Don’t Sleep It’s Broken

Expanding/editing my comments from What Makes Something Broken G+ thread:

“Broken”, for me, is anything that makes normal character choices, tactics, or roleplay irrelevant.

“Normal”, for me, is whatever’s described in the setting. This is sometimes implicit, but there are books mentioned in the D&D prefaces, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, or John Carter of Mars, or some Cimmerian thief named Conan.

The World of Greyhawk looks like 100-Years-War to Napoleonics, with Elves and Dwarfs and Giants on the fringes. Blackmoor/First Fantasy Campaign looked like the Italian Renaissance on a border with Mongol hordes, with cults armed with alien tech. Empire of the Petal Throne looks like the Aztec Empire, Vedic period India (pre-600 CE), a lot of advanced tech, weird aliens, and quasi-Lovecraftian gods; things that are broken in default setting or Greyhawk may be more passable in Blackmoor or EPT.

Exhibit 1: Sleep:

Sleep: A Sleep spell affects from 2–16 1st-level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1), from 2–12 2nd-level types (hit dice of up to 2 + 1), from 1–6 3rd-level types, and but 1 4th-level type (up to 4 + 1 hit dice). The spell always affects up to the number of creatures determined by the dice. If more than the number rolled could be affected, determine which “sleep” by random selection. Range: 24”. [mdh: 240′ indoors, 240 yards outdoors]
—Book I: Men & Magic

Sleep spell is my classic example of “broken”. Many players love original edition no-save long-range area-effect Sleep, rampaging thru a dungeon with it, until a Referee has an NPC magic-user TPK them with it. Walk into the far end of a 240′-long corridor, or cross a field at 1/7 of a mile away, and there’s no save, fall asleep, throats cut. Then everyone’s unhappy.

The only defense is taking up to 16 equal-Level mercenaries along, so some of them will get slept instead of the PCs, but then the PCs are probably paying equal shares and make no money, which in original edition either directly becomes XP, or can be spent on training/orgies to get XP. So progress grinds to a halt because of this stupid spell.

This is not “normal” in anything except maybe EPT, where a small army of slaves were de rigueur dungeoneering gear, and got expended in traps and spells.

There is nothing else you can do. Die or cower behind a wall of cannon fodder. No rational NPC Magic-User would ever have any Level 1 spell but Sleep ready.

In practice there’s a polite agreement where the Referee doesn’t give common hostile NPCs Sleep, because the game ends if they do. Just searching TSR’s B-series PDFs, I see one hostile NPC with Sleep in B4 Lost City’s Tier 3, one boss you shouldn’t stand-up fight in B6 Veiled Society, a deadly magician in B7 Rahasia, and a couple in B9 Castle Caldwell. All of the other sleep-inducing gasses and other effects give saving throws.

In less dogmatic games, the Referee just house-rules a saving throw in and maybe reduces the range, and it’s a non-broken spell again.

Exhibit 2: The Ranger:

The additional classes (from Strategic Review, early Dragon, and Supplements I-III) beyond the first 4 are generally broken. Rangers, Paladins, Cavaliers, and Barbarians are better than Fighters in every way. Assassins, Bards, and Monks are better than Thieves in almost every way (trivially lower skill chance). Druids are better than Clerics at spell-casting, weapons, AND can turn into bears! Illusionists are the only somewhat balanced additional class. There is no reason to take a stock Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, or Cleric if you can take one of the additional classes.

The setting implies mostly human warriors, thieves, wizards, and priests of varying types. Demi-humans without level limits, balanced stats, or some other drawback are broken, because there is then no reason to be Human. In OD&D, Dwarfs are limited to 6th Level, Elves are limited to 4th/8th Fighter/Magic-User, Halflings to 4th Level; non-Humans rarely appeared in Gary Gygax’s groups.

You can make a setting for that, I used to run an urban-vs-wilderness setting where the primary classes were Assassins, Cavaliers, Illusionists, and Nightblades (reskinned Bards) vs Rangers (toned down from the RAW), Druids, and Barbarians (toned down even more). A generic “fighter” or “thief” didn’t exist, and would have been completely overshadowed by better classes.

3d6 Six Times In Order

“I’m gonna revise what I said earlier. You’re not cowards if you don’t try this, you’re boring. And that’s worse. Cowards at least can be interesting. Who dares, wins.”

This, I completely agree with. Players are often terrified of 3d6 stats (or even the 1d4-1d4 I use in Stone Halls & Serpent Men), in a way that’s never made sense to me.

My first three characters in 1978, with 1-2 players and 1 DM so we each ran a few guys, were rolled 3d6 in order:

  • Grecal: Dex 16, Int 15, Wis 6, rest 10 or less. Magic-User. Sneakiest bastard mage/knife-thrower ever. Later class-changed to Illusionist.
  • Starkad: Str 15, Cha 13, rest 10 or less. Fighting Man. I’d been reading about the Norse sagas, because that’s the kind of weird kid I was.
  • Cleric I don’t remember: No really terrible stats. Died in first adventure. I’ve played only one Cleric again (Gracke Sundowner the Half-Orc Fighter/Chaos Cleric) in the following 40 years.

I played both Grecal and Starkad actively for years, they finally got killed in an asshole DM’s deathtrap dungeon called Hexcomb Horror, so I just ignored that session and kept using them. Now they’re just background NPCs, as a Referee I don’t spotlight hog from players like Ed Greenwood, but they’re around if you need information or a patron.

There’s no significant benefit or penalty to high or low stats in Original D&D, Holmes Basic, or other white box rules (up to +10% XP gain! Maybe a +1 bonus!); but even when they were run in power-gamer AD&D, they were fine. Stat rolls against any mediocre stat, in any stat roll system (1d20-roll-under, 3d6-roll-under, 1d20+bonuses over target number, etc.) are going to give you a 25-50% chance of success, which works fine in actual play. Just don’t make stat rolls be save-or-die without some warning, way to get a higher bonus, or way to recover; failure is a complication and a few complications or stupid play should lead to death.

One point Noah doesn’t get to: In Original D&D, there’s a TON of ways to increase or decrease your stat scores. Fountains (drink everything! … after testing for acid, etc.), magic books, divine favors (sacrifice at every altar!), etc. Sometimes you get an increase, sometimes a decrease, but you need that random variation to improve. Later editions (and SH&SM because it’s balanced against 3E) gave level-up stat increases just like CRPGs had been doing since the early ’80s. You’re not stuck with crappy stats forever, there’s a chance you’ll get better.

The fear of 3d6 in order is especially galling in Tunnels & Trolls, where the entire advancement mechanic is that you start off kinda crap and get to add to your stats.


Kyle Mecklem asked:

What should a game have to possess the “spirit” of old school Dungeons & Dragons?

Good question!

D&D-nature is about exploring some area (possibly a social graph, as seen in B6), call-response interaction with the Referee (see those early examples of play in OD&D and Holmes), and deadly results from bad luck or bad decision-making, with just enough rules to handle the common cases.

There are no fixed rules.

  • Six stats? Many games have 3 stats, or 7 or 8, and are still D&D-nature.
  • Group initiative? OD&D used Chainmail’s individual weapon-rank initiative system. Holmes basic used individual Dex-rank, rolls for ties.
  • Hit Points? Chainmail just had alive/dead results from combat, and it was the official combat system of OD&D. There are later games that have no HP and only survival rolls, which seems VERY D&D-nature.
  • Descending AC? Most retro-clones have ascending AC, and they seem to have D&D-nature.
  • XP? Metamorphosis Alpha has D&D-nature and no experience system.
  • Theatre of the mind combat? Well, mostly, but some people do run D&D-nature games with minis, tho I think that’s poor form.

In fact, I don’t see any rules that can’t be thrown out and still have D&D-nature, and for example Ken St. Andre, M.A.R. Barker, James Ward, Greg Stafford, Kevin Siembieda, and Dave Hargrave recognized that and made their own things which are still D&D-nature. Venger Satanis‘s Crimson Dragon Slayer is D&D-nature, even though it’s basically Over the Edge (I was going to say “with swords”, but there’s few guns on Al Amarja, so… it’s OTE)

Where it stops is when you’ve codified everything and forbidden people from screwing with the rules, or nerfed it so nobody can have a stupid death.

  • AD&D does not have D&D-nature, not so much because of the excessive rules as Gary’s rules-as-written edicts from convention games.
  • Obviously some forms of D20 have D&D-nature, even if 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder do not.
  • 4E did not, it’s arguably not even an RPG.
  • 5E kinda does, but it covers every surface in Nerf® and makes sure mommy will kiss your owies and give you back a hit die when you take a popsicle break. Has anyone ever died in a 5E game? Is a TPK possible?

On Naming a New Game

So the “Magic School” idea is kind of a pain to develop, and there are a few usable games in the genre; I want to look at this further someday, but not now. But it did lead me back to one of my ideas for a “Magic Returns” game. While Bright certainly isn’t inspirational, it’s not the worst big-budget B-movie I’ve seen, and made me miss some parts of Shadowrun.

I’ve got a good ways into it.

Obviously, there’s D20, Microlite, The Black Hack, etc., and on the other side almost-freeform systems like Venger Satanis’ Crimson Dragon Slayer, but I feel the tone should be lite-retro-crunch; D20 and even TBH are too heavy, Microlite has no crunch, CDS isn’t all that retro (the setting is, but the system’s pure ’90s storygame like Over the Edge). Tunnels & Trolls has been mangled into modern settings a few times, and it doesn’t make sense, but “only six-siders” is a good design rule, and those saving rolls are the best mechanic ever.

I look back at some of my old games like Phobos (my first attempt at the “Magic Returns” genre), and go “shit that’s a lot of rules & words for stuff I don’t do anymore”. The spell design rules in that were hard, and nobody liked making spells.

Design Notes

  • Premise lets you throw magic, tech, anything you want into one blender, like the old multigenre invasion settings.
  • System is inspired by fantasy gamebooks and early post-apocalyptic games, quick systems with a fistful of six-sided dice.
  • Stats are more specific than many minimal games, because the system is largely about making stat rolls.
  • There are no classes or skills; characters can try to do anything.
  • Experience encourages a variety of actions from the players, not just grinding.
  • Equipment has been purified down to what you need for an adventure, not a catalog of every item ever made.
  • Wilderness and Tactical Exploration are the bare minimum to do a hex-crawl/dungeon-crawl. Try to avoid complex resource management but still keep the two that matter: food and torches.
  • Combat is a pair of opposed rolls, and then a damage roll. No tables.
  • Armor mechanics are meant to make heavy armor a big initial advantage that wears down over time, as a constant gold sink, but can’t require a lot of bookkeeping.
  • Magic is freeform, but constrained by known spells, which lets the Referee have some idea what characters can do.
  • Monsters use the same simple mechanics as other characters, and are freeform to keep players on edge, unable to memorize stats and weaknesses.
  • Treasures are given as a set of cascading die rolls, but with a limited value in mind so runaway wealth isn’t so likely.


Here’s the hard part. My codename for the system was “DiceChucker”. There’s already a DiceChucker game, but that’s not a shipping name anyway, just a place to put a file. Everything involving “Arcadia”, my placeholder name for faerieland, is taken, often for alternate-world erotica.

I dunno what to do here. Die-roll up some random names? The magical world of Ffnnfgrppa awaits you! A cursory view of DriveThruRPG suggests that’s how many people work.

Basically a portal, central hub of RPG blogs, feeds, and other communities, to try to tie everyone back together.

Back in the day, we had web-rings, DMOZ, sites like my RPG links page, and just subscribed to each other in newsreaders. I still do, I have a couple dozen feeds in FeedBin. But that’s difficult to discover.

If you’re here from OSGR, or if you’re new here from some other source, look in the sidebars for the games I’ve written, poke through the categories list for subjects you’re interested in. I typically post every couple weeks, and a new game or two a year. If there’s something you’d like to hear about, write a comment or send me email. Thanks!


The playstyles thing for me is just the social contract. I put mine in Stone Halls & Serpent Men, but I’ve been using/refining this forever:

  • Every group should negotiate a “social contract”; the author’s is:
    • Bring your own dice, paper, writing utensils, etc., and don’t touch anyone else’s.
    • Beer or other drinks are OK in moderation, but don’t get drunk at the table.
    • If you say it, your character does it or says it. If you have to discuss rules, say “out of character” first.
    • I don’t mind jokes or quotes at the table (Monty Python is relevant to every gaming situation), but keep it on-topic. “I don’t want to get on the cart!” is fine when the players are dragging your mostly-dead body around, singing the Philosopher Song is probably not, talking about TV is right out.
    • No party infighting. Unless I have replaced your character’s brain with a parasite, you don’t fight other PCs. Making new PCs, getting them back to the adventure, soothing hurt feelings, it’s a total waste of time.
    • No bards or other nuisance characters. If you think what you’re doing would annoy other players, don’t do it.
    • Every problem I present can be solved with at least two options of violence, sneakiness, puzzle-solving, and politics. Try not to use violence first all the time.
    • Don’t dare me to kill you, because I will.

Other than that, I pretty much expect PCs in the “heroes for hire” to murderhoboes range, occasionally well-intentioned supervillains; I’ve never seen a group of actual goody-two-shoes heroes, and I’d probably run in terror from such freaks.

I run a sandbox full of weird stuff, but will drop things in the PCs’ way which may be rather obviously “tonight’s adventure”. They can walk away, but I’m under no obligation to think up something better than random encounters if they do.

Once in a long while (every score of sessions?) I do a videogame-like cutscene session with some railroaded dialogue in between a few player choices, if I can’t find a better way to dump exposition; I’d like to avoid these but sometimes it happens.

When I’m doing solos, that’s a different matter, usually completely isolated sessions with the same chars, or a sandbox map with semi-randomized encounters (which I may eventually publish).

Non-Human PCs

Ken St. Andre (@Trollgodfather) was musing on Twitter:

Gamers, did you know that Monsters! Monsters!, a direct spinoff from Tunnels & Trolls published by Metagaming in 1976 was the first frpg to allow–nay, it required you–to play monsters as your protagonist player character. Not just humanoids, but any monster. Dragon anyone?

Monsters! Monsters! is pretty straightforward, Tunnels & Trolls with a giant list of monster stats instead of a few puny humanoids, how to fight humanoids, a sample village full of enemies (that STR 20 Miller is a beast!). It’s very much a sandbox, where your monsters go out and do whatever malevolence they want before returning to a nice safe dungeon.

It’d be a great game to run Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic (sort of NSFW), where half the characters are monsters from Black Mountain, half are humanoids from stupid fantasy kingdoms. Or mix it up with the old Dwarfstar boardgames as maps & scenarios.

(Speaking of which, I need to write a serious review of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls; I meant to do some tabletop or online play first, but that’s not happening, and I do play solos with it.)

White box D&D (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (“Should any player wish to be one”, as crappy max level 4 Fighting Men), and the following rules-less advice:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. by Eric Holmes, 1977) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (without the snark or level cap, alas), and again no rules, just advice:


There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves). There are half elves. Special characteristics for dwarven, elven, and halfling thieves are given. In addition, rules for characters who possess the rare talent of psionic ability are detailed. However, for a beginning campaign these additions are not necessary, and players should accustom themselves to regular play before adding further complexities.

At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.

By 1979, all such permissiveness is gone, and I’m certain this comes from Gary having burned out on convention tournament games being griefed by weird characters, and just locking it down. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide has a 2-column essay on how unacceptable monster PCs are, followed by 3 columns on handling PCs infected with lycanthropy, so that nobody would want to keep it.


On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the un-alterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.

[4¶ on how great humankind is elided…]

As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign -and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them Off.

So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking.

I love the trite sign-off of his Rule Zero caveat. When Gary was being nice like that, he was flipping you off.

In Stone Halls & Serpent Men, I allow anything with the “Monster” race, because it really doesn’t hurt the game if they’re levelled up just like anyone else. The limits on gaining abilities are a little tough, but they keep monsters from completely overwhelming the humanoids.

A monster PC will have social problems, but rarely kill-on-sight: A Gargoyle stomping through the streets of Glorien would scare the citizens, and the guards will keep a distance and get more competent help to find out what the monster wants, but a relatively peaceful monster’s gold spends the same as a Human’s.

Raise Dead

The first try at this blog sputtered out because I was focusing on work, and already had my old KUOI blog. Or I’m just lazy. Anyway, this is back on. New style, new content.

I’ve got all these little RPGs I’ve made for one-shots, or none-shots in cases where I never got to run them. I’m still full of piss and vinegar about games, may as well rant here. Shooting for once a week, maybe even once a day. Will see.

Addenda: Theming is hard. “Lovecraft” theme which I tried first is +1: an awesome name, +2: looks great, but -1: has a menu you can’t remove from the title.

“Colinear”, which I’m trying now, +1: lets me put up a single banner image without a menu, +2: sidebar looks better, but -1: has a dumb name for a single-column blog, -2: doesn’t box each post

I may have to pay actual money so I can add a goddamned ruler line between posts, and maybe use real Futura titles instead of a shitty clone font.

(Yes, obviously as a former web developer I could give a damn and write my own again, but I hate everything about the web so it’s easier to be a consumer.)

Classes in D&D

D&D 5th Edition’s (#dndnext) classes seem to be varying between 4 and 50. I think there only need to be 3, just like in Original D&D, or Swords & Wizardry White Box.

Fighting Men: The Fighter fills every non-magical combatant role from heavy knight, to barbarian, to hunter, to thief. Which weapons and armor the Fighter uses determine what else they can do. A knight in full plate and a half-dozen heavy weapons needs a heavy mount to get around, and the expense of this implies either a feudal system with dozens or hundreds of peasants supporting the knight, or massive treasure hoards protected by dragons, that only a knight can extract. A barbarian’s few heavy weapons and medium armor make movement important, and probably sailing or riding to strike with surprise at undefended enemies. A thief uses light weapons and light or no armor to get maximum speed and stealth.

Magic-User: The essential traits of a wizard, from Merlin to Thoth Amon to Elric to Gandalf, are direct attack spells, and information gathering: Detects, identify items, ESP, clairvoyance, and languages and lore skills. I’m no fan of Vancian magic, but for D&D it’s traditional and mandatory. To make up for the very limited low-level spells per day, I use the cheap scroll-making system from original D&D (100 GP/level, 1 week/level), and gift starting Magic-Users with a few 1st level and maybe one 2nd level scrolls. An alternative solution is to have cantrips which can be performed for free; this makes Magic-Users more true to genre, and a weak attack cantrip (1d4 damage at most) or Harry Potter-ish Stupefy and Disarm charms keep them in the game. Magic-Users in myth and literature wear no armor, but often have weapons, especially swords.

Cleric: Clerics cover the range from pure spell-using priests to combatant paladins, Brother Cadfael to Roland. Holy men healing people is a common fantasy trope, all the way back to that weird “Bible” anthology some people take so seriously. Turning the undead makes Clerics useful even when their spells run out. Scrolls can fill out low-level healing abilities, as with Magic-Users. Clerics wearing heavy armor is unusual, but some paladins like Roland and Turpin did; the old “blunt weapons” restriction only makes sense for one segment of priests of one religion at one point in history, and should be discarded.

Not Included: Thieves are just very weak Fighting Men, they do nothing special, if you have even the simplest skill system or stat checks. Rangers are just Fighting Men with bows. Paladins are just Clerics who fight more than cast. Cavaliers are Fighting Men with horses. Assassins are just Fighting Men; killing people is what Fighting Men do. Druids are just neutral Clerics.

My thoughts on races may be seen even more radical, but that’s because they are based on history and mythology, not the incestuous Tolkien-D&D-novelization-pseudofantasy cycle that ends in Salvatore’s “Good Drow” bullshit books.

Dwarfs: In Norse mythology, Dwarfs were maggots in the body of Yggdrasil, and only mentioned being powerful Fighting Men or having dark magical power. Wagner’s Ring Cycle reinforces these roles. Tolkien’s adaptation is peculiar for having no practical magic, but their role as heavy fighters was set. I’d prefer if they could only be Fighting Men, but wizened Dwarf Magic-Users like Alberich are appropriate. Is it too late to dump the anti-magic nonsense?

Elves: In Norse mythology, the Alfar are either of light or darkness, and do healing or cursing magic depending. In Celtic mythology, the Elves do mostly illusions and sometimes healing magic. In Tolkien, Elves do healing magic, there are no Elven battle mages, that’s what they use bows for. So I’d prefer if they could be Fighting Men or Clerics, and not Magic-Users. Certainly I see no precedent for the multi-classing element.

Other Non-Humans: Genocide. Hobbits, er, “Halflings”, are vermin, an abomination to be wiped from gaming. Gnomes are annoying, best used as nuisances by the DM. Half-breeds aren’t as good or interesting as their full-blood parents. Orcs, Ogres, Goblins, Lizard-Men, etc. don’t fit well in a Human-centric campaign, which most fantasy literature reflects. These could well be statted up in the Monster Manual so the DM can allow them in unusual campaigns, but in the main book, only Humans, Dwarfs, and Elves have any legitimacy.

Hasbro Announces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

The breaking news of the day is that Hasbro’s D&D 4E [1] is dead, D&D 5E is on the way, in a NY Times article by Ethan Gilsdorf.
Over at Forbes, David M. Ewalt talks about playtesting the new edition.

First, the message of the medium: The Rise and Fall of D&D is in the NY Times and Forbes? It’s not a big-money business. It’s not even a medium-money business. There’s a few tens of millions of fans, who play a huge variety of RPGs, some of which are labelled “D&D” and some of which are not. Are NY Times and Forbes editors or readers big D&D nerds?

The things that drove D&D down are pretty simple, but they don’t really address them, just a facile “videogames did it”, which misses the forest full of ravenous trolls for a pixie stabbing them in the ankles. And if they don’t understand them, they can’t fix them.

First, Wizards and then Hasbro made each new edition more complicated, annoying, and less RPG-like than the last; 4E isn’t even really an RPG, just RPG stats attached to a boardgame. The “Ravenloft” boardgame is just 4E cleared of unnecessary mechanics like role-playing and a GM. Hasbro seemed almost determined to discard settings with any character, like Greyhawk, and switch entirely to generic brand “Forgotten Realms”, or just a “points of light” non-setting between dungeon crawls.

Casual D&D players haven’t had a simple, usable, complete game from Wizards since 1983. The 2010 “Red Box” was just a demo, with only level 2 advancement. The new edition desperately needs a starter set that is not crippled. Pathfinder’s Beginner’s Box is an excellent game, which I’ll be reviewing here soon, and it has a full, simple game up to level 5. If Hasbro can’t make a better starting experience, they will continue to fail and be dead on arrival.

Second, they wasted time and money on new technology that didn’t matter, instead of the only one that does: ebooks. Which makes this line hilariously ironic:

“Even if players increasingly bring their iPads, loaded with Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to the gaming table.” —Ethan Gilsdorf

There was a brief time when Hasbro allowed PDFs of older editions of D&D to be sold, and I have a large set of the modules and a few books. But Hasbro has never sold current editions in PDF, and seem dedicated to never doing so. Not everyone is so blind to the “future”, Paizo sells all of their Pathfinder books in PDF, print, or PDF+Print bundles. So do most other publishers now.

Third, they have to compete with everyone else who makes RPGs, either cheaper or for free, almost always with better, faster, simpler mechanics, and more interesting settings. Would you rather hack through a series of setting-less dungeon crawls with hours of counter-twiddling per battle, or role-play in A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Age, and complete an adventure in a night or two? The latter two combined will cost you less and be infinitely more fun. Even if you unreasonably played a new game every 6 months, it would cost less than keeping up with modules and supplements for D&D 4E.

Fourth, they have to compete with older editions and retro-clones of those editions. My preference is for Swords & Wizardry, where it is 1978 and always will be. Others prefer AD&D and OSRIC. If you have a rules set you like and a GM with a modicum of imagination, you never need to buy another book. That spells doom for any game company that tries to make it “big time” like Hasbro.

Fifth, MMOs. The people who “leave” for MMOs don’t generally stay gone. They often play both, or come back to tabletop. Having a branded D&D MMO that wasn’t terrible would help retention, but that didn’t work out (I have no real opinion of DDO, as it doesn’t run on Mac OS X, while World of Warcraft does; but that’s failure enough). But if you left D&D 3E for a few years, there’d be no compelling reason to buy into 4E and start over, when you could pick up your old books, or Pathfinder, or Dragon Age RPG or anything else, and carry on.

So What Now?

Mike Mearls is the guy who drove 4E into the ground, but he’s still in charge. Monte Cook has returned to Hasbro, and is an excellent game designer (though D20 didn’t always show good design, it sold very well indeed), but if he’s not able to call the shots, I don’t see how this situation will improve.

Hasbro’s “D&D Next” is trying to crowd-source ideas and get wider playtesting for the new edition, which apparently is playable but still so malleable they could take it in entirely new directions?

And finally, Jeff Rients has an excellent suggestion: Release old editions as PDF so they can be studied and learned from. Hasbro not selling PDFs hasn’t stopped people from playing retro-clones and other RPGs. They might as well make a little money off those players, and try to make the next edition enough better that a few come back.

I Had In Mind Something a Little More Radical

I have another solution, though. Repackage the Moldvay/Mentzer D&D Basic Set and the D&D Cyclopedia as “Fifth Edition”, add some new art, and sell those. They’re better games, and the work’s already done.

[1] Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns TSR, which has the same initials as Gary Gygax’s former company Tactical Studies Rules, and Gary Gygax created D&D with some assistance from Dave Arneson. Calling whatever Hasbro sells “D&D” is kind of weird.