Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is D&D: Old Rules v. New Rules

Call it 35 years. There maybe some folks out there that will quibble a bit with the dates, but let’s keep it simple and call it 35 years. In those 35 years, we have seen at least 7 rule versions (Chainmail, OD&D, Basic, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th), and there are folks out there that would correct me and divide up OD&D a bit more, but again, let’s keep it simple and say 7 versions, partly because I like 7. Seven is a number that has an air of preciseness that is absent from a number like 5 or 10 or multiples there of.

If I look at the other role playing systems out there, most have at least 4 revisions, and some a bit more than that. If I go out and look at Warhammer or Warhammer 40K, they are both past 4 editions. Ultima, the computer game had 9 versions, not counting the online stuff they did. If I started looking further, I am sure that I would find more examples.

This naturally leads to the question of why so many versions. Was the initial version of the game so hosed up that it took seven tries to get it right? Were the game designers so inept that they just could not figure it out? Was their quality department so poor that they continually let crappy designs out the door? Or perhaps it was that the R&D department’s mantra was trial and error, however they just could not move past error? Or better yet, was TSR and WotC management totally clueless with regards to talent that they had to keep firing their staffs after each failed version?

Holy Toledo! Seven editions in 35 years. For those that are keeping score that is an edition every 5 years. So should I expect to see the 5th edition in 2013?

There are some that would call this evolution - Darwinism in the game design industry. On a more serious note, I think it is inevitable that D&D will continue to evolve. The very nature of the game invites tinkering with the rules. I have heard it said that no GM runs their game the same way, and through my personal experience, this is true. On any given day, I can browse a message board or blog and see folks suggesting new content, new rules, new classes, new fill in the blank, etc… I would even go as far as to say that today we are seeing more content and rules then has ever existed before.

If we say that there are seven editions of D&D, how many retro clones and D20 offshoots (C&C, Pathfinder, etc..) are there? At least another seven, maybe more, and that would bring our total rule sets up to 14. That translates into a new rule set every 2.5 years. So I should expect another rule set next year?

Are we moving forward, or are we moving backwards? I heard somewhere that the original rules had it right, and we should not tinker too much with the original. The original Chainmail rules were definitely rules light, coming in at 16 pages. Ponder on that for a moment. 16 pages. Jason Bulmahn’s Pathfinder RPG will come in at 560 pages. The version 2 OSRIC comes in at 402 pages. Matt Finch’s Swords and Wizardry comes in at a mere 82 pages, and seems a bit of a light weight compared to the other books.

I think as gamers, we like rules. Oh sure we say we don’t, but the evidence points otherwise. Any attempt to create a true rules light version of the game, quickly turns into a rule heavy game as soon as the fan base starts publishing content, and we can publish content at a surprising rate.

First there was Dragon magazine. Then came Dungeon. For a number of years there were just these two magazines. WotC pulled them back, and converted them to electronic format. Within two years of this announcement, we now have a number of new fan based magazines springing up all over the place. It is important to note that the primary goal of these magazines is to publish content, of which rules are a large part of them.

And we have not even touched on house rules. Could it be possible that house rules are created every week?

So with all these rule sets, has the spirit of the game been lost? In an attempt to categorize each and every tree, have we lost sight of the forest? Are we to in the weeds on the details to catch the bigger picture? Are we making rules just to make rules? For me that is an important point. I have never been a rule lawyer type. That stuff ruins the whole thing. I have blogged quite a bit about the shared game experience and I think that is the engine that drives the fun. Rules should be created with the purpose of enhancing the shared game experience, not to be the primary focus of the game. There are some that think the rules are the focus, and I think they are missing out on the creative fun that can be had.

There are a number of us that like to go back to the roots of the game, and see what drove the early games. For me, it is not so much what were the original rules, but what was the spirit of those early games. I am not convinced that the early rules had the secret sauce, or that any rule set since has had that special ingredient. For my upcoming campaign, I do not want to miss out on the spirit of fun that drove the early games.


Christopher B said...

Um, I think you meant 35 years, right? (I'm pretty sure the game's first (several) edition(s) existed well before 1984. :P)

The Badger King said...

I find it funny that when I started playing the game, I used the AD&D first edition rules for something like 10 yeahs, but in the past ten years, there's been about 3 new versions of the rules come out.

Mr Baron said...


Yikes! Ok, I guess I was a bit math challenged last night. Call it 35 years! I was going with the 1974 publish of the first D&D ruleset. But, clearly Chainmail was published before that. I have made my correction.

Matthew James Stanham said...

One interesting thing about the rules changes are "breaks from the past." AD&D first edition and second edition are pretty much entirely compatible with one another and very closely compatible with OD&D. They are less compatible with BD&D (in its various forms), but the big breaks come in 2000 and 2008 with the third and fourth editions. Those are much less compatible with what went before, as well as one another, and that is when we see springing up the various simulacrums.

Compare that to Warhammer 40,000 or Warhammer Fantasy; the big rle changes came with the second and third editions respectively. I haven't seen fifth edition 40k yet, admittedly, but third and fourth edition were so alike that large sections of the third edition rulebook was simply cut and pasted into the fourth edition.

However, then consider the bazzilions of offshoot games that the franchises have generated. Unlike D&D which had practically no offshoot games (unless you count Dungeon!, Dragon Strike, and Dragon Quest, Games Workshop continually releases new "Warhammer" games; moreover, the rules for many of those that have been abandoned are free to download from their website.

I would say that your comparisons here may be a bit selective. :D

Mr Baron said...

Without a doubt, I am ranting a bit with a sarcastic and humorous tone :). I am planning a more serious discussion about mechanics this week.

I have not seen the 5th ed WH40K rules yet, but my understanding is that it is very similar in style to 3rd & 4th ed. Their web site claims that the older army books are still compatible with minor adjustments.

Badelaire said...

Great Post. Regarding 40K5E, it is broadly similar to 4th, which was broadly similar to 3rd. You can use a 3rd edition codex with 5th edition (Necrons are one of the few armies who never got a makeover for 4th, and I can't remember if IG ever got a new codex in 4th, either. Dark Eldar and several of the divergent space marine chapters, such as Space Wolves, also use 3rd edition codices).

Regarding rules-light systems, I agree completely. The first thing a fan base does with a rules-light game is start writing supplemental rules for it - the first thing anyone did for Swords & Wizardry was to put out supplemental books for it! It is in the nature of the gamer to tinker and modify, to tack on and to play around. No harm, no foul.

And I also agree very much that despite the rules changes over the decades, the most important thing, the true "heart" of D&D (and other games), is the feelings of fun and adventure they inspire in us. Without that, no new set of rules can do what they set out to do, regardless of how "good" they are. This is why 3rd edition didn't bother me TOO much, but 4th edition, for whatever reason, just felt too much like a print version of WoW - the serpent eating it's own tail as the PnP RPG spawns video game RPGs that cause the PnP RPGs to weird is that? And unlike many others, I don't feel 3E was all that video-game driven. The really big MMORPGs had yet to come out, and all it really did was add a lot of Rolemaster and GURPS-ish traits to D&D with the skills (very RM-like) and the feats (very GURPS-like). It was re-designing D&D for the 21st century, for better or worse, while I feel 4E is redesigning it for the MMO generation. I guess that's my age-barrier right there, since I'm not an MMO person and probably never will be. Still, I carry no ire towards 4E - Castles & Crusades is my "new version of D&D", and probably will be for some time.

Mr Baron said...

Well, one of these days, GW will publish a new Space Wolves codex. One can always hope...

With the last three versions of WH40K, it feels like the GW guys are just tweaking the rules more than anything else, and probably could just have created a short PDF to describe the changes. But, I realize that does not quite sell like a $40+ hardcover rule book. I could go on and on about GW, but I will sum it up with this, they make beautiful mini's, even if they are a tad over priced!

4th ed is an interesting beast. While it is not my favorite version, my son loves it. I tried to get him hooked on C&C, but he has since discoved my 4th ed book, and he has been talking about it non-stop ever since. So maybe WotC is on to something.

With 3rd ed, I like the overall engine, but it is now suffering from serious rules bloat, and some of the stuff just needs to be cut. With the ability of just about anyone to publish a PDF using the OGL, its only a matter of time before all systems are suffering the same fate. Clearly this is not all bad, but today's players have the potentially to publish at an amazing rate. D&D encourages us to create, and we do!

Dwayanu said...

Computer games are different because they are internally limited programs; there are no such limits to what players can do once they grasp the basic concept in the original D&D booklets. Nor are human minds a field of such rapid technological advancement as computer hardware.

With WotC, what we've got are not new editions but new games. It's as if one were to hold up some more recent epic fantasy by a different writer as a "new edition" of The Lord of the Rings.

Compatibility between 4E and even 3E seems to me nearly nil, and 3E was not to my eye remarkably closer to earlier versions of D&D than many games never called by that name.

When I hear or read what players are talking about and can't make head or tale of it, I think that's a good indication. They can't understand what I'm talking about either. The different jargon is referring to objectively different things.

The supplement deluge of 2nd Ed. AD&D was still in the category of stuff one could "mix and match" or totally ignore. A bit of Holmes Basic, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry; some Empire of the Petal Throne and Metamorphosis Alpha; a splash of Arduin and Unearthed Arcana; a pinch from Palladium or even Rolemaster ... it could all work together along with one's home-brewed ingredients. Or, one could cut down to a few basics.

Now we're getting so-called D&D that not only lacks the needed frames of reference but is "engineered" to function as a unit that gets "broken" if one tinkers with it.

Of course, that's due in part to a very different notion of what the "machine" is supposed to do. So many "features" of 4E are so utterly opposed to what D&D was formerly "about" that it seems more like a game aimed at those who don't like D&D.