Dungeons and Dragons has gone full circle. It began as an offshoot of a wargame that became a roleplaying game and, ever since 3E, it is pretty much a miniature wargame again, which has infected the way the game has been designed (especially 4E). During the 3E days, an actual miniature wargame was produced by WOTC that was minimally different from 3E D&D! To put it mildly, I am not sure that this is a good thing*.
A recent gaming session brought this to the forefront. I have been running a heavily-modified version of “The Sinister Stone of Sakkara” for my 5E group. After introducing them to some tough enemies that were not complete pushovers, they decided to talk. I introduced the concept of factions in the dungeon that they could ally with, assist, betray, etc and IT BLEW THEIR MINDS. One of my players actually thought I was some sort of GM-ing genius. I’m not. But fake it ’til you make it!
By and large, I have been disappointed by most 3E and later published modules, because they are little more than what Bruce Lynch calls “tactics porn”. There is a time and place for combat heavy roleplaying scenarios (like the game I am working on), but I am not sure that publishing multiple editions of the game with these “tactics porn” modules is good for fantasy roleplaying as a whole.
Now, you may be asking why I am making a big deal about published modules. After all, nothing is stopping you from converting a classic module into 4E and playing 4E as an OSR game. Heck, that is what I am trying (with limited success) to do with 5E. The reason I make a big deal about published modules is because that is what many people think of as “pure” D&D or “official” D&D. If you are going to publish a module / adventure, it should represent the product well. Looking a lot of 3E and later modules, they are simply D&D flavored versions of the those old chess problems in the newspaper where you have to get to checkmate in 6 moves or less. How can your 4 3rd level characters defeat X number of enemy Y in environment Z?
There are several factors at work here that I will briefly go over. None of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they have combined in a way that is simply disgusting, much like the “Bachelor Chow” I used to eat before I got married. Rice, chicken, cheddar cheese, and barbeque sauce are all great flavors. Just not together.
1) Distrust of the GM. Later editions take a lot of power away from GMs by creating explicit rules for strange situations that do not come up often. A good GM should be able to create a fair-ish ruling that will be applied consistently-ish. I suspect that during the early days of the game, upset players would send in angry letters to TSR complaining about bad GMs contributed to these changes, as well the rise of tournament play. With tournament play, the need for “official” rulings would then become new “official” rules.
2) Published settings. Published settings have to remain static** (except between editions). Because they make world building much easier for GMs, they are popular. However, no adventure can be truly weird or earth-shaking. The status quo must be maintained. The best a hero can hope for in the Forgotten Realms is that the status quo returns. Say what you will about an adventure like “Death Frost Doom”, but at least there are serious consequences for the game world based on what happens in the adventure. Extreme consequences (perhaps too extreme). You know what’s safe? “Tactics porn” encounters to stop bad dude X from doing thing Y that if stopped in time, will have no lasting consequences in the game world.
3) “Magical Engineers”. There are people who will nit-pick and explore every potential effect in a magical world. Therefore, I think module designers were forced to explain every last weird effect by the rules of the game. Nothing can just be anymore. It must be fall perfectly into the rules of the game world / our world. That sense of wonder is gone from players. They cannot simply allow something weird to simply exist. The reason for this is…
4) A lack of the FANTASTIC. Nothing is special anymore. Blame it on CGI, the public schools, the closing of the Western mind, the general state of modern sci-fi and fantasy literature, etc, but for whatever reason we simply refuse to be awed. I am not sure how to fix this other than changing media consumption habits. If you need suggestions, let me know.
* I am not saying that fantasy wargames are bad, just that they aren’t D&D. If you invite me over to play chess and when I arrive, start dealing me UNO cards, I am going to say something!
** One example of a published setting that does this right is the setting in ACKS. A dying empire that can be carved into a one hundred new, smaller political units run by players. The players can make actual map-altering changes in the world. Also, because there are no published novels and a minimal amount of character information for the setting, you don’t have to worry about THAT PLAYER telling you that King Bob VII is actually 56 years old, not a child king being manipulated by the Grand Vizier per the official Published Setting novel by Hack McHackerson.