Psychology of the Grognard

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 How do we explain the mindset of a gamer who still plays an outdated version of a game - perhaps even AD&D First Edition, or older?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.

3. Pessimism

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.

4. Nostalgia

"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.

Comments (17)

DM Andy (June 29th, 2009)

Put me down for Reason 5 and a variant of Reason 2. I was an enthusiastic early adopter, didn’t get in the playtest, but DMed at the launch event. My gaming group was a little unsure about switching over from 3.5 to 4.0 so I did the launch event scenario for them and they loved it, eagerly insisting that the current campaign be retrofitted to 4.0 rules.

But a few months later, I started to see problems with the game. Combats felt samey and far too long (at first I’d attributed length of combat to player inexperience of the new rules). Every new release that Wizards have been putting out has been about widening the rules (new classes, new powers, new monsters) rather than deepening the game (what about rules for ruling domains, for followers, for building strongholds or guilds). In the campaigns I like to run, Characters move into the political sphere in the Level 5-9 range, 4th edition just has offered bigger monsters.

My variant of Reason 2 isn’t the sunk cost fallacy, but the avoiding future cost. It’s going to cost about £300 ($500) per year to buy every hardcover released and in my view, the quality’s just not there.

So my next “D&D campaign” is actually going to be a GURPS 4th edition campaign. I still love D&D but I can’t see me running a full campaign of it any more.

Tom (June 29th, 2009)

Not that this matters, but I have a hard time seeing 3.5 players as “Grognards”; it’s not THAT old.

Just because you’re not playing 4e, doesn’t make you old school.

Ethalias (June 29th, 2009)

Put me in the counter of 2,3 and 4. Having dabbled in 2nd and 3rd edition but not played regularly, then been asked to run a game in the swansong era of 3rd edition, when the various changes of 4th edition were gradually announced they addressed an awful lot of the issues I was having.

I respect all those who invested time in 3rd edition, and there are things about it which I miss (a certain simulationist grace which, whilst causing me to be overwhelmed as a new DM, had a charming appeal to me), but I’m firmly in the 4th edition camp. I could well see myself digging my heels in as and when (and if) a 5th edition is announced.

On a side note, I think a lot of issues with 4th edition gameplay can be overcome with a little willpower from the DM. When one is used to things being handled a certain way (of which you a fond) it can be harder to let go and start stretching a new ruleset to it’s full potential.

Cross-edition love ftw!

DarkSchneider (June 29th, 2009)

Tom: I believe it’s not an all-inclusive “all 3.5 players are grognards” so much as “3.5 players who complain relentlessly about 4th edition and make unironic statements like ‘I hope Wizards fails because I don’t like 4th edition’ are grognards.” There are absolutely people still playing 3.5 who don’t fall into that camp, but there’s a lot of grognards playing 3.5 too and unfortunately the vocal grognards give a bad reputation to everyone.

King Fumbler (June 29th, 2009)

You forgot a category, although I guess it could be 2.5…players like myself that don’t get to play very often, so upgrading from 3.5 to 4E doesn’t make sense as learning/teaching new rules would take up the little gaming time they have.

Dyson Logos (June 29th, 2009)

Bah, real grognards are too oldschool to calculate their THAC0. That’s a new-fangled thing they introduced in one of the “later” editions of the game. ;)

Either way, I’m not really a grognard because I don’t grumble and complain. While I play a pre-THAC0 edition of the game most of the time, I’m also playing in a 3.5 game and a 1e game and have played 4e, but don’t quite have the time to play in one right yet.

That and I’m a pragmatist - I don’t like playing a game while it is still in the development and release cycle. I prefer to play a game once all the books have been released so I don’t have new rules and options being published mid-campaign.

Steve (June 29th, 2009)

So what would you call one who plays or tries out enough game types (and localized DM features) that moving from one rule set to another is seen as needless change.

The game isn’t so much about the system as it is the characters and storyline.

And if that is the case, why spend $$$ on new and improved rules that don’t really make anything new or improved.

By the same token, there is little resistance to open rules that can be adopted if that is deemed best…

So - the one new 4th ed feature that I think will be interesting in D&D is the minion - that I’ve admittedly seen just a little bit about.

It looks a whole lot like part of the TORG system that I thought had merit;-)


taichara (June 29th, 2009)

Or, you know, we might just play an older edition because *gasp* *shock* *horror* we happen to enjoy the game we’re playing and don’t feel the need to move on.

Lurkinggherkin (June 29th, 2009)

Hi Jonathan,

I’ve often heard the sunk cost fallacy quoted as an argument for adoption of a different game system to the one you’ve already invested in. Thing is, when applied too broadly it becomes the ‘sunk cost fallacy fallacy’. I know you’ve added the caveat “even if it would be cheaper or better to abandon it for a new option”, but I think this point is worth expanding on because I tire of having people bandy the phrase ‘sunk cost fallacy’ about as if were some magic counter-argument.

Sunk cost applies to situations where you have made a bad investment, but are continuing to throw time and money after it because of what you’ve already spent, instead of cutting your losses. Classic example: Someone continuing to gorge themselves beyond the point where they are enjoying the experience because they have paid for an ‘all-you-can-eat’ meal and they want ‘value for money’.

But ‘sunk cost fallacy’ doesn’t apply to situations where you have sunk your costs into something the performance of which you are happy with and which promises to continue performing well into the future and deliver pleasing results.

Remember that costs sunk into collections of rulebooks for a system are the tip of the iceberg. The biggest investment in a long-running campaign is world-building and character-building. Even pre-published settings require a great deal of work to put flesh on their bones.

Now sunk cost would certainly apply if you were no longer enjoying the setting and characters, either because you had become disillusioned with the rules or had become bored with the setting and feel the itch to move on. But if there’s still plenty of life and vigour in what you’ve got, and you have plenty of unused material in the pipeline, then you need a pretty compelling reason to abandon your existing ‘investment vehicle’.

For many roleplayers, the mere fact that the alternative game system they are offered has the same name but with a sequentially higher version number isn’t a compelling reason to abandon their setting or carry out a gigantic migration exercise. It becomes even less compelling when what they regard as the critical success factors of their existing game system (for the purposes of their setting) aren’t even present in the alternative system under consideration.

Tetsubo (June 29th, 2009)

I’m a 3.5 loyalist. I don’t consider 3.5 ‘outdated’ in any manner. I really do think it is the best version of the game. That’s my opinion, it can’t be wrong.

I am however a grognard. Because sadly I do want WotC to fail miserably with 4E. I’m not proud of this and I hope to eventually move past it. But for the moment, in my view, WotC has done a massive disservice to D&D and the hobby in general.

I have also decided that I can’t in good faith buy any new Star Wars SAGA books either. I simply can not support WotC in any way.

wickedmurph (June 29th, 2009)

S’funny, I have a beard, and have been playing D&D and boardgames for more than 20 years, but I’m not a Grognard. The term has come, to me, to indicate a basically conservative outlook that prefers things to not change. Reason 1, 2 and 5 don’t have much to do with being a Grognard, they’re just ways that people evaluate how they want to spend their free time, and 5 is simply subjective - depending totally on the preferences of the individual.

I’m a busy guy, with a job and kids and I’m a volunteer firefighter. Plus, I like a high-action game. I never played 3e or 3.5 because of reason 5. So for me 4e is the way to go - quick prep, lots of action, and I didn’t have any sunk cost, fallacious or otherwise.

I used to think Grognard mean “grumbly expert”. Too bad blogging and the edition wars have changed the meaning to “someone I’m sick of hearing from”.

Mad MAx Jr (June 30th, 2009)

Once I started looking at 3.5 and 4E as two completely separate games I had an easier time accepting it. Now if WOTC would only get on the ball about the features they promised around 4E launch…

Trashcan (June 30th, 2009)

God, talk about lame and cheap psihology. What on EARTH are you writing about?

We can’t dislike the new editions?
*Because we need realism in our imaginary world?
*Or because we know every single rule in the old ones?
*Or because we spent too much money on the old ones?
*Or we just plain hate it.


JimTOdd (July 1st, 2009)

I read this after I read the blog about edition wars and how 3.5 fans won’t just “drop it” in threads. How is hopping up and presuming to psychoanalyze a huge number of people going to lead to peace and understanding? I guess I should be happy you allowed for the potential for option 5…but why if you’re trying to move past the animosity would you even bring up ‘grognards’, slap them with a name that has negative connotations, and provide amateur psychoanalysis?

Doc Ryder (July 3rd, 2009)

Does anyone else notice that the majority of the comments are those who don’t like 4e justifying their dislike of the new system and getting defensive over one man’s attempt to figure out why?

I can’t comprehend why some players keep trying to justify why they think 4e is bad, and going on and on about it. Why do you these people feel the ned to talk down 4e, rather than just walk away? Play what you like, and let me do and discuss what I like, please, and I’ll give you the same respect.

PlanetNiles (July 6th, 2009)

I’m not a Grognard; this is the first time I’ve spoken about why I dislike 4Ed outside my gaming group. To be blunt I hate it. It isn’t D&D, its an MMO-on-paper and not a particularly good one. I’ll try and explain why point for point.

1. 4Ed restricts narrative by defining party roles too tightly. When you go through a ‘party’ of ten characters and you can’t recreate *any* under the new ruleset then there is a problem.

2. In theory the meat and bones of any RPG is the setting not the system. I literally spent many hundreds of UKP on 2Ed materials. I loved 2Ed and still fondly recall the last campaign I ran with it. However when 3Ed came out I embraced it like a lost brother and soon most of my 2Ed books were consigned to storage. My campaign settings survived though and have grown and diversified even across the rule change. Changing the ruleset didn’t pose a problem, until 4Ed came along and then it was like hitting a brick wall. Please understand I have run and played games using hybrid rulesets from apparently imcompatible systems in dramatically distorted settings without problems yet 4Ed created a problem that was insurmountable for my friends and I. I could never understand people who refused to play 3Ed, it felt like such a streamlined and coherent system compared to 2Ed. I even had someone tell me that Kenzer&Co’s HackMaster was “what 3rd Ed should have been”. I smiled and replied that HackMaster was a huge amount of fun and a massive nostalgia-hit but not a patch on the d20 system…

3. I was a “Fouron” that is to say someone who, despite the warnings of friends and conventional wisdom, allowed themselves to get excited by the approach of 4Ed. I mean so much had been learnt and developed since 3.0 and the step from 2.5 to 3.0 had been so smooth I couldn’t help myself. I bought the preview books and dissected them for clues as to what to expect. I began designing a new setting specifically preparing what was promised. I signed up to Gleemax, read the blogs, preordered every book… I had no pessimism. I knew I should, but ghoddamn it each new system, each new setting, each new character and each new session brought back a sliver of that initial hit of wonderment. How could 4Ed go wrong?

4. Yeah I love reminiscing about bygone games. I remember my first session of 3.0, I recall the last of 2Ed, heck I loved the session on Saturday; the druid nearly got half the party wiped out, forgetting the important of scouting was to report back to the party before attacking the enemy… Yeah I love that and I look forward to the nostalgia we create next session too. Who cares if the new system can’t recreate the adventures of yesterday? I’m here for the adventures of today and tomorrow!

5. So yeah I had all these expectations, all these promises made by WotC, well its staff, and then the books arrived and my hopes were dashed. It wasn’t what was promised, it was a pale imitation of what had promised. Like the MMO’s it so proudly imitates barely half the promised features had been implemented on release the rest were ‘promised’ for future updates. Sorry no. If I wanted to play an MMO I’d go online and do it. It felt like WotC were extracting the urine, like they had taken all the good stuff from 3Ed and thrown it away to see if anyone noticed. Yeah it was a workable system, yes it had some high points, yes it looked fun but ghoddamnit it wasn’t D&D. I don’t know what it was but despite the flashy logo it wasn’t D&D.

That’s what most of the other ‘Grognards’ tell me “it isn’t D&D”. I don’t call that a whine, I call that a consensus. Someone wake me up when 5th Ed is announced, but I won’t expect anything good to come out of it…

AWizardInDallas (July 7th, 2009)

It must be some sort of record to both pretend to know anything about actual psychology and be so condescending at the same time. It’s also refreshing to see new ways of stereotyping and pigeonholing so tidily invented and applied so succinctly to an actually diverse (albeit loose) community. The real trend is entirely societal and applies to just about anything new. People have become so increasingly crow-like in their obsessive want to collect ‘shiny things.’ It just doesn’t matter what it is… operating systems, cars, phones, software, hardware, video games, big screen televisions… everyone’s gotta have the newer, bigger, flashier thing. Sorry to say it but the real issue is that attention spans have grown increasingly shorter… it’s now all about instant gratification… every moment must be filled with closer to video game speed and action or younger players just grow bored. So game ‘designers’ ‘simplify’ instead of refine which is pretty much what people do with each new iteration of a thing. In large part, the trend in our society is to throw out the recipe with the food, strip out the seasoning and in so doing strip out the original flavor so badly that the dish is completely unrecognizable to the discerning pallet. Oh, and let’s not forget to alienate diners by telling them that they’re the problem when they decide not to taste and go to other restaurants just because the new cookery smells foul. Where does that leave ‘psychology’? See the marketing department.

Comments for this article are closed.