Thursday, July 26, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 2)

[continued from here]

If Arneson and Co. had kept the game as the equivalent of a “board game without a board” – i.e. if they had never taken the party out of the dungeon – this would probably be a non-issue. Of course, your game would simply be an over-complex version of those board games I listed earlier (and in many ways, isn’t that what D&D 4E is?), with simple game-type game-play:

1) Create character
2) Enter dungeon
3) Face challenges
4) Receive rewards
5) Grow in power
6) Return to #2 above

It would still be a powerful tool of the imagination…and continues to be for those Old Schoolers that are loosey-goosey with the rules but who limit themselves to Basic (Stage 1) Exploration. But when so limited you're still not talking about much more than a board-less board game (and if you’re using a “battle mat” you actually DO have a board).

[and, yes, if it seems from this that I’m not quite as impressed/enthusiastic about mega-dungeons and products like DCC and books like the Dungeon Alphabet as other Old School bloggers: yes, you are correct. As far as I’m concerned, these are “neat” (sometimes) but they’re still "playing small," in my opinion]

Arneson and Company, however, did NOT remain in the dungeon, instead taking their adventuring party ‘on the road’ and moving through the full-on wilderness…they started in the playpen and moved to the sandbox, if you will. And by doing this, they took their game to a whole new level of juicy; a level most long-time role-players dig much more than the simple site-based encounter map. “Depth added” is the phrase I think of when you start to meander off-the-reservation (i.e. “out of the dungeon”), and from there it’s only a short-step to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3…all it takes is a little PROactive stance from the players (‘what do YOU want to do to impact the world?’), rather than a REactive stance. And it is in these Expert and Master stages that the game really starts to shine, providing entertainment value not found in most board games (video games, like World of Warcraft or Morrowind or Fable can do Stage 2 to a certain degree, but Stage 3 has only appeared very feebly on the vid screen, and always as a part of a fairly rigid story line, programmed with very little customization possible).

Unfortunately, while the type of exploration changes at these later Stages, the rules of the game (i.e. the designed SYSTEM of D&D) does NOT change. You’re doing the same thing (collecting XP for monster kills and treasure found) that you did during your dungeon delve (Stage 1) phase, because that’s how the game play “works.” And the PROBLEM with this is that while the paradigm works fine for Stage 1 (the game systems and reward mechanics were developed specifically for Stage 1), when Stages 2 and 3 developed ORGANICALLY as a part of game play (as opposed to PURPOSEFULLY as part of game design), the Beloved Founders failed to account for them or do much of anything about ‘em other than tack on some extra rules that, sorry Founders, feel more like afterthoughts than anything else.

[At this point I want to take the time to note this is an area where Frank Mentzer deserves a heap of praise for his attempt at designing mechanics for Stage 3 play in his Companion, Master, and Immortal rule books. He was really the first and last to do so (well, until my own modest B/X Companion) and he deserves kudos for the effort. Sure there are a lot of missteps and his books are mostly Big Monsters, Big Treasures, and Big Spells…but he was attempting to work within the confines of the D&D rules. He ALSO gave us: dominion rules, simplified mass combat, travelling vs. settled class options, demihuman crafts, quests for immortality, siege engines, tourney and holiday rules…all things used and needed for Stage 3 play. To folks who’ve never been involved in Stage 3 exploration, these things might seem pretty superfluous…but that can be chalked up to a failure to adequately explain how to use all this stuff (though I daresay Frank was head-and-shoulders above Gygax and Arneson, not that that’s saying much!).]

If you were playing AD&D or OD&D or B/X “above level 14” and you started getting into Stage 3 exploration (as my friends and I did, after several years of Stage 1 and 2 play), you were left with a serious dilemma: how the hell did you run a game? How did you gauge (i.e. reward) success? Why are we even worried about killing trolls that have been waylaying travelers on the Eastern Road when we can just send a squad of troops armed with oil and flame? It’s not like there isn’t plenty of gold in the stronghold treasury!

The more you bring your characters out of the Basic Stage…what is accurately referred to as the “Basic Game”…of delving dungeons, the more interesting your characters (and their actions) start to become. And the more interesting the characters are, the more interested you are in playing the game (whether as a DM or PC). At least, that was the way it was for MY friends and I. And no, I don’t think we were “playing the game wrong” or “drifted.” We were playing the game as it is naturally designed to evolve…from dungeon, to wilderness, to court.

Look at the spell lists: low level spells include standard “dungeon help” like floating disk and light and find traps. But when you start hitting mid-level (5th) and getting access to spells of 3rd and 4th level you start seeing spells like fly and fireball…spells more properly of use in an outdoor setting (or outright dangerous within a subterranean environment). Sure, you might encounter a wide open cavern where ice storm would be effective, but control weather? Massmorph? Come on!

And later, high level spells like enchant item or cacodaemon aren’t anything you’d use “on the road” in the wilderness…you’d prefer to have a well protected sanctum for such mighty magics. Many high level spells are only designed to be used with a “home base:” here I’m thinking of spells like guards & wards or word of recall or any type of magic that has a long recovery time, like raise dead.

It’s not all about exploring dungeons despite the OSR tag line “we explore dungeons, not characters.” Character classes like the paladin and the druid come about AFTER the first DMs brought their characters out of the dungeon. How are you going to get that war horse down the steps? And all those characters with guilds or level advancement fights (assassins, monks, druids) are all interacting with the politics of the imaginary game world. You want the power of the highest level? You have to be willing to take on the responsibility of the Hierarch or Grandfather or whatever.

D&D thus has multiple stages of exploration. Unfortunately, these stages were not PURPOSEFULLY DESIGNED...and because of their organic evolution from game play they feel (hell, they ARE) POORLY DESIGNED. That’s the goddamn point.

And you know what? This is something many of us are already aware of but just haven’t been able to grok. My rantings about one part of D&D or another tends to come from this particular bit. Why are assassins such a neat idea in theory but so godawful crappy in practice? Because they’re a class best suited for Stage 3 exploration and most often forced to slog through Stage 1 and Stage 2.

Is it any wonder that (starting with 2nd Edition AD&D) the designers starting editing out all the extraneous stuff that didn’t seem to fit with Stage 1 or 2? Stage 1 is the Basic Game, and the Basic Game is easy enough to do, even with a system as complicated as New D&D (i.e. 3rd Edition plus). Stage 2 can be handled as easily as Stage 1…IF the DM takes a heavy hand, and treats the world like one big dungeon. You know what I mean? A dungeon has a bunch of numbered encounter sites laid out on the map. Managing Stage 2 like Stage 1 is just a matter of laying out numbered encounters on a larger map (with each number representing a smaller dungeon or lair…i.e. a Hazard Site).

Of course, when New D&D (and remember, I’m not talking “New School,” I’m talking post-2000 editions) start to do this, they start losing that which makes the game interesting (or which made the game interesting for us early players), namely the fusing of imagination with a simple system to allow us a deeper role-playing experience. To make up for this (and again, I don’t think this was done purposefully so much as with the desire to make the game “more fun” not realizing what had been lost)…to MAKE UP FOR THIS, the designers of New D&D made the character creation and development mechanics more intricate, interesting, and involved. Feats, skills, ability adjustments, multi-classing, racial favored classes, synthesis bonuses, prestige classes, etc. They took out the “imagination added” part and gave you their own imagination…i.e. their own nice and neat and fancy house rules.

[to be continued]


  1. Amen, preach it, brother!

    I love your praise of Mentzer. I always wanted to run "Stage III" in high school using Companion+. However, my friiends were always, "Oh, that's too hard." ~sigh~

    The closest I've come was with Ars Magica in the mid 90s, and it was more like Stage III tht goes back to Stages II and I. :)

  2. Have you seen "Adventurer, Conqueror, King"? If not, you should. As the very name indicates they're going for providing rules regarding all three stages of the game you outline here.

    I don't know if you'd like their approach, being more AD&D-ish than anything, but it's well worth looking at regardless. You're definitely talking their lingo here.

    1. I think ACKS is far more B/X plus new domain rules than it is AD&D. If you go check out their forums, you can see the explicit design posts connecting it to B/X, too. For example, the explorer class is basically the halfling (but done as a human).

    2. Fair enough. (I didn't intend it as a knock, since I really like AD&D.) I have the game and it certainly looks good. But I guess in the end (now having read post 4 in this series) his concern here isn't really to have rules that support those other stages at the higher levels, but rather to have a game that supports all three of them at once, and from level one onward. So ACKS may not quite fit the bill. It's still going to be closer than anything else out there and is well worth a look, JB.

  3. This is a really good post. I'll probably have more to say about it later, but for now I only have time for one point.

    I would say that D&D is not poorly designed, it is well adapted. Someone didn't sit down and derive the game from first principles (the central planning approach). Instead, they let it work itself out through play and then transcribed it poorly. That's why so much of the transmission of the classic game was social rather than textual. It's also why the OSR is so valuable, because it's hard to learn the traditional game from the texts alone.

    You should read some F. A. Hayek; Law, Legislation and Liberty is probably the most on-topic (and no, I'm not a libertarian trying to sell you an ideology; I genuinely think these ideas are interesting for game design).