Monday, April 28, 2008

Wargamers and Wizards

Warning: Sham’s up on a soapbox tonight, in true Grognard form.

I’ve been considering D&D’s impact on gaming recently. More and more I am becoming convinced that D&D, as we Grognards know it, is slipping away into oblivion. I fear that it’s legacy is going to be forgotten, buried beneath piles of revised versions and out dated publications. All in the name of progress. Well, actually all in the name of revenue. The gaming scene, as far as I can tell, is being dominated by two direct descendants of D&D. The Collectible Card Game (CCG) and the Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) game.

The CCG genre was spawned by Magic the Gathering, a nice little strategy card game designed by an avid D&D player, Richard Garfield. Mr. Garfield’s little brainchild quickly became a gaming behemoth, and a true cash cow. It’s the perfect game as far as revenue generating potential. To stay competitive as a player in MtG, or CCG’s in general, one is required to spend a lot of cash on expansions and new editions. A perfect storm in the gaming industry, to be sure, and it is even a favorite of game and hobby shops for the same reason, as they can also sell single, desirable cards for these games at exorbitant prices.

The MMO genre is more a direct descendant of D&D, and one can trace it’s origins back into the earliest days of computers. MMO’s are basically D&D with no Dungeon Master, with thousands of players in the same campaign. Like CCG’s, MMO’s have completely obliterated even the most optimistic revenue projections, year after year. In particular World of Warcraft has rewritten the way MMO’s operate. At the end of the day, MMO’s are not what D&D is. MMO’s reward one thing and one thing only, time investment. They are the black holes of gaming. Oh, and another example of the perfect gaming model, requiring a nice, neat monthly subscription in order to play in their world. Nice idea, huge cash cow.

Times have certainly changed. We live in an era of gaming never before experienced. An industry of millions and millions of dollars, just waiting to be soaked up by the next big thing. Ladies and Gentlemen, D&D ain’t it. Maybe this new era’s potential is due in part to D&D, but probably more so due to computers, video games, and higher levels of disposable income. I’m not touching console gaming at all in this post. I’m simply not familiar enough with the genre enough to speak to it, and we can probably agree that CCG’s, MMO’s and D&D are in a completely different sphere of gaming. I enjoy my Son’s video games from time to time, but they are, for the most part, not descendants of D&D.

From Day One, D&D missed the boat as far as guaranteeing future revenue from it’s player base. Sure, there were periodicals and modules and campaign settings and character sheets and well, lots of stuff you didn’t need at all in order to play. D&D was introduced to the gaming world in a very innocent manner, published independently by avid war gamers who, at the time, had no idea that it would explode into a gaming phenomenon. Perhaps if they had even the slightest inkling that D&D might become this huge 80’s fad, they would have taken a slightly different approach. As it turns out, the approach taken was the right one, at the time, for D&D in that the game did reach unheard of heights in the industry. It was an honest approach, and the product was an honest product.

It seems that since the late 70’s, once D&D was gaining momentum, the individuals in control of the direction of D&D have been battling this cold, hard business reality. That D&D cannot secure more and more revenue from it’s own gaming public. Simply put, D&D is not a CCG or an MMO. It’s a classic game form, and should be treated as such. Enough is enough, I say. What can possibly be done to improve D&D, other than a streamlined, concise treatment of the rules which embodied the original, classic spirit of the game? That very spirit that made it a worldwide success some thirty years ago.

More words have been written and printed in regard to D&D than any other game in history, I’m sure. It’s not going to get any better than it is now, or has been. My fellow Grognards and Neo-Grognards would argue that it passed the point of perfection long ago. No amount of repackaging or disguising the game as something that it is not is going to bring it to new heights, or even to that mid 80’s popularity the game enjoyed. The title has been milked for about all it’s worth, at this point. Movies, novels, periodicals, computer games, cartoons, collectibles, miniatures, endless accessories, the list goes on. There’s not much left really, is there?

Rather than try to remake the game in it’s own image once again, maybe it’s time to move on. If the goal is to make a game that appeals to CCG and MMO players, make a new game. Take the time to design an entirely new game from the ground up, rather than attach a new engine to the tired old D&D frame. Why not admit that D&D is NOT going to garner those video and computer gaming dollars out there, and be done with it. D&D has already been changed into a more rigid, numbers driven game, to the point I’m afraid now that the rules themselves overpower and hinder the more important aspects of the game. It’s a shame that Wizards of the Coast has continued to tinker with D&D. In their infinite wisdom, the honchos at Wizards are trying to once again improve upon the model. This could very well be the last version, or perhaps D&D will continue to morph into further, unrecognizable editions as it limps off into it’s waning golden years.

It’s almost as if the attitude is “Hey, we made MtG, we know how to make a great game, and we can fine tune D&D to the point that it will become a roaring success again…all we need to do is get some of that MMO money that’s on the table out there.” If all were right with the world, D&D would be getting royalties or kickback from it’s own wildly successful descendants, but such is not the case. So, why chase after these dollars if it means morphing D&D into what it is now? A rules heavy, min-maxers delight, with little room for creativity and that spirit of open ended play that made D&D so popular to begin with? What’s done is done, and the game may never be considered a classic because of a string of poor decisions by the keepers of the D&D brand.

D&D, by all rights, should be mentioned in the same sentences as Chess, Monopoly and Poker. A classic, timeless game that will always be around, for future generations to enjoy. Well, D&D HAD the chance to be timeless, but in this day and age it’s being controlled by an industry that’s still trying to turn a buck out of the aging game form. An industry that, in my opinion, is threatening to drive the product into the ground by turning into something it was never meant to be. At this point, it is likely to devolve into a contrived mess of poor imitation, and slowly dwindle into obscurity.

Here’s to hoping that a true archival version of OD&D sees the light of day at some point. A nice, neat concise treatment of the original game, as written in 1974 by Gygax and Arneson. One backed by the same investment being tossed on the ash can in the form of these new, improved editions by Wizards of the Coast. One that, like Chess or Backgammon, can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, and not burdened by reams and reams of rules. An edition that serves as a reference point, the game in it’s true form, before the industry took away it’s soul and spirit. It’s a pipe dream, sure. A form of the game that has been fought by the holders of the D&D brand since the beginning, I suppose. A version that requires nothing but your imagination to play.

I decided fairly early on that the Grog ‘n Blog wouldn’t take a stance of elitism or superiority. I accept the fact that all of us, anyone who plays any version of D&D, are kindred spirits. In the right circumstances, I’m sure I too could learn to enjoy the later versions of D&D. Clearly, I do have a preference, though. I believe, that given the chance, were OD&D more accessible and currently supported, many others might agree with me and prefer the most basic form of the original game. The version that should, by all rights, be considered a true landmark in gaming history, and a hell of a lot of fun to play.

I’d like to add that this post has been brewing in me since I returned to D&D this year, and many of the analogies and opinions are derived from various sources across the internet. Fellow fans of older editions of D&D, too many to name, have all anonymously and abstractly contributed to my thoughts herein. Clearly I have absorbed a lot of text over these past several months, and I could not even begin to pinpoint these numerous influences. Specifically, though, I would point readers to an older post over at the Gameblog that I referenced here over a month ago. At the time I was resistant to the message, but clearly, it’s as valid now as it was when it was written. Nothing has changed. I didn’t set out to announce the death knell of D&D. I hope it’s legacy lives on, it deserves that much. For the time being, I’ll be holed up in my man-cave designing my mega dungeon and getting ready for some good old fashioned D&D.

~Sham, Descending From His Soapbox


James Maliszewski said...

The funny thing is that, at one point in the early 80s, Gygax actually suggested that there would come a time when D&D would be "perfected" and put on the shelf, like Monopoly and other classic games. He didn't feel that the game should eternally "evolve" or indeed that it could do so without fundamentally changing what it was. So, your thoughts -- which I share -- are in line with what the Dungeon Master himself thought.

Sham aka Dave said...

I love that the game can be added to infinitely, through supplements, modules, campaign settings, etc. To that end, the most expandable version is OD&D. And it's the version that, if cleaned up into a nice, neat, concise version, should be officially stamped with a big fat WotC seal of Original D&D and marketed to toy stores, book mega chains, and Target. And I don't mean a version designed to lead players into 4th edition, I mean the original stand alone OD&D.

I'm looking forward to seeing that OD&D retro project over at odd74, James!