Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Roll My Own

Lately, my G+ feed has been abuzz with mostly negative discussion about the upcoming release of the D&D Next materials. First, there was the "leak" of the uninspiring covers that even I am personally sick of hearing about, despite how uninspiring and boring they are (which they are). I can look past cruddy covers if the content is good (and I think most gamers have at some point, otherwise Chivalry & Sorcery never would have sold copy one), and there's a strong part of me that really wants D&D Next to be good and be a success. The D&D brand and gaming hobby freaking needs it.

And so, the impending release of the Basic Box loomed in my mind as the potential "get out of jail free" card that WotC could have played to bring the skeptics and old schoolers back into the fray. Give us the nod that we deserve to get us amped up for a game release that (so far) holds no real tangible promise for us.

But then they released the details of the Basic Box.

Allow me to switch gears for a moment.

The biggest mistake any game publisher makes, in my opinion, is assuming that players are happy playing pregenerated characters. However well-designed it was, the biggest flaw of FFG's Edge of the Empire Basic Box was the lack of "roll your own" characters. Sure, this would have expanded the size of the release, but it would have resulted in a game box that you could use more than once, which in my mind is a good thing. Margaret Weis Publications, in their Marvel Heroic RPG, felt like players, for some reason I cannot fathom, would rather play the established X-Men or Avengers rather than create their own. Similarly, MWP seems to think that, when your group sits down to play the Firefly RPG, that you only want to play the crew of the Serenity. Sure, each system also features tacked-on character creation rules, but they're largely lackluster and uninteresting (when compared with the "pregens.")

When I open up any old school rpg, they always begin with the obligatory "this is what an RPG is and this is how they're played" chapter, but that almost universally segues into a character creation chapter. I've talked about this before. The old school style creates an early union between a player's understanding of the rules and his creation of a new character. "I rolled a 13 for Strength, which gives me these bonuses when I fight something, which means I might want to learn how to fight things." "My class and Intelligence give me spells, so I need to learn how to use them and what they do." "I get an experience point bonus from my cleric's high Wisdom; what's that mean?" These are the sort of connections that players make between the characters they generate and the process of learning the rules that are core to the old school method not only of play, but also coming to grips with the game itself. We learn by doing, and in an RPG, the first part of doing (which really means "playing") is creating a player character.

Consider not merely D&D, but stretch that to include pretty much every old school RPG. Traveller. Runequest. Call of Cthulhu. Earthdawn. Marvel Super Heroes (the advanced one). Pretty much every game I played back in the day and pretty much every game I find myself able to get into, all of them start with how to create a character. Notebook after notebook belonging to every old schooler I know is filled with half-built characters for a dozen or more systems, most of which were made and never once played. That is how you fucking write a game.

The question I have for +Mike Mearls and company at WotC: How THE HELL can you expect anyone to use your Basic Box when they will not have the conduit to game awareness that creating a character is? I do not know anyone who wants to ever play pregens outside of a con or one-shot. Is the answer that your Basic Box will only ever be a one-shot experience? If so, why even bother? You must understand the severe disservice you are doing the fond memories that we old schoolers have for the Basic Boxes, beginning with the great work of the esteemed Dr. Holmes, moving on to excellent work of Mr. Moldvay, the accessible and useful work of Uncle Frank and even the restatement and revision of the Mentzer that was the 90's black box Basic. After the promise that this D&D would be the unifier, the D&D that brings all of us back to the same table, it's disconcerting that the Basic Box for this edition would be this far from the mark.

Of course, WotC calls this a "Starter Set," rather than a Basic Box and mentions that it is aimed at DMs rather than players. If they believe that splitting hairs between what a "Starter Set" and "Basic Box" is is an argument they can win with the grognards, they obviously haven't thought this one through. It's designed to teach board gamers how to DM? *le sigh* This ain't the 80's. It's not terribly likely that someone who has no connection to the hobby will be picking up this box, and even if they were, Uncle Frank's "choose your own adventure" session from the 83 Red Box would be of much more use to a gaming group than teaching a board gamer how to DM. Bad form, WotC. Bad form.

For me, every rule set needs to give me the opportunity to roll my own.