Jeff Rients of Jeff’s Gameblog, who ordinarily has interesting things to say, recently decided to instead rant about 4th edition in a couple of posts, starting with positing an unbridgeable gap between old-school and new-school. All of this was founded, mind you, on a misinterpretation of a single post by Trask of Living Dice. (Later he added a second post based on an editorial by someone at Wizards of the Coast.) Buried in the comments, though, he said something that’s actually thought-provoking and worth responding to:
3d6 chargen. Wandering monsters. Save or die. Rust monsters eatng my sword. Level draining. Random treasure (possibly no treasure). Dave the Game may be right and what I’m talking about is a ‘playstyle’ issue, but the playstyle that I learned from D&D is no longer one supported by D&D.
I find this interesting because it is, for the most part, a list of those things that I found most senseless and annoying as both a player and a GM in past editions. If this is how the “old school” contingent (and we really need a better name for them — too many of them, judging from other comments on Jeff’s post, are too ignorant or too vested in the One True Way of Gaming to allow them to co-opt “old school”) defines D&D, then I think it’s no surprise that the game no longer feels like D&D to them.
3d6 in order chargen. Seriously? Even when I played 1e, I never rolled up characters this way. Well, to be more specific, I did it once. It resulted in a party of 4 characters who were all clerics. Not because the players all wanted to play clerics, but because nobody had a Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence higher than 8. There was literally no other class they could play. The highest Wisdom among them was 13. One of these was a reroll after the player’s initial stat rolls failed to qualify for any character class. The group unanimously house-ruled character creation.
I fail to see how this could be fun for anyone. Why force a player who wants to play a fighter to play something else because he rolled low strength? Why force a player who doesn’t want to play a fighter to play one because strength was his only decent roll? Why make the player who pictured a clever, fast-talking con man play a character with single-digit intelligence and charisma, when he rolled higher stats that went to strength and constitution? What are the odds that that player is going to give a damn about playing that character? Random chargen can be fun and lead the player to consider things he might not have before, but complete randomness does nobody any favors. The player needs at least a little bit of choice over what sort of character he’s going to play. In D&D, that means, to me, at least allowing the rolls to be assigned as the player pleases.
Wandering monsters. I’ve used these to decent effect, but I’ve also run long-term games without a single one. I’ve never seen a random encounter add anything substantial to the game — at least, not to any game after I got past the pure “kill things and take their stuff” stage. The one real argument I’ve seen for using them is to present a sense of danger to the characters — that they’re in enemy territory and monsters could happen across them if they dawdle. I normally have planned patrols for that purpose, though. Purely random wandering monsters? I rarely use tables like that, these days.
Save or die. If I had to pick the single greatest improvement in 4e over older editions, it would be the general elimination of instant-kill effects. These were at their most ludicrous in 3e, where casters could push the save DCs so high as to make the instadeath a near-certainty, but even in the earlier days, they spelled a 5%-plus chance that a PC or a major villain would just drop dead. That’s rarely either fun or dramatic, from either side of the table. My groups tended to house-rule these for the major players, and save the instadeaths for the mooks and hirelings. Some of this is probably a result of my HERO experience; in HERO, there’s no true instakill method, and attacks that evade standard defenses are rare (ie. costly). I happen to think that’s a pretty good design philosophy in general.
Rust monsters. Along with, I presume, the other nuisance critters like disenchanters, ethereal filchers, random thieves in the night, and other “I decided I don’t really want you to have that treasure I gave you” monsters. I’ll also lump in ear seekers and other “I decided you play too smart, and I’m getting bored, so now suffer” monsters here, though I don’t know whether Jeff does or not. Basically, these things are in-game methods of dealing with out-of-game problems. My issue is that they’re bad methods — they take away the symptoms, sure, but they don’t address the underlying causes. I’ve long preferred to handle these types of problems outside of the game. My players are all mature enough to listen to my concerns, discuss (and suggest) methods of handling them, and then follow through. And then when they lose the Artifact of Overpoweredness through blocking the Evil Archmage’s Ritual of Plot Device, they won’t feel it’s arbitrary and out of the blue.
Level draining. I don’t really hate the concept here so much as the result: anywhere from 3 to 15 sessions of play essentially negated by a single hit. Per level lost. (Yes, in the old editions, it could easily take 15 sessions to progress a level, after a certain point…) When you consider the things that drained 2 levels, or 1d4 levels, that’s a lot of progress — a lot of play time — negated from a single hit taken or a single save failed. And worse, each level drained meant that the character was likelier to take subsequent hits or fail subsequent saves. I usually replaced level drain with an attribute-drain mechanic instead; it still weakened the character, but it didn’t have the same kind of snowball effect, nor did it throw away two months of play at a single shot. It also didn’t require the player to keep exact track of what he’d gained at each level, or try to subtract those gains in the middle of combat. No, I don’t miss level draining at all.
Random treasure (possibly no treasure). I agree with the second part here — but then, so does 4e, so that’s sort of irrelevant to “old school” gaming. Random treasure? Never used it, aside from rolling for coin amounts. I discovered early on that it was better to place magic items myself, and, as Dragon advised me, to have the bad guys use them against the party, if the bad guys should be capable of doing so. No killing a couple of orcs to luckily discover a broadsword +2 that none of the orcs had even wielded, thank you. Now, the obvious answer to that is to roll it up in advance… but what advantage does that have over placement, exactly? It seems to me that it only serves to make preparation take longer and, in the case of slavish adherence to the table, possibly provide the players with a magic item too powerful for my tastes. (I suppose that’s what the rust monsters were for? Silly. Better to just not put it there in the first place.)
So, if all of that’s what defines D&D, I’d have to say I’m pretty happy not playing D&D any more. Or, indeed, having almost never played D&D over all those years I’ve been playing this game in these books with “D&D” on the cover. Obviously, that’s not how I define D&D. My take agrees with Thasmodius, one of the commenters to Jeff’s post:
I’d agree with Thasmodius, actually. The game is pretty much the same as it was when I started playing it.
The mechanics are different, but if one feels that the mechanics are the game, then one might as well be playing one of those computer games that members of certain circles like to look down upon.
Mechanics are important, of course, but there are so many things that are so much more important — and so many of them have changed so much across various editions — that the import of mechanics is limited.
Which generated the following response from Chris Tichenor:
These are the kinds of statements that completely blow my mind. What is a game besides the rules? Nothing. What differentiates football from baseball? Chess from checkers? It’s the rules. You change the rules, you change the game.
Anyone who says the game is still “basically” the same has either never actually read the rules or is being intellectually dishonest.
O.K., now cue the 4e fan who lists the 7 or 8 things new D&D still has in common with old D&D (and three dozen other fantasy role playing games).
Which in turn boggles my mind:
See, that’s the kind of statement that blows my mind.
What is a play besides the script?
What is the whole besides the sum of its parts?
How can it be argued that old school is superior because it purportedly encourages creativity and improvisation more than recent editions, if the rules are all that’s important?
The rules are the least part of the game. And if you play D&D like you play chess or checkers, I frankly feel sorry for you.
Am I off base here? Do that many people really see D&D as a game of rules, as if it were a board game? How the hell do these people call themselves “old school” without apparent irony, if so? Have I been misinterpreting the nature of the game I’ve been playing for over two decades? Is it just another form of chess? (And isn’t that one of the erroneous arguments against 4e, that it’s all rule-bound tactical combat? Is the fundamentalist “old school” crowd having its strawman cake and eating it too, here?)
Is there an unbridgeable gap? A week ago, I would have said no, and laughed. After reading those posts, and the 170-and-counting comments between them, I’m beginning to think that there is, in fact. And it’s being dug by this vocal group who call themselves “old school,” for the purpose of… well, I’m not sure, exactly. I assume there’s some purpose, though. I’m starting to think this group will still be fighting the Edition Wars right up to 5e’s release (and then starting afresh). And I find it kind of sad, really.
It’s all D&D, as far as I’m concerned. Play using the rules you want. Fans are going to argue, it’s in their nature, but make it a Kirk/Picard or Star Wars/Star Trek argument, not a religious schism, yeah? We all play D&D. And we all play the right way. For us, at least.
Except that one guy over there. That’s just wrong...
I’m curious, though. What’s D&D to you?
- What D&D Is (To Me)
- Ten Monsters I Love (But Rarely Use)
- Hanging in the Balance
- The Rules Gap
- 4E from One Year In
Categories: Philosophy and Rants | Comments (33)
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