jhkimrpg posted his thoughts on D&D4.0, including a link to a blog post by Ryan Dancey. It stirred up a lot of thoughts, including a rant about D&D that I’d been thinking about posting for a while. So, assorted D&D related thoughts behind the cut.
D&D holds a lot of nostalgia for me. I first got into the hobby shortly after AD&D 2nd edition came out. Our first campaign lasted a couple years and was the origin of my pseudonym. (“Bolthy” is short for Bolthazyr, my first character.)
In retrospect, I guess it wasn’t the dungeon crawl that really held my interest. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m not good at tactics and keeping track of minutiae was tedious. The thing I really loved was roleplaying. Having a story was nice, but just pretending to be someone else for a few hours was really the best part. Over the next several years this resulted in me slowly drifting towards games like Amber.
Since 3.0 came out, I’ve gone back to D&D a few times. I have a friend that can usually balance the roleplay against the number crunching. Typically these forays have either been pretty beer-and-pretzels or very non-standard high-concept D&D. I still have nostalgia for the old-fashioned “go in and kill things because they are between you and treasure” approach to roleplaying games. It’s mindless. We make poop jokes. We laugh a lot. But as fun as those can be, I invariably grow tired of it and stop.
It’s been over a year since I last played D&D. The group I played with (which I jokingly called “the Friday Night Crack Habit) had been playing an “evil game” in which we all had to play a character that was some flavor of evil. It was entertaining at first, but it rapidly became a game of “who was able to cheese out their character’s stats the best.” I cleared off my gaming plate for NaNoWriMo, conveniently after I had gotten my third character killed. I wasn’t particularly good (or interested) at maxing out my character and my evil characters were usually pretty high concept which put them another notch behind the rest in terms of power level. After my first character died, I started out a good deal behind the rest of the group and I just couldn’t keep my characters alive.
So I didn’t play during November. And when December rolled in I didn’t go back. I started out intending to and then let go of the idea.
For the next several months I mused around the idea of running a D&D game for a bit. I’d been in love with the Lovecraftian D&D game suggestions from the back of d20 Call of Cthulhu for a while and I had another idea or two rattling around in my head. I tend to enjoy running games off the beaten path in general and D&D is no exception. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t muster up the will to run D&D. It turned from frustration to just general hatred for the game. It may have been the D&D tournament I sat in on. It may have been the launch of Gleemax. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything D&D.
So in no particular order, the things that eat at me.
I just couldn’t keep up. Most of the people I played with were conversant in every stupid sourcebook that came out. It seemed worse with 3.5. “Hi, I’m half-giant hexblade/warlock with five equally obscure prestige classes under my belt.” Agh. It was just too much data. When I was 15 I was hungry for more books, but after almost a decade of playing Amber, there’s just something beautiful about an effectively invisible system. I could easily say, “No, you can’t play anything weird.” And that was one of my thoughts I’d been mulling around for another game, but I also like having the freedom to draw in other stuff. And it takes someone with a lot of experience with the system as a whole to really be able to pare things down. And I just don’t have the patience to “playtest” things to my tastes.
Poor Work to Payoff Ratio
Making a 1st level character takes a reasonable chunk of time and a moderate understanding of the rules. The biggest pain is buying gear, especially if you have the sort of GM who enforces encumbrance. Making a 20th level character? A few hours for me. Maybe more. And that’s just to make your character. If you’re the GM, expected to come up with reasonable antagonists…? I got reasonably good at winging it with numbers. I’d only really stat out the major characters as needed. Otherwise I’d just guestimate. (Or, as Steven Marsh once called it, “Rolling the dice and seeing if they look pretty.”) Even then the PCs were usually far tougher than the NPCs I’d cook up.
And then there’s actually playing the game. The Crack Habit was on a Friday night, usually between 7 and 11. We’d have about 15 minutes of intro to the problem of the week, 3-4 hours of combat (usually 1-2 different encounters) and then 15 minutes of wrapup. When I GMed, the combat was usually a lot faster, but I also eschewed things like grid mats and really detailed special abilities. Even then it took longer than I’d like. Really, if I just want to run around and beat things up I can just play video games. I can pretend I’m roleplaying by yelling at the screen.
The Absurdity of the System
I hate class/level systems. HAAAAAATE. I like a more organic structure for developing your skills. “My character is going to study fighting with two weapons.” “Thats great. You need to wait two more levels until you get a feat that will allow you to do that.” “Awesome. I’m going to punch myself in the crotch a few times.”
As I mentioned above, I sat in on a D&D tournament. I won’t give the particulars in order to protect the innocent. It was mostly men in their early 20s posturing over their exploitation of the rules. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to deal with that. But it was certainly the most concentrated. To contrast, I attend 1-2 Ambercons a year. It’s got a pretty good male-to-female ration, a wide age range and are mostly polite and fun to be around.
Then there’s the hubris. Okay, fine, as of several years ago, two-thirds of gamers surveyed played D&D on a regular basis. I’d be willing to believe that the number hasn’t gone down significantly. I’m just always frustrated when people act as though the only game out there is D&D. There’s Gleemax, the one stop destination for roleplayers (if you play Wizards of the Coast products). There’s Paizo’s RPG Superstar competition (if by RPG you mean d20). Ryan Dancey’s whole thing about making D&D into a storytelling game (see link at the beginning), despite White Wolf having called their games such for years prior or the branch of indie RPGs that are actual storytelling games. I guess once a former WotC bigwig calls it such then it’s actually something new and cutting edge.
(As an aside, I find it interesting that John Wick is the only person that Ryan responded to in that post.)
Okay, so enough ranting about D&D as it is now. What do I think of the prospect of 4.0?
I’ve been playing the Star Wars Saga Edition. It’s been pretty fun. I understand that 4.0 will be much the same. That is probably the only thing that will get me to play D&D again in the near future. SWSE addresses many of my complaints about the mechanics of the system. It’s fast and easy to use. I find the continued use of hit points to be silly, but that’s relatively minor. Really the major complaint I have is that it still uses the class/level system. The artificial situations you run into are even more absurd than prior d20 iterations.
As an example, I’m playing in a game where we are students in a Jedi academy a la Harry Potter. We all agreed that we would only take the Jedi class during our years in the academy. I was a big proponent of this so I can’t really complain. My character is something of a tech nerd. You would think that Use Computer would be a good skill for him to be proficient in. Sadly, Jedi cannot take that skill. You cannot take any skill that is not one of your class skills.
They can still use computers. They can do a bunch of untrained stuff with computers and do them well since your level also ties into your untrained skills. But if you want to h@xx0r a droid’s software? No can do, little amigo. It doesn’t matter if I spend all of my spare time reading books of software programming. I can’t program a computer no matter what. I have to take a class besides Jedi that has that skill in their line up. I think I even need to take a feat on top of that in order to gain the skill.
I’m also saddened by their removal of fluff skills. All skills that weren’t something you could quantify in terms of game bonuses were removed. You can say your character knows how to play the kloo horn. You just can’t specify how good you are at it. In their defense, the people who worked on it point out their Destiny Point mechanic to encourage stories. Maybe this is Ryan Dancey’s “story gaming” at work. You have a glorified miniature combat system with a roleplaying/storygaming motif drizzled over the top. Hrm. I imagine D&D 4.0 will still retain some of the fluff skills, assuming that bards make the cut. So you can probably still “perform” in some fashion. And there’s still value in craft given the medieval tech level. Otherwise… a sad state of affairs I think.
I think that’s about all I got. I need to wrap this up and head home.