Trollsmyth has an excellent post about the theoretical underpinnings of the Old-School Revolution. It’s a great synthesis of lots of ideas, but the one that seems to be generating the most discussion is D&D is Always Right. First proposed by the pre-Grognardia James Maliszewski, here’s how Trollsmyth puts it:
By this, he meant to take the games in their own terms. Rather than come at them assuming he knew what they were about, he studied them under the assumption that the designers did, in fact, know what they were doing and succeeding in producing the games they meant to write.
Some folks have taken this as “a reframed conservative screed that tradition is always right“. To put this idea in its proper context as a useful analytical tool for thinking about why games are published the way they are, let me say without hesitation: the Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is always right. It is the game that its design team intended to create. And, as Trollsmyth says, once you adopt this point of view you can make all kinds of interesting discoveries that are impossible when you insist in only seeing 4E for what it’s not rather than what it is.
My claim to old-school doctrinal purity is, of course, tainted: I’ve taken my thirty pieces of silver from Wizards of the Coast and hope to do so again in the future (metaphorically, at least; otherwise that’d mean Judas was getting paid freelancer rates! Let’s assume he, too, was always right and held out for a deal that made sense in biblical currency).
So here’s the quote from Lord Blacksteel’s post at the awesomely-named Tower of Zenopus blog that got me started on this when I shoulda been working. Talking about his first experiences with 4E, he says:
I thought that I was going to get D&D Saga Edition and I didn’t and I hated it. So we continued with our 3.5 campaign and the 4th ed books gathered dust for the next year and a half or so. The 3.5 campaign ended and I thought about introducing my “apprentices” to D&D as they were now 13 & 10. I decided I should give 4th edition another chance and start them off with “their” version of the game, the “modern” one, letting them skip all the legacy material in my head from the past 4 versions that I had played. So I started reading the books and I actually got through all 3 of them this time and there was actually some good stuff in there. I can see a lot of what the designers were trying to do and a lot of it actually makes sense and could be a lot of fun.
“D&D is always right” is a starting point, an approach that helps you get past your preconceptions and better engage with what the material actually is. Taking this approach doesn’t mean you always have to agree with what the designers are trying to do or how it works out in your hands instead of theirs! (Read the rest of Lord Blacksteel’s post, for example). It’s not a mandate; it just means that when you decide whether it’s right for you, you’ll be doing so from a deeper understanding of what you’re accepting or rejecting and why.
It also doesn’t mean you have to subscribe to the “intentional fallacy.” (I’m assuming that this term has a meaning in literary criticism which is not nonsensical. For the moment can we agree that I did in fact intend to write for Fourth Edition D&D rather than being mind-controlled to do so, and that when I say that I’m happy with the way that this intention translated into published material I’m not lying to you out of the aforementioned desire to get paid to do so again?)
It’s not necessary to believe that D&D is perfect. There are certainly cases where external factors kept the 4E designers’ intent from producing the desired result. (I think the repeated errata on skill challenges point to one such example). And there are times when, in hindsight, one sees errors in one’s past work. (Fortunately, this often happens for my 4E work when I see how the development team fixed them before they went to print.) However, I don’t think this means that newer work is always better because of the benefit of hindsight; just like anyone else, the designers themselves may imagine non-existent flaws in older work that are really just its purposeful differences from the some-other-game they would come up with today.
And “knowing what they were doing” isn’t always the same as being able to explain it. Compared to the launch of the original D&D, we’ve heard a lot more about what the 4E design team thought their intent was. For me, the part of the analytical that Trollsmyth identifies as the imperative “to take the games in their own terms” means that you prioritize the product itself over what its designers say it is, as well as what you think it is. Doing this can have surprising results, which include deciding that the rules are well designed to do a different thing that’s at odds with the designers’ stated goals.
For me, “D&D is always right” is closely aligned with “D&D is a product of a particular bunch of people in a specific time and place.” I see them as complementary routes to understanding. Looking at what the rules themselves seem well-designed to do may or may not support my ideas about those folks were up to, but I think it’s fair to start with the assumption that it’s my ideas that are wrong rather than that the designers were incompetent.
And, as Trollsmyth’s original post says pretty clearly, the point of all this isn’t to establish an old-school or new-school doctrinal purity. The reason to have this maxim is so you can be surprised by what’s between the covers that you weren’t even aware of. In the end you might or might not decide that you want to have a risk-based economy for exploration, or a transparent framework for consensus adjucation – but in order to see that those are features of OD&D or 4E, you have to get past saying “this game is poorly designed because it doesn’t do what I think it should”.