Or, You took away my Gnomes, you bastards!
The time has come. I’ve been threatening to write this article on a few people’s blogs for the last few months, and here it is: “Why I Don’t Play D&D Any More,” with a subtext of “6th Edition Warhammer 40,00 Kind Of Makes Me Uneasy.”
My first great gaming love was Dungeons and Dragons. I remember playing with my dad’s carefully painted lead miniatures as a very young boy in England, and asking him what they were for. He showed me his Dungeons and Dragons rulebook (see below) and let me sit in on a game at the little kitchen table with his two friends from university.
I was too young to read properly then, but a few years later, in sunny Australia on my 10th birthday, mum and dad gave me the D&D Basic Set.
I sat in the sun and read it over and over, and when I got back to school I played it with my friends. One of my best mates had an older brother who’s group had got all the way to *gasp* the gold Immortal Rules. He also played Advanced D&D, and a couple of years later my little group graduated to AD&D first edition using dog-eared, borrowed rulebooks. We played this for a year or two and then second edition came out. It was also about this time I started playing Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Rogue Trader.
I played AD&D second edition all through later high school, and it led me into Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (often known as D&D 3x) and other RPGs such as Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (hey, it was the early 90s), FASA’s Shadowrun, and later, at university, White Wolf’s Mage: the Ascension.
Through all of this I loved D&D the most. D&D 3x I thought (and still think) was an elegant system that gave the players a lot of freedom and still managed to stay true to the D&D I’d played from my old Basic Set. The D20 Open Game License allowed companies to produce a plethora of games that I could easily understand, adapt from and just read for fun. I was playing a campaign with my girlfriend, my sister, and my regular 40k opponent (from the Invasion of St. Arkham) when Wizards of the Coast produced D&D 4th Edition.
The first stage of this transition was when Wizards pulled the license for the venerable Dragon and Dungeon magazines (may they rest in peace) from Paizo, who were doing an excellent job I might add. Then it was announced that D&D 4 would not use the Open Game License. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. It sounded as though Wizards wanted to regain control of the D&D brand by any means necessary. Sure enough, D&D 4 emerged, my group got a hold of it, and it just . . . wasn’t D&D.
Understand that when I say this, I’m not just some change-hating internet whiner. I’m a guy who played just about every edition of Dungeons and Dragons save Gygax’s original pamphlet, and I’m here to tell you it’s not the same game. Sure it uses d20s, but so does Infinity. This is an observation that’s been made before, but D&D 4th edition feels to me like WoW on a table.
Now, people may say: “yeah yeah, but D&D was never far removed from it’s hack’n’slash, dungeon crawl roots. Gygax based it on a skirmish wargame. It was always the dumb jock of RPGs, unlike my intense, thespianic White Wolf novella that feels like you’re in one of those episodes of Buffy where she dies and everyone goes all angsty blah blah blah. Here, try this cape.”* That may be true, but D&D before 4th edition was still a game of the imagination. Children could play it and do whatever they wanted. There was freedom. It didn’t feel like a constrained, tactical exercise unless you wanted it to be, and that’s the point: D&D was simple, full of recognizable tropes for you to build whatever you wanted or needed. It may not have been ideal, but it was good.
And it had a history. When I opened D&D 4 and saw that there were no Half-Orcs or Gnomes and they’d been replaced by emo half-demons struggling with their blah blah blah and Draconians (check it out yo I can breathe fire!) I actually shut the book. It was like showing up at someone’s house to play D&D and they say “oh, there’s no elves in this game. And everyone has guns (steampunk, yay!). And magic is psychic power. And Orcs are now good.” That’s not D&D.
Now 4E has some good rules. I like the minions. I like the powers that work per session and per encounter, it allows more creative story-telling for the players I think. I’m not denying it’s a good game, for what it is. But what it is not is D&D.
“But James,” you might ask: “aren’t you just old, and change makes you sad? Nothing stays the same forever. You shouldn’t expect it to.”
To this I say again, D&D was a game with a history. Of course nothing stays the same, but that history has now ended. D&D, as in Gygax’s vision, is like a dead language. It’s up to players to find it and reconstruct it and I don’t think that’s fair because it was killed for no good reason. For the sake of change. If it could happen to D&D, the grand-daddy of fantasy gaming, then the same thing could happen to any game you love – like, for example, Warhammer 40k.
And things do not always change. When was the last time chess changed? You don’t show up to a Scrabble tournament and hear the announcer say “Scrabble now officially involves physical challenges and all the tiles are round and bright pink. Deal with it.”
I think games like Dungeons and Dragons are seminal pieces of our culture, and they deserve better than that.
So there you have it. That’s why I never played D&D 4E, and I’m pretty sure I never will. And if I play D&D again, one of the older editions that still brings me back to those sunny days of reading and playing and imagining, I’ll always have that sad feeling that we’re playing an orphan game that lives only in our memories.
*Just kidding, as I said I played Mage, and I enjoyed it. White Wolf games are fun to tease though because they take themselves so seriously.