This column almost didn’t happen.
Last time, I wrote about how my eldest son, Marty, pleaded with me to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for him and his friends. I’d put him off for months, but this fall I knew the time had finally come to get moving on it. When The Escapist offered me this space to write about games, I took advantage of that to spur me into getting the game going, and we were off and running – well, stumbling.
I hadn’t been putting off the game because I didn’t want to run it. I did. I love games, and I enjoy any chance I get to play them with anyone, especially my kids. But I have a busy life, and it’s not always easy to carve out time for an involved game like D&D.
Unlike video games, board games, card games, and their ilk, roleplaying games like D&D require a lot of preparation, especially for the person running the game, the Dungeon Master. You have to know the rules solid, particularly if you’re teaching the game to others. You need to be able to come up with an adventure, either by purchasing one or designing one of your own. And you need to coordinate a time to actually play the game, which can be a nightmare.
This is the lure of the videogame over the tabletop. The videogame is always there. You can start playing whenever you like, and you can stop whenever you want or need to. And,in most cases, there aren’t any complicated rules you need to learn. The prep time is almost nothing. You just turn on the machine and go.
However, nothing beats the tabletop RPG for sheer fun with friends. No computer can match the spontaneity, creativity, and laughs you get from sitting around a table with other players. It’s far more challenging, sure, but it’s at least that much more rewarding.
In one sense, I’d been preparing for this game for months, ever since Marty got his first taste of D&D at Gary Con last March. I just never had the chance to kick it into high gear.
The basic question about the game I wanted to run for Marty and his friends was, of course, which game to play? D&D was my first RPG – and Marty’s – so I felt like sticking with that, but it wasn’t a given. There are plenty of other excellent options out there, like Savage Worlds (published by my old company Pinnacle Entertainment), Little Fears, True20, and many more than I could list. Some RPGs are even aimed explicitly at younger players, like Faery’s Tale (for which I wrote an adventure a couple years back).
Arguably, these other games are better games than D&D, although “better” is a slippery word. They may be better for some uses, or some groups than others. They may play faster, or be more realistic, or be more innovative.
But they’re not D&D. One inarguable fact about D&D is that it’s the most popular tabletop roleplaying game of all time. It’s the lingua franca of gamers everywhere, tabletop or otherwise. It’s seeped into our collective consciousness that we’re as unaware of it as the air we breathe. Concepts like hit points, experience points, leveling, classes, and so on, all began with D&D.
Since RPGs are often so rules-intensive that picking up and learning a new one is not casually done, I wanted the kids to have something they could play forever, or at least use as the basis for moving to other games later. If they decided they liked other games better than D&D, fine, but I wanted them to know what they were supposed to be comparing those other games to.
As for myself, I’ve loved D&D for decades. I played countless hours of both the basic D&D and the now-classic first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote several products for the second and third editions of the game, and I even wrote a fourth-edition adventure that Game Trade Magazine published this past August. So, D&D it was.
Still, that just barely narrowed it down. One of the strange things about RPGs is that many players refuse to play a “dead” game – any game that its publisher isn’t actively supporting with new products. I get this. It’s more fun to be involved with a game that’s constantly evolving, improving, and adding newer, shinier bits.
However, thinking of a game as dead is silly. It’s like saying that Uno is dead because there’s no new basic set out this year. Or that a book isn’t worth reading because there are no sequels in the works.
You can still enjoy a dead game for what it is, without worrying about whether or not you’ll ever see a new supplement for it. It’s actually comforting to know that the rules are complete and done, with little to no chance of any new books coming along to shake the game up, for better or worse.
If you’re willing to play any version of D&D, you have at least nine different editions to choose from, and arguably many more. If you toss in the D&D variants that the Open Game License for Third Edition spawned, you have countless other choices.
You can even find and download versions of these older games for free. If you like the original D&D, check out OSRIC (Old School Reference & Index Compilation). If 3rd Edition (or the updated 3.5) is more your style, you can find lots of copies of the d20 SRD (System Resource Document) around, including the excellent Hypertext d20 SRD.
However, if you decide you want to stick with a “live” version of D&D, that still doesn’t narrow down the choices. This summer, Paizo released its Pathfinder RPG, which is essentially D&D 3.75. It competes head to head with D&D 4E and has a wealth of active support.
Me, though, I like the new shiny, and I was eager to try the latest version of the game from Wizards of the Coast. The designers are friends of mine, and I trust them to do excellent work. Also, despite having written an adventure for 4E, I’d not had the chance to actually play the game, and that’s an itch I needed to scratch.
Some hardcore gamers claim that you could put out any game you like under the D&D logo, and it would sell. There’s some truth to that, of course. The game’s brand is far stronger than its design.
However, the 4E team clearly set out to create a game that would live up to the expectations of the brand. This garnered it a nomination for this year’s Diana Jones Award, an industry trophy that a secret cabal of gaming industry insiders (which includes me) hands out every year at Gen Con. As the DJA press release said about the game:
4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons advances the art of roleplaying game design, while boldly reinventing an industry flagship. Its central innovation, importing the exceptions-based principles first seen in the collectible card game, speeds and clarifies play. Creature statistics achieve a compactness and ease of use rarely seen in crunch-heavy games. The new logic allows for the dispatch of long-standing rules bugaboos in the briefest of paragraphs. Recalibrated math keeps the game stable over disparate levels of play. All said, though, the conceptual repercussions of its technical achievement would mean nothing if the game wasn’t so lovingly attuned to the primal joys of kicking down doors, walloping orcs, and taking their stuff.
It’s hard to top that.
If you’re not into designer-speak, “exceptions-based principles” means that you start with a dead simple set of rules and then layer exceptions on them to increase the complexity and utility of the game. As a player, you only need to know the basic rules to start with, and you can pick up the exceptions as you go.
The classic example of exceptions-based gaming is the original collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, although the design style has its roots in the even-older Cosmic Encounter. It reaches its natural extreme in Fluxx, in which you start the game with a single card full of rules and most of the other cards methodically change the rules.
If you play an MMO, you’re generally playing an exceptions-based game. The central systems for things like character design, movement, combat, and so on form the core of the game, and all the powers, skills, magic items, etc., that you can add are the exceptions. Because more people play MMOs than tabletop RPGs by a good order of magnitude, many of the potential new players for D&D have formed their expectations of how a tabletop RPG should work by playing MMOs. That includes kids the age of Marty and his friends.
D&D 4E has all that going for it, plus “the primal joys of kicking down doors, walloping orcs, and taking their stuff.”
So, 4E it is.
Just last week, I sat down with our spanking-new gaming group for the first time with our new game of choice. Overall, the kids loved it. Next time around, you’ll find out how that went.
Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.