Saturday, February 19, 2011

Character Exploration in D&D

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 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, 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", 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 is early, early in the morning.


  1. I'm not sure I agree. Our big Shadowrun campaign ended up with us owning our own skyscraper in downtown Seattle, leasing it out to businesses, running the nightclub -- our first purchase -- in the basement, and hiring 'runners ourselves to go out on the minor jobs. We were essentially ninth-level characters with a stronghold.

    Now, you'd be right in saying that it was beyond the scope of the core rules at the time, and Shadowrun does not have an endgame built in like D&D does, but on the other hand, nor was it a massive dump of house ruling -- second edition has rules for followers, contacts, investment of money, etc -- and it was a natural development for the party.

    As such, while we expanded the game, I don't think we twisted it out of shape or made it do something it wasn't designed to do.

  2. Your post is a nice corrective to the recent discussion on Grognardia ("we explore dungeons, not characters").

  3. "Your post is a nice corrective to the recent discussion on Grognardia ("we explore dungeons, not characters")."

    I think that the problem here is that there is the mechanical and external to actual role-play exploration of 'character' - the endless discussion of optimal builds that seems to characterise D&D (and other RPGs) to many of the post-WoW generation of gamers.

    "If we explore dungeons, not characters," is a rejection of this trend, I'm in agreement. But so much of that trend appears to see the role-playing - the in-game character development - as mere colour to a game of balanced tactical combat anyway. It is all about dungeon delving using a party of painstakingly optimised stat-blocks.

  4. Personally, I found that we did explore our characters BITD by exploring the dungeons and the wilderness. Of course, we had escapades in towns, and as our characters got more powerful, we had our own domains to manage, and what not.

    But none of us sat down before rolling the dice and wrote up pages of back story. None of us had much idea about what sorts of internal struggles we wanted our characters to face. And we definitely didn't spend hours looking through charts and tables to make our characters 'perfect.'

    We just rolled some dice, picked a class, slapped on a name (often borrowed from some other media), and after purchasing some gear, set out to explore those dungeons AND our characters at the same time.

    Like you said, character exploration needs to take time. I see too many people coming to the table with a lot of that exploration already done in their heads, rather than letting it happen at the game table.

  5. I'll add my two bits.

    I cannot count the number of hours of gaming (primarily using T&T) in which characters and NPCs were interacting without one combat, one skill-test occurred, yet we were going places, figuring out conundrums, establishing our reputations, and taunting NPCs. These were true character exploration sessions to the point where we often knew our characters' motives better than we knew our teen-aged selves (under development, partly shaped by our RolePlaying in the imagined worlds), so that by the time an NPC had finally had it with us, or cheated on a lover, or betrayed the party to an enemy, it really mattered.

    There were plenty of assassinations, 'screw-overs', and usurping of businesses and guilds that all led to combat and re-locations to new an completely unexplored locales so that all of the mock and stock utilities of what has become confused with RPGing (and 'old timers' like Rob Kuntx and Jeff Berry can corroborate that they were 'original features' of the golden days games) were all addressed in good time so as to round out the game time with what felt like a saga of picaresque and low-powered shills always on the wrong end of the patron with whom they had gotten entangled.

    I realise that a lot of this could have resulted from gender and genre differences, but I was gaming with guys who were into more than /just/ Conan and Aragorn, or even Mouser and Cudgel. We were avid comic book readers and in that medium (the supers-sort), years of character development occurred within the context of crazy-ass fights with preposterously powerful opponents -- there was and still is NO contradiction in this.

    Look at shows like X-Files, any of the ST franchises (including TOS), DR. Who, LOST, Fringe, etc. A sense of continuity in the characters' lives and their recurring enemies and allies, lost loves, etc. Those shows rock in varying degrees (or suck less than others), and they all serve as examples how travel and exploration are the story vehicle while being the setting for the action, and centring around the characters. Characters die in varying degrees of frequency and permanency in the above (comics are notoriously bad examples of permanency in that regard, though).

    Aren't the best stories when recounted to others those that involve the RP in the sessions, not merely the 'and then I used my fourth and final MM, rolling max on all four missiles which then dropped the NPC to within 3 HP, allowing for great follow-through by the tactically-placed elven thief for a 4x backstab.'?

  6. *they were features: refers to the character exploration, not the mock and stock aspects.

  7. @ Kelvin: I totally agree with you that this isn't "twisting" SR or make it do something it wasn't designed for...I think that MOST if not all RPGs have this ability to "open up" depending on what they're players bring to them...I think that D&D (in its original format) had some additional rules that helped facilitate this opening, and I give credit to the fact it had a literary foundation. Exploring character (who these guys are...I mean, buying a skyscraper DOES say something about what your game is all about!) IS a potential of RPGs.

    @ DeBargle: Right, I think (hope) the original poster was using "explore character" to refer to "exploring the system of character building based in later edition of the rules." But just in case he wasn't, I wanted to add MY two cents that "exploring CHARACTER" is NOT antithesis to D&D role-playing.
    : )

    @ Lord G: That is what I'm talking about.

    @ TS: You and I are definitely on the same page. Again, I think that character exploration CAN come from in-game play and is not antithesis to the game...hell, it's a major component of what makes the thing more fun than sitting around playing the Dungeon! board game (or something similar).
    : )

  8. hell, it's a major component of what makes the thing more fun than sitting around playing the Dungeon! board game (or something similar).
    : )


  9. I think my original comment came across as more argumentative than I intended, sorry.

  10. @ kelvin: Nope, not at's probably something I should have clarified better in the post!
    : )

  11. > Fun as a novelty, sure? But long term? Eh...that's simply "exploring the dungeon"...over and over again.

    Hey, but look how much fun some (many?) people have minimaxing and optimising character builds either as an intellectual exercise or to better obtain the in-game "goals"/"rewards"? :p

    [clip] expand upon a previous personal observation with additional highlighting to explain /why/ that "sadly amused" me (to repeat, personal 02c):

    [quote="harami2000"]p.s. the blurb on those two Dummies books sadly amused me in its sincerity.
    "**Explore the fantasy world of D&D** **and delve into dungeons, slay monsters, and gain treasure!**"
    - there it is in black and white; the XP mechanism underlying the entire "D&D as RPG" principle and the very concept of a "fantasy world of D&D" appearing to mean the "world" of crunchy mechanics rather than exploring any actual "fantasy world" as such. There's probably something like three pages out of 880 that actually deal with world building and a handful more pages on wilderness adventures in general.
    It may all be very well written and well-intentioned, but still...[/quote]

    And the "character exploration" in "role playing" is /where/, now? :)


  12. So far, my take on the matter has been that "exploring dungeons" is to explore what happens by the actions of the characters and so see how the characters develop personalities through play, while "exploring characters" is to write pat backstories and create personalities a priori. Ultimately, I can see either way as being worthwhile for different people, but I prefer the "exploring dungeons" direction myself.