Edition Wars are Stupid

Belc, my human fighter in S&W

Since the start of 2009, I’ve been in one regular and one infrequent Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game. During that time I’ve also run a short campaign of Mutant Future, and played in a game of Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry – all of which are various simulacrums of the very first edition of D&D. I played another game of Swords & Wizardry this past Friday, and aside from various observations of the merging of 1974 sensibilities with 2011 technology (just about everyone at the table used a tablet or a laptop to read the rulebook, for example)1, I realized something.

The so-called “edition wars” between D&D players, and indeed between 4e fans and the self-proclaimed “old-school renaissance” are utter bullshit.

We played a specific version of Swords & Wizardry, the “Complete” version put out by Frog God a couple months ago. I didn’t have it, but because I liked S&W, I bought the $10 PDF sight-unseen so I had it to play. I also have a printed version of the S&W White Box from Brave Halfling games, and I purchased the revised edition of Labyrinth Lord, so I’m putting money towards this old-school revival. At one point I also worked on notes for my own LL/S&W background. I’ve also dropped a fair bit of cash on D&D 4e and the new Gamma World stuff, and I’ve noodled around with ideas for a Masque of the Red Death-like conversion to 4e. The conclusion is pretty simple: I like both editions, and I like supporting both editions.

And it’s not just me. Every person I played with in the Swords & Wizardry game is in a regular D&D 4e game. Russell was the person who got me the S&W boxed set as a gift. Granted, I am using a statistical sample of “people in my office,” but I know the few times I’ve talked to my friends who weren’t aware of LL or S&W, they seemed at least interested to try it, even if they were playing 4e.

The reality is, the more you go to each end of the D&D experience, the more they become distinct. AD&D First Edition to D&D 3.5 are a spectrum of complex rules involving a middling amount of simulation and a middling amount of tactics, but at each end you have low simulation and tactics, and high simulation and tactics. Some times, I really like the idea of a very lean set of rules that get out of the way and let me craft the experience I envision with the other players, and other times I like the heroic feeling of my resources and tactics carrying the day against a cadre of villains.

What was most telling to me is where the two games are similar. I’m not talking about aesthetic similarities like the six core attributes on a 3-18 scale, or a numerical representation of hit points. There are more philosophical similarities. Specifically, 0e and 4e both approach the DM with the idea that it’s their world, and make it as easy as possible to let him “reskin” or reinterpret pieces of the game to suit their fantasy world. 0e does this by its sheer minimalism – you have to add texture to the game, and S&W Complete actually turns this into a feature and makes the game a little more reskinnable and toolkit-like to maximize this. Meanwhile, 4e builds this in as a feature and designs around it, so that the relative complexity of the rules give way to allow this reskinning and focus on acting as a well-oiled framework to practice your tactics in.

But even the differences aren’t bad. I like the ease of character creation and the implied fatality that 0e brings – there’s something interesting about taking a random creation and trying to make it work. It was one of the elements I liked in the most recent version of Gamma World, but I had envisioned that 0e was still unbalanced in this regard – certain builds are just better than others. And yet, for whatever reason S&W Complete showed me the truth – you don’t need characters with lots of stats above 13, because there isn’t a whole lot of difference between 13 and 18. Your weapon only does 1d4 (and indeed you might only have 1d4 hit points yourself), but each point of damage means something, and a +1 to damage is a massive thing. I really like the efficiency of that scale, even if I’m still terrified to make a magic-user.

Sadly, I don’t like participating on many D&D forums, because it inevitably breaks down into edition wars. The most inspirational D&D blog/community for me was, surprisingly, Playing D&D with Porn Stars. Zack takes an immensely DIY approach to his own games, combining AD&D with D&D 3.5 and whatever else seems cool to his own games. It does seem like he’s sliding a bit more towards old-school purity lately, but he’s pretty good about making design wank ultimately come back to something he can use at his table. But many other communities break down into edition wars, even if the editions have names now:

  • 0e: Swords & Wizardry, et al.
  • 1e: Labyrinth Lord, et al.
  • AD&D: OSRIC (a surprisingly small community, it seems).
  • D&D 3.0/3.5: Pathfinder.
  • D&D 4e.

It feels sometimes that each edition getting broken off and branded individually has made the conflict worse, although every pre-Pathfinder edition has come under the banner of the old-school Renaissance (but don’t be fooled – I’ve seen some flamewars of Labyrinth Lord vs. Swords and Wizardry that are blistering). But I’m not seeing a lot of people talking about taking all of these marvelous toolboxes and putting together the best experience for their players. And that’s a shame, because outside of the Internet, I’m seeing these editions co-exist quite peacefully.

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  1. I’ll talk about using a table in gaming in the eventual review of the Galaxy Tab that I’ll do.