Friday, February 13, 2009

Big F***ing Fantasy Heroes

You know, there has been a lot of talk recently about a shift in tone over the various editions of that most popular of fantasy games, Dungeons & Dragons - an "old school" vs. "new school" sort of dichotomy.

The latest iteration of D&D, 4th edition, places its emphasis squarely on tactics, action, and flashy powers. In 4th edition, your character is a highly competent professional badass even at first level, skilled at chopping down foes and/or blowing shit up. You are, to quote Brick Top from Snatch, Muhammad "I'm Hard" Brucelee. "Big Damn Heroes" has become a shorthand for describing this approach, and it's a pretty useful one.

In the original version of D&D and its AD&D descendants, you were a lot more likely to be a loser at first level. Combat could be exceedingly deadly if you weren't careful, or if you just plain rolled poorly. If you wanted to make it to second level, you hired a bunch of goons as cannon fodder, tiptoed through the dungeon in fear, and ran away a lot. The game was designed by hardcore wargamers, who more often than not had a decent grasp of historical strategy and combat tactics. Somebody on described the feel of early D&D as "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam", and again, that's not too far from the truth in my (admittedly limited) experience.

Now, I am not here to say one approach is objectively better than the other. As fun and as popular as the new game is, there has been a pretty sizable backlash against D&D 4th edition - which, as far as the mechanics go, really codifies what I would argue has been a slow but inexorable shift in tone from survivalist dungeon crawling to technicolor epic asskickery. In fact, I'd argue that the newest edition of the game finally allows your character to do some things that a lot of people expected the game to allow in the first place - and the artwork of much of the old material would have given you the impression that it did.
(I mean, check out that shit to the left. I'm still waiting for the Complete Wizards With Frickin' Lasers supplement.)

At any rate, a lot of people have decided to go back to earlier, more familiar editions of the game, or to take a new look at old books they'd never gotten a chance to until these heady days of cheap PDFs and open gaming licenses. I think that is laudable. There are a lot of cool old games out there that deserve to be played, and while I don't think I'd ever run the original version of D&D, I have played a bit of it, and I can confirm that it really does shine in the hands of a capable DM with a lot of time set aside for rules tinkering and world building.

But you know what? I'd be even happier if people would dust off other fantasy RPGs of yesterday and give them some new shine. So, coming up: a review of a new re-release of an old game that I feel really deserved it.


  1. this reminds me of the debate within the World of Warcraft community. many of the so-called "hardcore" set bemoaned what they saw as a creeping tendency by the developers to make top level ("Epic) gear more easily available. through the first iteration of the game (prior to the first expansion, released early 2007) to get the best Epics, one had to go on dungeon raids that required 40 players on a team and often took 8 hours or more. you can easily see how this limited the availability of the items gained. but in the expansion, more and more Epics became available through alternative means which did non necessarily entail marathon sessions with enormous teams. the "hardcore" gamers derided the "casual" gamers and their "welfare epics." after a bit, the developers threw the hardcore gamers a few bones, but this was more to try to end some sketchy practices which were meta-gaming the system than to really make high-end gear unavailable to all but the most dedicated (or insane, or people with no life outside the game).

    basically it seems to me that this is a natural expression of the free market. more people want to run around as a badass than to slowly work up their weak character. the companies that tailor their games to those desires will sell more units, even if they do alienate the minority of connoisseurs.

  2. That is pretty interesting, and does seem to mirror the attitudes towards 4th edition. Man, I could fill a book with what I don't know about MMORPGs. I literally have never played one, and somehow I don't really feel like I'm missing much.

  3. yeah, don't bother. MMORPGs are mostly just brainless time-sinks. they don't tend to have the kind of storytelling potential that i think you respond to most from traditional RPGs. that said, they can be brainless fun, good for blowing off steam, and it is often cool to play together with real-life friends.

  4. I agree with catharsix that MMORPGs are pretty brainless, though it is highly interesting that their main potential for fun is in their social-communal element--something that I would argue is (and has always been) the core of tabletop games.

    It also makes sense that market flow drives the decisions of the larger game companies, like the developers of WoW. Not only MMORPGing, but all manner of video gaming--especially since the dawn of the days of interactive console gaming (PS online and XBOX live)--has followed the same trend of alienating the minority group in order to increase capital gain. I think this has shifted the paradigm of willful communal interaction. It seems like a lot of 4e has been structured to cater toward this new paradigm (flashy CG art, wizards with lasers, feats of invincibility, etc.), and that bit of criticism I tend to agree with.

    When you shift value focus from the "storytelling" and interactive element (where plot and strategy are involved) to battle and acquisition (kicking ass, spoils of war), I think there's a legitimate gripe there. Still, as you pointed out, what matters most is how the DM runs the game--and this is where I think 4e shines. Despite its brandishing of "epics" (to borrow the word), 4e really places the potential of the game in the hands of good DM choices, not on what the rules say can and cannot be done.

    So, my sound byte is that if 4e's flash is pushing anyone into the peripheral past of well-known, tried and true RPGs (or even obscure games with good potential), remember to blame the maze controller if they suck.