Thursday, November 17, 2011


15, 12, 12, 13, 12, 14...

Reader me this, Riddleman: What do weepy custard and fake raindrops have in common with...?

(And before you come in and I finish that thought, note that this piece also contains the industry tag. So much to ponder...)

Dear Dragon: I never thought this would happen to me...

By gamer standards, it's not just pretty innocuous, it's textbook—any deviation from it would be unusual. Sitting around in someone's basement, scribbling on character sheets, rolling dice, listening as one person sets the narrative and other people respond according to called-out initiative numbers... it's what you'd expect.

The surprising part is that, despite three bookcases full of game books, the game I was participating in was Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons of all things. Those books had been relegated to the parents' basement when I moved out; they were still there when I was tapped to join this campaign. I've since rescued those books, and I'm still playing; those numbers at the top of the "opening shot" were the set of stats I rolled for my replacement character. Hey, I had to note 'em somewhere.

That is, like, so 1989, dude!

Yeah, isn't it? The publication date of the book is, indeed, 1989. And yet, 22 years later, here it is again, drenched in the smell of basement, and I'm having to use it as a reference work.

On the one hand, yes, I can accept it and it's even kind of fun.

On the other hand, it's wrong on so many levels I want to hurl.

  • 1989: 2nd Ed. AD&D
  • 2000: 3e D&D, the complete re-imagining of system
  • 2002: 3.5e D&D, the re-imagining, retooled for the sake of balance.
  • 2008: 4e D&D, the complete re-reimagining of the system
  • 2009: Pathfinder, 3.5e D&D for the 4e-D&D-disgruntled
  • 2011: D&D Essentials, the tuned re-reimagining, which kind of makes it 4.5...

Clearly there's something going on here. But it might not be obvious if you look at just this microcosm.

Haven't you heard? "Retro" is back in style again!

Okay, here comes that list again, with a few additions (but without those snarky comments; if you need those, scroll up):

  • 1986–1998: 3e GURPS
  • 1989: 4e Champions (larval form of Hero System)
  • 2000: 3e D&D
  • 2002: 3.5e D&D, 5e HERO System
  • 2004: 4e GURPS
  • 2008: 4e D&D
  • 2009: Pathfinder, 6e HERO System
  • 2011: D&D Essentials

What's so special about those additions?

For one thing, I was playing in a 3e GURPS campaign up until 2009. Yes, the next edition came out in 2004, but he stuck with 3rd edition because those are the books he had.

And as for HERO System, I heard about a group planning a Champions campaign in 2010... using 4th edition. Possibly it's the books they had; possibly they were put off by the two-volume set that cost $80.

That Pathfinder thing especially sticks out, since it's essentially a repackaging of the 3.5e D&D rules that Wizards of the Coast threw out in favor of that fourth edition. That fourth edition which I've referred to as "that bastard child of roleplaying and slot-car racing."

Which brings us to the riddle...

The entire question from the opening salvo was:

What do weepy custard and fake raindrops have in common with 2nd Ed. AD&D?

Make sense? Of course not. If it made sense I wouldn't have led off with it, all right? So maybe a little backstory is in order.

Weepy Custard?

In this regard, I believe I'm an anomaly: I can be critical of my mother's cooking. In particular, I have to be critical of her bread pudding because it so richly deserves ridicule.

If you're familiar at all with Alton Brown's body of work, you know that a proper custard is a fragile, delicate thing which must be brought to temperature slowly, and not allowed to coast over it or the egg proteins will congeal and squeeze out other liquids, breaking the gel down into a sort of solidy-liquidy mess not unlike curds and whey.

This is distinctly at odds with the way my mother makes bread pudding, which is essentially to stick it in the oven full blast until it cries, almost literally. That sweet whey-like substance that stays in the dish when she serves up a hardened hunk? She calls that "sauce."

Why would she go with this technique when modern cooks know better? Because that's how her mother made them, as I learned much to my horror when one of her brothers pretty much confirmed it. And studies have confirmed that people generally prefer their family's cooking because that's especially what they're used to.

Fake raindrops?

This one comes from, of all things, the main menu of a video game. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a game for the Playstation 2, had an initial main menu screen showing a cityscape during a rainstorm. Everything was bathed in bluish, turquoise-ish tones, and raindrops were splashing on the camera.

But this was a video game. There was no camera, so those raindrops didn't have to be there except to suggest rain.

About that, there's this other thing: anyone who does camera work generally goes to incredibly great lengths to make sure nothing hits the lens and obscures the shot. Rain ranks pretty high on the list of things not to have hit the lens, apparently.

And yet, here was a game, with a simulated camera view and rain hitting the simulated lens, just to suggest a rainstorm. Because even though there was no camera, someone figured if there was a camera there, rain would be hitting the lens despite the cameraman's best efforts. It was using an unwanted side-effect of a retro media technique as a presentation element.

The common element... that in all three cases, much older (and in some cases, dare I say bad) things are preferred because that's what would have been. It was the old way of doing things, but it's the way that certain people were accustomed to seeing things, so they keep them that way.

2e AD&D was a half-hearted retooling of the original rules, smoothed out slightly but otherwise overburdened with corner cases. Despite the presence of other well-tested systems, and even of debatably improved different versions of the game under the same nameplate, this particular group of gamers decided to stick with that ruleset. Because it's what they were used to.

And this brings us to that Industry tag...

This could end up being more of a cautionary tale to game designers who, upon creating (or acquiring—I'm looking at you, WotC) an acclaimed system, may not find the body of their work so easy to dispose of later, when it's outlived its usefulness. Yes, you may improve the look of the game tenfold and create a set of rules that cover more situations faster and with less math, but you may find that new edition doesn't sell quite as well because it's not the old edition.

The local game store has one side of a standing rack dedicated to 4e D&D products. The other side of that standing rack is dedicated to Pathfinder, which is the system WotC cast off like a well-used prom dress when they went to their new edition. That side of the rack is just as full of books.

The Power of the Revised Edition Can Be Used for Good or Evil

There are good reasons to revise an edition. If people have a lot of trouble following the original edition, or it's incredibly buggy and hard to use, or the rules just aren't clear, then there's good cause to tighten them up, pay the proofreader in something other than (packing) peanuts, and so on.

The Evil Reason for revised editions is, of course, the potential money to be earned selling new copies of books people don't necessarily need. In light of the above screed, though, this behavior may be self-punishing, as the publisher who ditches a popular first edition for a shiny, pricey second edition will have trouble pushing a second edition if people like the first. And forget about the third edition.

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