Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Whippersnappers who game

*NOTE: The following article is predominantly opinion. It also may be considered a bit agist. If you disagree with any of this article, please post in comments.

So I've been playing a lot of Mass Effect 3. I'm enjoying it immensely, and it's providing me with pretty much everything I could ever want in a space opera/sci-fi adventure. Bioware makes great RPGs, but their games are often criticized by a fair amount of people because of their streamlined nature and lack of emphasis on game elements that people often associate with roleplaying games.

The same could be said for the criticism of Fourth Edition of D&D. In many ways it is quite unlike many of the iterations that have come before it, and those differences have alienated a good deal of D&D's original fan base. To many 'old school' gamers and RPG enthusiasts, many modern innovations in roleplaying games (both digital and analog) don't jive with their sensibilities on how and why games should be played.

A great deal of this has to do with experience, but I would hazard a guess that it may also have a lot to do with age. D&D is, and always has been, intended to be a game for young people. I get the feeling that many people don't like to admit this.

Let me give you a personal example:

-At the time of writing this, I am a 24 year old male living in Ontario, Canada. I grew up in the 90s and 2000s.

-I've never lived in a house where there was not a computer available. I had an email address before I had a driver's licence.

-I played digital RPGs long before I gave analog ones a try. Up until 2001, I didn't even know paper and dice RPGs existed. My first roleplaying game experiences ware Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon Red.

-I watched The Fellowship of the Ring before I read it (though I corrected that with the two other books). I've never seen any of the Star Wars films in theatres (unless you count the special editions re-releases).

-I didn't see Conan, Krull, Willow, Ladyhawk, or anything by Rankin Bass/Ralph Bakshi until well into adulthood. I think my favourite cartoon growing up was either Batman or Sailor Moon. Let's just say it was Batman.

-I never read Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms in junior high, and am only starting to give them a sideways glance now. They're enjoyable, but feel very pastiche and stereotypical, reading them as an adult.

-I refuse to play most games (digital and analog) that do not allow for one's avatar to be female as well as male.

-The first comic books I read were originally published in Japan. I've never understood the appeal of Superman.

-Fourth Edition D&D was my first "real" edition of D&D. While I've played some of each edition, 4e is what I learned how to DM with.

-I've never owned or felt any real desire to own anything published by TSR.

-I never played anything written Gary Gygax, nor have I read a great deal of his musings.

-I find the separation of 'story games' and 'dungeon crawl games' to be baffling. For me and my friends, D&D has always been a combination of the two. They are one and the same.

-Our original games and campaigns weren't aping Tolkien, Weiss/Hickman, or Leiber. They were aping stories from Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross, and Legend of Zelda.

-I've never been to GenCon. I really have no real desire to go to GenCon.

-For me, and this is still true today, video games have always been more engaging in narrative and in terms of gameplay than most analog RPGs. This is because I grew up experiencing video games when they were really finding their legs when it came to storytelling and engagement.

-I've never experienced a TPK as either a player or a dungeon master.

-Every D&D game I've ever run or played in has always had at least one woman playing. If there are no female players at a D&D table, I find the experience lacking.

-To this day, I still don't fully grasp what a 'rules lawyer' is.

-I've never read The Order of the Stick. RPG-centric humour is the bane of my existence as a wannabe cartoonist.

-I've never read or owned Dragon/Dungeon magazine while it was in its print release format.

-While I can aesthetically enjoy the work of Larry Elmore, I don't necessarily connect it to D&D in any way emotionally.

-I've never been adverse to playing a cleric.

-I would rather play with people who've never touched D&D before in their lives as opposed to veteran gamers.

-I'd take a DM with a good sense of humour over an expert in rules any day.

-I love Dungeons & Dragons, and feel that the game is truly my own.

Overall, these were my gaming experiences growing up. They are informed by the media I consumed at the time, just as older gamers' experiences would be informed by the media of their time. While some of some of said media might be considered 'timeless' and universally appealing to gamers, I imagine a great deal of it is not.

Almost none of my influences are terribly in line with the influences of a great deal of D&D players who grew up in the 70s/80s. I'm aware that this is a generalization of the tastes of D&D fans, but from what I can tell from listening to the folks at WotC and on other gaming blogs, these generalizations still ring true.

Still, my tastes were also the tastes of the people I grew up with, and their influences when coming to play D&D. Most people in my age bracket grew up with video games and manga, not paper & dice and comic books. Our exposure to games as a digital medium helped shape the streamlined nuances of Fourth Edition, as well as its emphasis on tactile rules and power progression over flavour text and open-ended rules.

Some people my age balk at the idea of playing D&D without miniatures or maps or powers. Others really take a shine to older iterations of the game for their flexibility and emphasis on imagination. We can certainly benefit from experiencing past versions of the game, but ultimately the games most recent to us will usually be the ones we prefer.

"Dungeons ampersand Dragons" is for young people to inherit and shape to their tastes.

As I write this, I have a younger brother who is 11 years old. For him, Dungeons & Dragons is an online RPG he plays on his parent's laptop, and that is all it means to him. His favourite cartoon is Ben 10 and he loves to play Halo: Reach. He will probably never read The Lord of the Rings.

By the time he's interested in analog RPGs, Hasbro may have discarded D&D as a property due to lack of profitability, or it might be played exclusively through an online network on Facebook, where players can give each other 'Twitter buffs' via their iPads. Perhaps polyhedral dice will have been abandoned in favour of customizable decks of cards, or holographic display minis that sync to a plastic play mat. The idea of "Vancian" magic will be as unknown to him as it was once to me.

Either way, "Dungeons ampersand Dragons" will belong to him if he chooses to inherit it. It may be in a form that I, as a gamer, find confusing and repugnant. It doesn't matter, because by then the game will no longer be about me or for me. It will be for him.

If you have any thoughts on this, and are a gamer young or old, please post in comments.


  1. Every generation that plays D&D has a different idea of what the game is, largely based on when they started playing. For me, I will always think of it as a thin, paper-bound, stapled rulebook, Kool-aid stained character sheets, soft plastic dice, and disproportionate lead figures scattered across the dining room table. But I'm an old guy. What can I say?

  2. Very interesting observations. To give you some background, I'm 31. A bit older than you, but not too much. I also played video game RPGs before tabletop RPGs. Some ancient thing on an old Texas Instruments game system was the first, followed by Final Fantasy I, IV, VI, and VII. Dragon Warrior. Shining Force. Happily I missed MMORPGs.

    I started playing D&D in the early 90s with Second Edition. Raistlin and Drizzt (and lots of other fantasy books) were as much a part of D&D for me as video games were, but I've never cared for running a game in a published setting. I skipped the Third Edition years and came back to the game in the summer of 2011.

    My experience with younger players is that they read just as much as I used to, but are more likely to gravitate toward a huge multi-volume series like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time (which was also my favorite series in middle and high school, though I stopped reading it around book 7 after deciding to wait until it was done). I think future generations will continue to read The Lord of the Rings (it has felt a bit archaic for as long as I have been alive and that is part of the charm).

    I'm running a 4E game right now, but I have (tried to) import many aspects of traditional D&D, most of which I have learned about recently from the OSR (though some I came to on my own during the 90s). I'm somewhat dissatisfied with the combat focus of 4E and wish I could get it to play with a bit more focus on exploration.

    Our exposure to games as a digital medium helped shape the streamlined nuances of Fourth Edition, as well as its emphasis on tactile rules and power progression over flavour text and open-ended rules.

    I don't feel like the power progression in 4E is all that streamlined. It actually feels very complicated to me. Too many rules blobs to become familiar with (feats, powers, builds, rituals, etc). Too much attention paid to building characters before play rather than developing characters through play. Far from abandoning Vancian casting, 4E turns all classes into Vancian casters. Daily and (arguably) encounter powers are after all just prepared spells in another guise.

  3. Source inspiration doesn't matter so much. Sailor Moon, Tolkien, Halo, probably doesn't matter. What I worry about is that, for folks who've experienced video games first, what face to face adventure gaming can do will be forgotten and limited by newer media forms.

    For example, the idea of the Big Boss makes a ton of sense on a Sega Genesis console game where you needed to have some kind of pay off when transitioning from one platform level, to another very similar platform level. In D&D its always seemed weird to me.

    Or the strict separation of roles that seems to have come from the need for order when playing with big groups of people in a MMORPG. We never had a requirement for one of each class back in the day, like dungeon parties were squads that couldn't leave without a cleric. Odd.

    Or just the fact that this is a way humans can play that you don't need to compete. Even games that don't have the ubiquitous capture the flag/king of the hill modes seem to be about achievements and unlocking stuff through competitive grinding. Very little collaboration around that I can see.

    Not to imply that this in any way tinges *your* thinking, it's just what I as an old timer worry about. I love video games but I haven't played one yet that could hold a candle to running a group of friends through a dungeon.

  4. Here's a theoretical situation for you as a thought exorcise: if Wotc sells the brand to a soda pop company and they put out a drink called "D&D 6th edition", does the game become a soft drink?

    The answer, of course, is 'no'. Misusing the brand like that only confuses people, it can't transform a thing into something else.

    If D&D is to be inherited by people who don't know that 3e, 4e or some computer game isn't it, then it dies with me and the rest of the old guard.

    Speaking of old, I'm only a few years older than you, but what a difference they make! The crucial thing, I guess, is that I've actually played D&D when it was alive, before it died with TSR in the late 90's.

  5. Soft drink based D&D actually sounds interesting.

    I understand that mine is an unpopular opinion, but I stand by it. D&D as a 'brand' exists for young players. Every iteration of it is made for a new audience while remaining somewhat familliar to its past audience.

    I would like to clarify that I don't think that anyone should stop playing D&D or any RPG for that matter. I'll continue to play video games and listen to pop music into my 30s and 40s, despite that said things are not intended for me at that age. I just want others to recognize that D&D, as a brand of games, does not belong to those who "played it first".

  6. >>Every iteration of it is made for a new audience while remaining somewhat familliar to its past audience.

    It's not that they're intentionally designing for a young audience. If it seems that way it's because their business strategy unintentionally alienates their customers every few years by dropping a new edition. (It never goes well. 2e killed TSR and 4e didn't do wotc any favors.)

    >>D&D as a 'brand' exists for young players.

    0e and 1e assumes the audience is made of college educated wargamers and the books have illustrations of bare titties. They tried to be more 'child friendly' with 2e and the various basic sets but really, the medium is too challenging for anyone far under bar mitzvah age.

    >>D&D, as a brand of games, does not belong to those who "played it first".

    That's a bit of a strawman but I'll disagree anyway. As a brand, it's irrelevant, just a corporate tool muddying the waters. As a game, it's not really 'owned' by anyone, but if it is, it's the people who play it because those who don't are ignorant of it, even if the manual's copyrights and trademarks are owned by a corporation.

  7. We seem to come from a pretty similar background in terms of this game so it makes sense that we agree on a lot of these points.

    I find whatever fight that has been going on and the rage between various editions to be kind of silly.

  8. I'm replying late because I just found your blog. Kudos for making and playing your own game, whatever edition. Still, I would say don't dismiss anything just because it's old - a lot of what you like now is inspired by it. And don't let a company tell you what is the choice of your generation, likewise don't let old duffers tell you their way is the right way. Saying 4E isn't D&D is like saying modern Coke isn't Coke because there's no cocaine in it. They're just products of their respective times, just as OD&D, 2E, 3E, 4E and whatever comes next are products of theirs. As long as you and your friends are having fun, you're doing it right.