Game Philosophy

In early 2000, I found myself going to a coffee shop three or four times a week, for a couple of hours at a time. The Right Blend was its name (I think), and it was the closest coffee shop to J&B Books – the only store in town that carried D&D books (I grew up in a small town). The end result was that The Right Blend had become sort of a regular stomping ground for a lot of local roleplayers.

We didn’t really socialize outside of the shop. What we did do was talk about D&D. Game ideas. Plot ideas. A new monster someone had created for their campaign, that kind of stuff. I was probably the youngest one in that little club by a good decade,and the next youngest guy was probably another decade down the ladder. We were dealing with guys who had played 1st Edition, who’d been at it 20+ years, who considered themselves the keepers and scholars of roleplaying wisdom.

Then, just before summer, 3rd Edition hit the shelves. Which meant I had a ringside seat for some of the most vitriolic “get off my lawn” fist-shaking I’ve ever seen. Because most of these guys hated 3rd Edition.

For a long time I thought it was because they were old, stubborn, didn’t get it, were too stupid to see how 3rd Edition was simply a better game than 2nd Edition had been. In fact, I still sort of thought that right up until today, when I started thinking about the subject of this post – because this post isn’t about old gamers hating new games. It’s about the philosophical difference between 2nd Edition (under which the original Dark Sun came out) and 4th Edition (which the new Dark Sun will be coming out under in August). And that change in overall philosophy began with the release of 3rd Edition.

3rd Edition truly made the idea of game balance an integral part of every facet of Dungeons & Dragons. It was a far cry from perfectly balanced – 4th Edition is a much, much more balanced game than 3rd could have ever hoped to be (too balanced, in some people’s opinion – not a position I subscribe to, but there it is). The notion of game balance is pretty straightforward – effectively the argument is that, all other factors being equal, two characters should be (more or less) equal. A Fighter shouldn’t be better than a Ranger, who shouldn’t be better than a Rogue. A 5th-level monster should be adequately challenging to a 5th-level character. An Elf should not be better than a Dwarf, nor a Dwarf better than an Elf.

2nd Edition didn’t even pay lip service to the notion of game balance. A 1st-level Fighter would skewer a 1st-level Wizard every damn time. But a 20th-level Wizard would fricassee a dozen 20th-level Fighters in their armor without breaking a sweat. In my last post, I mentioned how (in Fangorn Forest) Gandalf single-handedly overcame Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas at the same time. That is what 2nd Edition was trying to replicate – powerful wizards were more powerful than powerful warriors. Paper (i.e. a spellbook) really does beat rock, in this case.

And that is the great crime of 3rd Edition – not that they “nerfed” wizards, or got rid of Thac0, or made Armor Class go up. 3rd Edition evoked such hatred not because it threw away some of the core mechanics, but some of the core assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons. A 1st-level fighter vs. a 1st-level Wizard? Draw. A 5th-level Fighter vs. a 5th-level Wizard? Draw. 10th-level? Draw. 20th? Draw. Are those stats true, derived from careful analysis? No, certainly not – game balance is a tricky bitch. But those results are now the goal whereas they weren’t before. And that changes everything across the board.

In many ways 3rd Edition could be named as a transitory edition, the stepping stone between 2nd and 4th. Because while 3rd Edition did make significant changes, it was also bogged down by a lot of dead weight and “sacred cows” the designers felt like they had to include. Yes, 3rd Edition did shift the focus onto game balance, eliminate race/class restrictions and level limits, and overhaul of the proficiency system. But they retained the ridiculously cumbersome and mostly pointless alignment system (now pretty much gone in 4e) and clung to awkward but traditional game mechanics like the fire-and-forget spell system (gone in 4e).

And that’s what I admire about 4th Edition – the creators weren’t afraid to gut the whole thing and build it from scratch. Yes, there’s still Armor Class – but the entire attack/defense mechanic is simpler and better. Savings throws are completely different. Hell, bards serve a fucking purpose now. It’s a different game, and when you first read it your head spins – but once you calm down, you realize that while it isn’t the same game it is a better game, in almost every way.

Of course, that has some pretty significant implications for DS4E – which bought into the 2nd Edition conceit of “balance schmalance” hook, link and sinker. Dark Sun characters, races and monsters were just tougher than their non-Dark Sun equivalents. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of things Dark Sun characters got that non-DS character’s didn’t:

  • Their ability scores (Strength, Wisdom, etc.) were rated from 5-20, instead of the normal 3-18 scale.
  • They got a psychic “wild talent” above their normal abilities and powers
  • The Dark Sun versions of races were pretty much all superior to their non-DS equivalents
  • Dark Sun characters started at 3rd level, instead of 1st level, because they were just that damn good

Make no mistake about it – there is going to be plenty for you to hate in DS4E, if you’re the sort of person inclined to hate it. When the original Dark Sun material comes into conflict with the game’s need to keep all individual elements in balance with one another? The developers aren’t going to trash game balance – they’re going to change shit about the setting. I for one am fine with that. Dark Sun, as it was originally, was a 2nd Edition product – DS4E will be a 4th Edition product. They won’t be the same – because you can’t drop 2nd Edition philosophy into 4th Edition rules, and expect it to work. It won’t.

I’m not saying that DS4E will be good. It’s entirely possible that the developers of DS4E will fuck this up – I hope they won’t, I don’t think they will, but they might. One of the two developers of DS4E, Rich Baker, worked on the original Dark Sun (products he designed include the adventures Dragon’s Crown & Merchant House of Amketch, The Will and the Way, and Valley of Dust and Fire), and having listened to him speak about the goals of DS4E on a couple of podcasts, I believe he’s going to preserve the feel of Dark Sun – even if some of the details aren’t the same.

Next time I’ll start, finally!, digging into the guts of DS4E with a discussion of races. See you then.