No, this article is not about Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike…
Any successful roleplaying game will eventually have a new edition. No matter how well-written an RPG is, there will always be room for improvement. Broken rules, unanticipated needs, rules expansions, errata, clunky systems, etc. can make a new edition attractive to fans of the game.
However, a question always accompanies a new edition; namely, how closely should a new edition resemble its predecessor? This is a very important question, especially when there’s a significant financial investment involved. How easily can supplements of the previous edition be used with the new edition?
Let’s look at two extremes:
Call of Cthulhu is currently in its 6th edition (officially; there’s been a few intermediate editions as well). The rules, however, have changed very little since the game was first released in 1981. I can pull an adventure created for, say 3rd edition, and run it with the current rules with little trouble. I’ll call this the “Mr. Fix-It” approach. This approach generally appeals to new players, as old players can often get by with a free errata (or simply ignore the minor changes).
Dungeons & Dragons (oh, don’t look so shocked; you knew that I was getting here eventually) is currently in its 4th edition. It’s almost impossible to pluck a 3rd edition adventure off the shelf and run it using 4th edition without significant modifications (just as it was difficult to run an AD&D 2e adventure using the D&D 3.0 rules). I’ll call this the “Burton” approach (after Tim Burton, who called his version of Planet of the Apes a “re-imagining”). This approach appeals to both old and new players, as the new rules are incompatible with the old.
Obviously, there’s also a gray area in-between, but most games tend to fall on one side or the other of the “I can use my old stuff with little trouble” line.
In addition to the obvious economic interests, the reason behind a new edition often dictates the approach. Let’s look at a few:
New Print Run
The previous edition sold out and it’s time for a new printing. The publisher decides to take this opportunity to create a new edition. As the motivation for a new printing is generally to ensure that every player has a copy of the rules, most publishers will want the new printing to be as close to the old edition as possible. Thus, the new edition is guided more by the Mr. Fix-It approach; cleaning up editorial mistakes and minor errata. The changes are usually summarized in a couple of pages in the New Edition and/or as a free download.
The new edition is being published by a new publisher eager to put its own stamp on the game (rather than directly reprint the old game). New publishers trend toward the Burton approach, as they are more prone to tinker with the rules and want their version of the game to sell well.
The previous edition has been so cluttered with rules supplements and optional rules that playing a “complete” game has become unwieldy. In addition, many of the newer rules are more innovative or intuitive than the original. Thus, a new edition promises, at least initially, to get the rules back in a single core book. Streamling often leads to somewhere in the middle of the two approaches, depending on the nature of the changes.
Sometimes the previous edition has a rule that is so broken or the book is so littered with editorial mistakes that the publisher feels that a new edition is necessary. Unless the broken rules constitute a major part of the game, then the new edition will follow the Mr. Fix-It approach.
For whatever reason, the publisher wants to dump the core rules system and replace it with a new one (during the d20 heyday, quite a few games dumped their house systems to jump on the d20 bandwagon). This reason definitely edges closer to the Burton approach.
The old edition is still available and supported, but an edition using a different rules set is published concurrently. As an example, prior to the new, more balanced World of Darkness, there was a point-balanced GURPS version published alongside the original. To take another example, the original BRP line of Call of Cthulhu is still going strong, but that hasn’t stopped versions being put out for GURPS, GUMSHOE, d20, and True20. Parallel systems generally follow the Burton model.
Obviously, a new edition of any stripe will have an impact on a particular gaming group, and individual GMs sometimes feel that the publisher should have gone in the opposite direction. I’ve seen groups swear off a new edition sight unseen and I’ve seen groups declare an end to the campaign with a new one starting up just as soon as the new edition is in their hands (in both cases, it didn’t matter whether the new system was touted as a Mr. Fix-It or a Burton).
Similarly, some GMs will ignore Mr. Fix-It editions and only purchase a Burton edition, while other GMs will only purchase Mr. Fix-It editions and ignore a Burton.
So today’s hot button is this: You’re currently running a campaign that shows no signs of losing steam and a new edition is on the horizon. Would you prefer a Mr. Fix-It or Burton edition?