Monday, November 22, 2004

I'm beginning to see the problem...

Okay, I'll admit it: I've spent a lot of time with what I'd term the Third and fourth Generations of RPG's; namely the games that were popular during the gaming renaissance of the mid-90's.

For those of you playing at home, I break gaming into several different eras, based on what was readily available at the time. The first wave of games included the industry classics that have either survived until present day or have been re-invented -- Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Call of C'thulhu, etc. The second wave corresponded roughly with the games that filled the landscape of the 80's and have largely vanished since then -- Star Frontiers, Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes (the TSR version), DC Heroes (the Mayfair version), Traveller, Star Trek (the FASA version) and so on. The third wave (which may actually be able to be split into two parts, were I to do any research at all...) consisted of the games that hit in the late 80's and early 90's that tried to go in completely different directions than their predecessors. These included Star Wars (the WEG version), Paranoia, Vampire, Cyberpunk, 2nd Edition D&D, yadda yadda yadda. The fourth wave was what came in the wake of the gaming revitalization that was prompted by Magic, with games like Deadlands, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Star Trek (the Last Unicorn one), 2nd Edition Vampire, Legend of the 5 Rings, and others. We're now in the fifth wave of gaming, which is marked primarily by the implosion of a lot of the gaming companies that prospered in the wake of Magic, only to be summarily killed off by the rise of D20. Sure, we have a number of interesting products, like Exalted and Decipher's Lord of the Rings RPG (not to be confused with ICE's tireless MERP), but by and large, everyone ended up trying to be yet another D&D supplement, which hastened their demise. I mean, Deadlands and 7th Sea were two of my favorite games since their inception, and I had to sit by and watch them wither away to nothing in the face of becoming D20-based games. As I noted before... Dungeons & Dragons is a great game... but not everything belongs in a dungeon, guys. Cowboys and pirates, just to pick a couple of examples...

Anyway, back to my point. Okay, so I started back in the early 80's, when the stores were still selling the AD&D hardcovers with the pre-Easley art on the cover. And that's what I played throughout middle school and high school. But most of the games that I spent serious time with during my college days were things like the aforementioned Deadlands and 7th Sea. I played a hell of a lot of D6 Star Wars (somewhere in the area of eleven discrete campaigns, most of which I ran, and a number of basic one-shots that I don't need to really count in the total...), quite a bit of Torg, the occasional Werewolf and Star Trek (Last Unicorn) games, and even an ongoing Top Secret game that lives in infamy. There was a Cyberpunk campaign in there, along with some Bubblegum Crisis and Mekton, and so on. You get the drift. Sure, I played D&D here and there, depending on time allowances, but it wasn't the end-all and be-all like it had been back in the day... back when there really wasn't much else that was available.

The thing of it is, there's one thing that stands out in my mind from all of the gamebooks that I read through during these years of massive and constant gameplay: It always seemed like, in some manual or another, there was a note to the Gamemaster telling him that the enjoyment of the game was paramount; if you don't like a rule or a style of play, change it. Granted, this is a mainstay of White Wolf's books, which I've read my share of, but it seems like it showed up in a number of other games as well. (Even some old D&D books, for that matter...) Generally, the supplements were something less than iron-clad. If you wanted to change things, alter the flow of events to accomodate players or discard rules as you wanted, go ahead. Most of the published stuff was there to as a suggestion, not a directive.

While reading through the 3rd Edition manuals, that feeling is diminished. Sure, there are all sorts of 'variant rule' sidebars, but nowhere is there any sort of suggestion of what to do with a playing group that just isn't all that hot on miniatures combat. In fact, entire sections of the Dungeon Master's Guide are devoted to tips on how to set up battles according to 'squares' and the idea of finding a miniature to properly represent your character.

To be honest, this is a little boggling to me. I mean, I remember the 2nd Edition AD&D books pretty well, and mini's seemed to be fairly unimportant to the basic flow of the game. Sure, there was a section in there dealing with how to incorporate them into the session, but they were just a play aid, like dice and character sheets. There was always the impression that, if you really wanted to play with miniatures, take a look at Warhammer. In the meantime, we've got a game to run over here.

And that's what I had gone into 3rd Edition expecting to find. Sure, Wizards of the Coast were seriously hyping their new miniatures line as things went along (as much a means to keep up with WizKids and their various incarnations of MageKnight), and the new version of ChainMail was something that got some space in the news... but to me, that seemed like a clear indicator that the two games were supposed to be separate. It didn't wake me up to the fact that you were supposed to invest further money in lead or plastic just to make the game playable.

I guess that's the thing that really irks me. Back in 6th grade, the thing that amazed me so much about D&D was the fact that it was something that could take place inside your head, using the tools of your imagination that had been developing all through your time in elementary school. Yeah, given, a lot of the things that we imagined were probably pretty far out from the original intent of the adventure, but as much of this was due to things we hadn't learned about as anything else. (Everything in 1st Edition, looking back, was written as though you had a working knowledge of all things from medieval architecture and society to mythology and literature... Not knowing Russian Folklore made BabaYaga's Hut indescribably weird... And that's just the instant example I can come up with...)

But now, we have to have miniatures. We have to print out our dungeons to put them on. We have to run all combat as though it were wholly and completely tactical. Okay, I played my share of BattleTech back in high school, but it wasn't something that I was nearly as interested in as Dungeons & Dragons. Why? Because that actually required imagination, people. And taking D&D back to its roots as a tactical game cuts a lot of that out...

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