I've heard some rumblings about a new edition of D&D today, and finally caught a couple of links in my Twitter feed. (I could just Google this stuff, but I'm lazy and feel like I can trust re-tweeted links from known sources better.)
I'm having two reactions to these rumors, and I think these apply to not only gaming, but technology and programming and all sorts of other things. (Admittedly, they are gut reactions.)
Learn to recognize when you're being sold the "next big thing" line, but don't overreact. 4E's marketing was all about how it makes the game more accessible and easier to play. And it did that, mainly by adopting some game mechanics from MMOs. Fundamentally, this isn't a bad thing. Rumors pointing to a more old-school approach suggest either it didn't work or it went too far.
This seems to be the fundamental problem with a lot of leaps in design/technology: to ease the uncertainty, it's hailed as the "next big thing" (the implication usually being that those who don't like it don't "get it"). For other examples, look at WPF vs. WinForms and .NET vs. WinRT. Or look at any new programming methodology that gets some good buzz behind it. Maybe we'd do well to consciously remember almost every "next big thing" will somehow, someday be "old and busted," if only because it loses its novelty, and that you can't say with certainty what "the next big thing" will be until well after it actually becomes "the next big thing".
But being a naysayer may be as bad as being sold on the party line. 4E was a different system than 3E. It did some things better and some things worse, but it wasn't on the whole a huge step back--more like a lateral move. Ultimately, I hope the update will capitialize on the good things while dropping the things that didn't work. But if you deny that an about-face means the whole thing wasn't as successful as hoped, you might end up missing the "next small, iterative thing" because it's not the much-heralded "next big thing."
My point, I suppose, is that the best response is to realize it is a line and ignore it. And railing against it is not ignoring it--you're still allowing the line to dictate the terms of the conversation.
As an aside, I think companies damage trust with their customers when they play a strong "next big thing" line and it fizzles. Of course, that's just me--I'm overly literal and I have a strong reaction to trying to reframe reality in ways that turn out to be decidedly unrealistic. But I have a feeling the "reality-based community" is not a large portion of anyone's target audience.
WotC is doing well to frame this announcement by focusing on the fact that game development is an iterative, sometimes opinionated process, rather than playing "the next big thing" card again. I don't know if that will convince people to buy a new set of books.
There is no universal system for anything. I find the talk of a single system a bit disconcerting. 3E was a very tools-oriented system and 4E was a very game-experience-oriented system. Both of these are valid approaches for different types of people, the success of which depends upon whether a niche will buy enough to support the product line. And the quality of each approach depends on making design choices that support that approach--it's nearly impossible to create a good restricted, simplified system and cater to people who want an open, free-form toolbox.
To put it another way, even if it's community-driven, it will not necessarily be universal.
4E was divisive is because it told 3E D&D fans "this is what we're about now." That didn't sit well with me, but I recognized 3E and 4E were the right tools for different types of campaigns (in terms of genre, feel, player types, and scheduling/effort). No matter what the company line was, I was free to choose which tools I would use.
The two approaches could almost be separate product lines, or maybe alternate rules sets of rules à la Unearthed Arcana. (And it appears this is not too far off.) But any attempt to say "this is the secret formula" will end up looking dated in a few years, even if it was borne out of community involvement and playtesting.
Of course, the rub in WotC's case is that you have to have a business model to go along with whatever decision you make. Will subscriptions work as well as they hope? I'm not sure. I only recently decided to shell out for D&D Insider, but $9.95/month is painful for one semi-regular game. Is there a middle way between a subscription-based model and model based on endless splatbooks? I don't know.
Anyway, that's my two cents. I haven't played a lot of 4E. For reasons I'm not entirely sure of (and which may have little to do with the game itself) I haven't been all that excited about learning the rules in depth as I was with 3E. Will these updates fix that for me, or will it make me say "screw it, I'm sticking with 3E"?
(EDIT: I actually went back and read some of the original source articles and updated this post.)
(Since I was recently taunted about the fact that I haven't posted anything here since August, and I've been meaning to write about this for a while, here you go.)
It's been a few months since I picked up this book at Dragon*Con (and mainly because I'd seen so many fliers for it), but I finally got around to reading it.
Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks is one man's quest to investigate, firsthand and in-depth, the various subcultures and hobbies within fantasy, sci-fi, and gaming culture. I generally like the other books I've read that use that style and approach (Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!, A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically, and Zack Parson's Your Next Door Neighbor Is a Dragon), and while they're often as much about how the subculture affects the author as anything else, the investigation in FF&GG is inextricably tied to the author's own narrative. That makes it hard to read in some cases (for example, the introduction is a bit unexpected and emotionally heavy), but the personal quest angle makes it far more interesting than a series of essays on fandom.
Ethan Gilsdorf grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading Tolkein, which often provided an escape from the difficulties of his teenage years. Eventually he grew out of it, and much of this book is really him questioning whether he missed out on anything by giving up geekdom in his 20's and whether he's really ready to abandon it for good in his 40's. Over the course of the book, he visits J.R.R. Tolkein's home in Oxford, a gaming convention in Wisconsin (where Gary Gygax founded TSR), the Society for Creative Anachronism's annual Pennsic War, a LARP weekend, Guédelon, France (where a group of people are re-creating the building of a medieval castle), Dragon*Con, and the New Zealand landmarks where The Lord of the Rings was filmed. He also discusses online gaming (mainly WoW) over the course of two chapters. Admittedly, it's not as impressive or interesting for me as some of the other subject matter, but he's thorough, giving a voice to both proponents who feel empowered by the phenomenon and detractors who have suffered addiction.
For a veteran of D&D and computer gaming, it's a fresh perspective on a culture I'm already familiar with and a reminder of how much I might have missed out on by settling into my own little niche. The book made me a little sad that Dragon*Con was 10 away; Gilsdorf's trip was in 2008, which was my second visit to the con. It made me want to take another trip to a major gaming convention like Origins. And yes, I may take crap for this, but it made me want to go to an SCA or LARP event, if only once to see what it's like. (To be fair, I don't see how you can go wrong with that mix of camping and gaming. And I think I'd rather volunteer with plot than take center-stage.)
For those outside the genre, it might be an interesting introduction for you, but it's a bit extreme. Many of the people in this book are not the kids who meet at the local gaming shop every weekend to play D&D. Many of these people are making a serious commitment that most people don't have the time for. However, it is a glimpse into the mind of fandom.
Incidentally, that brings me to Monster Camp, a documetary I got for Christmas this year. It follows several different participants (both players and plot) at the NERO Seattle LARP group.
It could almost be a companion piece to this book. In addition to showing what a typical LARP is like, it delves into the various participants lives both in- and out-of-game. Why they play. How they play. How it affects their lives outside the game. It takes place over the course of a couple of years, so you see people moving from role to role--either to different player characters, or from player to plot member, or what have you.
This represents a few months' work on the part of Mike, Cicelie, and myself (you can read more over on Mike's blog), and it's exciting that it's finally paid off. It's amazing to think that code I wrote is not only running on a real game console, it's being sold on Microsoft's online service.
So if you have a 360, please check it out. There's a free trial available, and the full game is just 80 points ($1). And if you like it, rating it would be much appreciated!
I saw on Twitter today that the KnoxOnlineGamers forum launched. They're wanting to build a community of gamers in the Knoxville area--online, board, and tabletop.
Also, if you're outside of the Knoxville area, check out TVGA. We've got a few members in the Knoxville area, but for the most part, it's Athens and Cleveland right now. (If you sign up, let me know so I can activate your account--we've had a lot of spammers recently so I have to approve accounts before they can post.)
So, I got Rock Band last night, mainly because we had 4 or 5 people at the house who all wanted to play it. I've become strangely addicted to rhythm games, starting with DDR and moving on to Guitar Hero. This is despite having no musical ability myself.
If, in fact, you often find yourself with at least 3 people who all want to play, this game is well worth the price. (Not so much if you're just looking for another Guitar Hero game.) You will spend hours on it (provided you live in a house and not an apartment, because otherwise you're going to get a call from the neighbors). It is one of the best co-op gaming experiences ever.
Especially if a couple of the people you're playing with insist on imitating members of Dethklok the entire time.
Also, this game develops even stronger delusions of musical ability than Guitar Hero. Being able to play this game does not mean you can sing, play drums, or play guitar.