Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials aka The Nostalgia Edition

For my first substantive, non-iPhone blog topic, I'm going to talk about Dungeons & Dragons, and specifically about the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials boxed set that recently came out. I didn't want to start out with anything too controversial like politics or religion.

I had hoped to post this before Dungeons & Dragons Essentials became widely available. I got a copy a couple of weeks before the official launch date and took my two nine-year old sons through the starting adventure. Unfortunately, when I left on vacation, this blog post was only half written.

Like many programmers (and other assorted geeks) role playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, were a big part of my youth. I started with what's now called the "Holmes" boxed set.

For those of you that don't know, what's now thought of as "First Edition"¹ D&D consisted of many releases over a period of about fifteen years, so the terminology can be confusing. The original version, the so-called "pamphlet edition", or "white box" edition was the original work of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created in their basement and sold at wargame conventions. It consisted of three core rule books plus three supplemental rule books. It was woefully amateurish in many ways, but it was pretty wonderful despite that fact, because it was a completely new type of imagination-based game. D&d_original.jpg

For later editions, Dave and Gary brought in other people to write and edit the material and had the books professionally typeset with art from actual artists². The different boxed sets are generally identified by the last name of the person who wrote or edited the material for that edition. The 1977 boxed set that I started with was the first one that was produced in this way, and it was written by a man named J. Eric Holmes³.

It's hard to place exact dates in my memory from that long ago, but I'm pretty sure I bought the boxed set in 1979. I'm pretty sure of this thanks to a bit of obscure D&D trivia: My box didn't come with dice, it came with cardboard chits and a mail-in coupon for a set of dice. That was done for part of 1979 when TSR was having trouble obtaining enough dice to meet demand.

Ah, those dice were gloriously awful, made of really cheap plastic of the same sort that was used to make the toys that came in cereal boxes back then. The dice did not hold up well to wear and tear, and everybody (at least everybody I knew) had exactly the same dice: a yellow four-sided, reddish-orange six-sided, green eight-sided, baby blue twelve sided, and a white twenty-sided and a pinkish twenty-sided, both numbered 1 to 0 twice rather than 1 to twenty so you could also use them as percentile dice. To identify whether the number 5 was a 5 or a 15, we'd use different color crayons to fill in the stamped numbers of the dice. I can still remember the jealousy my entire group felt when our DM brought back from vacation a set of "high-impact" dice he bought from a game store in Florida. My town wouldn't have an FLGS (friendly, local gaming store) for another year or two.

But, though the box set's dice weren't perfect, the early boxed sets came with everything you needed to play the game. There was additional material you could buy (and we did), but the box had everything you needed to play pretty much forever if you were willing to use your imagination. The rules in the Holmes edition consisted of only 47 pages including the perforated reference sheet with to-hit tables and spell lists, and a half-page advertisement for Gen-Con, back when it was actually held in the city it was named after. That was it. All the monsters, equipment, and rules you needed to play were contained in a scant 47 pages. There was, of course, the "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" hardcover books and a number of accessories and adventures you could buy if you craved more (and most of us did), but 50 pages, some dice, and your imagination were all you needed. Imagination was the key and it was stressed throughout the text of the book. Several of those 47 pages were dedicated to creating your own dungeons.

There wasn't even a character sheet in this edition; we just used notebook paper to record our characters, and it took less than 10 minutes to roll one up using a wildly random process. There was little thought given to "game balance". This was role playing, for crying out loud, not a board game or strategy game you were trying to "win". The goal was to have fun and to work together. Having weaknesses or even a wholly shitty character could actually make the game more fun, unless the character was completely hopeless (and there were rules for that eventuality).


I quickly started buying the hardcover books and it wasn't long before D&D was taking most of the money I earned from any source. I started with a neighborhood group consisting of older kids. A couple of years later, my DM went off to college and I had to start a new group by recruiting friends. These friends all started with the next edition of the D&D Basic Set, which is referred to as the Moldvay Basic Set.

The Moldvay edition was broken into two boxes, the "red box" Basic Rules covering levels 1-3 and the "blue box" Expert Rules. The set was slightly more refined and polished than the Holmes edition, but very much in the same spirit. It was slightly longer (64 pages for the Basic Rules) and the artwork took another step forward, using many of the artists that have become synonymous with original D&D including Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and Bill Willingham.

I bought both Moldvay boxes because that was what everyone in my newly founded group had and, frankly, I liked it better than the Holmes boxed set. At that point, I already had all the AD&D hardcover books that had been published to date, but we played Moldvay for about a year before I convinced everyone to switch to AD&D. We were switching over to AD&D just about the time that TSR released yet another new version of the Basic Set, the one now called the Mentzner set. I never played Mentzner, but I remember it existing. I can remember seeing it on the shelves of my local gaming store. I can remember recommending it to people interested in the game.
Mentzner continued the trend of refining the game and the artwork without fundamentally changing the rules. Take a look at that cover, though. Look at the dragon, with its claws breaking through the border and the large, ornate ampersand in the title. Notice the new, more modern TSR logo and the less garish colors. It's really quite a nice design. Although the Erol Otus cover of the Moldvay edition and the big blue dragon of the Holmes edition are more nostalgic for me, there's no denying that the Mentzner basic set had a nice visual design. The Mentzner edition also coincided with a huge leap in D&D's popularity, and as a result, a great many people were introduced to the game through the Mentzner boxed set.

Before I left on vacation, I was walking through the Carousel Mall in Syracuse with my two sons, and I saw several rows of what appeared to be Mentzner boxes sitting on the shelves of the game store. I would've been quite surprised by the sight if I hadn't seen a picture of this new product (called Dungeons & Dragons Essentials) posted to twitter by Gabe of Penny-Arcade. The sets wouldn't officially be released to larger outlets for another two weeks, but there they were on the shelves for a measly $20. You almost can't not buy this boxed set if you played D&D in the eighties. Pristine, brand-new Mentzner boxes sitting on the shelves beckoning to you. It's like going back in time. Which, I'm sure, is exactly what the marketing geniuses at Hasbro are counting on. But I don't care. $20 is cheap for the memories this thing brought back.

Since I spent the money, I decided to walk my two nine-year old sons through the process of creating characters, and I wanted to share my thoughts on this new edition for those who might be curious.

Now, to give you my perspective: I haven't actively gamed since the early nineties, but I've been buying D&D books ever since the third edition came out. I know that sounds strange, but a part of me keeps entertaining the notion that I'll start playing again, so I keep buying and reading the new editions. As a result, I'm fairly familiar with the evolution of D&D, having at least read the rules from every edition except the second, which my group firmly refused to move to when it came out.

When you open the box, the nostalgia ends abruptly. The innards of this box are very much 4th edition both in terms of game rules and production quality. I had half-hoped for a set of crappy cheap plastic dice with a crayon and a rule book with the inside pages printed in black and white, but I knew I wouldn't actually get that. The actual dice are pretty nice. Mine are black, but I've seen pictures from others who got dark blue in their box.dice.png These are high-quality dice about as unlike the original D&D dice as possible. Oddly, Wizards include a ten-sided dice in the box, but only one, so if you need to roll percentile dice, you have to roll twice. Unless, of course, you have tons of dice, and I do. Most of my original game supplies from the seventies and eighties are no longer with me, but I still do have the Holmes book, the original Monster Manual, Eldritch Wizardry from the pamphlet edition, and a decent number of dice, including some crappy old plastic ones but, unfortunately, not the dice that came with my basic set.

First Edition D&D didn't rely very heavily on miniatures. Though my group started using them pretty regularly in the eighties when Ral Partha and Grenadier miniatures became readily available locally, my first several years of playing were done completely without miniatures. We occasionally used dice or other objects when there might be confusion, but generally we were pretty lax about exactly who was where. It was pretty much all verbal ("I run over to the goblin by the door and hit him with my mace") and the Dungeon Master had final say over whether you were close enough and could get there.

The 4th edition combat rules, much like the 3rd edition, are very much dependent on miniatures, but there's obviously no way they could have produced a $20 boxed set and included enough miniatures to play a game. Instead, they include cardboard markers for the players and monsters included in the starter set. These are a far cry from the punch-out cardboard chits I got years back instead of dice. They're glossy, laminated, and printed on thick stock with bright colors and nice artwork. They're very usable and a very reasonable substitute for miniatures.
photo 1.JPG
The set comes with a player's book and a dungeon master's book. Both are softcover and printed in color. They're not just softcover; the cover is actually printed on the same paper stock as the interior of the book, much like a mail-order catalog. They look nice, but they're flimsy and won't hold up to repeated use.

But, they don't really have to. These aren't rulebooks like in previous boxed sets. The player's guide is basically a "choose your own adventure" book like those that were popular in the eighties. Your choices, in addition to taking you through your first adventure, also help you create your character. This is actually a very good idea for first time players who don't have someone to help them, but it gets old fast. Creating one character like this is fine, but creating the second one is tedious. They give you just enough information to play your character up to second level, and nothing more. There's no equipment list, only a handful of magic items and weapons, and no flexibility at all. Want to give your rogue (that should be "thief", by the way) a short sword or a sling instead of a dagger? Nope, not with this set. You have money, but nothing to spend it on. You've got to buy another D&D Essentials product to do that. They also design the power cards and miniatures so that no two players can select the same class, which seems unnecessarily limiting.

The dungeon master's book is a little better. It contains actual rules interspersed with a first adventure. As with the player's book, this is great for a first time DM who's completely unfamiliar with how RPGs work, but it's tedious for anyone who has the slightest inkling of what to do. It makes looking up stuff really hard, too, since the material is organized based on when you'll first need it in the adventure. And there's still no list of equipment or weapons. There is a decent selection of monsters, with much more detailed information than the original boxed sets, and a smattering of magic items sprinkled through the adventure, but you can't really go anywhere after the first adventure. You have some, but not all, of the stuff you need to continue on. You're introduced to the fundamental rules, but not given them all.

The basic rules are basically the same as 4th edition, but somewhat simplified. The list of skills and powers is considerably smaller, for example, and there are only four classes and four races (essentially the original classes and races, though they stuck with the "rogue" terminology from later editions instead of the original "thief" class). The character sheet is half the size of the regular 4th edition one, but the mechanics of the game are nearly identical. That's not a bad thing, really. The basic combat rules are pretty good in fourth edition. The characters powers are a little over the top and add a lot of unnecessary complexity, and it takes forever to roll up a 4th edition characters. D&D Essentials addresses the biggest complaints against 4th edition while staying basically compatible, which is actually a pretty impressive achievement, though maintaining that compatibility did limit just how much they could simplify and improve the game.

The "powers" system in fourth edition, where all classes (even fighters) have a mess of power cards does really slow things down. Players have to spend time deciding what power to use. Since powers are basically self-contained rules rather than fitting into the existing rules structure (a concept borrowed from collectible card games like Magic the Gathering), there are constant stops to read the cards, decide which to use, and then figure out how to use them. That's only at the start, though - once players and DM are familiar with their powers, the game moves along pretty well during combat, and with the smaller set of skills, non-combat parts of the game move along much better. Wizards frustratingly insists on trying to turn role-playing portions of the game into using structured game rules as if this were a computer game. For example, the first adventure tell you to use a "skills challenge" to get information from an NPC. Under this construct, whether you get the information depends on the rolls you make, rather than on what you actually say or do to the non-player character. It's an attempt to take the role playing out of the role playing game, and it has no place in any tabletop game as far as I'm concerned. If you want to make the tavern owner tell you where one-eyed mercenary went, you'd better darn well convince him to tell you, by role-playing. Making five skill rolls is just not going to get you that information, at least with this grognard as your Dungeon Master.

I can sum up my thoughts about D&D Essentials pretty simply, and those thoughts apply almost universally to what I've seen of fourth edition (and I bought the core books as well as several others): At it's core, it's a decent system, but it's been made unnecessarily complex and they've tried to turn too much into structured rules. But, the real problem is not the complexity of the game nor the fact that it's overstructured - you can always use house rules to fix those problems - the real problem is that the product's usefulness is negatively impacted by greedy corporate, MBA-style decision making. Instead of making decisions based on what would provide the best experience to their customers, they've made decisions based on what they think would provide the most income in the short term.

This product is intended as a tease to get you to buy other products. Wizards has intentionally left out just enough material so that you have to buy more products to play the game further. And there's not just one other product you can buy to continue playing. There's a box for the DM, another for the players, so by the time you're done getting the "essential" Essentials products, you've spent as much as you would have buying the core 4th edition books. D&D Essentials is designed to seem like a less-expensive entry into the game, but in reality, it's just not. There's an inherent dishonesty in the marketing of this game that annoys me, to be perfectly frank. I know these tactics are common in marketing these days, but it bugs me nonetheless. In my day, so to speak, the game was created, marketed, and sold by people who loved the game and wanted to share it. I'm sure there are still many of those people at Wizards, but unfortunately there's a wall of soulless corporate marketing drones between them and us.
The sad thing is, it's completely and utterly unnecessary. Back when the basic sets contained everything you needed, we all went out and bought everything we could afford from TSR because we loved the game. We even bought other games they made (some of which weren't very good). We didn't need to be forced or teased into buying anything. And the thing that drove us to buy more and more from them was, if you boil it down, that we had the ability to play beyond the initial adventure in the box; that we were able to play enough to fall in love with the game. We played it out, created our own adventures, and then were hungry for more ideas, more monsters, more equipment, more magic items, more classes, more races, etc. D&D was a self-feeding addiction that needed no help from marketers.

Here's my bottom line: $20 is not a lot to spend for nostalgia. If that's why you want it, more power to you, pick it up and leave it on your shelf, unopened, where you can stare at it lovingly. If you open the box, you'll lose that wonderful feeling of nostalgia because the insides of the box aren't nostalgic in the least. But, there's no denying that the outside of the box is wonderfully reminiscent of a better time in the D&D universe.

If you're currently playing 4th edition and want to introduce some non-gamers to the game, then this is actually a good product to tell them to get. Someone who walks through the character creation solo adventure, and then goes through the adventure in the dungeon master's book will have enough information to move to either a regular 4th edition or a D&D Essentials campaign with no problems.

If you tried 4th edition and find it too complex and rules-heavy, you might like D&D Essentials (as long as you ignore the skills challenge rules), but skip this box and pick up the regular D&D Essentials rules.

Actually, you don't necessarily have to skip this product. For $20 you get a reconfigurable map, some pretty nice tokens that can be used alongside miniatures, and a set of dice (which would run you $6 or $7 alone), so the set isn't a terrible deal if you buy it fully understanding that the rules are intentionally hobbled and are buying it for the accessories and/or the nostalgia.

But, if you're really pining for old-school role playing, you'd be better off picking up an old boxed set on eBay or trying one of the many "rules light" rules systems like Swords and Wizardry or OSRIC (both of which can be downloaded for free if you want to try them before you purchase the printed books). You used to be able to buy PDFs of the older editions of Dungeons & Dragons cheaply on sites like, but WOTC stopped allowing that a year or two ago because, of course, Hasbro marketing idiots thought that disallowing the sale of older products would make people buy their new products.

1 Even what constitutes "first edition" does not have complete agreement among gamers. Many gamers consider the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (often called the "pamphlet edition" or OD&D for "Original Dungeons & Dragons") to be "0ed" (for zeroth edition) because there were some substantial rules changes between the original pamphlets and the first boxed set.

2 If you've ever seen the art from the original pamphlet edition, then I don't have to explain this statement. If you haven't, well….

3 J. Eric Holmes died earlier this year. His death didn't garner nearly as much press attention as the earlier deaths of the game's two founders, but it saddened me when I heard about it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

And away we go…

My main blog has become much more successful than I ever anticipated. So much so, however, that I don't like to write posts there that are not related to software development or the software industry. In fact, I've had several topics lately I've written about and then never posted because it was off-topic.

Here, however, there is no topic, no focus, and no justification except my own desire to write. My main blog is maintained to help people (including myself) get better at writing good iOS software. This little piece of virtual real-estate, however, is my virtual beach house. It's where I go to write for myself.