Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Editions & Incarnations

 Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.”

Dalai Lama

Looking over my roleplaying game shelves I realize I have – during my almost 40 years of gaming – bought into several new editions of games I enjoyed and even tried a few new incarnations for favorite settings. So many roleplaying games over the years have released subsequent editions and some classic settings have even seen new incarnations with improved presentation and original game mechanics. I expect it’s part of the gamer experience, choosing to invest in a new edition or incarnation of a favorite game. Sometimes I explore these only to return to the tried-and-true original game. Other times I check out new incarnations mostly to see how different publishers approach some of my favorite game settings.

Some might lump new editions and incarnations into one definition...simply a new version of a game demanding our attention and money. But I see value in making a distinction. New editions frequently come from the same publisher as the original, or at least a publisher seeking to retain the game mechanics with some polish on the system and presentation. For new incarnations a different publisher takes an existing genre setting – often a media property – and produces a totally new game, often with higher production values and more innovative rules catering to its intended audience (and often incorporating the latest trends in game mechanics). New editions build on the old, revising what works and improving existing rules while new incarnations keep the setting and develop their own vision of how game mechanics works best. Designers creating new editions of existing games impose a new vision on it, often influenced by their own impressions of the previous game and their own concepts of a “good” game; sometimes they’re influenced by corporate concerns. Sometimes these resonate with a target audience consisting of both fans of the past edition and newcomers lured into the game.

For instance, West End Games published the first Star Wars roleplaying game, which essentially released three editions over a decade (first, second, and “revised & expanded”), each revising the rules and presentation, but essentially remaining the same game. Wizards of the Coast later got the license and published two incarnations of a Star Wars roleplaying game, the first based on its d20 System, the second branded Saga as a much-streamlined version of the prior rules (so it’s arguable if this is a new incarnation or just a new edition). Later Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) acquired the license and published several “editions” of the same game, each tailored to a different aspect of the Star Wars universe such as smugglers, Force users, and Rebels. Each company produced a new incarnation of a game based on Star Wars; within each incarnation publishing several editions.

When I hear news of new editions and new incarnations of my favorite games I often wonder whether I should buy into them or simply enjoy what I have...no doubt a conundrum many face with games incorporating favorite intellectual properties (whether original to the game hobby or media-based). Scanning my shelves I note games for which I have several editions and incarnations, each acquired and retained for certain reasons. I keep multiple editions/incarnations of games with settings that engage me but I’ve rarely played, mostly for nostalgia, reference, and inspiration. Over the years I’ve culled most down to the essentials. These include numerous incarnations of Doctor Who roleplaying games; two editions of Cyberpunk (one of the few I’ve played extensively); three incarnations of roleplaying games based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings; third and fourth editions of Call of Cthulhu and supplements ranging across most editions (and I’ve played it occasionally over the years). Although I checked out MegaTraveller and T4: Marc Miller’s Traveller when they released, I sold them off and focused on expanding my original, classic Traveller collection from high school (which I played then and still dabble with today through solo play).

One might think I’d own all the editions and incarnations of Star Wars roleplaying games since the original films were an early influence on my childhood and I worked on the West End Games version; but I’ve only kept my comprehensive collection of West End materials. I used to own some rulebooks for the Wizards of the Coast game – more for reference when I had a few writing jobs for it during my “Desperate Freelance Years” – and over the years I’ve purged most of them (though I keep issues of the Star Wars Insider magazine). I never really cared much for what I saw of the FFG version of the game and never bought any editions.

I’ve been enthralled by the exotic world of Tékumel since I heard legends of Empire of the Petal Throne in my earliest years of gaming. I’ve collected numerous incarnations, few of which ever lasted into advanced editions: some Gamescience reprints of Swords & Glory; Gardásiyal: Deeds of Glory with its programmed tutorial solitaire adventures; Guardians of Order’s short-lived Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne; and most recently Jeff Dee’s Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel. The earliest ones reached the gaming table, but ever since Gardásiyal I’ve indulged in solo play. All the incarnations serve as excellent references and, along with other sources like The Excellent Travelling Volume fanzine, continue informing and inspiring my explorations of Tékumel.

Basic Dungeons & Dragons was the first game to draw me into the hobby; I continued with the Expert D&D set and then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, all of which I played throughout high school and a bit beyond. Over the years I bought a few supplements and even dabbled in second edition material. I’ve cherished the B/X D&D and AD&D books I have, even buying modules I’d wanted as a kid but never had; but some second edition rules and many of the boxed sets I never really played or admired went to better homes over the years. I bought into third edition D&D when Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and released a new game, though I’m not sure it constitutes a new edition or new incarnation. At the time, my “Desperate Freelance Years,” I’d hoped to write for it or some of the d20 System sourcebooks flooding the market through the Open Game License (OGL); although I did find some work there and even ran a few games, it never really clicked with me. Yet I still keep my three core rulebooks, maybe for the innovations the game introduced to a long-running, market-dominating favorite. I bought the two beginner-oriented boxed sets released for D&D fifth edition, though more for the setting material and introduction for newcomers than any affinity for the game system.

Much of the OSR – the Old School “Renaissance,” “Revival,” or whatever you want to call it – thrives on new versions of the D&D mechanics adjusted every which way. Some titles seem like new editions while others new incarnations with a degree of change equal to D&D 3rd edition. I have a collection of OSR games, mostly derivatives of the core game released through the OGL. Many seem like individual house-ruled versions of D&D, though some expand beyond that scope into games that evoke particular tones in both setting and rules. I keep these OSR games to mine for ideas in my own occasional returns to my favorite B/X D&D, whether rules variants, race/class options, random tables, or adventures.

On rare occasions new editions or incarnations seem too good to miss. I really enjoyed Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game in my youth and long thought my well-worn paperback copy would have to last; but I bought into the Kickstarter release a few years ago to get a reprint of the rules with a production value upgrade – hardcover, full-color – along with a new hardbound, full-color volume of new adventures.

West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game serves as a good example – at least to me – that new editions can add material but don’t always cater to a player’s evolving tastes. I played first edition from the start and enjoyed it immensely. Second edition didn’t impress me either in graphic presentation or rules changes, though some of the line art by Mike Vilardi and Allen Nunis was excellent; I ran the system more because at that time I was working for West End. (I still to this day have a particular loathing for the “wild die”....) I helped write and design second edition revised and expanded, the “super-mondo” edition that polished the second edition rules in a spiffy hardcover, full-color volume. (I even streamlined the system for the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game, merging simplified mechanics with a more tutorial presentation for gaming newcomers.) For a while I preferred “super-mondo” to all other editions; but in more recent years I’ve come to appreciate first edition as my preferred Star Wars game.

In most cases gamers can still use material from new editions with older editions with little or no adjustment. Using older material with newer incarnations requires a bit more work unless simply using plot and setting material from adventures and sourcebooks without worrying about transposing all the game stats. What matters most is we find a meaningful experience, whether that’s simply reading new materials, exploring them through solo play, or bringing them to the game table with friends. The corporate side of the adventure gaming hobby will always churn out new editions of popular games – and try acquiring properties to rework in new incarnations – as a business decision in the constant production and marketing cycle to make more money to sustain the operating infrastructure. Individual consumers decide whether to buy into these new games based on a host of personal criteria related to what they think contributes to a meaningful game experience. As with many aspects of this highly creative niche market with wide-ranging tastes, your mileage may vary.

Do not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what is left of the old.”

Winston Churchill


  1. Like you, I've started to become rather picky about what I add to my collection. Fighting Fantasy, Classic Traveller, Star Wars D6, and a "pick-your-poison" of "D&D" game (I'm partial to Sine Nomine's products) will get you quite a ways (throw in a few more small press indie titles, like any of Scott Malthouse's games or Risus, and I'm not sure I really _need_ anything else.)

    While I have Star Wars 1st Edition and the "super mondo" 2nd Revised & Expanded Edition, I feel your Introductory Adventure Game edition is the "superior" choice for most of my games. My players don't use any of the extra systems in 2nd R&E and the shorter force powers and skills list are easier for them remember. We've tried variations of Mini Six and Mythic D6 (an excellent product!) but they keep returning to the IAG version as their favorite edition. Every so often a house rule or two is experimented with but we often return to the IAG rules as-is. About the only thing I'd like to find, as I've noted on Twitter, is a "Dueling Blades"-esque set of rules for "mass blaster" combat duels to cut down on all of the to-hit/damage/resist rolls (static defenses haven't really worked for us because they don't seem to hold up very well across the range of strength & weapon die codes.)

    For solo play I'm inclined to use a light variant of Fighting Fantasy:

    ... or Classic Traveller. It is just faster to work out the numbers and there's less bookkeeping than OpenD6/D&D/etc.

    My players do enjoy other games from time-to-time that aren't covered by the above: Fate Accelerated, a few Powered by the Apocalypse hacks, and D&D 5th Edition (shudder) but all of those are still fairly low bars to entry cost-wise. (The Essential Kit for 5th edition won't break the bank like core books will and will keep you busy until 6th level... at which point I find they aren't really interested in playing D&D any more for a while.)

  2. I generally grab the first edition to see what it's like. The second edition corrects the obvious errors of the first edition. The third edition smooths out the play experience of the original game. The fourth edition is usually a direct result of the influence of the fans who want to add new features to the game, but ones which generally only matter to the dedicated fan. This tends to break the game, which means that a fifth edition is needed to undo the problems. The sixth edition takes experience of long term play with these features and again smooths out and streamlines the play.

    The seventh edition is usually a totally different game because the company went bust and the IP was purchased by someone else. But since the previous company went bust, they feel that the reissue of the game is actually better with a different game system. The seventh edition can actually happen anywhere in the sequence.

    As a result of this the third edition is generally the best produced edition of the rules and the easiest to understand for new players. But it is still insignificant to the excitement of the first edition.


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