Friday, April 27, 2012

The Return of the Grumpy Dwarf - Looking at Tone and Edition

With Monte's departure, I may need to look bit deeper at WotC's 5e posts.  Tone and Edition is Robert Schwalb's latest blog entry.  Surprisingly enough, I don't foresee the Grumpy Dwarf getting too grumpy this time around.

A few years ago, I woke up and realized what I thought was fantasy wasn’t the same for everyone else (I had a similar experience.  I wonder if it's fairly common amongst us geeks?). Sure, people have had worlds with winged cats that could talk, elves with red cloaks, and all sorts of tweaks and twists to the basic fantasy tropes for years. And I’ve always known that things such as the Empire of the Petal Throne and Jorune lurked on the fringes, but they were strange things wholly alien to my sensibilities (Jorune left me scratching my head as to how to actually run a game of it). You see I cut my teeth on Tolkien, Homer, Mallory, Howard, Alexander, and the rest. The old red box D&D let me play in a version of fantasy with which I was most familiar. It let me tell my own stories set in Middle-Earth or wherever because the fundamental concepts about fantasy ranged from “one ring to rule them all” to forbidden dealings with Arioch to scaling the Tower of the Elephant. I knew elves didn’t hang out in Hyborian Age and you would never find dwarves drinking with Gawaine, but in my youthful mind I could reconcile these differences because it was all fantasy to me (add Eddings and Brooks to my list of fantasy sources).
By the time 2nd Edition D&D hit the shelves, I had already solidified my views and, with the frustrating absence of assassins, half-orcs, and monks aside, the game remained true to that vision (my god but the above pissed me off.  these classes and races were iconic parts of AD&D, stripped out to make the game "cleaner" I suppose during the "D&D is Satanism" scare phase). But over the next few years, the game began to change. TSR published settings that presented different ways to play D&D.Some, such as Birthright (too much poorly defined rules for the kingdom level game in this one) and Mystara, weren’t that far from my tastes, while others challenged what I believed was true about D&D, notably Spelljammer (not a challenge so much as a different height of gaming), Red Steel (strangely enough i have the setting, and except for remembering it came with a CD i can recall nothing else), and Dark Sun (potentially great game setting with a railroad set of adventures). In some cases I embraced these visions; in others I rejected them. Thinking back, we never said we were playing D&D when we played Dark Sun. Instead, we said we were playing Dark Sun (rob may be right on this one.  i think we said the same thing). (The same was true for Ravenloft now that I think on it.) (we only ran it as one-offs, when the PCs spend a session or two in the Realms of Dread before returning home) I enjoyed those settings as games in themselves—games that just so happened to use the rules I knew so well. They weren’t D&D to me, but that was okay because they never spilled too far into the core (though the MC Appendixes would eventually chunk together all sorts of monsters from across a wide range of worlds). (yeah, and it got to be a bit of a mess.  maybe D&D Next could avoid this horror, but I doubt it.  Monster Manuals and the like are cash cows, and WotC needs as many cash cows as it can find)
The weird psychological game I played continued into 3rd Edition. The racial assortment stayed more or less the same as it had in previous editions. The game retained the core tone I had embraced years ago. Things would change. Supplements introduced new races, some expected (half-ogres and minotaurs) and some completely unexpected such as dusklings (Magic of Incarnum), illumians (Races of Destiny), and the hadozee (Stormwrack). Since these races lived in supplements, I could ignore them or use them at my discretion.  (wow, i really skipped a shitload of the 3x era it seems.  or at least stuff published by WotC, as there was a large amount of great 3rd party material)
Fourth Edition, however, shocked me (the shit shocked me too.  fucker no longer resembled the (A)D&D game I had grown up on). I never imagined I would find dragonborn and tieflings in the Player’s Handbook (I never imagined seeing every class's THAC0 or whatever 4 e called it going up at the same rate for all classes.  never expected my fighters to have magical powers.  never expect - fuck it, just know if it's in 4e, i never expected it)What about the gnome? (yeah, wtf did they have to put out an anti-gnome video to plug 4e's release?) Where did the half-orc go? (probably eloped with the gnome) D&D had gone and reinvented itself without consulting me! Imagine my horror. Why did the marshal deserve to be in the Player’s Handbook in place of the druid or the bard? (preach on my brother!  can i get an A-men!?!) Everything I knew to be true about D&D had been shaken up, and I was left puzzled and a bit upset—not enough to explode in nerdrage, but enough that I was uneasy. (that's okay.  the nerd rage grew in me as time passed.  it's why i'm so fucking grumpy!)
I was so certain and so confident the dragonborn didn’t belong in D&D, I figured my players would reject the race as I did and choose something more in line with the D&D we’d always played. Imagine my surprise when one of my younger players, who was 19 at the time, immediately latched onto the dragon born and warlord (dude, if you didn't want the race or class in your campaign, just exclude it.  or is that another DM power that was revoked in 4e?). Imagine my continued surprise when game after game my players ventured further afield than the classic array of classes and races. What I realized was that although dragonborn seemed ridiculous to me, the race had a great deal of appeal to my gaming group—the cantankerous, vulgar, twinkie group of players that they are (I'm afraid to ask what he means by "twinkie"). And if these old dudes could climb on board the tiefling, drow, dragonborn, wilden, shardmind train, then there must be people for whom these elements are fantasy for them (nah, they are there for the "power gamers".  power gaming is a different kind of fantasy). In the end, I made my peace with the weirder races and classes that have snuck into the game and broadened my horizons to at least not be offended that they exist. (I would use an emoticon to soften the last sentence but I won’t stoop to that sort of nonsense here.) (that's okay, i'm offended that they exist.  or at least, offended that they exist as "core".  put them in a setting sourcebook or something and wall them off from the core game and I'll be fine)
We’ve talked a lot about what races and classes we would include in the next core player book. I’ve argued at great length about how editions never fall at break points in people’s campaigns and that often an edition change means invalidating a choice a player has made about the character he or she is playing (truth is, the only edition change i went thru was from AD&D 1e to 2e, and we just rebooted.  i can't imagine any campaigns easily switching from 3x to 4e, and i suspect 4e to 5e will be just as drastic.  i doubt anyone playing an OSR game will covert their ongoing campaign to 5e, but they may reboot or start a new one). I can imagine some folks were upset not to have a monk class when 1st Edition shifted to 2nd (but you could have kept playing the 1e monk without too much difficulty, i doubt the same will be from 4e to 5e), just as I’m pretty sure some folks were upset when they couldn’t play a barbarian right out of the gate when 4E landed. We’ve tentatively agreed that D&D is big enough to accommodate the various Player’s Handbook classes and races, and we want to make sure these options are available when the next version comes out. Although this move will certainly appeal to the audience who think dragonborn and tieflings kick ass (sigh), I wonder if their inclusion will offend people with opinions that matched mine a few years ago (wonder no more - yes, it will offend a large portion of us). I’d love to say that we’re all reasonable people and finding a tiefling in the next version of the game doesn’t mean they have to appear in every world or campaign, but, being an unreasonable person myself, I can understand how such a thing might be upsetting to people who have a clear vision of what D&D ought to be (some of the clearest versions of that vision are in the OSR.  we have no need for 5e.  i want to like it, but i don't need it.  unless the beta looks much different from the hints monte and mike have been dropping the past few months, i probably won't like it either). Likewise, I think people who dig the Nentir Vale and the 4E cosmology would be livid if we ripped out the dragonborn and tieflings, whose fallen empires are so important to shaping the land. Is this a no-win situation? (pretty much.  stop trying to please everyone, as you will please no one.  pick an edition to build upon and "fix" and go from there.  stop trying to meld them all into 5e)
I don’t think so. And here’s why. We can be explicit in the rules about class and race availability. By tagging some races as common, others as uncommon, and others as rare, we can instruct players and DMs alike in how these options might fit into their settings (and when the players whine "but it's in the core book!" just let them whine?  that is "old school", i guess ;). The core races, the common ones, might only include humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings since those races more or less appear in every D&D setting (yes, yes, kender are different from halflings—you’re welcome, Miranda). Uncommon races might include half-elves, half-orcs, high elves, and gnomes. (but the uncommon ones were core in AD&D... ah, never mind.  so long as this shit isn't rested like a CCG) And maybe the rare include dragonborn, drow, and tieflings. Separated in this way, a DM can tell players his or her game features only the common and uncommon races. Or, maybe the DM says only uncommon and rare races. A new DM might say just the common ones only! (or an old school DM) This method of sorting could also apply to classes so DMs looking to capture a particular tone and style can confidently and broadly select the options that most closely match his or her expectations and vision of fantasy most appropriate for his or her campaign.
There’s no poll attached to this post (holy shit!  this may be a first!), but I’m eager to read what you think about this. Would dragonborn and tieflings be welcome in your campaigns? Would it be D&D with them? Without them? Does this sort of thing keep you up at night?  (this sort of shit does not keep me up at night.  planning for next week's ACKS game?  that keeps me up at night ;)


  1. I'm on a phone so I can't link to my blog post here, where I say how I didn't understand 1e when it first came out, because it didn't fit my Tolkienian idea of fantasy. The problem was it almost fit - especially the chargen almost fit, so it was possible for me to totally misread the rest and then hate it for not delivering what I was hoping for. Most obviously the monsters and magic items felt wrong, but lots of other little things undermined that fit, so eventually, wanting to play Tolkienian games, I found DnD to be all wrong.

    I guess I kinda had your 4e problem with 1e.

    Actually I had 2 problems: (1) back then I didn't understand what I wanted well enough to select it from the rulebook and chop out what I didn't want;
    (2) I was too impatient to play to spend time special ordering the books in Appendix N, which might've taught me what DnD was actually designed to be.

    These are unreasonable problems. I was making bad use of a toolkit and blaming the tools. But I wasn't alone in that. It's an unreasonable problem that won't go away, and it's especially relevant to stuff like designing published adventures, which any customizer/selecter is going to have to hack before use.

    I think one (better) answer might be to show folks they can pick and choose what they want by putting worked examples in the book - have some weapons and armour tables worked up for trad DnD, swordnplanet, swashbuckling, Transylvanian undead-hunting - and suggest menus of classes, feats, spells and monsters that fit those milieux. That would really drive home a hack-it-yourself message. IF Hasbro would want to impart any such message... And then it would also be safer to put any craziness you want in the rule book.

    ...my objection to tieflings and dragonborn, btw, is they're not crazy enough. You wanna play a demon? Awesome: you leave fiery hoofprints everywhere and cannot resist making contracts with NPCs rather than killing them. Wanna play a dragon? Spend your first thousand years as an ugly worm that can't go out in daylight.

    But then my ideal DnD these days is Carcosa-Barsoom, with a side of Pan Tang.

  2. @richard - my afternoon posts are usually on my lunchtime via my iPad - I feel your pain.

    your idea of lists and tables and such in the core book by setting type is a good one - but it would hamper WotC's ability to actually sell you a new setting every 6 to 12 months if they give you a handful of 2 to 5 page settings in the core book.

    remember, the new edition needs to make a profit and then some, and after core rulebooks settings are the next money maker

  3. aha, but couldn't they be woefully incomplete or, as James M likes to say, provocative? Then they could actually work as teasers for forthcoming supplements...

  4. good luck selling that idea to management ;)

  5. I posted a response to Richard's article but I couldn't copy and paste here.

  6. i don't see it on your blog yet. let me know when it's up

  7. Seeing as how we used Arduin in our early D&D campaigns, and Arduin had tiefling-like half-demons, I honestly have no problem with them.

    Dragonborn can kiss my pasty, wrinkled ass, however.

    In any case, making it clear that each campaign can and should be unique, different and distinct from all others, would be one of the best nods to old school gaming that 5e could pull off.

    Besides, if I ever run D&D again, elves, dwarves and halflings go on the trash heap and hobboglins and lizard men become player character races.

  8. I felt like I was in an alien world when we first played 4e.. We had a Genassi, an Eladrin and my son played..wait for it.. A dragonborn.. but hell there was even weirder.. a Shardmind?? wtf? God that game really did suck..

  9. See what I mean about dancing around the answer to the question that they don't even want to ask? That is what is wrong with the industry in a nutshell.

    If you can get all Heinlein and truly grok it you, everyone of you, know the answer.

    Why don't they?

  10. I just want to know when the hobby shifted from a game about fantasy adventures to a game about ritual codfification of a specific subset of fantasy loosely based on a handful of authors. This fear of the new and unknown under the pretense that it must exist purely because those young kids entering the hobby all want to be power gamers is ridiculous. Some of us out there, like myself, actually enjoy a broader pallette of fantasy and also fervently believe that D&D can and should support it.

    And as for tieflings, I've had them in D&D since they were introduced in 1994....18 years. Not new, not by any stretch. And dragonborn? I don't get the irrational dislike at all. How did we become so narrow minded in our imaginations?


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