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These are a series of articles written by RPG Geek Games Masters (GMs) designed to provoke conversation, idea-sharing and to give other people helpful insights into what the author thinks makes for a better GM and a better experience for all involved with the game. Feel free to offer up your own opinions on the subject, but keep to the rules of RPGG when doing so. Basically, that means be courteous and don't shoot someone down in flames for their opinion!

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Behind the Screen #49: Tonal Characteristics of Different Editions of Dungeons & Dragons


About a year ago I’m driving home from some event with a couple of the kids in the car. The oldest, ten at the time asks me, “Dad, when did Dungeons and Dragons come out?” Twenty minutes later I’d finished up with a fairly concise history of D&D, just as we pulled into the driveway. The kids were fascinated about what was and was not emphasized in different editions of what is (notionally at least) the same game.

This little conversation was interesting, but then Carrie published Behind the Screen 48: Fairy Tales, Legends, and Myths in last month’s BtS. In it she discusses Legendary Tales and mentioned that Dungeons & Dragons is an example of a game that captures the tone of this type of story. And the more I thought about it the more I thought that this is only true for certain editions of D&D. I thought, This reminds me of talking to the kids about the differences in tone in D&D editions, and Maybe I should share this line of thinking with everyone else.

So this little article was born. It’s about the tonal differences between editions of D&D. What did the designers have in mind when they built that edition? What were their primary influences? And how does that affect what a particular edition of D&D plays like? And, finally, what does that mean for us as GMs, either when we run D&D or any other game?

When Gygax and Arneson first designed D&D they came out of the world of wargamers. When you’re gaming a whole battle you don’t much care about the fate of any one particular piece, just the outcome of the battle. That means that expendability was built-in to the early editions of the game. Character death was just an accepted part of the game. Players didn’t much identify with their PCs; you could always just roll up another.

At the same time, the early literary influences for D&D included Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. These are low fantasy tales of hardscrabble characters who win fame and fortune by taking big risks, with a heaping dose of luck.

The confluence of these two items mean that early editions of D&D (OD&D, Basic, and AD&D 1e) are dominated by lethal dungeons and treasure seeking behavior. The unpublished expectation of the game is that player characters are searching out adventure for the sake of getting rich.

This started to change in the years leading up to the publication of the 2nd edition of D&D. The first Dragonlance adventure was published in 1984. Adventure design began to change as the new Player’s Handbook approached publication in 1989.

At the same time, the authors were drawing from a wider body of fantasy literature. The Lord of the Rings is, of course, the dominant high fantasy literature. But heroic fantasy literature in general went through a huge upswing in popularity in the 1980s, in no small part due to the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons. The literature focused on the achievement of characters and their growth. More storytelling elements worked their way into D&D.

This all influenced the mechanics of 2nd edition D&D. While 1e and 2e share much of their mechanical structure, there is a stronger emphasis on character survivability in 2e, and characters come into their powers more quickly and at lower levels. Implicitly, D&D leaned into the storytelling aspects of the game and de-emphasized the mechanical aspects of the game.

And this implicit change in the game is reinforced by TSR’s change in product emphasis. Instead of adventures and mechanical options the 2nd edition of D&D is well-known for the expansive amount of setting material available for it. This is most apparent in the Forgotten Realms setting, which released a truly mindboggling amount of setting material over the course of late 1st edition all the way to the end of 2nd edition.

This all changed with the most consequential event in the history of RPGs since the publication of the original D&D: The shuttering of TSR and purchase of its assets by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards soon announced their intention to develop a new edition of D&D on an entirely new mechanical platform*.

Third edition was built on a much different mechanical platform from the previous editions of the game. The game systems rationalized every power and spell in the game and made them connect across similar mechanical constructions. This had the upside of making the game internally consistent and providing a single core resolution mechanic.

And above all, 3e was obsessed with balance.

Player character classes were expected to be interesting across the full sweep of character advancement. There were fine-tuned mechanical constructs for creating encounters so that the DM knew exactly whether or not the PCs were in over their heads. Monsters and NPCs were stat-blocked to be consistent and to use the same rules as the PCs.

And it was very much a tactical system. While you could play 3e without miniatures and a grid, combat just didn’t work as well. The mechanical systems were geared towards fighting.

D&D 3e is implicitly a game about getting into a fight. It’s very interesting to contrast the experience systems from 1st edition with those of 3rd. AD&D 1e provides experience for gathering treasure and defeating monsters. The dominant way to get XP is to get treasure. If you can find your way around the monster you can get 80% of the XP with 10% of the risk. 3e provides experience for defeating enemies. Treasure does not factor into it.

At the same time the Open Game License allowed publishers to come in and sell D&D compatible game materials. Much of that material was mechanical enhancements to the game system: Feats, Powers, Character Classes (especially Prestige Classes) and new monsters for players to conquer.

The game system is telling you what it’s about: Go get in a fight. You’re a heroic good guy, and you can beat those guys over there! And you get rewards for doing so! Swing that sword and cast those spells!

This reached its apotheosis in the 4th edition of D&D. The new mechanical systems developed for the game were exclusively about fighting opponents. The difference between 3e and 4e is a matter of style. Third edition heroes are recognizably Western Medieval heroes, even when they achieve godlike levels of power. Fourth edition characters are superheroes from the start, and the game system draws heavily on anime and wuxia influences.

At the same time Wizards was drawing on new advances in board game and video game design. This led to flexibility within the mechanical system and the ability to give characters interesting options within a combat round. There are always good decisions for players to make with their characters each and every combat round.

This made for some spectacular and entertaining combats. You could (and we did!) set up interesting, long, exciting multi-part combats with fantastic tactical choices**.

At the same time, the freedom of the dungeonmaster was ever more circumscribed. Where the original Dungeons and Dragons had large amounts of white space in the rules for the DM to make rulings, 4e’s design philosophy was, “A rule for everything and for everything a rule.”

Fourth edition also had the “level treadmill” built in. The game system’s internal mathematics assumed that players would choose to optimize characters for combat effectiveness. Failure to do so would leave PCs behind, and this would leave them badly vulnerable in a level-appropriate fight. (This was present in 3e, too, but not nearly to the extent that it was in 4e.)

This led to a certain amount of backlash among the D&D player base. Since fourth edition was so heavily focused on combat players that had grown up on earlier editions of the game felt that their experiences were getting short shrift in the new system.

Wizards of the Coast, having learned their lesson, embarked on a series of market surveys to find out what the player base wanted from D&D***. They began to collect a substantial amount of market data about what 5th edition should be about. From this data they settled on three threads of what the game is about: Roleplay, Combat, and Exploration.

Fifth edition is an attempt to synthesize everything that has come before it into a balanced whole. It tries to throw a bone to every element of the player base, and it steals liberally from every edition of D&D that has come before it. Most of all, it tries to get back to a 2nd edition aesthetic, where all three of those elements come together.****

Writing this article has given me a greater appreciation for the Edition Wars. As I’ve worked through what the different editions were about I realized that nowhere is the change in tone made explicit from edition to edition. As Dragonlance-like tales of heroic adventure started to take over the D&D world I’m unsurprised that early players said, “Hey, this isn’t the game we’ve been playing!” And as 3rd and 4th edition focused evermoreso on combat, long-time players unsurprisingly pushed back against it, including some 2nd edition veterans who never understood what their older brethren were mumbling about in the first round of the Edition Wars. The implicit message of what the game is about was lost.

And that leads me to the big lesson from this exercise: Be explicit about the tone you’re shooting for in your games. Being honest with your players about what a game is nominally about will help them to adjust their expectations accordingly. That avoids the kind of game-breaking rejection that happens when the players and the DM don’t see eye-to-eye.

A corollary lesson also applies: Pick the game system that reinforces the tone you’re shooting for. Game systems can’t help but affect how your players will interact with the game world. If you’re trying to run a hardscrabble, low-fantasy game set in Lankhmar, then you won’t be doing yourself any favors by using the D&D 4e engine to run your game. Go pick up Dungeon Crawl Classics instead. And if you try to run a high fantasy game using the AD&D 1e ruleset you’re going to have some frustrated players.

This applies to game designers, as well. Tell your audience the type of game you’re presenting to them, preferably within the first three paragraphs of the introduction to your rulebook.

I have played every edition of D&D since Moldvay Basic in ’81. When the game tone has met and matched the ruleset involved then I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve swarmed through the Keep on the Borderlands and tried to sneak past the monsters. My college D&D game was a high-fantasy romp through multiple kingdoms on a great quest with the 2e ruleset. I ran dungeon-crawls in 3rd edition that turned into a running series of battles, and I played in a long-term 4e game that included epic set-piece battles. Currently, I’m running my kids and their friends through the Caves of Chaos using the 5th edition ruleset and it’s great fun doing a little bit of all of the D&D experience.

As always, find the game that does what you want it to do and go have fun with it.

* I remember this period quite well. I’d check in with WotC’s website daily to see what new items they were teasing regarding D&D 3e.

**One of my friends referred to D&D 4e as “Descent-Plus-Plus.” This was not a term of derision.

***Once again, I remember this well. I participated in those surveys, and thinking back on it there were a great many questions relating game experience to favorite edition. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

****Which is why it shows up in Carrie’s article as an example of Legendary Tales. Certainly, early D&D’s aesthetic doesn’t mesh with that tone, and neither does the 4th edition superheroic motif. But 2nd and 5th editions reside in that sweet spot.


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Great article!

I think your descriptions in your article are accurate, but I think focusing on rules tone can sometimes obscure the wide variability of tone and content that actual instances of played D&D had in the early days. The storytelling/big setting focus that comes in with 2nd edition is as much as a response to the way people were actually playing D&D as from any other reason.

An example of this is how Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels arose out of an RPG run by a friend, see this interview: http://www.robertosedda.it/?page_id=7863 Also, the tone of Dragonlance arose from actual play (in the games of Tracy and Laura Hickman) and then was written into the modules, not the other way around.

I think this marks a difference between the shift from 1st to 2nd edition compared to the shift from 2nd and 3rd edition. 3rd edition was much more a "rationalization" of the accreted coral reef of D&D rules than a reflection of actual play; it was as much an engineering exercise as anything else.
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Nice article! How do you feel the different Basic editions of the game fit into it?
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robbbbbb wrote:
A corollary lesson also applies: Pick the game system that reinforces the tone you’re shooting for. Game systems can’t help but affect how your players will interact with the game world. If you’re trying to run a hardscrabble, low-fantasy game set in Lankhmar, then you won’t be doing yourself any favors by using the D&D 4e engine to run your game. Go pick up Dungeon Crawl Classics instead. And if you try to run a high fantasy game using the AD&D 1e ruleset you’re going to have some frustrated players.

Just to be clear, I think 2nd edition was a reaction to actual play, but not ALL actual play. There were still groups doing hard core dungeon crawls, groups doing tournament style module play, groups playing gritty losers who get killed a lot.

I agree with Rob's assessment above. I think this is actually the real innovation over the past 15 years. People play all kinds of actual games that they have labeled in the past "Dungeons and Dragons". The cool thing I have seen happen is that game designers are increasingly looking at these different styles of play and saying "how can I make THAT kind of fun happen more easily" instead of trying to create one-size fits all systems.
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quozl wrote:
Nice article! How do you feel the different Basic editions of the game fit into it?

I'm not the OP but will answer anyway. I think Basic followed the same path — going from minimal-personality wargame figures to self-interested low-fantasy rogues, and thence to high-fantasy heroes — that Advanced D&D did.

The changes are illustrated by the examples of play: in Holmes Basic, the players call their characters "the halfling" and "the fighting man" rather than by name. In Moldvay Basic, the characters have names but the party members don't even check whether their party thief, Black Dougal, is actually dead before looting him. Compare these to the programmed solo adventure in Mentzer Basic (where you're told how upset you are when your NPC companion is killed):
D&D Basic Set, 1983, Players Manual p. 8 wrote:
You kneel by the cleric, and gently turn her over. Alas, Bargle's magical spell has taken her life. Mourning the loss of your new-found friend, you decide to take her back to town for a proper burial.

The trend is definitely towards a more upstanding, more heroic and less self-interested tone. And later versions continued that trend, as far as I can tell.
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skalchemist wrote:
I think your descriptions in your article are accurate, but I think focusing on rules tone can sometimes obscure the wide variability of tone and content that actual instances of played D&D had in the early days. The storytelling/big setting focus that comes in with 2nd edition is as much as a response to the way people were actually playing D&D as from any other reason.


I think that's true. 2nd edition is very much a response to player demand, in a way that 3rd and 4th editions were not. It's also a function of the amount of whitespace in the rules for early D&D. A lot was left to the discretion of the DM, and so DMs would just make up rules that fit the tone of the game they were running.

This is one reason why the return to whitespace in the 5th edition rules is such a big deal to me. There are large parts of the game that are delegated out to the DM to handle, and that's a big reason why I've been so enthused about 5th edition.

Quote:
I think this marks a difference between the shift from 1st to 2nd edition compared to the shift from 2nd and 3rd edition. 3rd edition was much more a "rationalization" of the accreted coral reef of D&D rules than a reflection of actual play; it was as much an engineering exercise as anything else.


There's a lot to this point. One must say, however, that it was a very successful engineering exercise. They made it work, and the consistency in the rules was very welcome.

quozl wrote:
How do you feel the different Basic editions of the game fit into it?


I think the Basic editions of the game are very much tied into the game they were supporting at the time. The game we most often think of as "Basic D&D" (Moldvay/Mentzer Basic) was tonally in the 1st edition mode. It's all about questing for treasure.

Later Basic D&D games were also just cut down, introductory versions of the ruleset they were supporting, and their tone is taken from the game from which they're derived.
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skalchemist wrote:
The cool thing I have seen happen is that game designers are increasingly looking at these different styles of play and saying "how can I make THAT kind of fun happen more easily" instead of trying to create one-size fits all systems.


YES!

Bespoke systems do a much better job of supporting a particular playstyle than trying to cram it in to an existing system. Or, to put it another way:

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Cool article, nice perspective. Having circumvented the edition wars for my entire life (my first one-shot was 2e, but I was always too casual to be in the discussion, until 5e), the most amusing thing about it all is how so many seem to have a hot take on 4e. Whether they claim to know what the actual problem with it was, or what the problem was in its marketing/presentation/popular response, there's no end to the thinkpieces that have some weird air of supposed authority to them.

The one thing I do notice is holdover from the "rule for everything" mentality. Whether it's from 4e or just intrinsic to some players, I don't know. But I would run a lot looser game at my table if it weren't for player(s) whose mentality seems to necessitate that exactitude. I'm happy to pivot to meet the needs of my players, but there are occasional (minor) philosophical clashes over approach.
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robbbbbb wrote:
Quote:
I think this marks a difference between the shift from 1st to 2nd edition compared to the shift from 2nd and 3rd edition. 3rd edition was much more a "rationalization" of the accreted coral reef of D&D rules than a reflection of actual play; it was as much an engineering exercise as anything else.


There's a lot to this point. One must say, however, that it was a very successful engineering exercise. They made it work, and the consistency in the rules was very welcome.
I agree. I'll go a step further and say that 3rd Edition D&D is the first edition of D&D that I was exposed to that really made sense from the perspective of a coherent rules system. I'm not saying older systems were bad, I'm just saying they were often incoherent and kludged together from all kinds of bits. This is why I used the metaphor of a coral reef to describe the earlier rules.
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mawilson4 wrote:
The one thing I do notice is holdover from the "rule for everything" mentality. Whether it's from 4e or just intrinsic to some players, I don't know. But I would run a lot looser game at my table if it weren't for player(s) whose mentality seems to necessitate that exactitude. I'm happy to pivot, but there are occasional (minor) philosophical clashes over approach.
As an aside, I would say that 4E didn't have a "rule for everything" mentality, per se. When it comes to lots of things characters do in role-playing games, there really isn't that much more than than previous editions.

I think 4E had a clear "Combat on a battlemat is the only thing that really matters" mentality, though, and that gives the illusion of the "rule for everything" mentality. It wasn't that you had a rule for all the weird schemes, crazy plans, and absurd strategems that players come up with and try to abuse in old-school D&D games, it was that the game simply assumed that fights WITHIN the rules (as a tactical skirmish game) were the point of playing and that players will/should not come up with that kind of thing. I believe this is the primary reason why it is so loathed by some so much.

Personally, I enjoyed that a lot, but I never even tried to run/play 4E in any mode other than "tactical skirmish campaign game with role-played interludes between fights."
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This is a nice neutral description of the editions. I have a couple of comments.

2nd edition created a major change in tone in being good guys. The rules specifically say you are heroes. It says you cannot play an evil PC. It removed certain classes like assassins and races like half-orcs. This is ignoring the removal of devils and other creatures.

IMO, the power differential of PCs has less to do with stronger PCs at the beginning and more to do with weaker monsters. I think PC mortality at low levels was about the same. At mid and high levels, I think it was less.

I am not a 4E officiando. However, my take is that it was influenced by mmorpgs. I do not mention this as a criticism. I actually thought it was a good thing. You can see this by the PCs have roles like you would find in mmorpgs.

In terms of rules, I thought it had less rules than 3E. My impression was that it got away from the 3E role for everything and placed the rolling in combat and embraced the more freeform handling of the earlier editions.

Again, we have a regular 4E member on here who is much more knowledgeable on this. It is just my take away from it.

3E also did the survey stuff and play groups that 5E did.


robbbbbb wrote:
And that leads me to the big lesson from this exercise: Be explicit about the tone you’re shooting for in your games. Being honest with your players about what a game is nominally about will help them to adjust their expectations accordingly. That avoids the kind of game-breaking rejection that happens when the players and the DM don’t see eye-to-eye.

A corollary lesson also applies: Pick the game system that reinforces the tone you’re shooting for. Game systems can’t help but affect how your players will interact with the game world. If you’re trying to run a hardscrabble, low-fantasy game set in Lankhmar, then you won’t be doing yourself any favors by using the D&D 4e engine to run your game. Go pick up Dungeon Crawl Classics instead. And if you try to run a high fantasy game using the AD&D 1e ruleset you’re going to have some frustrated players.

This applies to game designers, as well. Tell your audience the type of game you’re presenting to them, preferably within the first three paragraphs of the introduction to your rulebook.


This is very important. Given the plethora of gaming options, a successful game needs to carve out a niche. As much as you might want to be all things to all people, it is unlikely to happen. So instead, design a game based on a particular type of game you want. Build your rule system around capturing that type of game.
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AD&D 1e provides experience for gathering treasure and defeating monsters. The dominant way to get XP is to get treasure. If you can find your way around the monster you can get 80% of the XP with 10% of the risk.

Given that evasion around a threat counts as defeat, often it's the full 100%...

This was more explicit in the unaddressed editions:
Cook Expert, Mentzer BXCMI, and Alston/Denning B/Cyclopedia

Cook shifts the focus squarely to exploration, vs Moldvay Basic's dual emphasis on exploration and combat. Both in the same timeframe: 1980-81

Mentzer generalizes this a bit.... but also scaffolds adventures thus:
Basic is local exploration - dungeons a few hours from town
Expert is nearby - a few days at most
Companion makes them into rulers and/or continental-wide travellers
Master makes them into interplanar heroes
Immortals makes them the movers and shakers behind the multiverse.

The B modules aren't all dungeons, either.
The X modules do emphasize travel and exploration
The C modules that I've read do involve big threats...
I've not actually read the M nor I modules

MEntzer is a different tone from AD&D 2, as well.
AD&D 2 was supporting several settings: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance (aka Krynn), Spelljammer, Council of Wyrms, Dark Sun...
Mentzer supported one setting, Mystara (aka the D&D Known World) but each region had a distinct different feel, a so-called kitchen sink setting. Each region, most about the size of the medium sized US states or European nations, is a distinct and very different culture.

Compare this to FR, where there were several sub-settings (Maztica, OA, Menzoberanzen, Sword Coast) but each area largely was consistently themed.

So, FR, you don't get characters doing cultural tourism, but campaigns focused on specific thematic areas. In BXCMI, you can have a character adventure in 15 different official subsettings without any needing to explain the trip; they can literally walk through 10 of them, and row to 3 more.
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I played an awful lot of 1e, and a reasonable sampling of 2e (before the splat book explosion) while missing out on revised 2e, 3.0e, 3.5e, and 4e. I picked up RPGs again just as 5e was hitting the shelves.

The 5e rules themselves offer a similar sensation of how I ran 1e/2e, but the Forgotten Realms don't feel very much like my recollections of the earlier commercial settings. Most of my scenarios had a grittier, low to mid-magic feel. I'm told I was pretty stingy with enchantments and treasure.

The most capable GM I ever gamed with kept on playing through all the editions. His opinion was that 3.0e was the best thing to happen since D&D's inception, and that 3.5e somehow ruined that achievement. I've only recently re-acquired a set of 1e books and the (new to me) 3.0e PHB, so I'm not in a position to argue for or against his point.

Robb doesn't address WotC's 3.0->3.5 transition in his article; is there a coherent backstory as to why they half-stepped in this case?
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This is a great take on things, keeping a nice, even balanced perspective and some good insight in a topic that is rife with division across the internet. Well done!

I'd actually say that 3E was more of a 'rule for everything' kinda edition. 4E had rules for everything that you could attempt in combat, but very little for what you could do otherwise. I think that's why its perceived focus was on combat rather than roleplaying - it had no less support for the outside-of-combat activities than any other edition apart from maybe 3rd, but it had literally hundreds of pages devoted to all the things you could do in combat (powers), whereas most other editions had a few pages of combat rules and relegated everything else quirky to the spell list.
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bigfluffylemon wrote:
This is a great take on things, keeping a nice, even balanced perspective and some good insight in a topic that is rife with division across the internet. Well done!

I'd actually say that 3E was more of a 'rule for everything' kinda edition. 4E had rules for everything that you could attempt in combat, but very little for what you could do otherwise. I think that's why its perceived focus was on combat rather than roleplaying - it had no less support for the outside-of-combat activities than any other edition apart from maybe 3rd, but it had literally hundreds of pages devoted to all the things you could do in combat (powers), whereas most other editions had a few pages of combat rules and relegated everything else quirky to the spell list.

Little brown book/little white book era D&D had less even than 4E. For the most part, so did Holmes (basic) and Moldvay/Cook (basic/expert). It's really not until 3E we really get a whole lot of non-combat material in core, and late 2E for in the expansions.
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Jackasses? You let a whole column get stalled and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses? What the hell's the matter with you?
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aramis wrote:
Given that evasion around a threat counts as defeat, often it's the full 100%...


That really depends on (a) the edition you were running and (b) what the GM did or did not allow. It was very much a gray area in the rules.
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Jackasses? You let a whole column get stalled and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses? What the hell's the matter with you?
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bobcatt wrote:
Robb doesn't address WotC's 3.0->3.5 transition in his article; is there a coherent backstory as to why they half-stepped in this case?


Since the thrust of this article was tone, then I lumped 3.0 and 3.5 together. They play with very much the same kind of tone. The difference between 3.0 and 3.5 is mostly a matter of adjustments around the edges of the rules. They were fixing "broken" spells, feats, etc. The basic structure of the rules was the same.

They called the revision edition 3.5 because it was not a major departure from the existing ruleset, and it was compatible with most of the previously published 3.0 material, including all of the prior adventures.
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General and personal observations follow. My US$0.02, not meaning to be argumentative.

I believe Dungeons & Dragons (Original Edition) featured a heavy slant toward wargaming, but it was mostly evident in the rules themselves which carried through for a long time. However, the idea that "you don’t much care about the fate of any one particular piece, just the outcome of the battle" is not always true. The smaller the scale gets, the more "leader" type units become significant and must be protected because they offer significant on-field benefits. OD&D's "player characters" surely grew out of the concept of these "leader" units. In fact, some wargames have an "experience point" equivalent for surviving leader type units in a short campaign, so there is a big incentive to keep them alive and moving forward. I know the "funnel" type experience is "supposed to" recreate the original feel of the game. I know that in early games characters died pretty often. But I don't agree that this was experienced as "Players didn’t much identify with their PCs; you could always just roll up another." Yes, you could (and did) roll up another, but from the earliest existing actual-play reports in APA-L and Alarums & Excursions it's quite apparent that early gamers (at least on the left coast) heavily identified with their characters. By the time Holmes Basic was published, there was (in my experience) a pretty solid expectation that a well-played character who was careful, and only a little bit lucky, should survive.

Regarding the rules conglomeration of AD&D... it never bothered me. I know I'm not supposed to admit that because it isn't the "one true way" of consistent, consolidated rules systems that everybody champions so much these days. Well, whatever. I never minded that the e.g. grappling system was completely different from the rest of combat. Or that every spell had its own rules for underwater effect. Or that many magic items did things that no spell could do. Or that thieves advanced faster than fighters. Sure, it was a mess. But, it was a fabulous, wonderful, perfect mess. And - always - rule zero was "if you don't like it, roll your own". In contrast, I found the AD&D2 standardization stifling. Maybe I just didn't know any better. But... that doesn't seem to answer the question. If it was so bad, how come so many people loved it for so long and so much?

I found the 3rd Edition hyper-standardization boring. When every potion gave a +n to a Skill; when every magic item did "effects of a nnnnnn spell"; when everything was completely internally consistent... it was boring. I liked almost everything else about 3rd Ed. But, games always gravitated toward lengthy tactical combats and the system just seemed to suck you in to the whole grid-counting, attack-of-opportunity, tactical play that (while fun in itself) lacked the spirit and flair of the earlier versions.

To me, 4th Edition always felt like an attempt to port the best features of then-popular video games backwards to the tabletop. The whole cool-down period tiering for abilities, the whole "ranked" abilities pool... was... it played lame, to me. I loved the way 4th Ed. handled encounters - especially the mixed encounter groups of monsters. That was, without a doubt, the best aspect of the whole game. Unfortunately, the resulting combats were repetitive and got boring. It's no surprise Pathfinder walked away with most of the players.

I'm still not sure what 5th Edition does for me. It's a clear step up from 4th Edition... or... is that a step back? At low levels, it plays really well. At mid-levels... it's not clearly better than 3rd Ed or 2nd or 1st, though it does have its strengths. But, at higher-levels it's fairly boring.
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SteamCraft wrote:
I am not a 4E officiando. However, my take is that it was influenced by mmorpgs. I do not mention this as a criticism. I actually thought it was a good thing. You can see this by the PCs have roles like you would find in mmorpgs.

My understanding, gleaned from industry insiders, is that 4E was designed from the ground up to support an MMO-like digital platform that would allow groups to play together online—the designer was specifically interested in "getting the band back together" and being able to play with his friends who were in different cities...

But they botched the platform, released the game without it, and never managed to finish the part that would have made the whole thing make sense.
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robbbbbb wrote:
bobcatt wrote:
Robb doesn't address WotC's 3.0->3.5 transition in his article; is there a coherent backstory as to why they half-stepped in this case?


Since the thrust of this article was tone, then I lumped 3.0 and 3.5 together. They play with very much the same kind of tone. The difference between 3.0 and 3.5 is mostly a matter of adjustments around the edges of the rules. They were fixing "broken" spells, feats, etc. The basic structure of the rules was the same.

They called the revision edition 3.5 because it was not a major departure from the existing ruleset, and it was compatible with most of the previously published 3.0 material, including all of the prior adventures.

Thank you. I will ply my former GM with intoxicating beverages to discern the nature of his objection(s). Given that he is less guided by mechanics than I am, I assumed that his grievance was with changes to the “feel” or balance of play.
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My opinion was always that 4e D&D took what D&D was always about and actually bothered to make a fun game around it.

Apparently you weren't supposed to fight monsters in early D&D...but you had rules that mostly covered fighting, character types that couldn't do anything but fight, monsters almost entirely defined in terms of how to fight them, and XP that primarily served to increase your ability to fight. If you avoid fighting the monsters, you've got no rules to cover what you are doing...and then what's the point of even playing the game? (Granted, I played a few games of D&D that were entirely describing silly plans to defeat/avoid monsters, but that wasn't "using" the game in any meaningful way. We were just playing cops-and-robbers with fighters and bugbears instead).
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bobcatt wrote:
robbbbbb wrote:
bobcatt wrote:
Robb doesn't address WotC's 3.0->3.5 transition in his article; is there a coherent backstory as to why they half-stepped in this case?


Since the thrust of this article was tone, then I lumped 3.0 and 3.5 together. They play with very much the same kind of tone. The difference between 3.0 and 3.5 is mostly a matter of adjustments around the edges of the rules. They were fixing "broken" spells, feats, etc. The basic structure of the rules was the same.

They called the revision edition 3.5 because it was not a major departure from the existing ruleset, and it was compatible with most of the previously published 3.0 material, including all of the prior adventures.

Thank you. I will ply my former GM with intoxicating beverages to discern the nature of his objection(s). Given that he is less guided by mechanics than I am, I assumed that his grievance was with changes to the “feel” or balance of play.

I played a lot of 3.0 and 3.5 back in the day. 3.0 had some very broken classes... 3.5 "fixed" them... but the introduced changes broke other parts of the game that I enjoyed. I honestly preferred 3.0 with house rules to limit the broken classes than how 3.5 fixed them.
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StormKnight wrote:
My opinion was always that 4e D&D took what D&D was always about and actually bothered to make a fun game around it.


I suppose you are thinking about the combat focus. This is one of the areas that I think MMORPGS can really inform tabletop game design. Fighters are supper boring in D&D. You roll and hit or miss. That is it.

I wanted to like 4E, but it really has to do with how the rules are. I think it is possible to take mmo influence and bring it into a game but do so in a better manner.
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SteamCraft wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
My opinion was always that 4e D&D took what D&D was always about and actually bothered to make a fun game around it.


I suppose you are thinking about the combat focus. This is one of the areas that I think MMORPGS can really inform tabletop game design. Fighters are supper boring in D&D. You roll and hit or miss. That is it.

I wanted to like 4E, but it really has to do with how the rules are. I think it is possible to take mmo influence and bring it into a game but do so in a better manner.


I also wanted to like 4E... and did, as a minis game. But it didn't feel at all like D&D.

Which brings forth the questions (perhaps best saved for other QOTDs):
What MMORPG elements should come over to TTRPG?
What CRPG non-MMO videogame elements should come over to TTRPG?

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Great article!

I'll play all editions, but my favourites are the ones I'll DM

I came from 1E and loved 4E!

It definately felt different regarding the fluff content, medieval focus of 1E, but offered other fantasy choices.
I viewed the initial power boost as similar intent to a 1E houserule of max HP at 1st level.

The logical methods designed for the DM was the best aspect, with a system that allowed an almost 'drag n drop' method of encounter design. It felt like I was making encounters directly using html before...

1E had inspiring ideas that I could read for hours, but no straight forward way of putting it al, together without some work. Good thing I enjoyed doing it and had the time

The effort they put into the combat engine should have also been in the Roleplay and exploration as well. Skill challenges should have been as robust, but also offer a 'lite' combat version as well.

5E has a nice balance of the various aspects and I like it as my improved 1E/2E.
Just wish I could dial up the sophistication when it comes to the big boss encounters like 4E.

If I could just mix the two... hmmm...

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