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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

On D&D's Speciation Event...

In biology, a speciation event occurs when a segment of an animal population changes so much that it constitutes a separate species.  Well games evolve too, albeit for different reasons; and it occurs to me that D&D just might have undergone a speciation event in the late 90s with TSR's acquisition by Wizards of the Coast.  And for those lamenting D&D's changing ways, take heart: it might not even be D&D anymore!  Luckily, that's not a bad thing either, since the earlier games still exist.  But first, a history lesson... 

OD&D (the three digests) was a game unto itself, although each supplement (especially Greyhawk) substantially changed things.  Greyhawk stands out because it added more than mere content, altering bedrock mechanics such as ability scores and even the sort of dice employed, with downstream impacts to everything from attack damage to what was possible with random tables.  But for all of this we're still talking incremental changes.*

Change within a species, for AD&D was basically a just better organized, better produced OD&D, which would have come as no surprise to anyone following Dragon Magazine through the late 1970s.  It was still classic D&D right through Unearthed Arcana, although here's where things start to become a bit more complicated.  The Survival Guides introduced non-weapon proficiencies, a natural extension of the existing rules; only now we begin to see the seeds of Second Edition AD&D, which was its next incremental step... 

Still, incremental.  Like AD&D, Second Edition reorganized (and repackaged) AD&D to consolidate and refine its disparate innovations, by then spread across multiple sourcebooks, into a new, coherent form.  It's necessary work as a system grows and sprawls out like a dragon stretching across a gleaming hoard.  It was still D&D, only increasingly consolidated, if not simplified.  There were the aforementioned proficiencies, but also THAC0, seriously maligned, but really just a mathematical manipulation of the original combat tables.

Bottom line, Second Edition felt like the original game or rather, the house rules of an industrious DM who really, really had their shit together.  It might have been my imagination, but Dragon Magazine actually felt more like its 1970s iteration - and despite the period's greatest liability: TSR's new management.  Yes, Gygax was a shrewd marketer.  But D&D was also his baby.  He loved it even when he thought it would only sell 1,000 copies, no small feat in the small press of the time.  Lorraine Williams saw only a cash cow...

This stuff matters because while in nature, natural selection and random mutation drive evolution, intellectual properties evolve under the powers of creative impulse, cultural and demographic change, and the almighty dollar.  Right through Second Edition, D&D was undergoing a gradual refinement.  Williams didn't care; but her creative staff did, something that countered her tyranny for a few years.  Sadly, an extinction event came calling.

A meteor ended the Late Cretaceous with a devastating fury that toppled the dinosaur dominion.  But it wasn't the end of all life.  Birds, who arose from a shared ancestor with the theropod dinosaurs, carried on.  D&D's meteor was named Lorraine Williams, who had a sneering disdain for her product's core audience and no respect for the work it took to fashion quality material.  Overextended and creatively spent, D&D was acquired by Wizards of the Coast and underwent its first speciation event from the ashes of extinction...

Enter Third Edition.  I call this a speciation event because it was.  William's TSR had the benefit of staff continuity, at least for a while; but Third Edition could only ever be a dramatic shift from its ancestry.  Some of its DNA remained, whether ability scores (and a method imported from AD&D's Dungeon Master's Guide) or d20, which, like THAC0, amounted to an inversion of some long-standing mechanics.  But the game's underlying philosophy was radically changed, which overshadowed nearly every choice its designers made.

The new game was increasingly naturalistic in its approach, feeling more like an Iron Age Star Trek than a fantastic medieval wargame.  Any Tolkienesque influences (especially halflings) were traded for insectoid elves and outlandish weaponry, a superficial complaint except that D&D was previously something else.  Moreover, anything that players might possibly, in some potential situation, attempt was codified with a vast array of modifiers until D&D began to feel like just another game merely similar to its namesake...

It became something else.  Maybe a new species.  And its new management seems to have stopped evolving the game in favor of radical transformations between editions driven by marketing data, real or imagined.  Fourth Edition channelled computer games because that's what someone thought the kids liked (and a battle game would sell miniatures).  Its current form pivoted back to something more traditional; but it's a slave to trends, trading on its past while simultaneously rejecting it and riding an ever-changing fleet of bandwagons.

D&D has always been a product.  Gary knew it and was happy to milk that cash cow with both hands.  But he also had a personal love for his creation.  I'm sure Wizards does too, but they're even more aware of the game as a product, to the point of substantial reinventions whenever the demographic winds change.  This might seem disingenuous to older eyes, but it's inevitable.  We're on the way out.  The kids (and their cash) are the future.

These radical shifts between versions just might constitute speciation events (as I rather suspect Fifth Edition is).  D&D was remarkably stable for around 20 years, but its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast changed so much that it just might be an entirely different game these days.  Fortunately for any grognards out there, the older editions are still available from a company that shrewdly panders to the young and old alike.  And don't forget the assorted retro-clones, great (and sometimes free) stuff that keeps the past alive in TSR style...

*B/X, BECMI, and The Rules Cyclopedia also diverged.  Call it a parallel evolution or whatever.  This is a debate for another post and not really addressed here.


  1. This is an excellent thoughtful piece James. Thank you. And, for what it's worth, I think you're right.

  2. IMNSHO AD&D and OD&D were quite different species too. It wasn't just a matter of organisation, but an active change to a game more in line with what Gygax wanted the game to be. The changes were not incremental at all and there was a definite shift in philosophy and the fundamental nature of the beast.

    And I'd go so far to say that Unearthed Arcana marked another separation of the trajectory between Gygax's new vision (his vision of the game had changed over the years) and the game that most people were playing at the time, and it was a branch that most people didn't take (especially considering the lack of commercial success of the product and how it rapidly faded from the zeitgeist, except amongst Gygaxian fanboys). It really does stick out like a swollen appendix in the evolutionary line.

    I suspect that this was heavily aided at the time by BECMI (and the later Rules Cyclopedia), which actually offered a vision more in line with the original OD&D (although it was still a thing of its own), which had a profound influence of play at the time (mid to late 80s), something I suspect was also a component for the production of the second edition (along with pure commercial reasons and the effect of the thing TSR refused to acknowledge with a passion [that there were other games than D&D in existence, and they were winning awards that D&D wasn't]). And it marked a change in the game as well, such as the addition of non-weapon proficiencies which increased the shift from the player focus that Gygax championed to a more character-based focus.

    It also marked a distinct fade in the direct influence Gygax had over the game, although this also manifested as a lack of vision in the game and the production of more and more supplementary materials such as the survival guides and player options. He was pushed more and more in the background as the venerable oracle providing "Sage Advice."

    1. Great points, and that case can surely be made. I consider OD&D incremental because the changes, however extensive, didn't happen all at once. The four supplements came one at a time (although Greyhawk and Blackmoor were close on each other's heels), and the Dragon articles came in monthly installments over the course of several years. Even the way the game was being played at the time wasn't an instantaneous phenomenon, but the culmination of disparate experiences and best practices adopted over time. Moreover, these changes still referenced the original core rulebooks, which were still required to play. Most changes had direct contact with their metaphorical predecessors, and there was considerable overlap. Even the AD&D hardcovers were released incrementally, once a year through 1980, and mapped back to OD&D (meaning core rules plus supplements) pretty directly in most instances...

  3. I have a 5e player at my table and the expectations that he brings are quite different than the baseline assumptions of old school play.

    He’s a good player and a personal friend so we’ve worked out a (sometimes awkward) middle ground. But it’s almost certainly a different game he’s playing.

    1. It's different game alright, and being able to work out a suitable compromise is perhaps the most old-school thing of all...

  4. I can go along with your thesis but I think WOTC coast threw the meteor themselves with the invention of Magic cards and how they sucked up most of the hobby's cash outlay for a couple years. The lumbering organism led by Lorraine Williams just was unable to adapt.

  5. Are you saying that old D&D players are dinosaurs?

  6. 100% agree. I tried to enjoy 3e, I really did, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth I left the hobby and did not return to D&D until I discovered the OSR nearly 12 years later.

    And yes, I am a dino too.