Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Revise?

The question that every D&D blogger has looked at since January is, "what do I hope for in D&D Next?"

Everyone has had a few months now to calm down after the announcement of D&D Next. A few groups have gotten to sample the first public iteration of the rules at conventions or playtest them at home. No one's allowed to openly discuss the nitty-gritty yet, but those NDA restrictions will be relaxed before long, I expect.

I'm going to devote this week to looking at what a new edition of D&D means: the history of new editions, why revision is necessary, the relationship between players and publishers, and the effect of a new edition on players, campaigns, and the gaming community.

Every new edition seeks to fix problems in the previous edition. Whatever those problems are, they need to be big. Fans don't like switching from edition X to edition X+1. A transition can be exciting and it can energize a flagging campaign, but it's also laborious, expensive, and divisive. If the revision doesn't tackle big issues, then it's not worth the players' time, expense, and effort.

The key here—and I'm going to return to this notion more than once—is that those problems tend to bother game designers more than they bother players. Players get accustomed to the game's idiosyncrasies, rough spots, and breakdowns. Some players even come to like them. R&D's tolerance for component failure is lower than the playing public's, for a host of reasons. (Of course, sales play a role, too. I'll delve into that a bit more on Wednesday.)

Let's take a short stroll through past editions and consider each version's problems that the next iteration tried to fix.

OD&D was idiosyncratic and hard to follow. The rulebooks were disorganized, vague, incomplete, and pretty thoroughly amateurish. At the same time, and sometimes for the same reasons, they were also charming and irresistible.

In 1977, TSR published the "blue box" edition, also known as the Holmes edition (after J. Eric Holmes, the book's editor). This wasn't really a revision or an edition change. Instead, it was a cleaned up version of the original three little books organized and presented in a way that made more sense. The blue box played a big role in the explosive growth of the game in the late '70s, because a person could pick up this set and actually understand how to play the game.

That same year saw the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike the Holmes box, AD&D was a new game. Its aim was to bring a higher degree of detail and unity to the "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" attitude that prevailed in the early years of D&D. The increased detail was obvious, but revisions to the game's rules and math were less obvious. The fact that AD&D was functionally a separate game and not just a more detailed version of D&D was never clearly spelled out, so the changes caused a lot of confusion. Even worse, the first book released was the Monster Manual instead of the Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide. Those titles followed in 1978 and 79, respectively. Without the PHB and DMG to put the Monster Manual in context, players naturally assumed that MM was fully compatible with the 1974 and 1977 rules. Plenty of people mixed D&D and AD&D for years, stumbling over the contradictions with varying degrees of patience, without ever grasping that the books weren't meant to be mixed that way.  

The D&D Basic and Expert sets appeared in 1981. Although these looked like a redesign of OD&D/Holmes, Basic/Expert D&D (B/X or BECMI, as it's now known) wasn't simply another clean-up. It more properly stands on its own as a separate game, and in that light, it is the longest-lasting version of D&D. It received numerous polishes and different presentations, but the rules survived with only minor tweaks from 1981 until TSR closed its doors in 1997. This edition has been reincarnated, still largely unchanged, in a host of retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

In 1989, TSR published AD&D 2nd Edition. We set out to do for AD&D what Holmes had done for OD&D, though it was a much taller order. The goal was to make the game more coherent, eliminate contradictions between the original books and their expansions, and organize all of it in a rational way. 

Third Edition, published in 2000, was the most sweeping revision so far. 2nd Edition AD&D was far more coherent than its predecessor had been, but it still wasn't robust enough to handle all the expansions and evolutions that were eventually hung on it. 3rd Edition sought to address those weaknesses by building a powerful framework that could be stressed any number of ways without breaking. For the most part, it accomplished that goal admirably, and more. Some adjustments were made in 2003, creating version 3.5. But eventually, much of the clarity and playability of this wonderfully rational system was obscured beneath a welter of expansions and optional books that grew increasingly baroque and rococo, qualities that are marvelous in sculpture but not as desirable in RPG design. Once again, the game needed a good dose of unification and consolidation. 

In 2008, 4th Edition dropped. The 3rd edition framework had sustained, without breaking, considerably more growth and modification than any previous edition, but it was groaning under the weight. A radically different, more compartmentalized approach might bear that weight better. In my opinion, 4th Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn't pick up the new banner. However admirable the system might be, it couldn't rise above the dysfunctional relationship between publisher and player (about which I'll say more later this week). 

That brings us up to now and the first glimmerings of D&D Next. WotC has already announced at least one of the reasons for DDN--to repair the schism caused by 4th Edition. Its full goals will become more apparent as the development and playtesting calendar advances.

Throughout all these cycles of decay and revision, a common thread has been a steady increase in complexity.  OD&D, Holmes D&D, and Basic D&D were mechanically simple games. The rules of AD&D weren't much more complex than D&D's, but AD&D was more challenging to play. The challenge came from the wealth of corner cases covered in the rules. Thanks to its chattily vague tone and the  general disorganization of the rulebooks, AD&D felt more complex than it really was. 

Second Edition has gained a reputation for being a simpler game that shifted emphasis away from the rules and onto the story. In fact, 2E had more rules than 1st Edition, a net increase in complexity. Much of what had been offered as advice in 1E, along with concepts that most people had added as home rules, were codified into official rules in 2E. Because the books were better organized and the rules more clearly explained, the complexity seemed less instead of more, to most people at least.

The foundational rules of 3rd Edition--the d20 system--were more elegant than anything D&D had seen in the past. The result could have been a simpler game, but it wasn't. Players were offered such a bewildering array of options that the only way many people could move forward was to ignore most of them. (That's the subject for this week's Howling Tower blog over at Kobold Quarterly.) 

Fourth Edition took a different course but ultimately laid on the same tack. You could argue, with some merit, that 4E is the most elegant version of D&D since 1981's B/X. As with 3E, that elegance is largely swamped by the overwhelming array of choices the player needs to make before rolling the first die.

So from D&D to AD&D and back to D&D again, the game has marched from simply confusing, to simple, to steadily more complex. The nature of that complexity has changed substantially. In the '70s and '80s, AD&D suffered from mechanical complexity. With the advent of 3E, most of the mechanical problems were smoothed out and replaced with a new type of complexity: option fatigue. That's the topic over at Kobold Quarterly.


  1. Looking forward to your thoughts on the influence of sales and the dysfunctional relationship between publisher and player, Steve!


  2. Good analysis, Steve. Thanks! B/X & BECMI's longevity is indeed an amazing feat. :)

    1. B/X's astounding longevity had never really struck me before I started outlining this essay. Part of that is because for many of those years, B/X was just chugging along under the radar while all corporate attention was focused on AD&D. But it's undeniable that B/X simply works. It's a two-stroke engine on a 30-year-old lawn mower that just won't quit. Every other manufacturer has moved on to four-cycle engines that need constant care and maintenance, and you can't get replacement parts for this old one anymore ... but you don't need them, because the darned thing just keeps hammering steadily away no matter how much you abuse it. You have to respect it for that alone.

    2. I agree, a good analysis on all counts Steve and your follow-up comments concerning B/X are interesting in light of the online evidence that LL seems to be the most popular of the clones, if all the various polls are to be believed. Another case of quietly chugging along while bigger, shinier models grab all the focus.

  3. This really struck a chord with me. As kids, we moved on from D&D to AD&D because the B/X rules didn't answer all of our questions, and didn't cover enough situations. Same thing goes for MERP and Rolemaster. Thankfully games like Castles & Crusades prove that you don't have to be complex to be comprehensive.

  4. Wow, that is an interesting perspective on the various editions. I personally couldn't disagree more with this assessment and have always felt that later editions were more about selling core rulebooks, which Ryan Dancey was saying before the advent of 3E, were where the profits were to be had.

    As a DM and player I never needed any other core rules than the 1st edition books, which doesn't bode well for a company making their money from selling newer and newer rulebooks. Rather than unification and clarification in newer editions it seemed to me that the rules attempted to remove the imaginative and creative roleplaying aspects of the game and gear it further and further toward a more boardgame-like system.

    So far each edition has appeared to be a system in a state of decline like a well crafted engine repaired by patchwork, coathangers and duct-tape till it finally grinds to a halt, or just about any series of movie sequels. Will this latest edition be our Rocky V or worse, our Star Trek V with a badly written script and a sadly aging cast.

    1. I suspect you'll find tomorrow's installment interesting, as it directly addresses some of the other concerns you mention.

  5. This is an interesting analysis, particularly on the jump from 2nd edition to 3rd. I didn't follow that leap either, as I prefer the flaws that are inherent to 2e over those that 3e introduced.

    It seems to me that every edition change is something along the lines of a paradigm shift: old problems become irrelevant by the way the new paradigm is framed but it also exposes NEW gaps.

    I never had the experience that a lot of people appeared to have had with older editions, that sort of anger at how obtuse they were (were they really that bad? I never had issues with them) and the complaints about math.

    I would honestly argue that AD&D is much more versatile than 3e or 4e could ever be. To support this contention, I point you to the Al-Qadim books which are essentially complete remodels of the AD&D 2e system for a specific setting. The same could be said of some of the overhauls made in Dark Sun. The system continues to work under the new rules introduced in those settings, and works well. Honestly, I think the Al-Qadim books are some of the best roleplaying products ever produced as they seamlessly alter the core AD&D system into something so fitting for Arabian Adventures without missing a beat.

  6. And excellent analysis with some excellent seldom-made points on comparing the two AD&Ds.

    I really wish Lulu would hurry up and get me that hardback copy of LL Revised I ordered.

  7. Great stuff, Steve!

    I don't think of Basic as being such a stalwart. I think of it more as being the old lawnmower you keep around for parts and memories, rather than to mow the lawn... and I think that was true for most. Sure, it (they) has admirable qualities, and I love me some nostalgia, but the play numbers of AD&D just seemed so much bigger and the experience so much better. Even today, while we have fans of retroclones (and I'm enjoying playing through the editions), Basic has serious limits. And, each version has such wildly different writing styles. Blue box is a disaster, very confusing. Purple is better, with a fairly modern style. Red has such a conversational tone. Each offers something but none is complete.

    I share your perspective on 3E and 4E. They are both great systems, despite flaws. Most interesting to me is how at various time flaws in communication, sales, marketing, and execution all had an effect on the company. That effect seems most visible today, perhaps due to the immediacy of the Internet. It was only with 4E where the combination of poor communication (both marketing and how the books writing style suggested story wasn't important) and the OGL (allowing competitors to use D&D's own rules to take away segments of its own audience) hurt the company so visibly. With previous editions the company could stumble and consumers were usually blissfully unaware.

    All of this serves to make a new edition a much bigger deal than it has been in the past... and it was already a big deal in the past.

    On the other hand, I do think RPGs are better at managing such change. Companies are communicating better and researching and developing better. The approach to D&D Next has been incredibly positive - not just compared to 4E but compared to any previous RPG's approach to a new edition.

  8. @Alphastream:
    and what would be the "limits" of "Basic" D&D? I know you are a 4e player, so here is just a reminder, that "Basic" (+ECMI) does things which not AD&D (1e and to some extent 2e with some specific settings like Dark Sun and Birthright) and surely nor 3e nor 4e less of all did: provide a consistent framework for campaigns which evolve from the dungeon crawl to wilderness exploration to domain and empire management up to immortality.

    And it does so both in vertical and horizontal ways: i.e. the game becomes more complex as characters grow in level, but also as PLAYERS improve their skills; and that increase in complexity also corresponds to a paradigm shift showing what a D&D campaign may involve.

    It's not just the same game with "bigger numbers" (one of the worst aspects of 3e and most of all of 4e); the evolutions in the boxed sets define a completely different play experience.

    1. It depends on which Basic version we use. Some of the limits are editorial - the first Basic set is just terribly written. That improves in various versions, but often these are clearly set up as intro sets. The Red Box is conversational and guides you through character creation, but is very poor as a reference and for ongoing play. Are we ditching that and just going on to Expert and beyond? Better, but I find very few of us that go back to this era and find it to be superior to AD&D... and we have a long list of issues with AD&D.

      I know every older edition has fans. Of course, and I respect that. But at the aggregate, the most common experience with Basic was as a point of introduction or confusion and then rapid progression to AD&D. That wasn't just marketing. It was about the design of the game and what spoke to players most often.

    2. Obviously "Basic" is not just the Red Box. And when you go to the later sets, the perception that "Basic" is a counterpoint to "Advanced" tends to vanish: it can get as "complex" as "Advanced" without becoming baroque. Obviously history has shown that AD&D shared a larger market share, but this does not imply that BECMI didn't have a following; to the contrary, it's quite possible that the users of BECMI stood "in the background" since there weren't many products for them. In a sense, they "went under the radar." Personally, I never stopped playing with BECMI, though AD&D2e ate the larger part of our gaming time. In the last years, BECMI has replaced AD&D2e due to a number of circumstances, most of which have to do with my reduced gaming time and preparation time.

  9. "Fans don't like switching from edition X to edition X+1. A transition can be exciting and it can energize a flagging campaign, but it's also laborious, expensive, and divisive. If the revision doesn't tackle big issues, then it's not worth the players' time, expense, and effort."

    Doesn't the existence and raging success of Pathfinder offer a counter point to this? It seems Paizo pulled off a just about perfect "edition change". The first time I have seen that in the history of D&D. Weird that Pathfinder never comes up in these edition discussions about D&D when clearly it should. Granted it’s not an official D&D product but it is a successor. Also odd that the current D&D team seems very perplexed on how to get everyone “together at the same table” yet, Paizo has once again figured that out already. Certainly this deserves some discussion and I hope the current designers of D&D are looking at what the Paizo team is doing now.

  10. 4E didn't just swamp you with options. It swamped you with flash & super-powers. And it made the game just downright bizarre, separating the "fluff" and the "crunch" so completely.

    "What do you mean this power doesn't give off light? It say says right in the description 'A glowing sword appears'. Doesn't 'glowing' imply light?"

    "No. It's effects are described. You can throw it and hurt people. It doesn't do anything else."

    Older editions of D&D made no distinction between fluff and crunch. They trusted the DM to adjudicate corner cases. That's why my Rules Cyclopedia is still the game I always return to.

  11. plasticity and elastic frameworks work best for analog software (what table top RPGs are). im glad Basic onward to 2E keeps that in mind. its something 3E slightly holds onto and what 4E almost completely negates entirely.

    4E combat became the efficiency exercises of MMO players. anything outside that box was literally "wasting" potential Damage Per Round or some sort of buff/debuff CC. ill play those games on a computer, not very slowly at a table. keep RPGs imaginative, quick paced, exploration based, artistic thinking SUPPLEMENTED with secondary math, and a mutually fun time building scaffolding of imagination and story between DM and players. beyond that, is just anal, over masturbation of re-inventing the wheel.

  12. A good start, but a warded analysis IMO. I would like to see actual examples of option paralysis in 4E. Specifics would be helpful. Is option paralysis clearly evident if one only has the core books (PHB,DMG,MM)? Could, option paralysis primarily be resultant from gamers using the additional supplements, flavorings and addendum's provided by WotC?