1000 Word Rant: Internet Consensus, the Content Calendar and the Neurotic DM
Recently, The Spirits of Eden’s Dennis Santana aka Wyatt Salazar has chosen to take a break from 4th Edition D&D. He self-deprecatingly declares that “if Wyatt was a corporation, this post would cause its stock prices to plummet hard.” He clarifies that this is not a matter of disenchantment, noting that he continues to play 4e, is in the middle of a couple of 4e projects and is up to collaborate on new ones. Instead, as far as I can gather, his reason for taking a step back from 4th Edition is that he is unable to keep up with the community.
“A major part of the reason I posted a lot about 4e is because I was very actively engaging it. I kept up with all the latest materials, I played on a constant basis, I read forums about it, and I homebrewed for it since I DMed my own campaign. […] But as time went on, and more books were released, […] I couldn’t keep up with all the classes and the builds and the items and combos that were good. I think – my game mastery is slipping away from me.”
There’s nothing wrong with deciding to switch game systems, whatever the reason behind such a decision. However, I think Wyatt’s decision is symptomatic of a couple of things beneath the surface. First, it points to how DMs can be vulnerable to how the culture of a system dictates how the system is played and second, it points to how the culture which has emerged from 4e is built upon the vigilance of the consumer – that is to say the DMs and the players.
These points aren’t new, and have been used by 4e haters as evidence why Wizards of the Coast is “destroying D&D.” However, what I’m getting at is that a situation has emerged from the interaction between WotC, its current model for 4th Edition and its gaming audience, where how people have chosen to run their D&D games is decided by community consensus. Ironic actually, when you consider that 4E writers breathlessly go on about how you should run the game the way you want to and that even though late 20th century media theory pundits said that the Internet would result in a decentralization of power, D&D culture is now in a situation where how we play is more centralized than ever.
Back in the early 90s, one of the things that always bothered me about collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, which emerged during the time when the Internet began to be a supplement to the consumer experience, is the reliance on errata. While a little part of me is bothered by game designers counting on customers to do their play testing for them, the real bother for me was that it meant being vigilantly up to date on errata was necessary to participate in card gaming. The result was that many an argument broke out because you didn’t know that they changed the casting cost of one of your favorite interrupt spells and the rules for snow-covered forestwalk last week.
Not that I’m begrudging CCGs. Optimizing one’s deck is one of the core joys of a collectible card game. Each expansion presents new combinations to toy with, and presents the thrill of a game whose rules are in flux. However, once you toss in frequent errata and make it (inarguably) necessary for tournament play, and you have a gaming culture where anyone with hopes of being remotely great at the game must remain vigilant in maintaining his strategies and his deck. I don’t think these are necessarily bad models for a hobby of any kind, but I believe it’s only crept and influenced D&D insofar as players have allowed it to do so.
The problem 4th Edition DMs face is not the challenge of keep uping with the constant slew of updates to 4th Edition, but rather, resisting the urge to think that being on top of all the updates is somehow necessary to their enjoyment or mastery of the game. As far as I can tell, in the old days there was no Internet & errata culture for earlier editions of D&D and more time was spent playing because no one was online and the core rules you purchased remained largely unchanged unless TSR put out a new supplement, you were able to get it, and the entire group approved using it. Simply put, ‘keeping up to date’ was largely a matter of waiting for new releases.
Make no mistake, I subscribe to the view that a balanced and consistent set of rules – one that will not spit in the player’s face just because they haven’t ‘mastered’ them well enough to tell the good choices from the bad – is a good thing. The Internet and DDI, means that WotC can actually ensure that their much-touted 4E balance stays balanced. My point in all this is that the ideal of D&D as a ‘constantly evolving’ game that is defined by a ‘living breathing community’ is not necessarily a good thing because it can breed a neurotic DM.
Said neurotic DM feels that there are only two absolutes: throwing himself entirely into the sea of updates that is WotC’s content calendar and the (optional) mountain of fan created content and building or abstaining entirely. Am I saying 4E’s content calendar is broken? Of course not, it’s a business model. I’m saying that more DMs should be free to not care about the content out there. So what if your version of the Underdark has now been contradicted by the supplement? So what if your artificer uses only the features specified in the Eberron Player’s Guide and lacks any of the additions from Dragon # 384? So what if you haven’t applied the errata to custom monster building?
If players don’t need optimized characters to have fun, then they don’t need optimized DMs either. Just great ones.