Saturday, November 20, 2010

Edition War vs. Edition Preference, or, Form Matters

Reading James M's recent post about the significance of D&D III in his evolution as a gamer, I was struck by the parallels between his story and mine.  In brief, the narrative runs something like this:

* I begin my RPG'ing career as what would now be called an "old-school" gamer.  I never play (and  to this day have never played) with the LBBs, but get caught up in the hobby in my teenage years with the 1979 Holmes box set and AD&D.  I get out of playing AD&D in the late 80's right around the time 2e is released.  I actually have never played 2e.  I have absolutely nothing against it, having never played it, but suffice to say that my baseline for understanding what D&D is (or "should" feel like for me) is based upon Holmes and 1e AD&D, i.e., skills do not exist in the game. 

*  After many years of playing other RPG systems including a completely homebrewed one, I return to playing D&D a few years ago, in the mid-2000s; the group I join is playing D&D 3.5, soon to become Pathfinder.  I tolerate 3.5 and it is great to be role-playing again, but I never feel "at home" in the system (more on this in a moment).

*  D&D IV is released, and my 3.5 group, after sticking with Pathfinder for a couple more months, switches to 4.0.  I fucking hate it.  I leave that group and begin to lay groundwork for my own campaign using Labyrinth Lord.    

As this mini-narrative makes clear, I am no great fan of 3.5 or 4e for me personally, but let me state at the outset that I am NOT interested in instigating or perpetuating any kind of "Edition Wars."  Ultimately this hobby is about having fun, and I am genuinely happy for those players (including my beloved ex-gaming group -- and I mean that "beloved" earnestly, they were a great group of players) who are getting a kick out of Pathfinder and D&D IV. 

What I want to address, however, is the fact that form matters.  That is, it is not simply enough to have a good group of players or an awesome DM -- though those things obviously matter a lot.  Yet the particular rules systems we choose to play with are every bit as important as the genre, setting, dice, and, yes, group chemistry in determining whether or not a given RPG'ing experience is fun.

Perhaps I am a bit of an extremist here, but if so, it is how I am "hardwired" and I can't seem to do much about it.  The truth is, even though I loved that 3.5 group, and was able to stomach playing in it for a couple years DESPITE my aversions to what felt like unnecessarily cumbersome rules, I NEVER LIKED THE 3.5 RULES, and that aspect of the experience, while not a deal-breaker, did somewhat diminish the fun for me.  What I ended up doing was ignoring / refusing to acknowledge the rules that seemed pointless (i.e., almost everything to do with skills and feats) and charging on ahead as if they didn't matter.  This mostly worked out, but there were many times when I simply wanted to be able to DO something, and would be reminded by other players that I had to roll against some feat or other, or that I couldn't do that thing (or at least hope to do it successfully) because I had no applicable skill.  This was frustrating.  And my general aversion to the 3.5 rules made me always feel like I was trying to move around underwater, that is, there was this big wall of rules that was making things happen sluggishly, in slow motion, again, diminishing the pacing and the fun (for me).

The less said about 4e the better, but my main point is that while I am sure that some DMs do an awesome job of making 4e feel more "old-school" than the (highly tactical and combat-oriented) style of play it seems to encourage, the form still matters -- i.e., different rules sets make different styles of play easier or harder to achieve.  The two evenings I played 4e -- albeit, possibly not with the world's greatest DM -- I was utterly bored.  Part of that may have been the way that DM used 4e as a vehicle, but part of the blame indeed lies with the vehicle itself.  I found little in the assumptions of 4e that excited my imagination or made me want to play it.  On the other hand, when I crack open the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, or leaf through the booklets in the Swords and Wizardry White Box, I drool.  The rules themselves suggest possibilities get my mind going, get me jazzed to play the game. 

I think one of the points of confusion that leads to "Edition Wars" is the tendency to conflate the form and structure of the rules themselves with the corporation that produced them.  A great many of the anti-4e posts I have read (with some vicarious glee I admit) end up boiling down (at least in part) to a condemnation of WotC, Hasbro, or some combination thereof.  And while I confess myself to be a fan of fringe art, a supporter of grassroots creativity, and open to the idea of "sticking it to the man" etc., I truly have nothing against those companies per se.  Hell, like James M., I am immensely grateful to WotC for giving D&D a shot in the arm and especially for the innovation of the OGL that made Labyrinth Lord et. al. possible.  If Hasbro put out a game or rules system I liked, I would buy and play it, just as I would refrain from buying or playing a shitty or mediocre product that happened to be released by an OSR publisher I love.

So this may ultimately boil down to taste, but my point is that the rules really do matter -- they certainly matter more than corporate politics, and they may even matter more (or at least exert a profound influence upon) all the wonderful, ineffable stuff that contributes to the "feel" of a campaign: house rulings, campaign setting, player inclinations, party makeup, etc.  The rules provide the container for all that great, creative, spontaneous stuff -- they are the form that shapes the substance of our campaigns and our gaming experiences. 

This is why I am a "rules-light" OSR loyalist, and will happily leave 4e and Pathfinder to other types of gamers.


  1. Yup! I have absolutely no desire to DM 3e again. Or, to DM 4e, ever. If you're playing the game you want to play, you've won the "Edition Wars."

  2. I know we have gone back and forth on this one, and we will just have to agree to disagree. I am more of the system doesn't matter that much camp, but that undoubtedly has something to do with my innate ability to quickly grasp systems and latch onto rules without having to work at it. Within a session or two, I have internalized the rules and then they don't matter any more. Back to just playing the game.

    But I do have to take umbrage with the point that skills, or any other specialized system, necessarily prevent a player from doing ANYTHING.

    It is simply not true. Only a very narrow (mis)interpretation of the rules, with group approval, prevents anyone from trying whatever the fuck they want to do in any RPG, regardless of system. That is a group and DM dynamic issue, not a system issue. Case in point; the same group you point to in your example is currently playing 4e with me as the DM, as you know. The players do wackier things, try wilder stunts, and generally think outside of the box more than the players in my Mutant Future campaign, a rules-lite and skill-less system.

  3. I definitely don't disagree with you. Whatever rules/style you find to be most enjoyable is the "right" one. I've done many similar posts on the topic as well and am currently in a conversation about nearly the same topic.
    While I really like S&W, OSRIC and Dark Dungeons, I prefer 3.x and Pathfinder. I've never personally encountered any of the issues you've mentioned because I tend to be loose with the rules, but I can appreciate your POV. I feel much the same way about 4e.
    I'm currently running Essentials for my daughter and I love reading the books, I think they are some of the best reads WotC has put out for 4e, but find running the game less fun.

  4. @Carl: Perhaps it wasn't so much that I COULDN'T do certain things, though it started to feel that way to me. It is probably more accurate to say that there was always an extra step involved -- announce action, sift through all the skills, feats, and attributes to see which ones (if any) apply, then roll. In old-school rules systems, there seems to be much less rules-sifting -- just announce and roll (usually a d6).

  5. @Carl: P.S. I genuinely admire your rules-system flexibility, and I have no doubt that your 4E campaign rocks. Do you have any kind of preference between systems? Does Mutant Future suit your style of DM'ing any more or less snugly than 4E does, or does it truly not matter to you?

  6. @ Carter r.e. the number of steps involved to take an action: My observation would be that nearly any action in an old school game BESIDES those very few actions nailed down in the rules (i.e., roll a d20 to attack, a d6 for initiative, or a d6 to search) actually involves the exact same number of intermediary steps to accomplish as in 4e. In 4e and old school games, these are usually in the form of a back and forth between the player and DM, beginning with the player stating what she is trying to accomplish, and the DM responding with either clarifying questions, a description of the action's result, or a request for the player to roll dice to determine the outcome.

    I really do put the root of your loathing of 4e to the DM in charge of those two sessions you played. Young Senor treated 4e like a combat-engine to run a computer game on a table top.

    There was no back and forth with the DM about how to accomplish what you were trying to do; instead, you just got told that it wasn't specifically in the rules (which isn't even true, because 4e has a very nice and tidy system for adjudicating player improvised action, in the form of two revered pages in the DM's guide, which would have allowed you to do any old thing your dwarven self wanted to do BY THE RULES of 4e...), and then you were again reminded to LOOK AT YOUR POWERS, with the implication that the ONLY thing you could do was one of the things listed on your power cards.

    I would hate that game too. That game is not 4e. That game is called "Sucky DM". Many of us have had the misfortune of playing it.

    As for the broader point; as a DM, I truly enjoy 4e. It is very simple to DM, the rules are very simple and easy to understand, and I like the four defenses as a replacement for AC and savings throws. I like ascending AC. I like a very simple and broad skill system that doesn't overly reward specialists or penalize unskilled characters.

    As a player: 4e has crossed the line of complexity when it comes to character generation. The recent move of releasing the 4e Essentials, basically 4e versions of old-school style classes, enables a 4e player to finally create a character without having to wade through literally hundreds of power and feat choices.

    I vastly prefer random character generation a la Mutant Future or very simple character generation a la Labyrinth Lord.

  7. @Carl: Thanks for your comments! Maybe I should try 4e again sometime with a better DM then. . . I doubt I'd want to DM it myself, but as a player in the right hands I could probably diminish my loathing.