Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Which The Warlock Has a Bone to Pick...

What else can history teach us? Only the vanity of believing we can impose our theories on history. Any philosophy which asserts that human experience repeats itself is ineffectual.

--Jacques Ellul
I remember my first gaming session.  I remember piling around my friend Nathaniel's grandparents' house with three other guys, eager to roll dice for the first time.  I remember the first character I ever played:  Miron Blademonger, an elven rogue named for luminary Pittsburgh sports announcer Myron Cope.  I remember the first D&D game I ever ran, back in 8th grade:  a mashup of Dragonlance and Ravenloft that, looking back, was the absolute worst in fanboy-ism. 

I remember the first Wittenberg RP-Guild meeting--over 30 gamers crammed in the Li Room, all eager to hear what plans were on the horizon for the Wittenberg gaming scene.  I remember my the first WittCon, our first trip to Origins.  I remember my first game of WEGS (and the first incarnation of Nordling!).  Gaming permeates my memories like smoky cumin through a rich curry sauce.  Hell, in my wedding vows, I spoke of how I live in realms of fantasy, yet managed to find a real one in the PlatinumChick.

All of these are memories, obviously, and they're all important to me.  But to anyone else, they're just vicarious experience.  I can speak as fondly as I like of my own experiences, but at the end of the day, they're mine and no one else's.  Even those who were there bring their own perspective, experience, and opinion to each scene.

Myself and Mike Mearls, at Origins 2008
The above, undoubtedly, is why I took so much issue with the article I read recently.  Mike Mearls, current Group Manager on the D&D R&D Development team (and all around 4e guru and creator) began a new column on the Wizards of the Coast site, entitled Legends and Lore, which is devoted to the history of D&D.  Mearls' opinions, show the desperation of a D&D design team that is either unable or outright refuses to continue to evolve the brand, in favor of wallowing in the successes of prior editions and creations.

Speaking as someone who owns products stretching back to 1st Edition, speaking as someone who bought the D&D 30th Anniversary Book...when are we going to get on with something new?!
My biggest problem with Mearls' ideas stems from the hypocrasy of ideas that he seems to convey.  I agree with him in the sense that D&D is less about the rules, less about the 'numbers', and more about "your experience as a group, the stories that you and your friends share to this day. No specific rule, no random opinion, no game concept from an R&D designer, no change to the game’s mechanics can alter that."  However, rather than forging unique experiences and fostering the idea of The Individual as a gamer, the D&D brand has become rooted in providing a manufactured experience, with its creations (and their creators) more fixated on doing homage to their predecessors than actually providing new and unique takes on material.

Case in point:  WotC's current release schedule.  The current gaming community--particularly on ENWorld and, but that's beside the point--has clamored for more information on the so-called PoLand setting:  the Nentir Vale and its environs.  Little fluff has been written about the Empire of Nerath, aside from the blurbs now and again referencing its past in various splatbooks.  A full campaign setting, detailing the history of the Dawn War and the Fall of Nerath would break new ground for gamers--allow these designers to put their mark on the D&D world like Ed Greenwood did with Forgotten Realms, like Weis and Hickman did with Dragonlance

Been there, gamed that...
But, such is not the case.  Scheduled material on the release calendar shows nothing of the sort.  Rumor has it that such a book was once on the docket, but was cancelled along with several other products.  Instead, we get the Neverwinter Campaign Setting...which was already covered in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.  No doubt this was done as a package marketing deal with the upcoming Neverwinter MMO, but still...there's nothing new on the horizon. 

Hell's bells, there's only 6 total products for D&D this year on their own product catalog!  And two of the four aren't even books--one's a board game and another's a set of Dungeon Tiles!  Don't believe me?  Go look for yourself.

And the past few products?  Well, we got Gamma World...a throwback to the tongue-in-cheek post-apocalyptic game from 2e era.  We got Tomb of Horrors, a re-write of the classic 1e module.  We got a Castle Ravenloft board game, which while mechanically fast and fun, revels in its indulgence of the revered Hickman module.  And, we got the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  Don't get me wrong--I love Dark Sun as much as the next guy, but why not something new?!

Mearls has the best of intentions when he says views D&D as cyclical.  He states that "A cycle emerges, as each version of the game represents a shift from one gaming generation to the next. What I’d like to do in this column is inspect that cycle, take it apart, and use it to look to the future."  But, the problem with cycles is that they lead nowhere.  In any business, as with in biology, the old adage strikes true:  Evolve or die.

It becomes clearer and clearer to me that D&D, as a game, has ceased its evolution after the advent of 4e.  Obviously, 4e itself was revolutionary in terms of its mechanics, its cosmology, and its game balance.   However, the creative team in the past 2-3 years has nearly become apologist for these drastic changes, eager to "return to their roots" and win back gamers from other systems, most notably Paizo's hit Pathfinder.  WotC's biggest effort in this is obviously the Essentials line, but the product releases listed above speaks for itself.   Mearls addresses this fracturing of the community at the end of his essay, working an emotional appeal for gamer unity, pleading "Don’t let that (sic) details drive us apart when the big picture says we should be joined together."

No.  Fundamentally, no.  You don't play in my games, you don't share my experiences.  Further, you (and everyone else in the gaming business, myself included) don't share the experiences of Gygax, Arneson, Hickman, Monte Cook or anyone else.  Trying to emulate their creations only makes for pale, unsatisfying imitations, and limits your own creativity.  Instead of trying to replicate what came before, why not work on something that comes organically?  Or, if there's such a dearth of new ideas, channel the works of someone who is being creative?

Indulging in "...Inverness"
Further, the continual attempts to "standardize" the D&D experience through RPGA gaming and events like D&D Encounters doesn't provide the ability to "share our imaginations" as Mearls eloquently puts it, but rather homogenizes and sterilizes the experience.  If the concept of D&D Encounters is to be a short, new-gamer-friendly experience that shows off the uniqueness of the game, why run players through a pre-destined, linear track that wallows in its own nostalgia, making obscure references to the Ghost Tower of Inverness?  Why not put out a new setting, or a wholly new product and show it off?

A few months ago, I lauded John, over at World Vs. Hero for "making it new".  His game provides a fresh, unique method of storytelling in a format that's rarely seen--one-on-one gaming.  I joined the WEGSHogz because El Willy brought a fresh take to old-school gaming--the casino elements and unique adverserial GMing of WEGS are almost unseen, throughout all of the games I've played. 

D&D is, and will most likely always be, the king of the hill in terms of roleplaying games.  But, if the most beloved roleplaying game is to survive, it cannot stagnate.  As the saying goes, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it...and, in this case, if you can't learn from what's gone before, you're going to be stuck back in 1973 forever.

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