Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on 5e...so far


Just about six years and a month ago, I wrote my first substantive(?) post for this blog, talking about my thoughts on the just-released D&D Fourth Edition Player's Handbook. I struck a tentatively optimistic note at the time, but with some pretty big caveats and reservations. Looking back on that post, I can see the seeds of my rapid abandonment of that edition and long winter out in the cold from D&D fandom were already in place.

Zachary Houghton at RPG Blog II posted today about looking forward to potentially returning to the mainstream fold as well, and I have to admit that that's a big part of 5e's potential attraction for me personally. But I've also been more-or-less pleased with the various meta-decisions that have been going on. I like the "living ruleset" idea, the Starter Set, the free PDF of D&D Basic. I'm not really planning on diving into 5e with any great vigor until the autumn, when all (or nearly all) of the core books are out, but I did (along with about every other gamer with any inkling of interest) download said free document today and took a look.

I was surprised by how much I remembered from playtest drafts - both that the memory had stuck with me, and that a lot of that material made it through, considering my experiences were with the earliest of the drafts. I'm looking forward to giving the rules a more detailed look in coming weeks. One thing I did want to share, though, has to do not with the mechanics so much as some interesting semiotics.

My original (or at least my most lasting) D&D point of reference, in many ways, is the Second Edition Player's Handbook, and I very much remember the little blue-shaded call-outs at the beginning of each class write-up. These call-outs discussed the folkloric and mythological origins of each class; "Here are some famous examples of paladins you might have heard of: Roland, Ogier, Lancelot, Galehad..." That sort of thing.

The formatting in the D&D Basic PDF takes a similar approach, but with quotes drawn not from mythology but from classic D&D novels. Likewise, the example of character creation has the would-be player rolling up a dwarf named Bruenor, and later we see other familiar names from Dragonlance and the Realms cited in rules examples or sidebars discussing differences in culture or alignment. Based on those precedents, I would imagine that more such incidences will be found throughout the doc upon closer reading.

It's no big secret that D&D long ago stopped referencing literature and mythology and instead became a self-referential genre unto itself. Some people are okay with this, others aren't. I find it interesting from a cultural point of view, but it doesn't bother me too much. Things that happen in D&D sessions and media derived from the game don't really happen in any other medium, and in fact I believe that RPGs are at their best when they're not trying to explicitly recreate the experience of reading a book or watching a movie or TV show.

Still, it was somewhat surprising to see such an open representation (admission?) of this fact. It's not a bad thing, per se. In fact, I would guess that, in addition to making an appeal to tradition - this is the 40th-anniversary year of D&D, after all - we see these familiar names throughout the rules because they're intended as a gateway for people who are coming into the game via books and computer games based on the brand.

As jarring as it was to see this melding of IPs, I'm thinking it's a good thing, if only for the reasons I just mentioned. Even as someone who has only read, collectively, maybe 1.5 novels' worth of D&D lit and whose CRPG experience extends to playing Baldur's Gate over TCP/IP, even I recognized the names; I have to admit, they carry a lot more weight and resonance than the so-called "iconics" of Third Edition.

At any rate, I've got a Rifts campaign to prep. More on Fifth Edition...soon? Probably.
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