Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons and the Morass of Existential Dread

Dork alert: I've spent the last several years in a state of queasy ambivalence over the upcoming edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, that's right ... for at least five years and sort of for six, the unannounced release of a revision to a tabletop role-playing game has been a source of consternation and dismay for me - even before there was official word that there would be a new edition.

Some background is in order (for those who haven't already fled in revulsion from the entire general topic). I started playing D&D in high school and played at every opportunity all the way through college. I ate and breathed it. I could quote innumerable rules passages and spell descriptions from memory. My cumulative hours for D&D in high school must have exceeded my total dating hours by some enormously embarrassing margin. Only the dispersal of my high school group to colleges across the country put a momentary halt to the hobby for me; I found a new group my second year at Trinity University.

D&D came out with its Second Edition while I was in college, and it didn't catch on with my group, perhaps as much because we were poor college students as for any other reason. But I picked it up in the '90s and had a ton of fun playing it until house ownership and child-rearing duties overwhelmed me at the end of the century. Then, in 2000, the Third Edition came out and was even better than the second. I'd sort of gotten a handle on kids and house-owning, so I found a group that wanted to give the new rules a try, and we've been playing almost every week ever since then. In 2003, we all shelled out for a new round of books for the 3.5 edition, and naturally assumed that a 4th edition was both inevitable and desirable, despite portending poorly for our pocketbooks.

Enter Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition, circa 2008. For whatever reason, the Wizards of the Coast company, publisher of D&D since 1997, decided that the new edition should not be a revision of the old rules so much as an entirely new game that used some of the same terminology. Imagine a new edition of chess in which bishops and knights were replaced with "musketeers" and "crusaders," and in which the queen could only move three squares in a row, except that once per game she could make a single move that teleported her to any square on the board that was her home color. And imagine that the visual design of the game pieces was thoroughly lackluster compared to the version you were used to playing.

In a nutshell, that was the fourth edition. It wasn't even that the game was bad - it was that its creators were trying to sell us a completely different game with the same name. The rules were so fundamentally changed that many of the adventures we'd created and enjoyed in the previous eight years would have been straight-up impossible under the new game mechanics.

Then, into the yawning void left by the end of D&D 3.5 stepped a new publisher, Paizo, producing a "new" game, Pathfinder, that really was a next edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

As a part of their attempt to dominate the market, WotC had issued D&D 3.0 and 3.5 with an "open gaming license." Essentially, anyone who wanted to use WotC's D&D game mechanics, called the d20 System, could publish any game they liked with the d20 rules as long as they met certain requirements for acknowledging and promoting the d20 System. This strategy worked brilliantly for eight years, and resulted in almost every new game on the market being a d20 System game with WotC's logos appearing on the back. But with the advent of the divorced-from-previous-D&D-reality 4th Edition, the open gaming license gave Paizo complete legal rights to picking up where D&D 3.5 left off.

And cunningly, Paizo hired top-notch artists and game designers, so that Pathfinder exploded onto the scene with higher production values than D&D 4E.

Dismayed by the new "D&D," our group ate Pathfinder up and abandoned the game some of us had been playing for almost 30 years. Nor were we alone. By 2011, Pathfinder regularly outsold D&D books, and dwindling sales caused WotC to abruptly shelve all new releases in its line of 4E products.

Now, three years later, a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is about to drop, and I find myself in a quandary.

I genuinely, wholeheartedly want to play D&D. When I talk to my non-gaming friends, I don't say I play Pathfinder every week, I say that I have a weekly D&D game. Because in everything but name, that's what it is, and that's how my mind is etched with this particular part of my sense of identity.

So I want the new edition to be good. I want it to recognize and rectify the mistakes made in the previous version. But I also have almost six years of loyalty invested in Pathfinder, and the company that produces it is one that I want to reward.

What to do?

The only thing to hope for, I guess, is that the new Dungeons and Dragons will be enough like the old Dungeons and Dragons that I can see it as the same game, while being different enough from Pathfinder that I'll be able to see the two as distinct and switch off between playing them, choosing whichever one better suits the campaign storyline style that I'm interested in pursuing at the moment.


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