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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mike Mearls Hates D&D

I have been reading the column he is writing, and some of the commentary it is generating in the OSR blogosphere, I have even commented a little bit about some of it myself. I suspect it isn't just Mr. Mearls, but also the rest of the design team behind 5th Edition D&D, or D&D Next, as they think the cool kids are calling it. I reached this inescapable conclusion when I went back and examined the evidence- Mr. Mearls is playing B/X D&D, ostensibly to establish a baseline, but really because it is the best selling D&D ever, so marketing has got to be involved here. Anyway, he keeps wanting to tweak the system. I guess that's cool, we all use house rules, right? But he wants to test the system to destruction and rebuild it (again) anew, and that's not cool, that's what people who hate D&D want to do. I know, I have played D&D with people that HATE D&D a whole bunch of times over the course of my decades of gaming.

I have seen it coming from both sides too, D&D is too abstract and needs to be made more "realistic", with hit locations, a variety of skills, and what-not. D&D is too rules bound, it needs to be more like, name your favorite rules-lite system, this is usually leveled at AD&D when you add in all the extra books or 2nd edition once the splatbook frenzy started or 3e almost from the get go. I have seen the madness of rules breakers that try and smash the system so they can make a better system and it isn't pretty; but at least they were all honest about the fact that they hated D&D. Mike Mearls claims to love D&D. I can't see any evidence that he ever loved any pre-WotC version of D&D, he is apparently only playing it in protest trying to figure out what it's ancient arcane mystique was that held so many of us enthralled for so long.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the 1981 Moldvay/Cook B/X edition of D&D doesn't have room for improvement, in thirty-one years the state of the art has moved forward a bit and we can too. AD&D, both 1st and 2nd editions had some good stuff, yes, even in the splatbooks. 3e made some good design decisions too, along with a few that I would have liked to have seen be optional, and a bunch of stuff I thought was bad. I am almost completely unfamiliar with 4th edition D&D, so I have to refrain from comment, either positive or negative, except to say that I am sure that something good must be hidden inside.

Now, I was against what Mike wanted to do to with Save or Die effects, but I assumed it was a sop to the people that were raised on the somewhat more sissified style of 3rd and 4th edition D&D gaming where every character created is a special snowflake and it would just break you player's heart to see him or her die, especially in an unheroic manner; and it might just break your precious story train off the rails if one of the all important PCs died at the wrong time. Different style of gaming, vastly more time invested in character creation, sure, I get it, all the PCs are tanks and I am an old man saying "Back in my day...."; but back in my day we did have good stories for our characters, they just developed over time. We also had a real sense of accomplishment when we leveled up, because it didn't happen every time we played, and there was a real chance that some of our PCs weren't making it back every single time we went adventuring*.

But I digress, this week Mike moved on to fixing problems that don't even exist in B/X D&D, namely the Turn Undead ability of the Cleric. I can not even fathom what his problem with this ability is, except the whole lack of defined parameters for how long various undead remain turned and how far they have to run. Honestly EGG already answered most of the questions he has in in 1st edition AD&D, and a few others too. Anything else he wants to do I guess can be a simple house rule, it doesn't have to be made "official" D&D Next/5th edition; if you want free willed bad-ass Undead to just hover around menacingly once they've been turned like Vampires in a Hammer horror film, I am cool with that, really, but that's your game, and maybe mine, it doesn't need to be everyone's. He wants to plant all of this stuff in a stat block for each Undead monster, I feel this would unnecessarily clutter the game with stat blocks, so I'd rather prefer to leave it on the simple Turn Undead chart as a footnote, like on the 1st edition AD&D DM's Screen. He claims he doesn't want the Turn Undead ability to be an "I win" button for Clerics or a Fireball tuned specifically to the undead**, because B/X Clerics are too tough? Turn Undead is the only thing they have going for them at first level. They don't get a Spell, they have a D6 for Hit Points and are limited to weapons that do 1d6 Damage, they might have a good AC if they rolled good starting money.

Of course I don't really buy into the idea that he is all that invested in trying out B/X at all given that he is talking about Turn Undead being done using a Charisma Check with a DC and the area of effect being a 30' cone, that all smacks of 3e to me and that's the D&D I divorced. My guess is that if Mike Mearls or Monte Cook or anyone else on the 5th Edition Design Team wants to know what old school D&D was and is like, they should quit DMing and start playing some D&D using these old rules, with an old school DM. There are still some around. They might just find out that they like the game and that returning it to it's roots with some of the thirty-one years of game design innovation is cool, but I am still not cool with the market department deciding things like how often characters should level.

*It's worth mentioning here, as was recently pointed out at Tenkar's Tavern, D&D was originally published as a wargame. You sometimes get attached to certain units in wargames, particularly if they have a campaign play option, but it's kind of silly to mourn the loss of the Grossdeutschland division counter for too long. Yes, I picked that one on purpose because my wife mocks me for mourning it's loss during a drive on Moscow. They had performed so well, they were my lucky unit.

**Of course then he goes a little farther off the reservation when he starts talking about Evil Clerics and them just gaining abilities from other planar creatures, so I guess Carcosa has left it's mark on Mike Mearls. I can't decide if the addition of crazy new abilities to track is worth the bonus points for pissing off the religious right and maybe putting D&D's name back on the radar, so kudos to Mr. Mearls on the addition of Evil PCs and them getting extra special bonus abilities right out of the gate. I didn't see anything special for Good Clerics mentioned, even though an equal and opposite type of ritual ability gain should be possible through contracts with higher planar beings and divine rituals.