Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Multiverse of D&D Rulesets


For the longest time -- for good or for ill -- the public face of the role-playing game industry was Dungeons & Dragons. In some circles, your gaming age could easily be established by answering what version of Dungeons & Dragons you first played. (It's a trick question -- by mentioning 3E, 3.5, or 4th edition you're branded as a relative newbie -- old school gamers played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though they may have started with the Basic & Expert Sets and perhaps even the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set). Many of us older gamers remember struggling to explain newer RPGs to non-gamers and eventually resorting to: "it's like Dungeons and Dragons, but in space / in modern times / with bunnies."

These days, there are many RPGs out in the market. Not only are companies like White Wolf steadily putting out gaming lines like the New World of Darkness and Exalted; not only are companies like Mongoose Publishing churning out updated classic lines like Runequest and Traveller; there are a stunning amount of novel-, movie-, and TV-related properties that have come out with their own RPGs.

There are the UniSystem series of  RPGs: the Buffy RPG, the Angel RPG, and the Army of Darkness RPG. Battlestar Galactica, Firefly/Serenity, Stargate, and Farscape all have RPGs, and venerable properties like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Star Trek have all had multiple RPGs.

So RPGs are more than just Dungeons & Dragons. Is that news? Not to long-time gamers.

What may be news is that the Dungeons & Dragons is undergoing some interesting churn and changes.

Third Edition boom; Fourth Edition backlash

The Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (commonly referred to as 3E) -- thoroughly hyped pre- and post-release -- did really well. Furthermore, the D20 and Open Gaming licenses helped spur a number of game companies to support the latest incarnation of the game that started it all.

Then came Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 -- the half-version upgrade of 3E --  and there was an uneasy stir in the ranks of the Dungeon Masters, players and publishers.

Technically, if the DM and players are flexible and open-minded, you could get away with using the old 3E settings, adventures, and other source material with the latest and greatest version of D&D. But you couldn't really market your stuff as 3.5-compatible. And some of the rules arguably made some DMs and players want all their source material to be 3.5-compatible. And the newest converts to the hobby wouldn't want to buy those obviously outdated 3E sourcebooks and settings.

So some the periodicals and publishing companies that had survived the boom-and-bust of the original 3E/D20 upsurge made the jump to 3.5, a little bit worried about their product line strategies given the obvious intent to produce a 4th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game in the future.

When Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition came out, several things began to happen:
  • Wizards of the Coast (the company that took over the reins of the Dungeons & Dragons from TSR) changed enough of the rules to make it as different as 3E had been from AD&D 2nd Edition;
  • Wizards of the Coast was also shifting away from the D20/OGL strategy and adopting some online game support strategies in pursuit of new revenue streams;
  • D20 & OGL publishers who had already created their own games based on the core ruleset (like Spycraft, True20, and Mutants and Masterminds) continued to take their games further from D20-ness;
  • Game publishers who had thrown a lot of time, money, and product behind 3E and 3.5 decided to create their own 3.5-inspired rulesets (Pathfinder, I'm looking at you) that were decidedly NOT D&D 4th Edition so that their project pipelines would (a) not require too much retooling and (b) be less affected by the business decisions of another game company;
  • A bunch of gamers and game publishing professionals -- some already disgruntled with the major changes that 3E had made to their favorite RPG, others feeling nostalgic for old school gaming -- decide to expand on the D20/OGL opportunity and the implementation of the copyright rules for games and create open content game rule sets that replicate various pre-3E incarnations of D&D (and join forces with the various bloggers, message boards, and other online communities that have been keeping the OD&D, B/X, and AD&D flame alive.

Further Reading:

"Full Circle: A History of Old School Revival" from The Escapist
"Retro-clones" from The Escapist
"An essay on 'Old School Gaming'" from TARGA
"Old is new again"

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