Ugh. What even qualifies me to write about something like this? I don't know. Common interest? Having a blog? Being a pompous ass?
Maybe a little bit of all of that.
Let me first get some standard disclaimers out of the way. I DID major in theater; however I DM/GM a lot more often than I play as a player. I play old school B/X D&D (and will be speaking from that perspective), and for my money, the random Reaction table is perfect for what I want in a D&D game. On the other hand, I totally buy into a lot of more sophisticated game design theory, specifically of the "Forge-y" type, and my return to "old school" gaming was after a loooong hiatus...I like story-type games.
Okay...so where to begin...
To me, it really seems that there are two (or three) different discussions flying around the blogosphere, all touched off by Ryan Dancey's proposal to add some more serious social mechanics to the D&D game (or narrative/story mechanics in order to inject added meaning and story objectives into a D&D game). Trollsmyth's take on this (if I'm reading this correctly) is this:
D&D is a game about exploration, not social interaction. For players who want social interaction in their D&D, any "rules" tacked on should be those that facilitate D&D's premise of adventure/exploration, not elaborate mechanics required to determine the results of social interaction. Adding mechanics for social interaction to D&D to make it a more social/intrigue/political style game would turn it into something "not D&D," and certainly there are already "not D&D" games that one can play if they want. Changing an Old School game into a "new school" game kind of defeats the whole point of exploring the simplified glory of old school gaming.
Erin's point is that this approach (letting the sleeping dogs lie) unfairly hampers players who might want to play a "socially-minded version of D&D" (like Troll & Odd's solo adventures) but who don't know the way to go about it...'cause they don't get the idea of "forging alliances and relationships" (those things that might lead to exploration "bonuses" in Troll's game) and even if they did, they wouldn't feel comfortable with "role-playing" in the fashion of "acting in character" to somehow be suave and smooth enough to forge those alliances and get those bonuses.
Whew! Is that an adequate summary?
Okay, so here's how everyone's looking at this thing wrong.
I happened to recently read Moldvay's Basic set...again. Specifically the introduction and the DM section. And you know what? D&D, as originally conceived, is a lot damn simpler than any of us long-time gamers or "neo-classicists" might think. In fact, B/X D&D has a lot more in common with the combat-oriented "D&D Encounters" than it does with most any edition in between. At least, as written.
The difference of course is with the game's potential.
But if you don't know the game's potential, if all you have is the "rules as written," and if you don't read to deep into the game, it's pretty damn simplistic...make dungeon, make characters, explore dungeon, period. Trying to make it about anything else requires a bit of "drift" (to use the Forge term), at least thematically. Even without rules tweaks.
But if you're willing to do that thematic drift...which I suppose happens when there are other advantages to playing D&D that prevents people from seeking a different type/style of RPG...you still have all the tools you need to play a game that is a social or political or intrigue or romance -oriented game. As opposed to the standard "make dungeon, make character, explore dungeon, period."
The character is your vehicle for this. Your character tells you everything you need to know about your characters raw abilities. Your character's raw abilities are equal to his or her ability scores...that's what abilities are. The character is the avatar for the player in the imaginary game world, and what your abilities are tell you what you are.
However, some might not get what these things measure.
A character may have a 17 Intelligence and thus have a lot of knowledge...they know a number of additional languages, have the ability to read and write, and can comprehend the workings of magic more quickly (i.e. wizards gain a bonus on earned XP to rise in level). Having a 17 intelligence does NOT mean your character doesn't do stupid things. Hell, your character might do stupid things A LOT. I know guys (and gals) that are plenty bright and have lots of education and they still do bone-head things...hell, some of 'em aren't even good at simple games like Scrabble, or Charades. I've known very bright players who were not great at riddles and solving in-game challenges...doesn't mean they weren't good attorneys or lawyers or software programmers. And I've known guys without much education that were pretty darn ingenious.
Having a low or high intelligence score just influences your literacy, languages, and spell comprehension...that's all it means.
A character with an 18 Charisma has a magnetic personality...they get bonuses to reactions (including negotiations...for example, with hirelings) and they inspire trust and loyalty. Characters with a low charisma are the exact opposite...that's the mechanics of the ability.
It doesn't mean your character isn't good looking or an eloquent speaker. You can be a gifted speaker or a great looking person and still have something that "turns people off." Likewise, you can be a homely simpleton, that is surrounded by friends who hang on his every word and who can easily find people to go to bat for 'em. I've known unattractive guys who had no problem dating attractive ladies...and it had nothing to do with money or physique or smooth talking. Just natural confidence and charisma.
Your character's charisma score measures something specific: in-game effectiveness. How you use it is up to you (and the rules are nice enough to point out a PC can get bonuses or penalties to Reaction rolls depending on how the character "sweetens the deal").
Need I say Wisdom is the same? I've known old codgers, wise in the ways of the world who were taken in by sham artists or who made unwise (one might say "undisciplined") personal decisions. In D&D, wisdom measures only one's resistance to magic (through an increased willpower I suppose) and one's ability to advance as a cleric. But I've known several willful guys, well versed in the Holy Writings of the Bible who've made very "unwise" decisions...like a guy wo hasn't spoken with his brother in 30 years over some long forgotten argument, even though they live in the same town...and this is a guy who goes to Church and reads the Bible every day! He must have missed that part about forgiveness...
D&D characters provide a vehicle for players to explore the game world. Ability scores measure certain types of in-game effectiveness pertinent to that exploration. Can there be other types of "adventure" of a non-combat, non-treasure-seeking variety? Sure...though it may not cause you to advance in level ("experience points" and "levels" measure your character's accomplishments with regard to combat and treasure seeking and increase effectiveness in these arenas). The "role" you play is that of a heroic adventurer in a fantasy world. The game provides rules for your interaction with the imaginary environment and your ability scores tell you how well you do...any additional color or description you provide is up to you. And this will get easier for players to add with time and practice.
Anyway, I'll have more to say on the matter when I post about last Thursday's game and some of the stuff that went down...hopefully some examples will serve to illustrate that I'm not just talking out of my ass. Regarding the original posts on the matter? Well:
a) I think Ryan's a bit silly in his premise. But that's me. Not sure why he's playing D&D if he wants to play a different game, mechanics-wise.
b) I think Trollsmyth's a bit naive or deluded to think 1) folks can play in his style without rules/training/guidance, 2) that his type of game is un-Drifted itself (at least thematically), and 3) that a game should not have mechanics that address what the game is about. Again, though, this is just me.
c) I think Erin's not giving her players enough credit...or is giving theater majors too much. I believe D&D can be played just fine (even thematically drifted) as written...but that's just been my experience.
All right...that's about it folks.