Thursday, January 12, 2012

D&D’s Lack of Balls

AKA “A World Without Consequences

All right, time for Bone #3 in my continuing series of “Ranting in the New Year.” I’m sure for many folks that’s a welcome change in conversation from my last post on 2012.

Before I begin my rant, maybe I should give a vague, hand-wavy explanation of what the hell I’m doing. Here’s the deal: the last five or six weeks I’ve been going back and reading a lot of (what I consider) “Old School Fantasy Fiction.” Jack Vance. Anne McCaffrey. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Clark Ashton Smith. Even Lloyd Alexander (just finished re-reading The High King a couple days ago). Looking at the stuff that provided the BULK of inspiration for the Dungeons & Dragons game.

Because that’s what Gygax (and company) SAYS is the inspiration for the game: not movies or TV shows (though I’m sure the films of Ray Harryhausen are the inspiration behind many of the creatures found in the game). The idea is being able to have “fantastic adventures” like those of your favorite literary protagonists.

And, heck, that’s what I want out of my RPG! Oh, I understand that the RPG is a different medium from books and thus does not replace, nor even replicate the book-reading experience…just as you can’t really have “cinematic role-playing,” either…there’s just no such animal. But I want something CLOSER or something that RESEMBLES the adventures found in fantasy literature, even if the game PLAYS OUT DIFFERENTLY from the way the story in a book unfolds.

But that’s already problematic due to the two major strikes D&D has against it:

Strike #1: Silly Premise. There’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily silly about site-based adventure. The “silly part” is mainly the SERIAL nature…that the protagonists’ whole raison d’etre is to go into hole-after-hole (dungeon-after-dungeon) looking for treasure. Generally, this is NOT the type of adventure found in the inspirational literature, even the short stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Strike #2: Missing Magic. The totally unimpressive nature of “magic” in the D&D game making players (and by extension their characters) totally blasé about the supernatural. The attitude engendered in players with regard to magic DUE TO THE SYSTEM of the game is totally antithesis to that displayed by protagonists (even magic-using protagonists) in the literature. You never see individuals taking magic for granted in fantasy fiction!

So, yeah…now we come to Strike #3: D&D’s lack of balls.

Guts. Courage. And by that I mean, there’s nothing on the line for players of the D&D game. Playing D&D is about a world without consequence for actions taken.

Gosh…I’m not even sure how I’m going to explain this. Okay, how about this:

Playing D&D with the rules as written (and in the manner outlined), players do the following: they create characters. They send those characters on adventures, risking damage and death in exchange for treasure and points (i.e. XP). Through the acquisition of points and the avoidance of death the player characters grow in ability allowing them to take on greater challenges, accumulating more treasure and more points. If a character dies (and is not brought back to life), a new character is created to take the deceased character’s place. OTHERWISE, play continues until a player gets tired of playing.

Period, done. Players play characters that are treasure hunters, risking life and limb for money. Accumulating treasure means growing in prowess when it comes to accumulating treasure. Failing generally means “starting over” with the same goal/purpose in mind.

How does that relate to ANYthing found in fantasy literature?

I’m not talking about an author’s motives in writing: addressing premise, telling a morality tale, or symbolic analogy of real world issues. As stated, role-playing is a different art form from literature and D&D is not (I believe) the proper vehicle for this kind of meta-game role-playing (there are other indie, narrative-based RPGs that do this: Grey Ranks, My Life with Master, Sorcerer, etc.).

What I AM talking about is translating the literature’s protagonists’ motivations into the role-playing games, providing a role-playing game of a meatier nature than “hunt for treasure.” For the love of Pete, that’s nothing more than the story-line for the Dungeon! board game!

In the inspirational literature protagonists (you know, those people whose adventures the game and your PC are supposed to allow you to emulate?) have MANY different things on their minds besides making a buck. Honor. Love. Revenge. Power. Knowledge. Duty. Lofty stuff, right?

Not only that, but there are real and serious consequences for their failure to accomplish their goals. The world is plunged into war. Their relatives and loved ones suffer or die. They are left empty and alone. A thousand years of darkness covers the Earth. Their children and children’s children suffer for generations after. Etc.

REAL consequences…consequences that force the characters to CARE immensely about the outcome of their endeavors. And not JUST about the outcome, but about the manner in which they conduct themselves. More often than not, for protagonists in fantasy fiction it’s not just “by whatever way is expedient” or “the end justifies the means.” Only certain anti-heroes (Wagner’s character Kane comes to mind) ever operate like that. For the most part, it is as important for character’s to exceed in the “right way” as it is for them to succeed at all.

And “right action” does NOT necessarily mean being a “goody-goody” capital-L Lawful type. It means acting within one’s code of honor. It means not destroying something loved rather than seeing it survive in a corrupt form. It means (in some cases) killing a lot of people because letting them live is an abominable injustice.

But D&D does not provide incentives for right action. It does not provide a framework for it. It certainly provides no real consequences for failure. The game, as written, is barely more than a video game. FInd a way to overcome the challenge, get points. If you die, you simply “re-load”…assuming you can’t “re-boot from a save point” (i.e. resurrect your character from the dead).

Good fantasy literature is so much more than this; it has ethos and pathos and passion. It has pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth…and not just over being level drained or failing a save versus poison. D&D is a neutered animal compared to the bull that is fantasy literature. And yet it claims to be the bull…it claims that it provide the experience of vicariously living the fantastic adventures of your favorite fantasy character.

I call BS on that. Sure, the potential is there for “drifting” play in this direction, but the system provides no tools for this. The text and examples provide no road to this. The published adventures provide nothing of consequence save the barest background which may or may not be completely disregarded depending on the whims of the group.

Yes, yes…I am aware that people enjoy D&D simply to blow off steam and give themselves an evening’s entertainment by delving a dungeon and defeating fiendish challenges crafted by a cunning DM. You can certainly do that…hell, that’s what the rules tell you to do…for as long as it doesn’t bore you or until you “grow out of it” or otherwise tire of the same-old-same-old and move onto a different RPG (or computer game).

But, man O man, is there not a promised potential inherent in a game that says it is inspired by and based on classic fantasy literature? I’d say there is…and D&D does NOT deliver the goods. Which, of course, is what gets me so steamed the more I read these wonderful books and the more I say, “Wait a minute, D&D doesn’t do THAT!”

Because it doesn’t. I know…I’ve been running the game for the last year or two and what the players want to know is “where’s the treasure?” What they want to do is hand-wave leading up to the action. What they can’t wait to do is roll some dice. “Dice rolling is fun!” they say.

Dice rolling is ACTIVE. And people playing a game want to be active in the game. If they wanted to be passively entertained, they’d sit around watching TV, or go see a movie. And it’s a sad thing that the strongest, active part of the D&D game (after the choices made during character creation) is rolling dice. Checking to see if you hit. Checking to see if you save. Checking to see if you find the secret door or trap. Everything else is just tracking of how many arrows or rations or spells or hit points you’ve expended.

THAT is not what I call “fantasy adventure.” But it sure is what D&D calls it.

So, yeah…that’s my third and (for now) final bone that I want to pick with D&D. As with my other rants, I’m not sure what I want to do about it, or what could be done about it…I’m just venting my disgust and frustration. I do have some ideas, but for now I’m not terribly interested in implementing them…more interested in just allowing ‘em to percolate in my brain for the time being.

Okay, that’s it…I’ll be getting back to LAND OF ICE shortly.
: )


  1. I think you're right in a lot of your critiques. I'm not sure what the solution is though. I'm interested to see what answers you eventually come up with.

  2. First, let me say that despite my argumentation below, I am enjoying this series. You are writing it in order to provoke discussion, right? So, onward.

    Honor. Love. Revenge. Power. Knowledge.
    But D&D does not provide incentives for right action. It does not provide a framework for it.

    But it does. See my response to your first post in this series. Give XP for honor, love, revenge, power, and knowledge. Done.

    Not only that, but there are real and serious consequences for their failure to accomplish their goals. The world is plunged into war. Their relatives and loved ones suffer or die. They are left empty and alone. A thousand years of darkness covers the Earth.

    The consequences are exactly as deep and meaningful as you make them. See, for example, nuking Gothic Greyhawk.

    And “right action” does NOT necessarily mean being a “goody-goody” capital-L Lawful type. It means acting within one’s code of honor.

    It sounds to me like you want D&D to be more serious than it usually ends up being. In my experience, a D&D game is exactly as serious as the least serious player at the table. And given that most groups are at least 4 or 5 people, there is almost always at least one joker. But this is a question of the social contract with your players, and that is not something that can be encoded in a rulebook.

  3. Good food for thought, as usual! Here's my questions to you:

    1) Ok, so when you say D&D are you just talking about B/X? Because that's what you've been running for a while, right? I just want to be clear.

    2) Moldvay's Forward to his Basic game starts out with him depicting a character "rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up." To me, that opening "salvo" of the game begins a thread of context throughout the game that implies there is something more to the game than just "go to dungeon, kill stuff, grab loot." What do you say to that opinion?

    Expanding on #2 above, if there is some implied context of "you should use this game for more than just killing and looting," then I would have to agree with you that Moldvay and company should have made a more OVERT expression of that belief on their part (if such a belief existed, but I think it did/does, owing to said implied context).

    If you read all of Moldvay's Forward, you really get more fodder for the opinion that the high adventure the creators claimed the game would foster would require a heavy dose of imagination on the part of the users (DM/players). But perhaps they should have gone further in their explanation of that...unless they did. I have to admit that I've only read through the Basic game once in my life, so I don't have all of it committed to memory.

    I've been thinking of ways to make a concrete XP system that incorporates rewards for roleplaying, puzzle solving, and all-around creative play. My thought is to equate non-combat accomplishments in a campaign (completion of quests, solving riddles or puzzles, negotiating a peace treaty or other diplomacy, etc.) with defeating monsters. For instance, convincing a monarch to not invade another realm might be the XP equivalent of slaying a young red dragon.

    You've really hit some interesting territory here with these rants.

  4. I've enjoyed these rants, and you do raise some good points. There are other games out there that cover things like that, but that's not really what you're getting at is it?

    Someone should maybe design a RPG/clone that seeks to emulate such things, or maybe covers all the bases...

  5. I have no interest in a game with emotional mechanics or games that attempt to mimic literary plot development. I don't emotionally care what happens in the game because it's a game. It can never have real and serious consequences and I am not interested in trying to role-play as if it did.

  6. In my experience, a D&D game is exactly as serious as the least serious player at the table.


    including the dm as player of course.

  7. All the players should have to kick in like $50 and when they get killed they don't get that $50 back.

  8. "Killings things and looting stuff" is one basic presumption D&D-type roleplaying is based upon.
    But maybe there needs to be a very basic foundation to get a handful of players together and work from there - a need no author ever had to cope with. It is, as you have written, such a fundamental difference beetween the media, that I don't believe a rpg of D&D heritage could compete with this stories in and on itself.
    But even if you have no tools for it, with adequate investment and players, that are willing to be part of an epic story and not afraid (or bored or what) to try to play deeply immersed, you could come close to some game, that resembles some of the feelings of such a story. I don't know, however, if this is not something more akin to work on a play, than to play a game...

    An interesting thing I was reminded of by your rant where the Thieves World anthologies, with Robert Asprin as contributor and organizer, where a handful of writers write fantasy stories in the same city, and it evolves over time... I liked the first ones, but it became too convoluted later on.

  9. Sounds like you want a game like Mouse Guard for this. Personally I have a love / hate relationship with the Burning Wheel system. I admire the singular vision and it emphasis on personal conflict that is related to character. On the other hand, it just seems so empty to me during actual play. ...Consensus building rather than anything else.

    Btw, it sounds like you want a game like Earthdawn for magic. I always appreciated its "thread mechanic" in which magic items were tied to historical events. Uncovering history meant unlocking power.

    Of course I'm not really sure that your rants are directed at DnD per se. DnD is not supposed to EMULATE fiction. It is INSPIRED by fiction. There's a big difference.

  10. So I'll add a few disjointed thoughts here.

    I've always hated min/maxing. My dad was one of the worst min/maxers ever. He'd carefully work out his characters to achieve the perfect balance of every possible advantage and do the most to eliminate disadvantages. We'd play the SSI D&D games mostly, but he'd do it in any game we played. It was infuriating as a kid to have to deal with all the cold calculating grind that he loved. I'd rather act the story out, play within my character's flaws and really try to make them people, not just stat blocks. I think a lot of people have the min/max mentality because D&D is a game. We play games to win. Why else play games?

    Also, a lot of information is readily available to players before they ever sit down at the table. Anyone interested in playing D&D can buy all the major reference material and learn everything before rolling up a character. Nobody ever has to figure anything out in the game when they know it all already. How dangerous is a Black Dragon? It has 6-8 hit dice, breathes a 1/2"x6" stream of acid, bite/claw/bite. 1-4 will appear blah blah blah. It's like your characters have the option of going to adventure college before they ever head out into the wilderness. The players already know it all and CAN'T forget it. They know it so their character knows it. POOF, all the mystery is gone. DMs should take up the gauntlet and throw out 99% of the reference material available or modify it so heavily it it unrecognizable. Make up your own damn monsters.

    Speaking of which, make up your own damn magic items too. I never used any magic items available from the reference materials. I always made up my own magic weapons and items as treasure. Scrolls and potions aside, items my items tried to be unique and without any published background material to reference. The ogre sized wooden spoon you just found? It has a Dig spell cast on it. That quiver of arrows? Each one casts an elemental spell when shot but they ruin your bow string. The ratty burlap cloak? Permanent Barkskin. Players read the magic items list like it was a SkySaver catalog. They read the descriptions and start demanding that their characters find those items. Nobody has any sense of awe and majesty because they know exactly what everything does already.

    As far as weapons go, just because a sword does +1 damage doesn't mean the thing is magic. It may just be finely crafted and perfectly balanced. It might just be a little heavier. Maybe it's made of better steel.

    You want spell casters to be feared? Don't let the PCs play as magic users. Or make them work for a loooooong time just to learn a spell. Make the PC's experiences with wizards so deadly/terrifying that they learn to run away at the mere mention of magic.

    There you go. I promised disjointed thoughts and I delivered. Use the basic and advanced rulebook, but make everything else up.

  11. I would say you should check out the indie rpg The Riddle of Steel, but it is hopelessly out of print and it is only by sheer luck that I have a copy. The passions and motivations of the character are an important part of the game system.

    Careful, thing we know you'll be a Forgie. ;)

    1. @ Ryan: I AM a "Forgie;" I was active on the Forge forums for several years before joining the OSR blogging community.

      And I DO own Riddle of Steel. I think the Spiritual Attributes mechanic is fantastic. Unfortunately the rest of the game is much too cumbersome and complicated to be as bloodthirsty as it wants to be (killing players when chargen isn't as simple as B/X? Madness!).

  12. OK, I can agree that D&D is “missing” these things, but I’ve played games that try to include them, and I’m left wanting. It drove me back to B/X and classic Traveller. Because, for me, these things are best when they are brought by the group instead of the system.

    In every game my group plays, you’ll see characters motivated by honor, love, revenge, power, knowledge, and duty.

    Actually, I think a good way to get going in this direction is to actually remove mechanical rewards. (Like classic Traveller.) Only have in-game rewards. Without “metagame” motivations the in-game motivations can emerge.

    But, that’s what works for me and my group. YMMV.

  13. Although the experience point system rewards only killing and looting, I have found that players always get emotionally attached to their characters and fall into fairly intense roleplaying.

    As a kid, I DMed for my big brother and his friends, and I remember getting thumped or defenestrated when something bad happened to their characters. With my schoolmates, game disputes sometimes interrupted or ended friendships.

    I have often seen players make decisions that were counterproductive for their characters--downright suicidal, in a few cases--because of an irrational need for revenge on imaginary adversaries. Sometimes, PCs make poignant sacrifices for fellow players, and even for beloved NPCs.

    The dice help the DM & players build storylines more compelling than most fiction, because the narrative breaks free from hackneyed storylines. Thanks to the dice, the good guys don't always win. Sometimes, great heroes die ignominiously. The obvious hero doesn't always save the day; sometimes, it's an unassuming supporting character. The lucky NPC who survives becomes a beloved retainer. The lucky adversary who repeatedly escapes becomes a hated nemesis.

  14. As has been noted by others, this is a significant lack in D&D. And it's not that the game can't support this level of play. It simply does not do so by default.

    IMHO, one of the best solutions is to introduce Aspects from FATE. These are simple flags of things that are unique or important to the character. Give each character three. Also add fate points, which can be spent for simple things like a bonus on a roll, a re-roll, or the like. When a player can engage one of the character's Aspects, he can spend a fate point for a bonus. The Aspects should also carry less desirable motivations. When the DM compels those to convince the PC to act against his better interests, the player earns a fate point. It is ludicrously easy to layer on top of any system, and provides a very simple framework to both explicitly declare what a character's motivations and priorities are, and to shape the events of the campaign to speak to those motivations and priorities.

  15. The place you have arrived at is no different than what happens to all gamers. WTF! Is this it? Kill, loot, kill, loot.

    You either learn and grow, giving depth to the game or quit. Most quit.

    Playing the other game systems mentioned could help. But the truth is you can do everything in D&D that you can do with those other game systems.

    I for one recommend Pendragon. Even if you never play it, read it.

    1. I own Pendragon. I like Pendragon. I'm writing about what is irritating about D&D. I know there are other games that do different things.

  16. Your premise is wrong. Literature is great for inspiration, flavor, setting, personalities. But D&D is not literature, it's not even a story. It's a game. And the goals and activities of both PC's and RL gamers will necessarily be different than readers of fiction.

    1. My premise is not "D&D is literature." My premise is: D&D states you can have adventures just like your favorite fantasy protagonists and yet doesn't provide you with the tools to do that, instead providing you with the tools to create a "tomb-raider" style game and allowing you to drift it/evolve it as suits your personality and as meets your capabilities imagination-wise.

      That D&D implies one thing and delivers something else is irritating to me. That's all I'm saying.

    2. @ Everyone:

      I realize that one CAN change D&D to meet a person's criteria...hell, you can change the rules so that XP is only gained for the treasure you give away to charity or monsters helped if you want to reward "Christian behavior" (for example)...that's not the point.

      My irritation is the implication that D&D is a game of heroic fantasy adventure "just like your favorite fantasy literature" and then failing to give you systems, tools, or guidance for doing that.

      Sorry if that wasn't clear.

  17. I seem to recall there being a list of adventure plots given in the D&D Expert rule book. These would serve as handy reasons that a DM could present to players to get them to go into his dungeons. A similar list can be found in the Labyrinth Lord rules (page 128).

    I own several D&D and AD&D modules and most of them have some sort of plot or hook to get the players involved in the adventure though admittedly B1, B2 and X1 are simply, shoot (or stab)-n-loot types of adventures.