Saturday, February 18, 2012

All Right – This Shit IS Hard (Kinda’)

Trying to write one’s own version of Dungeons & Dragons can be both frustrating and enlightening. Frustrating and enlightening for pretty much the exact same reasons.

Ugh. It’s kind of hard to explain but I’ll give it a shot.

What do you do when you have the premier fantasy role-playing game and people are playing the hell out of it using nothing but a few scribbled packets of notes and you want to make it “better?” What do you do when all along the simplicity of the design allowed folks to add all sorts of fun ideas and house rules, and now you’re attempting to lend the thing a degree of coherence? How do you balance the crazy energy of the game IN ACTUAL PLAY with the potential for a more serious exploration of them and subject matter? How do you reconcile those two without destroying the thing’s free-wheeling fun with an over-burdening of rules crunch?

How do you make a game of “serious” or “dark fantasy” and yet delightfully whimsical and enchanting (not just cheesy and satirical) all at the same time?

How do you do both The Hobbit AND The Lord of the Rings?

It’s tricky. It’s mercurial. It’s friggin’ Howardian…one day a Conan story is incredibly dark and mean-spirited (c.f. the Black Circle boys), the next he’s braining someone with a leg of mutton and knocking himself out cold in a drunken slapstick routine.

I suppose you see this juxtaposition of humor and seriousness in some of the better action films (Star Wars and Die Hard come to mind), and there’s a certain amount of that being tapped by the best D&D games. However, it has been my experience that the “serious” part can be difficult to sustain in the face of certain ridiculous aspects…especially the more players there are sitting 'round the table.

Which can be a real buzzkill if you want something more than just a pratfall with blood.

Anyway…to be specific about my own issues, here’s the dichotomy I’M running up against: trying to balance over-the-top fantasy (perhaps milder than the usual D&Dish stuff) versus a coherent, gritty fantasy based in large part on the mythic/historic “real world.”

Ugh. You just can’t have it both ways.

And the more I try to do it, the greater appreciation I have for Mr. Gygax and company...or the mess they made, anyway. I like the paladin class (as presented in Supplement I, minus the horse) and I want to include it, but there is absolutely no real historic (mythic) basis for it. I LIKE my version of the illusionist (who is increasingly morphing into ‘some-type-o-spell-caster-most-definitely-not-an-illusionist’) and think it would be fun to play…but then we’re getting into “lala land” weirdness with the way I'm writing the character. I WANT the world to feel more real, with less humanoids and fewer fantastic monsters in general…but then, what kind of adventures will player characters be getting into? If most monsters don’t collect treasure (because they’re mindless creatures), then what point is there for PCs to fight them? What’s the reward?

On the other hand, how can you be setting specific and generic at the same time? If there’s an assassins guild or a thieves guild or a magic-users guild (or whatever)...well, that says something about the setting of your game, even when you try to make the damn thing generic and “oh-just-apply-the-game-concept-to-any-setting-you-like.” No, you can’t do that…unless you strip the thing down to its barest, basest bones.

And then you’re losing all the cool flavor that’s in your head and that you wanted to include in the first place. Because after all, you ARE trying to create a reference that is going to be USED at your gaming table.

Blackmoor worked with OD&D. Greyhawk worked with OD&D. Putting them together (or lumping them into one volume like AD&D), causes them to fight and antagonize each other. Just what is a paladin versus a ranger versus a monk versus a cleric? In the real world I can reconcile different religious philosophies: there is One God who has many names (some of which may even be multiplicities). The Truths (that we’re all in this together and need to help one another however we can) doesn’t vary from cult to cult or institution to institution…just the prayers and semantics and observed rites and traditions change.

But in D&D, there’s more changing than just ritual and burnt offering: there are sweeping game effects that change. If clerics can’t use edged weapons, how come paladins can? Why don’t monks get spells or the ability to turn undead? If druids are priests of nature, why do they have so many differences from other priesthoods. Etc., etc.

These are FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS of the concept of a game world. They do not rest easily together, and yet none are left out…instead more on simply added over time. And I think the reason why is this:
  • Taking each concept individually, the idea can be fun and intriguing.
  • When designing an updated version of a game with fun and intriguing concepts, where do you draw the line? How do you decide which beloved class ends up on the cutting room floor
FOR EXAMPLE: I can see a campaign world in which both druids (with their strange abilities) and clerics (with their different strange abilities) exist side-by-side. Most likely in an antagonistic relationship to each other (similar to our real world, right? Organized religious figures stamping out the nature-loving pagans?). What I have a much harder time picturing is a world in which these two guys go on happy little adventures together. Not without some mighty heavy-handed forcing (or just throwing up your hands and saying, “hey, the game is OVER-THE-TOP.”) And I don’t want to do that (either one!)!

So yeah, this shit is hard.

Check out this other example: O Spell List How I Hate Thee. I am soooo tired of the D&D spell list, even as I totally dig Vancian (“fire-and-forget”) magic and want to include it in my game. There is just little to me that is as tired as “spell bloat.” Oh, we need to fill out this list…how about protection from evil in a 10 FOOT RADIUS? How about Lower Water AND Part Water both as 5th level spells. Oh, let’s throw magic missile in here so magic-users get an attack spell at 1st level. Oh, but let’s scale it up with level so that a 1st level spell can do more damage than most other spells at high level…and players can take multiples of them, totally out-classing the archer guy with his bow specialty.

And yet, specific spells of D&D are such a recognizable trope that NOT including them, or changing their function or level needed to cast, is totally asking for people to disregard your game and say THAT isn’t D&D, even if you do have spell books and scrolls and all the Vancian rigmarole. “No, sleep spell? What kind of savage are you?”

So yeah, it’s hard. Forget “game balance” as the idea of niche protection or allowing characters to all compete evenly on a relatively level playing field. THAT’s the last thing on my mind! I’m trying to balance concept and consistency and interesting-fun-bang…AND still put out something recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons.

I mean, I really REALLY don’t want elves and dwarves in this f’ing thing…at least not as player characters. Is that a total deal-breaker? Do I need to have an appendix on ‘em?

[actually an appendix for demihumans ain’t a bad idea]

When I was doing the monster list for Land of Ice I spent an awful lot of time thinking about what to include and what not to include. I mean, really, why are some monsters even on the monster list in D&D? Triceratops was a vegetarian…it’s a big scaly cow, folks. What purpose could it have in attacking a party of adventurers? Assuming they can do it serious harm, wouldn’t it just run away? Are rats really likely to attack players carrying fire? What kind of crazy-ass world is this, anyway? Why are so many sentient humanoid species degenerate killers looking to fight humans? What kind of evolution leads to goblins, kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, lizard men, bullywugs, sauhagin, troglodytes, ogres, giants, etc., etc. It just doesn’t make a heaping whole lot o sense.

And yet you can have FUN with ANY AND ALL of these things. There’s no editing of content in D&D (at least not till 2nd Edition); there’s just fantasy diarrhea of the brain. Your character wants to use the awesome chain lightning spell? Then you need to have a mob of monsters to attack. Because while a singular monster is often a coward to be pitied, a group of monsters is a war party.

Just never mind that the high breeding humans with their ability to manufacture plate armor and steel weapons will quickly extinguish ANY such hostile species from the face of the fantasy planet. I mean, just look at all the real world species and cultures humans have suppressed or hunted to extinction with a lot less motivation than that needed to take on the psychotic orc tribe down the street.

I’ve said before that the basic premise of D&D is ridiculous. It is also, however, fun to play...even when folks are using it as a ridiculous farce (for some people that just makes it more fun to play and is the main draw of playing).

Maybe it’s just me; maybe I'm the odd duck when it comes to this thing. Conventional (no pun intended) wisdom would probably say to just go with the mash-up (as everyone else has done before) and allow individual DMs to either A) try to weakly justify the kitchen sink design strategy of the game, or B) discard and house rule down to their preferred stream-lined version.

But if I’m rewriting the game for myself, shouldn’t I be writing what I want?

On the other hand, if I write solely for myself, I might not be able to find any players who want to play what I want.

And anyway, I want to include both paladins and assassins. I’m just having a tricky time figuring out why they would ever associate with each other.

Ah, well…that one is perhaps the LEAST of my worries.
; )


  1. I'm not sure that you're drawing the distinction between creating your own campaign world and creating your own D&D. You're right that to a certain extent the mechanics of the game are decisions about the game universe and how it works. Not all of them are, though. Before you make "game world altering decisions" about mechanics, maybe the first priority is to ask more limited questions about things like the combat system that you'd change. Such decisions like, "Do I want action X to be easier or harder?" and "Do I want this to be governed by 1d12 or 2d6?" often have a bigger impact from the players perspective (without them thinking about it too!) and are sufficiently subtle to not be world shaping in any campaign or storyline sense. Therefore they preserve the "genericness" of things.

  2. One thing missin from most D&D campaigns is the real value of land. Monsters are worth fighting if their destruction frees up some gooood bottomland for farming, pasture for farming, provide access to a stand of trees for lumber or gives miners access to a rich deposit. Heroes are valuable for the opportunities they open for others.

  3. Paladins are from The Song of Roland and numerous other tales.

  4. @ Dan: I know where the term paladin is's the characteristics of the paladin class that has no real world (mythological) equivalent. The paladins were simply knights of Chuck the Hammer.

    @ JDJ: Clearing of land for settlers isn't an issue in the setting I envision. I understand the importance of hand historically, but it's pastoral value is very, very understated in the particular fantasy works I'm using as inspiration.

    @ Fey: For the most part, the game systems will be very similar to other editions of D&D: attacks rolls, saves, hit points, etc. Those system issues aren't the difficult part. When making a decision about which classes to use (and how those classes function), or which monsters might be encountered, or which spells and enchantments are part of the game, then you ARE making decisions about the campaign setting.

    Just saying "there's plate armor but no gunpowder" is making serious demands on the imaginary world, for example. It disregards the reason behind the invention of plate armor. If you say characters can learn the language of orcs or trolls or gargoyles, that says those creature HAVE language and sentience and (some type of) higher culture...why aren't characters trying to build alliances and send ambassadors or prisoner exchanges or whatever? Why is there no "cross-cultural exchange?"

    Similar questions arise with other design decisions. I see the Principalities of Glantri (from the BECMI gazeteers) to be a logical example of a possibility based on that particular ruleset...and it's not the kind of thing I want from MY game. I've seen AD&D players set-up magic item making assembly lines using simulacrums based on the rules of that game. It wasn't my campaign, but it was Rules As Written, and it was ugly.

    I guess part of my purpose is to make my OWN edition that need any house rules...because the house rules will already be incorporated!...that I can print up and give to players at my table. Since it's not a video game, it has no spectacle to attract will instead require some intellectual "razzle-dazzle" to get players fired up (including myself!). So I want to make sure I'm satisfied with the end result.

    And it's a harder "balancing act" than I anticipated.
    : )

  5. Hey man! I say, write it for yourself, brother! Truly make it D&D MINE! And then release your baby to the world as you see fit. If others like it, great. If there are those that hate it, oh well! At least you've made yourself happy with the feeling of creating something for yourself. Looking forward to reading more!

  6. Paladin: holy killer in plate armor for the cause.

    Assassin: holy killer that sneaks around for the cause.

    The historical Hashishin, were, after all a pseudo-religious organization. Paladins and assassins could even be different organizations under the same religious umbrella. As long as you don't want your assassin class to be just a generic fighter/thief.

    You hit on the central reason why I don't really like AD&D. If you take bits and pieces, it works, but if you try to take the whole thing (either rules or implied setting) it ends up being a big, hot, clunky mess. This is why I like the more limited OD&D and B/X editions; they are much more internally consistent (both in terms of rules and setting). I love the AD&D books, but I use them for inspiration, not a consistent game.

    I say go for a demihuman-free set of PC classes. I've house-ruled the dwarf, elf, and halfling into the human scientor, fighting magic-user, and scout. I'm quite pleased with the result. Elves do exist in my setting, but the fae are creepy and not for player use.

  7. Well, the fact that you put LG Paladins and Evil assassins in your game, doesn't mean that they are meant to be used in the same campaign. They might be there as simply "tools" to use. If you decide for a Lankhmar-type campaign, you exclude Paladins and allow Assassins. If you go for an Holy Quest campaign, you exclude the latter and allow the former. In general I don't think the toolbox aspect of the rules should be underestimated.

  8. 1. Your main purpose is : "to make my OWN edition that need any house rules...because the house rules will already be incorporated!...that I can print up and give to players at my table."

    So do that! Make the ruleset specific to you. There's no need to help others to adapt your work or add in mechanics they want. Doing that modification is half the fun of borrowing someone else's ruleset anyway.

    You can add in the "missing" information in appendices if it would be fun for you, but never forget your primary purpose in this design exercise.


    2. Your setting will determine the premise of the game and set constraints on available classes and races and weapons and currency etc etc. So work out the setting! And decide whether you want a dungeon crawl or a sandbox exploration game, or a wargame or a grand strategy game or whatever. If the premise of D&D is dumb, what is your premise for your version of D&D? (I can think of a number of campaign settings that can produce workable premises for D&D games, even games which include all the AD&D classes adventuring together)


    3. Successfully unifying comedy and drama, whimsy and grit, is something even the greatest struggle with. I wouldn't be upset if you didn't nail it in the first try (or even ever). I think as long as the tone doesn't veer wildly from pole to pole within a single adventure, you should be OK! If one second Conan can be slapstick, and the next serious, there's no reason your world can't be as well! In fact that sounds like your ideal. Unlike Tolkien who separated The Hobbit from LOTR from the Silmarillion. Same campaign world--vastly different tones (though whimsical none of those works are ever quite funny to me, they play it straight, Tolkien takes even his whimsy seriously).

    I would talk about this with my players as well. If you want a gritty, tough world leavened by the occasional bout of black humor, then tell players that and DM accordingly.

  9. "Triceratops was a vegetarian…it’s a big scaly cow, folks. What purpose could it have in attacking a party of adventurers?"

    Cape buffalo and rhinos, both vegetarians, are some of the meanest sum'bitches on the planet. Your complaint is invalid.