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.