More on the Red Box, 4e, and Essentials

October 4, 2010 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
Tagged , , ,

I was poking around for news about the Red Box and found this article in the Escapist, an interview with Mike Mearls. Among other things, there’s this quote:

"Look, no one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said 'Let's get rid of all of our fans and replace them.' That was never the intent," Mearls said.

Man. I know no reasonable person believes that. Even so, I feel pretty bad for the Wizards folks. No matter what they do, some subset of the RPG fans will hate it.

Call it the narcissism of small differences, if you like, or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. The Internet offers gigabytes of evidence which suggests we’re all susceptible to those dynamics. They don’t call them Edition Wars without reason, whether the conflict in question is D&D 3e vs. 4e, or old World of Darkness vs. new World of Darkness. If there’s a bright side, it’s that people care enough about the pastime to express strong opinions about it.

To hear the author tell it, even this article provoked some amount of controversy! The Escapist posted the whole transcript in an effort to clear the air. It’s funny that people (apparently?) accused the author, Alexander Macris, of having some kind of intrinsic bias in various directions.

D&D and the “death spiral,” for instance: does anyone doubt that although 4e might’ve sold “well,” the industry continues to shrink? I’m not saying anyone has to like it. I’m just pointing out that it’s a no-brainer: there are many more choices, media-wise, than there were in the days of 1e, 2e, and to some extent, 3e. Or about the alleged axe Macris has to grind: do people not give any weight at all to the criticism of 4e? Reasonable people can disagree on issues like whether there are simply too many concurrent effects for many people to track.

Towards the end, they get into an interesting discussion about how the current environment for games differs from the environment D&D came out of. The short of it is that RPGs— or any board game, really— are competing for time with video games. Video games have many strong incentives to get you up and running very quickly, whereas learning an RPG or any sort of board game typically takes time. It’s a boostrapping problem: how do you start playing immediately if you have no idea how to play? I imagine that first hour, if that long, is extremely fragile.

It’s a tough problem, and I’ll confess I don’t know enough about, well, anything to predict whether or not the Red Box approach is likely to work. The time investment is still an issue: people are willing to spend comparable time on MMOs for raids and such, but by that point they have some idea of what they’re in for and they’re reasonably sure they’ll enjoy it.

And if it’s a hurdle for players, it’s often worse for the DM. There are ways around this, like making the mechanics of encounter-building very easy. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way in any case; I might very well be projecting.

I think they’re right in some sense that the more you play an RPG, the more you’re likely to get out of it. But that’s a tough sell, isn’t it? For an MMO, the game is fun immediately, without ramp-up time and without having to find like-minded people. Frontloading the experience is one way to deal with it, but we’re back to the bootstrapping problem again.

At this point, I’ve begun to regret not having picked up Essentials. Oh, sure, I knew what I was getting into with the Red Box, and I still want to play it. And I’m a goddamn collector! No, the problem is that now I’m curious. I want something to read through and digest.

I foresee a trip to my FLGS in the next week or so.

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  • As someone who does not like 4e, Essentials has converted me. I’m really liking the Essentials books and plan to keep playing ED&D. I know that technically they are 4e as well, but to me Essentials is 4e+1. I recommend getting them.

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