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.