Wednesday, October 11, 2017

D&D 5e and the D&D We Recall

Remember this age? It was a grand time to be a gamer. The Satanic Panic and the days of D&D Yellow Journalism were over and there was more D& product than there ever had been. At least that's how many remember it. Notice the above books, 1e supplements, 2e Core, and a 2.5e Options book. It was a wild and crazy time for gaming, a time in many ways presaging the rise of 3rd edition.

For others of us, it was a time of decline. I owned these books (except for Tome of Magic) but rarely played with them. I was still using what I had grown up with:
Now, I did use other books. The most common ones were:

Because we never had a very defined pantheon in out worlds, but just assumed that in the D&D multiverse all these Gods and Goddesses held sway over some part of any world that existed. It was only later that this view was refined. And who couldn't use new beasties to encounter and overcome. I mean FF is still one of my favorite monster manuals.

But there were others that figured much, much less in my play, the survival guides, Manual of the Planes and Oriental Adventures were seldom referred to. They were mostly novelties, fun to look at, but not really applicable to any games we were playing. The one ninja played in our party used the single class Genin option from Dragon #121 instead of OA, we were just more comfortable with Dragon than OA.

The one we had more of an uncertain love for was the infamous Unearthed Arcana. Really, just a re-written compendium of various Dragon articles and material from other supplements, it introduced two over-powered classes into the game, a weird half class (thief-acrobats), codified rules for specialization, and a boat load of new spells. Yes, we added cantrips on our spell lists, but never found a whole lot of use for them frankly. They were true cantrips, not the cantrips of today, some of which are as powerful as third level spells used to be! I made one Cavalier, that I never ended up playing with. I think a friend of mine played a barbarian a couple of times, but we all thought he was overpowered. And everyone, who could picked up specialization, even though we really felt kind of dirty about it, and DMs kind of hated it. Which led to our love-hate relationship with UA. We just had that innate feel that this was doing something to the game none of us were really comfortable with. The power curve had begun to drift outside of the line of what we considered D&D.

When Second Edition was released in the early 90's, I as still playing 1e, and not even really interested in picking up the new books--not at first anyway. I poo-pooed the books and the changes for some time, even though I had already adopted some of these changes that had been filtering into late 1e splat books and via Dragon magazine. The primary change that was occurring and, I feel, one of the main reasons I at first rejected much of 2e was that there was a shift occurring to character and story centered play. Just look at some of the new covers, even to reprints of the 1e books:

You can see that even by late 1e there is a focus on individual persons, instead of the earlier focus on setting, adventure, and typical old school tropes. And of course 2e followed suit. The player's hadbooks and dungeon masters guides from this era are beautifully done. The artistic quality has improved, even if the content has shifted. We can see that this is a game about heroes and what heroes do, their actions, their stories, their challenges.

 Now, this is not a "bad" thing. After all, of course we knew this was true. Our PCs were trying to be heroes at least, and even if they weren't heroic yet, the stories of the dangers they had faced, the dungeons they had slogged through and survived, the wildlands they had journeyed across in trailblazing fashion to overcome were the stuff of legends. In a very real way this shift in focus simply became what Williams and the Blooms decided to focus on as the selling point and trajectory for future D&D.

The problem, though, was that this was _not_ what D&D had been, nor what it had focused on. Not exclusively at least. The original game had moved warriors and wizards from the wargaming table into the dungeon beneath the castle and the catacombs below. It had dared them to venture into the untamed lands beyond the castle walls and as a result great stories were told. The story was possible because the lands had changed. Setting was the key component that had shifted, and story arose out of the explorers' interactions with this new, dangerous and magical land and its inhabitants. The transition from this approach to a character driven and story focused approach happened gradually, but by 1990 the entire D&D industry shifted to embrace this new angle.

You may find this argument unconvincing, and based on too little evidence, or the narrow band of art alone. But if the covers of the original 3 core AD&D books aren't evidence enough (The party in the lizard-man catacomb of the ruby eyed statue being stolen by two of the party thieves; of the Efreet of the City of Brass being attacked by another party) take a look at a few of these iconic early works from D&D's past:
Bill Willingham's Party facing a Dragon from Moldvay Basic
Dave Trampier's Giant Spider in the 1977 Monster Manual

Dave Sutherland's Paladin in Hell from the 1978 PHB
Can you see the change. Character is there, but the setting and what he or she is not only doing but the impossible odds they are facing is key to the expression that was seen throughout early D&D. The shift in focus from heroic exploits to heroes and explorations to quest driven stories was something that, while present in earlier editions was not the focus for the game. That started in late 1e and boomed onto the scene with second edition.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. 5e has been heralded by many as the return of 1e, or old school D&D. I have always struggled with this because it certainly doesn't feel that way to me. I would assert, first, that this assertion has arisen due to the OSR. It is fairly clear that in the D&D culture specifically and the fantasy tabletop gaming culture generally, D&D changed when TSR was sold to WotC, and Wizards took d20 and wrote what they called the 3rd edition of D&D. Some struggled with this, but the struggle was not much different than had occurred previously as AD&D was released, and then 2e was released. There were always edition naysayers--heck I was one of the 2e naysayers.

But 3rd edition, technically 3.5 was a huge success for WotC and with the addition of the OGL not only had the name of D&D lived, its content was still available and Wizards had brought in all those amateur and aspiring creators to build content for their favorite game. Admittedly d20 was a change from the old mechanical structure, but not a huge one. It made the game easier to understand and more consistent across the rules. People adapted to that fairly easily. And of course 3.5 was created deep within the soil of the 2e character driven ethos. So much so was the character driven model a part of 3.5 that character became king. No longer was setting or even adventure the point--it was being to create, have and play awesome characters from level one and watch them become next to superheroic by the end of their playtime.

Sure settings came and some enjoyed huge success, like Eberron. There were also good adventures during this time, though admittedly, the standard had shifted. Adventures generally needed a cohesive point if not a story outline in which the characters could fit. The point of playing was now how a player's character, who they already loved beyond belief because they had spent hours crafting him to be just the kind of hero they wanted, could have an incredibly awesome story where he could shine, be important and do something awesomely heroic. The point every time you played was to be heroic! Now, I may be overstating the point, but that point is that story drive adventures and characters drove the game.

And, big breath here, that is okay. It is an okay way to play. It is not wrong. And sure, it was a part of the game (in a way) all along. It was just not the point of the game. It had become the point of the game. And I think that those who feel 5e has brought back old school to the D&D world are coming from a place that is much more rooted in this character driven and story-focused realm of the D&D universe.

All of the dislikes about 5e from the last post express, at their heart, a lost time in gaming when gaming was much harder, and felt more adventurous, than it is today. I mean sure, there are still challenges. 5e characters die, and at times these characters face impossible odds. Some 5e DMs still like to throw in save or die poison, require resource allocation, heal more slowly, and make PCs prod along with a ten foot pole when they don't have a thief. Just like there were old school DMs who hated when characters died, crafted brilliant storylines with their players and shepherded characters to godhood and beyond. But, the games were basically making different assumptions. Early D&D, Original Edition, Classic Basic, and early AD&D all played as exploration driven games where adventurers were what you started as, certainly not heroes, and making 5th or 6th level was a feat to be lauded. In 5e, my friends, where fourth level can be achieved by the time most AD&D characters were barely reaching 2nd is simply not the case. And by the time 5e PCs are 10th level, most AD&D characters are just reaching 6th.

5e may have brought you back to the time when old school was becoming a character driven and story focused game. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But it did not bring me back to my game, nor the game as it was originally designed to be.

3 comments:

Scott Anderson said...

Great thesis. Wargame -> party -> setting -> character story -> character build.

The game became smaller and smaller in a way, even as the background and setting became larger and larger.

The game we "remember" even if we were never really there is one of survival horror. It's more like the Walking Dead than Aladdin. 5e does not have that old-school tone, does it?

The Shadowplay said...

Interesting thoughts on how the art changed with the idea of he game, moving away from the party of adventurers to the Hero's story. I've read many other places that this and other changes in art was a response to the "Satanic Panic" of the 80's. By focusing on heroes instead of murderhobos, or by removing the more risque art, D&D could be seen as a more 'respectable' game for parents to buy for their kids.

It seems like since 3.5 the idea of the PCs has been that they are superheroes in a sense. That they are a cut above the rest of the fantasy world, whereas in older editions the PCs were just people who eventually became a cut above the rest by going on adventures.

Chris Jones said...

Nope Scott, it doesn't, not the old school tone I am looking for. Thanks for the kudos :-) By the way I am really enjoying your blog as well!

Shadowplay, I really like the thesis that this change may have been a result of the Satanic Panic. I may try and delve into this more, especially since it played such a personal role for me and my gaming. Thank you for pointing that out. And yes, I see the same superheroic/normal contrast in the games. And I think the idea of "normal" informed a lot about how we played the game. Which was why it was so much fun thinking about how life would be if we were really in a fantasy realm. We could see ourselves there doing these things, because, after all, we were just normal guys too!

Thanks for stopping by!

Chris