atlantis, the Second Age. Or troup-style play with Atlas Games’ Ars Magica. Or introduce them to urban fantasy with Onyx Path Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension (my favorite of the World of Darkness games). Or horror investigative gaming with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgrane Press’ Night’s Black Agents. Or science fiction gaming with Far Future Enterprise’s Classic Traveller or Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars.

But for now it’s D&D. And I’m happy that the game is fun, easy to play, and provides an experience that they just can’t get from video games. And I’m also happy that I get to help introduce a new generation of gamers to my favorite hobby.

3 thoughts on “Better Than I Expected

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