Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Slightly Drunk, Clownish Older Cousin

It started yesterday (as I write this) as a result of this blog post over at The Angry DM, talking about how Wizards of the Coast dropped the ball by not making some sort of proper introduction to D&D. I kinda... think it might exist already.

(checks the time) Aw geez, I've only got an hour until I've got to leave for my own gaming night. Can I get this hammered out in time?

What's this about an Older Cousin?

Patience. First, let's cast a gimlet eye upon the points made by Scott the Angry DM. Or, as I prefer, a martini eye. The link's above, and by the way I agree with them.

To tl;dr my own feeling: 5th Edition? Got a lot going for it. It's probably the most accessible edition yet, and it would be a great way to bring new player in ...except as Scott points out, it's not.

As he points out, the Player's Handbook is a concise reference describing the rules of character creation and what all the basic moving parts do. Unfortunately, if you're going to introduce someone to the body of work, then a "concise reference" is in fact the last thing you want. The reading will be dry and uninviting. To introduce new players without the help of an intermediary who already knows the game, then you want "inviting."

That's where the "older cousin" in Scott's rant came from: WotC is relying on the "older cousins," or at least more knowledgeable guides whether or not they're related by blood, to introduce new players to the game. WotC is relying on those "older cousins" to do their marketing. And that's seems a rather bad thing to do.

4 out of 5 dentists...

The note struck a chord, so to speak. Many people, not just Scott and myself, lamented the lack of some sort of introductory material which new players could pick up to get some feel for what's going on in the game without having to dance cheek-by-jowl with cumbersome, sticky, sweaty rules.

The shape and content of this book, however, remains unclear. Another individual on G+, Venger Satanis, had his own take on the document, reminiscent of the replay used by other games and featuring players whose interests are tangential but yet who have neither neither dipped nor wiggled their toes in RPG play yet.

My own take on such an introductory beast would have been called D&D Introduction and pretty much just been a low-pressure, breezy discussion of the various mechanisms in the rules...

And Then It Got Weird.

It sounded like it was sorely needed. And yet, something about it started to sound hauntingly familiar. Did they do something like this already? And no, I don't mean that third party Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies—attractive alliteration aside, nobody should ever try to learn something from a book that starts out by insulting the reader's intelligence. That's one of my hard-and-fast rules.

So I went to the bookshelf (yes, my own)... and there it was.

No, I did not wish a book into being. It was already there. Only, it was almost completely unrecognizable as an introduction for new players.

It was the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Strategy Guide, published for 4th edi—

Damn it, don't close that browser window yet!

Unausprechtlichen Munchkin

Yes. Trust me, I know how utterly pants-on-head retarded it sounds. That book, whose art and writing style were completely at odds with the materials it was published alongside? The book that many well-experienced players turned their noses up at, and largely rightly so? And let's not speak of its association with that edition (which admittedly had its share of strong points, though admittedly roleplaying wasn't one of them).

In fact, you may have seen it and not remembered it because you would have subconsciously tried to blot it from your memory. I seem to remember it being that poorly received.

Now, why did experienced players ignore this book? Let me count the ways.

First, a book for experienced players wouldn't need two pages of introduction on how to role-play. A book for experienced player would also not need headings in the "Building Your Character" campaign along the lines of:

  • Know the Campaign
    • Understand the World
    • Accept Limits
    • Solicit Recommendations
    • Immerse your Character
    • Know the Other Players
  • Characterizaton Builder
    • Concepts Lead to Goals
    • Playing it Forward
    • Don't Fear the Cliche
    • Looking the Part

I mean, that all sounds like beginner stuff, right? (Again, admittedly, there are certain advanced players that would benefit from such remedial wisdom, but this isn't about them.) Then there are the quizzes—and I do not exaggerate here: I mean actual multiple choice quizzes—whereby the prospective player can select what kind of player they are, which class they'd be comfortable with, which race they'd be comfortable with, and which alignment they ought to play their character as.

There aren't more quizzes after that, but it does go into every aspect of the then-current edition: Attributes, skills, powers, feats, leveling, and then sections on optimizing a character for different roles like the fastest, toughest, best talker, blah blah blah. Then about halfway into the book it starts talking about making cohesive parties, and you're probably tired of hearing about it so I'll stop with that.

Somewhere along in here, The Light should have gone on.

If you'd never seen this book, and as an experienced player you're glad you gave it a bye, then you're Missing The Point: This was an excellent introductory-level book, and with a little bit more fleshing out, it could very easily have become the Introductory Guide that Scott, many others, and myself kind of wish WotC had published.

Of course, with new editions come new requirements and challenges. This is to be expected, because they keep changing the game's rules.

But yes, I am seriously suggesting that the PSG could have been D&D Intro.

Something about belling the cat and having ice cream and cake

The making of an intro book, aimed squarely at new players, is not an easy undertaking. The PSG hit a lot of the right notes, but from a marketing standpoint, the shot went wild. It didn't get into the hands of the people who could have benefitted from it. But yes, I'm thinking they could use this book as a template for the theorized 5e D&D Intro book.

The next shot has to be lined up a lot more carefully. And the content needs to be refined for beginning players so that they learn first of, then about the game.

In my responses I was theorizing the intro book as a printed replacement for the Older Cousin, to get people comfortable enough with and curious enough about the concepts therein so that they'd willingly seek out the materials to play.

Then there are the problems associated with marketing the beginner book. Which kind of brings us back to square one: Marketing to beginners.

Of course, it could get near-universal distribution if they released it as a free PDF... wait, no, sorry, I forgot who I was talking about here.

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