I’ve been playing and collecting role-playing games since 1987. And during that time I’ve been part of:
- Two versions of Star Frontiers
- Three versions of ShadowRun
- Three versions of Rolemaster
- Three, four or five versions, depending on how you count them, of Dungeons and Dragons
- Two versions of Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed
- Three versions of Star Wars
Typically, I have embraced these version changes for a variety of reasons. The first, and probably the most common reason, is that a new version holds the promise of improvements over the previous version. After all, if the game companies continue to play their own games a better understanding of the system model should emerge. And if they listen to their customers, an even better understanding can emerge.
Another reason for embracing these versions is that when a new version is released the previous version is commercially put out to pasture. Any commercial support and future developments are done on the latest version of the game; No new source books, no new adventures, no “sanctioned tweaking” of the rules.
Inevitably, transitioning versions will always leave some people at the curb. Look at the number of computer users still running Windows XP, 98 or, god forbid, Windows ME. Transition is hard, especially when, from most people’s perspective, things still work. A new role-playing version doesn’t invalidate the previous version; The dice will still roll for the older version and the hard-copy books remain intact.
In cases of large change Edition Wars erupt; The hold-outs and the adopters bicker over the merits and failings of the editions. This has been evident the transition from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons to 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where the changes between the rules set were quite noticeable. update: Seven years later, and we are 4 years into D&D 5E. A few months after the 5E launch I wrote about the then 400 pound guerilla waking up. Today, Dungeons & Dragons 5E is wildly popular, driven by access to a tremendous well of content: actual play podcasts, dmsguild.com, blogs, Twitch streams, etc. In D&D’s abdication during 4th Edition, a well spring of creativity emerged. With 5E, we witnessed a return of Wizards of the Coast using the lingua franca of the gaming industry; the framework of 3E, updated and also released under the Open Game License.
The Dungeons and Dragons community fragmented with the introduction of the 4th Edition. I believe the primary reason is that Wizards of the Coast did not release the game under the Open Gaming License, instead using their much more limiting 4th Edition Game System License. The result was that all 3rd party publishers had to evaluate whether they wanted to play by these new and very limiting rules? The market spoke, and the 3rd party support for 4th Edition is almost nil, especially when compared to the vast, and continuing, 3rd party support for 3rd Edition. As a result of the Open Gaming License, the core elements of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very much alive in the successful Pathfinder RPG. Based on interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufactures, it appears that Pathfinder RPG is holding it’s own against 4th Edition.
Dungeons and Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, and in 3rd Edition, the 800 pound gorilla had a tribe of many smaller gorillas. Now, the once 800 pound gorilla has shed a few pounds, and must share the forest with a 600 pound gorilla.
Ultimately, I believe the game changers for this whole version mess has been the Internet and the Open Gaming License. Prior to the Internet, information concerning games was rather difficult to get (especially if you were 15 years old). Now gamers can get lots of information about changes, as well as vent about version fatigue. More importantly, they can establish communities around their “favorite system.” These communities, morning the loss of support for their favorite editions, can take on the mantle of support, often times in a limited manner, of the system they hold dear (Birthright.net, Alternity.net, StarFrontiersMan.com, and Fight On Magazine! just to name a few) .
Couple the Internet with the Open Gaming License, and suddenly a version of the game need not die. A handful or legion, not quite sure, of intrepid souls have, from the Standard Reference Document and Open Gaming License, managed to rebuild much of the 1st Edition and 2nd Edition (list of Retro Clones) of the Dungeons and Dragons rules-set. They can’t call it Dungeons and Dragons, as that is the proprietary name. However, there are Fighters, Illusionists, Dwarves, Elves, Armor Class, Hit Points, 1st level Spells, Saving Throws, etc.