Thursday, November 29, 2007

Edition War

Come on, you knew it was coming eventually. Since this blog is still in its initial stages, I'm getting all of the old chestnuts out of the way. This way you'll know where I'm coming from when I hit some more obscure topics.

D&D has had a lot of different editions. I haven't played them all, and I haven't even read them all, but that doesn't stop me having an opinion on them all. And so, onward, in no particular order.


The current incarnation of the rules. What began as a love affair with these rules has slowly but surely turned into a kind of struggle to the death. It's the same story that I've heard from many gamers. When the previews started trickling out in Dragon Magazine, I was getting more and more stoked. Every single change that was being announced sounded logical and exciting, and let's face it - D&D at the time really needed a new edition. Once I bought the books it was even better - it felt like exactly the game that I had always wanted. And so we started playing, and so we had fun. We still are, to be honest. But it's seven years on, and I still can't get the hang of DMing this game - it's far too rules-intensive, and the prep-time is staggering if you don't want to take short-cuts. I think the main problem is that my group only plays once every few months. 3rd Edition is absolutely THE WORST version of D&D for casual gamers. There's far too much stuff on the character sheet for guys who don't want to memorise a rulebook, and there are far too many irrelevant statistics for me to DM the thing as well as I would like. If you enjoy creating characters whose abilities and rules reflect your character concept, 3e is awesome. If you want a game that plays fast and is simple to learn, it's a nightmare.


I've actually never played this edition of the game, but I'm reading the core rulebooks at the moment. The first thing that strikes me is that they are really poorly organised. It's no wonder that so many groups house-ruled this game to within an inch of its life - it's easier to make a rule up than actually find it in the books. I'm not really sold on the writing style, either. I love the way Gary Gygax writes modules, but when it comes to rules he needs to tone things down a bit. They ought to be clear, concise, and easily understood, but with Gygax's florid prose they are overly convoluted and obscured. And yet... There's a certain indefinable something about them. Perhaps it's the authoritarian tone that permeates the whole thing, but it really does feel like D&D As It Was Meant To Be Played. It's lively, and a bit dangerous, more daring than any edition since. I'm planning on running a by-the-book AD&D campaign at some point, though see below - I have other fish to fry before that!


Ah, the great temptation of my misspent youth! 2e was my D&D, and in many ways it always will be. Note that I never got sucked into the really bad parts of this edition - the endless torrent of splatbooks and settings passed me by, mainly because I was in my early teens and had no money, and no nearby hobby shop stocking them even if I had. We stuck to the core books, and the game stayed fun. There's a lot of hate out there for 2e, and I can understand why - the character is gone. So many of the little touches that made 1e feel a bit eerie and weird were gone. It's like the life had been sucked out of it. I think a big part of this is seen in where the two editions drew their influences. 1e was drawn from Tolkien and Conan, from Fritz Leiber, from Michael Moorcock and HP Lovecraft and a ton of others. Looking over the 2e books now, the main influences seem to come from D&D itself - notably the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels. The game was basically the same, but without the devils and demons, the half-orcs and assassins, it really wasn't. Not that I knew this at the time, of course. And even so, the edition has its merits. It's far more playable than 1e, for instance - the organization is a major improvement. The rule are clearer and more concise. But you know what? It's just plain cooler to have your paladin smite a devil than a baatezu.

Dungeons & Dragons - Moldvay/Cook version

D&D's alternate game line, far more simple and streamlined than its advanced counterpart. This is another version of the game that I've never played, but it looks like a cracker. I have a growing appreciation for non-Advanced D&D - it's a great game that boils D&D down to its purest essence, cutting away the rules dross so that you can focus on whacking orcs in the face with your axe. This version feels like AD&D's quirkier cousin. It still has that weird vibe, but without the authoritarian writing style it comes across as much more of an anything-goes romp of a game. It just looks like a hell of a lot of fun, to be honest, but I don't know if I could convince my 3e-loving players to play a game with so few options in character creation. It's a shame, really.

Dungeons & Dragons - Mentzer version

This was my introduction to the game, and role-playing in general, and let me reiterate - there's nothing better out there for this purpose. It's the same material as the Moldvay version, but specifically designed to walk the reader through things step by step, as simply as possible. Admittedly the baby-steps style could turn off older gamers, but as a 10-year-old it really got the hooks in me. In many ways it's like 2e AD&D was to 1e - a safer version of the previous edition. It's hard to pinpoint why, but I think it could be the switch in art from Erol Otus to Larry Elmore. I love them both, but Otus lives and breathes Weird Fantasy, while Elmore is the epitome of Dragonlance style 'D&D Fantasy'. They're worlds apart.
At this point I ought to mention the Rules Cyclopedia, which I've never played and only briefly paged through. It looks to me like a wrong turn for the D&D line, adding in too many complications. D&D was supposed to be the simplified alternative to AD&D - it loses that when you start piling more rules in.

Dungeons & Dragons - Gygax version

This is the original version of the game, three pamphlets in a woodgrain box. It's obscure, it's contradictory, it's incomplete, and dear god I love it. Everything that makes D&D what it is is already here, in a rough and unfocused form so lacking in professional design that it can only have been a labour of love. I'll be talking about this version of the game in more detail soon, but suffice it to say that I want to run it ASAP.


In brief - not the game I want D&D to become. A lot of the changes sound great from a gameplay perspective, and I will give it a chance when it comes out, but as far as I'm concerned 3e took things as far away from the original game as you could without making it something else entirely. I was looking for a game that took those same rules and refocussed them into a faster game, especially on the DMing side of things. Sadly, 4e won't be that game - but more on that as things progress!

So that's it - the many faces of D&D, and how I love them (or not, as the case may be). The plan for this blog for the moment involves a few things. Firstly I'll be reacting to 4e news whenever that beast rears its head. I'm also planning to delve back into the game's beginnings, reading TSR's D&D releases in order and commenting upon them - that promises to be fun! I'll also be reporting on my own play experiences, because everyone loves to spout off about their own games. Until next time, then!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Save or Die: An Introduction

Welcome to the first installment of Save or Die!, a blog devoted to Dungeons and Dragons in all of its myriad permutations and incarnations. My name is Nathan, and quite obviously I'm the man who'll be writing this thing every few days or so.

Over the next few weeks I have a lot of topics lined up, and with the semi-recent announcement of a new edition of the game I have plenty of content fodder. Aside from that I'll be talking about what I liked about the older editions, what I hated about them, and pretty much anything else related to the Great Game.

I suppose the first thing I ought to do is talk about my D&D background. I started playing in 1989 at the age of 10, after receiving the Basic D&D Boxed Set in all of its glory. You know the one - red box, Larry Elmore art, solo adventure where Bargle kills The Hot Cleric. My Nanna bought it for my birthday, and I must say she seemed a bit miffed that it only had a couple of books and some dice inside - I think she was expecting some kind of lavish board or something. Personally I was spellbound: it was just like the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks I loved so much, only you could play it in a group! Finally, my friends and I could stop whacking each other with sticks while we pretended to be orcs. (We didn't stop, but that's another story entirely.)

I have to stop for a moment to sing the praises of the Basic D&D Boxed Set, as written by Frank Mentzer. It is without a doubt the best product for introducing youngsters to the game. I taught myself how to play, and I'd be pretty impressed if a ten-year-old could do that with the current rules.

Anyway, fast-forward to the beginning of school, and I'd managed to rope my three friends into playing through my dungeon. One of them had played a fair bit already with his older brothers, and we were all obsessed with Fighting Fantasy and the Forgotten Realms, so the basic D&D tropes were all pretty embedded in our minds. I was the Dungeon Master, but I was itching to play as well, so I created a Dwarf named Duergar. (I'd read Streams of Silver by this point, and I filched the name. My sole moment of creativity with this character was to have him wield a sword instead of the stereotypically required axe or a hammer.) I can't remember what characters my friends had, but I do remember that they gamely ventured into my dungeon, and made a good show of slaughtering their way through Level One (of Three).

As for the dungeon itself, I remember few details. There was a goblin city on Level One, and the king wielded a sword that could fire lightning bolts. Even at that early stage I had my Rat Bastard DM hat on, because I had the sense to make the weapon melt after the King was killed. I remember the trap on Level 2, where the floor of an empty room would ascend to crush anyone still inside against the ceiling. I remember it well, because it claimed my first ever character! The first of many Save or Dies... And then on Level 3 was the White Dragon, which quickly used its breath weapon to blast the intrepid 1st level party into oblivion.

Despite our unsuccessful first adventure, we had a great time, and D&D quickly became an obsession. We graduated from D&D to Advanced D&D, just shortly after 2nd Edition was released. Our group remained steady for a good 8 years, and we all managed to get characters in the vicinity of 20th level. To tell the truth, though, we weren't really playing AD&D at all - we were playing a mix of D&D rules with AD&D races, classes and spells; the version of D&D that just about every group I met at the time had developed. Sometimes I was DM, but most of the time it was one of the others, and we never had what could accurately be titled a compaign. Most importantly, we always had a good time, except when we didn't.

After high school ended that group stopped gaming together, but I pulled together a new bunch of guys with myself as the regular DM in a full-blown homebrew campaign world. We started with 2nd Edition, and migrated to 3rd when those rules came out. I'm still playing with that group, though not as regularly as I would like, and I'm still the DM, even though I'm burning out on the current edition. But more on that in later installments.

So that's me, and a small taste of my experiences with the game. It's been nearly 19 years, and I still love the game in all its forms. Hopefully I can convey that in my blog, and provide an entertaining reading experience. Feel free to comment, whether it's to praise me, to suggest topics, to praise me, to offer money, or to tell me I completely suck (but please don't do that on Mondays).

Welcome to SAVE OR DIE!