Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Top 5 Role-playing Games: Dungeons & Dragons

Note: The quality of this article is not up to my usual standard. While I don't like churning out schlock, I did on this occasion for the sake of beginning a regular schedule of posting I've been meaning to do for a long time. Paradoxically, I decided to publish a sub-par article for my own good. At the very least I'll get back on a regimen. 
The reason for this sloppy posting is the heaviness in my heart for a friend who passed away February 1st, 2011. Not at all to turn this tragedy towards myself, but I just couldn't muster up the energy to give 100% on this article. Though we weren't terribly close, I've had nothing but great interactions with this man, and I'll miss his presence in the gaming community. 
Adrian Nelson was not only a fellow Vancouver gamer, but a kind and fun person who succumbed to health problems too soon. A gamer, actor, and Viking enthusiast, he will be missed by everyone in the Lower Mainland who pushes 10mm fantasy and historical soldiers around on the tabletop. My condolences go out to those who knew him better, and to his family. 

Now here’s a classic. If you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) before, then you’ve definitely heard of it. It was the first role-playing game and it’s still as great today as it was 35 years ago. Currently the game is in its 4th edition, and while it’s drawn a lot of controversy I do believe that it’s the best game to bear the D&D logo.

I began my foray into D&D during the mid-90s during its 2nd edition. Back then it was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (AD&D2E) and it was done by a man named David “Zeb” Cook, who, as far as I know, isn’t doing any games design these days. The game represented mystery to me. I had always heard of this game, but I had never played it, and wanted to see if it was as dangerous and Satanic as the public made it out to be. It wasn’t, of course, but it was very mysterious, and seemed endless in its possibilities.

You see, the D&D books presented no particular world; it was all just generic fantasy art, and concepts. Sure they had settings like Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Dark Sun, but the idea behind D&D is that the game is a toolkit that you can use to create your own fantasy world.

Without getting too much into the mechanics of the various editions (they’re all similar in many regards, and I’m not familiar with the earliest editions of D&D), I’ll explain how the game works: It uses all of the basic polyhedral dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and the ubiquitous d20). One would roll a d20 to resolve most actions, trying their best to roll as high as you could (though low rolls were sometimes desirable in the earlier editions). In D&D4 you roll a d20 and add any modifiers based on your skills, then compare to a certain defensive number of your target, or to a number set by your Dungeon Master (DM) in the case of skill checks. Then on a successful attack, you’d roll your damage dice (each weapon or attack possessed a different die).

After AD&D2E Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the owning company of D&D went bankrupt. The reason cited for this is that they overextended their novel publishing arm and during a year of very bad sales, were forced to refund the book chains the money paid for the books. Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the makers of Magic: the Gathering, bought TSR’s stuff for $1,000,000 (all of this info is courtesy of the D&D coffee table book). WotC had the foresight to keep D&D alive, despite dwindling sales of RPGs at this time (mid-to-late-90s), and in doing so save an industry.

In this gamer’s humble opinion, the d20 license saved role-playing. Many have claimed that it created a homogenous industry, but I think that’s ascribing the d20 system to the natural decline of many role-playing games at the time. In 2000, WotC re-did D&D for the 3rd edition. They dropped the “Advanced” off the title, and made the rules free for any developer to use and create their own games (called the Open Gaming License (OGL). This was the shot in the arm that created many games companies that are around today, gave us some great titles, and gave some older titles a second life. Games like Deadlands, and Cyberpunk saw reprints in d20 form, while games like WarCraft, or Conan: the Barbarian saw pen-and-paper versions for the first time. Now many games companies have sprung back from the days when everything used the D&D3 rules, and the license is not as common as it was ten years ago, but the industry is healthier because of it, and now many other companies aren’t afraid of opening their doors to other publishers to use their mechanics (Savage Worlds, FATE, etc).

In 2008 the D&D3 system had grown too big and unwieldy. What was once a clear and concise game had its boundaries blurred, so that wizards and fighters were little different than each other. What the industry needed was a shot in the arm again, and in order to break away from the homogeneity that it helped create, D&D4 was established. D&D4 is a more dynamic and cinematic game system. It definitely takes some cues from the video gaming industry, which is reaching Hollywood-ish proportions. In a form of true reciprocity, D&D borrowed from the very industry that borrowed from it. As a result D&D4 just has more for you to do! There are more options during character creation, and combats are more dynamic, with more movement, and more description. No longer do you sit there and stab the Gnoll with your sword; instead you’re taunting that Gnoll so that its attacks are directed away from your friends, whose attacks are bolstered by your other companions, all so the rogue in your party can slash at the Gnolls legs, not only causing damage, but hamstringing the poor creature as well.

Now, of course this game is critiqued as being too much like a Massively-Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG, or just MMO). But as I stated before, it’s only borrowing from something that it helped create. D&D is growing, and it needs to. Sure RPGs are not in the danger they were in ’97, but that’s not to say that the industry is invincible. Companies like Fantasy Flight Games are creating RPGs that are hybrids with other forms of gaming (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition), while the “Indie” role-playing market (which celebrates more esoteric game mechanics) is rather big and desired by many role-players. And if I may be so bold, I believe that D&D4 is more faithful to the original D&D than the previous two editions, which tended to bleed the various player classes into one another. In this edition, a rogue is a rogue, and a wizard is a wizard, and there’s no mistaking a cleric for a druid, or a barbarian for a fighter. Each has their own roles that they play within the party, and help to create these great synergies, which make playing this classic game all the more exciting.

In short, D&D is one of my favorite role-playing games of all time. While the newest edition is my favorite, the previous games each had their charm, and I had fun playing the previous two editions that I had. After all, I wouldn’t have played them for the twelve years before D&D4 that I had if I didn’t like them.


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