The last time there was a major update of D&D Bill Clinton was still president of the United States, Everquest was still the number one online multiplayer game, and a whole lot of other things hadn’t happened yet.
They released 3rd edition of the game back in 2000. This was a major revamp of the system, taking a stand by recreating the game after the muddy depths of the previous had taken the game even farther into muddy realms of arcane rules where only the mightiest nerds might find their way out to fun.
Reading those books back I was struck by how strange it had all become. The game didn’t seem to be about anything. Well… that’s not technically true.: It was still about Dungeons and Dragons. But it was no longer about much else. This was a roleplaying game simulating a roleplaying game.
The game worked, but it didn’t interest me much. The barrier to entry was too high, and it was still vulnerable to the kind of munchkin behavior that turns what is supposed to be a friendly social interaction into a war of rules, and keeps everyone but the hardcore out. I’d tried it out a few times, but found it to be a fundamentally unsatisfying experience. As a player there was always that vague unease that somehow you had made a mistake when creating you character. That rather than being on the path to godhood you were doomed before you had even started.
All the best tabletop games share one thing in common, that is that their rules are simple, but the gameplay is deep. You discover the complexities of the system by playing the game, not by reading the rules. 3rd edition failed that test, and I stayed away.
A few weeks ago the 4th edition of D&D was released. The new system still the beast with three books that it has always been; Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. But it’s been revised and streamlined. This is a simpler, smarter game. One that seems to have more roads to fun than it does to ruin.
Having now had a chance to play the game as both the Game Master and the Player, it’s clearly not totally “fixed”. But in the end that seems to be broken in the right way. In a world filled with computers that handle everything seamlessly, it’s fun to still have a game where you can gather around a table with a bunch of your friends, make a bunch of mistakes, screw up the rules and still have fun. It’s a game where even when it’s going wrong it feels like there’s always another opportunity to try out a new strategy, or pull victory out of the toothy, acid-spewing jaws of defeat.