For this month, I was going to spill some ink about earning XP for finding treasure. I had nearly 2,000 words in place, all ready to go. Something else, however, had been stomping around in my little attic and making so much noise, I felt compelled to go upstairs to find out what it was. So here we go. The post that I did not intend to write.
Here’s a confession: I have a really weird relationship with D&D. It was my first RPG. It was the game that hooked me. It’s the game I prefer to play over any other. I’m happiest when I’m working with the other players to explore a dungeon, fighting monsters, finding treasure, and adding the XP to my character sheet. I love solving puzzles, mapping dungeons, and drawing upon my encyclopedic knowledge of the game and its lore. I love the classic experience. And it is in this world where I am most at home. So why then do I have all this frustration? Why can’t I be happy?
To get this right, we have to go back to the beginning. My first experience with D&D was with the adventure Rahasia. I had nothing else. So, instead of pressing my parents to get me the rules, I just made them up. I called it Passages. It was super easy. I think you rolled a d6 and if you rolled some number or higher, you killed the monster. You gained a level every time you moved onto a new map.
It wasn’t long after that my parents presented me with the red box. I still remember pulling off the thin plastic and removing the lid, finding the two booklets, some inexpensive dice, a crayon, and an ad for the RPGA. I looked through the player’s book and discovered, to my dismay, D&D was nothing like the game I had made. It looked complicated and had all sorts of strange rules. I was disappointed.
My friend Landon, however, was a big-time D&D guy. I remember seeing him run AD&D on the playground for some other kids. They had strange books, the Advanced ones, and I clearly remember them discussing Oriental Adventures and the cool stuff it contained. I was intrigued. I wanted to join them, to have the same experiences, to find out just how many flavors of dwarf there were. I want to play, too. Landon, I suppose, sensed my interest and invited me to spend the night at his house. We talked about comics quite a bit. Eventually we sat at his kitchen table and ended with my first D&D character, a fighter named Booger. I landed on the name Booger from my disdain for the entire enterprise. Character creation bored me to death. Later that night, when the lights were off, and I was drifting off to sleep on the floor, I had decided that D&D was not for me. I was, again, disappointed.
The next Friday, Landon invited me over again, this time to play. It was just me and Travis. Travis had his two characters, and I had Booger and a magic-user Landon had put together for me. I named the magic-user Pardu after Tom Hanks’s character from Monsters & Mazes. The game began. Within minutes, mere minutes, I was frantically erasing the name Booger from my character sheet and was scrawling Ator in its smudged place. I was hooked. From that day on, I went to Landon’s house or he went to mine. We swilled Mountain Dew and Sundrop. We devoured chili dogs and lasagna. And best of all, we had awesome adventures in a world of our imagination.
The takeaway from this charming anecdote is the manner in which I became hooked. I took one look at the rules and character creation (laughably simple now of course) and was ready to quit before I had even played a single session. But once I had dice in hand, once the story began, I never wanted to stop. The experience of playing, the genuine fear I felt for my character when we faced down the gnolls for the first time, the excitement I had when I found a +1 two-handed sword: all this had sparked my imagination and would eventually launch my career.
So with all that love, I’m left wondering what the problem is. In suspect it’s that for the last 15 years or so, the most important part of the game has not been playing but rather creating for it. Character creation used to be something you had to do before you could have the fun. The mechanics were the necessary evil, the gauntlet you had to run. In recent years, the fun has moved from the time you spent at the table to the time you spend thinking about the table. Sure, back in the old days, I made plenty of characters for games I played and games I wanted to play but never really did. It was just like doing math problems. They had solutions. You just had to roll the dice, make the choices, and plug the information into the sheet. But hasn’t been that way for a while.
It seems the fun for many is in putting the different pieces together to create something new. Clever play now occurs in isolation. The player earns the greatest reward not from having a good idea at the table or thinking to look behind the wardrobe and finding a magic item, but from the discovery of a winning combination of mechanics, the perfect marriage of two spells, skill and feat, class feature and widget. The pleasure comes from realizing the broken combination and from putting the mechanical abomination into play. No delight is sweeter than that which is experienced by watching the expressions of those who must bear witness to your creative horror. Does it matter that the loophole makes the game unplayable? Does it matter that such shenanigans immediately put the beleaguered Dungeon Master on the defensive, to the point that he or she flails because the game no longer seems to work? Not at all. Why? Because the game wants you to break it. It begs for you to dig in and explore the options. The endless parade of new mechanics demand you to pick them up, peer at them in the light, and plug them in. It’s a game made for the tinkerers. Oh, you just want to play? Well, you’ll need these ten books, this character generation tool, and on and on and on.
The prize for being the best player goes not to the creative mind, the cunning tactician, the burgeoning actor, but to the best mathematician. Perhaps this was the way it was doomed to go. The seeds were there all along. The mechanical-minded played spellcasters—who dominated—while the rest plodded along with fighters. As the game evolved, it was no longer sufficient for the fighter to become more accurate or to attack more often: the fighter had to do things beyond swing a sword or loose an arrow from a bow. The game needed rules for every situation, for every scenario, and with each new rule came a new exploit, a new opportunity to bend the game into something terrifying.
This has turned rant-ish and for that I apologize. I do not believe there is a right way or a wrong way to play this game. I know a great many people love to tinker, to build, and create. They see the character sheet as a blank screen, eager for new code, a canvas craving the brush. And that’s cool. But for me, I don’t want that experience anymore. I crave lighter fare. I want the thrill of discovery. The excitement that arises at the table. The hilarity of defeat and the thrill of success.
So here we are, at the dawn of the next edition, an edition I, in some part, helped to create. When I was brought onto the team, it was with the understanding that I would fly the 4th Edition flag, a game I had worked hard to support through the countless articles and supplements throughout the life of that game. Looking back, I find it strange since I have all but divorced myself from the 4th Edition rules, largely for the reasons I outline above. While I enjoy 4E, it scratched a different itch for me than the one D&D had for many years. As I worked on 5th Edition, I shed my 3rd Edition and 4th Edition influences. I abandoned conceptions and beliefs about design that I had held as truths for years until I returned to my roots, to a place where the most important part of D&D is not what’s in the book but what happens at the table. And so, I look forward to the coming months, to see what I hope will become a return to the glory days of D&D to a style of play both familiar and new. I believe this game preserves just enough of the customization elements that defined the 3rd and 4th Editions to be recognizable to newer members of the audience, while having reclaimed the heart of the game from the earliest editions and put it back where it belongs. It should be an exciting future and one that I am proud to have helped create.