What may, in fact, be hyperbole…

I always found it odd that comic books of the Fantastic Four always had the logo subtitled with “The World’s Greatest Heroes”, even though most of my friends ranked them well behind X-Men or Spiderman.  Sure, they were the flagship comic of the early days of Marvel, but the titling seemed like it was a holdover from a lost and bygone age when there were people that actually still cared about that particular comic.  The early comics helped define much of the Marvel Universe as it came to be, but after so many re-inventions and changes to the roster, it seemed to me that they were no longer relevant in any real sense.  The world had moved on, and only the people that had been fans in the early days still held on to the title as the years go by.

In unrelated news, the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons was just announced.

If it were possible, I would honestly feel bad for Wizards of the Coast.  Being that they’re a huge corporate entity that exists as a discrete subsidiary of the truly mammoth Hasbro, my sympathies are tempered accordingly, but it’s still sad to see them trying desperately to cling to a fading nostalgia that they think defines the industry.  They’ve become the greying emperor whose lackeys and sycophants continue to reassure them that they’re still loved and adored, even as they step forth without pants to address their subjects.

I caught the announcement through a number of channels, not the least of which were members of my local playing group.  I’ve been half-heartedly following the rolling news about the D&D Next playtest, watching as there were all manner of announcements heralding the ease of play and the adaptability of the rules to different play styles.  Much of the earliest hype centered on Monte Cook’s involvement, as his direction helped craft the much beloved ruleset that underscored the 3.0/3.5 iteration of things.  Monte had promised a sliding scale of complexity and granularity for different tastes, where you could have the rules as simple or nit-picky as the individual player wanted, and all of these people could play at the same table.  It sounded unlikely but wonderful.  And hells, if there was anyone who might be able to pull it off, I’d have given Monte a chance.

Then, of course, Monte dropped out of the project, leaving it in the hands of Mike Mearls.

As a quick aside, I’ll go on record saying that I don’t like much of what Mike Mearls has done.  I disliked him when he showed up at Malhavoc, with Iron Heroes, and I thoroughly loathed his direction on Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords.  The latter would have been enough to poison the waters for me, given the weird pseudo-magic that he saw fit to push onto otherwise mundane fighting classes, but then he went on to head up much of the development of D&D 4e, for which I can muster no excuse.  (On one level, 4e isn’t a bad game; it’s just not D&D.  It’s a miniatures game that somehow got branded as being Dungeons & Dragons.)

Since Monte’s departure, there’s been little in the way of encouraging news.  The playtesters who posted online about it noted the sudden and arbitrary rules changes that bore no relation to the playtest feedback, all of which seemed to reflect the slow cleansing of rules that Monte Cook and his crew had tried to put forth.  The best thing that could be said about this or that iteration of the evolving rules was that it looked like D&D.  There was nothing groundbreaking or terribly new about any of these rules, and unlike the industry-wide revolution that followed the debut of 3rd Edition rules, there’s no real excitement.  If anything, the best that has been said about this edition is that it’s trying to undo some of the damage that was suffered with 4th Edition.

It really does feel sad, though.

The covers of the books, the modules and boxed sets are all subtitled with some reference to this being “the world’s greatest role-playing game” despite having no continuity with any of the previous versions of the rules.  This may be my own personal prejudice, but in order to be considered the same game, it should at least be compatible with the versions that people knew and loved.

What makes it even more pathetic is that they’re busily exhuming the corpse of Gary Gygax in order to try bringing their wayward fans back into the fold.  Each of the books and modules attempts to reference the golden age of D&D, back when it could legitimately hold itself up as being the greatest of all RPG’s.  Mind you, depending on the time period in question, it was also the largest and most played of a very narrow field, which makes things like this a lot easier to claim.

The cover of the Player’s Handbook has a painting that depicts King Snurre Iron Belly from module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, published back in 1978.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide shows a vaguely confusing illustration of the lich Acererak from module S1, The Tomb of Horrors, originally written in 1975.  (Given that Acererak is supposed to be a demi-lich, his appearance as a relatively fresh lich with mummified flesh still clinging to his bones is a bit of an odd departure.  Then again, Wizards keeps going back to the well for Acererak, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.)  And the cover of the Monster Manual naturally has a Beholder on it, which dates back to the original 1975 Greyhawk supplement.  All of these references come from the very early days of D&D, and all of them trace directly to the creative fire of Gygax himself.  (Granted, Rob Kuntz’ brother originally created the Beholder, but the development of the monster owed to Gygax, so I’ll count it.)

Between the subtitle and the choices for the covers, this tells me that Wizards really has nothing to catch anyone’s attention with.  When D&D was held by TSR, they used to be the heart of the industry, driving the hobby forward and creating all manner of ancillary companies in their wake.  For every boxed set or module they produced, there would be profit for the dice manufacturers or the guys that cast miniatures.  GenCon and Origins came into existence as a result of the money and brand recognition that D&D was able to generate.

Then when it all fell apart and TSR ended up being sold to Wizards of the Coast, there was new excitement to be had.  The innovation that followed 3rd Edition had serious implications for the industry as a whole, bringing some of the up and coming publishers to the brink of dissolution and making fortunes for others.  D20 changed much of the hobby with the OGL and the ubiquity of the rules, and even when they chose to abandon those rules, it still cast a number of far reaching ripples.  Granted, 4e didn’t do much to shake things up, but the choice to create 4th Edition and change the licensing options was what set in motion the shift to Pathfinder and the ascendancy of Paizo.

In comparison, this whole announcement does nothing.

I would have been interested to see Monte Cook’s vision brought to light, but in that absence, I’m left without any measure of enthusiasm.  This is just another game in the marketplace, and it has nothing to make it worth my money.  If I wanted Acererak or King Snurre, I’d just go back to my old modules and dust them off.  I’m certainly not going to throw $150 at a game that’s failed to excite any of its playtesters.  It’s just not worth the gamble.

And if you could actually see my library, you’d know how damning that really is for me.

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Posted on May 23, 2014, in Current Games and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I might hold off on saying that there’s “no real excitement” around 5e and err on the side of “no real excitement in the circles with which I’m familiar”. Locally there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of talk, and we’re already planning campaigns and the best way to run the official weekly adventures. That’s a far cry from nothing.

    This is not to say that our local scene is especially representative of gamers at large or that 5e will be good or even passable, but when people who don’t play D&D aren’t excited it doesn’t mean that people who do aren’t either. I’m more interested in how excited we’ll be a year from now when we’ve had a chance to see what the system can and can’t do.

    • So, what I’m to gather is you don’t really understand what I was saying. When D&D 3.0 was coming out, there was actual excitement. People were looking forward to the game both as a revision of the aging 2nd Edition rules and as part of the OGL Phenomenon. The release of the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook netted millions of dollars in sales on one book alone. There was so much love for this edition that when the 3.5 Revisions came out, people were viscerally angry, nursing grudges that, oddly enough, still hold to this day, even though it’s over ten years gone.

      This sort of loyalty also held to the introduction of 4e, where so many people fled the change of editions that Paizo built an empire on its bones. And no one was excited about 4e the way they had been for the 3.0/3.5 versions. There were people that picked it up, but the same rush of interest that propelled 3rd Edition sales was not there.

      And now we have 5th Edition or Next or whatever. Yeah, your group may be up late, braiding each others’ hair and whispering about how much you’ve been waiting for this revelation to hit the industry, but the truth is:

      Your group’s something of an outlier.

      Every single thing I have ever read about this new edition of D&D is best summarized with a shrug. The best reviews are mixed, a good number of them complain about missing one of their favorite mechanics, and the bulk of them come back with a resounding ‘meh’ for a reaction.

      Seriously. Do a Google search for ‘D&D Next Playtest Review’ and see what happens. Since you were so certain that people were excited, I went back to see if there’d been any updates, and the first five reviews I looked over were filled with all manner of shrugs and things they did and didn’t like. These were guys that played D&D, were excited about being part of a new edition, and the end result was that they weren’t terribly enthused with the final product.

      Maybe we’re working at different definitions of ‘Excited’ here. See, when I talk about people being excited about something, they talk with all manner of exclamation points and hand gestures. They don’t come back with discussions about what things they didn’t like about the product or parts they weren’t fans of. Being excited implies that you’re a fan of it all. The guys that playtested this edition aren’t.

      So, to turn it around on you… Just because your group is all a-twitter about this new set of $50 books doesn’t mean that anyone else is. And if you can only talk about your group’s opinion, rather than the community at large… that’s not ‘a far cry from nothing’; that’s the textbook definition of nothing.

      … and that said, thank you for your comment. Snark as I do, I value the feedback, and more than likely, there are more things that we agree on than disagree.

      This just ain’t one of them.

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