Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Irrational Hatred and Edition Wars

Due to another of Zach's recent entries, I came across this old rpgsite thread, which was the result of a Best/Worst RPG ever survey carried out on those forums. There are various ranking permutations worked out in the first post, but the most persuasive interpretation of the votes (number of 'best' votes - number of 'worst' votes) resulted in the following "bottom ten" table, number 1 being the worst game of all time:

1. AD&D 2e
2. Star Wars d20
3. Rifts (Palladium)
4. FATAL/Powers and Perils
6. Aftermath
7. Immortal: The Invisible War
8. AD&D 2e Player's Option/Living Steel
10. Fuzion

Do you notice anything odd about that? I do. Namely, AD&D 2e patently isn't the worst RPG ever. It really isn't. You might not agree that it is the best (and although it is my favourite, even I don't think of it as the best), or even that it is very good, but come on... the worst? How do we account for this abnormality?

Mostly, it is to do with the fact that 2e was the most played version of the game, and it thus draws the most ire from the people who dislike D&D generally; it is likely to be the version they are most familiar with. That's unfair, but understandable. However, some of the negativity must also be put it down to the the tendency among a sizeable portion of old schoolers, bemoaned in a recent thread at dragonsfoot, to what essentially boils down to Intellectual Perversity (as opposed to the sexual kind). That is, irrational hatred on the part of 1e AD&D fans for a game which is 99% similar to their favourite. Intellectual Perversity of grognards, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. 2e AD&D went hand in hand with ill treatment of Gary Gygax, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because it isn't the set of rules' fault, nor Zeb Cook's, that Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR, and lingering distaste over that episode is no rational reason for disliking the game.
2. 2e AD&D threw out some treasured eccentricities of 1e, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because those treasured eccentricities added nothing to the game. Disorganised and incoherent rules are not a good thing. The assassin class never made any sense.
3. 2e AD&D is written in a simplistic style of English which anybody can understand, therefore it is condescending and infantile. Intellectually perverse because game rules are instructions and instructions should always be clear.
4. 2e AD&D got rid of the words 'devil' and 'demon' and replaced them with 'baatezu' and 'tanar'ri', therefore it was cowtowing to the moral majority and demonstrating cowardice. Intellectually perverse because it's a purely cosmetic change.
5. 2e AD&D was moralistic and high-handed, which is never good. Intellectually perverse because nothing within the ruleset prevents graverobbing, murder, genocide, or playing a chaotic evil character as the player desires.

These in and of themselves are perfectly acceptable reasons (however irrational) for disliking 2e or preferring 1e. But they hardly qualify as reasons to believe it the worst game ever, given that the two editions are so similar.

The root cause of this grognard hatred is, I believe, snootiness. 1e came first, and moreover was written more or less for adults. 2e was a jonny-come-lately with aspirations to appeal equally to both adults and older children. That sort of thing bothers people of a certain disposition, who fancy themselves mature and intelligent and above childish pursuits, and thus the edition war was born. Personally I prefer certain aspects of 2e to 1e, but I like the older edition and would never vote it the worst rpg ever, or even call it a bad one.


  1. As bad as the Grognardish hatred of 2e is, it's nothing compared to the irrationality that comes from the more fervent adherents of the newer editions. I'll take the condescension of a "1er" over the near psychotic loathing of the other crowd any day.

    After all, AD&D 2e is the red headed stepchild of D&D.

  2. Michael: Interesting point. Psychotic loathing goes in all directions. 1ers hating 2ers, both of them hating 3ers and 4ers and vice versa... I think the only edition without irrational adherents is BECMI, which everybody kinda likes.

  3. It's kind of hard to hate BECMI. Especially since there was never any "upgrade" claims to it really. It was always its own thing.

    I will say that I've met more than a few (more and more lately actually) who confuse and conflate AD&D with BECMI and the little brown books. The history of the game is no longer as well known as it should be.

  4. I'm not familiar with BECMI, so I can't offer an opinion there. But I like most of what 2e did.

  5. AD&D 2e leaves me blah. I don't really have strong feelings about it, but I mildly dislike it. I associate it with the aesthetic shift from grotty-but-cool Otus and Trampier art to (what I consider) god-awful Elmore/Easley/Caldwell art. I also associate it with the inundation of crufty settings and marginal flavor text products.

    For the first time, D&D seemed like the product of committees and focus groups rather than a loose confederation of baroque syncretist neckbeards. I probably wouldn't have articulated it that way as a kid, but I was a reflexive contrarian and 2e just didn't feel right.

    Similarly, I strongly prefer B/X to BECMI even though the differences between the B/X and BE portions are negligible. I just happen to like the feel of the earlier versions.

    I agree that it's perverse to become rabid about it, but some people are just dicks.

  6. Heh... Well, among many different groups, it's "cool" to denigrate 2e. It's the edition the 1e grognards have always hated, it's the edition the 1e WoD players learned to sneer at, and it's the edition 3e rescued us from. It's the edition that saw Gygax out, and it was the edition still being sold when TSR went belly-up. And it's probably the edition most folks left behind in junior high when they discovered girls/computers/cars/whatever when they turned 16.

    - Brian

  7. Uh, I like 2e just fine. It's not my favorite edition but the core rules are well done and I've had tons of fun with it. Your casual dismissal of the irrational charms of 1e in your defense of 2e isn't making me like 2e any more. It's making me like your defense less.

  8. 2e voted worst edition ever? HA HA HA!

    I don't need to point out that I still play it, and I still love it, so I will resist the temptation. Amazing show of restraint, huh.

  9. Scott: I'm a fellow reflexive contrarian, which possibly accounts for why I like 2e so much, in spite of (or because of) the ire it attracts!

    Brian: Yeah, it was definitely a victim of its own success, and its own timing.

    Jeff: I've got nothing against irrational charms, but citing their tidying up as a reason to hate a new edition just seems...perverse.

    Ripper X: Stay strong! We're a dying breed.

  10. I've never played 2e. I have a couple of 1e AD&D books (DMG, PHB, and... Fiend Folio) but I find them complex and blaze, except for the fairly awesome random tables capable of building anything you want.

    So basically, I can't comment on 2e.

    But I will toss in the completely unneeded comment that Starwars d20 entirely deserves as much scorn as possible. Eeeeuuuughhhgh.

  11. David: What's so bad about it?

  12. It's not WEG.

    Beyond that, the original version had some serious mechanical issues, such as the well-known problem that most mid-to-high level characters would actually become easier to hurt if they wore armour. It also had the misfortune to be released at a time when Lucas was turning most of the older RPG assumptions (like healing being a property of the Light Side) on their collective ear.

    - Brian

  13. this was an interesting post, and I thank you for it. two of the points you disclaim, though, I think are very good reasons for being very skeptical about 2e-- although I'm with you in not seeing it as being the worst game ever, what it represents for me, in retrospect, is D&D at its worst. it's D&D after the period where it was the passionate and enduring output of a few individualistic creators, but before the corporate/committee approach that defines later editions got on its feet.

    2, for example: 2e took 1e and tried to fit it into a bunch of neat boxes. instead of a wide range of (admittedly poorly-balanced) character class options, you had 4 basic options, and a number of subclasses. what this did was strip out a lot of the strange and arcane range of the original game in favor of what would evolve to become the "exceptions-based" framework, where characters were basically all cut from the same cloth but with special abilities that applied here and there. 1e was an unmanageable system (if you didn't, as everyone I knew did, develop elaborate house rules about which game mechanics you would just skip entirely), and 2e started the process of fixing that by stripping out nonessential rulesets. but 2e didn't do a very good or complete job at that, so what we ended up with was a system that lacked the sheer color of 1e, with its assassin and illusionist classes, its emphasis on complicated and copious rulesets for game details that are explicitly intended to be rarely used (psionics, artifacts), its "random herb" and "random prostitute encounter" tables-- but which didn't actually achieve any sort of real game balance by sacrificing this unnecessary but absorbing detail. in 1e, if you had an assassin (or a paladin, or an illusionist, or a druid, or a monk) in your party, your campaign was going to be deeply colored by that, thanks to all the unexpected rules exceptions, class-specific advancement requirements, and out-of-nowhere, unbalanced abilities. and the 1e rulebooks were still narrative in a way that we didn't really see again until 4e-- the game had a story to itself, and wasn't just a set of mechanics for representing any generic fantasy world. 2e, on the other hand, was D&D's first step towards adaptability and universality, but it was a slow step, not far enough, and it gave up a lot to get there.

    4. a cosmetic change, in a game where setting and rules are far from distinct, is not a trivial point. 1e had rules designed to let players actually do battle with cosmic evil. 2e had rules designed to allow players to do battle with belligerent, interdimensional, extraplanar entities. that's not the same thing. in 1e, the existence of demons and devils was part and parcel of D&D's fascination with the occult and the arcane, and really gave paladins something to do that was in keeping with their conceptual underpinning. 2e sacrificed that purely to appease redneck parents caught up in American Satanic panic, which was just shameful. kind of like listening to the WalMart edited version of a good but profane album-- maybe it's a "cosmetic" change, but it's a "cosmetic" change that clearly puts the game on the side of the censors rather than the afficionados. putting black bars over the mostly-exposed breasts on the game's cover paintings would have been a cosmetic change as well. and renaming swords as "battle batons" to appease the anti-edged weapons lobby would have been a cosmetic change.

    the thing is, 2e isn't the worst game ever. but, if it were a Metallica album, it would be "Load" or "Reload." if it were a branch of the Democratic party, it would be the DLC. if it were an ice cream flavor, it would be Neopolitan-- it was an effort to take something specialized and intricate and make it easily palatable to a broader audience. and I played 2e more than any other RPG, because it was the popular, current version when I played heavily (ages 14-17 or so) but looking back at it from the vantage point of the present, it comes off, now that we have some real perspective, as unnecessarily bland, as being the result of groupthink over individual creativity, and as ceding ground to mass hysteria rather than maintaining artistic integrity. I'm strongly with Scott on this one.

    sorry about the long comment. I just started writing and got carried away. but, yeah, 2e is hardly the worst RPG ever viewed as a system, but I still see it as a concrete set of very bad directional changes in a game that still dominated the RPG market, which is no small thing.

  14. The number 2 spot being given over to d20 Star Wars, for me, makes your explanation seem extremely credible. It and 2nd Edition are in much the same situation, as Michael said: their crime is not being the same as that other thing that people had played and greatly enjoyed. As you say, there's a type of person for whom this is a much worse crime than it might otherwise be.

    Games don't evolve, but I want to believe that they can develop, and they can progress. It might be that no roleplaying game besides 1st Ed was ever as good as 1st Ed, but unless roleplaying games are unlike every other kind of technology/artistic medium/game that there is, it's impossible that there will never be a game as good as 1st Ed. Except unless the quality of "good" has nothing to do with any properties of the game or the play that it engenders, and is instead an identity: 1e = good = 1e. And if it's good by definition, things that aren't it are bad by definition, and if a bad thing were to dilute the good thing's brand by appearing under it's name, then that is a crime that must be punished severely and continuously, or you can no longer claim to be a good person.

    In short, these are the kind of people who would claim that Jihad is one of the pillars of submission to God.

    I'm pleased to believe that my (mild) dislike of the D&D brand is based in conscious consideration of my goals and experiences, and is thus surmountable by arguments, adjustments, and "playing with the right people." But most importantly, I don't think my dislikes are so important as to warrant invective.

  15. I ran 2nd edition thru most of my early days DMing. Worked good for me, and was a lot easier to track stuff when you only had 4 stats to jot down (HP, AC, Dmg, and Thac0). I'll warrant that there were a lot of positive steps in the change from 2nd to 3rd (like never having to explain to players when they had to roll high or roll low on the d20) but 2nd Ed generated a lot of good times. I'm a 3rd edition guy now, but I never really got the strong dislike folks have for 2nd. Don't hate the game, hate the (mind) flaya...

  16. I feel the same way about 2e -- the rules, not the line, which is a different kettle of fish entirely -- the same way I feel about Moldvay Basic: a well-executed and presented game that sacrifices a lot of the charm and depth of its immediate predecessor in the pursuit of mass market glory.

    I don't think 2e is an objectively bad game anymore than Moldvay Basic is. In fact, I think it's superior to 1e when it comes to introducing someone to the hobby. However, I do think 2e is a game designed with a broader and thus blander palette than 1e, resulting in something that feels "hollow," like the house of a great man that's been turned into a museum -- which, I suppose, is exactly what 2e was.

  17. James: Those are valid reasons for disliking 2e, I think, but not for hating it as some grognards seem to. I can certainly appreciate what you say about it falling between two stools, and think that is the most telling criticism.

    Regarding the cosmetic changes, I really have a hard time getting worked up about them. On the one hand I know exactly what you mean when it comes to removing anything remotely objectionable in the name of mass-market appeal. Sanitisation is something I've often bemoaned in films, books or music. But I also suspect that a lot of the anger is down to a set of neckbeards who rather like appearing to be rebels; they want to keep their devils and demons and say "Screw you, moral majority!" It's all so teenage. If you (the general you, not you specifically) don't like "tanar'ri" and "baatezu", just change the names back to demons and devils and bob's your uncle. I can understand complaints like 4e's removal of the gnome, because recitfying that for people who like gnomes would take a lot of effort. But it takes no effort at all to say, "In my game, baatezu are called devils."

    Thanks for the long comment. You articulated the anti-2e position very well.

    Nick: Except unless the quality of "good" has nothing to do with any properties of the game or the play that it engenders, and is instead an identity: 1e = good = 1e. And if it's good by definition, things that aren't it are bad by definition, and if a bad thing were to dilute the good thing's brand by appearing under it's name, then that is a crime that must be punished severely and continuously, or you can no longer claim to be a good person.

    That's very nicely put, and a good summation of a general psychological phenomenon in some sectors of geekdom.

    BigFella: It was the game I DM'd the most too in the early days, so maybe that's why I'm so attached to it. I'm one of those people who really didn't like the changes to 3e; I put it down to a streak of stick-in-the-mudism.

    James M: As I wrote in reply to the (other) James, I recognise that criticism. But it doesn't explain the heat of the ire that exists among some. Such is RPG fandom!

  18. I first entered roleplaying with 2e, and I enjoyed it. I can now see that people coming from 1e may have a stigma against it, but if hating/loving it is completely determined by whether or not you played 1e first, then you can't claim it as a bad game because it is way too subjective.

    With the demon/devil, baatezu/tanar'ri thing: I always thought of each of them as demon/devil, but only as a type. Since again I did not come from 1e, I only thought it was a setting-specific name (ie, Planescape).

    I now own the 1e books, and can't ever think about actually playing with them. For me, 2e was pro'lly a good thing; if I had entered with 1e, I might not have become that interested.

  19. Although I prefer 1E, I can't condone the irrational hatred in some quarters for 2E.

    Consider the complementary disdain of some 2E devotees for "old school" approaches! It often seems to me that those partisans take the superiority of their preferences as so self-evident that they need not even understand another position. In contrast, 1E players seem to me more likely not only to understand but on occasion to enjoy some of the same things -- just not so much in AD&D.

  20. I prefer 3e for my D&D needs (hold up crucifixes if you must...), but I don't hate 2e with a fiery burning passion or anything. It was my first experience with the game, and I love the various campaign settings and the trend towards lots of habitat and ecology information for monsters.

    Now, if that poll was "the worst RPG that you (the voter) have played", I'd find it a whole lot more believable. A ton of people have played 2e, especially compared to actually horrible RPGs like FATAL. FATAL is deservedly infamous, but how many people have actually played it?

  21. 2e drove me away from D&D and since I never found anyone wanting to play non-D&D rpgs from the RPG hobby for many years (until ToEE CRPG & 3.5 brought me back)

    The reasons are entirely the company and marketing behind it. The rules didn't matter I just wasn't gonna give my money to a corporation which dicked me around and was souless.

    All the splatbooks, increasing powerlevels etc are lame, transparent gimmicks to buy more more more. The sissification to appease the mainstream. Proved it was not a game by gamers for the love of the game but by laywers and MBA's.

    It's certainly not the worst or even bottom ten worst. And my scorn was more on the company than the product (but at the time that was one and the same). I'm even a player in a nominally 2ed game right now.

    The same thing has happened again regards Hasboro and 4ed. Freaking HATE that company.

    @james I agree with your cosmetic arguments but find them utterly hypocritical re your views on Carcosa. To quote "just shameful."

  22. Nick: I never saw much of a difference between baatezu/tanar'ri and devils/demons either. It's not as if 2e sanitised the things - baatezu and tanar'ri are still unspeakably evil beings who good people have to fight.

    Nicholas: 3e? Get thee behind me, Satan. You make a good point about "worst game you've ever played", actually. I could see 2e being that for some people, merely by dint of its being probably the most played game ever. But yeah, I've never played FATAL and don't know anybody who has.

    Dwayanu: It works in all directions, of course. Roleplayers love to hate, it seems.

    Njharman: Again, valid reasons for disliking 2e or not playing it, but as you point out, not really a reason for voting it worst game ever.

  23. @james I agree with your cosmetic arguments but find them utterly hypocritical re your views on Carcosa. To quote "just shameful."

    FYI: The James who made the argument you're responding to is not the same James who reviewed Carcosa.