D&D anymore is kind of like how I feel about Michael Jackson. I loved his Thriller album when it came out, so I bought it. His Bad album was pretty good too. But let’s face it – Michael Jackson is freaky in the extreme. I like the music, but not the performer himself. At the time, I didn’t know that Michael Jackson would turn out the way he did; none of us did. Would I buy those two albums now knowing what I do? I may debate it some, but I think I would. I would just look at it as buying a product I enjoy, rather than as supporting Michael Jackson.
Recently, I’ve been confronted with a similar situation in terms of Wizards of the Coast and D&D 4th edition. I’m really digging 4th edition. There’s still a lot I need to learn, but I’m genuinely excited by this version of the D&D game. Yet as I say this, I can’t say I’m as big of a fan of Wizards of the Coast as I used to be.
As of this writing (12/2/2008), several WotC employees, including Dave Noonan and Jonathan Tweet, were laid off. This is the same company that laid off gaming legend Jeff Grubb, one of the original Dragonlance designers, the guy largely responsible for Spelljammer, and an all-around gaming legend. He’s worked on D&D for many years, and they nixed him.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of WotC’s lack of continuity between editions. Or the Forgotten Realms’ time jump. It’s the Realms’ version of Dragonlance’s Fifth Age, in my opinion. Or the discontinuation of Dragon and Dungeon magazines (and no, the online subscription versions are not the same). And so on and so forth. Nor do I feel like paying for online content from WotC’s digital initiative. Partly, I feel that you’re not getting your money’s worth. I also feel that they shouldn’t charge for materials that were once free on their site. But I digress.
Wizards of the Coast is but one example. Any number of other companies may have great products, but lots of background drama going on. You may find that you like their product, but they have poor shipping. Or perhaps their customer service skills are lacking. Maybe you don’t like the people behind the company. So what’s a gamer to do?
I talked with my friend and fellow Dragonlance game designer Cam Banks about this, and he suggests that you buy the products you like. You’re not supporting companies here; they are not charities. I think this is an excellent idea. Separate out the company from the product. When I buy a D&D 4th edition product, I’m not doing so in support of WotC. I do so because I enjoy the product. Voting with the dollar also has the added benefit of sending the message to WotC about what you like and what you don’t.
What happens, then, when a company’s definition of some game element doesn’t match your own, or changes over time? Lately, I have been concerned about the heart and soul of D&D. While I like 4th edition, it is a very different game than its predecessors. It’s definitely a reinterpretation of what D&D is. In this process of transition, we’ve seen some reimagining of some D&D elements. Some of it is good, some not so much. Of course, I also felt a bit this way when 3rd edition came about. Take the halfling, for example. Once, it was a knock-off of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings. Since 3rd edition, they have been more kender-like. Hobbit fans may not like the change. However, that’s easily remedied by changing a little fluff. Likewise, the renaming of dragon types to become “new” chromatic dragons (i.e. deep dragons becoming purple dragons) is annoying.
Rules and flavor are often not one and the same. Sometimes they’re tied together. But in D&D’s case, there is room for adaption. I have so many pre-4e Realms gaming supplies that making the time jump forward doesn’t make much sense. I also prefer the pre-4e Realms flavor-wise. So I’ve got the 4e Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, but my plan isn’t to use it for playing in the current era. The FRPG gives some good basics for playing in the Realms in the current era, but materials can be adapted for using 4th edition rules in previous eras.
In other words, just because WotC says that dragons act a certain way and halflings look a certain way, that doesn’t mean it is gospel. Use the rules you want, and if the flavor doesn’t match what you want, then grab some flavor elsewhere or make up your own.
I know I’ve singled WotC out quite a bit here. That’s not my intention. It’s just that they are the company I’m most familiar with, and are the most well-known gaming company out there. The same basic principles I mention here can apply to any company.
These principles also apply to fandom. I’m a huge fan of the Castles & Crusades game by Troll Lord Games. The Trolls are great folks. Unfortunately, some of their fans can be quite negative and vocal about d20. It’s enough that some people stay away from the product due to its fans. What I did to circumvent this was to just no longer bother with their forums. Problem solved. I have a nifty RPG I like, and I’ll play it my way, even if that way is ‘incorrect’ by some peoples’ definitions.
So in short, buy the products you like and don’t pay the companies any mind. Getting involved in company politics and drama will just sour you on the gaming experience. If you don’t like the decisions companies make regarding in-game elements, then discard those elements and use the ones you want. And if the fans of said product or company bring down the experience for you, then feel free to ignore them.
It’s your game. Focus on that and ignore the rest, and you’ll have a happier gaming experience.