To my surprise, Jack asked to continue his D&D game today. After a bit of discussion, though, it became clear that while he wanted to role-play, he really didn’t want to play D&D. He wanted a game that played faster, with simpler mechanics, with an easier-to-understand character sheet, and with more focus on narrative/free-form play than tactical, map-based encounters. He still wanted canonical elves and dwarves in an orc-killing world that would be familiar to a World of Warcraft player, but he didn’t want encounter powers, dice roll modifiers, healing surges, multiple (and different) actions per round, or ten or more long grinding encounters before he could level up.
In short, he wanted to play Tunnels & Trolls.
First, if I wanted to teach the kids a RPG they might be able to play with other kids, and for better or worse, D&D is the lingua franca of RPGs. Second, I wanted to get them hooked on a game with a vibrant support system where we could, you know, actually walk into a store and buy something if we wanted. But mostly I was avoiding T&T because I have played this game since well before it looked like this …
… which is not in any way to slight Liz Danforth’s wonderful cover art, which I prefer to the current look from the Fiery Dragon editions! No, I avoided bringing T&T to the table because I’ve played it since I was thirteen and I’ve kind of been there and done that, and as much as role-playing with the kids should be about the kids, I thought I could be a little selfish and also scratch my itch to try something new and finally play D&D after all of these years.
But after twice trying real hard to make D&D 4e stick with my kids I think it is time to wave the white flag and admit that T&T is the better game for them. Better yet, it is time to embrace T&T as their game of choice and imbue them with a love of tabletop role playing before D&D drives them permanently into the arms of World of Warcraft.
I think Dungeons & Dragons 4e is a great game, particularly in its Essentials form, but I find it fun for all the wrong reasons (for my kids, at least). I like that it has a rule for everything, that it is a quasi-tactical miniatures skirmish game, that it rewards rules hacking and wargaming as much as it does role playing. I like that it is mechanically deep and that it rewards skillful play by players who learn to express themselves through the rules. I like that it is ubiquitous and in print and on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I like that it is played on a map and that there are legitimate differences between goblins and kobolds. I like that it takes an hour to play out an encounter between four heroes and a half-dozen monsters.
I really do like those things — they scratch a real nerd itch for me, and give me a wargaming buzz at the same time as a RPG buzz. The problem is that all those rules (even an optimized set like Essentials) starts to feel something like this …
… which is not something my kids are interested in at all. If Wizards of the Coast really thinks this edition of D&D is going to win kids over by being more like World of Warcraft then, well, they haven’t got a clue, at least insofar as my kids are concerned. My experience with my Arnath Marches campaign shows that Essentials can somewhat hold the attention of aged 40-something gamers that love mechanics and rulebooks, but when it comes to hooking a couple of imaginative tweeners it has been a miserable failure.
Of course I could always run D&D “lite” by taking out most of the grit, running encounters without a map, simplifying the rules and throwing out most of the resolution mechanics in favor of hand-waiving and free narration. But why go to the effort to undo almost everything that D&D does (and does well) to turn it into some other game, particularly when I already have something like T&T on the shelf? Practically everything in D&D 4e drives the game toward a slow, tactical, procedural, rules-driven experience built around combat encounters. You can certainly use it for other things, but you are swimming against the tide. Worse still, you are swimming against the tide with that marble stack of books on your back weighing you down.
So how did my T&T game with Jack turn out tonight?
More in my next post.