Wednesday, April 5, 2017

D&D Won the War

Custer's Last Stand
Reflecting on my last entry, a lengthy and difficult one at that, and I have a few thoughts that have developed as I've done so.

1. D&D was the system that prevailed into the 21st century and give birth to subsequent systems post TSR. Why is that?

2. AD&D, as much as it drew inspiration from D&D, it also contributed some elements to later editions. Most profoundly this was in terms of background content and the lingering feeling that rules were somehow very important.

This second idea requires a little more explanation, since it wasn't covered last post. The idea that AD&D's rules would be the final say in the game, and that rules were first and foremost, was an idea championed by Gygax and TSR generally for over two decades. This same feeling or opinion would linger into later editions, but never be true to the extent that it was claimed in AD&D itself. Nonetheless, the idea that players must stay within the rules and not stray outside them would remain a part of most editions to one degree or another--in spite of the fact that most editions made clear that this was not required.

3. The apparent support for the AD&D approach by the Gygaxian TSR would later be contradicted and ultimately spell the downfall of TSR and AD&D, paving the way for the preferred approach of 0e.

Simply put, D&D won the war. 3.0, 3.5, 4e and now 5 have all essentially been built up from the basic rules of 0e, and for that matter so was AD&D. But more than this, there was a preference among most gamers that the flexible, creative, and fluid approach to rules and gaming was the way to play. The idea that we should take the basic skeleton provided for us in D&D and make it our own was what ended up happening regardless of what TSR or Gary wanted to occur. D&D won the war.

This was inevitable perhaps, because the forces that rallied behind the AD&D banner did so with split allegiances all the while. Gary could say in one breath that AD&D was the ruleset to abide by and playing against those rules was breaking with the game. While in the next uttering phrases like "DMs only roll the dice for the sound they make", and others that clearly support DM fiat. In fact he criticized 3rd edition in one interview as being to restrictive and for turning DMs into robots that simply applied and enforced rules and had lost the idea and concept of a true judge.

"GameSpy: Have you had a chance to play or even look at some of the current Dungeons & Dragons games?
Gygax: I've looked at them, yes, but I'm not really a fan. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It's done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good."

But wasn't this sort of what he was arguing for with the advent of AD&D? I mean he certainly didn't want robots, and he did say AD&D was designed to allow creativity within certain bounds. But the rule intensiveness in 3.5 was certainly a part of AD&D as well, especially in relation to 0e. To get to the basis of this claim it would require a more complete analysis of 3e, however, the general claim in the interview is that 3e is not AD&D. It had not achieved what AD&D was, it lacked the essence that was AD&D. Just how this is and to what extent it might or might not be true that players also did not play 3e to the extent of its written rules is a matter for another post. Of course if 3.5 is based on a 0e chassis and 0e was a different game from AD&D then it follows AD&D would be as well. 

As I played this argument back and forth in my mind, struggling with the article Gary had written, and what it meant for the game I loved; and attempted to reconcile these apparently contradictory claims by the game's creator, I realized several things.  What helped bring it together for me was actually found in satire, a parody.

Knights of the Dinner Table, Hard Eight Enterprises, and the game they play and design, Hackmaster, exists because of what was attempted with AD&D. But why is it material for parody at all? Satire requires some excess or contradiction to be effective. And by the time Hackmaster was being created, we were in a time in TSR where 2e had abandoned all the commitments that were made to the AD&D ethos. It had become a parody of itself. It had transgressed all the boundaries it had set for itself. It had become a bloated caricature of itself. And honestly, Gary could have said the same thing about late 2e as he said about 3rd in the quote above. And why was this?

Why was this indeed. The questions actually brings us full circle to our first question: why was it 0e D&D that won the war? Simple. It's what people wanted. In Dragon itself we get authors and designers beginning to make additions and modifications to AD&D. Even those that were a part of 0e and dismissed by Gary as anathema to AD&D. We couldn't hold the AD&D rudder quite straight. Admittedly this was much more successful in spite of Dragon pre-2e, but the gamers in the hobby had been raised in 0e and the pull of the creative freedom inherent in D&D was too strong to not have an effect on AD&D.

I too played the game (AD&D) less than what it was designed to be. I added in material that wasn't designed to be added in, I left out rules that were supposed to be in, and so did everyone else. However, was that the way I stayed? No, as mentioned in the last post, gradually I was moving to a more purist style of play; and I moved even closer to this when I came back to AD&D. Why was this the case? Is there something worthy there to try and achieve? Well, regardless of what I think, the majority of people didn't. None of us mastered the game like I believe Gary intended, and instead we went off chasing the next new fix, and the new thing. And now we are rebuying new editions every five to six years (something I've talked about before) and that my friends is why D&D won the war.

Like Custer, D&D died on the hill that day surrounded by superior forces (the Indian Village = TSR) and having D&D relegated into retreat (the creation of Basic/introductory D&D = Reno's retreat and abandonment of Custer) they stood no chance. However, like the Native Americans that would eventually be ridden into near oblivion and chased to the far corners of the country in small reservations 1e old school die hards would ultimately lose the war. A pretty metaphor? Perhaps. But the fact is, most today agree, and 5e proves, that gamers seem to want the next new thing, a nice power curve; they grow bored very quickly. At least that is what the industry is catering to, and capitalism demands that we give the customers what they want.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to make value judgments. I'm just asking questions, presenting possibilities. I am also driven by something that has made me very dissatisfied with the current trend in gaming over the last two decades. I just don't feel like its the Golden Age, I feel like its the death of Rome. Rome, mind you lived on, and still does, but the Empire fell long, long ago. And perhaps I'm just not comfortable letting go. Maybe I cannot go gentle into that good night. Is it possible that the epitaph, all good things must end, is wrong?  I am admitting that the way most are playing favors a more or less as you wish style. But I am also saying I saw something different. I had begun to catch a vision of the grail, and now can dream only its attainment.