Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I Am A Grognard

Grognard (noun): A gamer, especially war gamer, who has considerable experience with a particular game or genre of games, has seen that game or genre of games go through many iterations, and who may often complain about new versions of, or newbies to, that game; also known as Old Guard. Etymology: French, nickname for a member of the French Old Guard during the Napoleonic era, referring to said members’ frequent imbibing of grog, an alcoholic beverage consisting of watered down rum, and synonymous with their tendency to grumble about all things new.

I am a Grognard.

I have no trouble with that classification. I am proud to be counted among their ranks. Our society has an enormous amount of disdain for older things, and for people with experience - if you're not young and doing the new thing, you're second rate. For some things, that makes sense; I don't think we should go back to typewriters, or get rid of the Internet, or burn all our cell phones. Those inventions make our lives more productive, and allow us to communicate with our friends and loved ones. It's foolish to resent change for the better, even if the changes are difficult.

But change for the sake of change is wrong.

And Fourth Edition D&D is change for its own sake.

I've given the game a year before making my decision, not because I wanted to see how it worked, but because I wanted to see what they did with it. It was a bad idea, in my opinion, but it was always possible that it would turn into something great with enough time.

It has not. It is a desperate attempt to stay relevant from a company that has lost touch with what it meant to be Role Player. It is in essence a computer game, with all the algorithms placed in table format in books, the way textbooks in the 70s were formatted for computer programming, or for language and conjugation. That's not a new criticism for this edition, but it's extraordinarily apt.

But that's not the reason I hate it.

I hate it because it's banal. Because it has no redeeming value. Because every single negative quality about gaming has been highlighted through this edition, and every positive quality has been pushed away.

It has become a meaningless game, with no redeeming feature. It has all the value of Monopoly or Clue, where once it was an exciting new paradigm in the field of leisure.

Allow me to explain.

I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was seven years old. I began with the red box, and managed to get a hold of all the supplements from that edition. I loved the game - I loved it for its endless creativity. I was interested in building a world with it (I never saw much point in playing as a character - why limit yourself?) and have my friends crawl through endless tunnels filled with treasure and monsters.

When AD&D came to my attention, I was excited. The game could move beyond basics, and become more complicated, which meant I could do more with it. My game world became more fleshed out, more detailed. And my players could do more in the world, which made the experience better for them.

But it also engaged my intellectual curiosity. I began to study history, in order to see what a medieval society was like, so I could make the game better for my players. I studied feudalism, in order to make the world feel more real. I studied weather patterns, economics, and political science, applying all I learned to my world, making it richer, fuller, and more real.

Not everyone went to those lengths, I understand. But it used to be when you attended gaming conventions, you could get into a discussion about medieval weapons, or army formations, or historical events that could set precedents for your world. The atmosphere was charged with people who were interested in history as well as fantasy, and had fun merging their interests. I leaned more in a weekend that I did in a month of school. And it was more fun at the same time.

When 3rd edition debuted, I was prepared to hate it. It threatened to destroy the game as I understood it, and I was angry at that. But I came around. I played the game, and found that it kept the essentials intact, and gave me a new topic to explore - what would a world that had always had magic have evolved into? Reading and extrapolating this made my world a better and more realistic world, and my players enjoyed it. I studied different subjects, read more alternate history, and looked into what a world that developed magic as a science would look like.

And I know many people who did the same thing. D&D engaged their minds, making them take their fantasy in a new direction.

4th edition did no such thing.

It's been a year, and all the discussions on D&D Fourth Edition are still based around manipulating the game mechanic for maximum effect. There is talk about new classes, new monsters, new spells, and new adventures, but no exploration. It's no longer about creating an experience for your players - its about playing an interactive board game with supplements that come out every month. It's a medieval Arkham Horror.

I already have Arkham Horror. I don't need to buy it again. So I will not.

Critics of my assessment say "Well, what do you expect? WotC is a business, and in order to stay in business, they have to produce new products. Eventually, they have to remake the system. You want to see WotC stay in business, don't you?"

No. I don't care if they are in business or not. I want a game I enjoy playing. If WotC produces that game, I will buy it. If they don't I won't settle for whatever they are offering on the grounds that I owe them my support. I don't owe them anything. They don't owe me anything. If I like what they're selling, I'll buy it. Period.

I will not buy a game that substitutes imagination for board game rules, or that abstracts the game into a glorified version of Clue with a combat system. I see no reason to.

But I weep for the passing of a game that once inspired children like me to read literature, science, history, and physics. It died with 3rd edition, replaced by a hollow shell, with all the trappings, but none of the soul.

I continue to play 3.5, and enjoy it. I have no interest in staying current, or in playing with anyone not interested in playing the game I wish to play. They will have much of the world to choose from - they won't need me. I'll keep playing the game that changed my life, the game that turned me into a historian and teacher, the game that opened the doors of my imagination.

I'll keep playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Because I'm a Grognard.