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George F Quail

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12:42 pm: New Editions: Similar Or Different?
Here's a proper old-school GFNQ ramble for you. :-)

In the past year and a half I've been playing Warhammer 40,000 again. I say "again" because I've owned Warhammer 40,000 in one edition or another since 1995 - and by then I already owned Man O' War and Warhammer Fantasy - but I had hardly ever played the damn things until I started gaming with 40K Dave, Stuart, Charles and the rest. I've finally got a substantial amount of figures painted up and though I've plenty, plenty, PLENTY more unpainted in my collection it's awesome to finally be able to play a game with an army I assembled & painted myself.

When I first met Dave to play 40K I brought the latest core rules edition I had: 3rd Edition. At the time 5th edition was the game and that was what I learned and played with them. Last year 6th edition came out and we very quickly all transferred over, with me finally acquiring a copy of the new core rules at Christmas time. However, the process was comparatively minor because the editions are all based on the same core engine. Indeed, 3rd Edition codices (army lists) were still being used in 5th edition when they hadn't been updated yet, and the same for 4th ed codices now in 6th edition. Though they do require some FAQing and errataing, the key rules of the codices are basically transferable between editions - though older ones tend to be weaker.

This got me thinking about new editions of projects: be they role-playing games, war games, card games or the like. There's a big balance to be struck between starting from scratch and being just a longer errata, and some people prefer one over the other. (That's before you factor in any fluff changes - I'm going to purely discuss rules here.) Edition shifts can be hugely divisive - anyone with experience in these fields won't have to think long to think of things like D&D 3rd vs 4th Edition where it gets really ugly. When people have heavily invested in a product both in time and money they get very emotional when changes get involved and anyone who disagrees with them is obviously STUPID. To make matters worse there's a huge economic problem at the heart of it: a new core rules is by far the best selling product in the line (since by definition anyone who plays should own it, unlike your many supplements) but if a new edition is a disaster then your whole line is buggered for years. The best way to get more cash in is to release a new edition, but to do so is to walk into a minefield.

If you make the edition close to the previous one, you can mostly preserve backwards compatibility. This is good for longer-term players who don't need to buy new supplements - their existing Dwarf Army Book or Guide To Snowmonsters can be used as is, or perhaps with minor alterations, as with the earlier mentioned codices. This is also better for retailers who don't end up with worthless stock: those same supplements might be years old buy can still be ordered and sold. Similar editions, the theory goes, are also easier to teach to people who played previous editions - they only need to learn a few minor changes, not a huge wad of new rules. Perhaps more than that, people play a game in part because they like the rules and so if people liked Edition X, a similar Edition X+1 is likely to contain they parts of the game they like rather than being a new game with a different name.

By contrast, a serious set of changes is the only way to fix some problems - you can errata & FAQ all you want but sometimes major game engines need to be changed to get rid of problems with grappling, firing into close combat, re-roll priority or whatever game mechanic is That Game Mechanic. Sometimes games need a fresh pair of hands at the wheel who are willing to kill scared cows rather than include everything because "It's always been" - which can make the game play faster, easier to learn or what have you. There's an odd inverse finacnial argument too: if I own Edition X, then I may want Edition Q to be different enough to justify the expense of buying the core rules again because why would I pay for 95% the same material?

Needless to say, many of these positive for one side can be negatives for the other. Other negatives spring to mind to. For games too close to the original, it can sometimes be harder to remember the slight differences between similar editions with old timers - small differences in the stats of a machine gun or how you determine charge distance are easily forgotten when you're used to the old way and everything else is mostly the same, whereas a clean break of a system makes it easier to clear your head. For vastly changed systems, previously valid characters/squads/armies/whatever can be rendered invalid by the nature of the changes and make converting to the new edition awkward for someone who built their game off a now invalid combination. Warhammer 40K contains examples of both: 5th to 6th ed was a small change and the barely changed stat blocks of a Sonic Blaster continually trip me up, but 2nd to 3rd ed was a bigger change and I possess figures which had valid armaments then but are now unusable without some surgery. D&D has similar issues - individual spell differences between 3.0 and 3.5, like the duration on the buff spells, versus the absence of various character races/classes in 4E PHB.

Finally one needs to consider the time frame between edition shifts. Wait too long and people can abandon a game they they think has systemic problems, but usually the problem is making editions too soon - people resent "having" to buy core rules again. (This applies more so to wargames and the like where the social aspect is more likely to require you to transfer editions - a small RPG group can get away easier with using older rules.) Some people prefer smaller tweaks to come through errata but those lists can grow to become too clumsy to use - by the end of D&D 3.5 some trouble-zones like Polymorph can been errata'd numerous times, and there's a host of Magic: The Gathering card where the errata text is vastly different to the original printed text. Digital production helps -PDFs and the like are often auto-updated with errata for free download - but for hard copy it's a challenge.

I'd argue there's strong parallels with other fields here, such as operating systems. Moving from Windows 3.x to Windows 9x was a big change that was popular, and Windows 9x to XP was a smaller one that was also popular, but XP to Vista proved less popular. As with games there's social aspects, monetary aspects and a balance between replacing things and keeping them familiar. Sometimes you can strike the worst of both worlds - Vista managed to break compatibility with substantial changes without actually adding much new and useful to the table. (I would argue this is akin to AD&D 2nd Ed, which is different enough to be annoying when porting from 1E but similar enough to leave all the big problems intact.)

In the case of Warhammer, there's only been small changes since 3rd edition - which was first released back in 1998. I think the game is overdue a serious change, but there's serious financial implications of that: pulping and reprinting all the existing army books, have swollen in size and number since 3rd ed came out, and you need to include interim lists to cover the armies until those books come out - something much harder now there are more armies and they have more different units in them than they used to back in 1998. Still, I think as strong as the 3E base was that it's time for a brand new engine under the hood if we want to see any real change, and with increasing focus on larger games the rules could use tweaks to improve that level of play.

I'm very curious to hear your feelings & experiences with edition changes. Do you prefer any particular level of change between editions? Are there any edition changes your personally found difficult?



[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2013 06:25 pm (UTC)
I don't really have enough experience with changes in systems to offer a huge amount here. The only one I can really discuss is D&D from 3.x to 4.0. I guess, here, I've seen both types of change: that between 3.0 and 3.5 was (from a player's point of view, at least) comparatively minor. We did a pretty seamless in-flight transition in Phatil. Whereas 3.x to 4.0 was vast. I suspect a lot of it is just because 3.x was my first encounter with D&D but the rule changes for 4.0 made it "not real D&D" to me. But then, the 7th Doctor is always the Doctor to me, because he was the one I grew up with. TNG is always what Star Trek means to me for much the same reason.

I enjoyed playing Drake's Seven and I'd be happy to play more 4E D&D, but in my head, it's in a very different compartment to 3E -- it's basically a different game to me.
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2013 08:27 am (UTC)
Whereas 3.x to 4.0 was vast. I suspect a lot of it is just because 3.x was my first encounter with D&D but the rule changes for 4.0 made it "not real D&D" to me. But then, the 7th Doctor is always the Doctor to me, because he was the one I grew up with. TNG is always what Star Trek means to me for much the same reason.

I think the "my first encounter shapes my opinion" thing is definitely a factor. As you say, our view on Doctor Who, Star Trek and other things is coloured by the version we first encountered - even though we know there exist people who have watched Doctor Who and Star Trek since they were brand new 60s shows, we can't help but parse things differently. Tom Baker has always been an "ex-Doctor" to us; Darth Vader has always been Luke's father; the original Trek series has always been set in the 2260s.

In the case of D&D, there's definitely a large group of players of older editions for whom 4th Edition is alien to them - but there are plenty of people who find 3rd ed just as alien, and before 4th ed came out the big split in fandom was between O/B/AD&D fans and 3.X ones, the former considering latter so different as to be a different game, whereas the others were substantially more intercompatible. Consider classes for a bit; 3rd ed removes separate XP tables per class, removes racial limits on taking class, removes racial level limits, removes separate multiclassing systems per race, removes multiclassing combinations limits per race, inserts prestige classes, increases hit points acquired at higher levels...

People were miffed 4th ed did not have druids, half-orcs, gnomes, barbarians or monks as core rules player character options but the first edition of D&D I played didn't have any of those things in the first book either. Even AD&D 1E's core rules is missing one of those; and let's not even get into the bloke I read online who suggested the Thief class was a terrible thing for D&D and should never have been added in, or the guy who swore OD&D was the only "real" version and argue with Gary Gygax over Magic Missile and whether the AD&D "insta-hit, no roll" version was better or not.

I've heard it said before that you maybe get two edition changes. The first change, when you aren't hugely invested in the game, seems like it's fixing "obvious" things and makes the game easier for you the newish player to understand. The second change, when you've started buying multiple supplements and know the system well, is pointless and makes your life awkward by rendering your library and knowledge obsolete. I've seen the same thing in roleplaying games, wargames and I suspect you may even see the same thing in computer programming as well.

George Q
[User Picture]
Date:March 19th, 2013 11:15 am (UTC)
On the topic of the 3E to 4E change: I mentioned above that part of the problem with edition changes is that the closer your edition is to the core, the less conversion issues you have but the less you can address major problems. An example "in the wild" of this is Pathfinder, which had an open beta and had some people very excited that it would fix all their problems with 3.X, but it ended up being more minor changes and couldn't do much to fix Linear Fighters Quadratic Wizards or the like - no doubt because doing so would break compatibility with all the previous Paizo D20 products, which would be a bad business decision. The end result, though, is a "new edition" which is only of value to people who thought the old edition was mostly fine.

In the case of 4E it's undeniably a much bigger change, but if you want to address perceived problems that lie much closer to the root of 3E there's little other way to do it. To bring up the Caster divide again, that's one of the things I like most about 4E - that it finally makes playing a 20th level fighter fun and not a waste of time when there's a 20th level wizard, cleric or druid in the party. However, the only way to do that was to drastically change the effectiveness of both classes - giving Fighters more fun stuff to do and letting casters have less mega-spells that outstrip all other powers. The end result is that "I am a 20th level cleric" means different things in these two different editions with regards to effectiveness and powers - something we've had to deal with in earlier editions as well, if arguably not as pronounced. (A 20th level fighter in 1st Ed would not be anywhere near as potent as one in 3rd Ed, for example, and without skills & feats he'd be a lot more similar to every other 20th level fighter in hsi susyem,)

I think the root of my frustrations with the non-system-change in Phratil was how many of the system problems I believed were there were front-loaded to my end. A lack of pre-generated foes that were viable to use at our power level, so I'd end up designing up NPCs that took an hour each but would get two actions in combat max; an inability to feature fights with a decent sized group of foes without it taking all night; combat that in general was quite dull for me as I just sat through an hour of player activity; a clear power disparity between the casers and non casters which made it awkward to build an encounter that would challenge Caira and Pedro without insta-killing Rundar and Leon or leaving them surplus to requirements; the ability for divine casters to duplicate or outperform most other classes through various spell combinations; a struggle to produce encounters around easy access to high level spells, especially the Scry/Buff/Teleport combo... Most of these issues are very GM-centric.

The only serious balance issue I ever heard form the players was about psionics being "overpowered", which I think was more because psionics was closer to arcane spell casting and thusly direct-damage-heavy whereas every other caster in the game was divine and thus had a very different sort of spell suite. Apart from that, it could be argued that as the players had minimal problems themselves and that a game shift required both work (learn new rules) and a power drop (losing problematic spells) there was little clear benefit for them to shift. Unfortunately, as the person that sticking systems generated the extra work and hassle for, this left me feeling more than a bit bummed.
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