“War. War never changes.”
While I would like to babble about the joys of roleplaying games in general, this topic is indeed a very special one! They have a saying in every fandom that you never forget what you start with! Generation of Pokemon/Transformers/Ponies/whatever, Incarnation of the Doctor, and of course edition of popular games like Dungeons and Dragons. And as you guessed it, D&D and a little bit on other roleplaying games are the focus today! Well, mostly Dungeons & Dragons to be honest. Hey, it is the world’s oldest and most popular roleplaying game! I mean, I could ramble about other games, such as World of Darkness, GURPS, and beyond, but that’d make this go on forever. Now, I promised that I was going to wrap up Nuke Month, but I’ll have something good in store for next weekend. In the meantime, grab a bag of dice and some heated rhetoric and charge forth into the gaming battlefield!
In the horrible and ignorant world of edition wars, one wonders where it all began? Without going into it too much, a brief history of D&D itself might help! Without too many sources, you could claim that different types of war gamers felt their tactical rules and strategy were far better than another groups’. I mean, who would want to play a war game where you have to operate field medic? YAWN! This field needs more cannons, swords, and dead people! Now, since this is purely speculation without much to back it up, we’ll leave it at that. The real meat and potatoes behind the “modern warfare” starts with Gary’s pet project of Chainmail, circa 1969! This is the medieval wargame that would evolve into Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. With it, not only was a game born, but an entire sub-culture! Surely this Arthurian golden age would last! Fast forward to 1977 and we get a new conundrum. Original D&D is pretty established and has started to build its base in popular culture; okay, geek culture! TSR then declares that an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons shall be delivered to the gamers of the lands… and so a legacy of hate begins. With different math, different framework, and a massive jump in terms of race (Your class was NO LONGER elf!), one could understand the confusion.
Things heated up more when Gygax left TSR and Second Edition of AD&D rolls around. Many of his notes on an expanded AD&D were discarded in favor of a different direction. It wasn’t just about rules, it was also Gary Gygax versus Loraine Williams! Greyhawk versus The Forgotten Realms! But of course, arguments came back to whether or not 1st or 2nd AD&D was the superior version. Personally, both play just fine!
In the late ’90s TSR went belly up and Wizards takes up the mantle! And so, a new chapter was created! Also, fandom red flags were raised! The audacity of the creators of Magic the Gathering continuing D&D was frightening for many followers of the Gygaxian faith. For instance, racial restrictions upon classes were gone. Now, abominations like Dwarf Wizards, Elf Barbarians, Half-Dragon Half-Fiend Vampire Giant Space Hamster Cleric/Wizard/Tainted Scholar/Archmages, and Pun-Pun-esque characters littered the hobby’s grounds! Nonetheless, Wizards created one of the most brilliant ways of uniting the fanbase for the digital age, Open Gaming Lincense/D20 system. In a nutshell, almost anyone could publish content for it and borrow rules. Wizards was more or less letting other companies and gamers use their game for free. Eventually Wizards realized their mistake and the folks at Hasbro told ’em to make a new version to make up for their naivety.
And so, the think tank sampled from multiple aspects of relevant pop culture to create the 4th Edition! Since this was the most unique iteration of the rules, it remains the most controversial. Gone are sacred cows to connect it to previous versions, here are experimental ideas to take it in a new direction. Whether that direction was “God’s Gift to His Children” or “MMORPG the Board Game/Weeaboo Fightan Magik the Sequel/NOT D&D!” is up to opinion, but since the game only lasted for less than 4 years, I guess we can imagine which opinion toppled the fortress and smashed its stuff. But hey, 4th delivered a lot of what gamers had been asking for years. And with the end of New Coke, I mean 4th Edition, WizBro’s last stand comes with Pepsi Next… Uhh, D&D Next! Err, 5th Edition! This edition has the lofty goal of uniting all gamers within one mantle! No edition invalidated, no player alienated! Even then, that’s not good enough for some. For others, it’s an attempt to spite them and their needs, I mean games. But, Ron Perlman put it best during the Fallout intros. (In case you missed it, look for the caption of the pic above!)
Now, what’s going on here? Isn’t a niche community like the roleplaying game fandom supposedly united in their geeky obsession of pretending to be an elf or a SPESS MEHREEN? One would think, but tribalism and the drive to be superior rears its ugly head one way or another. When you play your favorite edition, it isn’t too hard to get defensive when someone would dare to be critical, especially if they dare play another iteration of the game. And when your edition is retired from support, it feels like a burn; all that money for naught! And now some newcomer is stealing the show from you. And what do you do? Not care and continue to play what you love? Nah, just kidding! You get childishly mad, spout vitriol and hate for this “other” that pollutes your presence, relentlessly bash and shame anyone who doesn’t share your flawless opinion! I mean, all of that could be said for A LOT of human behavior. society does indeed obsession with segregating ourselves and embarking on faction wars, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Digressing, there’s more to this than rule sets. One thing that adds to fracturing and friction is META-PLOT! Yes, Meta-Plot, the device to push your game forward, regardless of player input! Sometimes, the experience can flesh out the world and make it much more fascinating… and sometimes it will merely explode in your face! Lemme give an example of the latter, The Forgotten Realms setting. This is a very ho-hum EPIC fantasy world, where gods mettle in mortal affairs, magic is abundant and the forces of good and evil clash in incredible battles. Every edition, the setting experiences some sort of extreme cataclysm as a device to carry the game over to the next edition. As such, the game is radically shaken up! Sometimes Gods die, sometimes people die, sometimes entire chunks of a planet die, and sometimes everything dies after a time jump. Now, there’s a good reason behind hatred for this. If you’re in an active game and this metaplot occurs, it could drastically change what you’re a part of and perhaps even invalidate it. For those of us who have given up on anything remotely “canon” (like me), this ain’t such a big deal. But for those who want to emulate what they saw in novels, it stung pretty hard for ’em. Some gave up and adopted a new setting, some rationally voice their issues in a thoughtful way, some adapt to the changes to make the best of it, others created cute nicknames like “$ellplague”, “plotholeplague”, “Shattered Realms”, and many more.
But, it’s not all about pushing the game’s story through corporate means, no! That’s only a piece of marketing! To understand a lot of edition war rage, Wizards of the Coast is an easy target to keep picking on. Back when they first picked up the game, their marketing strategy for 3rd amounted to “ditch the old game, cuz THAC0 is WHACKO!” As you’d think, fans got mad. Fast forward to 4th Edition, the eternally smug Mike Mearls & Co informs everyone that they’ve been playing wrong and overcomplicated games make roleplaying hard and stuff. Now with 5th edition, we here the team say 4th Edition derailed the game and 5th will fix their mistake. Quality PR, right there!
Now, the fights don’t end at editions and settings! There’s all kinds of infighting within the fandom itself! There’s the battle of the power gaming munchkin versus the narrative writer, a contest of obsession of mechanics versus obsession of plot lines. If that doesn’t cause a cringe, there’s freeform players versus rules lawyers; self-explanatory. That’s just the tip of the iceberg too! Real role players smashing the “roll players” for playing characters through dice, the Monty Haul gameshow hosts who gave magic items and goodies like it was Halloween against the brutalist blood thirsty DMs who want to create something more deadly than a tabletop Dark Souls (which I’d TOTALLY play, by the way). The list goes on! It doesn’t stop there either; Hackmaster, Pathfinder, GURPS, World of Darkness, and more have had all sorts of conflict with the fandoms and worlds of D&D.
That isn’t to say WizBro is incompetent! Their sponsored play program, WPN, has been a fantastic method of getting people into the game. Through corporate events held in stores, gamers can attend ongoing weekly games by easily jumping in and out without feeling too lost. While many have criticized the RPGA (and believe me, it still gives me war flashbacks), this has been an essential tool for broadening the fanbase and keeping D&D a relevant game. One could say they’ve made additional strides to welcome communities outside the stereotypical fanbase (consisting straight white suburban male adolescent) into the game more so than in the past. Whether it’s getting rid chainmail bikini on top of Liefeldian anatomy for practical armor on a realistic female character or making statements on including ethnicity, sexuality, and gender; Wizards has shown that they want everyone at the table. Now, this isn’t new, by any means. AD&D’s rules have stated that sex and gender don’t have to factor into who your character is or their abilities, the character decides their abilities. But, having a reminder that all are welcome is a good thing. To say Wizards is a failure discredits their other franchises too. Say what you want about MtG, but it’s a long runner with a legacy all its own!
In the end, different editions provide different options; different playstyles. Everyone has something they enjoy and we should celebrate it, not condemn it. But, human nature being what it is, we can only hope things improve in the future. Because if not, what’s the point to playing if a toxic community is that overbearing? I know people will always complain about things they don’t like, but I ask the reader to ponder about what they like and why it’s special to them. Just like you, everyone feels the same about they love. So much more is accomplished when we talk about the positives. I’m not even saying to buy 5th, although giving the free basic rules a look won’t hurt. I’m just asking to live and let live… Or rather, ready those dice and roll for initiative!