Wednesday, May 4, 2011

DnD, How I love thee!

It was a clear, sunny day in Texas.  It was 1987.  I had a babysitter, named Dino, who would be responsible for this fateful day.  As he had very little actual babysitting to do (I was a great big brother and a big-time nerd), he invited some friends over and started up a game.  He pulled out a few giant books, a notebook, and set up a giant gridmap.  I watched with the fascination of a kid seeing glory for the first time.  Little did I know...

Obviously, I forced my way into the group and started playing with them that day.  After all, I could read many levels above my age, I could pretend with the best of them, and I was practicing college-level math back then (I was still in Elementary School.  Yes, at one point, I was actually that smart).  Put those things together and you have the makings of a perfect gamer.  Dino taught me everything I needed to know and even bought my first Player's Handbook for me.  For the next few years, he ran me through a huge number of quests and I devoured every bit of experience I could.  I thought I was part of a secret club.  I thought I was special for being a part of this really cool game.  Little did I know...

In Middle School, I made friends all around the neighborhood.  As it turned out, this game was actually quite popular.  When I described this 'role-playing' game to people, they knew exactly what I was talking about.  There was even a cartoon based on this game!  Apparently, it wasn't a secret club.  I wasn't special.  I was just another player in a game called:

In High School, I made all kinds of new friends, joined some clubs, found sports/girls/substances to abuse, etc.  Despite all that, however, I still played the monthly game with my friends.  My 'gift of gab' and love of storytelling moved me into 'DMing' long ago and I'd seen nearly everything.  That super-intellect of mine had been turned to memorizing everything about everything.  (Did you know that the Saving Throw chart was found on the right side of pg 97-98 in the PHB 2nd edition with the mounted ranger on the front, but it was moved to page 101 in the new Black PHB 2.5 book?  Yeah, I was that freakin' scary.  Want to know what the light radius of a small candle is?  Yeppers.  Nerd.)

To me, for a long time (long after Dino had moved on and I'd recycled my RPG group four times), TSR was the greatest game company in the world.  Before I had a job (at the ripe old age of 14) I lugged a lawnmower, weedeater, 100 foot of cord, and 3 gallons of gas all around my neighborhood and cut people's lawns.  The small charge of $20 a yard (remember, that's alot of money- Reagan was still president!) was able to sustain my weekly purchases of new handbooks and rulebooks.  It seemed that TSR understood that I was a book junkie and invented a game that would squeeze every single dollar out of me if they could.  I even went so far as to purchase the 'Encyclopedia Magica' set- knowing that I owned every book already!  For some reason I felt I just needed to have every spell and magical item ever invented all pulled into four overly-expensive books.  And then TSR went under.

It was a hot, sunny Texas day (most of them are) when I read the news that TSR was being purchased by Wizards of the Coast.  My experience with them had been with the second edition of Magic: the Gathering.  That game was broken, it was all about collecting random cards, and people took the game way too seriously.  But whatever.  As long as DnD was still around, I'd be happy.  Then I read Wizard's press release clearly stating that they're going to release three core books and support the rest of the game through community-driven articles in the magazines.  Wait!  So, I wouldn't have to buy a hundred more books?  I looked over at my bookshelf, ALL of which was dedicated to my DnD book collection.  I was very happy with that news. 

I ran out and bought the three core books for the new 3rd edition.  The first two editions were just 'cleanups' and 'expansions' so I was expecting to see THAC0 and all the other familiar things in the books.  The PHB, DMG, and MM were all beautiful, full color, and nicely rendered.  But the rules were different.  Waaaaaaaaay different.  And they required miniatures to play now.  Hmmmm.  Well, whatever.  I can adapt.  I formed up my old group and went to start my store-group (I always had two groups-  I like to play, too!), making the 'call-me' card and going into my LGS.  As I walked to the community board, what did I see from the corner of my eye?  The new 3rd edition Psionics Handbook?!  Wait!  I thought they weren't gonna put out any more books!  I ran home and checked the saved press release and yeppers, there it was- they lied to me!  They, just like TSR, only wanted my money.  I quit.

Many years later, I moved to Cherry Hill, NJ.  My boss took me to the local WotC store, one mall over from my own game shop.  I walked in ready to give the new '3.5' a second shot.  I had the cash in my pocket and ready to go.  The staff member there, bless his wretched soul, couldn't tell me anything about the game.  He played Magic: TG, not DnD....

IN MY SHOP, IF MY STAFF WERE ASKED A QUESTION ABOUT ANY GAME WE SOLD AND THEY COULDN'T ANSWER WITH A LEVEL OF COMPETENCE, THEY LOST THEIR JOB INSTANTLY!  That's kind of the point of customer service.  If a customer is willing to come to you for help, you better be able to give it to him.  Sorry, back to the story:

I walked out.  The 3rd edition of this great game ruined almost two decades of commitment for me.  Twice.  WotC, you suck!  You completely lost me and any number of hardcore DnD players for all time!  How do I know this?  Well, simple really- I asked people!  I ran game shops for a long time.  I asked my gamers how they felt.  I found that us old-school hippy folk that used to play when the monsters were still pencil drawings in a book with a unicorn on the cover had left the DnD world.  We missed THAC0, we missed saving throws, we even missed proficiencies!  But the younger folk- the high schoolers when Bush the second was elected- were all completely enamored by the 3.5th edition of DnD.  They all discovered that feats and skills could make 'killer' characters and the game made PCs super powerful!  Trust me, the difference in generations was quickly noticed and only served to sour me to DnD3 more than ever.

I hired a guy who would become my brother.  He followed me across the country and provided that sense of wisdom that a good buddy does when you're bat-shit crazy (and I am, make no mistake about that).  His name is Hoff.  That's right, Hoff.  He was young.  He was part of the new generation of gamers.  But he was smart.  He drank my koolaid and followed my system and even tossed in a switch-play himself once in a while.  One of those was making me play DnD 3.5.  Nobody would ever be able to change my mind.  Except Hoff. 

I played.  Not DMed, actually played (that felt good, too- I'm always a DM, but I want to play too, dammit!)  I went off the script and threw out an Irda Artifact Hunter and then a Sean Connery-style Paladin.  I ruined Hoff's stories quite often but I got to experience non-hack-n-slash playing.  DnD3.5 is NOT an RPG, it's a hack-n-slash system (focussed on combat) and Hoff made it fun to actually role-play in.  That was it.  I fell for 3.5.  Wizards of the Coast regained a loyal customer even if it wasn't their doing (and it wasn't).

Then 4E got released.  DnD started to be called 'DnD' again, not "Dungeons & Dragons x edition".  The new books are fantastic but the rules are even more radical than the 3rd edition changes.  Miniatures were still required but I'm a Warhammer player- miniatures are not a problem.  Being able to make completely unique characters is the most controversial part of the new edition.  Here's my take:

The characters now look like video game characters.  You choose a race, a class, and some basic equipment, and then you gain access to skills.  These skills increase your character's effectiveness in the game (usually combat, again) and go on to unlock better skills at higher levels.  Most people think this is totally dumb, and the idea that wizards' spells are now 'skills' really gets to some.  Not me. 

Here's what I used to hate about DMing:  "Hey fighter, what weapon are you gonna use?  Grab a d20 and be ready.  Hey wizard, what spell are you gonna use?  Okay, calculate casting cost and wait till I say go.  Rogue, are you gonna open that chest while everyone is distracted?  Okay, when I say go, roll your percentile.  You'll have a -20 modifier with all the noise around you.  Priest, have you started praying yet?  Make that Wisdom check as soon as you can, I gotta see what my monsters are doing...." 
With the new rules, I look at all the players and say, "Choose your ability and grab your d20, it's on!"  See?  Quick, simple, allows me more time to tell the story rather than administrate the game. 

I've played some with the new rules.  I loved 1st edition, married 2nd edition, brushed off 3rd, tolerated 3.5, and now I'm crushing on 4th edition.  Wizards has still released a gazillion books, but I'm not buying them.  I've collected the big three, plus PHB2 and MM2, and I feel good.  With my maps, terrain, Citadel miniatures, and nearly three decades of experience, I feel that 4E is it.  Thank you, Hoff.  Screw you Wizards.  Man, I love me some DnD!

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