It’s been a over 16 months since I wrote RPG Evolution, back in [Card.Board.Box] #12, wherein I described the lengths to which Games and Stuff was going to expand our RPG department and endeavor to make ourselves the best store for RPGs you’ve ever seen. I happen to think that, despite some cries of falling skies, pen-and-paper role-playing games are not dying, and in fact, are seeing a bit of a renaissance.
With that thought in mind, I find myself at the keyboard, finally pounding out some words to create another long-overdue [Card.Board.Box] article. Yes, I know it’s been practically a year, but we had a big beautiful new location to move into. We were busy creating the Best Damn Game Storetm you’ve ever seen.
Anyway, here we are again, and I once again find myself with a bit of a confession to make. You see, I’m not really a fan of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. I don’t mean 4th Edition D&D. I mean any edition, really.
Yes, it was the first RPG I ever played (back in 1979 or so if you must know). Yes, I have fond memories of my adventures in Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and the Bloodstone Pass module series(especially Bloodstone). And D&D ranks very highly on the gaming nostalgia scale. But the fact of the matter is that by the late 1980’s I had already discovered WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY, and quickly discovered that my taste in fantasy ran closer to the sword-and-sorcery grit and rules-light experience of that setting, as opposed to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of D&D. And level-based character advancement? No thanks.
So by the time I started working at G&S back in 2009, I had already made the decision to sell off my D&D collection. Even my precious Dark Sun stuff. Dark Sun, by the way, was the thing that got me playing D&D again for the first time in almost twenty years when the setting was released for 4th edition. It didn’t last long.
But really, this isn’t about me. Most folks that know me at the shop know that my tastes are running waay to the narrativist end of the RPG spectrum these days, and the hard crunch of D&D 3E, or the perfect board-game-balance style of 4E are nowhere near that. So what the hell am I rambling on about?
Well as most of you know, the next edition of D&D (D&D Next) just wrapped up open playtest, after a lengthy process. Just a week or so ago, Wizards of the Coast confirmed a summer 2014 release date. The goals of D&D Next are noble and lofty, attempting to be more of a toolkit of a system that allows D&D to be whatever kind of game the players want it to be. Which is fitting, as it’s both the world’s first RPG and it’s veritable default first step for new players. You can read some more about the stated game’s direction over on the WotC website: CLICK HERE.
And yet, there also seems to be a strange longing for the simplicity of 1st Edition AD&D, as evidenced by the success of stuff like LAMENTATIONS OF THE FLAME PRINCESS and Wizards of the Coast’s premium AD&D re-prints. To say nothing of the Old School Renaissance Movement, that’s growing in popularity (I’ll leave you to jump down that rabbit hole on your own time, shall I?)
So. What the hell am I going on about?
I am of the opinion that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is currently stronger than it’s been at any point in the last decade. And that’s a good thing for roleplayers like you and me. Never mind the fact that PATHFINDER (which is of course, simply D&D with a new coat of paint) is basically an industry onto itself at this point. What we’re starting to see is people seizing D&D and making it what they WANT it to be, in all it’s glorious color and variety, like so many cards in a Deck of Many Things.
With that in mind, I’d like focus in a few interesting highlights of the past few months. There’s a point here, so bear with me.
Murder at Baldur’s Gate:
This is the first module for The Sundering event that WotC is using to ramp up the Forgotten Realms storyline in anticipation of the release of Next. It, and its follow-up, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, represent a radical departure from the format of their previous releases. For one, there are NO stats or game information in the book, the idea being that you can download the relevant info for your desired ruleset (3.5, 4th, or Next.) What this means is that what you are getting a 32 page adventure, and a 64 page setting book, and it’s almost ALL story and setting material. Yes, many people bitched and moaned about how Dungeon Masters who were running D&D Encounters this season had to buy this book to run it, but I don’t care. It’s that good. Why am I so convinced?
*64 page setting book. That’s 64 pages of setting material, something D&D 4E was sorely missing
*The adventure itself ties into The Sundering storyline, the scale of which only a company as big as WotC can pull off properly. DMs are encouraged to send in feedback about how the story plays out.
*It comes with a full size DM screen! A customized Baldur’s Gate DM screen, complete with meaningful DM and Player information on their respective sides.
*NO RULES. You’re not paying for rules, you’re paying for story. And the rules that are available for download are in three different flavors.
*Allow me to repeat myself. You’re getting an ENTIRE CITY SETTING here. Enough for resourceful DMs to run stories in Baldur’s Gate for years to come.
*(Not to mention the six novel cycle of Sundering books that are currently being released to set the backdrop of events leading up to the release of Next.)
One thing we’ve seen stated from the folks at WotC over and over again is that Next is going to have a pronounced emphasis on story. This is what D&D needs. If you want piles and piles of rules and crunch, let’s be honest, PATHFINDER can provide that for you. But I’ve lost count of the number of customers coming into the shop over the past few months either trying to relive their glory days of D&D from the late 70’s or early 80’s, or trying to find something accessible for them to play with their kids. Sure, the PATHFINDER Beginner Box is great, but the system as a whole isn’t exactly 8-year old friendly, ya know? If D&D Next hits next August and really follows through on the promise of story over stats, I think it may very well find itself back at the pinnacle of sales that the executives at Hasbro are lamenting. Let’s be honest, at this point, you’re not going to regain those PATHFINDER people. And that’s fine. For D&D to really shine, it needs to reclaim its mantle of the go-to RPG for beginners and casual players, while still providing a viable option for those guys that DO want all the crunch. And Next seems pretty modular in that regard from what I’ve seen.
So yeah, less feats and endless lists of powers and spells, and more of what makes D&D freakin’ D&D ya know? Rust Monsters, Mind Flayers, invasions of Githyanki, the Realms, WATERDEEP. Make it happen.
Wait. What’s this?
What happens when the guy who designed 3rd edition and the guy who designed 4th edition publish the version of the game that they play at home together? Well, 13th Age happens.
A self-admitted love letter to first edition D&D, 13th Age is a stripped-down, story-focused wonder of a book. Using an ingenious set of rules, character creation becomes a method by which the GM designs his entire campaign, or indeed the entire setting, with personal plot hooks from each character serving as linchpins in the metaplot. Players are personally invested in the story from prior to the first session, and a rules-light combat system keeps the fight scenes quick and tense. Don’t be fooled, this IS STILL D&D… but ripped apart to the bare core of the system in an effort to make world-building and character front and center.
This thing has so many innovative ideas that players of any fantasy role-playing game could buy this and strip it for parts. Everything from the Escalation Die used for combat to the eponymous 13 Icons can be pulled whole out of the system and applied to other settings. Anybody looking to ground their campaigns in meaningful stories that put the players in their rightful place at the center could do far worse than mining this rule book for ideas.
Both of these titles represent a fairly narrativist take on Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, I’ll admit by bias here as they’re the sorts of games I prefer, but I genuinely do believe this direction is what’s best for the health of role-playing. Nobody is saying those happy with PATHFINDER or 4E needs to change their stripes, but if Role-Playing is going to have any chance of riding a bit of that swell of mainstream popularity that board gaming is currently experiencing, the best way to grab hold of those casual players is with story and adventure, not debates over which series of feats will give you a better mathematical advantage on your side of the grid map.
I think 2014 may prove to be VERY interesting for Role Playing Games.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff, where he spends far too much time trying to convince people that yes, YOU TOO have the ability to be a Game Master. [Card.Board.Box] is his column about gaming for the G&S website that he no longer pretends is anything resembling monthly. He will be back in a few weeks with his yearly two-part article about the year’s best Hobby Game releases.