D&D came out in 1974. More or less. Which means in a little over two years the game will be 40 years old.
This means that someone who started playing with the first booklets at age 15 will qualify for senior discounts at many stores and restaurants, and – if they invested well – they’ll be eligible to retire. I’m nowhere near that age and got into D&D much later. My first introduction to the game was seeing older kids play, when I was still too young to even grasp the basics of the game!
However, I’m far from young. I’m married with a child and a well-paying career that required multiple years of schooling to even qualify for, but I’m still younger than D&D. In my lifetime, there have always been twenty-sided dice. Dungeon Masters have never not existed from my perspective. And we’re not talking about a definition of “existed” like the Internet, where it dates back 50 years and took shape 30 years but no one but a bunch of nerd knew about it until the last fifteen years. No, D&D was HUGE and controversial before I could even read.
All this leads me (in a very round-about manner) to my topic statement: for possibly the first time, the people in charge of D&D are fans who grew-up playing D&D. The people tasked with designing the next edition and heralding the future of the game played the game as kids and have nostalgic memories of the game.
The Mearls Model
It was the Legends & Lore column that got me thinking. Mike Mearls is now the head of D&D. Kinda sorta. He replaced Bill Slavicsek who had been with the company since the TSR days and had been designing games since ‘86. Mr. Mearls has been vocal about his early days with the game, and how he got his start with the Red Box (or another equally early release of the game). As someone who was a player for the lifespan of two editions, Mearls is still an exception at WotC. Rich Baker, Chris Perkins, and others have been writing for WotC or TSR since 2e. And the current Editor of the magazines, according to the credits in my 2e DMG, has been with the game even longer. But this is slowly changing as new staff members or freelancers make their mark on the game.
For Mike Mearls, the game is not just theory or play-tests, not adult memories of designing and writing. Instead, the game was something he played, and enjoyed, and lived. But D&D is also something he has fond, blurry memories wrapped in a warm blanket of childhood nostalgia.
This is a Big Deal How?
Childhood memories are profound. You look at things differently when childhood is involved.
I’m going to invoke Star Wars as my example. People get extremely upset when Lucas changes the movies, and he was accused of the hyperbolic “raping their childhood!” for what are mostly minor changes and addition of deleted scenes. Compare this to Ridley Scott’s changes to Blade Runner that change the tone of the movie. Imagine a Star Wars tweak where it’s implied Han Solo was a Stormtrooper all along! Or Apocalypse Now, which is inarguably art as well as a movie preserved by the National Film Registry because it’s "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". And the director slapped an extra hour of deleted scenes the movie, which were digitally altered and augmented. He changed art! That’s like adding some extra background details to the Last Supper or an extra dab of paint to remove some annoying negative space from a Pollack.
But it’s okay, and there was almost no fuss. Because no one views Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner through the lens of childhood.
I think some of the protest for removing THAC0 and replacing it with BAB stems from a similar childhood fondness for the original. No matter how unintuitive the system, it was something you used for years and brought you lots of joy.
It’s quite likely the next edition of the game will be influenced by nostalgia. For the first time, the future of the game will be informed by fond looks back at its start more than ambitious looks forward.
Nostalgia is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. It’s the reason for throw-backs and revivals both good and bad. Nostalgia brought us the new Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: the Next Generation but it also brought us the Lost in Space movie and Enterprise. But nostalgia is to blame for the new amazingly uninspired Thundercats cartoon and the sterotypastic Michael Bay Transformers movies.
Nostalgia could lead to a terrible 5th Edition. We could easily end up with mechanically identical martial characters, differentiated only by the weapon they wield. Essentials is already toeing the line. It runs the risk of reducing the edition to a Retro-Clone trying to recapture the magic of the past without context and regardless of cultural shifts or evolutions in the industry. By trying to step back to something akin to the more rules lite design of earlier editions, we might also lose the possibility for optimization and character building that keeps power gamers occupied.
But, nostalgia could also lead to a great 5th Edition. Looking to how classes used to be structured, the classic spells and abilities that defined classes for three editions, might help design a game that will attract players old and new. Looking at where the design of the last couple editions diverged away from the original design might lure back lapsed players, while looking at what originally captured the imagination and inspired players is useful for drawing in a new generation of gamers. Just because something isn’t a sacred cow doesn’t mean it should be changed or should have been changed.
It’s all a matter of balance, respect and deference for what came before paired with respect for what works, Sometimes you need to reject the past for something that works, but other times a less effective mechanic is just necessary for the feel of the game.