Three gamers sit around a table in a friendly local gaming store. A customer walks in and asks for a sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition.
“Bah,” says one of the gamers as he strokes his beard. “Fourth Edition’s nothing but a Wizards of the Coast cash-in. In my group at home, we play nothing but Three-Point-Five Edition.”
“Three-Point-Five?” says another. “My group only plays original Third Edition – Three-Point-Oh! None of your money-grabbing rules revisions!”
The last says nothing, and strokes his long beard as he calculates his THAC0.
Psychology of the Grognard
The name “grognard” comes from the French meaning “grumbler”, historically a soldier in Napoleon’s army. From there, the term entered the vocabulary of historical wargaming enthusiasts in the 1970s to mean a veteran wargamer, and eventually referred to a Dungeons & Dragons player who stayed with a classic version of the game long after the release of one or more new editions.
But what makes the grognard tick? How do we explain the mindset of a gamer who still plays an outdated version of a game – perhaps even AD&D First Edition, or older?
Motivations of a Roleplayer
To understand the grognard we must first understand roleplayers in general. Several theories have been put forward to explain what makes Dungeons & Dragons so appealing. The general consensus is that a variety of psychological factors contribute to an RPG’s popularity, and that different gamers are motivated by different combinations of these factors.
Modify the mix even a little, and you please some players while offending others. The inclusion of miniatures in D&D 3.5 and fourth edition was unpopular with many storytellers and players who enjoyed the greater freedom of using one’s imagination, but a boon for players who enjoyed the tactile sensation of physical minis and the improved precision to tactical combat.
A grognard, then, is a player who, having encountered a new edition of a game, holds a strong commitment to the old edition. It may be rational, or irrational, or a combination of the two. Here are a few reasons for grognards to keep old things over new.
1. New edition contradicts established narrative
Ask any hardcore Star Trek fan: Continuity is law, and contradiction the devil. Many gamers, and many people in general, derive pleasure from feeling that a story is logically consistent, at least within the context of itself. I wrote about this in a 2006 article on the importance of realism in a fantasy setting:
The value of making a world internally consistent and reflecting that in what the players experience is that they can rely on your game world to some extent, which gives them stability, while letting them experience something that Monte Cook likes to talk about a lot, “verisimilitude”. Despite being a complete fantasy, the game world is at least consistent and you can rely on that, you can trust that as a player. … Internal consistency is an important attribute of a game that applies especially to Dungeons & Dragons.
Note that change isn’t the problem here: it’s contradicting the grognard’s established beliefs that makes his head hurt: a blatant, deliberate change with no in-story rationale. It snaps him out of his immersion in the story and shows him that the whole fiction is a lie. It confronts something he knows is true with something that isn’t compatible with that knowledge. The storyteller’s hand is visible and it breaks suspension of disbelief. It just plain feels wrong.
Example: Driders and others, D&D 4E Monster Manual. In third edition, a drow was transformed into a drider as a punishment for failing a rite of passage. In fourth edition, becoming a drider is somehow actually a reward. Forgotten Realms fans are still raging.
Example: The Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, a D&D third edition campaign setting book – “does it right”. Its section Gazetteer of the Flanaess begins with a disclaimer that the information contained is often based on rumour or heresay, and may be inaccurate. It is thus reasonably free to contradict old material or to be contradicted by future material, without at any point breaking kayfabe or telling the player his world is inconsistent with itself.
Counter-example: Comic books. Comics frequently use “ret-con” (“retroactive continuity”) in order to provide a stronger basis for storytelling. Dead superheroes come back to life, past events are declared to play out differently, and so forth. Perhaps comic readers have become accustomed to this, or are more willing to accept that stories by different authors are allowed to sacrifice a little continuity in order to clean up earlier authors’ messes and make a better story overall.
2. Knowledge, time and money investment devalued
The grognard has spent thousands of dollars on AD&D First Edition books. He has played every week for twenty years, and knows every rule. He has hundreds of pages of campaign notes and house rules in a binder. How can he give that up now?
A big part of this is what’s called the sunk cost fallacy. People in general are more likely to be emotionally attached to something they’ve spent a lot of time and money on, even if it would be cheaper or better to abandon it for a new option. If they bail now, they’ll feel they’ve wasted all that time, money and effort.
It’s also a matter of pride. D&D players are often the sort to value knowledge and learning, and that means they care about mastery of the rules. Even if the player believes the new rules are better, there’s a cost in time and effort that has to be weighed against the benefits of switching editions. There are probably also fewer resources available, since most of the old sourcebooks aren’t very useful to the new edition.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that players in my old gaming group were more likely to switch to fourth edition if they had played very little third edition. This could simply mean that fourth edition appeals to some people in a way that third didn’t and vice-versa, but it may also suggest that the more heavily invested a player is in a game, the less likely the they are to give all that up.
The grognard is rarely impressed by the so-called “new and improved” game. It’s far worse than the version he plays, and what’s more he can prove it. He can do this even if the so-called “facts” disagree with him, or even in the complete absence of facts at all.
Example: When D&D 3.5 superceded D&D 3.0, many players complained and swore they would never update. Now, only a few third edition players still use the earlier 3.0 release.
Example: D&D fourth edition received heavy criticism before any information was revealed. In fact, it received criticism even before it was announced, and some fans have gone so far as to already complain about fifth edition.
Counter-example: Master of Orion III. Pessimists were proven right when the sequel to a very popular videogame turned out to suffer from severe gameplay issues.
“I just read the 4E playtest rules,” said a gamer, “and none of my favourite D&D moments would have happened under these rules. Fourth edition can’t be any good.”
Nostalgia is the counterpart to pessimism. Where pessimism says, “The new is no good”, nostalgia says “The old was magnificent!”
5. New game really is rubbish
The grognard hates the new game almost automatically. But sometimes, just sometimes, he’s right.
It can also happen that the new game is subjectively inferior, but for reasons other than quality. It may be too expensive or inconvenient to switch, or the new game may change the game such that it loses an aspect of its original appeal.
Example: Paranoia fifth edition. Almost none of the original Paranoia RPG production staff were involved in production of the fifth edition, and the release was deemed a terrible failure.