A while back I started writing an essay with a title like "the Many Ways to Play D&D," or something equally pretentious. Pretentious and ridiculous...in trying to list all the categories of D&D player I'd come across over the years, I realized the whole mental exercise was a fool's errand. After all, who am I to criticize (or judge) someone for playing D&D the "wrong" way. Come to think of it, I'm not sure there's a "right way" to play D&D at all.
I mean, really...is there an absolute correct way to play a game of D&D? Gygax didn't run his campaign with the AD&D "rules as written;" in the end, I think most role-playing games in general, and D&D in particular, have rules sacrificed for brevity and "fun" at some point during play.
[I don't even know how one might run a D&D "tournament" game...wow, what a cluster f*** those old Gen Con tourneys must have been! It ain't Magic cards, that's for sure!]
All this is my preamble-y way of saying, of course you can play D&D any way you damn well please.
Now let's talk about character exploration.
In the past, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned how much I dislike the way character generation has exploded over the last couple editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Even back to the latter days of 2nd edition...even before the Players Options book was published those damn kit books and non-weapon proficiencies and yadda-yadda-yadda. Giving players MORE options during chargen makes the chargen process LONGER unless players have 1) a solid concept of what they want as a character, AND 2) extensive knowledge of the system (usually gleaned from practice making characters).
However, few players would meet both these requirements, causing chargen to be a rather long, drawn-out process...and thus making the death of a character more cumbersome, more of a penalty (you have to sit out longer to make a new character). The usual fix? Make sure characters don't die as readily in the game. Go easy on players, fudge dice rolls, or institute new rules that ensure character death is a thing of the past. Ugh.
Of course, none of that has to do with character exploration.
I think most would agree that playing an RPG is about a little something more than figuring out the best way to tweak your character. That particular "metagame" is nothing more than exploring the game system...and exploring the system should be secondary to, well, playing the game right?
Let's just agree on that for the sake of argument.
So getting that out of the way, what exactly is "character exploration?" Well, it's about exploring one's character, right? Seeing what makes him or her tick?
And how exactly do we know that? By observing what the character does over time.
Does such a thing have a place in the D&D game? Yeah, I think it does...even in short-term game play.
Consider the literary tradition from which D&D comes. Sure, sure a lot of us "younger kids" (like myself) bring a more "cinematic" mindset to our action-adventure, but those bibliographies in Moldvay and the DMG aren't listing movies to go see for inspiration...they're books. And books, in general, have more opportunity for "character exploration" than film just due to the narrative structure.
At least in the action genre. Howard's Conan may not be an incredibly introspective guy, but you get a greater idea of his values and ideas on "the wickedness of civilization" than you get from a screening of Conan the Destroyer.
And I know that's a poor example...there IS character exploration in cinema, even action cinema, but most film is not of a serialized medium. And Dungeons & Dragons, at least as initially designed IS a serialized medium...characters and the game world are supposed to have some continuity over time, a series of adventures like Ffafhrd and Mouser, or that Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his buddies.
Personally, if the only exploration done in an RPG is "exploring the dungeon," well, that might get a bit boring...couldn't I just be spending my Thursdays logging into the World of Warcraft? For me, a great part of the fun of role-playing is seeing what the players do with their characters...not just how they get out of some fiendish trap, but how they interact with each other and the various NPCs of the game world. THAT's what makes D&D such an interesting game.
Recently, I was comparing Dungeons & Dragons to Shadowrun, in that the latter game seems like some crazy kook asked "how can I get machine guns and cyborgs into my D&D game...or 'port elves and dwarves into the cyberpunk genre?" But for all its extra cool rules and sourcebooks and "skills," D&D is STILL a leg up on Shadowrun in character exploration...because Shadowrun is a big fat caricature in a lot of ways.
At least in D&D, there's an idea of some sort of strange world "out there" that characters will interact with, eventually at a ruler-vassal level some day. No such maturation process exists in Shadowrun...every session could simply be another "Meet Mr. Johnson at the club, run the mission, get paid" and you would be "doing Shadowrun" the way the game is designed and presented.
Fun as a novelty, sure? But long term? Eh...that's simply "exploring the dungeon"...over and over again.
D&D CAN be played this way, of course. Why not..."meet the wizard at the tavern, delve the dungeon, get paid." But it does (at least in earlier editions) have rules built in for a more interesting bit of character development. And many other RPGs do not...making it possible for long term game play to stagnate after awhile.
More on this later...it is early, early in the morning.