Add-Vance or Sub-Vance?

Allow me to preface this by saying that I have not read any of the D&DNext development releases in detail.

Having said that, I am abreast of the development trends, thanks mostly to Tavernmaster Tenkar and his regular updates. The latest brouhaha is swirling around the inclusion of At-Will Powers for Magic Users Wizards. This is but one of many Bones of Contention the designers will be faced with. They are trying to merge disparate systems. Some of the subsystems are going to be mutually exclusive. What 4E player is going to want to have his At-Will Blaster Ray watered down so his Wizard will be balanced next to the old geezer’s Vancian Magic User? What old geezer will be content to blow his wad on memorizing nothing but Magic Missiles, when the 4E rock star wizard can toss them out like Mardi Gras beads?

I’m developing a certain detached cynicism with this whole “Next” development. I may end up eating those words if they do succeed in rolling out the best thing since . . . well, since D&D. Until then I view this entire episode with a certain smug detachment.

Something about this particular point struck me, though. Ever since the words “house rules” were first uttered, Vancian magic has been under the gun. I have no scientific proof to back this up, but I would bet the farm that making combat more realistic and Vancian magic are the top two house rule categories. Spell points, casting rolls, lumping all the caster’s available spell levels into one enormous pool, fatigue, it goes on and on. In the callous inexperience of my youth, I, too, railed against it. I still like alternatives, although I can now appreciate the intricacies of it. For years I preferred point-based casting. Now I like something a little more unpredictable, but I digress.

Now that Monte has forwarded the notion of some sort of 4E-style At-Will powers for Wizards, there is no shortage of champions for Vancian magic. All of a sudden it is one of the gilded chestnuts, a virtual cornerstone of the foundation, of what is D&D. I’m not accusing anyone of vacillating, just observing how polarizing events brings out the masses. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those rallying behind Vancian casters have house ruled that system out to some degree. Maybe they even play with a different magic system even now. I fall into that camp, since I am currently mostly working with the M74 Swords & Sorcery Edition. Yet, even those in that camp recognize the value of Vancian magic to D&D. My snide comments aside (made only in fun, btw), Vancian magic is one of the underpinnings that makes D&D D&D. In any sort of “Edition to Rule Them All” it has to take center stage, and it has to be the standard against which any other included magic methods, no matter how “modular”, are balanced.

D&D #5

I’m burning out on this. Already. How much longer til the projected release date?

I’ll admit to being very hopeful and optimistic when I first read the news. Now I’m basically indifferent. There is something about this whole circus that rubs me the wrong way. This may be confusing, and if it is, I apologize. I’ll also go ahead and apologize for any coarse language. I’m frustrated.

So, first WotC buys TSR, saving it from becoming a distant memory. Their first play is to roll out a new edition, something designed to make the game relevant in the then-modern market. That was the first degree of separation. Then, Hasbro buys WotC, and wrought their changes upon the system. A lot can be speculated about their design philosophy, but it’s all speculation.

Whatever they were thinking, or why, doesn’t matter at this point. What they produced only barely resembled D&D. Now, we have three disparate systems all claiming to be the same game, all claiming the same heritage and pedigree. Now, we have another edition on the horizon that is destined to unite the bloodlines, as it were.

Here is my main problem (at least for today). It seems like there are those in the OSR camp that can’t wait to return to the fold. They think it’s going to be a glorious day when they can play a shiny new and fully supported D&D again. They seem to think WotC is doing us all a huge favor by making all versions of D&D coexist peacefully. It is my impression that there are many who will completely abandon their dog-eared copies of 1st Edition, or their Lulu copies of Dark Dungeons for this new D&D.

I say that before we line up to sing WotC’s praises for a new D&D to rule them all, that we pause to remember that it was WotC that fucked it up in the first place. There really wasn’t that much wrong with AD&D when they took over. Sure it needed some clarification and reorganizing. A new edition was in order, but not a wholesale redesign. I’m no MBA, but it is my sense, especially when you look at all the people still playing the older editions, that TSR’s problems were not related to an outdated game. Their problems were with their business model, not their product. There’s that old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. WotC fixed the wrong thing.

I may chime in from time to time on 5E, but I am no longer going to be following the development of it very closely. I have my older editions and my clones to keep me happy. I don’t need a new edition from WotC/Hasbro to legitimize the way I learned to play and have been playing for over 35 years. I’m not worried about DMing a game with classes from x number of different editions. I’m not worried about paying top dollar for a laundry list of options that I can switch on and off at will, and will only end up switching on about seven. It’s silly when you think about it: Why pay out the ass for a new set of books that will “allow” me to play the way I always have when I can do that with the books I already have?

Oil and Water

I have been pondering 5E these last few days. Now comes the news that AD&D 1E will be available for a limited time starting this April. This started me to thinking.

D&D was born as a hobby, not a business. It is blatantly obvious that the LBBs were written for hobbyists. There was virtually no attempt to explain the terminology. It was assumed that anyone reading D&D also owned Chainmail. It was like your buddy’s house rules. You got a copy of his house rules knowing full well that you were getting, basically, a shortcut and guidepost to creating your own game. The LBBs were sparse to the point of being terse because they were simply one way to do it. It was like they were saying, “This is how we use Chainmail to play out fantasy adventures in Lake Geneva. YMMV.”

It occurred to me today: You can not market a hobby. You market products, not hobbies. Or, I guess, more to the point, hobbyists can’t market their own hobby. But, corporations can market support for the hobby. At least while there’s money in it.

I’m a creative person by nature. I can tell you that it is my belief that it is in the nature of human creativity that we want to create things of interest to us. For example, I have absolutely zero interest in working up Vive Liberte: The RPG of the French Revolution. No offense to anyone interested in the French Revolution, it’s just not my thing. It doesn’t matter to me if there was a media wave of interest that could capsize the Poseidon, I’m not writing that game. I’m a hobbyist and I do what interests me.

I think that’s where TSR started to unravel. They had passionate people writing things that no one else cared much about, and they had people dispassionately developing things simply because they decided that was where the money was. They were completely out of touch with their audience. There is an article by Ryan Dancey here which discusses the WotC acquisition of TSR. In it he notes the disconnect between corporation and consumer that almost meant the end of D&D. In the end, it did mean the end of D&D, I guess, at least as we had known it.

From that article it is clear that Mr. Dancey is a passionate hobbyist with a heartfelt and emotional desire to save the company that meant so much to him as a youth. Which of us wouldn’t feel the same way, if put in a position to save D&D circa 1997? It was, I believe, his hobbyist’s heart that created the OGL. In the halcyon days of D&D’s youth companies like Judge’s Guild created wonderful supplements, setting, adventures, and play aids. They were heady times, exciting times, to be a gamer. I miss those days of wonder, of exploring just how far we could push this limitless hobby. I miss those days to the core of my soul.

Then, history repeated itself, and into the garden a serpent did come. 3E, and 3.5E, trod the same ruinous path as its forebears. Too many “splatbooks”, too many supplements touted as necessary, too much crap. After 35 + years in this hobby, watching it grow and evolve, I can assure you of one thing: Nothing will erode gamer trust as fast as treating us like a bottomless pocket. The attitude “They’ll buy it because they’re geeks and we’ll tell them they have to have it” is extremely alienating. So, WotC took D&D to the same precipice TSR did, and once again, it took a corporation to save it.

Here at last we come to the point of my metaphoric title. Hasbro is a corporation, dedicated to making money. They came in and remade D&D. I personally believe that it was done to distance their product (4E) from the WotC product that existed under the OGL. Hasbro repeated another mistake of the past. TSR eventually became extremely restrictive about out-of-house products, which was perhaps the first tolling of the death-bell. Now, Hasbro did the same thing. Release a new edition that is free from the OGL. Reestablish control. Then, they did the unthinkable: they released a bazillion splatbooks, supplements, settings, and adventures. They tried to apply the same peer-pressure bullshit “All the other geeks are doing it. You won’t be playing D&D if you don’t.” Was there really any question how that would play out?

Now comes 5E. I was optimistic at first, hopeful even. The more I think about it, though, the more it seems too ambitious to me. That means that either they are telling us what they think we want to hear, or they really do plan on trying to blend all editions and playstyles, which is as doomed as the Tower of Babel. I’m sorry to be so pessimistic about it, but I think if a fifth edition ever does see release, it will be a big box of goodies and cards, like the Hasbro Gamma World. Hasbro is a toy company run by lawyers and MBAs. They will operate under the old baseball adage “Dance with the one that brung you”.

Lastly, I believe the pending re-release of the AD&D 1E core is a bone being thrown to us by some hobbyist still in the ranks at WotC. It is the great beast spewing up one last piece of treasure before it breathes its last. This events lead me to a sad contention: We are living in the last days of D&D as a living, vibrant product line. I hope I’m wrong about this, I really do.

All that was old . . .

Good morning, friends,

I have news of some portent for you this morning. A new edition of D&D is in the pipe. You can learn more from the wizard’s mouth here.
There is also an articles in The New York Times.
It is evident from reading the articles that WotC is taking a page from the open playtest playbook, used to such great affect by Pathfinder. It also seems evident that they intend to go back to the “toolkit” roots of the game. Love 3E and 4E or hate them, there are certain unavoidable truths about them. 3E attempted to enable diversity among characters with an idea that looked good on paper. That edition’s rules for multi classing and prestige classes originally struck me as very cool. In play, however, they battered the gates of reason allowing a flood of munchkins. I also believe that such a tightly woven rules set, where virtually every contingency is spelled out, further opens the doors for munchkins. Because, really, what is a rules lawyer, but a munchkin with a better vocabulary?
4E was awesome, IF you played its game. Stray too far from the RAW at your own peril. One of my chief issues with 4E was the herculean effort it took to create new classes. As you may know, I’m a fan of a small number of basic classes, role-played as “ranger”, “illusionist”, whatever. But, that was rendered almost impossible in both editions. So, creating new classes along the new model, in order to personalize the game to the world, was almost impossible in 4E. It wasn’t nearly so difficult in 3.x. There were numerous examples of using prestige classes to good effect to bring certain aspects of a campaign to life.
There was another thing that I took away from the article. It seems that with 3E and 4E the keys to the game were given to the players. Sure, there were improved stat blocks and new encounter paradigms, but the players were the clear focus. The DM became less of a Master and more of a Moderator. The game didn’t belong to him anymore, it belonged to the rules, and to the players’ interface with those rules, the characters. It became less an exercise in collective story telling and more about the DM entertaining a table full of players. Players, by the way, that were empowered to tell the DM he wasn’t entertaining them properly if they caught him in a rules faux-pas.
I’m cautiously optimistic. I always look forward to a new edition, at least on the run-up, I’m an edition whore, after all. If they can put more of the game back into the DM’s hands, and make it more of a toolkit, it should be pretty exciting. By the way, if you follow the Wizard’s link above, you can sign up for the open playtest. Make your voice heard. Power to the people.