No, sir, edition wars are bad news all around. They’re toxic. For those unfamiliar with the term “edition war,” I’d describe it as a division in a community over the merits of the version of a publication, characterized by controversy, bitterness, and disaffection. In more practical terms, it’s anger over changes to a “classic.” Change is always contentious, but edition wars ratchet up the vitriol. Formerly-pleasant communities turn into hubs for flamewars. Conversations are populated with veiled insults, subtle barbs, and backhanded compliments. Resentment simmers under the surface, and one wrong comment can derail an entire discussion. Newcomers feel unwelcome and old-timers jump ship.
It would be improper to discuss edition wars without mentioning one of the nastiest, longest-lasting edition wars to date: the schism formed by D&D 4th Edition. In 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced the development of D&D 4 at Gencon. One might think a new iteration of D&D would be met with good cheer, but the news was not well-received. Slashdot reported that the “general reaction [to the announcement] seems to be anger.” I would go a step further: the fury produced brought the phrase “edition war” into every tabletop gamer’s jargon.
The closed playtesting and departure from many of D&D’s traditions fueled arguments about the identity of Dungeons & Dragons. Detractors accused the new edition of being a tabletop World of Warcraft clone. Promoters praised it for its mechanical balance. Truth be told, both D&D 3 and D&D 4 have their merits. D&D 3rd Edition is one of the most detailed role-playing games in the fantasy genre. I would even describe it as a fantasy world simulator. A comprehensive ruleset coupled with the OGL opens up the game in a way that pioneered the d20 revolution in the early 2000s. On the other hand, D&D 4th Edition fulfills a niche that is just as important. With a well-balanced combat engine, streamlined rules, and slick artwork, D&D 4 is easily accessible players both new and old. The game also experimented with a plethora of innovative subsystems, including ritual magic, encounter and utility powers, and skill challenges.
Despite the positive qualities of both systems, players picked a favorite version of the game and denigrated the perceived flaws of other editions. Things got real bad. RPG.net, one of the largest forums devoted to roleplaying games, issued a blanket warning against “threadcrapping.” That was back in 2009. It’s still at the top of the forum in 2014. Morrus, administrator of ENWorld, likewise issued a warning in 2012. Again, as of now, it still remains at the top of the forum.
What came of this intra-community strife? Nothing good. Idle hands are the Devil’s tools, something I can confirm after spending considerable time stridently voicing my opinions. I didn’t do anyone any favors by edition warring. Not myself, not my “side,” and not gamers as a whole. It’s destructive to the community as a whole. Cannibalizing a niche community in pursuit of ideological purity is counterproductive.
“But I want to make sure the company knows my opinions!” That was my rationale. If you’re like me, you think you’re going to change the direction of the game. Bad news: it ain’t gonna happen. When a company publishes a game, they’re measuring success by sales, not vocal Internet support. If sales are up, the product’s good. If sales are down, the product’s bad. If sales aren’t high enough, it needs to be better. Vote with your wallet—it’s quick, easy, and when enough people do it, businesses will listen. If you doubt this, let’s talk the saga of New Coke.
The New Coke Debacle
Back in the ’80s, Coke was hurting in the sales department. Their main competitor, Pepsi, was beating them out, and they had been for awhile. To revitalize sales, Coca-Cola performed blind taste tests and determined that their formula needed changing. Thus was born New Coke. Despite being well-received by a number of people, an extremely vocal minority despised New Coke. They were the edition warriors, stirring up their hate of New Coke with support for Old Coke. According to the Coca-Cola company, these folks made sure that Coke knew that they were displeased, and their hotline “was getting 1,500 calls a day,” more than three times what was normal.
Old Coke edition warriors held protests, poured Coke out in the streets, and hoarded Old Coke for the rough times a-comin’. One disgruntled consumer, Gay Mullins, even tried filing a class action lawsuit against the company. However, the Coca-Cola company held out—until their sales flagged and Pepsi gained market share. After this, New Coke was phased out, Old Coke was reintroduced, and the company’s sales skyrocketed. Later, Coca-Cola would later try to market New Coke as Coke II. It didn’t catch on. As sales proved inadequate, the company pulled Coke II, and the New Coke formula was put to rest permanently.
The lesson here: the bottom line matters more than outrage. The protesters didn’t kill New Coke, the market did. While the protesters made Coca-Cola aware of the discontent with their product, the bean-counters have the final say.
However, your dollar vote might not get what you want. In the end, numbers are tallied, profits are calculated, and beans are counted. Sometimes your wallet doesn’t make enough of a difference to change things. A business has to consider everyone who likes X and everyone who likes Y, and if there are nine other guys who like X and only one guy who likes Y…well, Y is probably going to hit the chopping block. It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.
Be Productive With Your Time
At that point, you might consider angrily voicing your opinion to the game developers. It might feel good to vent, but you’re not doing anything productive. Yelling at the Internet does nothing to change the fact that your game is not how you want it. Even if the writers personally consult you when writing the next edition, you’re stuck waiting years for it to come out. Now, you can gripe all you want, but as long as you’re griping, you’re not gaming. Gaming is fun, and if you’re having fun, you don’t have time to gripe. The two are mutually exclusive. Every minute you spend edition warring is a minute wasted.
There’s some good news, though. Your favorite edition is at your fingertips. You probably have a plethora of house rules that you fancy. Take the time you would spend complaining and devote it to writing your own game. It’s not easy. It requires serious dedication and a lot of hard work, but it’s possible. The OSR crowd has done it for years. For those out of the loop, OSR stands for “Old School Renaissance” or “Old School Revival.” OSR games are those that try to recapture the feel of previous editions of D&D with modified rules. They’re successful. Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, BLUEHOLME, Dark Dungeons, and similar games all provide valuable resources for people who enjoy their out-of-print editions.
Paizo Publishing follow suit, and they’ve reaped considerable rewards from it. When Wizards of the Coast announced D&D 4, there was trouble brewing. Paizo Publishing wrote a lot of material for D&D 3rd Edition, and their products were about to go obsolete. How did they handle this? They could have republished their materials after D&D 4’s release, but chances are that wouldn’t fly with the consumer base. Instead, Paizo Publishing announced they were authoring the Pathfinder RPG to continue support for their old products. The results? Aside from a business boom, D&D fans of all stripes benefit. Players who enjoyed D&D 3rd Edition have a fully-supported product from Paizo Publishing, and players who enjoyed D&D 4th Edition have a wealth of material with which they can play. Meanwhile, the recent release of D&DNext provides an opportunity for fans of Pathfinder, D&D 3rd Edition, and D&D 4th Edition to try out a new game. Everyone wins.
The Moral of the Story
At the end of the day, we gamers need to learn to let things go. When I was an edition warrior, I wasn’t gaming. I wasn’t having fun. I was shouting into a void–and my words didn’t matter. Wizards of the Coast published D&D 3, D&D 4,D&D Next, and sometime in the future they’ll publish D&D 6. The D&D brand changed irrespective of my personal feelings–and it’s a good thing it did, because each iteration of the game brought something positive to the table. My advice to would-be edition warriors: channel your energy more productively. Reach out to new gamers. Roll the dice. Have fun. It’s not worth stewing over. We’re all gamers, so we might as well game with one another.