I realize that this is coming a while after the fact – I guess that 4th ed has been out for 2 years now.
But I’d like to take a step back, and make a few observations about the course of Dungeons and Dragons over its entire, 36 year long life. Fourth edition is indeed something quite new– a new departure. And I’d like to get at what that actually is, without resorting to trite categorizations.
DnD first edition was the product basically of one man’s imagination, that man being Gary Gygax. He was brilliant; he was also an autodidact (i.e., he was largely self-educated), and perhaps because of this he was more prone to egomania, pettiness, rudeness, and other qualities which generally don’t make for good managers. He was also bad with his money, and let himself get screwed out of ownership of the company – meaning that after scoring the DnD cartoon show in the early 80s, he returned back to Milwaukee to find that the board had run the company into the ground, and further, that he himself had little choice but to sell out, and leave the company. It’s doubtful whether this was a good thing.
In 1985, the company was sold to this crazy chick who had inherited the “buck rogers” franchise name. She decided to try and make some bucks with her new company; but it took her a while to get organized, it seems. In 1988, Pool of Radiance came out, which was a hugely successful computer game, and spawned dozens of imitators, keeping DnD very active in the computer game market, and in fact, basically helping it to become a major influence on the entire gaming industry – which was really coming into its own at about that time.
In 1989, she released DnD 2nd edition – which was a not-too radical makeover of the first edition. In general, it was more corporate. The main problem was, – it took demons and devils out of the original, as a way of bowing to the extremely negative public relations that DnD had gotten as the conservative christians set their sights on it in the mid-1980s.
That’s a phenomenon that deserves its own post, at least – I’m not sure exactly of the chronology – but I do know that in 82, 83, etc., every smartish adult in the country – almost every shop teacher, gym teacher, math teacher – lots and lots of teachers, were using DnD as a way to help kids become more literate and use their imaginations, and to learn about history, society, literature, etc. But heaven forfend that kids actually use their own imaginations to learn about history etc.,!! The conservative right saw that there was some bit of occultism in this simulated medieval world (just like in the real medieval world) – and, gosh, that medieval people actually thought a lot about demons and devils (in fact, these were about the biggest concern of medieval people, in general), and so, becasue they mention demons and devils when recreating the medieval world, they must be satanists. Of course, 99.5% of all the dnd players i knew generally played characters that were opposed to demons and devils and fought them, and those that did play a necromancer or whatever generally did it for the irony of it all. So one or two suicides gets linked to the game (and teens will commit suicide – I mean, before DnD, it was Ozzy Ozbourne, or whatever), and DnD is instantly out of the public favour.
So, what is odd, is that between 1983, when almost every school in the contry had a “DnD club” and 1986, DnD had gone from mainstream phenomenon, and socially acceptable past time, to being anathema – and the province of satan worshippers. I remember when I first met my in-laws, who were somewhat Christian, they looked quite askance at me when they found that I had played DnD. They honestly thought that because of the fact that I had played DnD, I was therefore suspect for affiliations with Satanism (which is absurd –I wish that satan existed, but only if god existed to protect me from him).
In a few short years, then, the mainstream media, by picking up the alarmist calls of the conservative right, effectively turned DnD from possibly the best boon to literacy, vocabulary building, to currying interest in history, to learning about military history, to honing artistic and cartographic skills, and dozens of other things whch are required by active DnD players (and especially DMs), that had ever been invented by one man, into an embarrassing, nerdy occupation that was also tainted by strong suggestions of anti-social behaviour, satanism, occultism, killing cats, kidnapping people, insanity, mental instability (e.g., the government of Israel), and suicide. Awesome!!! yet another way the the religious right has kept real rational thought, and genuine education and literacy, out of mainstream american culture. Gary Gygax, for a few short years there, succeeded in making learning about history cool. But alas, it wasn’t to last.
So, back to ADnD second edition. It was now more bland. More corporate. The first edition drawings were wonderfully atmospheric, evocative of Dante’s inferno, and made ready use of the medieval fear of ghosts, goblins, monsters, and the unknown –in short, THE GOTHIC, which is what medievalism is all about, at its most appealing levels. That is why it’s so fun to play in the middle ages setting – becasue this was the last time that western men and women were still immersed in the pre-rational dream time, when fantasies literally were reality, most of the time, for most people – and science had yet to make any significant inroads. In 1300, magic literally was real, because everyone assumed that it was. Demons and Angels were indeed as real as can be, because again, no one had conclusively proven otherwise, or at least, had come up for scientific explanations for most things which we now realize are just mundane. So in any event, the 1st edition books, and the wonderful tome Deities and Demigods (which was _major_ fodder for the fundamentalists because it dared to mention, gasp, mythological gods and goddesses of non-christian historical (and fictional) pantheons), were all very pregnant with pre-scientific real-world historical ideas that our ancestors had about the way the world works – and this world was wonderful, and scary, and peopled with wonderful things.
But 2nd edition, by removing the demons, devils, angels, and the other pantheons, introducing instead some bland made-up deities, and with its blue and black -nly colour scheme (where did they come up with black and blue? I mean, the colour of bruises?), it seemed limp.
But it did help to revitalize the game, to a degree, and the thriving video games and fiction worlds attached to DnD helped to give it a real bouyancy, through the early 90s.
And then, Magic: the Gathering gathered all of the DnD players, and turned them into card-buying, card-hoarding, card-imagining simpletons. DnD is so much harder to organize than a game of magic… and so many people can’t resist the capitalist’s lure of spending more money to get better decks than your opponents. And so, the advent of Magic, by 1994-95, was already spelling the death-knell for DnD as an active cultural force – a semi-mainstream one. Because still, despite the satanist charges, I believe that a significant portion of the kids in the US with a 125 or higher IQ was playing DnD right through the late 80s and early 90s. But with the advent of Magic: the gathering, I suspect that perhaps 3/4 of active DnD players were sucked into Magic, and seldom played DnD after that. A whole generation of young teenagers coming of age in the 90s played far far more magic than DnD – it was like DnD lite – the easy option, and in an age of increasing video game sophistication, Magic satisfied these less textually literate kids’ appetite for some hands-on gaming. Magic was a travesty – probably more damaging to the potential good done by DnD (and role playing in general, you must understand) than the conservative christians had been.
So if the christians got rid of 3/4 or more of DnD’s potential audience – effectively keeping it out of the mainstream, and leaving it as only as an affectation of nerds, the inventors of Magic effectively stole 3/4 of the available audience from DnD. And this was enough to send the company reeling. By the late 90s, Wizards of the Coast, who invented Magic the Gathering, had bought TSR.
Their first action was to release a new generation of DnD video games: this was Baldur’s Gate, released in about 1998, if I recall. They simultaneously set to work on a new edition of DnD – since it was going on 10 years since the 2nd edition, and it was always a bit aenemic. (The monstrous compendium, with those stupid flimsy, easily torn, loose-leaf monster pages, is a good symbol for the entire edition). And then Hasbro just took over the entire toy industry, eating up Wizards in 1999. But they seem to have been smart enough to leave Wizards essentially intact. They kept people like Kim Mohan on staff, people who really knew the game, and who belonged still to the best creative phase of the early game.
And, lo and behold, the 3rd Ed. was really a good game. As good as the game had been since the heyday of the 1st edition in the early 80s. The first sign of trouble, however, was when they released edition 3.5, only what, 3 years after releasing 3.0? That was an unbelievably dicky move. But everyone bought 3.5 – figuring that, hey, surely they will now wait close to 7ish years before putting out another edition? Surely, they will wait until about 2010 to release a 4th edition? But no, as early as 2005, some 2 years after 3.5 was released, WotC was already hard at work, doing a 4th edition.
You see, Wizards, and or Hasbro, had quickly realized that in order to keep turning profit – to keep it at the same level, you had to be always coming out with new books. And they realized that the core books were the main sellers, and that you can only do so many spinoffs before book sales will drop off. And they saw that everyone bought 3.5 core books just as readily as they had bought 3.0 core books, and that was only 3 years later. Aha, they realized… let’s do new core books an average of every, what? 4-5 years? Totally re-do the game, with no backwards compatability, so that all of your old product is now useless? And no official support for older editions, to further force you to buy anew?
Well, for people who had been through all four editions, this new corporate mentality smelled very strongly of profiteering. And, hey, we realize that everyone needs to make a buck; that there are always new cohorts of kids entering their tweens and teens, who will be suckered into buying the latest edition, who perhaps want something new, and tailored to their specific age group. The company is no doubt highly hoping that we all get so used to the idea of new “core editions” coming out every 3-5 years or so, that we just kind of expect it, and consider this to be the natural way of things. Soon, the 10 years between editions tradition, which had been an unwritten rule until 2003, will be a distant memory, a thing for historians only to lament about… and companies do know that they can quickly count on 99% of humanity to forget anything that happened more than a few months, or at most, a few years ago.
But what does this mean for the game? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the people who play the game? One could expand this idea, and say, what about those who could play the game, who might be interested in this game, in an ideal world, but who are not?
Well, I’ve kind of answered all of this, but we might as well summarize by way of a conclusion.
1) The game was really gothic and atmospheric in 1st ed; it was pretty watered down in 2nd ed; it really started to get something back in 3rd ed; (though it was still a bit silly, with all of the piercings and tatoos on everyone in the drawings, which was such an obvious sop to the ‘real youth’ of the day–an approach which generally backfired royally, since the nerds who play don’t get tatoos, as a rule, and the tatoo people were not about to be fooled into playing DnD due to tatoos present in the PHB–i mean, really… dorks!) But at any rate, 3.5th ed really wasn’t bad. It did lack something of the ‘real medieval’ historically informed, ‘real mythology’ aspect of 1st ed, however. It was definately watered down in that way – the designers, I think, had grown up with video games, and not novels. You could totally tell – Gary Gygax and his buddies all actually read about fafhrd and the grey mouser or whatever other novels they all read (I’ve never bothered with fantasy from the 50s-70s, myself, perhaps my loss?). But you could tell, that in between these editions, there had been a major change in the culture – from literacy amongst nerds, to computer literacy – i.e., playing video games. And they were still nerds, still curious, but they had a _lot_ less cultural knowledge, and historical knowledge, and tolerance for text. So, 3rd ed was a bit gritty, a bit cool, a bit atmospheric, but it was still a bit lite on these core issues.
With 4th ed, however, there is no pretense of it being anything other than similar to 2nd ed – it is “lite” in every way. It is also the first edition to be designed on a MMORPG paradigm, which is another major watershed. Whereas until now, DnD led the field in innovation, it was the granddady that everyone tried to imitate – well, now, DnD is abjectly imitating World of Warcraft. How the mighty have fallen. This slovenly behaviour, this total loss of honor, of pride of place of DnD, will perhaps be a blow that it will never recover from.
And not only is 4th ed based on video game mechanics, and has most of the grit taken out of it, and has a totally corporate, whitewashed feel, it is also as historically lite as the game has ever been. The historical references, and ideas have been kept to a complete minimum; the game assumes that you are a know-nothing, and all of the Gods, demons, etc, the worlds, the characters, the ideas, they are all totally bland, totally averaged, totally committee-fied, totally corporate, to the extent that there is nothing left in this shell, but a drawing-board version of a game that never should have been released. And yet, it continues to sell, and so Hasbro has its bottom line. And that, friends is all that matters.
In short, the game has gone from the creation of an idiosyncratic, but brilliant and truely “educated” because literate person–Gary Gygax, and thus had all of those hallmarks of a “real” fantasy world, to being a totally corporate, utterly bland amalgam. With the 1st ed of Gary Gygax, to play DnD was to enter a fantasy world every bit as rich and detailed and thought out _and personal_, as Tolkien’s world, as the Dragonlance world of Weiss and Hickman (which in many ways ripped of tolkien, but that’s another post), as the world of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars… with it’s outer planes, with its strange spell names, with its angry deities, with its system of negative and positive energy… all of these details gave the world an authenticity as good as any famous author’s creation. And that’s why people liked it. Since then, it has been successively sapped of all of these elements; yes some were a bit illogical, but only 3rd ed. managed to inject a bit of realism back into the mix. I fear that with these successive editions, and especially after the 4th, that era of personalness, of believability, will be gone forever, whitewashed by dozens of corporate interferences and mandates, of concern for bad press, etc., of well-meaning execs who say “hey–kids today like tatoos, right? let’s have the art have tatoos!”, etc. Certainly, at present, this is all but gone from the game. And it’s hard to imagine that it will ever be brought back. How could it? The only hope, would be to take Gygax’ original, and reissue it – or, better, it would take a reissue under the hands of a truely inspired genius to remake the game, after the extreme blandification that it has been subjected to since 2003 and, really, since 1989.