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Penny Dreadfuls: Against the Nostalgia Fetish in Fantasy Roleplaying

Penny Dreadfuls: Against the Nostalgia Fetish in Fantasy Roleplaying

Penny Dreadfuls: Adapted from the Spring Heeled Jack Penny DreadfulEver since the announcement of “D&D Next”—or, to translate marketing-speak into actual English, Dungeons & Dragons: 5th Edition—more than a year ago, Wizards of the Coast’s efforts to unite the disparate tribes of fantasy roleplaying enthusiasts under one system of roleplaying has been contentious at best. Fans of disparate—and mutually exclusive, in some cases—styles of roleplaying have been contesting and debating the merits of each edition to assess whether elements of that edition should be included in the Frankenstein’s monster that is Next.

The results have been ugly, retrograde, and entirely predictable. Wizards of the Coast’s promises of modularity and freedom of choice have all been silenced by the advent of the unelected “But that’s not D&D!” committee that lurks on every forum. Its members revel in speaking out against progressive design, clutch tightly to every mechanical cow in the event that someone, somewhere might believe it sacred despite its age or dissociation from the remainder of its herd, and rejoice in purging the unclean from the hobby because of their conviction that there is only one ideologically acceptable way to pretend to be an elf.

Theirs.

People who’ve talked with me know I have never been on board with D&D Next—its design philosophy’s attempt to unite the tribes struck me as remarkably tone deaf, naïve, and harmful to the state of play we have been gifted with since the hobby’s inception in E. Gary Gygax’s basement four decades ago. While some view crowdsourcing as a viable way forward, I predicted that Wizards of the Coast’s tactics to engage fans in the design of the next edition of the game would reignite the most-recent edition warfare that’s infected gaming discussions since the launch of D&D 4E and the release of Pathfinder RPG. Rather than encouraging gamers to have an honest discussion about the role nostalgia should play on mechanical design, the openness of the process has caused numerous players—most frequently those who prefer older editions of the game—to come forward and out themselves as members of the “That’s Not D&D” committee.

I suspect part of the reason I find the views of the “That’s Not D&D” committee so bizarre and unhelpful for the hobby is that I don’t particularly value nostalgia. As I get older, I’ve come to accept that the ways I played roleplaying games in the past—particularly my start in the hobby with AD&D—had little to do with mechanics and more to do with where I was at in my life. I’m from rural Louisiana, and when my friends and I discovered a game where we could pretend to be heroes, we used the rules to make stuff up that we thought would be fun. Our creativity and happiness to play together was part and parcel of being young kids happy to hang out with each other, and we didn’t really let the mechanics of the game get in our way.

I know game designers can’t recapture the esprit de corps of my early forays into gaming, no matter how hard they try; the mechanical design of the games I loved had very little to do with the fun those games facilitated. We didn’t think deeply about concepts like simulation, if it was necessary for D&D to have draconic kobolds or doglike kobolds, or whether warlords could “shout wounds closed.” Our games were laissez faire and au courant. Now that I’m older and have done a bit of game design, the idea that any game designer would try to recreate the games of my youth strikes me as quixotic and impossible—nostalgia is not empirical, and it cannot be mechanically modeled.

May Garl Glittergold go with those who try.

But to the members of the “That’s Not D&D!” committee plaguing RPG forums, the type of fun roleplaying games facilitated should be subordinated to nostalgic purity (in general) and their particular nostalgia (in specific). Did you like 4E? Tough luck. Were warlords the class you were looking for way back when you were playing 2E and wanted to create a fantastic version of Alexander the Great or Zhuge Liang? Sorry, that’s not D&D because the game is and must be Eurocentric. Are you interested in non-Vancian magic options? Too bad. That’s not D&D even if 2E psionics provided just such a system (and even if it were awesome!). Did you play 13th Age and decide that (what they call) narrative mechanics might be interesting in your fantasy game? Leper. Outcast. Unclean. Forge-ite. Swine.

The problem with the “That’s Not D&D!” committee is not the fact that they are attempting to use the Internet to silence and shame those who want D&D to continue moving forward. The issue is these men and women do not understand the extent to which they are fetishizing the past—and in so doing, contributing to the culture that’s making it harder and harder to introduce new players to the hobby. Nostalgia and fantasy roleplaying’s history have their place in this hobby—but to the loudest subset of message board denizens, that place is decidedly not as a reference to where the hobby’s been. History and nostalgia have become Gygax ex cathedra, rigidly constraining our understanding of the hobby’s past and constricting the mechanical designs that will define our hobby’s future.

But what do I know? Nostalgia über alles. After all, that’s not D&D (and it shouldn’t be to you or anybody else)!

41 thoughts on “Penny Dreadfuls: Against the Nostalgia Fetish in Fantasy Roleplaying”

  1. What’s sad is, that like all Zealots, these people ignore the words of the person they idealize. Gygax’s view of “fun > rules and mechanics” has long been forgotten.

  2. I’ve been struggling with a response to this article for about an hour now.

    My problem with it is this: As I read and re-read it, I consistently found myself drawn to the conclusion that Mr. Hebert is dismissing out-of-hand all that *was* D&D, that what was has little to no value now. Which is a curious position to hold, given the above article, as it seems to be a nearly diametrically opposed position to the “That’s Not D&D” crowd.

    Which is just as unhelpful a position. To hold the position that there is little to no value to what came before, to what was, to the game’s roots and, yes, to some degree, the nostalgia, is just as extreme a stance. I don’t know that the author meant to convey that, but it’s how it’s coming across to me.

    Like the author, I also expressed grave concerns about the “crowdsourcing” (for lack of a better term) nature. Gamers are, like any fan base, passionate about their hobby, have strongly held opinions, and, for better or worse, are not shy about making those opinions known. I worried that it would devolve into “Edition Wars”.

    However, unlike the author, I think that there are certain elements that distinguish any long-standing game system from their bretheren. Deviating too far from those elements make it a different system – which is not to say that it’s a bad system. It may be a great system – but it’s not “System X” anymore.

    (As an aside, I kinda feel that this is what happened with 4e. 2e & 3/3.5e built on the previous editions. Again, for better or worse is not necessarily the point here, the feel was the same. 4e was, IMO, a fairly radical departure. from it’s predecessors and lost (again, IMO) a lot of the feel of the previous editions, and became something I was not interested in playing. But that’s just my opinion – take it, leave it, line the bird cage with it.)

    Look, we know that no game system is going to make *everyone* happy. That’s a fool’s errand, and I suspect that the Mr. Hebert would agree with that statement. Hell, it’s why there are so many systems out there, and why all of them have been customized to the individual tastes of those playing them.

    The “D&D Next” team has a unenviable task ahead of them. No matter what they put forward, they’ll get people screaming “THAT’S NOT D&D”, with others screaming “IT’S THE SAME OLD CRAP!”. I think that the best thing that they can do is to politely note the people who are screaming and any good/valid points they may have, then promptly ignore them and work with the reasoned voices. They’re out there, and I suspect that a number of them are trying to strike a balance between old and new.

    Between keeping the flavor and feel of the game and the need to refresh things.

    Between nostalgia and evolution.

  3. Frank’s comments mirror my own. I think this article has wisdom, especially in the sense that designers cannot hope to ignite (much) nostalgia with mechanics. It’s been said before, and rather more rudely, but if you want to play the game your nostalgic about, well then, play it. I do believe that some, a precious little, nostalgia can be stirred with careful use of layout, art, verbiage, and such, but is that a worthwhile goal? Even if some fans get the full benefit of Nostalgic Design Dart (level 3 bard spell), countless others will not.

  4. Frank said it best with this:

    “However, unlike the author, I think that there are certain elements that distinguish any long-standing game system from their bretheren. Deviating too far from those elements make it a different system – which is not to say that it’s a bad system. It may be a great system – but it’s not “System X” anymore.”

    That was my experience as well and I am not alone.

  5. I’m kind of confused by this article. On the one hand, the “That’s not D&D” committee of trolls are trolls and fuck trolls. No one owns this game (other than WotC) and no one has an authoritative vision of it.

    On the other hand, to what degree is the design of 5e arranged around pleasing the trolls? I mean is _nostalgia_ really one of the guiding lights of 5e design? I don’t think I’ve seen or read Mike Mearls talk about the need to satisfy a sense of nostalgia and I’ve not got the sense from the playtests that nostalgia is an important factor in 5es design.

    Here is a really solid Warlord for OD&D:
    http://osrandom.blogspot.com/2013/03/basic-warlord.html

  6. Part of the problem (IMHO) is that the official D&D releases are progressing too fast. Most of my D&D experience has been with 3.5 edition, so this is one I’m most familiar with. Admittedly, I have no problem with either the 4th edition or Pathfinder, but mostly because there are some similarities with the 3.5 edition and it was easier for me to handle. Others probably didn’t handle it so well and became resentful. As resentment grows and ferments it turns nasty and spreads, and that is probably what is happening in the D&D community nowadays. That is bad, but on the other hand, why does D&D has to upgrade its editions so often? A gaming company like this one is driven by its fans, and I cannot help but feel that this ‘forced march’ is alienating its fans as well as is splintering them. Ergo, I feel that while the ‘forced nostalgic’ fans are a problem in the D&D community, the ‘forced progress’ fans and their allies are a problem as well.

  7. An interesting article. For me nostalgia is more about feel than mechanics. I think you can radically change mechanics and still have a game “feel” the same. I think 3rd ed accomplished this. I think the problems we have seen recently stem more from changing things seemingly for legal or product identity reasons. It was the fluff changes to 4e that bothered me more than the rules changes. For me that is what made it “feel” not D&D. IF D&D next feels like D&D I will be happy, regardless of the mechanics.

  8. I’ve been seeing this, too. A sort of “Gaming Fundamentalism” has arisen since the release of 4e that I personally find abhorrent (just like I find religious Fundamentalism). I’m in wholehearted agreement with this author.

    Also, I don’t see the “the past is bad” attitude that Frank seems to see. What I see is an atitude of “it was nice then, but I’ve outgrown System X.” I find myself there as well. Older versions of D&D became too mechanically unsound for *me* to continue to play. But if someone else wants to, more power to you.

    The community that is contributing to 5e is not inclusive. I was reading the forums regarding the new edition just after the announcement, but I quit about a year ago when I realized that yes, any dissenting opinion is shouted down as “Not D&D!” Who wants to deal with your opinion being constantly shot down by the trolls.

    In the end, this is going to hurt D&D, as locally, everyone that I’ve encountered has the same “Frankenstein Monster” opinion of the new edition, and I expect sales will be horrible locally. This fragmentation is even happening at the corporate level, as WotC isn’t participating in Free RPG Day, but has instead scheduled their Game Day to conflict. Locally, I know of no one, FLGS or otherwise, who will be supporting WotC’s event. While I don’t live in a big market, I’m hearing similar views from friends around the state (California). That is a big market. D&D may find itself in a Transformers/G.I.Joe state: shelved for five or ten years until Hasbro figures out a new way to make money with it.

  9. Back in 2005, my brother, a friend and I decided to run a PbEM campaign, and they decided to go with AD&D because it was something that even after all these years, they still knew. So we went with it. It had been some 17 or 18 years since I’d played the game, and while I had much nostalgia for old AD&D, I was also coming back to it with a relatively fresh set of eyes. I had written and designed games in the interim; I had invested heavily in entirely different role-playing game lines and engines. So AD&D was going to be interesting. That campaign was a real eye-opener.

    For me, AD&D was just a hell of a fun game. I appreciated how few rules there were, really. For my gang, it led to a lot of more open-roleplaying. in many cases, what you could do wasn’t defined. But by extension, what you couldn’t do wasn’t defined either, so there was an awful lot of freedom. The rules were not perfect. They never were. And as in the old days, we did away with many of them (spell reagents, weapon speed and encumbrance being three of the biggies), and in that, I suspect our game was a bit more like Castles & Crusades or Labyrinth Lord than it was like AD&D. But it was simple. It was fun as hell. And we never really found ourselves wishing we were playing with another rules set all that much.

    The big impetus there was from me, and it came out of two desires. The first was for characters to have more ways to customize themselves as they hit higher levels. I found the feats and skills system of 3.x to be compelling there, but my other players just saw it as more rules. They didn’t feel the need to get under the hood of their characters any more than they already did. (And I could not blame them for that; for them, the PbEM was a largely narrative experience where I handled all die rolls and combat off stage, pausing for their input when a serious development occurred, such as a major wounding or a pivotal moment in a fight.)

    The second desire was purely out of a “kill monsters and take their stuff” impulse: I love, love, love the way in which 3.x (but also, Castles & Crusades) normalizes the treasure mechanic so that the harder monsters tend to get more loot, and better loot. As much as I enjoy the weird and particular AD&D treasure types, they never made a lot of sense, nor did it that a mighty red dragon might be sitting on a modest pile of treasure well beneath the gear of those who slew the dragon to get to the hoard. 3.x handles this perfectly. Castles & Crusades does a pretty good job of it, too.

    So in the end, where does this place me in the whole “That isn’t D&D!” context? Not sure, really. To me, it’s all D&D. It’s all killing monsters and taking their stuff and familiar classes and familiar monsters and familiar treasure. The differences are in how complicated and sensible the rules are, I suppose. And for me, therein lies the conundrum: 3.x (and by extension, 3.75 – Pathfinder) strikes me as a much better constructed rules set. I just can’t be bothered to learn it all, and so I find myself returning to an older, simpler rules set largely because it is a native language to me, despite its obvious rough spots. I suppose everybody has their reasons for staying in their particular comfort zone, and with each successive iteration of the rules, D&D ends up creating new and different comfort zones.

    Therein lies the folly of Next, to me: it is simply another comfort zone a certain core of players will love and never wish to leave. As for those who don’t join in, that just means an even more fractured and watered-down base. Shame, that. When I look back with nostalgia to the days when I played AD&D as a kid, what rings most true to me was the hugeness of the shared experience. So many gamers on the same rules set, playing the same modules. You could meet a kid from across the country, and if he played D&D, he was playing your D&D, and you could talk about the same modules and instantly there was a kind of commonality. I am not sure to what degree that exists anymore.

  10. I would just like to 2nd Mr. Hebert’s sentiments. That’s pretty much my feeling about the current state of the game. Thank you sir.

  11. Perhaps ‘essentialism’ would be a useful term for those who argue for a ‘true spirit’ of D&D.

    It’s nonsense, no matter who is using it, or to what purpose. Not because of any particular piece of evidence one could give, but because the foundation of this kind of argument is belief. Faith, really, that the ‘sense’ one has about a given concept actually exists… beyond your own brain. Also, usually, a ‘sense’ that one has the ‘pulse’ of a given community.

    Also, isn’t each edition a different game, basically? A different text with different design philosophies, even if they all use the same name?

    So it’s true that D&D Next is a nonsense project if ‘crowd sourcing’ is its primary impetus. Because it “should” come from a cool idea that in some fundamental way differs from the other texts.

    Enough to warrant making a whole new game.

  12. This appears to be less about the fact that you dislike “nostalgia” and more that you just don’t care about the mechanics of the games you play.

    Viewed from the outside, here’s what this conversation looks like:

    MLB: “We’re making a few changes to the rules of baseball. Henceforward, the ball will be larger, bats will be eliminated, and both teams will be given a netted goal. Both teams will be on the field at the same time and they’ll only be allowed to touch the ball with their feet.”

    Baseball Fans: “That’s not baseball. That’s soccer.”

    Neal Hebert: “I am so sick of all these baseball fans and their ugly, retrograde demands. I hate nostalgia. For me, baseball was always about sitting on a couch with my buddies and drinking beers while we watched the game on my TV. And you can do that regardless of what the rules of the game are.”

    The only odd thing is that you claim mechanics don’t matter to you, but you are nevertheless really concerned about what the new mechanics are going to look like. Well, it’s not “odd”, really. It just lays bare the hypocrisy you’re using in an attempt to make people with a different opinion than you shut up.

    Which is, ironically, the very thing you’re complaining about.

    Physician, mend thyself.

  13. Frankly, 4th edition was not radical enough. Though the system and many mechanics were still present in that iteration many of the usual suspects were still present.

    Combat took too long
    Fragility of characters no longer an issue
    System mastery over creative use
    Wide spread system bloat…at the very start
    The nuclear arms race of the +X bonus
    BIG 6 still a must have
    and on and on and on……

    So far the next edition does not look any different and IMHO, still has done nothing to solve the need for rules being second to thinking for oneself. I am personally on neither side of the fence nor sit upon it. I still play the games editions I like with all the modifications I have made in place.

    Frankly they should find a way to carve up the whole thing and start with something new.

  14. The first paragraph I largely agree with. In the second paragraph is where you start to lose me and I would argue that it’s not all the results. Some of the results have been “ugly, [and] retrograde” but there have also been reasoned and well-thought out arguments from gamers as well (as is evidenced here by the several dissenting, but overall polite and thoughtful, replies to this post [at least as of my last read-through of the replies]).

    My main problem springs up with generalizing of all those that that say “That’s Not D&D” as being purely nostalgia based, as if anyone that says they “don’t like rule X because that’s not what they equate with their idea of what D&D is,” is doing so based solely on some sentimental emotional longing for the past. Of course some will be inspired by nostalgia, but to sweep all “That’s Not D&D” commentary into the nostalgia bag is inaccurate. Of course if someone says, “my fondest memories of D&D are playing X edition, including that rule from Y edition isn’t D&D,” then yes, that’s a nostalgic plea. But if they simply say, “that rule from edition X exemplifies what I think is the essence of D&D” then we can not be sure if it’s because of nostalgia or because they think that’s the best rule between all the editions, or if it was simply the rule they are used to (or something else entirely).

    The use of “That’s Not D&D committee,” to me, is far too vague and all-encompassing of a phrase to accurately address the core issue you are covering in the article; namely that nostalgia is not a good reason to base a new rules set on. Which I totally agree with. And your argument would have been much stronger if you had just outlined why nostalgia is a bad basis on which build a new edition and, possibly, provide examples of the specific arguments-from-nostalgia that are being put forward by people and then analyze if and how they fail. Additionally, I think crowd sourcing Next at the pre-alpha testing phase is probably not a good choice (so also agreeing with your estimation of the effects of crowd sourcing, though I would put it as “it will probably create too much noise, too early, and most likely greatly prolong the design process…but if they make it work, then huzzah to Wizards for doing so”).

    But then you make statements like this “Rather than encouraging gamers to have an honest discussion about the role nostalgia should play on mechanical design, the openness of the process has caused numerous players—most frequently those who prefer older editions of the game—to come forward and out themselves as members of the “That’s Not D&D” committee.” Where you’ve defined that committee as those that “…revel in speaking out against progressive design, clutch tightly to every mechanical cow in the event that someone, somewhere might believe it sacred despite its age or dissociation from the remainder of its herd, and rejoice in purging the unclean from the hobby because of their conviction that there is only one ideologically acceptable way to pretend to be an elf.”

    So here you’ve equated honest discussion to only those who are not in the “That’s Not D&D” committee (whether you intended to or not). But for anyone saying “that’s not…” there is an implication that they also mean “…but this is D&D” and the opposite is true for anyone saying, “I love this part about D&D Next, it totally represents what I think the essence of D&D is.” And to boil down the aspects of this committee as presented by you;

    1. Those that revel (have fun? enjoy?) in giving their [opposed] opinions about changes being made…which describes just about every gamer ever except the ones that it doesn’t describe (to mimic the vagueness of the phrase; “That’s Not D&D committee”).
    2. “Clutch tightly to every mechanical cow” doesn’t make sense unless we’re talking about individuals specifically out to troll the overarching D&D gaming community or do you mean “every mechanical cow [of their favored edition]?” But if the latter were true then the committee are not composed of those who are engaged in the discussion about D&D Next (as the goals are outlined by WotC) but these are the people saying “X edition is best, that’s what I’m playing” (and presumably they’re declaring that everyone else should be playing that edition as well) which are not valid arguments in regards to what/why WotC is crowd sourcing D&D Next for.
    And 3. Those wishing to the purge the hobby of the “unclean” which I can’t speak to, I’ve never personally encountered people that have wanted to stop me from playing RPGs because I don’t share their ideology (which is far different from people that don’t want to play with you or me because our styles/ideas differ) and I’m deeply sorry if you have encountered people like that. That’s not morally appropriate behavior.

    In short (too late, hehe), this article comes across as setting up a straw-person argument (that anyone with a criticism of D&D Next rule-design is doing so out of nostalgia) which then backs anyone who does have a non-nostalgic reason for claiming that some rule within the current version of D&D Next does not feel as representative of D&D to them (an actual request by WotC about playtesting D&D Next) into a corner where they are erroneously dismissed as just being overly emotional about some rule set.

  15. Story trumps all, to me, and they have consistently either fired or lost my favorite storytellers for some time now. Those people still tell stories, though, and that’s where I see my D&D, and that’s where my money goes. It has nothing to do with who holds a license, but rather who is holding the torch at the mouth of the cave, luring me within. I LOVE learning game mechanics, too, but I couldn’t currently care less how it will play at the table if they can’t light that torch, and I think THAT is where they should be focusing their energies right now.

  16. I am amazed that nobody seems to comment on the commercial incentive that has driven D&D forward, but seem to concentrate on personal experiences and nostalgia. D&D (and I started with Greyhawk) is a business, each edition is a NEW D&D. There are some similarities as the commercial intelligence of the early years felt that some sort of bond had to remain to get the old game clients to buy into the new game.

    4e was driven by a new commercialism, to me it was a break from the old to attempt to capture a new market – a computer/internet savvy group who had no nostalgic attachment to the previous editions. The money is not in the printed book anymore, its in web services and electronic games and media. D&D is dead people, long live D&D! The new one.

    I’m 55 so dont think I am knocking the old timers nostalgia and hold on reality, I have all the same feelings and issues that many of the OSR people have. My problem is that D&D was something I did, it will never be something I will do again… you can never go home. I think that was the basic premise of the article, and I wholly agree with it, even if it did sort of lump people into convenient polaristic groups.

    I dont care about whether “its D&D” or its not. I accept these days that it will never again be D&D. For the past few years I have floundered around trying to find what was lost without success… because it doesnt exist anymore, although I did find some games that got close (Savage Worlds for eg). If you have managed to hold on to that nostalgia and sense of fun then I am jealous.

    The thing is that I am not that person anymore, D&D isnt a rule set, or a mechanic, D&D is a mind set… a gestalt of rules, ideas, people, place and time. The only thing out of those five qualifies that remain constant is the rules, everything else has changed. I long for those days, I have strived to re-capture them, but the harder I try the more I realise they are gone.

    Move on… get over it… why would you bother wasting your time and intellect on a product that is driven by a commercial imperative. D&D Next crowd sourcing – read shallow attempt to generate market interest. Has Hasbro EVER done anything other than what they thought was a good business decision?

  17. Frank said: “As I read and re-read it, I consistently found myself drawn to the conclusion that Mr. Hebert is dismissing out-of-hand all that *was* D&D, that what was has little to no value now.”

    I come from journalism, and it was against the rules at newspapers to respond to comments on articles – but thankfully there seem to be no such rules here at KQ. I would say that the above is a misreading of my intent, although perhaps it is a natural response to what I wrote.

    My take on this is that what D&D was about at its core – killing things and taking their stuff, heroes fighting monsters in a fantasy setting, and so on – has great value now. It should be the touchstone for future iterations of the game. But for some of the more vocal members of the Internet community of RPG message boards, specific mechanical implementations are being equated with what I interpret above as the essential properties of the game.

    My issue with nostalgia is that it’s non-falsifiable, which is problematic given that so many of the D&D Next surveys ask questions that are nostalgia-centric. It puts the designers in a position wherein, based on the marketing materials, surveys and forum-dwellers, they are being tasked with taking how thousands of gamers “remember” D&D and how it “feels” to them and turn it into mechanical design. The analogue, to me, would be something like this: I go into a coffee bar and, instead of ordering a drink from the menu, I would say something like “I want something in an insulated cup that’s brownish, that makes me feel happy on a winter’s day and wakes me up in the morning, that tastes just like this beverage I used to drink back in 1993 when I was 13, but it can’t have hazelnut or mocha in it because anyone who likes that shouldn’t be allowed to shop here.”

    I might believe all of the above. All of the above might be a perfect descriptor of a double-shot latte. But I’ve mistaken my subjective reactions to a double-shot latte as essential properties of it, and then I’m tasking someone with taking those feelings and reactions as a recipe to build a new double-shot latte. Because the above could also apply to a Sumatran java, and a triple shot espresso, and (most distressingly) to a large cup of PG Tipps breakfast blend looseleaf tea.

    I’m of the opinion that nostalgia is important. It’s just not something that can drive design because it is so subjective: whose nostalgia do we privilege? Mine? Yours? Wolfgang’s?

  18. Fizzygoo,

    While I appreciate your comments, I would say that the “That’s Not D&D Committee!” isn’t intended to be a catch-all for everyone who prefers older editions of D&D or anything like that. Rather, it’s a term that was coined to cover a certain subset of that group who exemplify the behavior described above. Perhaps you go to more civilized message boards than I do – but in my experience, “That’s not D&D” is a phrase that never accompanies a rigorous argument for mechanics. I’m seriously glad your experience suggests there are places where it can.

  19. An issue on this matter is that WotC is doing very poor PR. While they announce 5e, they are treating paying 4e DDI customers with contempt. There’s a roar on the official forums on the fact that monthly DDI updates were suspended and no message came from WotC on a formal way. PAYING customers found out because of Twitter. So a lot of us are already biased against 5e and, o behold the wonder, are seriously thinking of making it to Pathfinder.

    So, congratulations WotC, you united D&D players again. Under another roof.

  20. I’d also like to say that the picture accompanying my column is a surprise and delight. I didn’t think I’d get individualized art, and whoever made it seriously kicks ass. I just noticed it and love it. Love it love it love it.

  21. Respecting mechanics, there is a reasonable response in stating a game has strayed from the formula so that it is not the same game anymore.

    Think of chess. There are some interesting variant rules people have conceived to spice up one of the oldest games still played. But what if suddenly all chess manufacturers said the game needed to be updated? “Pawns are too weak,” they say. “From now on, a pawn can move one space any direction.” “Rooks, too, are boring. The can now teleport to any corner of the board as an added ability. Also, Bishops are poisonous: Any opposing player’s piece moving to an adjacent square will have to roll a save or be removed from the board.”

    It sounds kind of fun, but holy crap, “That’s Not Chess!” Same board, same pieces, same goal, just not the same game.

  22. FRPGs should be FUN. That is to say the players AND the GM/DM should have enjoyed a gaming session and be excited for the next session. To that end the priority almost must certainly be “playability” versus mired in rules. K.i.S.S. definitely has a seat at the table! There is a trade off (as always) between realistic complexity and entertainment for the more you bog yourself down with constraints the more fun gets drained from the game. There remains a nod to nostalgia with regards to level if fun/entertainment. But as with anything you do for any extent of time, a desire to step up and move ahead (usually more complications/details) are definitely sought after by the majority. Hence the inclusion of additional rules. Largely but not only to cover gaps but also to add something to the session that wasn’t there before. Some fresh content. At what point does it become too much? That’s easy! When it isn’t as fun as it was before. When you are less and less excited for that next session. Not just because of a lull in the campaign or lack of ideas from the GM but because of not getting a feeling of accomplishment, usually due to constant analysis (knit picking) of each and every action.
    I tend to be verbose and apologies for that but I usually manage to hide a gem or two in all my drivel.
    ENJOY!

  23. I am completely surprised that the glaring reality is lost to most of the readers here. And especially to the writer.

    WotC wants your money. They want to take it away from you by selling you books. They know that you don’t really NEED new books (My 1st Edition books are from the 1970’s), so they have to come up with ways to sell you things you don’t need.

    To sell you new books, they have to change the rules.

    You won’t buy books to a different game. You like Dungeons and Dragons.

    So they call each new game (each rule change) Dungeons and Dragons, even though it stopped BEING Dungeons and Dragons with 3rd Edition.

    That name is a cash cow, and suckers fall for it every time.

    I prefer a homebrew 2nd edition variant myself. So I’m not going to buy more books. As a consumer, I don’t exist to WotC, so they don’t take my viewpoint into mind when they design new things. I, on the other-hand, see the base of gamers for MY games shrink every year, as more get lulled over by 4th edition.

    Why does 4th edition steal people so easily? Well…because it’s easier of course! I’m not going to pretend that it’s “Your cup of tea” and that I’m OK with it. I’m not. It’s a stupid game that applies to the small minds of the World of Warcraft crowd. It’s fucking harder for your character to die, and that means you can become a 19th level chain-mail bikini clad Siberian tiger riding fightermageclericthief more easily. Less of a challenge, more of an ego stroking circle jerk. And really, isn’t that what socially maladjusted gamers WANT? WotC’s focus groups don’t lie, they paid a lot of money for them. And if their market research says that Pikachu should be in the Monster Manual? Gotta Catch ’em All!

  24. I also suspect that the author has limited experience with other games in the genre.

    Castles and Crusades
    GURPS Fantasy
    Compleat Arduin
    Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
    Runequest
    Pathfinder
    Swords and Sorcery
    Tunnels and Trolls
    Hackmaster

    …to name just a FEW of the games similar to Dungeons and Dragons that AREN’T Dungeons and Dragons. I mean…if you are just worried about the core of “Kill monsters and take their stuff” in a fantasy setting…then D&D is just one game (or rather, 4+ games) among many peers. When you take all of these other variations of the same theme into account, you wonder why people glom onto D&D at all…again…the “magic name”.

    I’ve seen people call a gaming group a “Dungeons and Dragons” group, even though they’ve been playing something else for years. The colloquialism of D&D is WotC’s greatest investment since Magic: The Gathering. But really and truly? This set of games is just not that good. It is limited in scope, and often attracts players who don’t even LIKE role-playing, and really just do want to “Kill monsters and take their stuff”. That’s called a board game.

    I recommend broadening your horizons, and playing a few of the following at the next gaming convention you attend:

    Call of Cthulhu
    Paranoia
    Rogue Trader
    Usagi Yojimbo
    FATE
    Castle Falkenstien
    Aces & Eights

    You won’t be able to go back to Hack-n-slash/takethegold.

  25. Arthur, I’ve played every game on your list. My favorite games tend to be Forge-inspired and explicitly narrative (Dungeon World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Sorcerer, with my all-time favorite being Unknown Armies). Of the editions of D&D, my favorite is 4e because of its emphasis on narrative mechanics, its decision to ignore simulationist concerns, and the fact that its rules worked so well that I could do my DM prep in 30 minutes.

    As a general rule, feel free to ask me about my experience with games (even game design) rather than assuming that I haven’t played games. I have a word limit in each column – and I didn’t mention all of the other fantasy games I’ve played because I was limited to addressing D&D in this particular column. I suspect Wolfgang would be annoyed if every column I wrote contained a list of every RPG I’ve ever played to forestall questions re: my knowledge of RPGs, and I would get bored doing that anyway.

  26. Mark Patterson

    It is not about “nostalgia”, it is about “taste”. D&D has a certain “taste” like Coke has a taste. When New Coke came around, it still had the same label, but not the same taste. New Coke didn’t work out.

    When people buy Coke they buy a brand, but also a taste. It doesn’t mean they do not like other drinks or think no other drinks should be invented. It just means they want to taste Coke when they buy Coke.

    It is the same with D&D. Just having the brand name on a game doesn’t mean it will “taste” or “feel” like D&D. Unlike a soft drink, D&D doesn’t have a recipe, so it is harder to reproduce that taste. Sometimes people fail and sometimes they do not.

    Maybe 5e will taste like D&D, but right now Pathfinder satisfy my taste. I have not seen any reasons to start learning (and teaching it to my players) how to play the fighter, again, and how to face the illithid, again. Why change just for change?

  27. To me, the system is secondary to the game itself. Granted, some systems make it easier to create the game that you enjoy the most but in the end it’s what you work best with that you should do.

    WotC is a publishing company first and foremost. If they’re not selling their product, then they’re in trouble. With the explosive popularity of Pathfinder (using the OGL of the 3.5), WotC has seen a marketable drop in their print sales for D&D. They gambled with a complete change of rules and (IMO) basically lost. Players had literally thousands of dollars worth of D&D books and support materials that no longer had any support with the home company. They got upset and many of them went to the game that “Felt more like D&D” – Pathfinder.

    Although I only attend 3 gaming conferences a year, every one of them have many times the number of Pathfinder games registered there than any 4e D&D games. For the one I’m attending this weekend, Kublacon, there are 3 D&D 4e games, and 16 Pathfinder games (not counting the numerous games/tables with the Pathfinder society – I believe they’re up to over 500 tables of gamers there).

    Now they’re trying a reboot again – which will (in the eyes of many gamers) invalidate all the books they’ve bought for the radical change to 4e. But WotC will get their money and be able to continue publishing and paying their bills. Which is what a company is suppose to do.

    I tried D&D 4e but when someone brought literal cards for their character’s abilities and actually ‘tapped’ them while playing, I just saw a miniatures game using the Magic, the Gathering system and opted for something with more play.

    In the end, I’m a Hero Games fan – 4th Edition. I don’t buy anymore source books. I can create in-depth stories with it in any genre and the players have a blast. I’m trying out The Dresden Files but feel I could create it better in the Hero system than the existing rule book for it. I suppose we’re all fanbois of one type or another.

  28. Sorry Arthur, but the last paragraph of your first post put on display the exact type of vitriolic bile that is spewed on edition war message boards. You made Neal Hebert’s point for him.

  29. To me, it’s not that old editions don’t have any merit or should be discarded. That’s garbage, of course, and I don’t see where the article asserts that.

    But I think that trying to design an edition in the way that D&D Next is being designed- that is, assembling a lot of seemingly random old design elements in order to capture that “feel”- is doomed to produce something fairly bland and unremarkable. When you can’t include anything that any significant segment of the audience might object to, you can’t include anything that people are going to really love.

    It’s not an old-school vs. new-school thing- a lot of OSR games have clear design visions and stick to them and produce something interesting as a result.

    I’m a fan of 4e, but I’m not wed to all its individual features. If DDN had no powers, no warlords, no Feywild or Primordial Chaos, but was still a really tightly designed system for heroic fantasy adventure and offered something other editions didn’t, I’d be on board. But I’m not seeing any dazzle.

    (As for people using chess as a comparison, shall I perhaps point out that the modern rules of chess are in fact radically different from how the game started out? Do I need to mention the “en passant” wars?)

  30. This ‘newer and more modern is better’ mentality is what landed us George Lucas’ Prequel trilogy.

    Have we learned nothing?

  31. Mr. Hebert, you’re taking a small group of angry grognards and holding them up as the target audience and gatekeepers for 5E. I don’t see anything of the sort going on. Sure, the grognards exist, but at least on the gaming forum I frequent (ENWorld), they are a minority and they don’t control the conversation, possibly because ENWorld has active moderators who tell people to cool it when a lively debate starts to boil over into an edition war. If things are otherwise where you are, blame your mods and/or your forum community.

    More to the point, the grognards don’t control the direction of 5E. Wizards does. There is a vast difference between “crowdsourcing” and an extensive open playtest; the latter is a widely accepted practice in the gaming world, and it’s already been used for one edition of D&D. 3E was developed this way, and it was a huge success. The idea that Wizards is just blindly putting in whatever the Grognard Council tells them to include is ridiculous.

    Given your stated preferences for Forge narrative-style gaming, I can’t help but suspect your real gripe here is that while 4E took some steps toward your preferred style, 5E is going the other way. Which is fine, gripe away, but others take a different view. Personally, I dislike strongly narrative-style games, and I like where 5E is headed. It provides what I need to play the kind of game I enjoy, and then it gets out of the way. It’s still rough around the edges, of course, but that’s what you expect from a playtest.

  32. Dausuul said: ” I can’t help but suspect your real gripe here is that while 4E took some steps toward your preferred style, 5E is going the other way.”

    No, Dausuul, my real gripe is that there are people who maintain that the goal of mechanical design is to “feel” like D&D, generally because they mistake nostalgia for something that’s rule-derived. Which is exactly what I said. Given that I am the expert on my internal subject preferences, I am the person best-positioned to assess what I meant and what my real gripe is.

    I have numerous games that match my playstyle – it is non-mainstream, so I don’t expect a large company to chase after my dollar given how niche my tastes are. Furthermore, my preferences for games really don’t weigh in on my larger points above – this isn’t a message board where I’m saying “Pathfinder sucks don’t buy it please” because, well, I don’t care whether you and I like the same type of games. I’m not recruiting you to sit at my table, so what you and I like is immaterial – based on your assessment of your taste (which, given that’s it’s your assessment of your internal subjective preference, I believe is absolutely correct because I am inadequately positioned to dispute your assertions), neither of us would enjoy that experience anyway.

    5e, to my eyes and those of many others, seems – particularly through its surveys which are laughably bad (I game with statisticians and sociologists) – to solicit feedback that focuses on non-empirical data in some cases, or uses questions worded in such a way that it generates noise that can be interpreted in whichever way WotC sees fit. To my sociologist friends’ eyes, the “crowdsourcing” appears to be marketing dressed up as surveying – with the added factor that it is seeking “consent” for a return to older paradigms of play in an effort to attract back old customers. They have the right to do this, of course. But I do think this is a recipe for disaster, and not just because it encourages the “It’s Not D&D” committee to wax philosophical about the only ideologically pure way to pretend to be an elf.

    I’m of the opinion that creating a game based around what “feels like” D&D is something that literally cannot succeed because of the benchmarks being used. When I write scholarship, I don’t ask myself what “feels like” academic writing – I do research, then assemble an argument based on the research I’ve done. I’m perfectly happy to accept that there can be a well-designed and coherent version of Dungeons and Dragons that is progressively designed that will also be repellent to my preferences as a gamer – and I would prefer that to what we seem to be getting thus far based on the playtest materials.

    For example, if the design goals were “We want a simulationist base with a strong class system, moderate system mastery required for players and GMs, with traditional elements of D&D and some legacy mechanics for brand identity and fluff” I’d be ecstatic – I wouldn’t touch the game with a ten foot pole, but the above represents design tenets that are achievable and can be designed with a strong chance of success. But based with what we’ve been given – “Unite the tribes! Feels like D&D! Everyone can play together!” – I don’t see how any group of RPG designers can use the above to produce a coherent game. It’s marketing speak dressed up as design, and doesn’t serve the hobby.

    My position is that what “feels like” D&D is inherently subjective – in the comments thread to Wolfgang’s rebuttal, Christina Stiles articulated that what feels like D&D to her is something that never felt like D&D to me. There are cases of this sort of thing on every message board and blog – I recall there being serious arguments among Old School fans in their DIY movement about this as well, so this isn’t a case wherein I think the answer is clear cut (or that the answer has to be in any way copacetic with my preferences). If subjective response is the standard by which the finished product will be assessed – as opposed to mechanical rigor, speed of play (or lack thereof), coherent mechanics, and the like – then I don’t see how this will unite gamers. At best, 5e will appeal to a portion of gamers who, for random and frequently mutually-exclusive reasons, believe 5e feels like D&D, and repel a portion of gamers who, for random and frequently mutually-exclusive reasons, believe 5e doesn’t feel like D&D.

    I understand the appeal of nostalgia, really I do. But it’s not a design philosophy because it can’t be hard-coded. As I said in an earlier comment:

    ‘My issue with nostalgia is that it’s non-falsifiable, which is problematic given that so many of the D&D Next surveys ask questions that are nostalgia-centric. It puts the designers in a position wherein, based on the marketing materials, surveys and forum-dwellers, they are being tasked with taking how thousands of gamers “remember” D&D and how it “feels” to them and turn it into mechanical design. The analogue, to me, would be something like this: I go into a coffee bar and, instead of ordering a drink from the menu, I would say something like “I want something in an insulated cup that’s brownish, that makes me feel happy on a winter’s day and wakes me up in the morning, that tastes just like this beverage I used to drink back in 1993 when I was 13, but it can’t have hazelnut or mocha in it because anyone who likes that shouldn’t be allowed to shop here.”

    ‘I might believe all of the above. All of the above might be a perfect descriptor of a double-shot latte. But I’ve mistaken my subjective reactions to a double-shot latte as essential properties of it, and then I’m tasking someone with taking those feelings and reactions as a recipe to build a new double-shot latte. Because the above could also apply to a Sumatran java, and a triple shot espresso, and (most distressingly) to a large cup of PG Tipps breakfast blend looseleaf tea.’

  33. The author says:

    “My favorite games tend to be Forge-inspired”

    That should really tell you all you need to know right there.

    The entire problem with 4th Edition was that it paid far too much attention to the vomit spewed forth by the Forge and it’s adherents, and the game was almost ruined – and now, we have this article, trying to rally support to finish the job.

    I will never understand why, with games out there covering virtually every play style, people that hate D&D seem obsessed with altering it to be more like their favorite non-D&D game, instead of trying to just get people to play the game they like.

    It’s almost as if the popularity of the game is an affront to them.

    Face facts: If Forge games were truly popular and desirable, people would stop playing D&D, and shift play to those games. That they don’t should be reason enough to steer D&D clear of those influences.

  34. Brian says: “I will never understand why, with games out there covering virtually every play style, people that hate D&D seem obsessed with altering it to be more like their favorite non-D&D game, instead of trying to just get people to play the game they like.”

    Maybe it’s because people who like a variety of games really want to kill monsters and take their stuff in a ruleset that matches their style of play. It could also be that they don’t associate D&D with a particular ruleset and think the concept is robust enough that it could be articulated in a mechanically distinct way to bring an entirely different group of gamers to the table to kill monsters and take their stuff, too. Maybe it could be that D&D has, throughout its editions, supported multiple playstyles and adapted to the changing market, and people think that continued change would be what the game needs given that prior styles of play are already well-represented in numerous successful games released under the OGL and want something that challenges gaming expectations as much as prior editions did.

    But yeah, I guess the most reasonable explanation is that the people who liked 4e enough to buy tons of the product before Essentials was released really didn’t like 4e and they were only buying the game and playing it for years out of sheer spite and hatred for D&D. That’s clearly why I wrote this column: I despise D&D so much that I’m sending secret messages to Forge-ites, Something Awful goons, and other swine that our mission to kill Dungeons and Dragons for the true believers was unsuccessful, and it is imperative that we rally to make sure that D&D is completely killed.

  35. Neal says: “Maybe it’s because people who like a variety of games really want to kill monsters and take their stuff in a ruleset that matches their style of play. It could also be that they don’t associate D&D with a particular ruleset and think the concept is robust enough that it could be articulated in a mechanically distinct way to bring an entirely different group of gamers to the table to kill monsters and take their stuff, too.”

    So, rather than utilize your already existing ruleset, you feel the need to twist D&D to be more like that self-same ruleset? That makes perfect sense.

    “Maybe it could be that D&D has, throughout its editions, supported multiple playstyles and adapted to the changing market, and people think that continued change would be what the game needs given that prior styles of play are already well-represented in numerous successful games released under the OGL and want something that challenges gaming expectations as much as prior editions did.”

    Yet, those numerous successful games that emulate D&D are successful BECAUSE they emulate D&D, whereas, the games you seek D&D to emulate simply aren’t. There’s no rational reason to have D&D emulate a bad game, regardless of how much of a Forge-darling that bad game may have been.

    You decry a vocal minority of “nostalgia fetishists” as ruining D&D, yet it was an even more vocal, even smaller minority of so-called “progressive” game-theory-wankers that shouted down everyone else, resulting in the mess we’re in now – the same vocal minority you currently laud.

    Your ideas are demonstrably poison to the hobby, yet you’re here, insisting that those who like a game you don’t are the ones harming the hobby.

    Ridiculous.

  36. Morgan Boehringer

    Grognard representing here. But not angry. Just disappointed. Mainly with the WOTC surveys – as Neal has described them – laughable. So little granularity and so loaded – like a leading question on hardcore marketing drugs. I feel like I’m the only person in a room full of zombies that don’t realise there is only one right answer, and plenty of options aren’t even being offered, let alone being offered up as flak for the “wrong answer” cannon.

    I do feel the design principles are transparently ill-advised, and the design results in the play test seem very patchy – like a deranged harlequin’s motley – a little of 1e, a bit of 2e, lots of 3e, not the best bits of 4e, and some uninspiring 5e new.

    I commend the effort the designers are being paid for, but I would not want to be in their shoes. The vitriol is palpable.

    I do find the WotC approach to fans is very top-down and elitist – for all the design blogs it’s less “let’s have fun” and more “here’s what the adults are up to, kids”.

  37. Do you know why I want WotC to move away from old school D&D? Because old school D&D is broken and busted and unfun for people who don’t already love it.

    I want D&D Next to be a good game. I don’t care whether it feels like D&D or not, I want it to be fun and mechanically sound.

    Do you know why? Because Wizards & Paizo are the 800 pound gorillas in the room who dominate online and organized play. What they put out, the masses will play. Have you ever tried to find a game of Dungeon World online? How about a game of pathfinder? Notice the difference?

    I want D&D Next to be fresh, new, fun, and well designed because that’s what people will play. They will play the game with massive advertising, with conventions, with organized play, and with the money from Magic the Gathering to push product on shelves. That’s what brings new people into the hobby.

    As D&D goes so goes tabletop roleplaying.

  38. @Arthur Wallis

    “Why does 4th edition steal people so easily? Well…because it’s easier of course! I’m not going to pretend that it’s “Your cup of tea” and that I’m OK with it. I’m not. It’s a stupid game that applies to the small minds of the World of Warcraft crowd. It’s fucking harder for your character to die, and that means you can become a 19th level chain-mail bikini clad Siberian tiger riding fightermageclericthief more easily. Less of a challenge, more of an ego stroking circle jerk.”

    That’s cute. D&D is as hard as the DM chooses to make it. No more, no less. There is no “winning” D&D. It’s not chess. There is no difficulty beyond what the DM and the group consensus chooses. You fundamentally don’t understand D&D if you think that it has a difficulty setting inherent to itself.

  39. Brian says a lot of mean things because I like to pretend to be an elf in an ideologically impure way. He also projects his preferences about mechanical design to claim that a game (4e) is killing the hobby because it encouraged gamers to pretend to be an elf in an ideologically impure way. For those who assert that I was making stuff up and not talking about real things in my column, Brian is a paradigm example of the “But’s that not D&D!” committee.

    While I acknowledge that Brian has the right to believe that my views are a “cancer” on this industry, I can only say that I hope Brian’s opinions are expressed in this way solely because of the Internet’s disinhibition effect – because if he says such things in public (like in a FLGS) then he’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to get new players.

    It’s exchanges like this where I need to pull out the game design bear so that Brian can point to various spots on the game design bear’s tummy to show us where 4e’s mechanical design touched him the wrong way.

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