The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Friday 23 May 2014

Wait.. is 5e Making Grognards Suddenly Claim Character-optimization is More Important Than Roleplay?

There's a variety of different demographics that want to be critical about the upcoming edition of D&D.  There's the guys who have always hated all versions of D&D and always will because they have some kind of pathological psychosis about that very name.  There's the guys (mostly Pathfinder-fanboys now) who got burned by the change to 4e and have something not against D&D as such, but Wizards of the Coast in particular. There's 4e fans (both of them!) who are pissed off that the game they liked was rejected by just about everyone.  There is of course the Storygaming Swine who revel in any chance to weaken regular roleplaying.  But the one that is of particular concern to me is the Old-School Fundamentalists.

Not all old-school gamers are fundamentalists.  Many of them (like me, for example!) are hopeful and enthusiastic with 5e and believe that it represents a return to more old-school values.  A significant amount are relatively apathetic: they have the version of D&D they want to play and really have no use for anything else (but I hope to convince this group that at the very least its good that the main public face of the D&D game will again be something they could theoretically stand to play sometimes!).  But then there's what I sometimes call the OSR-Taliban; the guys who collect Gary Gygax's used hankies and make shrines out of them; the ones who think that anything published after 1989, or 1983, or 1981, or 1979, or 1974 (or sometimes even 1973!) is "a betrayal of everything great about roleplaying".  These are not the open exciting OSR I love, creating amazing new old-school RPGs like "Stars Without Number", "Red Tide", "Dungeon Crawl Classics", "Lamentations of the Flame Princess", "Hulks and Horrors" and many many others: games that take Old-School concepts and do exciting new things with them.  That's the crowd I wrote Arrows of Indra for, and who loved it in return.

No, the OSR-Taliban are the guys  who only want their exact early version of D&D (be it "oD&D", "AD&D 1e", or "B/X D&D"; pretty much any other edition after that is 'haram', and of course the fans of earlier editions often try to out-extremist the competition, saying that even AD&D 1e was against the 'true spirit' of Gygax's original vision), or who only want precise exact (in other words, worthless and useless) clones of the same. Just to have the same exact thing over and over again, ad naueseum, without any innovation.  These are the type of guys who go on long rants about how variable weapon damage is a horrific deviation from the original purity of just rolling 1d6 for everything.

And one thing that Old-school gamers (including the fundamentalists) have always argued for is the fact that the point of D&D (and all RPGs) is to play out your character in a virtual world; its not about 'crafting elaborate pretentious story', but it is also not about making super-complex rules.  Nor is it about character optimization; Old-School gamers have ALWAYS defended the criticism presented by some later-edition fans that "old D&D is dumb because there's no feats, skills, etc. so all the fighters are going to be the same" with the point that the difference between characters is not and SHOULD NOT be about what mechanical choices you get to make with the little numbers on the character sheet, that your character should not be unique because of his "Speshul Powerzz", but what should differentiate one character from another is HOW YOU ROLEPLAY them.

So I'm pretty shocked when I see that 5e-antagonism has shifted some OSR-fans, including many (like the fellow RPGsite moderator I'm about to quote) who I think are normally very reasonable sorts of people and not what I'd usually define as "OSR-Taliban", right into the far fundamentalist extreme end of mujahadeen hill-fighters.  Witness the guy I'm gonna quote, and keep in mind he's a veteran of 200 flamewars with drooling-character-optimizers bitching to him about how old-D&D hasn't got rules to cover everything and you can't really have the choice of character you want in older editions; and yet here is what he's reduced to when he's talking about the fact that the upcoming D&D Starter Set (which the 5e-negativity brigade is desperate to be able to keep describing as 'crippleware') will not have character-creation rules in the box itself, and instead you will be able to download the complete BASIC character creation rules and more, at no extra cost:

"Which happens to completely miss the fucking point of a role playing game and turns it from a game of your imagination into a consumerist item with limited replay value. From an open model into a closed one. And in case you're a bit thick too, the main point here is not the limited replay value in and of itself; it's the actual missing of the entire fucking point of role playing games in empowering their users in the first place. So ... fail. Again."

My response to this:
 Ok, never mind the fact that if you live anywhere but Burkina Faso or the Disputed Zone where internet doesn't exist, you can in fact create characters with this game, and thus have EVERYTHING you need to run any number of campaigns you want to run forever (with 2 MORE levels than the almost relic-like D&D Basic set of old had). Never mind that. Let's take a look at your statement: are you seriously saying "creating a character is the entire fucking point of role playing games"?

So you mean the Denners were totally right? Its been about charop the whole time?
But by that logic shouldn't the "point" then be about having 20000 feats and point-buy options and advancement-trees so that you can map out precisely how your guy will look at level 20 before you've rolled his first stat?

Because if not that, I don't get what you're saying here. The precise argument that many use against how "limited" Old-School D&D character creation is, is what you are now using against the Starter set. They claim that old-school D&D sucks because you can "only ever make one fighter". There's no way to individualize the character, because we all know that individualizing the character is about what mechanical options you get to pick from or generate, right? Is that really what you're saying?

Because I think if I have 5 pregen characters, I hand them out to total newbs at random, and I tell them "Ok, this is a Dwarf Fighter, that's a human cleric, etc. But now you have to decide how they act and what they like and what they think and how they make decisions and how they feel about things.." then THAT, dude, is the ENTIRE FUCKING POINT of Roleplaying games.

The set-up Wizards has chosen will let a group of kids do exactly that, from the moment they open the box. AND it will also let those kids then go on to create characters, and theoretically keep playing this game forever, with everything they need just in the box, without having to ever buy another product again if they don't want to.

That, to me, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE OF CRIPPLEWARE. Its something we should be praising WoTC to the fucking rafters for. It means they actually got the point this time, and it also must have been a pretty bold and scary move for them, from their point of view: they're betting on actually giving people a game that gives them everything they need for $19.95 (and yes, typing out a URL, which people are suddenly pretending is an immense hurdle because.. what.. we all know 12 year-olds today have no idea how to use the internet and hate to be online??). Instead of going with the (failed) technique of giving them half-a-game and then demanding they pony up money for the full experience, they're going to give them a full game and then trust that game will be awesome enough the kids will want to pay more for other stuff. That's really what they always should have been doing, but we should still be impressed because its been so very long since they had really tried doing it this way. If they only manage to actually promote the starter set in the right ways and to the young-teen demographic, it might even bring a whole new generation into the hobby.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H's Beverwyck


  1. I'd be happy if they included a physical copy of the chargen rules with the box as well. I have to say that this is missing the point. Everything you need to play is not in the box.

    I'm a firm believer that in this day and age a physical RPG book should come with a way to get a digital copy for many reasons, but that digital book is not a replacement for a printed volume or even a pamphlet.

    I've played out of books and i've played out of PDFs, every time i've played out of PDFs exclusively the experience was degraded. In the absence of a comprehensive SRD, the PDFs give me a good way to do quick searches and references for rules but this is a compliment to a physical book.

    PDF bring sometimes large and burdensome devices to the game table, and beyond that there are still people who don't have easy access to broadband internet even in the US. The state of rural infrastructure is what it is. I view the necessity to go online to grab an essential component of the game to be essentially the same of video games that force you to authenticate online before they will function.

    I agree that it's nice to have the option for PDFs of sections of the rulebook to distribute to the party, or even a full copy of the rules that can be easily passed around. However, I think that their choice not to include a printed copy can and should be criticized. When there are games that handle this far better, like Eclipse Phase, we should recognize the situations where it works and point out the situations where it is a lesser experience.

    In this case, I believe that the decision not to include a printed copy of the character generation rules makes this product inferior to previous editions that did include that essential component. I do think that the decision to include a URL to download a PDF version is forward thinking, but I don't agree that it is an acceptable substitution.

  2. Not that you're exactly making a straw man argument, because what you're describing is clearly and obviously right there, but as you say, I think it's a VERY small minority of the old school players. A focus on openness of play and a simple chargen (in order to facilitate openness of play) is one of the very few things that 2e, 1e, and 0e edition warriors would all agree on.

  3. I've never understood the large portion of the OSR movement. If you want to play OD&D or B/X rules, why not just play those rules instead of some "clone" system that inherits all the same problems with the original rules?

    What I do understand is games like Castles & Crusades which have the philosophy of "Hey we like the old school play style, but realize that we can update the mechanics and drop all of the crappy rules from the old system to make a better, streamlined version."

    That, to me, is what the OSR movement should have been. Instead it's people trying to "clone" rules that have a lot of bad crap in them and maintain that crap (as you note) as some kind of religious artifact left to us by Gygax the Great.

    1. Well, to put some perspective on it, the new clone systems do typically get content updates. New modules, adventures, splat, etc.

      With Wizard re-releasing some of the old D&D sets, I expect we'll see an uptick in professional content aimed at those systems but the clone systems do fill in a void for the systems that have not seen a re-release. Additionally, these efforts do preserve the rulesets in a form that you can get more easily than the original prints.

      The quirks and flaws of a system can be part of what makes it unique to a player. Preserving them is a bit like preserving history. Releasing clones may spark interest in creating system-compatible content. In the end that movement does breath new life into the old systems.

    2. @ Marty, I think you have a very closed view of the OSR, many of the "clones" fix the problems with the old rules. Poor editing, unclear rules and such. Plus I would rather use a clone than put any more wear or tear on an old book.

      But whatever, I waiting to see if 5e is gonna live up to the hype, if it does I'll add it to my shelf of OSR games...

    3. @Marty, the clones started out as publishing resources. Then there was a demand for presenting them as complete rulesets. For some editions like OD&D this was due to the unavalibility or expense of acquiring the original. For others, like OSRIC, the customers found them to be a superior reference.

      In both cases the demand was unexpected.

    4. @Cyrus - re: content... That makes sense. I was considering rules reprints only and not taking into account the additional "compatible" content.

      I just happened to perused some of the OSR rule sets and really thought there were missed opportunities to make some clean up, which is why I like C&C.

  4. I think the OSR-Taliban are just a few guys in desert caves. I'm really hoping 5e is the answer to our OSR prayers: simple, easy, practical, fun, nostalgic, and inclusive.

  5. As someone who owns a printer, the idea of having the character generation rules in pdf format in order to bring the boxed set in on a specific page count (and thus price point) for the whole *month* before the Player's Handbook comes out, bothers me not in the least.

    1. Home printing in an order of magnitude more expensive than a commercial run. Even if including more pages would bring the price up by any noticeable margin (it really wouldn't) I'm not okay with the hidden cost. Off shifting the production cost to the consumer is a dick move when they are going out to buy a boxed set of a game.

  6. I don't know. Why not just release all of it as PDFs and nothing else if that's so darn convenient for everybody?

    I did want to give them money for the starter box, but that was when I thought it's a complete package. I apologize for my "fundamentalist" denseness, but for me that means complete, printed, in the box rules for the entirety of what makes something like the Holmes, B/X, or BECMI basic sets fun. I am not going to call what they'll release "crippleware" but I will call it a product that some people (including me) just don't want to pay for.

    What's probably worse than that in terms of their marketing is the thousands of potential new players for which this boxed set will create the impression that 5 characters are all there is. Plenty of idiots in the world, some of which will certainly buy this box yet never figure out that there's more to the game. And those people are not "growing the hobby" in any significant sense, they are just purchasing another board game to shelf away after a few sessions.

    I for one will be very happy if my impression turns out to be wrong. But I still won't buy the thing.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Again, I hope that many of those still expressing criticisms of the Starter Set will end up being pleasantly surprised by the overall direction WoTC is going in; if they keep an open mind.

  9. As one who played basic D&D in the far past and who wants to get his 13 year son started, I want you to know that these past few posts on 5e starter set has convinced me to preorder it. I looked at the stuff available when he first expressed interest (he and his friends have kinda written their own) I looked but neither PF or 4e seemed right. We got DCC though, and I look forward to playing it too.

  10. Good!

    I trust you'll love DCC too! Its fantastic; and I've been running a campaign that has a 16 year old and a 10 year old playing in the group. They love it.

  11. How hard is it to create a character even w/o explicit rules? Just take a gander at the pregenerated ones, change some stuff around to suit yourself, there you go. Reminds me of the complaints about the old TSR Indiana Jones game being "unplayable" due to no rules for making up your own Indiana Jones type of characters. Give kids some credit; we just made them up anyway back then.

    Not to say I have any interest in a new D&D; I just don't get why no character creation rules in the starter box is such a big deal.

  12. Why is everyone notching so much?! I don't get it at all. This is an amazing time to be a replayed. I never imagined this as a kid! There's a metric ton of options out there, and more all the time. There's creativity abundant and so many other gamers to share with online and in person. I don't see what the problem is for some people. Its a great time! Oh and about the online rules don't we have laptops and smartphones and tablets? In other words...who the hell is worried abput printing? Im old and even I know printing isnt the only option for accessing online stuff at the game table. Call that stuff up on the portable computing device, folks.

    1. Shit, effing auto correct. I meant, what is everyone BITCHING about?!

    2. Double shit. I meant its a great time to be a ROLEPLAYER. Autocorrect blows.

  13. I hope WOTC does a nice smart-phone optimized copy of the chargen rules. I'd really like to see PDFs in different page sizes, like A4 and A5, but that's reaching. The way I see it, you don't need chargen rules during a game session; it's OK if they're in a separate document from the main rulebook. If you die, you can make a character and the other player can still refer to the rules proper.

    I'm intrigued with doing E6 with the starter set:

  14. A pretty unfair comment on the moderator in question, and in any case excluding a wide middle between NO character modification rules whatsoever and full-on charOp feat lists.

  15. The same foundational principles have to apply regardless of what extreme of the spectrum you're looking at. If RPGs are about character creation mechanics and the ability to choose how your character looks, then by that logic complex 3.5e-style CharOp (or GURPS Point-Buy-Everything!) would be superior to OD&D's relatively restricted set of freedoms.

  16. WOTC wanted to make a product that is as simple as possible while conveying the basic experiance in order to introduce new players to the game. They play tested various versions of their set with total newbs with that goal in mind. I know they originally talked about character generation in the starter set, but no doubt that didn't playtest as well as we would think. It's fun, but it slows the start of the game down. The basic experiance is role playing through an adventure. Using pregens lets the new players skip straight to that. And while including character generation rules in the box sounds nice, it adds to the number of rules in the box. Using the web to provide additional rules is actually a nice tool to help keep the rules in the box as few as possible. I'm sure they would not have risked the completely predictable gnashing of teeth about character generation unless all the playtesting with easily bored teenage newbs distracted by anything shiny didn't convince them of the advanteges of keeping another layer rules out of the box.

    And anything kept out of the box does help them undercut the price of anything the competitor has out. This starter set is now 12 something on amazon. They will have an intro set out that will (1) be the cheepest, (2) be as rules light as possible to introduce new players, and (3) is attached to a famous brand. Not too shabby.

  17. Trying to pin the idea that character generation allows people to actually create the guy they have in their mind as their own unique persona to explore the realms of their own imaginations as some sort of equivalent to character optimization, denner style, is a really, really dumb strawman argument.

  18. I can't believe you're stupid enough to think that character creation is charop, Pundit. Only you, man. Only you.

  19. It comes down to first principles. The question was "what is the entire fucking point" of RPGs? "Character creation", whether its as simple as 'roll 3d6 six times' or whether its super-complex feat-selection, is NOT the answer to that question.

  20. It is, when you consider character generation part of the primary function of role playing games, which is to explore the realms of YOUR OWN imagination, to paraphrase the old TSR tagline.

    Since you called me an OSR Taliban above (and fuck you very much for that), I'll just repost my actual position on this question, sans paraphrasing, partial-quoting bullshit:

    "I am one of those people who believe that one of the chief aspects that differentiate tabletop role playing games from any other type of game, role playing or not, is the ability to explore the worlds of YOUR OWN imagination, and that includes the ability for the starting player to create his or her OWN alter-ego in the game-world from scratch. It is not rocket science, and if 5e does indeed live up to its promises, it shouldn't take more than a page spread to explain how to do it in the starter set.

    Skipping on this is kinda like not including color on a flat-screen TV because you can always download that option from the internet later on. It doesn't make any sense to me. It is missing one of the chief defining attributes of tabletop role playing games, and what makes them distinctively attractive in addition to all the other sources of entertainment that already exist out there.

    It's dumb. Flat out stupid, to me.

    And requiring even just one more step, to have to go to a website and download more out of it to finally get to the actual thing that differentiates these games from everything else, is one step too much that already loses X number of newbies who could have been hooked with it if it had been in the starter set to begin with. If you do any kind of website design or anything having to do with ergonomics, you'll know that that one single additional step represents an obstacle for some people who'll just not consider it, move on to something else before they get around to do it, and so on, so forth.

    Is it the end of the world? Nope. Does that mean that 5e itself will suck? I don't know. Will I check it out? I will, I have to. Do I have a grudge against WotC, do I want it to fail? Nope, quite the contrary, actually. Is it still super-dumb to not have character generation in the starter set? It is!

    That's my actual position on the subject."

    Man, I'm such an old school taliban, wanting WotC to succeed and all. I can hardly contain myself I'm foaming so much at the mouth.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Clearly, I disagree; and I think its a knee-jerk reaction to think that teenagers, who post selfies to say 'hello', pirate all their TV, and have found more hardcore porn by the time they were 13 than I'd probably seen until I was 20, are going to have an impossibly hard time downloading a PDF onto their smartphones.

  23. This isn't what I'm saying.

  24. It seems like that was pretty much literally what you just said above, actually. That the "newbies" would find it too hard a step and would leave the game because of it.

  25. Let's be honest here- The members of "story game" communities who hate everything non-narrative are a vocal minority that I myself can't stand to be around (for the same elitism problems that came up in this post, sadly), because they completely miss the point of their systems of choice; To present a viable alternative to OSR systems for games and campaigns where they're not ideal. There is no universal truth or unified theory to gaming. Thinking this relies on the same sort of thinking televangelists prey on to make their money.

    What do I think OSR is? A way of doing things that realizes the things older games did right, and builds on them in an effort to emulate the same style while producing an original product.

    Narrative Gaming is about finding the things older PnP games couldn't do as effectively and modelling systems around doing those things, it's about enforcing roleplaying through mechanics. The story is still, with a good GM, not prone to railroading.

    Unlike certain elements of this community or Evil Hat's fanbase, I recognize that making PnP games work is about tradeoffs. The question is, do you?

    In closing, the difference between different types of PnP RPG is one of focus in mechanics. One is NOT better than the other, they're like comparing a fresh, tasty apple to a well made, durable yet comfortable pair of shoes. They exist for different reasons, cater to different needs, and in all honesty they should not be competing with each other at all for reasons of being completely different types of things. The fanbases are completely different or are, in some cases, members of both. Why, one of the most fanatic GURPS players I know happens to LOVE the Fate system games because it scratches a completely different itch. I used to host Fate and BRP for a group in Apple Valley that was otherwise entirely DnD centric, and THEY enjoyed it.

  26. As for DnD 5E? I'm doing the smart thing and reserving my judgement for when I've actually read through the rules (and providing they aren't FATAL-bad, which I doubt they will be) played it.

    I'm not going to fall prey to the kind of thinking that just happened here.