Thursday, September 20, 2012

We live in the d20 Dark Ages.

The grognards of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) have had their say. The Golden Age of D&D started in 1974 and ended anywhere from 1983 to even as late as 1993 or so. Later, D&D saw a boom during the 3rd Edition years. Many even still play D&D 3.5e. D&D 4th Edition, of course, is the most controversial of all the editions. I wonder what will happen when D&D 5th Edition/Next comes out. But where does that leave poor AD&D Second Edition? It is the middle child of D&D history, at times the Merovingian dynasty of D&D history.  And, well, I believe it signifies the beginning of the d20 Dark Ages, which continues to this day, despite the 3e boom.

d20 Dark Ages?

The term "Dark Ages" often connotes some kind of regression in intellectual thought and culture, things falling apart, and so on. When it comes to d20/D&D, I think something was lost, something that did not translate well for the younger generation of gamers. What that something is, I'll try to define in a later post.

For now, I identify the d20 Dark Ages with the following trends (although there are probably more):

1. Second Edition AD&D split the gaming community, much like how the Roman Empire split between the West and the East. Second Edition is the West. The grognards are the East, the Byzantines who are carrying the experience of D&D's antiquity to this day.

2. RPGs in general switched to focusing on telling a story, rather than exploration (dungeon crawls and what-not). There was, indeed, a switch, albeit a gradual one starting from around 1983 with Dragonlance and even the module I6: Ravenloft. Character actions took second place against the story or plot of the DM/GM, or the whims of the RPG book author. Settings, and even the novels written about settings, dictated what happened at the gaming table. Anything else was against canon. This basically meant that the actions of the player-characters don't matter. Finally, from what I've seen with 5e Forgotten, they still won't matter.

3. In many ways, AD&D Second Edition is the "lost" edition. The barbarians, manifesting in other game systems, overran it. Indeed, Magic: The Gathering came out of the wilderness, smashed apart many D&D groups, and eventually overran the capital in Geneva, Wisconsin. Even then, like certain Frankish and Visigothic kings realizing the value of retaining Roman laws and customs, Wizards of the Coast ushered in D&D 3e as an amalgamation of old and new. "Back to the Dungeon" they proclaimed. AD&D 2e was quickly swept aside with the promise of D&D finally getting it "right." Yet, the magic soon wore off for many players. 3.5e seemed to be the answer. And even that failed to "fix" the problems with the rules. Thus, 4th Edition.

4. Character building now trumps character development. Character sheets have grown over the years, so have stat-blocks in monster manuals and modules. The Roman Empire began as a lean and mean Republic. As it grew, so did it's laws and bureaucracy. Eventually, the Roman Empire became unmanageable by one emperor alone. The average player today has vastly far more published options that players did in the Golden Age. Yet, more options and rules do not make necessarily a better game. Second Edition consolidated a lot of these options published earlier. TSR also cranked out the "splatbooks" for characters. You could build your character just the way you like it, sort of.

5. D&D/d20 now emulates other games, instead of emulating the science fiction and fantasy works that inspired the game itself. D&D was once the leader, but since around 1989 it has been playing catch up to systems with more rules and options (GURPS, Rolemaster, etc.), systems that focus on storytelling ("The World of Darkness," etc.), and even computer games (Diablo II with "skill trees," and, of course "World of Warcraft." I think this is the most important point. And it is one I'll get back to often. See, I think most players after 1989 were introduced to RPGs and D&D without reading the fiction and the history that the games are based on. The game itself is a means and an ends. This has trained them to always want more. I could be wrong, but it is what I've observed over the years.

That's the five trends I can think of at the moment. There's probably more. Next time I'll share with you what it was like being introduced to D&D and growing up in the d20 Dark Age.

(As an aside: as a medievalist, I loathe to use the term "Dark Ages." Indeed, it has fallen out of favor among most medievalists, who prefer the term "Early Middle Ages." I use the term "Dark Ages" because it is still familiar to most people).


  1. I agree heartily with points 2-5. However, I think the initial split was between BECMI players and AD&D players. As an AD&D player starting in about 1985, our group considered BECMI a less sophisticated and inferior system, and I believe this idea was common among AD&D players. When 2e came out, all the AD&D players I knew (granted, younger than the pre-Unearthed Arcana grognards) switched over without a whimper. After all, 2e was more or less back compatible with the exception of the PHB and monster books.

    The 2e splatbooks, even the class-specific ones, were what really wrecked that game, in my opinion, though my players ate them up at the time.

  2. I think you're right about that split. I recall reading in Dragon in the early 90s that younger players in their teens most often preferred BECMI/D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Thus, older players probably wanted something more sophisticated.

    As for 2e splatbooks, well, that'll be the subject of a future post.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...