In this week's blog, as well as covering the 3rd and 4th editions, I also touch upon the Neverwinter Nights (NWN) and D&D Online (DDO) versions of the game. After all, NWN is probably the prime reason you are even reading this today thanks to the great community of players that has come into existence since Bioware set up the forums for NWN. So, without more preamble, let me now discuss my recollection of playing with these various versions of the game.
Last week you may recall my disappointment regarding the huge expansion of supplemental material that was to quickly come with the second edition rules. For some, the extra materials may have been a great benefit, in the same way I thought of them when I first started playing D&D. However, by the year 2000, when I bought into the third edition rules, I had reached the point where I wanted to keep things "simple". Nuances and rules to the nth degree I had had my fill, and so I made a decision only to buy the core rule books from this edition onwards, which I did at this time. For the third edition rules my wife did buy the Manual of the Planes in 2001, but this was a useful addition (in the same way I felt about it in its original first edition release) and ended up helping me design the setting for my NWN1 module, Soul Shaker, which takes place on a demi-plane. That was the last book I was to acquire for this edition, although I did download and consider some of the core updates of the 3.5 edition of the rules that became freely available on the Wizards of the Coast website (WotC).
Towards the end of the 00's, the fourth edition rule set was released. To be frank, although there was a lot of hype and promise around the fourth edition rules, the main reason I bought a boxed copy of the core rules was simply to "complete" my set of the core rules available to date. Now, having glanced over the fourth edition and witnessed the amount of additional "core rules" that have become available for this edition, I believe I have definitely been left behind as a player. The boxed set is very well laid out and of excellent quality, but, in my opinion, the spirit and heart of D&D has been so changed in their coming that I can never see me using them as a means of playing the game. So much so, that I believe the fourth edition will be the last investment I make in such books. Since this edition, the D&D I knew and enjoyed playing has changed to such a degree that I feel as though the game is targeting a new breed of player. I will let you draw your own conclusions here. As you can probably tell by now, I will not be discussing the fourth edition any further in this blog.
The Pros and Cons (Third Edition)
1) The D20 System: Finally, the awkward number system surrounding the whole game was changed for a sensible one based around the twenty sided die. Attributes now ran along similar values and were no longer capped; experience tables were made fairer for all classes and armour classes improvements went into positive numbers instead of negative ones. Without doubt, this improvement alone went a long way to making D&D much more of an easier game to play without compromising its integrity. It was the "decimalisation" of D&D!
2) Skills (Also listed as a CON): Non-weapon proficiencies of the second edition had come of age by the third edition in the form of skills. I explained how this was to become a positive move in my blog on the second edition, so I won't say anything more other than in many respects it was a well thought out system covering many aspects of game play that could be easily implemented as required. However, I reserve the right to comment on it as a CON as well. (See CONS.)
3) Clearer Rule Definitions: The third edition of the rules did a lot to clarify many of the more vague rules behind such things as effects and conditions. This can be illustrated if one examines the details of creatures and their abilities of the Monster Manual. As an example, one may have once simply associated the ability to "regenerate" with trolls and vampires. However, once this ability had been described independently of the creature themselves, it was easier to recognise it as something that could be applied as an ability of an object with its own rules and definitions in play. Unfortunately, this kind of clarification can also rob us of some of the initial unique and special appeal the ability/creature had when we first encountered it, but this cannot be avoided if we want to also build worlds that work according to some sort of law or reason. There are so many other "clarifications" that fall under this PRO that I could not do justice here in the space I have, but suffice to say, many of the rules that were once inconsistent or vague from previous editions were given clearer understanding and made sensible in this edition of the rules.
1) Skills (Also listed as a PRO): The problem with the new system of skills that came with the third edition was not its overall implementation, but the way it allowed some of the more archetypal skills to become available to any class. In particular, I refer to the Open Locks and Disable Device skills. These two skills had now become available to any class who was prepared to invest some time in them, which were once the sole domain of the rogue (thief) class. A clause to the Disable Device skill made magic traps only possible to be disabled by rogues, but apart from that (and declaring these skills would be cross class to all classes but rogues) any class could still acquire these skills. In one quick swoop, the importance of the archetypal rogue/thief class had been crippled. If the "rogue" classification that was introduced in the second edition had been adhered to, we could have maintained the archetypal structure and minimised the classes who had access to the skill. e.g. Only other "rogue" classes (like the bard) may have had access to these skills and perhaps only then as cross class skills, leaving the skills as class skills for the thief only.
2) Restructured Class System (inc Prestige Classes): To be clear, I am NOT opposed to certain classes being brought back into the game, or even new ones added (within reason). However, as a game, I believe a structure or framework is required, which "new" classes should follow or fall into. After all, the problem with removing such a structure (that the second edition offered) is that you open the game up to abuse, be it official or unofficial. By abuse, I also mean as an excuse to "officiate" yet another class or sub-class to accommodate yet another style of play. The problem as I see it, is the third edition rules try to accommodate an archetypal system (like the first edition), but then also try to give reason (excuse) to allow more classes to be made or "tweaked" in various ways to satisfy a player's need to be unique in ways that role-playing once used to do instead. What used to once be a desirable style of play and interaction between player and DM forging a unique PC personality through play has turned into an exercise of character building through an ever growing set of rules to cover the many new nuances of classes coming into being.
3) Restructured Race System (inc Sub Races): Like the change in rules for allowing or building new classes, so the introduction of rules to accommodate new races has been taken further in the third edition rules. What was once a simple matter of choosing a particular race to play has now expanded into a selection of races that were once the sole domain of "monsters". Again, I do not wish to be misunderstood in what I am saying here. For instance, I can imagine a DM wanting/allowing a player to choose to play an unusual race in special circumstances (or even a special campaign), but such races should not become considered the norm to the point of being an expected consideration.
4) Magic System Complicated: Whereas the third edition made some good progress in clarifying many of the rules on conditions and abilities (see PROS), it appears to do the opposite when it comes to spell casting. Three particular rules stand out to me in particular: Counterspells, Meta-magic and Touch Attacks. Just out of curiosity, has anybody reading this blog ever played a counterspell, or played the meta-magic spells much? I know our group never did. And while I appreciate the thinking behind introducing the Touch Attack rule, was it really necessary? After all, can't we just say that armour (natural or otherwise) helps a target of a touch spell resist the effects of the magic by some sort of armour absorption? I know there are arguments about how this would make such spells less effective, but hey, guess what, so be it! The rules makes sense depending upon who we are arguing for, the wizard doing the attack, or the creature trying to protect itself! My argument is, having such a rule does more to complicate matters than actually effect any sort of game balance. Returning to counterspells and meta-magic, all I can add is that these just seem to complicate matters, period. If the third edition had just left spells to scale with level (without capping them), then we could ignore some of the power enhancing meta-magic feats straight way. As for the others, they just serve to complicate the rules anyway, and all of these meta-magic feats start to complicate which spell is available from which level. As for the counterspells rule, I do not even have the heart to counter an argument, it's that tedious!
There were, in my opinion, many great improvements with the third edition rules, from simplified combat and basic number calculations using the D20 system, to working with actions in play, through skills. However, personally, I believe the system took a backward step with respect to organising the archetypal class system. In my opinion, the second edition rules had started to lead the way for organising a system that could accommodate many styles of play and keep flexibility in the hands of the players, while being governed by a DM who knew what would or would not work for their world. By the third edition introducing rules on class and race variations, the once reasonably solid grounding for building a PC within known and accepted limits akin to a classic fantasy world environment had changed to one of an imagination that has gone too far beyond the classic and into the realms of "anything can go". While I appreciate the sentiment behind the slogan, "you are only limited by your imagination", I also believe an imagination works best within well established rules and guidelines (simple) where the practice of exercising an imagination can be fully enjoyed. Personally, I do not want yet another class and race "officially" added to the core rules (as a variant, prestige, optional choice or suggestion) just because someone built a campaign with a PC of a new race and class for it, or there was an NPC character with such abilities. The PCs should stick to the core archetypal classes and races and the monsters and NPCs should remain what they are - and "never the twain should meet" unless in conversation or combat.
Imagination Becomes Visual
Around 1988, when computers were starting to get "reasonable" soundcards and graphic cards, I remember talking to my friends at a pen and paper session about the possibility of playing D&D on them. Games like The Bard's Tale (1985) and Pool of Radiance (1988) had come and gone, but they were not capable of allowing more than one player to play at a time, and so did not appeal to us as a group of players. Imagine our excitement when, a few years later around the mid 90's, I found a very small snippet of information in a computer magazine about a game that was being built that was multi-player and AD&D second edition rules compatible, called Baldur's Gate. It was like a dream come true. However, we still had to wait a few more years before the game finally hit the shelves in 1998. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the game, some of my players did not enjoy the change from pen and paper to computer, and, at the time, the cRPG was resigned to a SP game for me and our PnP game continued. For myself, however, I enjoyed Baldur's Gate and many of the genre that followed in those early years of the cRPG. Unlike many other games I purchased at the time, I have kept all of them and consider them a valuable part of my D&D collection.
In 2002, Bioware, the same people who had brought us Baldur's Gate, went one step further with their cRPG software and released Neverwinter Nights. This game not only delivered a D&D campaign in a three dimensional environment based upon the latest (at the time) 3rd edition rules, but also the ability to create your own campaign using a toolset that it provided with the game. Game editing software was not new at this time, but having one that came free with the game and was dedicated to D&D was. For me, this seemed like the ideal package and I was keen to start building, for a couple of reasons. 1) The thought of seeing my world "in the flesh" seemed ideal. 2) My health had declined since 2000 and I was finding it more difficult to manage "live" PnP sessions. The thought of preparing the game in advance at my own pace through using the software seemed like the ideal solution. There were complications and some objections to adapting to this format of the game from my group, but after some alterations to the game through scripting, we settled to a few years playing my campaign using this software.
In 2006, Obsidian Entertainment released Neverwinter Nights 2. This version had greatly improved graphics and its rules were based upon the 3.5 edition. While my group and I continued to play using NWN1, I started to build the next stage of the campaign with NWN2. Unfortunately, in 2007, just before I released my final module for NWN1, which was to be the last for my group before we took a break, the majority of my players left the group to prioritise other activities. Some of those that left had played from 1981. However, I still had one player who wished to continue, and I wanted to complete the campaign for my own accomplishment, so I continue to write the latest chapters of my campaign with NWN2, which I hope to release at some time in the future.
To complete the picture, I also mention Turbine's "Dungeons and Dragons Online" (DDO), based on the 3.5 edition of the rules, which was also released in 2006. Only last year, in 2010, this online version of the D&D game had areas of it that became free to play. As this version of the game chose to be based on real time play rather than turn-based actions, there are a number of differences that affects all areas of the rules. However, having taken a look (it is free after all!), I can see that while the game cannot possibly cater for the role-play aspects of D&D, it does well to cater for the feeling of PC advancement and "dungeon crawling". It has well designed areas and makes good use of a proper "z" axis, which the NWN series of games fails to deliver. A first person camera angle also allows the player to feel more immersed in their environment, which while NWN2 can come close to, the latter has other camera angles which tend to lead the player to play the game more akin to a top down perspective. This is better for managing combats designed in turn-based combat, but comes at the sacrifice of compromising immersion in the environment.
This month, April, marks my 30th year of playing D&D, which equates to two thirds of my life. Having played through the many versions of the rules and encountered it on the computer, I believe there are some conclusions I can draw. Please note that while I have been a player, much of my own experience has been as a DM, so my own conclusions are coloured from that perspective and may differ from players who have had more experience playing PCs than I have.
1) No Perfect Set. No one set of rules has yet accomplished the best set of rules to play by. If I was to choose one edition, it would be the third edition (plus some 3.5 updates) because of the many rules it cleared up and the inclusion of the D20 system. However, ideally, I would choose to remove the complications it adds (mentioned above) and return to a more streamlined class and spell systems of the second edition.
2) Nostalgia. We all wear "rose tinted specs" when it comes to recalling our experiences of the past. Yes, I enjoyed the first edition modules very much, but I also very much appreciate the improvements to the game that have been made over time. I suppose I could give the analogy of comparing the original series of "Star Trek" with "Star Trek: The Next Generation". How could one possibly beat the great personalities of Kirk, Spock and Bones? But, hang on a minute, I like the way the Next Generation has explained the cosmology of the Star Trek universe. In the same way, I love the experience I had playing the A, D and G series of adventures with my players, but I very much appreciate the ability to understand the cosmology of the D&D universe and experience it visually on a computer screen.
3) No Expansions. I would make the rules simpler again. By this, I mean I would do away with the many classes and associated rules, as well as peripheral supplemental rule books for every other aspect of the game. I would make systems more straight forward to allow quicker reference and learning, but without compromising their diversity. If possible, I would play with a DM who can adjudicate where need be ... and ensure players accept the ruling for the sake of the spirit of the game. If this is not possible (if designing a NWN module without a DM for example), then I would be sure to be consistent with the rules. E.g. DDO fails in this department, in that it allows its creatures to have unlimited "mana" to cast spells at the player's PC, whereas the player's own PC quickly runs out when casting spells.
There are many other things I could say, but this blog, which has already taken me a number of days to write, would take even longer. Maybe I will come back and comment in a future blog now and then, or respond to some comments (if I receive them) in more detail, but for now, this blog post ends!