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.
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