The types, the varieties of exploration offered by the D&D game are wonderful, but their design is terrible and terribly flawed, and this is because of the “organic” way in which those latter stages were “designed.” Basically they weren't…a dungeon delving game was designed, and when players wanted to do something more, extra rules got “tacked on.”
And I’m beginning to think this may be the ONLY way for Dungeons & Dragons to work “as intended,” i.e. to allow the campaign to organically evolve. When I was a kid, we played B/X (which is just OD&D with rule clarifications and better organization), and it worked great for us. The AD&D books were gradually added over time and that worked great, expanding our options. We took the game out of the dungeon, built up high level characters and meandered into Stage 3 play…all “organically” ourselves.
But since that time I’ve tried to start and run D&D campaigns that resembled that earlier “evolutionary” game and failed, failed, failed. You can’t do Stage 2 or Stage 3 in a new campaign without serious DM cream puffery and/or railroading and even doing that ends in a failure more often than not because players AREN’T INVESTED IN THEIR CHARACTERS...and not just because the characters are new and "history-less." It’s hard to get excited and enthused about a 1st level flunky that could get killed by an orc arrow on any unlucky roll, and I (and my adult players) just don’t have the time to devote to working characters “up the ladder” of development to get to these other stages of exploration.
D&D sucks this way. You’re forced to follow the parameters of the Basic stage (start off on the 1st level of a dungeon fighting ducks for chump change) and go through a long “dues paying” period before you can “get to the good stuff.” At least, if you’re playing the game as written. And tinkering with it too much just makes it…well, not D&D.
Case in point…when writing my own D&D (“D&D Mine”), long before I got around to thinking about these ideas (which has only been a couple days folks), I had already figured out the only way to make my game “work” like D&D was to create a setting for the game with a sprawling mega-dungeon built in. At the time, I wasn’t really grokking the WHY, I just knew that the WHAT (or rather the “HOW” as in “how the game is supposed to look and work”), only functioned properly with that. Or I should say, “functioned best.” And I was kind of surprised by that…surprised because I could see I was doing the same thing that had already been done long before me by Arneson (Blackmoor) and Gygax (Greyhawk) as well as plenty of others (for example, Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount).
Creating a city with built-in mega-dungeon and a local history, however, just doesn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t! And the REASON it doesn’t is because I want to play a fantasy adventure game, something that models the literary characters and heroic stories that D&D is supposed to be based on. How many times in Howard’s stories do you find Conan in some subterranean complex or mega-dungeon? Not very many, pal…he’s got more important things to do than crawl around a cobwebby dungeon with a torch. It certainly doesn't occupy the majority of his professional attention.
Recently, I’ve been playing in an on-line B/X game. My character, a cleric, is the closest of the party members to leveling up, but he’s still only 1st level and we’ve been playing since April. Actually, a couple of us (including me) have been playing since before then, as it was a table-top game that got converted to on-line in order to pick up additional players (and make it easier on our schedules).
There’s a large mega-dungeon we’ve been exploring, and a hometown, and a world history. However, at this point I’m choosing to make the mega-dungeon a secondary priority and spend most of my focus on proactively exploring the local politics; specifically, my intention to stir up a hornet’s nest by using treasure found in the ruins to fund a revolution to over-throw the invading Imperials that conquered my homeland a decade or so ago. Right now, my character is decked out in expensive (250gp) plate armor, riding a stout courser, and wielding a shiny dwarfsteel warhammer (when I’m not swinging my two-handed maul). I’ve acquired a normal human henchman from the local underground cult to which I belong and he’s outfitted on a draft horse with chainmail…he’s mainly for show, guarding the horses, and being my step-n-fetch. My character looks the part of a war leader and I’m trying to act the part in order to become the part…a kind of pseudo-medieval Pancho Villa. When last we left off, we were getting ready to jump a band of Imperial mercs encountered on the road, possibly risking being branded as outlaws by the local constabulary, but definitely striking a blow against “our oppressors.”
Did I mention my character’s 1st level? He’ll probably get hit by a lucky arrow shot and killed instantly. That’s what happened to the 1st level illusionist I started the campaign with.
The rules of D&D are not really conducive to this kind of play…and by that I mean, this type of play at 1st level (i.e. right out of the gate). And dammit, it should be. Why not? Personally, I plan on playing this game as if it were conducive until my character gets himself killed. And then…I don’t know, it will depend on the next character I roll up. But I’m not going to stunt my role-playing (head-thumping as the experience might be) just because the rules don’t cooperate.
D&D needs to be redesigned so that all the stages can be addressed at any time at any level. At least, I think it does. YOU may not. Hell, you may be reading this and saying, “I’m just trying to fight goblins and pick up gold, yo.” For how long? Until you get bored and decide you’ll stick it back up on the shelf for another 10-20 years? I guess if that’s your thought, than you’re probably not my target demographic.
There’s already a game-type game that gives you a chance to have tactical encounters in a dungeon (Basic Exploration) and roll dice: it’s called 4th Edition. There’s already a game that tries a hybrid between tactical encounters and rules-supported character development (still Basic exploration): it’s called D20 or Pathfinder. If that’s what you want, you’ve got it already folks. Heck, if you want an even simpler version with the same objective that doesn’t address character much at all, then you can play one of the various iterations of the board game Dungeon! which is plenty fun.
But for me, I don’t want those things. I want a nice, living, breathing game that uses a simple, abstract game system (sorry, Alexis) and yet addresses all three stages properly, allowing multiple forms of game play and exploration from all players, regardless of preference, right out of the gate.
Because you CAN be a low-level courtier, or wilderness scout…you shouldn’t have to wait till you're high level to try that type of game play. If I want to play a 16 year old Joan of Arc leading the French army to victory against the English, then dammit, there should be rules that allow that! What happened to “anything you can imagine?” What happened to fantastic fantasy adventure.
I keep coming back to this quote I recently (re-)read in Ron Edward’s second article on fantasy heartbreakers. I’ll reprint it here so you can see why it’s haunting me:
“I think it’s central to D&D fantasy that a character must start with a very high risk of dying and very little ability to change the world around him or her, and then increase in effectiveness, scope, and ability to sustain damage…the concept seems to be that the player must serve his or her time as a schlub, greatly risking the character’s existence, in order to enjoy the increased array and benefits of the powers, ability, and effectiveness that can only be accumulated through the reward-system. An enormous amount of the draw to play a particular game seems to be based on explicitly laying out what the character might be able to do, later, if he or she lives. I want to distinguish this paradigm very sharply from the baseline “character improves through time” found in most role-playing games. This is something much, much more specific.”The thing that haunts me about this analysis (which seems accurate to me as well) is this:
Is this the real basis for D&D’s popularity?
This “draw,” this carrot that’s dangled in front of the players…is that what makes them come back for more? Because if it is, then ALL this discussion might very well be a waste of fucking precious time (and I’ve written this up as a 12 page, 7000 word essay). There is great potential within the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (pre-1989, i.e. “old school” editions)…I know because I’ve observed it, I’ve played it. The same potential doesn’t exist within New D&D…the rules are designed to expand and improve the Stage 1 (basic) exploration and those same rules become extraneous or too complex for later Stage play (even if such was supported in the text of the rules…which it f’ing well is NOT). But there’s little way to GET to this potential style of play, even using “old school” rule sets, because they are accidents of design, not purposeful, and not well supported.
And maybe I’m retarded for even thinking about it. I’m not talking about piddling simulationist play…I’m talking about facing challenge on a variety of levels (i.e. “stages”): discovering the world outside the dungeon and becoming a ‘mover & shaker’ within that world. NOT limiting game-play to the challenge of exploring a Hazard Site. NOT simply figuring out how to defeat a particularly tricky puzzle (whether that “puzzle” is a tactical challenge against a superior opponent or a trick/trap not easily negotiated). Simply exploring a Hazard Site doesn’t allow you the depth of role-playing involved with Stage 2 and Stage 3 exploration when what you explore is Your Imaginary World and Your Characters’ Place In The World.
As I said, I know there are folks who don’t agree with me. Fortunately for you, the game as written is good enough for that Basic Exploration stage of play. Personally, I’d prefer to take the game up to the Expert and Master stages. However, I’m still mulling over exactly how to do that. I'll let you know if/when I figure it out.