I ranted a bit about the myopic approach of WotC and the rest of the gaming industry to RPGs in My Little Pony: The RPG. Well, I am part of the large peer group of gamers with ~10 year old kids now (a 9 year old girl in my case). I was out at the Broken Spoke last night with my friend Kevin, who has been getting his 11 year old boy into gaming, and as we talked I had some realizations that 5e needs some major direction change to not just be for the 40 year old grognards.
His observation is that both 4e and Pathfinder are too damn complicated. It turns the kids off. Even with their basic boxes, the problem is that you run out of adventures and content very quickly. They are seen as very limited time intros whose goal is to convince you that you certainly want to read a 575 page rulebook now. Not! Basic D&D (BECMI) had loads of support but was 600% simpler than any of these current versions.
Weren’t around then or your fond memories clouding facts? Here’s a basic D&D stat block.
Giant Centipedes (8): AC 9; HD 1/2; hp 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1; MV 60′ (20′); #AT 1; D poison; Save NM; ML 7; AL N. (Courtesy B5, The Horror On The Hill)
Here’s an AD&D stat block.
Four normal crocodiles: AC 5; MV 6″//12″; HD 3; hp 13 each; #AT 2; D2-8/1-12 (Courtesy U3, The Final Enemy)
Here’s a Pathfinder stat block. After I remove many of the extraneous parts.
CENTIPEDE, GIANT CR 1
Male Centipede, Giant
NN Medium Vermin
Init +2; Senses Darkvision (60 feet); Perception +4
AC 14, touch 12, flat-footed 12 (+2 Dex, +2 natural)
hp 5 (1d8+1)
Fort +3, Ref +2, Will +0
Spd 40 ft., Climbing (40 feet)
Melee Bite (Centipede, Giant) +2 (1d6-1/20/x2) and
Unarmed Strike +2 (1d3-1/20/x2)
Special Attacks Poison: Bite – injury (DC 13)
Str 9, Dex 15, Con 12, Int -, Wis 10, Cha 2
Base Atk +0; CMB -1; CMD 11 (can’t be Tripped)
Feats Weapon Finesse
Skills Climb +10, Perception +4, Stealth +10, Swim +2
(Courtesy Hero Lab, because who has the patience for modern stat blocks?)
I like Pathfinder; I play Pathfinder. How much *more* fun is Pathfinder than Basic and AD&D were? 0%. How much more complex is it? Uh, about 600%, roughly.
The line they’re laying down for 5e is that it’ll be simple and there can be “rules modules” on top to make it more complex. Which will be fine, as long as they start at REAL SIMPLE. As in Mentzer Basic simple. You can always layer stuff on to make it more complicated, but making something simpler is very hard. Many relevant lessons from the software industry come to mind here. Everyone says they want something with every feature – but then when they see something that achieves the core feature that is easy to use, they forget about all that. It’s why e.g. Dropbox is kicking the ass of all the other more complex file sharing methods out there. Microsoft Office is collapsing under its weight as people realize “I don’t use 99% of the crap in here, but I’m paying for it and having to load it on my hard drive and making my simple doc editing a lot slower because of it…” Take a hint.
So that naturally segues into the next topic, game support. Basic D&D was a whole game line unto itself, not necessarily a limited time “intro”. Kev’s busily trying to hunt down all the adventures (which lucky for me I still have) – for Basic, the B and X series (and the less well conceived CM and M series), and for Advanced the many wonderful series (A, T, GDQ, I, etc…). Because really all you need is the basic set and then a bunch of stuff to do.
Paizo has made their millions tuning in to the simple truth of what it is that made 1e and Basic the high point of D&D play. It’s the adventures, stupid! 2e and 3e and 4e kept doing “Silver anniversary of the return to the return to the Keep on the Borderlands” because all the good adventure content was from the 1e and Basic versions. That’s what catapulted third party companies like Green Ronin to real companyhood with the OGL in 3e – for them it was their Death in Freeport modules. At Gen Con 2000 I bought the 3e PHB and then every single module (we called them modules back in the day) I could get my hands on.
People like to say “Oh, but that’s why D&D failed; I heard it’s that adventures aren’t lucrative…” No it’s not. D&D in the 1980s was bigger than 4e + Pathfinder added together and multiplied by 10. And it’s hard to disprove when you look at Paizo and Green Ronin and all those other 3pps – they all bootstrapped themselves as startups on adventures, to where they can now put out multiple game lines and whatnot as proper companies.
My content observation is that kids love manga nowadays. My daughter and all her friends are all into Full Metal Alchemist, D.Grey Man, and a bunch of stuff like that. Guardians of Order kinda tried to do this back in the day, but a RPG with the same light mechanics coming out for each one of those would be a big seller (and potentially internationally!). Japan loved D&D too.
IMO this approach could scale down to even very young kids. I conceived of a Dora the Explorer game when my daughter was much younger, where you adopt their simple quest structure and your “explorers” have to surmount 3 obstacles, which are minigames or arts and crafts assignments or whatever, to proceed. Probably dice aren’t even required.
Here’s where, though, I’m w0rried about the 5e “ultimate toolkit” approach. How do you make adventures for that? It was easy enough to juggle Basic and Advanced back in the ’80’s, that was a simple strata that made sense. Now, you’re writing something for a group that may or may not be using big hunks of the rules? It worries me that the adventures will be a big ol’ mess of “if/then” wasted page count.
Anyway, in my opinion simplicity and support are the keys to making a good base game that will be adopted by a new generation. And if the game’s adopted by a new generation, then money will be thrown into it and I can feel safe knowing there will also be fringe products catering to an old guy like me – just 10% of a large healthy market instead of 90% of an old dying one.