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08/15/00: Why, In My Day...
by Pieter van Hiel

I'm going to make a very humbling admission. In 13 years as a gamer and GM, I've played Dungeons and Dragons about two dozen times. If you clock it up in terms of hours, I've probably spent more time eating doughnuts than playing D&D. I've probably spent more time riding elevators than playing the game that spawned all games. I've spent more time watching Blake's 7.

There are two reasons for that, I guess. When I got into real RPGs, as opposed to the excellent Fighting Fantasy solo books I collected as a tyke, my big interest was sci-fi. My first game was Dr. Who, followed by Paranoia and Star Wars. I liked fantasy, but sci-fi was the thing for me.

But the biggest reason I didn't play D&D much was 'cause my mom didn't like it. She'd read "Turmoil in the Toy box," a rather rabid piece of Christian consumer nonsense that also warned against letting kids watch "The Smurfs," because Papa Smurf made magic potions. I obeyed her wishes for the most part, but D&D became a kind of forbidden fruit. I played it on rare occasions at other people's houses, generally at sleep-overs, and always with a slight sense of doing something naughty.

Ironically, the D&D adventures I played at that time were less blood soaked and occult-themed than the sf games. They were just goofy, really. My first character was Nabisco the Magnificent, a 4th level fighter whom the gods had gifted, for some reason, with a sousaphone (an extra large tuba.) Along with Nivlem the thief and Max the Barbarian, he waged a holy war against the evil serving staff at the local taverns, and the notorious City Watch. Ah me. Grand days, those were. Later, he found an enchanted flying Volkswagen Beetle with lasers for headlights. It was not an entirely canonical campaign.

I actually had a VERY beat-up copy of the 1978 1st edition Player's Handbook, the one with the big demonic looking altar on the cover. I kept it hidden in a stack of innocuous Marshall Law comics...which in turn had to be hidden by a stack of Dr. Who RPG books and Buck Rogers comics.

suppose this mild form of rebellion kept me from going really wild when I hit high school. If I was suffering from the usual teen angst, I'd crack open the Player's Handbook and roll me up a character! Ah, the sweet, sweet taste of guilty pleasure! Who knows? Maybe if my parents let me play D&D, I'd have rebelled in more extreme ways and grown up to be a crack head, or a Wiccan. Or even an Anne Rice fan.

So, what's my point? Well, I just picked up the D&D 3rd edition Player's Manual. I'm an adult now, married, living in my own place. I can play D&D till my eyes fall out. Indeed, shortly after moving out I bought all my buddy Bill's D&D and AD&D stuff. He never DMs, and thought it might be cool to play, so he parted with the whole lot for $50. That $50 bought me a stack of gaming books and boxed sets four and a half feet high, taller than most halflings. We played a few adventures, and I ran a campaign after hours with the tech guys at my old office. For the most part though, the purchase was one of personal enjoyment. I'd read most of the books piece meal, and now I could linger over them, create my own worlds, and let my imagination drift in the worlds created by others.

Anyway, back to the 3rd edition. Does it live up to the legend? Well, it looks good, and delivers a lot of bang for the buck. It's hardcover, has glossy pages, and production values that the 1st edition could have only dreamed about. It comes with a free character generation CD-ROM, and has a hefty page count. And get this...the cover price is $19.95 US. The 1989 edition was $20, and the 1978 edition, which had about half as many pages, was $15. I actually find this incredible. The new Star Trek RPG is about the same price and heft, and costs about $40 without any nifty CD-ROM. Kudos to WOTC for putting out a reasonably priced game book, something I've not seen since...well, ever, come to think of it.

For the most part, the changes made to the rules are positive. Non-human characters no longer have level and class limits. Gnomes aren't entirely lame anymore. Also, they've added the Sorceror class. This is a magic-user profession that doesn't require you to keep track of what spells you have memorized at any given moment. You sacrifice some versatility, but it's good for players who hate the book-keeping element. They've also ditched the rules whereby you instantly lose your class abilities simply by wearing the wrong armor.

However, there are a few problems. For one thing, it's no where near as newbie friendly as the previous editions. It leaps into the rules on page one with barely a page of intro. The new rules are familiar enough for an old player to come to grips with easily. Unfortunately, I can't see them grabbing the attention of a video-game addled teen, who, let's say, has gotten the game as a gift. Learning the rules without a lead-in requires more brainwork than plugging in some bog-standard game console RPG.

They've also changed the names of many of the spells. Same spell, different name. Why bother? They've had the same name for 25+ years. It changes the "feel" of the game somewhat. Physically, the layout is mostly good, but the little doodles and curlicues on each page are distracting at times. I'm also bothered by the fact that there is no TSR logo on the game, even though it has a TSR code on the spine. A minor quibble, to be sure...but for 25 years gamers have bought D&D products with the TSR logo. I can really explain my feelings on this, except to say that if Macintosh bought IBM and put their logo on all the machines, IBM users would probably feel the same way. (Or vice versa) The product is the same, but it doesn't feel right.

What really annoys me about the 3rd edition, though, is the fact that the huge teetering stack of used stuff I bought two years ago is now obsolete. So is the Core Rules CD-ROM I paid 70 beans for. So are the 25th anniversary boxed sets that came out just last year, and my Planescape campaign setting books. Yes, the game needed updates...but it could have been improved without changing the rules enough to require conversions for every character and every monster. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Look at Call of Cthulhu. They're on the 6th edition in 20 years. Every edition is a solid release, and improves on the last. They tinker with the rules in every edition, but you can still play every adventure they've released, and with tiny changes you can still run a 1st edition character, 20 years later. D&D has more published product out there than any other game in the market. The new edition has rendered literally hundreds of books and modules obsolete in one fell swoop.

I imagine I'll buy the Dungeon Master's Guide when it comes out in September. But I don't know if my group will ever play it. I just have too much stuff for the older editions. Of course, this is an entirely moot point. They're Middle-Earth RPG addicts to a man.

Pieter is currently sitting in an corner, curled up around old red-box copy of Dungeons and Dragons, whispering "My precious, my precious," over and over.