Okay everyone, squeeze in. Yes, Mikey, I’m aware Great Grandpa Gary is wrinkly and smells like cheese, but you have to be in the picture. What’s that, Grandma Ada? Something in your eye? Okay, I can wait. Oh, c’mon, not the botched spine surgery story again, Uncle Cook! Can’t you just stand for one second. Mikey, no! No, Trey. Stop offering to grapple Mikey into place, it’ll take you ALL DAY. And really, someone get Quatro his meds.
Well, here they are. Thirty three years of Dungeons and Dragons on one screen. Sure, maybe we should have exhumed Great-Great-Grandpa Chainmail for the event, but that felt a bit extreme. And I know Grandpa Gary there in his faded, battered red jacket spawned a whole bunch of illegitimate kids, but that’s beside the point. They’re all out on display from the depths of my gaming closet.
Yesterday marked the release of Dungeons and Dragons latest edition. As the progenitor of every roleplaying game out there, and arguably, the guiding creative energy behind all manner of computer games, movies and terribly designed websites, this pen and paper RPG deserves more than a bit of recognition. Not only was a new hobby spawned but an entire generation of creative influence ignited.
The Basic Dungeons and Dragons book you see on the left came from a boxed set which, at some point in elementary school, I sold door to door greeting cards to earn. I probably raked in hundreds of dollars for the company and only because I’d seen the DnD set pictured in their “prize” listings. Sure, they were probably skirting child labor laws by offering “prizes” instead of actual cash, but I was more than willing to work my ass off for that box.
That cardboard box of motherfucking sin.
When I grew up, DnD was the Devil’s tool. Christian groups tried to argue this game promoted satanic rituals, suicide, maiming small animals. Today, you see it on primetime TV (Big Bang Theory and Community to name a few) and the fantasy that inspired this pagan game (but not halflings, no siree, totally different thing there) has scored big at the box office.
While I was never enticed into human sacrifice, I did develop a love of narrative through that game. I found out I had an infinite number of stories inside waiting to get out. It provided a creative outlet and for the next thirty years, I held on for the ride.
On the outside, this latest edition looks pretty slick. Emulating that first red cover, we have a female magic-user facing down a terrifying beast. Beautifully rendered, something about it lacks the energy of the original. Maybe there was more fantasy and less detail scrawled into the almost garish painting of the first. And to some degree, that’s what I found inside.
They’ve tried to correct the oversimplification of fourth edition and pulled gratuitously from third, but also sought balance as far as fiddly mechanics go. Of that, I can approve. As a storyteller, I don’t have much interest in the physics of things or the minutiae of exactly how, say, being small or tall might change your relationship to the entire imaginary world.
I like the simplified conditions players have to deal with. I’d say the list is roughly a third of the list from 3.5. Now I don’t have to worry why there is a difference between say being frightened, shaken or panicked and precisely how many gallons of piss I’d lose with each. I also like the advantaged / disadvantaged mechanic that replaces a whole spreadsheet full of modifiers. I’m even on board with the removal of saving throws and essentially calling them what they are – ability checks.
What I don’t see, however, is any correction from the fourth edition path of skill side-lining. This is one area where I really don’t mind having a bit of extra detail. Those details help define a character into a separate person that can do things other than cast and smash. Yes, 3.5’s version was cumbersome and required some serious accounting, but I believe many players didn’t mind the “fiddliness” there.
I also see other problems.
I admit that my first act when I opened the book was to turn to the spell section and look up Polymorph. Apparently they are fine with turning a giant into a fish (on a Wisdom save) and letting him suffocate as a fourth level spell, though I suspect DM’s may begin their litany of house rules somewhere around here.
Speaking of the spell section, the saves are all buried in the spell descriptions (which are thankfully brief and to the point.) Further, flat ability checks still exist alongside these saves and make even less sense now that any stat is fair game.
Overall though, DnD Next is a passable return to its roots.
However, over the years, I’ve moved on. That storyteller in me has only gotten stronger. Other systems, all which owe Dungeons and Dragons an enormous debt, have emerged that encourage players not only to interact with slaying monsters, but to interact with the story itself on whole new levels.
I can hear the faithful yelling that “you can do that with DnD. Roleplaying doesn’t need rules.” However, I’ve seen it time and time again, whatever the rules revolve around becomes the focus of the game. \
But the new breed of RPGs not only expects but requires players to weave collaborative tales. Environments become fluid, useable things and not simple penalties and bonuses. Characters aren’t defined by a collection of combat ready stats but by their past and their emerging future.
Sure, they’ve added character backgrounds – a sort of a traits and flaws system – but that seems a bit quaint in the current generation of pen and paper.
I can only think that the failure of fourth edition and the success of Pathfinder, drove them to “play it safe” and perhaps, they’ve played it too safe here. Pathfinder aficionados will find little reason to convert their campaigns which have been raging unchecked for years now. Players of the new breed of story-centric RPGs won’t see enough change to draw them back into the fold.
Next time, you may be forced to check Ancestry.com to locate the family photo.