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Back To Not-Basics

Over on RPG.net, I got sucked into a debate instead of doing what I wanted to do this morning, which was write the next part of the Necromican series. So, I decided to share with you some of that debate, because I think it’s worth sharing to some extent, and because I like to at least pretend I keep this site updated.

First, I wrote this:

People don’t want to play a game branded as “Dungeons & Dragons”. They want to play D&D, whatever that might mean to them. There’s zillions of other rules systems out there; people stick to D&D because it delivers what they want, not because of what it’s named. Change what it delivers, and people will find another rules system (however named) that does give them the gameplay they’ve come to expect from “Dungeons & Dragons”. WOTC has already learned, painfully, that the brand name is not enough. Reading the L&L columns, I think Mike Mearls is still grossly misreading the audience — if 4e was less than it could have been due to overestimating the size of the CharOp fringe, “4e++” looks to be undermined due to overestimating the OSR fringe — but at least he’s TRYING to read the audience, and that’s a damn good sign.

(It ought to be noted that reading the audience and slavishly obeying the loudest voices is not the same thing. Brad McQuaid rather famously said, “The players don’t know what they want”, and to a large extent, he was right. While it applies more to MMOs than RPGs due to many obvious factors, there’s a point where you need to tell the audience to sit down and shut up — but to do this, you need to know even better than they do what really drives the play experience.)

4e delivers, probably, the best rendition of the ‘core experience’ of D&D than any prior edition, but players don’t play just for the core, but for the… uhm… not core… and groups differ wildly in which non-core experiences they like best. By focusing on the core to the near total exclusion of all other activities, they drove off, or at least underwhelmed, a huge swath of players. Given the choice between “Perfect core and nothing else” and “Core experience is 80% of what it could be, but everything else is there”, many people deliberately chose less-optimal core play in order to also get the non-core play. (I chose to ignore the rules advice and run 4e my way, bringing in the non-core experiences I desired, in many ways aided by how little work I needed to do get the core experience to work well. Without having to prep 4 hours for a fight that will last 30 seconds thanks to save-or-die, I had 4 hours to do both mechanical and non-mechanical worldbuilding. But that’s another thread.)

Then someone asked:

So what ‘core sacred cows’ would WOTC want to put in to ‘attract back’ the Pathfinder/3.5/retro fans (the ones, that is, who left. Some people are happily playing both 4e and others)?

It is, as you say, a very subjective thing … but WOTC would still need to make a decision on what to include in a ‘back to basics’ as suggested by Daztur.

So what would WOTC need to include (or exclude)?

To which I replied (and this is really the important part, as it sort of sums up what D&D is for me, and what ethos guides the stuff I make for myself):

Back to basics isn’t the solution. Back to basics is the PROBLEM.

If you look at a lot of net activity in the late 1990s, you will find a mountain of huge, detailed “netbooks” for running D&D in every setting imaginable, or over-detailing the most trivial aspects of the rules. When 3.0 came out, the designers recognized and acknowledged that people liked playing D&D for everything (whether OR NOT it worked, whether OR NOT it was the best system), and so encouraged this, with broad rules covering a wide range of activities, ray guns on the weapon lists, and, of course, the OGL/SRD, which was intended to let people keep playing D&D whether or not they wanted to play cowboys, vampires, or wookies. Please don’t tell me how much the D20 Modern rules sucked or how “system matters”; the point is, people DID use D&D for everything, WOTC recognized that fact, and WOTC set out to give people a “D&D for everything”, and it worked — people bought it, used it, and played it.

4e was the back-to-basics. “Kick down the door, kill the monster, get the treasure, NEXT!” It turned it up to 11, giving us all the cool action movie stunts and epic battles we wanted but that the rules tended to cover poorly or not at all. It just chucked everything ELSE out the window, everything that gave you a reason to be kicking down the door in the first place. The game advice strongly encouraged “getting to the fun”, which meant “having a combat encounter” (or a skill challenge, but the skill challenge rules were mathematically broken in the first release), and everything else was trivial.

So what do I suggest? Screw “back to basics”. Give us rules for everything. Running baronies. Sailing ships. Firing muskets. Large races. Small races. Races without boobies. (OK, that’s pushing it… gotta have dem boobies, even on the lizard-people and the crystal people.) Researching spells. Getting drunk. Dickering over copper pieces. Killing gods. Killing gods by using a mass accelerator to fling copper pieces at near-C velocities at them. You want a “modular rules set”? Fine, I like that. I like it a lot, without sarcasm. But don’t just give us “Basic Combat Module”, “Advanced Combat Module”, and “Players Of A Weird Hybrid Of Star Fleet Battles Where They Use Advanced Squad Leader For Boarding Actions Will Be Terrified By The Complexity Of These Rules Combat Module”. Give us “Basic Kingdoms” and “Advanced Kingdoms” and “Henry Kissinger Presents:Kingdoms”. Give us more, not less, cutomizability, and trust us to be smart enough to know if we’re building a sucky character.

(If I was smart, I’d be linking to 4e or Pathfinder at Amazon in the vague hope of making enough from this website, in a year, to buy a Big Mac. But, no, I link to two products I like, but which are only relevant because I used them in a lame joke about excess complexity. I am not smart.)

D&D is, or should support, a 2 hit point wizard scrambling to buy enough bat guano for his spells, and a party of 54th level Paladin/Assassins who think Deities&Demigods is a monster manual. After nearly 40 years, that’s what D&D is. The SAME GROUP may not play at both ends of this spectrum… but both groups think they’re playing “D&D”, and that what’s D&D ought to give them.