Friday, January 16, 2015

5th Edition & AD&D

The following is a question for Timothy Brannan, in relation to two comments he made on this post and this post by B/X Blackrazor.  I don't want to further hijack JB's page and I don't want to start a war, I only want to make a point that I feel needs to be made in light of 5th Edition.

Here's part of Brannan's comment from Wednesday's post, Hey, Mike Mearls:

"There isn't a damn thing wrong with 5e. In fact it is a fine game.  I have been playing it now for a while and it's a lot of fun. It is right up there with 1st Ed AD&D and Moldvay Basic."

Then, Brannan again from Thursday's post, I Am Sorely Tempted . . .:

"I have played the game a lot over the last few months. I like it. It is fun. It is right up there with playing AD&D1."

In no way whatsoever do I wish to dispute these statements, nor impugn his sincerity or mock the repetition - indeed, I wish to stress that the repetition proves his sincerity.

Timothy Brannan reads this blog, or enough people he knows do, so I have no doubt that he'll see this question.


If the present 5th Edition game is as good as AD&D, that being the measure of a good game, what has the WOTC accomplished in 40 years of remaking D&D that we ought to celebrate?


Matt said...

Well, they did create 2 overcomplicated messes of game systems that made us welcome a reissue of the old books just to be rid of them. That's an accomplishment, right?

But, less snarky, WOTC has created a new meta-game to the Dungeons and Dragons game. The mess of options and powers and possibilities is a mess at an actual game table, unless that game table is tightly organized or run by a DM that's willing to ignore the stupider rules. The same mess of options let the disgruntled, gameless player sit and tweak and fiddle and fantasize with countless possible heroes. Countless characters built to do X thing, or to handle Y circumstance, or to build Z Imperial Star Destroyer from which to lord over the medieval peons of the world. It is the same masturbatory deck-building game that people who buy card games but who do not play card games do.

Writing books that encourage work, and guide a player or DM in doing that work is a difficult endeavor. You are going to frustrate a lot of people who don't want to work. You have to set tangible goals of what makes a good game. You have to declare certain habits and practices as bad, wrong, or at least counterproductive.

Masturbation material though? That's easy to sell. Fill an entire book full of "Look how cool you can make a paladin!" or "Look at all these magic items you can ask Santa DM to bring!" or "Look at these neat places you can have your players visit! Won't they be so very impressed at these brief descriptions of vaguely defined outer planes? I mean, when you actually find players who will settle for that anyway!"

I owned every single one of those books, (Divine Power, Treasure Vault, and Planes Above for 4th edition) and more. When I planned D&D sessions I wasn't planning, I was mentally masturbating to the thought of adventure that was marketed to me. If I saw a player before game day we would often look over options and feats and powers presented in a new book. We'd sneak peaks at the new books at the local Comic Book Store like we were teenage kids looking at an unwrapped playboy (who inexplicably didn't have the internet I guess? Outdated example.)

When we made characters for a new campaign it was a veritable circlejerk of "When I become this level, and take this power, I can get this item and then in battle I can stun the enemy every round!" Then the next person would begin with "Well my Monk will be able to use this power, combined with this other power and this feat to move 14 squares in one action, and attack 3 times along the way!"

In college I talked more about D&D than I ever played (even though I was at one point running 2 weekly games, my classes be damned) and more of the conversations were about the characters that player would make one day, or the world that a DM would love to run, and very little about the games we were playing.

Because, to exhaust my metaphor here, the porn was better than the sex. WOTC has produced slick books with flashy mechanics, attention grabbing art, and all of the right teases of character anatomy so that you can dream of what it's like to be there. Once you get the game on the table though you realize just how much of it is impractical, ill advised, and painful.

Yarivandel said...

As much as I dislike corporate rpg's I would dare to point out that WotC's accomplishment lies at least in getting back on the right track.
Until very recently I was still running my campaigns on AD&D2 which was new the thing when I started playing. And I used some personal tweaks to go around stuff I didn't like. Out of sheer curiosity I looked at ed. 3 and 4, but they immediately put me off. They simply didn't offer anything better than the game I was already playing. Then I got my hands on 5th edition and to my initial surprise - decided to 'upgrade'.
I believe Brannan was wrong saying it's a comparable experience to AD&D1. To me, D&D5 is what ed.3 should have been. It's a streamlined AD&D, with unified mechanics so that the game runs more smoothly. Some additional masturbatory content for the players - sure, but not in abundance. Character creation takes 0.5hr. I don't allow feats.
And if numerous DMs has already done that at home some 20 years ago? Well, at least we have a decent starter edition for the newbies.
As for the manuals I must say I like the way they are written. To me they are a work of love. They inspire, I don't see them shoving predesigned ideas down our throats. They're a pretty neat collection of official D&D lore, which surely can be of no importance to anyone running his own setting. But despite occasional remarks about Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance those book are clearly designed to be the foundation of your own game. All of the contents would actually not work in any of the D&D's settings.
Maybe I am too optimistic just seeing WotC do something right at last.
I appreciate the general design of the new edition (I am partly that designer type Alexis wrote about some time ago). I don't have much time to play even less to think about mechanics and systems etc. And I like that 'game system' part of rpg-ing too because I like the game, not only the players, to surprise me. So I like that simplified, streamlined new edition.
Alexis doesn't need it. Many gamers don't need it in fact. But still, it's quite a good game.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Matt has brilliantly defined that 'game system' part of rpg-ing as a metagame of its own.

Matt, I shall try to view it that way from now on.

Matt said...

I don't deserve all of the credit. I am sure that the idea was something that I've read on the some other blog before. I honestly can't remember where though.

If anyone wants to step up and claim credit for the idea I welcome them to. Just leave me my awesome porn metaphor.

Yarivandel said...

As far as I understand Matt's remark about the 'meta-game' it referred to the mess of options and powers and possibilities. Which is sadly true with regards to D&D3 & 4. The porn analogy even more so.
Whereas I claim that D&D5 is simple and efficient in comparison. Just as much of mechanics as I need to actually play the GAME.
I agree that playing the 'game-system' in contrast to role-playing is a meta-game of its own as I believe you suggested, Alexis.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I don't believe you understand.

The 'meta-game' is talking about the game, buying items for the game, dreaming about the game, fantasizing about being certain imagined characters that have never been rolled up, walking through the stores and chatting up the owner, etc.

It has nothing to do with the application of the game parts to the game or to actually playing.

Oddbit said...

This is WotC.

It's simple now because they haven't released the 20 planned expansion books yet.

Yarivandel said...

I see.
This metagame exists everywhere where passion & business meet.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nope, still not quite getting it. It's where PRETEND passion & business meet.

It is like those people who are more in love with the IDEA of making movies than actually making them, or the IDEA of being famous without any understanding of what it takes to get there or hold onto it.

It is the oh-so-popular insistence that I'm an artist because I say I'm an artist, not because I do artist things or because anyone respects my art. It is the eternal preparation for the performance as an excuse for never having to perform - because as long as you are still preparing, it isn't that you suck, it is just that you're not yet READY.

It is faux passion.

It is the faked orgasm.

Blaine H. said...

For some anti-social fools who have either flirted with gaming or have been kicked out of their previous groups, the mental masturbation and meta-game is all they have. All they have is rating classes against each other based off of capabilities existing in a sterile environment and figuring out the right combination of spells and abilities to do anything and everything while bashing everyone who thinks otherwise on the internet. They lack the social interaction and personal aspect.

Most of these meta-gamer folk as actually some of the most wretched folk you will ever run across in person. They whine endlessly about how 'overpowered' something is or how such and such needs a boost in capability to keep up with what ever flavor of the month splat book has come dribbling out of corporate recently. They bitch about this book and that book or this option should not included because of some asinine or obfuscated reason... usually revolving around this person not wanting to do any research into what they are wanting to ban or fears that the banned material will break their precious meta-game/world view.

It gets tiring. I'll admit, I kinda still want to play 2e AD&D with the Player's Options books (proto-3e) more than I want to play 3e but I also prefer Pathfinder or the Sword and Sorcery or AEG's books (White Wolf's 3.X shell company) for being often far better quality than anything WotC pukes out... but at least I tried them.

But engaging in the meta-game... it takes any and all soul out of the game (or any game) to be honest.

Sadly... D&D (in any of it's forms) does not lend itself very well to an organic, enhance as you go style of game play. It always has been very painfully hard coded that there will be optimal choices and that if you make a sub-optimal choice in terms of class, proficiencies, feats, spells, and what not... you rapidly become a detriment to your party as a whole. If you can't pull your weight against the encounters that the party is fighting, well... it is almost as bad as the meta-game following power gamer in being campaign wrecking.

Which is a shame honestly.

William Jones said...

Oooh, didn't realise all this was going on while I was telling you guys all about my experiences with 5e, I probably would have tried to be a little bit more subtle had I realised, I've only just found this blog and really don't want to rile up the locals!

I do have a few points of interest though, just to respond to some of the things I've read here.

Firstly, there seems to be a very curious idea that talking about, mentally masturbating over, if you will the game is a mutually exclusive to playing it - or at the very least, somehow detracts from the playing. I'm yet to meet the director (and in the real world I am a camera operator) who doesn't bang on endlessly about the higher concepts of cinematography and yet to meet the CCG player who has had any success in any tiers of the scene who doesn't spend endless hours constructing his deck and running solo games to stress test it. Likewise, I'm yet to meet the person with a spouse or long term partner who doesn't self service on a regular occasion, not that I believed anyway!

Just because I talk endlessly about D&D to my players and others, get excited over the latest, and indeed older material that is new to me, find new inspiration every day in life and communicate my pleasure to others does not make my game a worse experience. Surely the opposite would be true? And I certainly make endless characters who will never see a game, endless maps of regions my players are never likely to explore, endless interesting NPC's who never see the light of a gaming session, sometimes I run a party or PC through my own campaign just to test an aspect, to clarify a rule, or just because I really enjoy it! I would argue that this time I have put in has only improved my game. I do understand that there are customers of WotC out there who do all of those things but never apply this to improve their game or don't even play, but my comment is, it's not these activities in themselves that are signals of a bad player, it's that a bad player will not bother to apply this experience to their game or will not bother to seek out a better game.

My second discussion point is this: I cannot make a character in 5e that takes half an hour. I made one just last night, I started at 7ish, I finished at 3 in the morning. Admittedly it's new to me and I am ludicrously slow at these things, also I was adding in the Biological Units concept I adapted from a recent post on this blog into the character but I would argue that if you can make a character in such a short space of time, it's either not a very good character or it's so similar to many other characters you have created, you can go through on autopilot.

Finally, on game balance and the endless discussion on "optimal" and "powergaming", the player who cannot see the strength of their own character even if it is "sub-optimal" in some area is surely missing the point. Give me a character with every attribute a 3, a mage who wears armour and tries to fight and I will have far more fun than if you gave me a supremely optimised, every stat an 18 , perfectly integrated into the party type of character. I have run a level 7 party who could take on anything in the D&D universe so good were they at optimising their characters and planning encounters. I am currently running a party of 6's and 7's who struggle with wolves, to a powergamers eyes, they are an absolute mess (and I refuse to allow even animals to go down without some tuckers kobolds thinking) but to my players, they are a huge amount of fun. A party should be able to self balance independently of the number in the level box, the current party would avoid a dragons lair like the plague. The only problem comes when the players are getting frustrated that their foes are not "cool enough" but I see that as a failing of the DM, and would personally see that as a challenge to make an encounter with a pack of wolves just as cool as an encounter with a pack of dragons!

Alexis Smolensk said...


No one is saying that the metagame ruins actual gaming. We're only downgrading people who seem to play the metagame while virtually IGNORING the played game, or mocking those who play the game seriously.

You do seem to be new here and while your lengthy comments are interesting, pay special attention to point #2 of the comment guidelines above the box where you comment. You're in danger of skirting that issue when you give too much detail of your world, where none of us are ever going to play. Have you considered starting a blog?

The subject was, what should the WOTC be celebrated for, not game balance, how long it takes to make a character or what excites you. Your enthusiasm is refreshing and appreciated, but let's stick to the subject.

Everything you've said was true of the game 35 years ago, when I started. What has the WOTC managed to improve since then?

Blaine H. said...

Well, based on the original question at the end of the article... what has WotC accomplished in 40 years of remaking D&D?

Well, lets see. They have discovered that TSR had built a system that was actually interesting before they took the 2e players options and running hog wild with it.

They accomplished the goal of somehow shoehorning in an incredible amount of options into a static level oriented game that would make more storyteller oriented engines blanch while proving that you do not need to do quality control on the products published... not that there was much in the way of quality control in the RPG industry in the first place... and still rake in piles of money.

In essence, they have done nothing really to celebrate. They change for the sake of change and little else. They innovate when there is not a call for innovation. When a player base calls for refinement or the fixing of current issues, WotC seems to have a history of just tossing the baby out with the bath water and making a whole new engine, often at the effect of making long term fans unhappy.

The fact that they went running back to disused ideas from a company they bought and gutted almost two decades ago in a hopes of bringing players back while desperately hoping by resurrecting concepts from an edition they had pretty much kicked to the curb (and spawned their nemesis in the process) is a good sign that we should not be praising or celebrating WotC in any way.

They are not TSR and their track record proves it. Three editions, three new game engines. At least with TSR, you had a feeling that when we changed from 1e AD&D to 2e AD&D or to 2e revised, there was still enough things that were similar that we were not alienated. WotC, you know your old books are pretty much garbage or will require a massive retrofit of confusing and half-editted worthless rules to make them still be more than just minor reference material.

In essence, it doesn't matter if 5th is as good as 2nd... there is just too many dead bodies piled up on the road over the last 16 years thanks to WotC to really be excited over going back in time to the halcyon days of the mid to late 90's but with a sprinkle of sparkles from the last 15 years to pacify those generations of gamers.

Alexis Smolensk said...

As ever, we have the march of the apologists.

The fact that the WOTC set out to do something, then did it, does not provide a reason to CELEBRATE. I am sorry that apologists do not realize this.

Yes, SOME old-schoolers did want to play a supported game. How does this translate as a 'throng,' beyond the fact that some of these were quite loud in their bleating insistence? I do not see how this is worthy of CELEBRATION.

How does a single apologist's limited experience with games, or that apologist's confusion about the game I play, that I've written 1,500,000 words describing (not an exaggeration) translate into a reason to be celebratory?

The problem with apologists who rush to the defense of the WOTC is that they spend so much time defending things that have no actual relevance to the topic at hand.

I'm deleting the two posts I published earlier this evening under point (3) of my commentary guidelines. I have thought better of my decision to overlook their failings.

Please do not use this blog as a forum to make apologies or arguments defending the WOTC. Don't explain their actions. I can do that as well as anyone. Explain why I should consider their actions praiseworthy.

William Jones said...

With the re-clarification of the question, the only answer is that there is no reason at all to consider their actions praiseworthy, they are a business entity doing exactly what it is designed to do, gather money into it's control. It and every other business entity in the world exist to do just that and they all use a variety of tactics to do so, one tactic being to look altruistic. It is however, just a tactic. The way I interpreted the question for my previous answer was that we could look for the silver lining, and celebrate it, no matter how unintentional it may be, but now I properly understand the question, this is my answer. I am disheartened (slightly) that my previous answer saw me labeled an apologist, I really am not!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Not you, William. The two apologists were those whose comments I first approved, then thought better about it.

Of course they are a business. But compare that business to Harley Davidson, for example; or Edmonton's BioWare; or TED; or Google. Hell, look at Paizo. They're not dog-fucking their clientele on a regular basis.

Those people who are arguing, "Well, they're a company doing company things" are putting that bar awfully fucking low. They took over a game that was loved by hundreds of thousands of people, then proceeded to make 'business decisions' about their product that would have destroyed Coca Cola, much less some tiny division servicing a small market share like ours.

Why are they not ruined? Because we STILL love the game.

We're like those battered women vigorously defending the asshole that repeatedly raped and beat us, screaming pathetically, "He's a good man and I love him!"

But no, William, I am NOT painting you with that brush; I did understand what you were trying to do with your post - this rant is directed at others.

tussock said...

WotC put D&D under the OGL/SRD, and everyone got to write whatever they liked for it (aside from digital tools, unfortunately). That's well praiseworthy.

They performed serious, methodical market research after buying out TSR, finding out what the mid-90's customer base liked, didn't like, and would actually pay money for. Probably for the last time, unfortunately. But that was very good, less so in hindsight.

The combination of those two lead to a flourishing internet and publishing culture for 3rd-party support works for, and discussion of, D&D. Initially around the high-selling 3rd edition, later for all sorts.

They paid Gary Gygax to come back and talk about and write for D&D. And then he kinda just told everyone how good AD&D was.

For about 12 years now I wouldn't say much for WotC/D&D, but the early days when Monte, Skip, and Jonathan produced a game that tens of millions of people enjoyed for at least a few years, that generated a huge user-driven support culture on the net, with legal backing, that was exceptional.

As I recall they stopped D&D lawyers from suing people for talking about D&D on the internet too. Praise for not being early-90's TSR.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't see that, tussock. I think the conversation about the game on the internet was inevitable. I do not believe that it happened because of the OGL.

We talked about D&D constantly in the 1980s - and the conversations I see online today sound EXACTLY like those conversations we used to have. I can't see what the OGL, or any other initiative from the company, has done to change the dialogue.

No doubt, a lot of young people got their first experience with the internet, role-playing and the OGL at the same approximate time - and that has created a theory that the one has something to do with the other. I can assure you, however - this sharing of information was going on long, long ago.

Give credit for the dialogue where credit is due. With the players.

Zrog (ESR) said...

First of all, love this post and comment thread. Sorry I'm so late replying.

I don't think TSR, or WotC, has done anything to celebrate since they introduced AD&D1, personally. All they've done is put out an increasing amount of blather which sounds cool but doesn't solve the fundamental game mechanic problems of scaling, increasing complexity by level, caster-scaling vs. melee-scaling, and a host of other problems that have been plaguing the game. Yet, as Alexis pointed out, they've never had the balls to actually FIX a system - they just start over again. And, like computer coding, every complete re-write just introduces a ton of new bugs.

It's almost like each edition doesn't actually learn from its predecessors, but instead goes off in a new direction, hoping that maybe this is the answer and all the problems of the past will magically go away, or at least no one will notice until they've played 2 years in a campaign, and discovered the new failings. Of course, by then several additional source books are out, further muddying the issues, and unlike a company that sells product that actually have to work or no one will buy them, a company that spits out content for something that, in the end, only exists in our heads (our campaigns and characters), doesn't have to actually make something that works well - they just have to keep giving us the hope that the next edition is better, or at least more interesting, so we'll keep buying books and keeping them in business.

I agree with some of the posts above that say that 5e has at least accomplished the task of creating an easy-to-adminstrate-and-learn, version of D&D that the short-attention-span youths of today can sink their teeth into. Perhaps the generation that mostly plays RPG video games will appreciate a vacation from those finite worlds, and might actually use their own imaginations for once... maybe that's something worth celebrating.