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.


Doctor Futurity said...

You should really give 5E a chance, or at least consider that they are trying hard to make amends and bring the game back to a style and feel that people recognize as D&D. As a gamer I started in 1980 so my timeline of experience has always been post-OD&D, but I have never felt that any edition was designed to deter creativity (well, except maybe 4E), and usually quite the opposite.

People will, of course, always do what they want, and that's part and parcel of this hobby. But there absolutely is no corner on creativity except in our own minds.

vbwyrde said...

I suppose I could give 5E a chance, but I'm not exactly sure why ... for one thing I don't feel any need for it as I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing. Maybe just to check it out and see what it looks like. I don't object to that. I just don't expect to be interested in it either way. Even if it is a reasonable step back in the direction I would have liked them to go from the beginning... it's kind of a moot point. Anyway, I didn't really have anything in particular to say about 5E but was more talking about WotC business model, which I think makes rules changes inevitable... and every time we turn the corner it will be because "the old rules were not good" but "the new rules are awesome!" It is the inevitable logic of their business model that makes this happen.

I simply am not participating because I have a system I like and I wanted to maintain a long term World, and not have to start over again every time TSR/WotC/Hasbro decided it was time for "Out with the old! In with the New!"

But ok, since you asked nicely I will go ahead and on my next opportunity take a look at 5E. I don't expect to love it, but I don't expect to hate it either. I'm pretty sure I'll go "hmmm... ok... hmmm... ok... hmmm... that's kind of cool... hmmm... nah no way I would totally shuck that rule..." etc. Anyway, thanks for responding! I'll take a peek at it since you asked.

Anonymous said...

nice thing is its free rules. I would try playing it once or twice. Just reading it wasn't enough for me. I actually had to play it. I went from the original, basic to AD&D (skipped 2e) to 3e, to 4th and this was the first that reminded me of when I played as a kid, but has enough new stuff that I like and feel add to the game. Sure there are some things that I dont like ( reading up on the DMG) it seems they have other ways to play the game that seem more inline with how I house rule anyways. I think I will give this a shot.

vbwyrde said...

I'd be especially delighted if you will report back your experience with it after you've played. :)

Anonymous said...

oh as for the business model, your purpose for the post, I am not sure how they would stay in business if they weren't producing new products. Including new editions. If the old edition isnt selling, then they need to fire people or stop making the game.

TSR made 2e because 1st had gotten so Houserules that no one played the same game. Then TSR drove 2e into the ground with Fluffy campaign setting after campaign setting.

3e became mechanics bloated

4e was just too different

But, other games that have had clean elegant systems havent been super successful on the money side, maybe for a small company.

Hero System was one book. That was all you needed. Players bought that one book and that was it. No more revenue. And Hero has always struggled. Coming out with Revisions to that one book was the only way to stay in business as the support products never sold.

Adventures/modules ... Paizo became successful with this idea.
But, now they push book after book. more more more

It's fine to stay indy, make a fun game and hopefully you are smart enough to understand how to keep it supported to earn a living, or keep it as a hobby, as it started as.

I also feel 7+ editions to the game since the 70s is actually not that many.

Gary didnt think that the original pamphlets were the end all.

Wrathamon said...

I guess I shouldnt be anonymous if we are going to converse :)

I been playing since 78 and 3rd got me back into playing D&D after I went alternative (that is what we called it back then) when 2e came out.

I liked the thought of 2e. AD&D had gotten so houseruled and Dragon magazine add ons that it was so hard to play with new groups or at conventions. I always felt people were playing a different game then I was. (not sure if that was a bad thign or not) it was just something as a kid, I didnt understand.

I then moved to other games, alternative to D&D. 3e made me play again, So new edition got me back into gaming, and it did so for a lot of my friends.

It also opened up designers to create an indy scene of new ideas and games. I dont know if that would have happened, if 3e didnt come out like it did.

I think that is why I see this new edition like that. Hopefully, it brings in new players and brings out old players and they can share in familiar experiences.

I am going to try and play the new starter set adventure this weekend.

vbwyrde said...

Wrathamon, I look forward to hearing how it goes this weekend, if you don't mind posting about it. :)

JD McDonnell said...

One thing no one ever seems to think about is just how far D&D would have gone if it had never been revised, if 1st Edition D&D was its end point.

It many ways it often feels as if it was. Modules may be passe' (or however the hell it's spelled) but still eyes light up when White Plume Mountain or Keep on the Borderlands is mentioned. But the question is, would people still play it if it had been? Risk, Life, and Sorry are pretty much the same games they were decades ago but people still play them. D&D with its penchant for ponderous rule books I think would have sunk into obscurity.

So I am in no way defending the re-editioning of the game. I like the idea of a few light rules and diy worlds, but I will say that I think the game is trapped. I think it didn't choose the model it has so much as found itself with no other option. There will someday be a 6th edition of the game, or that will be the death of D&D.

vbwyrde said...

Hi JDM, thanks for the thoughtful comment. It's a great question - and an unanswerable one unless we can find a way to observe the parallel dimension in which TSR adopted a different business model. However, as I mentioned in my original post - I believe there was an alternative at the beginning, but TSR went another way. It then became the proverbial snowball and so now I think they are indeed trapped. And yes, there will be a D&D 6, and 7, and 8... and each time it will have to tacitly admit that all the previous versions sucked, but the new one is "Awesome". This is their business model. And, yes, its a trap!

You can find what I think might have been an alternate business model in my original post, but to recap that in brief - they could have made one second edition that fixed the errors of the first, modularized and simplified the rules to make the game easy to run, rather than complicated. They then could have busied themselves on created non-world specific but interesting modules that could be plugged into any world and allowed GMs the freedom to build their own worlds, and plug in modules as they see fit. I think that would have been a sustainable model. But they did something else instead. I do wish I could visit the parallel universe in which they followed my advice though. I suspect RPGs would be a far more prevalent hobby and the world would be enriched by millions more amazing Worlds than ours today. Just a hunch, but I do think so.

Wrathamon said...

sustainable model?

I doubt it, not for a medium size business, imo.

maybe for a very small business. 5-10 people.

Boardgames last a long time, but I probably have bought risk 5 times, because you loose pieces, because your a kid or the box is wrecked or the board gets jacked up, or you loan it out and never see it again.

There is a difference between people still playing it and it still making money.

I think if 2e was the last edition (with only adventures coming out)
a very small set of people would still be playing it, but those would be the hardcore of the hardcore. TSR would be very small, if even around still.

I could be completely wrong. But, looking at older RPG games, this seems to be the case.

The reason I think this is because Alternative games killed D&D and TSR probably made the wrong choices to counter players doing other things.

Video games, Tv, Magic the Gathering, other rpg games... etc

For all the hate wotc gets ... they saved D&D. Considering they also helped almost kill it with the success of MotG, it was pretty awesome of them to take on such a challenge. Now, x number of years later Hasbro has given them pretty big bottom lines. Interesting to see how this goes.