“Why do we have to move?” I asked.
In my head, I can hear the tone of my voice. It’s hard to listen to. I’m actually whining.
“It’s not fair!” I screamed, and stormed out of the house. I grabbed my backpack from the station wagon and headed down the hill, across the field, and to the horse barn. I scrambled up the hay elevator and found a corner by the window. It was hot. The air was full of hay dust. It stung my eyes. I told myself that’s why they were wet.
It didn't matter much. I opened up my backpack and grabbed the book.
In 1978, the single most important happening of the year was getting my hands on the Players Handbook for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I revered the book so much that I convinced the school librarian to cover it in the same plastic they used for all the shelved books. I stuck stickers of my favorite character (a dwarf named Torga) and my favorite monster (Green Dragons of course) in the front, instead of my name.
If I’m honest, I probably played far fewer hours of D&D at that age than I recall. I had essentially one good friend who played with me (and who remains one of my best friends today). We played occasionally in that first year, but not regularly. I’d had the original three books in a white box, when I was even younger, but only actually played full games a few times before AD&D as well.
Mostly what I did was make stuff up in the hayloft. Graph-paper dungeons. Countless characters. Even when I did get together with friends, half the time, we’d just spend the afternoon making characters and dungeons and traps and plot hooks, and then maybe do an encounter or two, using pipe cleaners and Sorry! pawns for our board.
And then in 1979 we moved from the small town I grew up in to a boarding school 100 miles away. My dad, ever drunk, couldn’t keep a teaching gig for very long, and finally he exhausted all of the local schools and had to move to a new unsuspecting school. Already a geeky kid, I felt extremely lost and lonely in the new world of this giant boarding school.
But I still had D&D. And eventually, I found another faculty brat on campus my age, and we lost ourselves in a year of actual play. We waded through the City State of the Invincible Overlord for a year, bolting on nearly every classic adventure of the era, from the Giants to the Tomb of Horrors.
Since then – nearly 30 years ago – D&D has been a part of my life. Years have gone by when I haven’t had a regular group to play with, but I’ve faithfully bought all the books, and never regretted a penny of it.
All this is to say: It’s hard to not have enormous rose-colored nostalgia glasses about D&D. In a room full of non-gamers, I’d be the worst kind of proselyte for Role Playing Games. I’d go on about how they made me a better, smarter person. How they teach problem solving. How they get shy kids out of their shells.
But between you and me, the actual rules for D&D? They’ve generally kind of sucked. That original Players Handbook for AD&D that I cherish so much? It’s just riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Nearly every page of my PHB has notes in it saying “See Dragon Issue 63 Page 26” or something similar. It was, at best, a sketch of how to run a game, and at worst, an unplayable mess.
And then Second Edition came along. It cleaned up a lot of the unplayable stupidity, but added levels of complexity that birthed a thousand rules-lawyer arguments around the table. Just how many ways do I need to win a fist fight?does a thief need to pick a pocket anyway? And now I have percent dice for strength?
And along with 2nd Edition came an endless series of expansion books that modified the game, making any one-shot session a negotiation.
Third Edition tried to clean all that up, and succeeded, but broke enough to make them issue a “patch” release, in the form of 3.5, which should really tell you how complex it got. Towards the end of 3.5s time on earth, the “endless books” problem had exploded to the point where there were hundreds of skills, spells and feats for every situation, so no two characters were ever the same. Sounds great, until you try and run a game.
And then there’s Fourth Edition, which, as much as I admired what they were trying to do, was a “baby with the bathwater” solution to the crushing complexity of the older games, making every character a superhero with a few “I win” buttons to press over and over again.
So where does this new version fit in? This new Players Handbook that Wizards of the Coast shipped to my doorstep today? It belongs in the hayloft.
In the hayloft, the rules never got in the way. In the hayloft, the rules never mattered, because it was just me and my imagination, and a framework I could play in. The players handbook was just a sandbox.
When Wizards of the Coast decided to re-imagine D&D this time, they did a few things very, very differently than in years past. They spent years asking people what they wanted. Through an extensive playtest process involving, apparently, over 100,000 people, they fiddled with a new take on D&D. The “new take” is very much old school in its feel – simple mechanics, rules that mostly get out of the way and let you have fun, opportunities for heroics and clown-car defeats.
Over the last year, I’ve been part of that playtest with a weekly group. We’ve watched the rules evolve. We watched power curves and spells and combat systems change. We submitted feedback. It felt like they listened, in general, and sure, that does give me and I imagine all the playtesters a sense of ownership, and involvement. But every decision they made seems to have come from the same core question: Does this rule — does this system — does this idea actually make the game more fun?
Fun. Not “realistic.” Not “complete.” Not "perfect."
The final package, as delivered here in the Players Handbook, shows their commitment to having the game be fun, and fun for everyone. The style of the book is far more approachable than in versions past and includes an enormous amount of good artwork, depicting not just Hollywood stereotypes of medieval fighters, but men and women of every race and class being total badasses, in pretty equal measure.
It’s also worth pointing out that the core of D&D is actually now free. They took everything you need to actually know to play the game and put it out in a PDF: http://media.wizards.com/downloads/dnd/DnDBasicRules.pdf
Everything that they’re selling for fat coin ($50 a book) is gravy. But nearly everything that I’ve been playing for over a year in the playtest group is in that PDF, and it was the best roleplaying experience of my life.
There are dozens of places on the internet you can go to get the details of “what’s different” (http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/9/5882143/roll-for-initiative-understanding-the-next-edition-of-dungeons-dragons) or how it works, but honestly, when they publish stuff like this for the low, low cost of nothing, you can just go read it and see if it’s for you.
And if it is, this new Players Handbook will be waiting for you.
So what’s my review? My genuine feeling is that Wizards has finally gotten D&D right. Lead Designers Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford have lovingly climbed up into my hayloft in the summer of 1978 and figured out what was so awesome about that time, and gently excised anything that got in the way and stuck it back in the nostalgia boxwhere it belongs. At the core, I feel like they finally (finally!) get why D&D mattered so much to so many of us so long ago. From Mike’s introduction to the PHB:
Just as D&D can strengthen your friendships, it can help build in you the confidence to create and share. D&D is a game that teaches you to look for the clever solution, share the sudden idea that can overcome a problem, and push yourself to imagine what could be, rather than simply accept what is.
Hells yes, Mike. Hells yes.