Daddy, did YOU fight in the Edition Wars?

I started playing D&D back in about 1981, maybe a little earlier. I was 9, my brother was 11, as were the friends who introduced us to it. I remember the first Dragon Magazine I bought was issue # 54, and it or the following issue had a review of the “new” AD&D book, “The fiend folio,” so when I started playing D&D, AD&D was already more or less the default game. I actually tried the Basic set a little later (it was probably a Christmas present), and I vaguely recall seeing what must have been the “Holmes” revision, as our friends who introduced us to D&D had a softcover booklets that included the nine alignments, so they definitely didn’t have the “original” Little Brown Books/White Box. We were kids then and instantly assumed that “Basic” D&D was just an introduction and AD&D was the “real thing.” I don’t think we ever tried more than a session or two of the Basic set, but I did occasionally look it over for the great Erol Otus art.

We played AD&D for years, snatching up every Dragon Magazine we could, and all the “Official” rule books (we never actually played with anything from Oriental Adventures, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, or the Wilderness Survival Guide, but still we had to check them out). We found Unearthed Arcana a little weird, since the new classes & races seemed overpowered, but did adopt many of the new spells, rules regarding racial level limits, and fighter specialization.

We still played some, but when second edition was released, D&D lost its shine. No more half-orcs, no more assassins, no more demons. Cumbersome non-weapon proficiency rules, tons of “extra” sourcebooks for character class kits and subraces. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and especially Dragonlance were suddenly the “default” world for all TSR product. It became limiting. We had also been trying more “realistic” combat rules, skills-based systems, anything new. We played Rolemaster, MERP, Palladium Fantasy, Shadowrun, and mostly GURPS, actually starting with the “preview” Man To Man rules (around 1985 or so?), which are still probably the best gladiator miniatures rules out there. In GURPS we really opened up to the wider range of genres, like the Old West, science fiction, horror, many historical campaigns including several epic “pirates” campaigns that eventually incorporated a combination of GURPS and the Man o War rules for naval engagements, cutting to GURPS “cinematic” boarding actions. (We sank many ships we should have tried to loot first, because the naval broadside rules were so fun.) We played a semi-historical campaign in Norman England but involving continued depredation by Vikings, and many supernatural elements like magic using the GURPS Voodoo ritual casting rules. I wrote a campaign history, adding each week we played, in the form of a saga, and while I never completed it, it was a blast and I still enjoy looking it over. We were really getting into games again. Then college was over and we didn’t play much. After several years hiatus, we got a 3rd edition D&D game going, and enjoyed it but saw problems, which seemed to be fixed in the 3.5 rules. But character creation had become a chore, requiring strategizing and rules lawyering. Thieves became rogues, combat machines with a few thief skills. Half-orcs were back, but as stupid barbarians, not conniving scoundrels. But role playing sessions became largely hack-and-slash combat fests, because the complex rules for combat were so central to the game. Still I loved the game for requiring miniatures, which are as big a passion for me as RPGs, obviously.

We tried 4th ed. when it came out, and ran many sessions; enough to know it wasn’t what we wanted. It is a great game but it is not D&D. Just not interested in it anymore.

Dungeons and Dragons is more than year into it’s fourth edition. And the online D&D community (if EN World was any indication) had its panties atwist like never before. (I emphasize online — I take it the vast majority of D&D players continue to play whatever they’ve been playing without paying any attention to all the ruckus.)

For my part I’m completely fascinated by the so-called “Old School Revival” (link is to a free .pdf). There are “retroclones” that recreate long out-of-print versions of D&D and other games, partly relying on clever use of the Open Game License of 3rd ed. D&D. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of blogs devoted to sharing ideas, dungeons, and campaigns. Most are offering their work for free, and those that aren’t are selling what appears to be incredibly high-quality material. And they are hobbyists, not subsidiaries of Hasbro (although a number are published professionals, and some both offer freebies and sell things.)

So we’ve been playing Castles & Crusades, which is very similar to AD&D but with a much simplified action resolution system. It has been a blast. The energy we haven’t had to expend learning rules has gone into character backgrounds, session summaries, etc. Our DM, my brother, keeps a log on a calendar. I haven’t gotten a close look but I think events we players don’t know about are also on that calendar. That is cool. We use figures like we did in AD&D — to show marching order, to make melee more concrete, and to show off my painted figures.

I am seriously considering running an original rules D&D campaign, or perhaps a retroclone, or just C&C. I have a lot of war-gaming figures, so I’d probably work in opportunities for the players to take part in tabletop miniatures battles at times. I have a ton of ape-men, including a HOTT army of them, so there will probably be an Ape kingdom. I’d love to run a siege — a friend of mine built a 25 mm scale castle out of matte board, pretty much identical to the castle Games Workshop was selling when they released their first Warhammer Siege rules in the late 1980s. I painted it and built some siege equipment, and I have never gotten around to using them for siege! I have tons of monsters I’d like to put in dungeons, and am thinking about assigning a particular NPC to each of my “townsfolk” and “henchman/hireling” figures. I have ideas about a hexcrawl for wilderness adventures, and as part of uncovering & creating the world map. Possibly in Hyborea, or a similar pastiche of fantasy/adventure archetypes. My brother, the group’s current DM, has said he’d like a break from DMing anyway, and perhaps it would run parallel to the current game, or something like that.

If I have the time. There’s a lot of figures to paint.

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 4:21 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mike,

    Excellent description of the Edition Wars. I’ve been following it on a lot of blogs over the last few months, and the blame really should be shared between WotC, the DM’s, and the players.

    Overall, WotC is after our money, and the Computer/Console Game market is probably their biggest concern, not the Old School Movement. I’m expecting them to have 5th Edition D&D to be totally in line with Console versions, iPhone versions, etc.

    I think the tabletop and miniatures will always be held precious by a lot of customers. The thing that strikes me the most is how many free games that have spawned as retro-clones, etc. It’s kind of amazing how much fun can be had for free on the tabletop. The tragic thing, to me, is how expensive miniatures have become in the higher scales, even though the sculptural quality is incredible.

    BTW, of all the old school blog posts I’ve read, yours has the hands down, best title ever.

  2. Thanks, Scott!
    I always thought “The Temple of Demogorgon” was a great name too, but it is taken. And The Sorcerers of Doom has a nice ring to it. 🙂

    The scary thing is that while my group was playing 3.5 and 4th ed, we totally got into the stupid mindset that the party should be able to defeat anything we encountered, since it was “balanced” that way! (Especially when we were playing a module.) How embarrassing. Someone wrote about the “Tyranny of fun” (on a blog or forum, can’t remember now) and yeah, that is exactly right. Players and DMs definitely share the blame.

    I was really torn about the plastic pre-painted minis. There are some nice ones, and it does save time. But they do lack character and are totally tied to the “anime” art that is now part of the D&D brand. My FLGS doesn’t even carry metal figures. But I have enough to keep me painting for years, I think.

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