Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some Rumminations On the Never Ending Revisions of D&D

I have been following this thread on Google+: Original Post ... One of the later comments by Vincent Florio caught my eye:
"The newer the editions AKA "the more crap they pile into the books, and the less imagination is needed.. its all presented for you... no need to think. If its not written, it can't happen." Editions."
Which got me thinking ...

This trend started, I suppose, with AD&D, and continued at pace with a steady stream of new editions, total rewrites, and world-crushing changes every few years.

But for Pete's sake - Why?  Because, I suppose, that was TSRs business model, and WotC/Hasbro have simply kept the thing going in the original and most obvious direction. Nothing new under the sun here. If your business model is "we sell rules books for a game" then you're going to have to update, change, re-write, and new-ify your rules every so often, or you will go out of business. So every few years you're going to have to tacitly admit "The old rules from last version totally suck! But our NEW Rules are teh Awesome!" Over and over again. Of course.  It's obvious.

D&D rules went from a relatively light weight game with three small (but highly magical) booklets, to a heavy weight game with many books, tons of rules and tons of (needless) complexity. They then realized how sucky all that was and came up with the next edition, which promised to be much better, except it wasn't. It just was sucky in different ways. Why? Because it's too complicated. So the next edition had to be produced. This one also sucked, but in totally different ways than the previous two. Each time it seems they fixed some things, and broke other things. And each version, of course, has some people who learned that Edition first, and so for them it's "home", and they like it. And that's a good thing. It's kept the hobby alive. And I'm glad for that. It's a fun hobby and I think it's fabulous. I like it to thrive. So don't get me wrong - though I'm complaining about it, I also am glad it happened. 

This was not the only possible business model for TSR/WotC/Hasbro, by the way... but it's the one they chose, and the one everyone lives with.  My beef with it is that it could have been better than this.

On the positive side had they chosen a more efficient business model there may not have been room for the Godzillions of Indie RPGs coming out all the time. There might not have been a need for them.  So that's another good thing that came out of the mess.

Ah? What would the alternative business model have looked like? Ok. I think I have an idea... It could have focused first and foremost on working out an actual rules system that is clean, elegant, flexible, modular and efficient.  Step 2 would have been to produce modules that could be plugged into anyone's world, free of timelines, and any kind of backstory roots so that each GM could use the module for it's ideas and characters, and flexibly modify it's backstory to fit into their own world. But of course, I don't think they considered it. Meanwhile, the modules market died off quite some time ago.  It seemed robust at first, but then for some reason people stopped buying D&D Modules.  I'm not quite sure why, but I asked around, and the answers I got went something like "I couldn't easily figure out how to fit it into my World... so I started making my own adventures and that worked fine for me after I got the hang of it."   Hmmm... interesting.  Does that mean there's no market for Modules?  I suspect there is a market for them.  If they are done right.  That's just a hunch, though, and I'm far from certain about that.  I might experiment around with the idea and see if there's anything to my theory.

Anyway, I think that this was Gary Gygax's vision for the future of RPGs but I suspect it got derailed by the business forces that assumed control of TSR and kicked him off the board. So after that they didn't quite run the thing into the ground, but more like they ran it into the misty fens and it's been slowly grinding away there ever since.  Revision after revision of something-fixed-something-broke.  Or something like that. That's my take on it, anyway. Frankly, I never really got that into the various Editions of D&D because I had taken a different Gamesmastering path from the outset.

Homebrewers from the days of old foresaw all of this and avoided it by following Gygax's advice from the introduction of 'Men & Magic'.
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors." - Gary Gygax, Men & Magic, p. 1
We interpreted this to mean that we should take the first three D&D books as a template and build our own systems from there.  "Grown your own".  So we did.

I remember discussing the future of RPGs with one of my fellow GMs back in 1978 and we concluded that the TSR business model would inevitably lead to exactly what happened. We shrugged and said "We have our own worlds and our own systems to run them. Tether us not to thy never-ending revisions, oh TSR! We deny thee!" and that was that.  We were staunchly Anti-TSR.  Happily GMing our homebrews ever after.

Naturally, I encourage GMs to do likewise. And it certainly seems that many do. Which is why the Indie RPG scene is so robust, I think. As for the rest - hey, you know what? If you have fun and enjoy it, then you're doing it right. There is no such thing as "BadWrongFun" in my opinion. Just remember, though, if you ever wind up feeling stuck ... there's plenty of alternatives out there.  And Grow Your Own is one of them.  Just go back to Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Wilderness Adventures and fix the bugs your own way.  The possibilities of a simple and elegant solution to RPG rules are myriad, and probably infinite.   Try it.  You might just find you really enjoy creating your own rules.  I did.  It was fun.  And I'm kinda a fan of what I put together.  It certainly works for me.  And my players have over the years given me plenty of reason to believe that my system works wonders.  So ... I encourage my fellow GMs to try it.  Grow Your Own.  It's great.

As for Vincent's point, I agree... it certainly does seem that they are progressively removing the need for people to use their own imagination, and attempting to provide us with a system that allows us not to have to think.   It's a failed proposition, of course, and counter to all that is good about RPGs, but that almost seems besides the point.  It fits their business model, which now has advanced to a new level of retardation.  Not only is it imperative that they change the rules, but they seem to also have  concluded that they must dummy down the rules in order to expand their customer base outward to those who have no imagination to begin with.  What we might call "The Ignorant Masses".  I suspect that WotC has decided that those people absolutely need a rules system to tell them exactly what to do, how to do it, what to think, and how to imagine everything.   Of course they haven't gone quite that far, and so there's room for creativity in the game... but there's a trend at work here, and I think Vincent put his finger on the pulse of the thing.   WotC/Hasbro seems to have come to the conclusion that they should be making a pencil and paper tabletop video game, because that will expand their customer base.  LOLRZ.

On the other hand, WotC might not agree that this is what they are doing.  I wouldn't be surprised if the designers of D&D E5 are highly convinced that it really is a great new system that solves the problems of all the previous Editions.   But then again I also wouldn't be surprised if they're not sitting in the back room groaning about the Pointy Haired Boss and how many bone-headed things they were forced to do to keep Upper-Upper-Upper Management happy.   I'd certainly be curious to be a fly on the wall over there at D&D HQ and actually find out what they're really thinking.   But from my point of observation it does seem like things went off the rails long ago, and that's pretty much why.  In the same way that the rules of a game are determinant of how the Players will behave, the business model of a company is determinant of how its products will evolve.   And this business model was just plain BadWrongFun.
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