Ready for my first rant of the New Year? This one has actually been bubbling in my brain for a few days, but I just haven’t had a chance to get it posted till now.
I have a bone to pick with D&D. Actually I have several bones to pick with ‘em, but here’s the one for today.
Dungeons & Dragons is dumb. I’m talking basic premise here: it is really dumb.
I’m not talking about role-playing itself. I’ve written often enough that role-playing as an art and a hobby is something I value greatly and seek to promote as best I can. I think the RPG, in its traditional pen-and-paper form, is probably the greatest contribution to the whole concept of GAME…at least since the invention of “team sport.” Sure, it can cause obsession and inward focus that distract people from making a positive contribution in the world, but it still involves community and real communication/rapport, and can provide introspection that helps in other aspects of life…not to mention exercising one’s imagination and brains.
I’m also not in any way denigrating the SYSTEM of Dungeons and Dragons…at least in its basic format (and by Basic, I mean its first quarter century of iterations). The more I’ve looked at and analyzed various RPGs over the last few years, the more I feel that the class/level system of D&D is a fantastic-fantastic short-hand for building the heroic avatar (i.e. the “player character”), providing all the necessary tools in a simple, easily identified, easily varied package. The over-emphasis on granularity and minutia through the addition of a skill system (the usual MO of most all “adventure RPGs” of recent years, including the iterations of D&D over the last decade plus), has only served to HURT role-playing games…increasing learning curves, slowing game play, and hamstringing chargen…even while appealing to a certain percentage of gamers who dig the minutia. The system of D&D is simple enough to get out of its own way and allow maximum role-playing with a minimal amount of identifying data points.
So to be clear: role-playing is great (thanks D&D). D&D as a system is great. THAT’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about PREMISE. The foundation of the game. That characters are adventurers going into one underground lair after another to fight monsters. Like mongooses looking for cobra eggs or something. Over and over again.
‘Cause that’s what D&D – OD&D, Holmes D&D, B/X D&D, BECMI/RC D&D, AD&D, 2nd-3rd-4th edition D&D – that’s what D&D is (at its base) all about.
And that’s dumb. I’m not even sure if “childish” is the right word. It’s just DUMB. Silly. Tonto (that’s Spanish, folks).
And as far as “fantasy adventure role-playing” is concerned, it’s incredibly limiting. It’s a board game mentality…which, I suppose, means 4th edition really is on track with its latest version of “Dungeons & Dragons.”
What-what-what?! I can hear people saying. Let’s look at this rationally for just a moment: 4th edition provides a (rather complicated) board game for people who want to have an interesting “delve” experience with tactical action. A board game where you create your own “pawns” (within strict guidelines) but, still…who wouldn’t want a customizable playing piece in a board game? What if your little dog in Monopoly was able to adversely affect property values by crapping on the sidewalk? What if your little train piece got to move instantaneously between railroad spots? What if your little hat could be turned upside down to get a little extra cash (representing begging for handouts) from the bank?
The designers of 4th edition looked at D&D at “face value” and said: what’s this game about? Going into dungeons (“adventures”) and fighting monsters/picking up loot, all the while growing into more powerful characters, gaining neat “special powers.” And THAT’s the game they designed…period. A dumb game, but one that is essentially an upgraded distillation of the original game’s premise. Not a bad bit of design, that.
Okay, now pull back for a second: most of us long time D&D players (“old school” or not) have found that there is a lot more to the game than that basic premise…at least, there’s the POTENTIAL for a lot more. If you started playing as a kid with the basic “dungeon exploration” and eventual moved into the expert (“Expert”) realms, you eventually came out of the dungeon, wandering the wilderness, fighting armies and gigantic creatures and exploring strange new lands and interacting with nobility and carving out your own kingdoms, etc….basically creating your own heroic legends and mythological world.
But I daresay that is not the explicit objective of the game. The EXPLICIT objective is something about going into subterranean labyrinths. One session = one “adventure.” Power/effectiveness is accumulated through the defeating of challenges (monsters) and the acquisition of treasure. The more monsters overcome, the more treasure acquired, the more effective the characters. And the bulk of these monster/treasure pockets are to be found in adventure sites (“dungeons”) that just happen to litter the imaginary countryside, waiting to be plumbed.
Which is just dumb.
I’ve been reading fantasy adventure stories lately…OLD fantasy adventure stories, the types that are found in the references and inspirational reading lists of Dungeons and Dragons…and nowhere is there anything resembling this premise. Fantasy adventure books offer a LOT of interesting things to sink one’s teeth into: danger and daring, but politics and family, world shattering invasions, confrontations with the strange and deadly but in a context that matters to the tale of the heroes.
Look at Gary Gygax’s own Gord books: how many “dungeons” are found in ‘em? Um…pretty close to zero. There’s a lair with a demon in the first book…but that’s about it. Doesn’t mean Gord doesn’t have plenty of roguish adventures (and, per Gygax’s end notes, achieves mid-level ability through the course of his journeys). My own AD&D campaigns of the mid-1980s (when I was a kid) looked very similar to the first couple Gord novels…which is to say, very little like the explicit game play outlined in the rule books.
Similarly with the Dragonlance novels, wholly based on the AD&D game and designed in part to sell adventure modules: there’s really only two “dungeon” scenarios (Xak Tsaroth and Pax Tharkas) in the first six novels. Well, I suppose Neraka (Spring Dawning) might count as a “site based adventure” but little of the plot could be considered a normal “dungeon delve;” and after the first novel, most of the dungeons marketed as DL modules (Thorbardin, Icewall, Huma’s Tomb, etc.) occurs “off-camera” in the books…they’re just not important to the story of the "player characters."
Even starting a campaign with 1st level characters, we 13 and 14 year olds (back in the day) did not start with adventure scenarios. We started with CHARACTERS, building relationships with each other, and relationships with the fantasy world around them. The PCs had some backstory…rough sketches that helped provide them with history and personality…which would lead to role-playing, even as they made careers for themselves as “adventurers.” But adventures involved freebooting around the countryside, not invading orc holds and looting ancient tombs. Sure, there were trolls and whatnot, but there was a lot of intrigue and war and political interest and romance and personal ambition, too. If we went into a dungeon, it was with a very specific objective or purpose. For example, if we invaded the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, we were searching for a specific artifact, not just looking for spare coins and notches on our sword belts. When we invaded an assassins den, it was on a specific mission of vengeance, not just because it was an appropriate adventure for characters of our level.
For the most part, we grew out of dungeon crawls by age 11 or so.
The basic dungeon delving premise of D&D is a dumb one. Delving to acquire power to delve deeper is not fantasy role-playing: it is a complex board game. I know I've spent mucho time over the last 18 months or so creating adventure sites for my B/X players, but this was mainly due to circumstance:
- new players needed introduction to the game and its mechanics
- players had expectations of delving
- players lacked interest in anything resembling "deep" role-playing
- (large) size of the group precluded serious specific "side plot" adventures (for the most part)
- rust and re-visiting of the (B/X) materials of my youth led to the classic adventure creation outline (i.e. "making dungeons")
Also, I'd been out of the whole loop of reading fantasy fiction for awhile (these days I prefer more history, biography, philosophy stuff).
But getting back into the reading habits of my youth have led me to realize just how wanting the whole premise is. How long can it sustain itself? I see why people can get sick of playing the game after 8th or 9th level...if all you do is delve tougher and tougher dungeons, doesn't the "story/plot" get a little repetitive?
I don't think the original game system(s), as written, do enough to provide the tools for REAL fantasy adventure role-playing...to exploit the potential of D&D. Sometimes, we come to these things as a natural evolution of long-term play and vested interest...as I and my friends did in our youth...but there's little in the game rules to suggest this, or provide a sketch as to how it's done. Even though there are clues scatttered throughout the history of the game (including the old articles in Dragon magazine).
It's a damn shame, in my opinion. The farther we get away from that "old way" of playing (which is to say, adapting the rules to the texts the rules purported to emulate and take inspiration from), the more that knowledge is lost and all that's left is a silly game that resembles a poor man's version of the World of Warcraft. Or any other computer "RPG." Totally lame.
Oh, yeah...so what am I going to do about it? I'm not sure just yet...I'm thinking on it now, though. Hopefully more to come...