Monday, March 29, 2010

System Friendly

As it happens, I’ve never played 2nd, 3rd or 4th edition D&D. So you may take this with a grain of salt. You may take this with many grains of salt. I have no intention of deriding or making any comment on the quality of these versions of D&D at this time. Nevertheless, I do believe from sources that I am speaking to both on and off line, that the latest versions, specifically 3.5 and 4.0, are killing the hobby.

Let me say that in some ways, my own version of the game is also a culprit in this, deserving the same accusation I’m levelling at these other versions. I don’t mean to say that I, personally, am killing the game (my head is not that big, thank you) … but on some level this blog and the sentiments in this blog are creating an unsustainable situation vis a vis the overall popularity of the game.

We’re too fucking complicated.

It occurred to me as I stood up to play a game of chess, chatting with a bystander that I met at the convention – one of the vendors as it happened. The chess game was a board 12 feet by 12 feet, with pieces to match (the King came up to my midwaist, about 4’ tall). As I smoked my friend opponent, the bystander asked at one point: “Did you just move two pieces?”

So in less than about forty-five seconds, I explained the principle of castling to the fellow, who did not know about it … and later he employed the move without a moment’s hesitation.

And that is the issue. While chess is an enormously difficult game to play, it is not a particularly difficult game to learn … and if you play it with people who are on the same learning curve as yourself, just as enjoyable as two masters going at it.

Not so much later versions of D&D.

Each later incarnation of the game has become increasingly more complex, not merely as an overall combat/character system, but also in terms of enabling new players to do more than wait to be ordered about – more about that in a minute. The promotional period of a new player who has ‘just learned the game’ to becoming a DM – even an incompetent one – is thoroughly unrealistic if the popularity of the game is the issue. Right now this game is limping along on late forty-five year old men, who continue to play because it is a drug. But we’re not going to live forever.

When I first started playing this game, I did spend about three runnings being ordered about by the more experienced players: “swing your sword”; “stand behind the elf”; “here’s a potion – drink it when I tell you to.” But being a fast learner, and the game not being terribly complicated, I started running a D&D campaign within three months of learning the game. Hell, I started ‘self-running’ as soon as I could get photocopies of the books – which took about six weeks.

Sorry to say, but in 1979 that wasn’t at all unusual. I regularly introduced people into the game over the next few years who, within a couple of months, took a try behind the screen. Yes, some of them were gad-awful, but since the main issue was picking when the orc attacked, and keeping track of the orc’s hit points, even gad awful made for a decent combat running. And people got better with practice.

But put twelve rule books into a noobie's hands and just forget it. Guarantee, someone is going to have to be there to say where in the books to look, what rule applies where and how, and to put a stop to players so overwhelmingly trampling all over the DM when it comes to rule calls as to spoil any chance of a game. It is what I’ve had to do in my daughter’s case, where she is gamely trying to run my system without getting hopelessly confused. None of my other players remotely considers the possibility of DMing.

(Partly, that’s because they don’t want to go simple – a problem with supercomplicated is that you don’t want to go back. Now, again, that’s not a problem for us … but it is a problem when it comes to spreading the popularity of the game. Again, I’m not saying the games are good or bad – just that they’re horribly difficult to learn)

In the last three months I have introduced four new players into the campaigns my daughter and I run; plus one more who hasn’t played so much D&D. My first and foremost effort has been to simplify the game as much as possible for these players. I sometimes have to shut down my other players from explaining rules to the noobies, because my long time players give too much information all at once. No one learns well that way. The best thing is to explain little bits, very clearly, and try not to expand the big picture.

For example. This is a sword. It causes 1 to 8 damage. It doesn’t do the newbie player much good to launch into the fact that there are dozens of different kinds of swords, that all do different amounts of damage and are used in different ways. The player, at the moment, just has the one sword – they only need information about that sword. More information, and they get confused as to what die they ought to be rolling for damage.

Used to be, there was only one sword (or possibly two swords, short and long). The system was naturally simple. What must it be like, I wonder, to have to explain the fifteen different attacks for 4e, while having your players complicate the situation by talking about the attacks different characters are allowed, plus the attacks the noobie might get a chance to use someday? Sounds hellish. And it must drive off would-be new players.

Here is an argument for ODD: reduced complexity, easy learning. Logically, if anything I’ve said here has merit, the ODD movement should produce scads of new players, simply because those new players will find ODD much friendlier than complicated systems like mine and those later editions. And then, once they’ve learned on the old system, the noobies might take a crack at this complicated stuff.

Here’s hoping.


R said...

I agree on the complexity issue. I'm really focused on game design and playability and try to tailor my game in that respect. One of the things I've always done when training new players is very similar to your sword example: just hand them a die and tell them their chances when they want to try something "14 or higher on a 1d20" and so forth. Just because the game is complex doesn't mean the learning has to be (clearly this is very hard for new players who don't know anyone else).

I play 2nd Edition only because I was 8 in 1989 and my 10 year old brother got his first handbook that year. Had I been born 10 years earlier I'm sure I would be on the 1e bandwagon. However after 20 years I realized that I just cherry pick the best of whatever edition rules I like, and I suspect a lot of other people do the same. Your blog has been so seamlessly compatible with 2nd edition that I wrongly assumed you played a 2e campaign until you explicitly said otherwise.

Telecanter said...

Oddly, I just posted something about abstraction in D&D this morning.

So, I'll go you one step further and say: not only do new players need complexity obscured to making learning to play easier, but most of that complexity is probably unnecessary to enjoy adventure gaming even by experienced players.

Chris said...

This is why there are so many rules-lite and retro games these days. You cannot teach a person to play 3.5 or 4e in an hour but they can create a character and begin playing an S&W or LL game in under 10 minutes, and can learn the rest while playing.

Carl said...

While I agree that there is a significant learning curve for PLAYING 4e, the same can not be said for RUNNING it. 4e is probably the easiest version of the game to run with the possible exception of original/basic D&D. It is certainly far easier to run than 1e,2e or 3e. It is probably the only version of the game that has made it mechanically easier to be the DM than to be the player. Players have to know how to use all their powers - even if they are printed on cards for them, this still means understanding and utilizing a lot of information. Behind the screen, however, 4e has stripped away everything that is not absolutely essential to the game.

4e does not try to create a system that can simulate a world - 4e focuses only on providing just enough mechanics to run the game, and everything else is fluff that can be created as needed by the DM. Simply glancing at a 3e monster stat block vs. a 4e will make this point clear. NPCs are likewise rendered in a far simpler fashion than PCs, unlike earlier editions which used the same rules for both.

One of the ways that 4e has made it easy to DM is by meticulously stripping away any element of the game that could be open for interpretation (and in this regard, 4e is FAR easier to DM than OD&D). Spell effects and conditions such as blindness, being knocked over, etc., all have simple mechanical consequences that obviate the need for a DM to make a ruling.

Note that I am not saying any of this is necessarily a good thing, but I thought I should mention that 4e has made it MUCH simpler to be a DM than earlier editions.

Blair said...

"I sometimes have to shut down my other players from explaining rules to the noobies, because my long time players give too much information all at once."

I call that "Muddying the waters," as in "Look at the newbies Dexterity score, it's 10 so there's no point in muddying the waters explaining dexterity bonuses to him!"

Mattbot said...

WoTC has a 4e D&D Essentials product in their pipeline which seem to be meant to address the steep learning curve for new players. It's still the full 4e ruleset but represented in a "walkthrough" approach of adventures which seem like they are supposed to mimic the process of learning the rules from a more experienced player. (Also of note, the design is modeled of the BECMI Red Box and the book sizes are to by 6" by 9". They must still get the old school bug now and again too.) But, they've got their work cut out for them.

I play and enjoy 4e and I think it's improvement over 3.5 which became smothered in complexity. I did find the learning curve of 4e pretty steep at first since it is such a radical departure from previous editions.

Character creation is the most complex part of 4e which puts the entry bar for new player pretty high. The downloadable Character Builder program is practically required to get it done quickly and it's necessary for someone in the group to purchase a D&D Insider online subscription to keep the program up to date.

It should also be noted that most players I've seen that get past the character building learning curve absolutely relish the options they have for character customization. Increasing character complexity has been a trend since 1e and probably for a good reason.

Carl is correcting pointing out it is one of the most DM friendly editions once you are comfortable explaining the baroque character creation rules. Monsters and NPC are pretty streamlined and their is a lot of helpful charts and guidelines for designing balanced encounter and adventures. For a new DM, this information presented in a vastly superior manner than any previous edition. A new DM will not get much in the way of world building, but they will probably avoid the Monty Haul type mistakes most starting DM make.

Blaming the latest edition of D&D for killing the hobby doesn't really ring true for me. If the state of the hobby has degraded so much that it lives or dies based on the success of a single game then the hobby probably wasn't in a very healthy state to begin with. Which game or company killed off the wargaming hobby? The ongoing and tiresome edition wars certainly aren't helping much either. I can guarantee that a new player doesn't give a toss whether a game is "old school" or not.

If you think about computer based RPGs as the primary competitor of pen and paper RPGs and name some of their primary strengths, ease of use ranks high. Players don't have to learn very many rules, the game always rolls the right "dice" for them, manages their equipment, tics off their magic points, etc. Competing with that level of simplicity is a losing proposition.

Most gamers are fairly bright beans and seem to get a kick out of complex systems. Anyone who reads this blog probably fails into that generalization. Perhaps we should just accept that outside influences have drawn off the more casual gamers and get on with determining the amount of farmers per acre required to feed a walled citadel five 25-miles hexes away during a magically induced drought.

Keeping the hobby healthy is probably more a matter of recognizing other people who can appreciate such things and inviting them to join you for a game.

Lord Gwydion said...

Anecdotal evidence (I read it on the must be true!), but it seems like lots of parents are starting off their kids with S&W or LL these days.

Teach the kids on the simple versions, and let them migrate to the more complex versions when and if they want later. Seems like a smart plan to me.

eabod said...

Having not played 4E you simply are not qualified to assert that it is "killing the hobby", nor can you justifiably assert that it is too difficult. Perhaps among 45 year old men, but not in general.

No one in my group had played 4E before last week. Half of them had never played a pen-and-paper role-playing game at all. All of them learned to play in less than four hours. This week's session and they were already experimenting with tactics. It is not difficult to understand or to play. (None of the humans in the group is over 36 years old, by the way, and half are female.)

Nor do I agree with the implied assertion that the hobby itself is dying. My own town has several role-playing hobby stores, all of which appear to be thriving financially. One of them even has gaming tables that are so active on the weekends that it is difficult to maneuver about to actual browse the merchandise (at least three tables were playing 4E last time I went in on a Saturday - I didn't go into the back room, where there is no merchandise, only game tables).

It is my opinion that WotC made the wise decision to update the system to something which younger people could easily understand, having been raised with a familiarity with video and collectible card games, and that decision is doing well for them. I do think it has probably lost them quite a few players of older editions, as these people are less likely to have the background that makes the current edition's rule set familiar.

James V said...

...– a problem with supercomplicated is that you don’t want to go back...

A very good point. IIRC, when Wizards of the Coast surveyed RPG players in the early 2000s to learn about what they liked in an RPG, rules mastery scored high. When it comes to RPGs, there are a lot of people who enjoy having lots of rules and then understanding them to their advantage. I think this may be the reason why there are plenty of games that have a lot of complexity in the rules.

On the other hand, those people were already playing. IME, if you're new, that stuff is daunting, and I wouldn't blame someone for not thinking it's fun or wanting to deal with it*.

*Appropriately, the new players who did catch on quick to complex games were into video games. There's an 11 year-old in our group who I'm sure has been able to get our games because he's played ridiculous amounts of Pokemon, and Final Fantasy Tactics. Complex games that also reward rules mastery.

Kevin said...

This is something that I think the B/X D&D did very well: by only giving you three levels to think about, the possible complications were kept to a minimum. I remember the... culture shock, I guess, when I was given AD&D books as a gift, having up to that point considered myself a master of all that was D&D. They seemed to be written in an alien language (to be fair, Gygax's prose is still fairly impenetrable to me).

I picked up the Dragon Age box set, from Green Ronin; it's an explicit attempt to recapture the appeal of the limited box set with a limited subset of the rules. I suspect it will be my old-school-flavored game of choice for teaching my kid about RPGs; it has the same bare simplicity and utility I remember from Moldvay's version of Basic D&D.