An Historical Perspective
I have been running D&D on a weekly basis since 1992. I took a bit of time off in 1997 and 2003 to recharge my batteries, but on the whole I’ve been doing the GM thing for the best part of sixteen years. That’s a lot of D&D. It says a great deal for the versatility of the system, and the inspiring source material, that I still feel I have stories to tell.
I came late to the game, compared to many of my peers. I didn’t start roleplaying until I was eighteen. The game was AD&D – specifically the second edition Player’s Handbook and the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Something of an odd combination. From there I graduated onto second edition at a time that TSR was releasing it’s most imaginative and rich campaign worlds: Darksun, Planescape and Ravenloft. The campaign setting was king in second edition, and the game was much better for it.
But second edition AD&D was not a particularly user friendly system. It was restrictive, incoherent and generally inconsistant. Every task seemed to have its own sub-system, and nonweapon proficiencies were no substitute for real skills. And so I tinkered with the game: I introduced a skills system (initially transposed directly from Runequest). I threw out the daft magic system and brought in spell points. I ignored alignment at every conceivable opportunity. When new rules were published – such as Skills & Powers – I embraced what I liked and ignored what I didn’t. The game evolved.
By 1998 it had evolved into something that didn’t resemble 2nd edition AD&D very much. The Ravenloft campaign I ran that year enjoyed hit locations, critical hits and fumbles, and all manner of other add-ons. 1999 saw me abandon AD&D altogether in favour of NURPS (Neil’s Universal Roleplaying System). In hindsight, the similarities between NURPS and third edition D&D were spooky.
Then in 2000 came Third Edition. What a revolution it was for D&D. Here was a game that took second edition and made 85% of all the changes that I thought needed making. It was tremendous. Yes, the spellcasting was still problematic, they screwed up Clerics and there was a worrying reliance on miniatures, but there was no doubt that this was the game that I wanted to run. This was the game I wished I had been running since 1992.
As time passed, and I built the world of Iourn using the third edition rules I came to realise that the d20 system is far from perfect. I patched the rules I didn’t like – mainly by importing my spell point rules – but third edition had a deeper malaise. There were three aspects of third edition that I felt I couldn’t live with in the long term:
Like preceding editions, third edition still breaks down at higher levels. The PCs simply become too powerful when compared to the rest of the world. There are far too many items, spells and abilities (but especially spells) that seem to have been deliberately invented to circumvent roleplaying. As a GM that is extremely frustrating. Go beyond thirteenth level and the game gets a bit choppy for my liking.
The integrated system where all PCs, NPCs and monsters use the same rules was one of the big selling points of third edition to me. I still consider it to be the game’s biggest advantage over 2nd (and 4th) editions. But, the belief that the system supports PCs of any race is just an illusion. Racial hit dice, level adjustments and Equivalent Character Levels do not work. There was no way to create a balanced party unless you were using the standard races.
My third major problem was multiclassing. Although I liked the incredible flexibility of third edition, the fact was that the multiclassing rules were ripe for abuse. All too often, changing classes was the only sensible decision when advancing a character. Hopping from class to class made it ridiculously easy to create a character who could be a superhuman god or a stunted cripple (often both at the same time). It completely skewed the balance of the game.
By late 2007, the characters in my ongoing game were pushing fourteenth level. This forced me to look at third edition with a critical eye. I knew that I wanted to make substantial and wholescale changes to the way the system worked. I wanted to alter the utility of many of the most troublesome spells (divinations and teleportation magic), fix the multiclassing issue, and address the question of playing powerful races.
New rules for playing powerful races were playtested in the Game of Souls campaign that ran from 2007-2008. I thought they were better, but they still didn’t actually work. The work to bring third edition into line was daunting, but I felt that I had no choice. There was nothing else on the market that did D&D better than third edition, so it had to be the place I started the game.
And then Wizards of the Coast announced fourth edition.
I could not have been happier with the news. Third edition was drowning in a sea of its own options. A new streamlined game that I could stay on top of from the very beginning was just what I wanted. My reaction to all the press releases was completely positive. Everything they said about fourth edition was what I wanted to hear.
This was a game that purported to reduce the power of the player characters, to make magic items matter less in the context of the game, to remove all those annoying magical effects from continual use, to balance all the classes, to fix high level play and to make sure all PC races were suitable for PCs. I was an immediate convert. Even the announcement of D&DI was appealing.
I have now been playing fourth edition for six months, and I am ten sessions into my first fourth edition campaign. Over the last few weeks, I have come to the growing conclusion that fourth edition is not a game that I want to run for the next eight years. I have worked hard to embrace fourth edition, and I’ll certain continue the Hand that Rocks the Cradle campaign under 4e until its conclusion, but I just can’t get on with it.
I’m going to leave a dissection of the reasons for another post. Suffice to say that fourth edition’s reliance on miniatures is extremely troublesome, and requires significant effort to work around. This would not be an insurmountable problem were it not for 4e’s one crashing flaw that transcends all of it’s advantages:
There is no verisimilitude in the game. All the rules are designed to make a swift and enjoyable skirmish game. The rules are brilliant for accelerating a party through a monster infested dungeon, but they are utterly useless when it comes to creating a seamless and immersive world. Martial abilities you can only use once per day, the entire healing and wounds system, the inadequate skill system… all these things break the suspension of disbelief. For a roleplaying game to work, the players have to believe the world they are adventuring in is real. Fourth edition simply doesn’t do that.
The heart of the problem is that the game uses different systems for PCs and NPCs. This is designed to save the GM time. It is marketed as a virtue. Well, it isn’t a virtue – it’s a catastrophic hindrance to telling a story. A minotaur PC encounters a minotaur NPC of the same level. The NPC has powers that the PC can never get, and has twice as many hit points as the PC. That sort of thing cannot be justified within the game; and anything that cannot be justified within the game has got to go.
Enter the Hybrid Game
So where do we go from here? I have given (and I continue to give) fourth edition a fair shake of the stick. The current Hand that Rocks the Cradle campaign will continue to its conclusion under the fourth edition rules. The ongoing League of Lightgame will not convert to 4e. We’ll leave the Chosen of Narramac labouring under the third edition rules while we find an alternative.
It is my intention to follow through with my original plan from 2007 and create a new version of D&D that satisfies both me and my players. Fourth edition will definitely influence this Hybrid system; there are too many good ideas in fourth edition to ignore them all.
I do not take this decision lightly, as I realise how much work I am a creating for myself. I am convinced that this change will be for the benefit of the unending game. Ultimately, it will make for happier players and a happier GM.
I really wanted to like fourth edition. I’m not bitter that Wizards of the Coast have changed the game into something I don’t want to run. I have always known my particular style of GMing is at odds with D&D. A new system will take these idiosyncrasies into account.
Things to Come
This blog will become a forum to discuss the new Hybrid system. Over the coming weeks I will post my initial thoughts and intentions. I’ll let you know what I want to keep from the third, fourth and second editions of the game; but I don’t want to make these decisions in isolation. It’s essential that I get your opinions. There’s no sense in running a game that only I am happy with.
Once the initial rules are formalised then I am happy to hand out portions of the game to anyone who wants to take a crack at it. After all, you have a vested interest to see that your particular character class is done right. I’d welcome as much or as little help as you can provide, but I will be setting deadlines as otherwise we’ll never get it done.
I won’t be running a weekly game next year. 2009 always felt like a good year to have a break from the weekly grind, and working on this new system seems like as good an excuse as any. My provisional timetable for work on the hybrid game is as follows:
January 2009: A weekend continuation of the League of Light campaign under the third edition rules.
March 2009:Roleplaying Retreat V. The ongoing League of Light campaign run under the third edition rules.
June 2009: Hand that Rocks the Cradle campaign comes to an end. This will probably be the last exclusively fourth edition game that I run.
September 2009:Less than ten short months from now, and we start the first play testing of the Hybrid Game. By this time the rules and full class write-ups for (at least) fighters, clerics, wizards and rogues will be finished. I will begin a series of test adventures that will link together as part of a loose campaign set in the great city of Hadras. I’ve had something in mind for Hadras for a while now. These adventures will continue off-and-on until August 2010.
October 2009: Another League of Light weekend game. Still third edition. Obviously, this is a provisional date.
March 2010:Roleplaying Retreat VI. The Chosen of Narramac are converted to the Hybrid system, as the League of Light campaign enters its penultimate retreat!
September 2010: The next weekly campaign begins, and it will be under a fully complete Hybrid system. At present I’m anticipating that this will be a sequel to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, as I think the setting and the characters have legs on them. However, we’ll see nearer the time.
And there we have it. All dates are subject to change, of course. I will post my Hybrid rule ideas on the blog when I have time. The next six weeks or so are very busy for me. The weekly game continues to take a fair amount of my time. My general disappointment in fourth edition is not reflected in the new campaign, which I am enjoying immensely.
The only thing left, is for me to confirm that that I won’t be continuing to review the fourth edition products on this blog. It just seems rather counter-productive at this stage. I will still be buying them all, so I’ll keep the product list up to date.
Now, does anyone else have something to say?