The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
— Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1
SO WE ALL KNOW THE PARADOX. You have a ship. Over the years, as the planks rot, you replace them with new wood. At some point the entire ship has been replaced. Is it the same ship, or a new one?
The thought problem becomes somewhat more complex when applied to RPGs. Novels get reprinted. They often get new covers, possibly a new foreword, but remain the same text. If we bring them into another language, we call it a "translation." If we take a novel and turn it into a movie, we all agree the film is not the novel. It is an "adaptation." If a song is performed by a different artist, we call it a "cover." If a painting is copied, it's a "reproduction."
With roleplaying games, we generally use the term "edition." Unlike new editions of other books, roleplaying games are often changed when this happens. Errata is included. Corrections made. Material is added or subtracted. Often, however, the rules themselves change, and sometimes substantially. I am always reminded of Bones McCoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture lamenting, "I know engineers, they LOVE to change things." Game designers do too.
But this is where it all gets messy.
Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu remained largely the same throughout sixth editions. There were clarifications, some things were removed, some added, but all were completely compatible with each other. They shared the same ethos. The same setting. The current seventh edition is probably the most changed, but it is still, clearly, Call of Cthulhu. Anyone who plays seventh edition will recognize it as Call of Cthulhu.
RuneQuest is mildly more complicated. Chaosium's first and second editions were nearly identical, separated mainly by a few clarifications. Avalon Hill's third edition, however, was more of a departure. While still compatible with the original setting of Glorantha, sweeping changes were made to make it a more generic game. Currency was renamed, all the in-text play examples changed, Rune magic became "Divine" magic (the same, but very arguably different), etc. I think this raised some very interesting questions. If, say, Legend of the Five Rings was relocated to fantasy Europe, would it still be the same game? If The One Ring was relocated from Middle-earth, would it?
With the latest edition of RuneQuest, there is a new subtitle and some additional mechanics, but in a move quite unusual in the hobby it returned to both its original setting and core system. It is even more recognisable as the original RuneQuest than were its immediate predecessors.
But what about the elephant in the room?
Over the last two months, the question I am posing to you here as an entertaining philosophical conundrum has become deeply relevant to much of the hobby. We need to talk about D&D.
Around the time Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons, the question of "what is a roleplaying game" became incredibly complicated. The original 1974 game had gone through several editions, but the differences between them were minor, much as they were in our examples of Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest above. Holmes clarified and simplified. B/X made a few more revisions. BECMI added a great deal of additional options, but at the core it was the same game. And it was in several ways a very different game from Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which--while renamed for reasons of shutting out the original game's co-author from royalties--was presented as a different game, not a different edition. AD&D's 2nd edition included many rules changes, the renaming of "problematic" elements like demons and thieves, and a shift in focus from its original setting (Greyhawk) to the Forgotten Realms and others. Still, I think if you compare AD&D and AD&D second edition, they are as recognizably the same game as RQ2 and RQ3.
Then we hit "third" edition, and it all goes off the rails somehow. Presented as a "third" edition--clearly a reference to the two previous editions of AD&D--and sold in the AD&D format of three hardcover books, it nevertheless called itself Dungeons & Dragons, the "other" game traditionally in boxed sets. It had AD&D's alignment system. It had AD&D's iconic monsters. It preserved AD&D's spells and cosmology...all VERY different from the actual Dungeons & Dragons. Well, fair enough...they were simply calling AD&D by the other game's name.
But then on top of this, the new game had a completely different engine. While the d20 system carried over a lot of the terminology of previous editions, it was a completely new game. After all, no one confuses RuneQuest with D&D despite shared use of concepts like STR and DEX and hit points. The d20 version of the game was neither D&D nor AD&D mechanically, just in name.
At the same time, adding even more confusion, the creation of the OGL license allowed for the emergence of dozens of games that actually were the same as D&D or AD&D, they just couldn't use the name. OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials...these are all recognizably earlier editions of D&D in new forms, while the game calling itself D&D became even less so (looking at you 4e, looking at you).
In recent leaks from Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro we have heard Dungeons & Dragons referred to repeatedly as an IP and as a "lifestyle brand," but not so much as a game. I think the argument can be made that this is what it has been since the early 2000s. I am not saying that 3e, 3.5, 4e, or 5e were not themselves "games," only that they were entirely new systems to which the name D&D was attached. They were no longer the original line of games, but a brand. An "idea." It was the Athenians selling tickets to the ship of Theseus when none of the planks remained.
But, let's push the question even further. If any of the leaks are true, and the next iteration of D&D will be played on a VTT and apps, with AI Dungeon Masters, we are not even bothering with the concept of the ship. Forget whether or not it is still D&D, as an automated online game is it still even a traditional roleplaying game as we understand the term? It is akin to the Athenians deciding to replace the ship of Theseus with a museum dedicated to it instead.
D&D is hardly the only game go through such changes. For example, the third (Fantasy Flight Games) edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG line was also a completely different entity from the previous editions. Yet the new (Cubicle 7) fourth edition of Warhammer, like RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, returned to the first and second editions for game design inspiration. The fifth edition of Vampire the Masquerade is mechanically different from the original game, but it returns to the original setting (unlike the sequel game Vampire the Requiem) and in many ways the "spirit" of the first edition (excluding Sabbat characters, returning more to a game of personal horror, etc). There seems to be an awareness among game designers that you editions can change...but there is a danger of changing "too much." Something of the original DNA has to remain. Wizards approach with "One D&D," shrugging off the concept of editions at all, is a very different response.
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