Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What I love about 4E

I can almost picture the eyeballs popping, and hear the clunk of jaws hitting desktops. It is well known to my friends that I would rather give up gaming altogether than play 4E, so the title of this post must come as a great surprise.

After playing a short 4E campaign, I was asked if there wasn't anything I liked about the game. At the time nothing came to mind, but I have since come to believe that 4E has had a tremendously positive impact on the role playing game industry and the rpg hobby in general.

When Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was released in 2000, it hit the hobby like a 10,000 pound gorilla. In 1997, when Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, D&D was in pretty bad shape due to both mismanagement and the popularity of collectible card games (ccg's)that hurt the entire rpg industry throughout the 1990's. The 3rd edition revitalized D&D, probably saving it from extinction. The buzz and excitement generated by this edition was palpable and this, combined with Wizards of the Coast's Open Game License (OGL), which allowed anyone to publish material using their game mechanics, resulted in a veritable d20 monoculture in the hobby.

Sure, there were still some of the venerable heavy-hitters, like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu, that were largely insulated from the impact of the Next Big Thing by the niches they built for themselves, and by their solid core of loyal followers, but I think a lot of role playing games had a really tough go of it. Start-up publishers were popping up faster than corn kernels in hot oil and the market was quickly glutted with third-party-published material to support 3rd edition. Even I am guilty of having jumped on this bandwagon and I wrote many articles for the d20 system published in Pyramid Magazine and d20 Weekly. But I feel, very strongly, that this sort of monopoly is bad for the hobby.

In the natural world monocultures are a prelude to disaster. It is common practice, for example, for farmers to plant a single crop like wheat or barley, instead of a mixed crop, for ease and efficiency and often to capitalize on high prices for particular crops. This monoculture usually occurs over a wide geographical area and the industry becomes vulnerable to random misfortunes. If all you plant is alfalfa and your area is hit by a disease that targets alfalfa you are screwed. If the price of alfalfa suddenly plummets you are screwed. Furthermore, monocultures wreak havoc on an ecosystem since myriad plants and animals are all interdependent in an ecological web of such complexity that we still don't understand the degree of interactions. Sometimes all it takes is the loss of a single species to trigger a catastrophic ecosystem collapse. Thus, biodiversity and widespread species distribution are essential to buffer against extinction.

At the risk of pushing the ecological analogy too far, the gaming ecosystem was in jeopardy throughout the decade of the d20 monoculture. A high diversity of role playing games ensures that there will be something to suit every gamer's personal taste, and promotes greater dissemination of creative output. I believe that game system diversity = healthy gaming hobby and I think that the hobby is currently the healthiest it's been in decades thanks, largely, to 4E.

With 4E, Wizards of the Coast helped to break the stranglehold that 3rd edition had on the industry, albeit unintentionally. Pre-release marketing of 4E focused on poking fun at how lame earlier editions of D&D were and how 4E was going to change all of that. A lot of D&D fans were offended by this questionable marketing strategy that suggested that gamers weren't really having fun with their older games and needed to be saved from themselves. When the actual product was released many more gamers were alienated, in part by design, as it was intended to attract MMORPG players to the hobby. Online games boast an infinitely larger player base than all paper and pencil rpgs put together and I suspect that WotC was willing to alienate as many existing players as necessary to tap into this market. Additionally, 4E does not fall under the OGL, but instead is governed by the more restricted Games System License (GSL), which prevents every dog's body from publishing products based on the 4E game mechanic. This means we won't see the same glut of third-party material for 4E that we saw for 3rd edition. Of course WotC is glutting the market quite nicely on its own, publishing a new "core" rulebook every fifteen minutes or so; in a few more years we should see the release of Player's Handbook 27.

I have no idea how well this strategy has succeeded, but I understand that 4E is doing very well. I do believe that the widespread backlash against 4E by many longtime gamers has created new audiences for other game systems, which I regard as a very good thing. One of the coolest outcomes of this backlash has been a resurgence of interest in older editions of D&D, which has come to be known as the Old School Renaissance. The OGL, which cannot be revoked, allows people to publish their own versions of earlier editions of D&D. This has resulted in a slew of "retro-clone" games that have become widely available.

The 3.5 edition of D&D has been kept alive by Paizo Publishing and their Pathfinder RPG. There are also a number of retro-clones that emulate original D&D, Advanced D&D, and the Basic Set versions of D&D. Best of all, most of these retro clone games are available for free as PDF downloads, making for a cornucopia of old-school goodness. Some of the more popular retro-clone games are described below:

Mythmere Games publishes two versions of Swords & Wizardry, an OD&D clone: S&W Core Rules, which includes the rules from OD&D plus supplements; and S&W Whitebox Edition, which includes just the rules from the original three "little brown books" excluding supplements (for those who want to play really old school). Both games are available as free PDFs and purchasable hard copies.

Goblinoid Games publishes Labyrinth Lord, a retro clone of the 1981 Moldvay edition of the D&D Basic Set, which was based on the original D&D rules with some modification. Goblinoid also offers the Advanced Edition Companion to play Labyrinth Lord using AD&D rules; and Original Edition Characters, which strips Labyrinth Lord down to the Original D&D rules. No-art pdfs of the Core Rules and Advanced Edition Companion are available for free download from their website.

OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) is an emulator of the AD&D 1st edition rules, and can be downloaded free from lulu.

The Basic Fantasy RPG is a rules-light game based on early editions of D&D and is also available as a free download.

Because these games are all based on the OGL, anyone is free to publish material for them, and there are a large number of adventures and supplementary material available for all of these game systems.

Ironically, Wizards of the Coast could have tapped into the Old School Renaissance by selling PDF versions of all older editions of D&D, thereby retaining customers disaffected by 4E; but they don't want anyone playing older editions, they want folks to play 4E. I know that WotC isn't particularly concerned with the old grognards, but it wouldn't have taken a lot of effort on their part, would have generated some revenue that they aren't otherwise getting, and might have generated a lot of goodwill and customer loyalty rather than alienating a big chunk of the gaming community. But then again I'm not an big-wheel executive, so what do I know?

I'm reminded of Princess Leia's quote to Governor Tarkin: "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

In any event, I'm optimistic about the future of the gaming hobby, and thrilled that older versions of the game are in print in some form or another due, in no small part, to the disaffection of many gamers with WotC and their current game system.  I may hate the system with the flaming passion of a thousand suns, but I'm sure glad it's here.

And that is what I love about 4E.


Rick Marshall said...

The Wizards of the Coast that rescued TSR from bankruptcy, saved D&D, created editions 3 and 3.5, gave us the OGL, and encouraged vendors to sell PDFs of old editions of D&D . . . is not the Wizards of the Coast that gave us edition 4 and the GSL and revoked the marketplace's right to sell PDFs of old editions. Hasbro's importance here deserves greater recognition.

Sean Robson said...

That's a good point, Rick, and one that I failed to consider. You're right - WotC sets a different tone now than it did in the 3rd edition days.
Whether you like or dislike 3E, I believe that it was a labour of love. 4E feels more like a labour of marketing to me.

Thanks for bringing this up.

JB said...

@ Sean: Hey...just found your blog (and love the title). This is by far, the most positive (and justly so) thing I've ever read about 4E. The Star Wars quote is especially appropriate.

It is totally cool to look on the bright side.
: )

Sean Robson said...

Thanks for the kind words, JB, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.