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.