Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Am the Weary Veteran of a Thousand Edition Wars

I've seen a lot of talk on various blogs and boards about editions. And usually I've witnessed flame wars burning bright, to be followed by the inevitable question of why anyone would be fighting over that. Shouldn't people just play what they want? To which the obvious answer is: yes.

But at the same time, I've thought back about how editions changes over the years have actually impacted my gaming and my gaming group. The lure of the hot new thing can't be underestimated. And when we were younger, we'd move on more quickly to the new hawt than we do now. Support of game lines by publishers does matter- and if they move on to an incompatible edition then you end up with an orphaned game. Sometimes that's not a big deal...but usually you want more product. You want the new shiny...and we have to admit to that instinct. Mercifully these days it has become easier to get ahold of older game stuff. On the other hand, at least in my group, its harder to get them to adopt something new.

So below is a list of places where the shift in an edition caused a significant change in our group's play, my play or even just my thinking about games. I'd be curious about other people's experiences.

1. Dungeons & Dragons
I got my first taste of D&D from the three booklet set. I remember playing with that and adding in things like Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. At some point the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (First Edition) took over as the go to book, but at the time I didn't quite realize that the rules didn't exactly synch up. When the Players Handbook came out, then I knew we'd move to a new, more "Advanced" level. Later, when I picked up the boxed sets, I think I finally grasped that there was a pretty radical distinction between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition). But by that point people had begun to migrate away. We played AD&D up until about the time of the Wilderness Survival Guide. We added a lot of house rules and used secondary sources, like the Mayfair stuff, but we saw everything as a continuum rather than any kind of changes of editions.

Dungeons & Dragons (3rd Edition) changed all that of course- it made explicit the split. Some people in our group tried it and some new players came into the hobby through it. But generally it didn't stick. I tried running a d20 game late in the cycle, but it had too much crunch, too many factors and too much to worry about. The few people in our group attached to these ideas have moved to either True20 or Pathfinder.

2. Villains & Vigilantes
V&V was the first time I really hit a problem with edition change. We played the first edition with the white cover for several years. I won't say I ever grasped the rules, but it was the first game that offered a solidly playable supers system. V&V second edition, with the green cover came along and drastically changed the rules. Characters couldn't easily move between the two editions and it felt like a whole new game. I liked the second edition better, but it did mean leaving behind a lot of work. Edition shifts often push people to clean house- discarding old concepts or campaigns or even giving up on the rules. Champions certainly became the supers game of choice then.

3. Champions
Champions came along and pushed out V&V among the younger generation of gamers. It went through several different editions, but the basic game remained consistent throughout. None of the changes ever seriously negated previous character builds. Instead they added new options, tweaked costs and kept the same basic engine. HERO became the go to game for years. There was some gnashing about Variable Power Pools and the new Drain-style powers, but nothing that required a reboot. Probably the biggest disappointment among our group was the changes to martial arts that eliminated Danger International's gooby doubled up maneuvers (Grabs & Throw on one action! Block & Strike at the same time!). Champions remained a mainstay up through 4th Edition, the definitive edition for us. A couple of people delved into the Fuzion/Champions hybrid, but quickly backed away. But then HERO System (5th Edition) came out- one edition too many for the group. A few people picked up copies of it, but no one ran it. No one wanted to buy new books retreated the old ground and that made even the newer things unattractive. Though some people in the group still speak fondly of Champions, they're talking about the older editions. Everyone else, the dozen+ extended members of our gaming group dropped it.

4. GURPS
I've probably played and run GURPS more than any other rpg out there. We played Man to Man when it came out as an rpg, andf picked up the first GURPS box when it hit the shelves. Over the years we did just about every kind of campaign- horror, sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, gangsters- with it. The exception would be superhero, because of course, it sucked for that. Everyone in the group bought core books, and important supplement books, like GURPS Magic (Second Edition) and GURPS Compendium I. GM's picked up many other supplements, pretty much anything that looked interesting. Then came the switch to GURPS (4th Edition). I even bought the nice leatherbound & signed copies of it. And I pretty much hated it from the minute I tried to read it- badly organized, hard to follow, requiring more calculations. I bought a number of the other supplements, hoping they'd offer something new, but I didn't like the game. Other people bought or borrowed the core books and had the same reaction. Pretty much the entire group gave up on the system en masse. Its weird to see that kind of switch- some have gone back and run GURPS 3e, but most have moved on to other games.

5. Rolemaster Fantasy
Rolemaster was the game that slowly creeped in and pushed out D&D in our gaming circles. If people wanted crunch and detail, then they went there. Most of our really impressive and epic fantasy campaigns in the late 1980's and early 1990's used this system. Even when we started to seriously use GURPS for fantasy, Rolemaster remained to fall back for doing things over the top. Plus they kept putting out stuff for it- an endless line of new Rolemaster Companions and supplemental magic books. No new editions here, just a grab bag of crazy rules and options- unbalanced and unhinged- that the GM could pick and choose from. Then Rolemaster finally made the leap- they would clean things up and consolidate into a core, clean revised system: Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS).

And we went along with it. To be fair, RMSS was a far superior game and seemed to actually make sense. We bought all of those books and put away the old ones. But then more and more RMSS books began to come out- creating the same kinds of problems that had begun with the old version. There was a moment, towards the end of the last Rolemaster campaign, that I looked down at the scattered charts, binders, and rulebooks in front of me and thought "What the **** am I doing?" It was like waking up from a drunken stupor. At the end of that campaign, I packed up everything and eventually gave it away.

6. Top Secret
A sidebar comment on the various rewritings to TSR over the years. I remember Top Secret and Gamma World fondly. I enjoyed those games- old school as they were. Over the years I would get nostalgic and check in on how they'd been rewritten and treated. Every time it felt like change to suit some game designers cool new idea rather than changes that made the game a better game. The latter Gamma World's especially were a mess. I suspect my reaction to those editions was more curmudgeonly. So I can understand a little when I do see edition wars spark off online. People have a certain fondness for a game. But I have to recall that this fondness isn't universal. It is personal. I mean I'm a guy that didn't like Star Frontiers even when it first came out...

7. Ars Magica
This is an odd one. I picked up Ars Magica early on, with the second edition. I'd say that was a fantasy game about wizards that happened to be set in the middle ages. It was about a Mythic Era and a consideration of the society of wizards. It offered a great sourcebook for players wanting to actually do a wizards only campaign. In particular the Covenants and The Order of Hermes books were excellent. Then the game bounced between WotC and White Wolf, with a third edition which- while excellent- really shifted towards the medieval simulationist approach. We played that for a while and enjoyed it. But the editions kept moving on, with a fourth and fifth edition. All are interesting, but they do have significant differences. Part of the problem lies in knowing what is new and what has been reprinted in another form? How much duplication is there between things?

8. The World of Darkness (nWoD)
I suspect there's some question about how we should think about that switch from World of Darkness (cWoD Modern) to The World of Darkness (nWoD). Edition shift or complete reboot? White Wolf had plenty of edition changes and revisions within their own lines- but I never felt like any of them completely threw away the last version. The later editions of Mage the Ascension and Changeling the Dreaming were stronger and fixed problems with certain mechanisms and with presentation. Even when they revised splat books, the later approaches usually worked better but didn't completely invalidate the earlier work- provided you didn't look too closely. But eventually layers of patching and the need for a sale reboot caught up with them.

I have to say more often than not, the nWoD presented a chance for players in our group to leave, rather than find a new niche. We had some fairly strong Werewolf the Apocalypse devotees. I don't know any of them who picked up the new Werewolf. The same thing with Hunter and Vampire. Mage had been my favorite of the old lines, but the new Mage: The Awakening really exemplified the problem I had with the new stuff. The old Storyteller system had been pretty generic. But it had worked and been simple. We adapted it to a number of other games. The new system wanted to be crunchier- to add rules to avoid arguments and offer many more guidelines and details. It really put me off. The sole exception for us has been Changeling: The Lost because the revised premise and setting is so much stronger than before. But even in that case we jettisoned the rules in favor of a homebrew.

9. Exalted
We played several different versions of Exalted, Lunar, Solar and Dragonblooded. While I won't say it was a perfect system it ran pretty well. The sourcebooks were messy and needed work. People in the group bought into the game and I invested heavily in the line. When Exalted 2e came out there was some hesitation. Most people didn't want to buy into something new. We held off on it for a time. Then we had a chance to try out the new combat system and mechanics by playing them in their other form, Scion. At first we enjoyed the game but after a few sessions we started to see the major holes and gaps in the combat for us. We didn't enjoy it very much and certain basic approaches really overwhelmed others. That pretty much sealed the deal for the fate of Exalted 2e in our group.

10. Mutants & Masterminds
Mutants & Masterminds was a hard sell for me. I wasn't happy with Champions, but of the other supers games I'd seen (City of Heroes, Aberrant for example), it still seemed the best. But the learning curve on it remained high, and I'd had several new players turned off by it. At the same time, I didn't care that much for the glut of d20 games. But I ended up talking with random guy at Origins who'd just played in a game of M&M and really liked it.

So I picked up and tried it with new players who hadn't really played in other supers systems and they had a great time. Then I tried it with veterans who, while not completely sold on it, did enjoy the game. So I invested pretty heavily in the game, buying just about every sourcebook and running games. Then they made the leap to the second edition- with enough dramatic switches in mechanics to make conversion involved and the books incompatible. It actually rendered a book I'd just bought obsolete. I held off on buying the new system for a while. But after a pdf I'd bought got switched with a 2e version- I went ahead. And Mutants & Masterminds 2e is a better game. So I bought into it and pushed it. Some players really objected to having to buy another edition- given that they hadn't quite settled into the first. But the new books had plenty of advantages. And Green Ronin produced a lot of interesting source material. Who cared if all of the Superlink stuff I'd bought from RPGNow was useless?

So now we come forward to today...with Mutants & Masterminds 3e out, for some time. I haven't bought it. I don't know if I'm going to buy it. I did buy DC Adventures, but only because I like that setting. I still haven't been able to make it through a reading. I don't know if I want to switch and I'm pretty sure I won't be able to convince others to follow along on yet another edition shift.

10/28: A couple more thoughts added in another post here: RPG Game Changers.