Recently Initiated Loud Mouth :)

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 29 June 2011

Yesterday neogrognard posted a great new article, Essential. If you haven't read it yet, I really suggest you go and read the post. It is full of the sorts of wisdom and critical thought that made me such a big fan of his. In my understanding, the thrust of his argument is this, to survive as a D&D or rpg company, it's important that the current, initiated fan base have a reason to not only buy, but also love, your product. To the initiated, few things are as important as feeling that years of mastering a game means something. If a game does a reboot and significantly changes its mechanics, as 4e did, that fan base will balk. Not only will that not buy the books, they will tell and shame others to do the same. Since RPG companies need to make money now, not take a loss for a few years as new markets are developed, this can really hurt a company.

I fully admit, I have no idea about the financials of a company such as Wizards of the Coast. I'm a smart person and I can make lots of guesses, but that sort of bench racing doesn't really appeal to me, at least not as a subject of a post. What I will say is that srm's discussion of the tension between the initiated and uninitiated matches my experience pretty well. He knows that of course, it was a big thing on my mind at DDXP, especially after Essentials came out. I saw it in my own gaming group. When the guy who had been DMing our game became a player, he constantly tried to create a single, awesome character and was frustrated in the process. 4e had changed the group dynamic and focus enough that he felt a bit lost at what to do. He would talk, at the table, about how this or that was so much better in 3.5 than in 4e. On one hand, I empathized with him and tried to find ways to make things more fun for him, reward him for that knowledge he had gained over the years. On the other, it kind of killed the fun for a portion of the group. We weren't as intent on having to know a rule for every situation or how to make a super awesome and capable solo character.

And when it comes down to it, that's the heart of the disagreement I had with srm's article. I agree with pretty much all of it except for the end where newbies are assigned to board and card games or comic books as the main way of getting them into the hobby. I think board games are useful to a degree, but unless there is a bridge between them and his version of AD&D, I think we'll still run into problems. On top of it, board games by their nature emphasize the mechanics over the story. Lots of people, maybe not a majority but I argue they do constitute a significant minority, love D&D despite its mechanics. If they are funneled into boardgames first, it's quite possible that we'll lose them. Of course, I'm highly biased here. I'm one of those people who don't enjoy boardgames that much but loves D&D.

I also bristled at the use of "our games" as a way to make those of us who don't value the elements of the game in the same way into a different group. I happen to know srm and I definitely don't think he's telling me to go away, but this type of language is used by many players as a sort of "Nerds Only" sign outside the clubhouse door. Sometimes I wonder if it's that, and not the game itself, that keeps people out. If so, no matter how many roads to Rome we build, we're still shutting out a large portion of people who might love and revere the game.

Leaving aside matters of money and a fan base for a second, I would love for this sort of advanced game to be tied to settings instead of the core rules. When I hear initiated, invested fans talk, they describe settings: Greyhawk, Mystara, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Spelljammer, etc. They get that twinkle in their eyes and their voice changes to that awesome story-telling voice many of us have. From there they go to specific supplements. They'll go to their shelf and pick up a book. "I love the wilderness charts from this" or "Man, I've got to tell you, the random encounter charts from that were amazing."

I'm sure there are lots of reasons why this isn't a great idea, but I really think it would solve a number of issues. People would know from the setting what subset of rules were likely to be used for the game and the rules could be tailored for the types of stories people are likely to tell in that setting. So a low magic setting is likely to use the inherent bonuses and a setting that isn't points of light based might get rules for a richer society. Since the majority of specialized rules would be in the settings instead of core, a group could pick their setting based on their level of expertise and how much time they wanted to devote to the game. Groups who wanted to, could cross-pollinate to their hearts content and create the games they most enjoyed for their tables.

At least that's my opinion. What's yours? :)


Nice article Tracy. I just ran into a situation last night in our 4e Dark Sun game where we have two new players to 4e, but they played older versions, and I could see them struggle with terms they thought they new, but had changed in 4e. I could see they felt alienated for not knowing the rules, even though we didn't give them a hard time about it.

I don't think it matters if people come to game from board games. Most of my players never played 3.5 or prior and are coming to D&D from MMORPG's, so I think they already have a lack of role play/story in their histories. We, the older players, are the bridge to role-play. Not that we're any better, we just have different experiences and it's our job to teach others the good parts of the past while keeping up with the innovations of new mechanics. I had one player quit my game because I didn't follow the rules 100% and gave way to story, he had never played another RPG and was just following the rules as written. He came from a pure MMORPG experience.

Lastly, I wish your views on different campaign settings were held by more, but one of the big reasons I hear thrown around for TSR's failings was a fractured fanbase. Fractured by the different settings. I started gaming during that explosion. I don't know if my group was the norm or not, but amongst our group we had ALL of the settings. We bought tons of the supplements, even if we didn't play them, because they were cool. We each sort of picked a setting and went with it, one person chose Al-Quadim, I chose Dark Sun, another Planescape, etc, etc. That could be the problem though. Only one person in 6 was buying any given setting product. We all bought the D&D rules & often bought generic supplements but only one person bought the setting stuff.

Thanks! Fragmentation is definitely difficult. The thing I don't know is if the sales are higher without breaking things up. A fractured fan base has its own problems, but I'm not sure there can be one set of core books to rule them all.

I don't think it matters if they come to playing from board games, card games or comics. However, if those are the only roads to gaming, I worry that people like me will never find a way to a table. If it wasn't for 4e, for the accessibility and the reboot, there's a good chance I would never have played. Those were huge selling features for me along with the podcasts that showed it that D&D didn't have to sound like a wargame being played. The things about the podcasts that really annoy some invested fans are huge neon signs of awesome for me. :)

I read SRM's article with interest, and I have to agree with you completely.

He's absolutely right about the need to feed the invested players. That's not just an issue of game design; it's a core tenet of good brand management in general, especially of a lifestyle brand. Your thought leaders out there are your most important constituency, the ones who shape the perceptions of newcomers. You have to be true to them.

But that doesn't mean you shuffle the newcomers off to some sub-category. Comics may be a great way to attract the interest of potential gamers before they become gamers, but you then need to move them swiftly into the fold. Don't placate them with some half-version of the experience, but show them why they'll love the real thing.

Your insight into settings and adventures is a good one. It's the experiences that old-timey gamers cherish in their minds, and the rules are seldom the thing that gives them those experiences.

Great article, Tracy. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts both here & in your comment on srm's website.

In reading both your article & srm's article, I can't help but wonder if these observations you both are having are tying in subconsciously with Mike Mearls' most recent article about the Core of D&D. In particular, this statement from Mike immediately sprung to mind when reading the last paragraph of your post:

"The rule set should provide at least basic support, with opt-in complexity or expansion in specific directions for groups that prefer one over the other."

To me, that sounds as if you both are talking about the same game system, or at least ones that are very similiar.

SRM makes the point that 4E was designed to appeal to new players and thus lost old players... but then he suggests an even simpler intro game. Maybe that would work, or maybe it would not. How do you keep them apart? Either you make them compatible, like Essentials, or you make them separate (like the old boxes and AD&D, operating in parallel). At some point it gets really confusing. For many that started gaming when I did, we were told AD&D was better and not to pick up the various boxes. It was really confusing, especially when you had adventures for all of them (and solo adventures!). Has any RPG figured out a good system where intro and advanced are both marketed and purchased successfully? The only tried and true model I know is a well-supported intro booklet, free, that contains both distilled rules, sample PCs, and a scenario. 3E did it, as do a number of games (I love Shadowrun's).

On the subject of campaign settings, how do you tell gamers what to play? "No, sorry, this is for advanced gamers." That won't work. Your audience will always want to play with the big kids. They should want to play in the coolest setting now. Everything has to be approachable. You can provide a starter home base, but beyond that the settings should be for everyone. Even Dark Sun... it is as advanced a setting as we have, but a ton of new players and GMs had a blast with it. They weren't doing it wrong, they were doing it right!

Why tie it to experience level at all? That assumes that players want to progress to more intricate and crunchy material. Not everyone does. Maybe the experience progression is about pulling off cool story tricks or more complicated story lines. Maybe it's about how to interweave PC character goals and growth with a main storyline that is separate. But, in my opinion, settings should decide what they are about. The awesomeness of Dark Sun is that the setting says, "This is about a terrible, brutal place where the gods don't exist (unless you want them to), where metal is rare, and sorcerer kings rule most of the land." You know what you are going to play when you pick it up. Currently, I can't say the same about core D&D. Are we doing a high magic campaign? Are we doing a low one? That's what's confusing in my opinion.

We already have systems with no crunch/rules progression and that are all about story. Castle Falkenstein and the simlar rules-less or rules-light systems (most LARPS, Amber, etc.) are good examples. You can always add more complicated story or think up a cool move from a movie... this isn't the domain of new or experienced players but of anyone. I don't think you can create a filter on that, nor should you. Try it at Encounters. Ask a brand new player and they will have no trouble telling you what they would like to do. Show them the pregen and that's where it slows down.

I would argue that core D&D (the rules, not Nentir Vale) says "yes" to everything. It is the enabler. Look at AD&D and the differences between Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, and FR. All possible, none wrong. That's inviting. We used to have true settings wars between Greyhawk and FR... luckily it largely missed the Internet!

My preference is that the system is just really approachable. Simple framework that then can become more complex. Think of an Essentials simple PC that could without any power loss trade a simple power for a more complex feature. Instead of the Sentinel Druid vs. the Shaman in terms of complexity, imagine an initially simple start and then the option to expand in complexity. All the same system. No this vs. that, no right or wrong, no intro vs advanced. Just the start vs what you add on over time. Want to stick to simple, go right ahead. Want mind-boggling complexity, off you go! Every product should be available and on some level enticing to every player.

System mastery over complexity is something that empowers players and DMs and encourages consumption (as SRM pointed out in several posts). That is an excellent part of the game. I don't want to see people play just Basic. I hate seeing Encounters discourage players from buying "old" product on shelves. It isn't old! It is current! It is awesome! Players want to use it now!

There are at *least* two problems with tying additional rules to settings. First, as mentioned, fracturing your base. If the Book of Sands has a bunch of rules for survival and resource management, and it's tied to Dark Sun, it will sell many fewer copies than the Big Book of Resources, using the same material for all D&D would. That's pretty well proven.

Second, for people who enjoy the "basic" game, it means settings always have a higher rules requirement, to system mastery keeps moving the bar. right now you *can* play in the Realms with just the core book and a single Realms book. If there is a perception that the Realms includes an ever-increasing set of "official, required" rules, a lot of GMs are going to feel like their campaigns are constantly being invalidated by new rules content. (See the constant continuity wars between Realms RPG players and Realms novels for an example of how pervasive this silly idea is).

In my opinion, the only way to draw in new players with with a simplified rules set, that lets you see how cool the *idea* of an RPG is before letting you see how much work the full experience is.

Also, I'd note when 4e and Pf fans argue about which game is 'easier,' or 'dumbed down,' there's at least one major disconnect. Trying to move from 3.s to 4e, or the other way around, is *harder* than learning either from scratch. That's because these games violate the "same, or different" rule I first learned from Andy Collins. It says two rules should either be exactly the same, or different enough to avoid confusion. Of course that design idea was for rules within a single game, but the core problem still exists. If you learn about a 5-foot-step as a free action when you take no other movement in 3.x games, it's freaky to discover a shift for 5 feet is a move action.

The other major problem is the two games take different approaches to describing both the mundane abilities of PCs, and the interface between PCs and NPCs. To 4e players, the pathfinder system is hopelessly and needlessly cluttered. To the Pathfinder player, 4e is a hack-and-slash games with no rules for anything outside combat.

(And to the Fudge player, both those complaints are accurate.)

I think this change of approach and focus, as much as any sense their rules mastery was invalidated, caused a lot of existing fanbase to rebel. A lot (though obviously not all) of 3.x fans saw 4e not only as a new set of rules, but as a set of rules that didn't want to support the kinds of stories they (at least told themselves) they wanted to run.

In my experience, limited as it may be, the problem with the Big Book of Resources is that people sitting down to a game aren't sure what rules they will be using in the game or the rules in it are so generalized they don't actually help evoke any particular setting. Now the former can be solved somewhat by the DM telling the players upfront what he or she will be using in the game, but, to be honest, I don't remember seeing that sort of advice anywhere in the 4e books (please let me know if someone finds it.) So while we're selling more books (thumbs up), we're confusing new players and/or not giving them the guidance they need (thumbs down).

I realize this was a problem with earlier systems as well, hence why arcane system mastery is such a badge of honor. ("I figured out how to calculate THAC0, yay!") But I think the context is different today. There are a lot of role playing games out there and few of them try to be as broad as core D&D. It's much easier to pick one of them up and know what you are supposed to do with them. Read or watched A Game of Thrones? Here's a game. Love the TV show Leverage? We have the game for you. But D&D is a broad system, as Steve Winter said on the WotC forums, "D&D is a big church with plenty of room for everyone." Which while awesome and something I love about D&D, made it hard for me when I started playing and I still can't seem to keep everything straight.

For the second point, with everything being core in 4e doesn't the Big Book of Resources invalidate every campaign now in the same way you describe? Can't we find some middle ground?

I would like to see you and the other "bloggers" stop calling new players "newbies". When I DM Encounters, I don't disgrace them at the table with a somewhat racial term, I embrace them. New players are needed to move past this ridiculous rift of 3.5 vs. 4e. New players are needed to keep the industry alive whether it is D&D, Pathfinder, WoD, etc.

In addition, those that interact with you on Twitter, this blog, or wherever, (and this includes other "bloggers") should be "included" rather than ignored. If you post a question to the Twittersphere asking for feedback and then don't have the consideration of replying simply because it is someone who doesn't follow you, then don't ask it.

Quite frankly, and it's been said at my game tables, that some of you "bloggers" are simply alienating some people into participating in the online world of conversation about subjects that are loved simply due to your constant need to "discuss" and argue various points of "gaming".

Some simple advice from myself would be this: Start writing about how to engage new players. Start writing on topics that would appeal to new players. AVOID the 3.5 vs. 4e "rift". Go back to basics and learn how to have fun. If you want to enable something, enable new players to feel included and accepted rather than alienated away from something they don't understand fully.

A great D&D game will be had at any rule set if the DM themselves are great, engaging, and know how to have fun. But if the rule set is the focus and newer players are constantly bombarded with opinions of the different rule sets, this only leads to confusion about the game in its entirety, not whether a book is labeled "Essentials" or "4e".

I'm not sure what to say other than thanks for commenting and I'll consider your feedback.

I have played all editions of D&D, and they all have their good and bad points. But whatever game you started with, and enjoyed, is where you bias will lie in regards to judging other games. That is not good or bad, but just the facts of life. I agree 4E changing or removing alot of the sacred cows of previous editions was hard for some, but I had no problems moving on. The only true fault of 4E is being run by a "coporation" versus a dedicated developer. Alot of ideas in 4E are great, and deserve more credit. It just seems like they lost some focus on trying to make it too different (incorporating aspects of D&D miniatures and magic the gathering), versus bringing over some of the features that make D&D unique overall. Probably the biggest one is the vancian spell system. Had they treated powers for all classes based on that system, they could still have the flexibility to make classes feel different, provide more choices, but balance them at the same time. When essentials came out, they actually changes direction again, and split their own player base. As to previous editions of D&D I played, sure I had fun, but any game that is played for too long becomes boring, even if you come back years later.

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