Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ranting in the New Year

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 exploit the potential of D&D. Sometimes, we come to these things as a natural evolution of long-term play and vested 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, 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...


  1. I can see where you're coming from, although I've never really played it like anyway. My campaigns (normally) all had on-going stories, small and large, and dungeon delving was always for a reason other than straight looting. My current game, however, is more like that. Let's face it, D&D is just the evolution of its wargaming origins, so the delve premise is understandable.

    I guess it would be nice to see games using the D&D system (or some variant) but focusing on other aspects of the game, rather than simple dungeon crawls. I have an idea for a city-based campaign, which would have to be more story-driven than dungeon-delving, although that element would still be there for those that wanted it.

  2. Interesting points. I think it just comes down to style preference. For example, my current group (we rotate between BX and 1e) has very little interest in mystery, intrigue, politics, or grand quests.

    They just want a 3-hour escape each Tuesday night to plunder tombs and kill monsters. And who am I to say that's wrong? That's the sweet spot for them. So the campaign I run is 90% dungeon delving. And they also want original adventures (as opposed to published modules). So when I DM, it's mostly in home-made dungeons.

    To be honest, I do wish my players were more interested in exploring other angles of D&D (whether it be more city intrigue, overland adventuring, or even some of the awesome old-school modules). But I'd very lucky to have this group to game with and they're cool guys, so you take pros with the cons.

    Sorry for the rambling. Long story short, I think D&D is a versatile tool. It can serve well for both the dungeon crawl and the more expansive campaign.

    PS: Bought your book some time back. Love it.

  3. If you take any game to its basic premise, you'll reach stupidity.

    Baseball = let's hit a ball with a stick
    Football = forget the stick, let's run with the ball
    Basketball = forget just running with the ball, let's jump & shoot it at hoops!
    Chess = can't hit, run, or jump. but we can move these sticks across a table.
    Tabletop Wargames = don't want sticks. rather play with dolls. some can even be painted real pretty

    Dungeons & Dragons was originally subtitled:

    Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Pencil and Paper
    and Miniature Figures

    Everything else evolves from how much detail the players want to add to it. If you're going to spend so much time attacking things, why not give it a cover story?

    That's partly why the game had such a bad rep back then. Young adults talking happily about getting a "magic sword" and "gold", heck they must be doing drugs, right? Kicking a ball across the field is so much more mature.

    It's a game. What you bring into it, that's where creativity begins.

  4. D&D at it's core (as originally written) was also about wandering around the wilderness stumbling across castles and killing the lord of that castle and taking their stuff (and the castle players were bright enough to realize that was a prize).

  5. I have found that D&D (any edition) is a reflection of the group that plays it. They bring in their play styles and desires. D&D is just the framework for that and to me every edition of D&D is capable of allowing for any style.

  6. Thanks for this post! It validates the feelings I've had toward D&D my whole life. My original group, when I was a young teen, did seem to think that going beyond the dungeon was implicit in the game. I sure hope there weren't too many "dim bulbs" out there who never thought to move beyond dungeons...

  7. I don't think that's any great revelation, and it's been built into the rulebooks in every version except maybe the LBBs that you eventually "graduate" to wilderness, city or even planar adventuring.

    Like yours, my late-80s high school group was pretty dismissive about dungeon crawling towards the end there. But when we're talking about OSR types, I think the dungeon just has a warm, fuzzy place in people's hearts. I'm sure everyone has a different reason...hatred for the railroading/amateur novelist trappings of certain editions, pure nostalgia, or whatever. There's a sort of elegant simplicity to it that appeals to people, whether it makes sense or not.

  8. I've felt the same way since I came back to gaming. As a young teen it was all about dungeons. When I got back to gaming as an adult it just didn't make sense to me. If you look around the world you don't find huge underground labyrinths strewn about the countryside. So I try to direct adventures in different directions. When I do have "dungeons" they are just a couple of rooms. The five room dungeons are the largest.

  9. Couldn't agree more. Started playing in the 80's and I think only our first 2-3 sessions focused on dungeons. After that we might go underground if the adventure required it.

    I recently played with a friend and he hates the premise that the PC's are adventurers. His opinion is that there is no job called "adventurer". The premise of the campaign is that the the PC's have been hired to re-claim some land and maintain a small town's security. What the PC's encounter is the adventure, but they are not adventurers, they are employees of a Baron.

  10. I'm sorry, but the technical term is not dumb, but stupid.

  11. @ matthew mantel: there HAVE been people who styled themselves as Adventurers, but they were usually the idle rich, not the homicidal homeless. Players usually seem more like a combination of mercenary, grave robber, and pillaging viking. I'd imagine most civilized societies would be rather quick to imprison/behead anyone who really behaved that way.

  12. @ Simon: While it may be an EVOLUTION of wargaming, that's not what it purports to be in the text, which is perhaps why I feel a bit frustrated with it.

    @ George: I don't think you're rambling. And thank you for buying my book!

    @ Grendel: I'm not talking about the maturity level, I'm talking about a basic disconnect (I will probably need an addendum post).

    @ JDJ: Yes, but especially in later editions, this part has been de-emphasized (and for the record, the TYPES of adventures available in the "outdoors" was never as well defined in the earlier rules as the delving aspects).

    @ Callin: Um, I respectfully disagree. System does matter.

    @ Drance: Well, aside from newbies introduced to the game through 4E, there are those who thing Pathfinder is fantastic...
    ; )

    @ IG: And perhaps I, too, was caught up in this nostalgia...though I REALLY thought that my return to B/X was NOT due to nostalgic pining (if it was nostalgia I was after, I'd be playing AD&D).

    I hesitate to even call dungeons a "good starting point;" they are just so retarded when viewed objectively.

    @ Narmer: I consider the kind of site you're describing more of a "lair" than a "dungeon."

    @ Matthew: Yeah, I realize I'm not the only one to evolve this way...personally, I think the reason for the game's popularity has little to do with the explicit premise of the game and EVERYthing to do with what happens AFTER you take the game out of the dungeon.

    @ Jeff: Oh, you and your technical jargon! (for the record, I thought D&D fell closer to the "Retro" category of YOUR "three-fold model").

    @ IG: Now a campaign setting where PCs started as the "idle rich" would be a fantastic twist on the D&D game.
    : )

  13. JB is right. The basic premise is basically the same as Monopoly: resource acquisition and management.

    The brainlessness of killing and robbing monsters in order to acquire the means to kill and rob progressively more powerful monsters is precisely what turns off some people when first introduced to the game.

    Most early modules had no hook beyond "There's treasure down there!" However, soon adventure writers developed story-based hooks, which mutated into railroading, leading to a reactive revival of the original "dumb" premise in some quarters of the Olde School movement.

    Fortunately, the dice seem to ensure that storylines emerge from even the most uninspired scenarios. Players develop their characters' personalities through play, in response to unfolding events (lucky characters get cocky, unlucky ones feel star-crossed, enmities develop against certain species of foes, escaped adversaries become hated recurring villains...).

    I think the soundness of game design, coupled with the intelligence and creativity of the people who like playing D&D, tend to propel the game away from its boneheaded fundamental premise in the direction of rich collective storytelling.

  14. That characters are adventurers going into one underground lair after another to fight monsters. [and acquire treasure]

    Isn't this just a question of incentives?

    Incentives in OD&D, the various dialects of Basic, and AD&D are (by the book) 25% monster killing and 75% treasure acquisition. The reason why B/X is that way is because the designers wanted to keep it unambiguous for new players. I'm not sure why AD&D is that way, because I have never been a big 1E player, but the reason is probably just because Gary liked it. For experienced players, it is trivial to change the incentives (and thus the objectives).

    Every post-AD&D edition has had language about giving XP for other things. For example, I'm paging through the Experience chapter in my 2E DMG, and it suggests giving XP for fun, character survival, improvement, story goals, class-based tasks, clever ideas, and good roleplaying. Treasure XP is relegated to a small optional rule box. 3E has perhaps the most combat-oriented XP system (with it's complicated CR system and avoidance of treasure XP) and even that has significant language in the core books about awarding XP for other things.

    Personally, I quite like exploration and treasure hunting as an underlying premise. Many of the original Conan and Lankhmar stories were about exactly that. Another big inspiration for my campaigns are video games like Tomb Raider. I'm not so fond of kill kill kill, which is one of the reasons I like treasure XP: it rewards people for solving problems without just fighting everything. One of the unintended consequences of the marginalization of treasure XP is that the game, from 2E through 4E, became more and more of a tactical exercise. Even 25% XP for monsters may be too much for me, and I have thought about doing away with it, but for now I have not.

    The 3E DMG also has a wonderfully written "behind the curtain" section on why dungeons are used (page 58). I'll quote part of it:

    You have an easy way to control the adventure in a dungeon without leading the characters by the nose. In a dungeon, the parameters are clearly defined for the PCs—they can’t walk through walls (not at first, anyway) or go into rooms that aren’t there. Aside from those limits, they can go wherever they like in whatever order they like. The limited environment of the dungeon grants players a feeling of control over their characters’ destiny.

    A dungeon is really nothing but an adventure flowchart. The rooms are encounters, and the corridors are connections between the encounters, showing which encounters should (or could) follow which other ones. You could design a dungeonlike flowchart for an adventure that didn’t take place in a dungeon and accomplish the same thing. One encounter leads to two more, which in turn lead to others, some of which double back on previous encounters. The dungeon becomes a model, in this way, for all adventures.

    I don't think that is dumb at all.

  15. JB,

    I've long shared your view that looting and killing is a weak foundation on which to build an enduring experience. In my early days I was disappointed with the majority of published adventures I purchased, as there tends to be little more than opportunity for killing and looting. There is little that is more atrocious to me than a randomly generated and stocked dungeon, except perhaps the "mega-dungeon". Many of the purchased modules could easily have been created by a random generator with little effect to the feel of the design.

    On the other end of the scale, I have purchased a number of products for Pendragon. While I find these to be entertaining reads, and good inspiration, I also find it even more difficult to try to find a place for these as written in my campaign world. They seem to be the very definition of "railroading", typically only having a single solution, which is one that appeared in the pages of Mallory.

    To me, the solution to the dilemma is not in the rules, but in the campaign setting. From early on, I ran games in a campaign world of my own design. I relied heavily on purchased modules, as they sped up design time, but I would still spend hours on each adventure, tweaking it to the design sensibilities of the gaming world. I easily spent as much time designing as I did GMing.

    I don't know that any printed product or set of rules could ever fit seamlessly into a game world that aspires to something other than looting and killing.

    Games are what we make of them. I believe that to have the imagination to play and RPG means also to have the imagination to form it into the type of game you want to play. The sweet spot of D&D IS the houserule. It is the homebrew.

    The challenge isn't finding or writing a set of rules to describe the game you want to play. The challenge is in finding others with a like mindset, and playing the game you want to play with a ruleset that is flexible enough to allow that.