Thursday, January 5, 2012

Addendum to the Rant

Sometime between this morning and now, I managed to fall prey to a dastardly cold, which is damn irritating as I was very much looking forward to going out with "the boys" tonight (yes, I am back in Seattle, no longer in Mexico). Instead, I've been sleeping away the day and just got up to eat some soup (and what's up with Ritz crackers? Didn't they used to be salty or something?). As such, I am not in a great mood, so if this addendum to my earlier rant has a rather pissy tone, you'll know why.

There are things a game purports to be about and then there are things the game is actually about; unfortunately, these two things don't always synch with each other. Such a disconnect is all too common in table-top RPGs; the classic example is Vampire the Masquerade. VtM states its game is about telling tragic and/or meaningful stories in the gothic-punk/alternate reality world of the supernatural. What it's actually about is killing cops and drinking their blood. I know this because I played Vampire for many years (at least the first two editions, circa 1990-95). No matter what high falutin' concept or idea you came up with, eventually cops were getting killed and their blood drank...usually in aid of killing more powerful beings (like other vampires) and drinking their blood. "Did you learn anything from the session?" "Yep...give me my bonus experience point."

[granted, I haven't played any of the recent re-boots of the Vampire line, but when I see the cover of books like Damnation City it makes me think the game is STILL about killing cops and drinking their blood. What is this? Goth Frank Miller?]

In D&D the disconnect is (for me) pretty frustrating. You're asked: haven't you ever wanted to play a game where you're Conan or Elric? Haven't you ever wanted to travel the worlds of Leiber or Tolkien having grand adventures just like their characters? Now you can! Except that's NOT what the game's about. It's about you and a group of buddies going down into a hole and looking for treasure. Yes, you can play it in a different fashion, but that's what the rules are guiding you to do...that's the direction you're being given by the game designers.

D&D may have evolved from wargaming (and that may be part of the issue) but that's not what the later editions (1976+) purport to be about, and scant information is provided on any kind of warfare (other than the price of hiring troops) anyway until you get later supplements like BattleSystem, etc.

And while those earlier editions (AD&D, Cook/Marsh) discuss eventually taking the characters OUT of the dungeon and expanding the scope of your fantasy gaming, there is extremely little-to-none information on HOW one is to go about doing this. For the most part, players are simply left to "winging it." Which is what many of us did...but it is frustrating to have a game with so little guidance in this area when so much attention is given over to the "delving" aspect of the game. Like it or not, doing so emphasizes the importance of that particular aspect over any consideration of "expansion."

With results evident in later (21st century) editions. 4th edition appears to be designed in such a way as to reconcile the disconnect: the game is about dungeon delving and blowing shit up and it provides rules for doing that. To those of us who grew up with earlier editions of the game, this may seem like heresy (and really it's just that the thing bears little resemblance to earlier editions and yet continues to bear the brand name)...but it's hard to fault the designers for making a game that is exactly what it purports to be about.

[doesn't mean one can't fault the company for making a stupid game and calling it "role-playing"]

But even before that, 3rd edition/Pathfinder had pretty much gone the way of "all dungeon delve, all the time" with only ancient gamers like myself trying to bend the thing into our earlier models of gaming, with varying degrees of success. For me, I found the experience to be excruciating as the system is too complex to "get out of its own way" and open up the possibilities of role-playing found in the earlier, simpler editions. On the other hand, creating dungeon encounters and planting treasure is dead easy using the Challenge Level system and tables regarding how much loot characters of various levels should have in their possession (despite such mechanical "adventuring" being a soul-less shade of the earlier editions).

Here's the bottom line: if you want fantasy adventure role-playing of the sort found in the literary tradition that D&D states is the basis and inspiration for the game, then the game does not have the chops it needs to accomplish it. It needs to be bent and broken and pushed by the players in ways that are not explained but only hinted at. Which is terribly unfortunate as it means NEW players, just coming to the table (and terribly distracted by all the other forms of entertainment available to us in the 21st century) are probably NOT going to see the potential in the game, or invest the time needed to make the game into something bigger and better than what it is. Instead, they'll say "huh, you go into a hole in the ground and look for loot. Not exactly Michael Moorcock." Or whoever the fantasy author is that may have piqued their curiosity at the idea of trying a fantasy role-playing game.

There are a lot of things D&D has offered that made it into a popular pastime over the years, and I don't think it's just because people liked "pretending to go down into a hole once a week" to blow off steam. Sure there are those of us who are returning to the game after 20 years and doing just that (and to me, this is what smacks of "nostalgia gaming"), but I do NOT believe that style of gaming is going to be enough to sustain the hobby...or, at least, enough to sustain the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe that's why folks eventually jump ship to other systems (for instance, Savage Worlds or White Wolf) and write-off D&D as simplistic and childish.

Despite its potential, the premise of the game falls a little flat.


  1. Two words: Magic Realm. It attempts to distill the fantasy literature tropes into a playable game of magic carpets, dragon slaying, friendship and betrayal, mighty swords, and so on.

    Part of the problem with playing D&D "as intended" is that you need the players and DM to already be familiar with the literature in order to emulate it.

    I'm as guilty as any, therefore, of "playing it wrong" in my youth, as I was ignorant of the literary roots of D&D when I started playing.

  2. I think you're largely right except for a hole in the middle: The Expert set was largely about wilderness adventuring and I think it was largely successful in explaining and supporting that concept for the time.The later Companion and MAster sets from the Mentzer boxes went even farther afield from Basic Tomb Robbing.

    I'd also say that later 2E was getting more and more into "telling stories" and less about the pure dungeon crawl, which gave us 3E's back to the dungeon reactionary approach.

    I'm not saying any of these are wrong, but I think any time D&D has approached doing something different, some part of the audience has shouted it down and driven it back onto its original course, for good or ill.

  3. @ Pal: When I started playing (circa age 9), my background in the literature was also quite lacking: my biggest sources of inspiration were cartoons, Disney, and Ray Haryhausen movies. I think the game of D&D actually led me to read fantasy fiction from a very early age...and we adapted our games from there.

    @ Blacksteel: I took the time to reread through my copy of the Expert set (and the original DMG) prior to posting this addendum and I feel I can quite fairly say it does not provide adequate explanation as to what "adventures outside the dungeon" entail. It explains how to move through a wilderness, forage for food, possibly get lost, or encounter wandering monsters. It provides info on creating a home base and the prices for construction of castles should characters reach Name level. And that's about it.

    I am intimately familiar with the Companion and Master set, and I agree that the former provides many more ideas on political intrigue and high level (non-dungeon) adventure than any other edition of the game (and the Master set has a neat little system for characters interested in questing for immortality). However, I would argue that despite the Companion's ideas (many of which my friends and I adapted to our high level AD&D play in our youth), much of the systems are inelegant and overly mechanical, feeling less organic and "out-o-place" compared to the earlier sets. Part of the reason I wrote my own "Companion" book was my dissatisfaction with Mentzer's rules, but some of the IDEAS in it are good...or at least interesting.

  4. JB, I swear I'm going to make you play a classic Runequest game one of these days, despite the fact that you'd hate and probably post against it for being skill based. There were a few "lite" dungeon adventures published, but mostly it was about being out in the sunlight. You just COULDN'T dungeon crawl. That much combat would inevitably fuck. you. up.

  5. You have definitely to go to late BECMI (as you note from the Companion set onward) and AD&D2e (a hefty part of the 2e DMG is devoted to these aspects, and also look at some settings like Birthright) to realise the "full potential" of the game.
    I agree that 4e must be the first D&D which has a very strong premise, and built around that premise. I found out recently that some aspects of 4e can be easily "toned down" to have an enjoyable experience.

  6. I dunno, I always thought that X1: Isle of Dread gave you a pretty good idea of what a wilderness adventure was supposed to be.

  7. this reminds me of your "crippeld games" posts. (where you praised d&d for, um... being stupid. :P)

    i still believe whatever the players bring to the table is much more important than the premise of any given game.

    i don't see any reason why new players today should be unable to see potential in a game, while older players obviously were. just like you (and so many others) did, they will find their own way to play.

    if a game allows them to do that it can be as stupid as a conservative candidate, it'll still be a good game. no game will ever be able to provide ALL the tools players and dms might need (unless you use a very restrictive premise. yeah, i know, you'd like that. :)).

  8. The rules provide the basic tools and components (combat, movement, NPCs, skills, hazards, a range of monsters, spells and magic items) for running all sorts of adventures, whether in the Keep on the Borderland, the City of Greyhawk, the Outer Planes or wherever the DM fancies. I think what you are getting at (and I may be misreading you) is there isn't enough instruction on how to put the tools to use and put the components together to form an impressive narrative. I was going to say "form an impressive story" but that implies a pre-ordained plot, which I'm not keen on. I kind of view D&D as an imaginary version of lego or mechano - all the bits are there, but I don't always know how to fit them together. I've found that experience and practice are the best ways. Realistic expectations for outside the dungeon are good as well - dungeons are neatly compartmentalised into rooms, with specific corridors channelling adventurers to relevant encounters. Outside the dungeon PCs can and will wander all over the place, sometimes away from things the DM wants them to get involved in.

  9. Why do I need more rules to go kill evil high priests who practice their dark arts in temples instead of dungeons? Need I explore a dungeon to defeat that neutral Lord who dwells in a nearby castle? I don't have to delve into labyrinthine sewers to kick the butt of a gang of thieves do I?

    @Leee, X1 was indeed an excellent model of wilderness adventure and an entire generation of gamers were exposed to that in the expert set.

    Dungeons are the foundation of the game, not the limit.

  10. FYI, I'm sure the good folks at Google are scratching their heads right now -- wondering why the search phrase "Goth Frank Miller" trended so highly for a few hours there.

    If only my Photoshop skills were a little better...

  11. John L nailed it. Dungeons are good for beginning DMs because the finite environment makes the design process manageable.

    Wilderness adventures can pose a more complex design challenge, but a wilderness crawl is not inherently more interesting than a dungeon crawl. In either case, the adventure may boil down to the dumb core premise of killing and robbing monsters to acquire the means to kill and rob tougher monsters.

    For some PCs, the core premise is adequate. If your character is a greedhead or a glory hound, then avarice and pride should prove sufficient to motivate every adventure.

    However, just as pulp fiction antiheroes tend to become truly interesting only when they discover an unsuspected moral core, this is often true of PCs as well. I think Gygax may have been pushing in this direction when he imposed the concept of alignment, the startling requirement that character actions should reflect a consistent philosophy, even though the actions of people in the real world frequently don't reflect any similar coherence.

    It certainly elevates the game to a new level when characters find deeper motives for adventure. One major advance in module design is that authors now often offer multiple possible hooks to rope characters into the scenario.

    Some old modules model how to deepen the game. Consider Vault of the Drow, for example. Gygax presents an enormous sandbox, including a city and a dozen clan villas. Parties that mount a frontal assault on the place will die in short order. The only way to bring it down is to infiltrate it, requiring lots of roleplaying to navigate the city, exploit the alliances among Drow clans, and figure out where to find Lolth.