August 10, 2011

The Circle is Complete

This article is about the transitions of RPGs through the years, with a focus on where D&D fits into this evolution…and I get to bash on the Old School a little bit.

In the beginning there was D&D, the one game that started this niche called Role-Playing Games. It was sleek and simple. Everything was basic with no frills. That lasted about a week. As the game was being developed it grew as new layers and options were added. Want to play something other than a fighter; we can add that in. Want to use a weapon other than a sword; we can add that in. Because this is fantasy you want new spells; we can add that in. However, D&D still stayed fairly simple…at least when compared to other RPG systems.

People on the outside of the process, looking in, felt they could do better. This is normal human behavior. New games began to appear which offered a better simulation, better realism. At first they were simple changes. A combat system that provided detailed hit locations and descriptions. Skills. Detailed and intricate worlds.

Basically, new games were coming out with what D&D was not. With D&D being the figurehead and lead in the RPG market, in order to stand out a company had to do what was different. If D&D was simple and basic then in order for other game companies to compete a new game had to be complex and loaded with extraneous options.

Likewise, with players it is the nature of RPGs that overall people are looking for new experiences and after some time playing the same game system they often look for these new experiences in new game systems. This means trying (and sometimes embracing) something that is radically different than what is the established norm. Thus, while D&D was simple the natural draw was for complex.

Players began to clamor for greater detail and more options. Players and groups wanted more intricacy. During the “golden years” of RPGs in the 80s there was a general migration away from D&D to other game systems that offered more of that complexity. Shadowrun is a prime example of the type of system that offered a high rate of complexity, both in character generation and game play. And people loved it. And people stopped playing D&D.

Seeing the gaming trends of the players (and to continue putting out new material to sell) D&D slowly began to add to the complexity of their brand. AD&D gave the world more classes, more spells. 2E offered more options with new classes, proficiencies and world design. Throughout the lifespan of 2E, they continually added and added until by the end of 2E it was barely recognizable from its original form. 3E took this even a step further with feats, skills, prestige classes and other alternate systems. And then we have 4E, a D&D system that added even more complexity and player choices.

This has been a slow evolution (relatively speaking) of D&D and its increase in complexity. D&D went from simple and bare to complex. Along the way, counter-rpgs were created to give the public that which D&D was not producing; greater and greater complexity.

So how has some of the gaming public responded to the latest iteration of D&D? By again going counter to what the “established norm” of RPGs are. They are going for a simpler, stripped down version of a RPG system. They are getting away from the complex. They are looking for something new and, for now, new means simple.

The Old School crowd is looking for simple over complex only this time, the new game system is wrapped in nostalgia. I believe that if the OGL did not allow for retro-clones than we would still have simple and lite-weight game systems being released (and they are in fact being released without being retro-clones or requiring the OGL) as a counter-point to D&D’s current complexity. However, because the OGL does allow for retro-clones people have decided to wrap the two together; nostalgia + simple.

For me, the true Old School gamers are those who never stopped playing 1E. They are the ones who do not need any of these new retro-clones because they are still playing with their original books. Another type of true Old School gamer are those who stopped playing but never played anything else and are now going back to playing. These people never jumped ship to try out the latest new system. They knew what they liked and stuck with it. Unlike me, and others, who jump from system to system looking for the next new experience. I enjoy 4E and its complexity, in fact that is part of what I like about it, but I also hear the siren call of the simpler retro-clone system (yes, despite running 4E, I do own some print retro-clone books and am working on writing some campaign stuff for them).

From my perspective the new members of the OSR are not in fact Old School. They are simply looking for a new experience and are looking at an old game system to supply that desire. They are not Old School; they are just playing an Old School game.

So, the RPG industry has gone full circle. It all started with a very simple system. From there systems went counter and added complexity until the RPG leader, D&D, eventually reached that same level of complexity. And the current response is a return to the concept of a simple system.
Post a Comment