D&D and Me: What Happened?
If you are going to look at the problem of 4th edition D&D from the perspective of Purity, what could be more pure an expression of D&D than 4th edition? The greater majority of its critics use purity as their weapon of choice. It’s attacked for having strayed to far from tabletop and morphing into something more like World of Warcraft. Or Diablo. It’s attacked for its long, long…loooooong bouts of combat, reducing whole sessions to a single encounter in extreme cases. It’s attacked for the mini-game like Skill Challenges, which reduces non-combat encounters to a series of dice rolls rather than an acting and/or puzzle-solving exercise. It’s attacked for not being D&D at all, but something else designed to appeal to video gamers.
From a certain point of view though, it is the purest form of the game since Chainmail. Remember, the roots of the game are in the war gaming community, gamers who devoted whole tabletops to platoons of miniatures representing Napoleonic period troops, WW2 divisions, and - eventually - mythic, fantastical creatures. The birth of the game is in the heros and superheroes of those fantasy games stepping off the battlefield and into the dungeon. The earliest rules were hardly more than a shim on a game that was a fantasy skin over simulations of Famous Battles of the Second Millennium of the Common Era. Masterpiece Theatre it was not. Look carefully at descriptions of early play and you’ll find illuminaries such as Gygax reducing non-combat encounters - when he was rushed/bored/out of ideas - to 50/50 dice rolls. It’s even a guideline formalised as early as 2nd ed and informally since the first published rule sets.
That’s all sophistry though. I don’t think 4th ed is the purist form of D&D. I think it is terribly far from being a pure form of D&D, although I think it might actually be closer than 3.5 with its proliferation of classes. Maybe. I can’t actually be sure since I barely played 3rd ed, and never played 3.5 or 4th ed. Closest I have come is ready the rule sets and watching showcase games of 4th ed played the Penny Arcade crew, Wil Wheaton, and Scott Kurtz. I suspect those four could make Snakes & Ladders a riotous explosion of creativity, so not really a yardstick.
From a certain point of view? That’s a phrase that, to my mind, comes freighted with context. Obi-wan Kenobi said that, when he’s just finished owning up to lying his arse off. But in this case, I really do mean it. Because from a certain point of view, D&D 4th edition is a pure expression of its sources.
I do happen to think that it hews closer to video games like World of Warcraft and Diablo. It does so unashamedly. Whereas in previous editions a player and the DM might use their nous to have a fighter character anchor a combat, 4th ed makes a game mechanic by importing concepts like Aggro from games like World of Warcraft. Combat is both amped up with tactical options - even if I get the sense that many combats follow much the same series of tactical moves - while defanging it with so many sources of healing and character builds that have the potential to make a character nigh invulnerable. And for all the variety and options that can go into builds, the classes fill rigidly defined roles: The Tank, The DPS dealer, The Buffer, &c. The roles were there in old style D&D, but not so rigidly and not so all-consumingly.
Combat in 1st ed was nasty, brutish, and short. Dungeons crawls were like climbing Everest, something done in many stages, with advances followed by retreats to recover and consolidate. That’s an experience entirely foreign to a gamer who has come to RPGs via MMOs. The breakout game of the genre - World of Warcraft - actively penalised retreating from a dungeon (that is to say, an Instance) by resetting the whole thing exactly as it was before.1 And while combat can be lethal in an MMORPG, with party wipes aplenty, ultimately it has little impact, the players just respawn with the only repercussion being time lost and gold to be spent to repair and restock.
I don’t like D&D 4th Edition, and from my reading of the early play test materials I don’t like D&D Next either. But in a way I respect them. I respect them because I recognise that they embraced their inspirations, their source material, their Appendix N if you like. My Appendix N is different to Gygax’s, but it has one thing in common, that they are books and stories. The Appendix N of modern D&D is World of Warcraft, Everquest, Final Fantasy, et. al. The old inspirations lent themselves to a different style of play, a style that I preferred.
As I said, I’ve never actually played the 4th edition. Merely read the rule books. That and three dollars will get me a cup of coffee. And showcase games involving witty and imaginative players prove the game can be fun, even if it is fun in a different mode to the games I played when younger. I drifted away from the game when I finished inversion and moved to Sydney, away from my gamer friends and towards time consuming jobs. But I also drifted away because the game drifted away from me. The signs were there from third edition that the game was skewing towards the market more accustomed to quicker gratification and mechanical manufacture of avatars over organic formation of characters. Feats in particular contributed to this uneasy feeling for me. So I stopped playing, because there was no joy left to it.
There’s this thing called the internet now and I can’t help but wonder, just how hard would it be to find a game of 1st edition to play through the medium of online communications?
1. : Which is not to say a canny DM wouldn’t repopulate a dungeon when the PCs had retreated. The best do, the ones who are thinking people, not automatons reading straight off the page. They’d repopulate, but organically, not a complete mechanical resetting. ↩