Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Edition Wars that Weren't

Periodically, in posts where someone disparages 4e D&D, you'll hear someone say something along the lines of "There have been edition wars ever since the second version blah blah and it doesn't mean that this edition has done anything different than update the rules."

While the first part is nominally true, that doesn't imply the second.

I'm not here to post about 4e in particular, only to point out that other games than D&D have also had multiple editions, and although there might be some bit of disgruntlement among fans, they have not risen to the level of disappointment that certain editions of D&D have, not even when you consider the smaller community size.

The reason, I believe, is that other games, when updating their rules, aim to keep them compatible with characters and settings from the previous edition, so that you can convert with minimal fuss. Tunnels and Trolls, in particular, plays almost exactly the same in 7th edition as it does in 5th, and the differences are orthogonal enough to each other that you can easily mix 5th and 7th edition rules in the same game, if you prefer to use WIZ as an attribute for magic, or want to retain the minimum roll of 5 for saving rolls. The same goes for Call of Cthulhu, or Hero System/Champions--in those games, you could take a twenty-year-old character sheet and adapt it rapidly for the new game, or even use it in the new game and only change what was necessary on-the-fly.

And as a result, these games have kept their audiences, small as they may have been.

I mention this because I'm starting in a new Mongoose Traveller game today. Traveller is a far-future sci-fi game that's gone through several iterations, (including GURPS and d20 versions), but the current edition is very, very similar in style and play to the original (although death during character creation has been turned into an optional rule) Not that there  aren't changes. In particular, the Jack of all Trades skill has been reworked (although the boundaries of this all-encompassing skill was sufficiently poorly defined in the original game that any rules clarification could be seen as a change); but much of the rules updating, like the John Carter of Mars novels, has had to do with updating the "futuristic" medical and computer technology to keep pace with the real world. (Burroughs had to keep making his airships faster and faster as the series went on, to keep them faster than real airplanes.)

With that in mind, I don't envy the tast of the D&D 5e designers, since one of their stated goals is backward compatibility with every edition. There's been a lot of talk about how that's going to work--most of it revolving around the concept of modularity--but we'll see how well it comes out in practice. In the meantime, I hope we all enjoy whatever version of the game is that we're playing.


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