Friday, December 8, 2017

On Victimhood

Kyle Mecklem recently blogged his thoughts on how and why D&D has become a "boring" game in recent years. While I think his analysis is a little off (you can read my comments on his post), it still raises a subject I find worth discussing.

[not beating up on Kyle, here...I'm just riffing off his subject matter]

Sure, I can get on board with the idea that the latest editions of D&D don't hold the same appeal for me that the older versions of the game do, but that doesn't mean they're boring to everyone. Clearly there are folks enjoying 5th edition in some capacity, and who are more than willing to put their cash in Hasbro's cash register. Perhaps I am simply out-of-touch with what "the kids" want these days...certainly that's true with regard to pop music and reality television.

And even if though I can come around (rather easily, I admit) to an idea that the game is objectively "less fun/exciting" than it was "back in the day," I'm rather hesitant to consider it has anything to do with the reasons Kyle lists: low effort players, hand waving away of minutia, and the lack of "true challenge." I can see how these things might appear to be causes of this "boring-ness problem" -- they are all features of classic "old school" play, and Kyle's premise seems to imply old school play being more desirable than the current systems -- but I'd argue against them. After all:

- There are plenty of RPGs that require extensive, pre-play character development that offer nothing like classic D&D play. Furthermore, if players are approaching the game with a "video game mentality" (as Kyle suggests), I would lay the fault at the feet of a game designed with video game sensibilities, not the players' response.

- Too much minutia can be off-putting and distracting from the escapism of the game being played. Some people want to count arrows and torches; some people find this breaks their immersive experience. Different players have different thresholds for the amount of minutia they can handle; I for one did not enjoy the "challenge" of worrying about my caloric intake when I played in a certain on-line campaign.

- Games that are too deadly in nature promote caution in players, leading to slower play, which I consider to be fairly boring. On the other hand, what Kyle describes as a "slow grind" is very inherent of some styles of Old School play, and the wahoo "lich council assault" he describes sounds much more video gamey in nature. I suppose I'd just say these are matters of style and personal taste over something inherent in the game itself (neither in its current nor past incarnations).

Here's the thing: what Kyle is expressing is a lack of satisfaction with the D&D game experience these days, and I can agree with that. I mean, I have sampled 5th edition and found it dead boring (and 3rd edition, which I played for a couple-three years, was at least as much, if not more so). Mostly though (mostly), I would chalk this up more to the manner in which the game has been presented...the main marketing thrust of the game since the advent of the 21st century seems to have been to make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources, rather than promoting one's own ability to create and run the game independently. This may be an excellent business model (evidenced by the company remaining in business) or it may not be (I haven't purchased any of their D&D stuff in 15 years). Regardless, I don't subscribe to this presentation of D&D, and I would actively discourage anyone else from doing so, were they to ask my opinion.

['course, I'm not playing much at all these days, though I am gearing up for the future, so take my opinion for what it's worth]

Alexis Smolensk, bless his ever-present-desire-to-help-us-be-better-DMs, has written a couple good posts about encouraging player agency over victimhood.  "Victimhood," a term I'd use interchangeably with "de-protagonization," may be the usual state players find themselves in when playing a published adventure path, but it's been the default starting point for adventures since the Hickman/Weiss era of the mid-1980s. See examples such as Dragonlance ("Your village has been burned and you've been captured by the Dragon Army"), the Desert of Desolation series ("You've offended the local lord and you are being forced to do this quest in the desert"), and, of course, Ravenloft ("You're trapped by this mysterious fog in some Transylvania-equivalent; go break the curse!").  And reading and running (and aping) published adventures is one of the main ways young DMs learn their craft.

[I'd argue that earlier adventures (Against the Giants, the Slavers Series, early Basic modules) offer a bit more player agency: here's some adventure site, do you want to take it on or not?]

Unfortunately (in addition to de-protagonizing players), relying on this kind of heavy-handed story-forcing doesn't do a DM any favors, either. Not only are they subject to extensive cliches (how can it not be, when fantasy adventure gaming is built upon and chock full of cliches?) but requiring a DM to follow a dramatic plot...whether a published one or a story of her own design...ties the DM's hands, limiting the DM's ability to improvise and adapt to the needs/wants of players or even (on occasion) the results of the dice rolled.

Yes, such constrained play can certainly feel trite and/or boring.

In my opinion, the main lacking in the most recent editions (perhaps ALL editions) of D&D is the clear, concise instruction needed by perspective DMs for building and running adventures and campaigns. Without that instruction...well, you get what you've got.

And that's all I've got to say on the matter right now.

***EDIT: I wrote this post before reading this, published today. It's a little harsh, but not terrible advice to the perspective DM. More of this kind of thing would be helpful, I think.***


  1. I tend to agree that the products provided in later editions don't support dynamic play and player self-direction, I think a bit of it is mechanical, a lot of it's presentation.

    I'd also point out that the hook in G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is 'you are the best adventurers, go kill giants or the king cuts off your head' - so I wouldn't blame the genesis of sort of hook on anyone but Gary Gygax.

    1. Tim Kask offers a non-victim method of starting a quest: The party owes a favor to somebody more powerful than they are, and now it's time to pay back the favor.

    2. @ GusL:

      While that's certainly true, I'd argue that there's substantial latitude granted to a party tackling G1, including the chance to outfit for a known expedition, hire help, and devise strategy and tactics. Hell, I'd even say the party has the option to cut-and-run, entering self-imposed exile rather than attacking the Steading or returning for "the headsman's axe."

      That ain't really the case with the adventures I'm talking about.

    3. Oh I totally agree - I just found it very strange when I read G1 to review it how ham-fisted the hook was.

      I agree that railroading and scene based adventures are a damn plague, one spread because WotC seems incapable of writing anything that takes advantage of the old school rules it's tried to include and still finds adventure paths exciting.

      I personally found Kyle's article to be the sudden silly maundering of someone who has just discovered that current rules lack, and hadn't bothered to actually look into OSR play. His solutions (as Tao of D&D suggests) are puerile and baffling.

      My point is simply that we can't pin this all on 4E, 5E or the Hickmans - Gygax frequently suggests stuff that modern OSR types find horrible, and with good reason.

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  3. Please to note that many of Kyle's "solutions" are the precise problem he names in his opening paragraph. He argues "rules as written," but its the rules that say knowledge and perception rolls are acceptable. He argues against a "video game mentality," then immediately encourages everyone to write a two-page cut-scene that will justify everything the player will then do through the rest of the campaign.

    He seems very confused.

    1. @ Alexis:

      He seems very young. The interesting bit (for me) is that he is dissatisfied with game play and is trying to puzzle out a way around it.

      I would like to see if his proposed "fixes" actually help him acquire the play experience he's looking for. I'd guess not...but I'd like to give him the chance to try and draw his own conclusions.

  4. There's quite a number of OSR people who bring their sensibilities and preferences with them to 5e. Some of us use houserules, some do not.

  5. "make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources" -- this is as close to truth as I've seen on this subject; but with a caveat;
    My Rules Cyclopedia was all I needed (need); at the same time, as kids (a kid) we could take a pile of unsplit firewood and using our minds create the bridge of the Enterprise complete with seats and consoles, shuttles, etc.; A maple sapling could be Excalibur or better, a lightsaber...I guess the idea that we needed CCR (company created resources) was understood to be a niche market within a niche market back then...

  6. Adventure Path type scenarios breed this kind of GMing. I remember my first experience when the Dragon Lance adventures were published. I think that was the first time I got bored with the game. I'd go so far as say, if we continued to play it I would have dropped out, I disliked it so much. The folks I game with can take a published adventure and rework it so the situation or introduction is organic and not 'ham-fisted'.

    As for 5e. I've never been a fan of perception checks. They tend to be the biggest crutch/hindrance for a GM. In two games I recently played in GM asked for perception rolls, I stayed true to form and rolled terribly, and the GM wasn't sure what to do, because I didn't see what I was supposed to see. And while the game system encourages rolls like this, GMs with experience know when to have a roll and when to role-play the situation.

  7. *Lights molotov fuse*

    *Lobs comment about younger generations being (or being expected to be) less self-reliant due to the cultural shifts of modernity and how this fact is being naturally reflected on everywhich medium*

    *Runs away giggling*