For an article I first posted almost exactly two-and-a-half years ago, just a few days after I had learned a new edition of D&D was in the works, I sat myself down and did an honest assessment of my experiences with previous editions. Then I thought about what I would like to see in a new edition. Go ahead and read that article. The link is right there. I’ll wait…
Obviously, the new edition of the game (or at least the Basic version of the rules), is now in the hands of the public. People are devouring the rules, giving their thoughts, and will hopefully find the game fun and interesting. I’m going to let people smarter and more invested than I talk about the new rules in detail. I playtested them along with everyone else, and I even got the chance to contribute to some Wizards of the Coast products that used the various incarnations of the D&D Next Playtest rules: most notably War of Everlasting Darkness, Against the Cult of Chaos, Confrontation at Candlekeep, and Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Defiance in Phlan runs at GenCon in a couple of weeks as well.
Rather than focus on the new rules themselves, I wanted to harken back to that previous article, and compare it to an article recently published by one of the 5e D&D developers, Robert J. Schwalb. I know Robert well enough that I get to call him Robert J. Schwalb. We’re so close his name appears on products in my stead. (OK, I know him a little and have shared a beer or two with him. That’s about it.)
Rage Against, Well, Whatever is There
Rob’s recent blog post (go ahead, read it, good stuff) caused a bit of a kerfuffle on forums hither and yon. In this age of information superhighway road rage and an Internet anonymity that causes the equivalent of cyber beer muscles, it has to be rough to be in a position of any sort of authority or celebrity. (I doubt that there really is any such things in the RPG world as compared to reality, but some people go after such figures like it is something important.) As soon as anyone even considered tangentially in the loop expresses an opinion about something—or heaven forbid get nostalgic—too many people brand them a monster for, you know, being human.
Rob talks about his earliest experiences with RPGs. He talks about how, back in the day, the away-from-the-table stuff (reading rules, creating the characters, etc.) was the tax you paid to get to the fun stuff at the table. He talks about how, as the rules have become more complex and the concept of building a character rather than playing a character has come to the forefront of D&D, more of the game has moved away from the table. Most importantly, he asks important questions about whether anyone is served when the emphasis on away-from-the-table mechanics trumps the game at the table.
What struck me most about Rob’s post was how, at its root, it paralleled what I said over two years ago. Fortunately I am a tiny kid in a huge sandbox, and no one went after me the way they did Rob. He had the misfortune of admitting that he was the face of 4e on the new edition’s design team but came to see how 4e’s mechanics, as great as they are as mechanics, do not always lead to the best experiences at the table for certain types of players. As I said in my aforementioned article, many of us gamers “clamor for errata and clarification and justification and perfection. We have a tool for sharing stories like no other [the Internet], and we use it to nitpick and gripe and limit our imaginations rather than free them. I am as guilty as anyone in this, perhaps moreso. I have striven to make campaigns that embrace the ugly perfection of rules over the beautiful chaos of a story shared. And in my foolishness, I would probably make the same mistakes again.”
I recognize that D&D attracts different types of players who can participate in different types of games under the same large tent. As a long-time administrator of and contributor to many Organized Play campaigns, I worked at event after event, from the smallest of game days to the largest conventions—and each and every one showed me that unlike any other game, D&D can provide the widest range of fun to the most diverse crowds. I saw the cheesiest character optimizers, trying to exploit every broken combination. I saw the hammiest roleplayers, sparing no effort in their quest for the spotlight. I consider some of each type of gamer among my closest roleplaying friends.
A Completely Reasonable Proposal
I know it is popular to say that there is no wrong way to play as long as you are having fun. I am going to be as unpopular as I have ever been in public right now. The game has to be about the story if the hobby as a whole is going to flourish. This means that the ultra-optimizing, breaking the game with its own rules because they are there, intentionally ignoring the spirit of the rules to mangle the game into something it isn’t, has to stop.
Here’s a newsflash: Breaking the game breaks the game.
I know that I will get “how dare you tell us how to have fun?” I dare because I care about the future of the game as whole. I dare because I understand that sometimes my own behavior, while fun or good for me personally, is not good for everyone. I dare because of the hundreds of hours spent doing playtesting and reviewing and consulting for no compensation other than knowing the game will still be there in another 10 or 50 or 100 years.
I know I will get “but I like to optimize, so why are you picking on me?” I am not talking about enjoying using the rules to make cool things happen. I am not talking about voraciously reading books of feats and magic items. I am talking about recognizing that the game, at its core, craves to be about shared storytelling in a creatively charged atmosphere.
I am talking about sitting down and playing with a groups of people, be they strangers or close friends, and seeing if you are contributing to their enjoyment or detracting from it. Nothing can turn away a prospective long-term RPG gamer faster than having an early game in their experience go from a cooperative game of shared heroics to a lesson in fine-print rules lawyering. An over-the-top roleplayer who hogs the spotlight can be annoying, it is true. But even they can sometimes be entertaining and add to the story. The player who kills all the monsters in the first round of combat with some whacked-out rules combination is not entertaining anyone or adding to anyone’s story but his own.
When I am reviewing playtest material, and I find myself typing page after page after page of “this is how the cheesy players are going to exploit this piece of crunch” rather than just absorbing the coolness that is the game and the story, a small piece of me dies. I’m not a big person, and I don’t have a lot of pieces left. And the danger has never been higher, as the potential for breakage with the new edition of D&D is high as people used to the balance of mechanics from 3e and 4e move into the more imagination-driven 5e.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here. There is no big single bogeyman of rules-lawyering asshattery hiding under the bed, waiting to jump out and scare all the nice players away. I don’t consider people who like to get their fingers dirty in the mechanics of a game a threat. I don’t consider tactical players unfit.
But I will say this. Remember TSR’s old slogan? It was “Products of Your Imagination.” It wasn’t “Products of Your Obsession with Rules.” If D&D is going to grow again, establish a large base of younger players, it is not going to be on the back of convoluted and intricate rules. It will be on the wings of imagination. All our imaginations.