I’ve had a long relationship with Dungeons and Dragons and one which has led me to some odd places. I’ve had some great times with D&D, but it and I have also split up a bunch of times, I like to feel with good reason but that’s always the way in a breakup. Here’s a quick history of Dungeons and Dragons, through the lens of my time with it.
ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS SECOND EDITION: HERDING CATS
Look at this grinning idiot. The long-hair, not the Edward Furlong. That was me, back in the late 1990’s, on a trip around Arundel with my brother (the Edward Furlong) and my dad (the ogre behind the camera).
I was given my first RPG by accident in 1993, Vampire: The Masquerade. I’ll get onto that one day, but it was okay, I dabbled a little and carried on with my teenage life. On the way up to this trip to Arundel I was reading Inquest Magazine and they said the best RPG was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The sights I saw at Arundel inspired me to check it out. I loved the idea of a high fantasy world with bigger, stranger versions of what I saw there. If I could share that with others then that’d be great. My imagination was like:
I didn’t really know the reputation which was like:
So I went in not sure what to expect. I bought the version which was a big yellow boxed set.
It had simplified versions of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, something my brother and I tore through. He tested it out by making a thief; Gary the National Elf (from the National Elf Service, of course). We had a first game with a couple of my friends from Sixth Form and they… well… Dungeons & Dragons is known for having a lot of what’s called, “Amoral Murderhobos” in it. When the fighter fell down a pit trap, my brother charged him money for use of his rope to get out. The other thief had a sack full of kittens he’d send out to spring traps; one of whom was absorbed by a giant acidic gelatinous cube.
We went through many players, not least because my brother and his friend Matt tended to scare them away with violence and a little bit of madness. We went through I think about 20 players in that group before things settled down. This:
My group’s nickname was The In-Fighters as they tended to kill each others’ characters more than I did.
The adventures were sprawling, often directionless but a lot of fun was had. Sessions were either amazingly tense or comedically awful. The group convinced a king to place a deadly scarab in his mouth as part of a ritual. They fled most situations, angered gods and collected endless amounts of tat.
The rules were fairly simple but there was a lot they didn’t cover, like almost anything outside of a fight. Most of that was done as freeform role-play. Combat was all done behind the Dungeon Master’s Screen as the players were too lazy and often too drunk to bother working out how to do anything.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS THIRD EDITION & 3.5 EDITION: ACCOUNTANTS OF OPPORTUNITY
My group did have a storyline to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The week before Third Edition came out I wrapped things up in a big finale on a boat floating in the sky as a rain of lava threatened to destroy the world. The characters… lost. They failed. The game ended with them crushed under a collapsing world.
Third Edition had the players act out the lives of the next generation of heroes, some actually the sons or nephews of the previous edition’s cast. Non-Player Characters saved the day so these guys had to work to redeem the older characters who had gone hideously wrong in their later years. Some were villains, others were simply drunks.
D&D Third Edition did a lot of things right, enough that I ran two weekly games and a couple of crossover sessions between those groups. The basic structure of the statistics were there but instead of complicated and stupid maths like the To Hit Armour Class Zero (THAC0), low defensive numbers being better and so on, it all made a kind of sense. It was open license, too. Everyone could make books supporting Dungeons & Dragons or, “The d20 System.” This was a great plan at first. Skills made people competent outside of fights, feats made characters more unique… to a point.
There were problems with the d20 System, highlighted in the 3.5 iteration. As players gained experience points and increased their characters’ level, the laundry list of feats, spells and abilities they had grew really long, increasing the time taken to work out what to do. Feats acted more as a gatekeeping facility, stopping you doing the cool actions until you bought them. The focus of printed modules became evidently more about miniatures, maps with little grids on and tactical placement of them.
Running a game became accountancy, as each encounter should be of a certain ‘Challenge Rating’ to drain an amount of the players’ resources and then you’d do just enough of those per day to leave them some of their resources. CR was a pain to work out if you wanted to be ‘balanced’. Players would have their own version of this, trying to gauge usage of spells, abilities, magic items… everyone became accountants, at least that’s how it felt from the games I played with my local grroup and at conventions. Especially at conventions. My group were a mess who came from non-standard origins. We were used to mucking about and telling a story, punctuated by inevitable fights (generally when my group slighted people).
After enough years of this edition I found alternatives to run my regular game with. All Flesh Must Be Eaten’s, “Dungeons & Zombies” fit the more freeform play we were used to. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (WFRP) Second Edition was the system we settled on for being deadly, grimdark-ish and accessible to players.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS FOURTH EDITION aka MMOGEDDON
Everything was about the maps, the miniatures and tactical combat simulation. Fourth Edition didn’t actually solve this, it went all the way down that rabbithole.
Role-playing is a social experience, despite what people may think, but a lot of people were getting their social gaming kicks playing MMORPGs. Fourth Edition decided to take some of that magic for itself. It wasn’t a bad idea per se. Character classes like fighters, rogues and so on were lumped into MMO-style archetypes. The Defender/Tank, the Striker/DPS and so on. A party NEEDED to have at least one of each. Our first outing didn’t have a Controller to handle area attacks and the Striker/Rogue of the group developed a fear of rats after no one was able to get rid of a rat swarm.
Characters now had powers with cooldown periods, either instantly, at the end of a combat or at the end of a day. The non-combat elements were lumped together as, “Skill Challenges” which were so hastily thought out they had to be overhauled within the first few months of release and constantly redefined. Combat was so separate from the non-combat elements that it felt like going in and out of fights in a Final Fantasy game. Unless you count the games other people ran at conventions. Those were like board games.
The thing about dungeon crawling board games is that there are several and being board games, they’re mainly better at handling those elements than a role-playing game which wants to be all about that. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for Fourth Edition stated that role-playing and non-combat elements are supposed to be as important, but printed adventures, the D&D Encounters which were run in game stores and all of the accessories stated the truth of the matter. D&D was about miniatures, tactical combat, killing and levelling your way to becoming better to… I don’t know. Retire with all of the gold, I guess. Fourth Edition did actually have a retiring mechanic, which was one of the few interesting parts to the game.
When Fourth Edition came out I had a mostly new group and decided to run the Battlestar Galactica style reboot of my old campaign world. Things were edgier, the magic was less epic to begin with. The idea was that the group would get invested in their hometown, their friends and families, then a cataclysmic event would have them fleeing with the survivors, looking for a place to shelter and plan resistance against evil forces who had taken over the kingdom.
Fourth Edition was okay at first but the system wasn’t compatible with the level of storytelling I wanted, so we found alternatives. There were retro-clones like Hackmaster 4th Edition which was a parody of AD&D made purposefully tricky. We moved to Fantasy Craft which I love, but is a variant of Third Edition (man, D&D gets in everything). The In-Fighters were playtesters for Fantasy Craft, loved the increased freedom of player actions, flavour in character generation… it was just the biggest pain with magic and GM preparation. I don’t think the In-Fighters ever forgave me for moving away from it. We switched up to one of our groups’ darlings, World of Darkness, which was okay but the closest approximation to my players’ powers game from a book full of broken rules; Changing Breeds. The Morality system of WoD (now abandoned in a new edition) didn’t gel with the characters. Finally we moved to Fate which I love but a couple of my players have issues with.
TRUE RESURRECTION: FIFTH EDITION
I’ve been away from Dungeons & Dragons for a while and with a new edition, I’m drawn in. I’ll tell you why.
I’ve grown to enjoy story games more than ‘trad’ games of late. Games where the story leads and the mechanics encourage them. There’s still a part of my heart pledged to high fantasy shenanigans, heroes getting themselves into all kinds of mischief and so on. I’m still not a fan of the ‘dungeon crawl’ unless it’s in a board game, but there are some great RPGs like Dungeon World (check out my review here
So why Fifth Edition? Don’t I know better?
Well no. Duh. Still, I have reasons to back me up.
The public playtested this system, myself included (once, admittedly, ages ago). This means that people have spoken and said what they liked or didn’t. As the public generally didn’t seem keen on Fourth Edition, from what I’ve seen, this meant the bits I wasn’t a fan of would probably go. The public have played the dungeon crawling board games, the story games, the old school clones, all kinds of games which are fitting for it.
Media outlets all seemed really positive. Io9 and many others reported that D&D had bucked its ideas up and delivered old school fun with a newer attitude. Characters would have their race (eg; elf, dwarf), their class (eg; fighter, rogue) but they would also have a background which could add a level of flavour for normal combinations to get a bit extra. A fighter might be savage, a conman or a holy bodyguard. All kinds of options were open, but not at the level of accountancy Third Edition had. Non-combat abilities and skills felt more in line with the rest of the system instead of a clunky overlay in Fourth Edition.
Miniatures, grids and references to ‘squares’ as measurements of range were all optional rather than assumed. Ever the optimist, I decided to check it out and run a game for my group.
I’m going to be writing about my findings and the ongoing campaign my group are playing in, “Hoard of the Dragon Queen,” the first adventure book the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition has brought out. If the adventure goes well, we might finally return to my old monthly fantasy world for the final story arc of a game several editions and one reboot in the making.
Next time, I’ll tell you a bit about my initial findings, the adventure I’m running and the characters my group created.