Why I Don’t Play Dungeons and Dragons Any More

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.”

You have got to be kidding me. We lost Half Orcs and Gnomes for these idiots? Are we sick of dark, edgy heroes fighting against their inner demons yet? No? Well wake me up when we are.

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.

The D&D Basic rules my dad used to play.

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.

My first D&D.

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.

I'd bet on these guys against a Tiefling any day.

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.

16 responses to “Why I Don’t Play Dungeons and Dragons Any More

  • Von

    “…“oh, there’s no elves in this game. And everyone has guns (steampunk, yay!). And magic is psychic power. And Orcs are now good.”

    If I can play D&D and do whatever I want, surely I can remove elves and dwarves from my setting and replace them with goblins and trolls, give everyone access to guns and blur the lines between goodies and baddies a bit? I’ve never been keen on one-size-fits-all generic post-Tolkien, post-Brooks fantasy as a setting… or is the argument that it’s Not D&D if it’s Not Generic Fantasy?

    On the matter of steampunk, since you’ve invited me to before and I feel a slight hypo-crisis coming on given that I play a steampunk fantasy game or two: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with goggles, guns and steam engines. Nothing at all. There is something intrinsically wrong with slapping gratuituous gears onto everything you own and claiming it’s some sort of lifestyle choice; it’s an aesthetic, nothing much more, and it’s an aesthetic that cherishes and honours a period of history when people – mostly European males – were doing pretty horrible things to other people – mostly women and non-Europeans. Steampunk often comes across as a shallow and short-sighted kind of anachronism that doesn’t question the cultural values behind the aesthetics it adopts and imitates. Furthermore, it’s becoming ubiquitous, in the same way that goth/cyberpunk became ubiquitous in the late 80s and early 90s, and anything ubiquitous becomes less valuable and more boring – see also generic post-Tolkienian fantasy worlds.

  • Capn Stoogey

    Ditto on the 4th Ed, lame-o-rama.

    3 or 3.5 is definitely the way to go.

    Thankfully because it’s all in the head, you can still play the game you’ve always enjoyed with the 3.5 books and pretend 4 never happened, kinda the reverse of what happened with the Hulk movies.

    (“What do you mean Eric Bana played hulk? Everyone knows it was Ed Norton…”)

    Fingers crossed 40k 6th doesn’t screw the pooch.

  • Timber

    “When was the last time chess changed?”

    In the 19th Century, approximately 1,300 years after it was created. If Chess hadn’t changed over the years, it would not be the game you know (and presumably love) today.

  • James S

    @Von, damn you, with your incisive criticism! 🙂

    Well, it wasn’t so much an argument as a rant, but I guess the thought was that yeah, you can do whatever you want with your D&D game, but the basic game should, I think, always remain true to it’s thematic roots. Just as a starting point.

    What’s happened is a slow evolution away from the original mechanics, which is fine and is bound to happen, but with 4th Edition the theme (and thus the overall feel) changed as well. I can’t see how that’s the same game in anything but name. Previous editions were obvious continuations of the original, and tried to reflect and preserve the original theme.

    So yes, I suppose the argument is that It’s Not D&D If It’s Not Generic Fantasy, but it’s also not D&D without the culture (which should be touted by the designers) that you can do whatever you like because it’s your game.

    You may disagree with me here, but I think a slightly modified generic fantasy for the sake of proving it’s not generic is worse than just sticking to the genre slavishly.

  • James S

    @Capn Stoogey, yeah, you can play 3.5, or Pathfinder, or make your own because the OGL still exists which is cool, but it saddens me that the noble and historic name of D&D has been applied to something that is at best a distant relative.

  • James S

    @Timber, I knew, I just knew when I wrote that that someone would tell me when chess last changed.

    Here, have some internet clever clogs points 😀

  • eldon

    try playing pathfinder you might like it.

  • James S

    I do like Pathfinder, I was a regular on the Paizo forums when they were first developing it. At the moment I’m a bit too busy for an RPG game but when I’m ready I’m thinking Pathfinder, or maybe even just D&D 3x.

    If I’m feeling really OSR I might try to get people to play 1st Edition AD&D.

    Dwarves can't be Magic Users!
    Rogues are called Thieves!
    -1 Strength to all female PCs!

    Is that last one even legal nowadays?

  • Capn Stoogey

    Deathwatch perhaps?

  • Von

    @James – I’m afraid that I do disagree with you, at least on the point of ‘worse’. Being (barely) different for the sake of being different is, to me, lazy and not much better than being the same for the sake of being the same – but it is slightly better because at least it shows that the creator has noted the existence of a standard-issue fantasy (abomination!) and rejected or chosen to progress beyond it in a small way.

    D&D’s adherence to the generic codes put me off for a good long while: until, in point of fact, I was big and ugly enough to gainsay not only the creative choices of developers but the allegiance choices of players who see generic conventions as immutable laws. That said, your caveat is a good one; there’s not much wrong with D&D quietly adhering to generic convention if it’s also hammering home the idea that _you_ don’t have to, and presenting alternatives in the core text where they’ll be picked up by the unimaginative.

    (I’m trying to persuade people to play Swords and Wizardry. Wish me luck.)

  • James S

    Good luck!

    Fair enough with the disagreement. It’s a tricky thing.

    I suppose I think of D&D not as a generic fantasy, but as the original generic fantasy game. It shouldn’t change in theme because if it does, then there actually are no original, generic fantasy games any more, just diluted post-modern fantasy-with-a-twist games.

    Which is what has happened. Something historic has definitely been lost I think.

  • Dennis P

    I quit pen & paper long ago when 3rd edition came, I simply did not like the system as do I know many my friends don’t either, I was not a huge fan of feats and even less of the prestige system, think its gotten way to systemize for my taste, so I can’t say as for 4th addition. It was for me obvious back when WotC came into picture what direction it would take, I personally feel it lost its identity and charm. At best I play the old nostalgic games on PC but not much else from WotC anymore.

  • Larry Berry

    I especially like your point about not being someone who is simply against change. I didn’t like 4th edition either. Tried many times to give it another shot and still just couldn’t get into it. I got a lot of accusations of “you just don’t like change”. I played from the old basic set (the red book at the top your father had), then went to 1st edition, 2nd edition and was thrilled with 3rd edition (which was probably the biggest change of all) How could people accuse me of just not liking change, when I gleefully embraced all those other changes. That’s not even including all the other game systems that I also loved. However, it didn’t make me not play D&D anymore. I still had the 3.5 editions (along with 3rd party supplements, settings and many house rules) and plenty of people who also didn’t want to switch to 4th edition. So luckily I didn’t need to switch to 4th ed. to keep playing.

  • Chaos Firemaker

    Quite simply, one of the biggest problems I had with 4e is fighters having ranged energy attacks. FIGHTERS HAVING RANGED ENERGY ATTACKS!! Spell casters, and even monks and rouges, who are always to clever by half, fine! But not those guys with the sharpened metal stick!

  • Sean Robert Meaney

    Email me at reddeerrun(at)hotmail(dot)com and ask for the map I created using ms word (the citadel). Give you something to adventure in…

  • Kevin

    Great piece and I couldn’t agree more!

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