Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A too little too late 4e revelation

I was very, very drunk several months ago and read the whole Dark Sun book for 4e, and finally I realized what had been nagging me about 4th edition.

As some of my long time readers may recall, I have been more than willing to give 4e the benefit of the doubt. I was not terribly attached to 3.5 once one ventured outside the core books and Complete Guides, as I thought a lot of the OGL settings, supplements, and even 3rd party licencee material was pretty crappy - so I guess you could say that the fandom ruined the pretty decent rule set.

Just as there are artists who are not "actor's directors," there are games that aren't really "GM friendly." 3.5 was a blast to play and a Goddamn nightmare to gamemaster. Even with pregenerated monsters and traps, creating a quick adventure was a fucking ordeal. And forget creating your own monsters, unless you've got a lot of time on your hands and a really solid grasp on the rules.

4e is much easier to gamemaster and a little easier to create bad guys for, since there's finally some clear guidelines on what is appropriate per character level. The "it's too videogamey" complaints never resonated with me, since hey we all enjoy playing video games.

The problem, though, is that with OGL and 3rd party licensees all but shut down by 4th edition, it's become more clear that all creative decisions with 4e were business choices and not hobby choices. There's an important distinction there.

Tabletop roleplaying games are decidedly a hobby market much like model railroads, craft projects, and baseball card collecting. But those other fields have never willingly done anything that would alienate their fan base - they find out what their small but devoted group of followers wants, then they deliver improvements on their products to stay ahead of their competitors. Roleplaying games are an odd beast because purportedly, all the aspiring gamer needs is the core rules and some imagination. A product you only need to buy once is bad for business, of course.

Here's where my being drunk and reading Dark Sun while I sober up comes in. I realized that in order to play Dark Sun, I needed several other products besides the core books. I also realized that Dark Sun was released to play to the cherished memories of older gamers, the very people WOTC should avoid alienating. The product you are really selling is nostalgia, which doesn't require innovation; Dark Sun sells itself. However, in order to recapture your memories of playing Dark Sun with 4e, you need a bunch of other books, and that is where the brilliance lies. Same with Eberron, same with anything they release. Settings no longer contain everything you need to play the setting, and who besides a pair writer has time to develop a deep, innovative, and interesting setting on their own these days?

And then I read the creature guide where giant floating manta rays can teleport because they can, and then since I was still drunk I read most of the PHB and then it all finally fell into place, and after that it's a little fuzzy.

RPGs have done a very good job of adjusting to their now-more-mature target audience that no longer has twelve hour marathon sessions and probably has kids and bills (and, of course, disposable income). The disturbing new trend is not that things are easier, or that games are more user-friendly, or we've switched to a "rules versus rulings" point of view*. The disturbing trend, as far as I can track it, is that games are being run more responsibly and more like businesses, which now means that for us hobbyists, the business people have reclaimed what it means to innovate. Not to sound too Marxist here, but the major player in this fight has tried to seize the "means of production" (in this case, innovation) from of the "workers" (gamers). But there is a problem with that, and that problem is the truth all of us base our love for this hobby on: Everyone has an imagination.

If you think the hobby is stagnating, you're right, and the unfortunate truth here is that starts with you, the gamer. We have allowed ourselves to be provided for, to have whole worlds and books written for us to use, and then all of us complain about it. Well, let's knock it off, huh? Start simple: Buy a pocket notebook, use it only for gaming stuff. Write down thoughts and inspirational materials and movies people talk about and books people read and where you are when you think "hey this would be a cool place for a fight scene." Start there, then find a real human being you know in actual life to be your "bounce board" to share ideas with. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself creating a character class or a story arc or a setting. If everyone gets on board this, maybe we can recapture some of the magic that the hobby has lost, and maybe - just maybe - the people who are paid to do just that every day can be reminded that if they want our money then they have to once again be the best and brightest that nerddom has to offer.

*Rules vs Rulings: I am a "rulings" guy, I improvise a lot in my games and I'm very proud of that. All of my new players get upset when I deviate from the rules whenever it's not in their favor. Since this has happened with every one of my play groups, I have to believe the hobby has always been this way.

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