Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Different Paradigm

Dungeons & Dragons. Great game, right? One that's made a ton of money for people all over the world: everyone from little ol' indie-publishers like me to companies like OneBookShelf to every RPG company inspired by the game to every video game designer that took its cues from the thing. A game that, by itself, has provided countless hours of enjoyment. I mean that literally...I cannot count how many hours I've spent playing and running and reading and dreaming and scheming (enjoying every minute) over the years all due to D&D. And I'm just one person. There are plenty of others like me.

What if the game had been designed differently? What if core ideas we take for granted now...things like, say, incremental increases of effectiveness due to the acquisition of points (i.e. "leveling" by accumulating "XP") or delving "dungeons" had been less focal points to the game as a whole? What if the "original fantasy adventure game" had been more about focused on the fantasy adventure and less about the looting and cavern crawls?

Just humor me for a moment. I've got several different things roiling and boiling in my brain.

First up, an article from The Dragon, issue #7 (June, 1977), titled Gary Gygax on Dungeons & Dragons: Origins of the Game:
...a few months later when Dave [Arneson] came down to visit me we played a game of his amended CHAINMAIL fantasy campaign. Dave had taken the man-to-man and fantasy rules and modified them for his campaign. Players began as Heroes or Wizards. With sufficient success they could become Superheroes. In similar fashion, Wizards could become more powerful... 
The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze struck me as being very desireable [sic]. However, that did not really fit in the framework of CHAINMAIL. I asked Dave to please send me his rules additions, for I thought a whole new system should be developed. A few weeks after his visit I received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign and I immediately began work on a brand new manuscript... 
...There were then three character classes, with players beginning at first level (rather than as 4th level Hero-types or relatively powerful Wizards), and each level was given a heroic or otherwise descriptive name. The actions that could follow were outlined. Spells were expanded. The list of monsters were broadened again, and a complete listing of magical items and treasures was given. The reaction to the manuscript was instant enthusiasm. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS differed considerably from Dave's "Blackmoor" campaign, just as the latter differed from CHAINMAIL: but, based on the reception given to the game by others testing it, he had to agree that it was acceptable. Although D&D was not Dave's game system by any form or measure, he was given co-billing as author for his valuable idea kernels. He complained bitterly that the game wasn't right, but the other readers/players loved it. In fact, the fellows playing the manuscript version were so enthusiastic that they demanded publication of the rules as soon as possible...
Okay, that's the first thing. Now look at Dave Arneson's introduction to The First Fantasy Campaign; we'll skip the parts about creating the Blackmoor campaign setting and just highlight some of the rules differences Arneson describes in his original "CHAINMAIL variant:"
Character motivation was solved by stating that you did not get Experience Points until the money had been spent on your area of interest. This often led to additional adventures... 
Combat was quite simple at first and then got progressively complicated with the addition of Hit Location, etc. as the players first rolled for characteristics, the number of Hits a body could take ran from 0 - 100. As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather became harder to Hit. All normal attacks were carried out in the usual fashion but the player received a "Saving Throw" against any Hit he received. Thus, although he might be "Hit" several times during a melee round, in actuality he might not take any damage at all. Only Fighters gained advantage in these Saving Throws. Clerics and Magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their Saving Throws...
The part about experience points is especially intriguing; in the section of FFC that addresses this ("Special Interests;" pages 50-52), Arneson identifies seven areas of potential interest: Wine, Women, Song, Wealth, Fame, Religion & Spiritualism, and Hobby. Each area provides specific guidelines/rules for how wealth must be spent in order to gain XP; only the "Wealth" category gains XP for simple accumulation of treasure (and carries the stipulation that wealth robbed results in a loss of XP and a potential loss of level). "Hobby" is:
"a catch-all category left to the Judge to award details on to the players. Examples of some of the more obvious pursuits would be Spell Research by Magic Users specializing in say Animal Control or the raising and breeding of's hobby could even be the devising of of better Torture machines, making gold, the Building of Flying Machines, all up to the Judge to outline and define within the limits of his campaign."
Thus, while characters were all treasure hunters, they were treasure hunters with specific reasons and motivations, several of which (Fame, Religion, and Hobby) required characters to engage in non-treasure seeking activity (though with potentially interesting adventure implications) as part of their advancement strategy.

Remember, that Blackmoor grew (in part) out of Arneson's experience with Braunstein in which different pieces/characters were given different motivations/missions. The goal of acquiring money, as described in the later Dave Arneson's Blackmoor was provided as an easy goal around which to unite, despite what they planned to use that money for. It wasn't necessarily for the building of castles and armies for additional war-gaming action. However, all of these "motivations" require the expenditure of their money, overcoming the insane economy decried in a game that has moved away from the domain-ruling endgame. It's a different way to get players to voluntarily drain their own income (diffusing it gradually into the campaign setting), rather than send a 0-level tax collector and the town guard to harass a group of hardened adventurers.

DMDave has a lot of good articles deconstructing the design of D&D, especially its latter (3rd-5th) editions; I've spent the last day or two reading much of his blog. Another good post cites the specific reason for and origins of "hit points" in an earlier Ironclads war-game developed by Arneson. While I've discussed and hypothesized about this development previously, this is the first time I've had the additional info provided by this 2004 interview. Yes, I'm late to the party.

But what if Arneson had not chosen to go this route as a patch to players' disgruntlement over being one-shotted? What's interesting is that, per Arneson's own FFC, while HPs were implemented to have incremental injury, hit points were still a static resource, while increasing effectiveness instead increased the character's defensive capability...similar to Saga Star Wars defensive class based on level or (perhaps more accurately) very similar to Mutants & Masterminds saving throws versus damage.

Incremental level increase (via XP) with incremental increases in effectiveness (additional HP, saves, bonuses, etc.) were a Gygaxian invention. Arneson fighters only had a couple "levels" (Hero and Superhero) while Wizards had incremental increases in effectiveness a la CHAINMAIL, which simply results in more spells and better chance to cast spells...the "other areas" of progress mentioned in Dave's introduction to FFC.

What if the game had continued to develop as per Arneson's variant rules, rather than along lines that better "fit in the framework of CHAINMAIL"...CHAINMAIL, a game developed and designed by a war-gamer for war-gamers?

I've reflected before that, as a fantasy adventure game, D&D leaves a lot to be desired, that some of its premises don't jibe with much of the fantasy adventure fiction it would seek to emulate. And yet, it has set standards of concepts in role-playing (especially FAG role-playing) that are largely unchallenged, only tweaked (to taste) or redesigned wholesale for extra "realism" (see RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery, etc.) without really creating an alternate paradigm. Or rather, the alternate paradigm has been attempted (taking the game out of the dungeon), without reconstructing the system in a non-war-game fashion. OR the game has been designed to emulate fiction exclusively (with story driven objectives) but in a much more subjective fashion that has a lesser appeal to non-narrativist agenda players.

As said, these are things roiling and boiling in my brain at the moment. I'm just not sure what I want to do with these ideas. I'll keep y'all posted.


  1. So Athelstan the first level magic user only gets exp from his treasure if he spends it on spell research or hiring an engineer to do the initial design work on his future wizard tower...

    1. @ Sean:

      Strangely, none of the interests are "build a stronghold" (or tower or castle or fortress of any type), making such a goal a personal one (I presume) rather than one worthy of XP gain. But spell research certainly falls into the hobby category.

      It's all very abstract...there are few hard/fast rules, more like a hat-full of suggestions, especially with regard to hobbies. The XP "system" presented requires a lot of discretion on behalf of the DM (and probably a lot of discussion/negotiation between the DM and the player). I'd like something a little more codified, myself...but it's a very interesting start.

  2. All right. Let's put on a shelf that in all probability these "letters" from these people are memoirs and therefore full of probable fabrications, particularly given that both these men were sued by about thirty fellow players and students in Chicago the 70s who couldn't prove their case in court. We'll accept that history is made by the winners - who in 2004 can make up any story they like.

    I've heard these arguments for how the game should be played (Arneson's supposed buy xp rule) for something like 30 years now - and guess what? The game still isn't played that way. Why? Because players don't like it. Oh, some do; but most don't.

    The answer to your query is quite simple. Arneson's game would have died on the vine. In fact, it DID. Gygax, for all his failings, stole the right ideas. The ones we play with now. The ones that were popular. The ones people liked.

    I sure wish people would just let go. Let go. Can we stop rehashing the past and nitpicking the details and just get on with making the game better than either one of the 'gentlemen' imagined?

    1. @ Alexis:

      I didn't have time to write my follow-up post today which (I hope) would have taken the conversation in a slightly different track. Certainly the game "works" on a variety of levels, as is.

      I suppose, then, the next question would be, '"Why does JB bother starting this line of inquiry?" Well, I've got a bee in my bonnet about something, and I wanted to consider an alternative method of getting to my desired design destination, and hashing through these old letters gives me a possible starting point.

      Maybe I'll get a chance to write my follow-up tonight (after the family is asleep, i.e. at 2 or 3am).
      ; )

  3. I think that this can be, at least potentially, an interesting direction of inquiry. There are other possible ways to approach adventure/roleplaying games, and I think that it's worth exploring as many as possible. I discussed one specific alternate direction (one that has had some success) in my recent analysis of the assumed order of play in Traveller.

    1. @ Faol:

      Mmmm...DMDavid had a good/interesting article on Traveller, too. Check this out:

    2. That's an interesting take on it. It looks like he wasn't able to figure out how to "do" patrons, which isn't surprising. I don't know anyone who got it before 76 Patrons was released (and the Mongoose version, 760 Patrons, is terrible, just the worst, showing that some people still don't get it). And to be fair, a lot of people still didn't get it. I didn't, really, until I started re-examining the rules as written in detail in the last decade or so.

      One thing that Traveller needs is a better written description of how the game is supposed to be used. My article is a part of that, actually, since I hope to use the Mongoose SRD to write my own edition.