As promised, I have finally participated in the D&D Next playtest! If the past few months have been quiet on this blog, it is because I have been exploring the Caves of Chaos, or more like BECOMING the Caves of Chaos, welcoming the players into my chthonic depths from which, in some cases, they do not return. My initial disappointment that the D&D Next playtest adventure did not follow the “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” continuity was offset by the exciting discovery that in the current iteration of D&DN, the ‘seatbelts are off’. Gone is the 4th edition expectation that you can just jump into any battle without preparation and that tactics, not strategy, are paramount. Encounter balance is completely absent from the playtest. Once again, as in older editions of D&D, the unsuspecting players may easily “bite off more than they can chew” and be rendered into finely chopped meat and eaten by goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears or even (spoiler) A LICH!!!! o_O
I would like to write more about the specific mechanics of D&DN, but I don’t want to say too much as it is obviously still in a state of flux and may change. At the moment, it clearly derives strongly from the Basic D&D set and 2nd edition, with the mechanical transparency of 3e. It is among the diehard 4e lovers that I have sensed the most sadness about the new edition. Wizards, which enticed them into a world of finely honed miniatures combat mixed with roleplaying, has taken another lover, the lover of oldschool simple “pick up and play” gaming. Like Thanos in Marvel’s “Avengers”, Wizards has embraced the dark allure of the TPK, of D&D at its most brutal and primal, where character life, like Winefoot Halflings*, is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. What does this mean for Wizards? Like Obama’s election, how did the shining future promised by 4th edition, after just four years, turn into this time of bifurcation and chaos? Was the “trick people into thinking they’re playing a board game and then hook them on roleplaying” strategy… or should I say TACTIC???… of 4e not successful? How did we get here, and what will happen next? I think the answer is best explained visually:
This map, of course, displays the Middle East’s oil reserves. Oil prices have been rising sharply in recent years, and experts like American investigative journalist Michael Ruppert have long foretold that the world was close to reaching ‘peak oil’ production. Oil is a naturally occurring flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth’s surface. Yet around the world, oil reserves are dropping, and even Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars developing offshore oil platforms!!!!
While it is fascinating to think of the potential creation of dozens of new Sealands in the Arabian or Persian Gulf, the point is that the world’s remaining oil resources may be lower than we think. This has serious consequences as oil is used for many things, including THE PRODUCTION OF PLASTIC MINIATURES, which are derived from petrochemicals. D&D4e, like 3e, was very miniatures-driven (and to be fair, I think the new 4e miniatures rules were a great improvement). The need to ‘monetize’ the experience of roleplaying, always a problem with RPGs since players don’t buy as many books as GMs and I often forbid my players from buying the books anyway so I can surprise them better, was funneled chiefly into (1) D&D Insider and (2) selling miniatures. But after rising oil prices made miniatures less profitable, Wizards was forced to reevaluate the miniatures-heavy direction of 4e. While D&D Insider is still a strong, vital social network, the D&D randomized miniatures line was shuttered just two years ago. :’-( Is it such a stretch to think that the shutoff of this vital source of income led to the new ‘miniatures-optional’ D&D Next?
However, I think that miniatures and roleplaying can and should coexist, and I can see several answers to this problem. One is investment in new technologies such as resin or paper miniatures, although in my experience paper & cardboard miniatures are no good at the table because of their low burning point. Another option is to forge ‘strategic partnerships’ with oil-producing countries in the Middle East, and to take steps (military if necessary) to get hold of more oil, for the benefit of Western consumers. Consider that the D&D Random Miniatures Line ended in January 2011, and in March 2011 the US military intervened in the Libyan Civil War to create a no-fly zone, ensuring continued access to Libyan oil pipelines after the political transition. Consider that the international megacorp known as the United Fruit Company was instrumental in American foreign policy in South America, and that Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, the same year that the United Fruit Company changed their name to Chiquita Brands International. Consider also that Charles S. Roberts, the creator of the modern wargame which directly led to the creation of RPGs, was employed by the CIA in the 1960s, and that Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Barker was not only one of America’s last great Orientalist experts on the Middle East but also the creator of Tekumel, THE FIRST EVER PUBLISHED THIRD-PARTY ROLEPLAYING GAME SETTING?
Do hypnotic patterns start to become visible? But I think if we look past the prismatic wall, we will find that there are other, better ways to maintain and foster interest in roleplaying, rather than strongarming ‘revolutions’ and finding pliable governments willing to sell oil to make miniatures. I’m not opposed to war on principle of course, but the long-term resentment caused by this kind of foreign military intervention only harms the cause of roleplaying in developing countries and the Middle East. Rather than having a Shiite immigrant in Qatif in Saudi Arabia working long poorly-paid hours building a pipeline to take oil overseas, better to have him actually playing a dwarf, and develop an indigenous market for roleplaying games among the peoples of the region! With respect to Mike Mearls, there are more important things than martial power. Gaming is a gift that must be shared, whether it is 1e or 2e, 3e, 4e, Pathfinder, D&D Next, or even Fiasco, although I think GMless games aren’t true roleplaying. If we come in peace, we will find not henchmen and hirelings, but fellow gamers.
CORRECTION 8/1/2012: Changed Darkseid to Thanos. I got them mixed up, sorry.
* Winefoot Halflings are a race in my original Neo-Pegana campaign setting.