A Study in Contrasts

I got busy doing some stuff around the house yesterday and just never buckled myself down to put the Friday post together.  This happens when you occupy yourself doing things you’ve been putting off for a while.  The end result is a neater, nicer den that doesn’t look like we just moved in (we’ve been in this house for a little over three years); thus making it a space which is more conducive to me writing and creating, and less conducive to me sitting here thinking: “I really need to do something about this mess.”  Before I move on with the actual meat of today’s belated posting, I want to mention that, sadly, The Wil Wheaton Project was not renewed for another season.  Wil Wheaton posted this on his blog yesterday, and I have to say I find it disappointing that the execs at SyFy don’t seem to be aware of what appeals to their audience or perhaps even who their audience is.  Fuck ’em!  We still have Geek & Sundry, we still have TableTop, we still have programming which appeals to our tastes… most of it is simply not available via network or cable television.  Increasingly network and cable are becoming less relevant for entertainment delivery, and this is just further evidence of that fact.  So it goes.

On with the show…

I’m running two distinct Dungeons & Dragons games right now: a 3rd edition game for my Friday night group composed of adults, and a D&D Next play test rules game for my library group composed of teens… actually, we just recently converted to the current 5th edition rules now that they’re available, now it’s a 5E game.  I wrote a bit about 5th edition in last week’s post, and this week I want to compare that to the 3rd edition experience to give 3/3.5E adherents some perspective regarding the two editions.  3rd edition (and I mean the August 2000 3rd edition, and not the later 3.5 edition revision that came out in 2003) was a complete rework of the TSR D&D rules.  1st and 2nd edition AD&D were based on, for lack of a more appropriate term, the Gygax/Arneson engine which included a lot of legacy rules from war-gaming and probably a lot of rules which were crafted on the fly and then later codified and added to the game system.  It had the same sort of beauty possessed by an albatross:  majestic yet clumsy.

3rd edition introduced the D20 System which made D&D a lot like other popular role playing games of the time, but still managed to maintain the unique flavor that was D&D despite what all the haters and Grognards say.  The spirit of the game was kept pretty much intact, but the D20 System rules did introduce an element to the game which enabled players to exploit the rules and make super, high powered characters that potentially took the fun out of everything for everyone.  Now, people have been hacking games like that as long as there’s been games so this is nothing new — the AD&D system had its share of Min/Max-ers whose primary goal was to break the game and grief the fuck out of everyone else at the table… the D20 System just introduced a new set of weaknesses by tilting the game too far over in favor of the player characters… that is of course unless the DM made liberal use of the monster buffing system… but really, you can only fight so many 15th level orc barbarians with Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization in great axe and maxed out skill ranks before the game loses its charm… blah!

The 3.5 edition revision tried to address some of these issues, and it did a great job but along with the profusion of rules introduced by 3rd edition (which I maintain has as many, if not more, complicated bonus/penalty to condition/situation modifiers as any 1st or 2nd edition game) it added more tangles to the tangles… more to track at the table, and more work for the DM to keep everything straight and un-confused.  Is it a fun-ass game?  Hell yeah, it is… but it’s all too easy to get mired in the rules.  2nd edition AD&D attempted the same thing with 1st edition AD&D that 3.5 edition tried with 3rd edition — to simplify and streamline… and, well… it didn’t quite get there.  In fact the supplementary books which were available at the time only served to add further complications, albeit optional ones… but complications none the less.  The problem with too many rules is the same problem I encountered back in the 80’s when I tried to get folks to play AD&D with me: accessibility.  People found the scads of rules off putting, and I can’t say I really blame them.  Even for a hardcore nerd like me, much of the rules for in game minutiae were things I simply ignored, and I often turned the emphasis on story and role playing rather than spend hours flipping through rules books and debating about some esoteric rule for donkey shit splatter patterns.

I had a bit déjà vu as I prepared to move my Friday night D&D group to 3rd edition.  Somethings are a lot easier to understand in 3rd edition as compared to 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, others… not so much.  I mean it all makes sense, but it’s easy to miss something.  I expect I’ll get better at it the more we play, but I have to admit to fair amount of anxiety about totally cocking up the whole thing.  I perceive my role as the dungeon master as being the guy in charge of making sure everyone has a good time.  Too many rules (and admittedly, my own unfamiliarity with said rules) makes that part of my role more difficult than I prefer because, hey, I get to have fun too hopefully.  3rd edition really requires players and DMs have their eyes on the ball at all times.  It’s easy to forget a bonus or a penalty, attacks of opportunity can result in a mind boggling Gordian knot, and you wind up doing as much math (not that this is entirely a bad thing) at the table as you did back in 1st edition.  Again: fun to play, but that fun comes with a lot of work… and this is a game.  The emphasis should be on the fun.

Quick caveat here: I’m not hating on 3rd edition.  There’s a lot more I like about 3rd edition than there are things I don’t like, and my players really seemed to like that fact that they didn’t have to run from everything anymore.  AD&D (1st and 2nd edition) is still the most lethal version of the game, and they felt like they were a lot more effective as “heroes” than they were in 1st or 2nd edition.  I call that a win.  I’m remarking about certain things in this monologue for the sake of comparison with the recently released 5th edition.  So let’s just get to that now, okay?

My teen players at the library have been playing the D&D Next play test rules since April.  Despite initial teen-related mental meanderings, ridiculously brief attention spans, hook-ups, and breaks to deal with personal problems (ah, working with teens…) most of them got the gist of the rules after only a few sessions.  The kids who attend the game sessions to play the game understand the mechanics of the game… the ones who show up to hang out and be… well… teens, have some trouble with the mechanics of the game because they don’t pay attention and not because the game is difficult to understand.  5th edition rules are even more simplified than the play test rules; but they’re simplified without being simplistic.  Everything you expect from a D&D game is there, but the rules are really boiled down to cover the most common things — the rest is left up to the judgement of the DM, who’s been making judgments and house rules all along anyway.  That reliance on the DM is now simply blended into the rules.  There are a few spots where one will still encounter a doubling of a number, or a bonus/penalty to a modifier, but for the most part everything is addressed by the Advantage/Disadvantage rule.

The tangle of rules and modifiers appear to have been weeded down to the barest minimum.  This speeds up game progress, and it reduces the amount of time the group needs to spend consulting rules thus giving more opportunity for play.  5th edition is really a hybridization of the best of the previous editions.  It’s a bridge between the TSR Gygax/Arneson engine and the WotC D20 System.  Most importantly to me, it’s accessible and easy to explain… even easier for a newbie to pick up simply by joining a round and doing rather than reading.  5th edition has a very clear emphasis on role playing, and it tries to tuck back the rules as much as possible to allow the game group to focus on building stories and keeping things exciting.  I like this because I believe the rules should never get in the way of the game.  Combat resolution is faster and more thrilling, and the monsters appear to be well balanced to where they can provide an adequate challenge for players without overpowering or under powering too easily.

Power balance appears to be something to which the R&D team really paid close attention.  Player characters receive a rather generous allotment of buffs and features, but none of these make any one class more powerful than the others (wizards still have a lot of potential for massive power at higher levels, but it’s in the nature of game system magic rules to make things just a bit unbalanced… it’s obvious, though, that D&D R&D attempted to address this).  Players begin at a more reasonable power level as opposed to 1st and 4th editions: not too weak, and not too overwhelmingly strong.  I have to admit to a bit of anxiety here as well because I’m still new to the 5th editions rules just as I am to the 3rd edition rules; however, I don’t feel as much anxiety because it’s a lot easier to untangle oneself from the 5th edition rules as compared to the 3rd edition.

As I’ve said several times before in previous posts: the folks who love one particular edition of the D&D game are going to continue loving that edition no matter what — it’s human nature to grant loyalty to something about which one feel strongly.  You can’t do anything but respect that… Rather, I should say: you shouldn’t do anything but respect that.  If you’re interested, I’ve written a review of the new Player’s Handbook on Goodreads which you can read here.  If you’re not interested, you can kiss my butt.  All of this comes with an ulterior motive which I’m not ashamed to disclose: I want this game to be around for a long, long time, and I want people to continue to play and enjoy Dungeons & Dragons regardless of which flavor they happen to prefer.


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