Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Nail in the Coffin, or Straw that Broke the Camel's Back, or Something Else

My thoughts on the upcoming release of 4e D&D have wavered from foaming-at-the-mouth hatred to ambivalence to apathy to tentative optimism, but today's news on alignments has, I think, absolutely and finally closed the deal. I categorically will not be buying or playing the new edition of my favourite role playing game.

In a way it's a relief to finally get that monkey off my back (or albatross from around my neck - I'm not doing well with my metaphors today). Let me explain why. I loathed, and continue to loathe, the 3rd edition of D&D and its bastard, scurrilous, spoiled and badly-brought up offspring, edition 3.5. They have no redeeming features for me; everything from the rules to the writing to the art makes me positively cringe to even think about. And yet some small nodule of atavistic loyalty to the game made me struggle my way through playing the new versions, which I have been doing for the last couple of years. Even though I was having fun in spite of the game rather than because of it, I persevered, because it was D&D and it was what most of the rest of the D&D-playing world was using, and I was part of that community and tradition and I still wanted to be part of it.

Well, I don't any more, and to be honest I like the new, strange feeling of release. Not only does the release of 4e D&D mean that I never have to even think about 3.5 ever again (and can hold a ritual book burning in the garden with my friends), it has blown away any desire to even bother keeping up with what the wider community of D&D players are playing, because my residual loyalty just can't cope with the kicking it has gotten from WotC over classes, races, tone, art, and now, finally, alignment. It's exhilarating. I can give up on keeping up, and it's good.

Why should messing with alignment be the final straw for me? I like alignment, sure, but I recognise it has always had frailties and problems. It has never made great sense in real-world terms, although it has had a kind of logic of its own, and I've never met two D&D players who've been able to entirely agree on what the different alignments represent. So what's the problem with WotC changing it for the new edition?

The reasons are multitudinous - or, at least, fourfold. They are:

  1. Most of the problems associated with alignment - it's unrealistic, it's too restrictive, it's used as an excuse by idiot players to get away with unreasonable behaviour like randomly killing NPCs or bossing other party members around - can only really be done away with by getting rid of it altogether. That is, if the designers had really wanted to solve those problems, they should have done so by the most expedient and sensible route - i.e. having no alignments in 4e D&D. The fact that they chose not to do this indicates that not only are they stupid, but they also lack the courage of their convictions (because I'm sure they pictured the howls of indignation that would have accompanied an announcement that alignments were now dead), and that is worse.
  2. The way they have rejigged the system is patently absurd. Admittedly I haven't read the Player's Handbook yet, but that isn't necessary to spot the patent absurdity, which is present in the terms used themselves. You see, the new system has Good. It has Evil. It has Unaligned. So far, so good; a three-way system like that would actually make some sense as a way to categorize characters and their behaviour, although in very broad terms. But they didn't stop there. They also introduced Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, which instantly turns the whole venture into a mess. Here's why: The existence of Lawful Good but not Lawful Evil implies that Lawfulness can only be associated with Good. But if that is the case, then why not just collapse "acting lawfully" into the definition of Good? (It works the other way with Chaotic Evil.) So that's Problem A - it's incoherent. Problem B is that it's incomplete - Lawfulness isn't necessarily Good, and Chaos isn't necessarily Evil. They've instantly made it impossible for this nuanced view to exist among their players without completely reworking and house-ruling the system, and that's just daft.
  3. I hate myself for sounding like a crusty old sabre-ratting gout-ridden colonel, but I'm going to say it anyway: the whole thing just smacks of trying to be new and fresh for a new edition without having considered what D&D is about at heart. God damn it, but alignment is a huge part of the flavour and character and more importantly the tradition of D&D, and you shouldn't mess with that without good reason. Good reason would be "We want to completely revamp the game." Good reason is not "Ill-thought out and cack-handedly executed change for change's sake," which is what this new idea is.
  4. This is a more general point, but like everything else associated with D&D's release, this new take on alignments has been remarkably poorly marketed and promoted. It has followed the same pattern that every new tidbit has, by and large: A vague rumourmongering post of the kind I linked to above, followed by predictable outrage, wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the increasingly alienated old-skoolers - then a proper elaboration and explanation released a few days down the line (2nd of June in this case) which effectively amounts to "Yah boo, this is how it works and these are the reasons behind it! See, who looks silly now, eh?" And we're all supposed to say...what, exactly? Yes, game designers, you were right and we were wrong; how could we ever have doubted you?
The above makes me sound angry, but I'm really not anymore. I just can't summon up the energy to care about something that seems in a funny way specifically designed to alienate me. I won't be buying future editions of D&D, and that makes me sad - but the fact that I won't have to bother even attempting to like 4e makes me feel very, very relieved.

And in case anybody believes such thinking is an inexcusable retreat into masturbatory hermitude and grognardia, read this post over at James Maliszewski's blog for a great exposition on why it isn't.


  1. Welcome to the club, as it were. I did the same thing with 3.0 shortly before 3.5 came out. I had to eat a lot of crow, however, since 3.0 did almost everything I'd wanted D&D to do for years. It wasn't until I sat down and got to play it that I realized just how much I really didn't like it.

    Reformations invariable follow the same pattern, no matter if their religious or based on hobbies. People realize that things are not right, and not as they should be. And they cast their eyes back to the beginning, when things were right and "pure". For some, that means going back to what Gygax and Arneson were doing at the very beginning. For me, that means Moldvay's Basic D&D. I look forward to seeing what form your own Reformation takes. :)

    - Brian

  2. It's a combination of 2nd edition and the Rules Cyclopedia for me, I think. I found my D&D feet with 2nd edition, so it's what I hold dear, but my first ever game was with Basic D&D and I've recently enjoyed reacquainting myself with the RC. The main hurdle is persuading players that no, it really is okay to just be an "elf" and not an elf mage (or whatever).