Saturday, May 30, 2020

Hard and Soft

AKA a "thoughtful addendum" to yesterday's rant.

It strikes me that much of what I dislike about the changes in the world...whether you're talking gaming, pop music, or whatever...has to do with my perceived "softness" of these developments. As in people going soft. I'll provide a couple examples:

In D&D: Character death being removed from the table. Character's becoming more "superheroic" (fighters getting spell-like special abilities, wizards throwing unlimited magic missiles, etc.). Complaints about X.P. calculation or adventure design being "too hard." Etc.

In music: Over-produced music. Sampling former song-writers music and turning it into their own "hit songs" (Aloe Blacc's "The Man," Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You," etc.). Virtuoso instrument playing being replaced by computers. Vocal talent being auto-tuned. Etc.

Heck, I can even apply it to daily family life: fast food culture, too much television, participation awards for kids, grade inflation, video games that do all your imagining for you, lack of book reading, smart phone culture, social media replacing human interaction, etc.  Hell, we probably all live too long these days what with the pills and prescriptions one can take to relieve problems that are probably caused by our (generally) sedentary, overindulgent lifestyles.

I recognize this is just me being a cranky geezer of the "when-I-was-a-kid-we-walked-ten-miles-to-school-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways!" variety. When I was a youngster, my elders complained about my generation and how "easy" we had it. Now I do the same thing. This is a recognized cycle in our part of the world.

But why? Simple discomfort with new ideas? An inability to change with the times (and a willingness to complain)? Just plain old inertia? Fear of being "left behind?"

Maybe...but I don't think so. After some thoughtful pondering, here's what I do think:

Growing up, there was a certain amount of hardness I had to acquire. I don't mean discipline (I'm fairly undisciplined, much to my detriment), but a certain resilience and strength. If you cared about something, there was a certain amount of work that was a part of doing it. Nothing of lasting value is easy, you know? Suffering for one's art; adversity builds character...or something like that.

And now that I've paid my dues (at least, in the things that I cared about and that mattered to me) I look at those coming after me, after my time, and I worry for them. I worry that they aren't developing the necessary hardness, the necessary strength. I worry that they're "soft" and that this will end up...I don't know..."bad," somehow.

And I would guess my elders felt and thought the same when I was younger. And their elders felt and thought the same when they were younger.

Doesn't matter what profession you're in. A soldier in today's army is tough, but is far more advantaged than those of twenty years earlier...who were more advantaged than those who fought in WWII, who were more advantaged than those who fought in The Great War, etc. all the way back to the damn bronze age. "Kid, back when we fought battles, you were lucky to have a solid club and a few rocks to throw! You guys are so soft with your "helmets" and "spears." Punks!"

Less sass than you'd get
from Rosie the Robot.
And, of course, it's all ridiculous, right? One of the things humans are trying to develop is ease and comfort...both for ourselves and our descendants. We'd like to make things gentler and easier for our kids, right? We want better (i.e less suffering) lives for our families. That's why people invent things like the's not just because they loved The Jetsons as a kid.

Likewise, we don't want to go backwards, do we? It's nice that I'm able to self-publish my own print books with nothing more than a laptop and a word processor. Do I really want to go back to the elaborate publishing process of the 1970s? Hell no! No more than I'd want to go back to a time before indoor plumbing.

Even so, I worry. I worry that there's such a thing as "too much" softness. Is non-stop texting any worse than the way my friends and I used to spend hours kabitzing over a landline? No, probably not. Is sitting on your ass in front of a computer eating junk food and forgoing the simple pleasures of a brisk walk, a thought-provoking book, or an engaging conversation an improvement to our quality of life? Probably not...but then television has been around since the 1950s and that, more than anything, has contributed to the general "softening" of society.

In the end, I suppose it (mostly) comes down to this: with regard to Dungeons & Dragons, I prefer a "harder" version of the game. Harder to run, harder to manage, harder to survive (talking about survival of the characters, not the players). It's a preference. I dislike late editions of the games for a number of reasons. But (and I realize I'm writing this not for the first time) I recognize MY version isn't a "better" version of the game. It is simply better for me. Hopefully, there are some likeminded folks out there.

Later, Gators.


  1. Yeah, it's a mix.
    Like cell phones are an amazing improvement over being stranded in the middle of nowhere, miles from a phone, at midnight.
    I've done without 'smart' phones though... or rather, I had one and didn't care for it.
    I don't need to be THAT connected every minute of my life.

    Mostly it's about human nature... how people choose to interact with technology... sitting for hours in front of the TV, eating too much convenience food.

    People (some people) are determined to be 'softer'. So the core annoyance, as always for me, is people.
    "Hell is other people," after all.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. @ MW:

      That’s certainly valid. For example, the have no idea how much effort and work goes into interpolating someone’s song into a successful pop song...perhaps it is “harder” than doing actual original songwriting. Certainly my own published works have been derivative.

      But, as I said (or meant to imply) I‘ve has a much “softer” life than MY predecessors. Apologies if I was trying to represent as being particularly “hard.”

      Re: OSR games being easier to run.

      Mmm. Okay. Well, I guess I’m just talking about soft players, not GMs.

  3. The sad part of it all is that life is hard no matter how you slice it. Despite whatever technology we ever create, and despite our best efforts, life will still punch us in the gut.

    I can understand the desire for the "superhero," but there is great value in the "hard" versions of the game where we have to look death in the face every time we choose to go on an adventure. In the same way tragedies and comedies have their place within culture as pressure valves, "hard" versions of D&D can prepare us for those times when life gets around to that gut punch...

  4. When it comes to XP being handed out I don't see it being as necessary after 3.X, 4E, & 5E have the same XP table for each Class. Back in older editions of D&D? Sure.

    If everyone is going to use the same XP amounts then I just level them when I want to. If I have different level characters then I give all of them an XP amount and let them apply it.

    IMO, each D&D Edition has something that improves the game. Noticing that and applying it might make me "soft" but that's okay because I and my group are having a great time.

    On the flip side, I don't see what all the fuss over the term "race" is. Som I'm "hard" on that issue.

  5. I think play style not the system determines hard vs soft. I have mostly run 1e/2e and B/X, but after 50 some sessions of a 1e campaign I was asked to run a 5e game so we could attract more players (which it did).

    I agreed if I could house rule out some of the bits I didnt like, drow, dragon born, monks, ect. Yup don't let monks in my 1e either. Also removed cleric cantrips and removed some spells.

    It's a sandbox and xp is given out each session for monsters killed. Charachters die, and running away is sometime the best move. We are up to 75 sessions, 6 PC dead, and they players know death can happen any time. A 9th level PC was just killed in the 70th sessions.

    I think if you raised from 1st level charachter to 9th level with 70 sessions of play and he dies in a random treasure hunt you are playing hard.

    I house rule every version if d&d I play, I put in tough monsters who want to live, and i roll dice in the open. so to me it's the style not the system.

  6. It isn't that people are softer. It's that softer people survive now. Look around. There are more people, right? There are probably the same number of hard people around today that there were 50 years ago. It's just that they're all standing next to a soft person now.

  7. !!
    I'm surprised at how much I find myself agreeing with you here. Your rant has also sparked a memory of something that I studied 20y ago.

    Despite working in heavy engineering I took an Open University course in environmental philosophy as I was trying to get into renewable energy back in 1999. Through this I learned about the Risk Society by German philosopher Ulrich Beck, which describes how the nature of risks and tolerance of risks change in societies as they modernise.

    Put very simply (and perhaps not entirely correctly) in less sophisticated societies your risks are obvious, localised and known to all (eg: wild animals, hunger) whereas in modern societies the risks are not immediately obvious, evaluating these risks is dependent upon specialist knowledge, and the risks when manifested can be globalised (eg: mass air travel allowed covid-19 to spread).

    How do I think that this relates to D&D and your rant on softness? Well, what I realised after reading your post was that you can see how in each edition the designers have introduced features or modernised existing game sub-systems to reduce the risk of dying (death saves, more hit points, quick healing, balanced encounters) or overcoming difficult parts of the game (keeping a track of XP, descending armour class, encumbrance, light, morale, retainers, are all orcs evil) to leave something which is far removed from the original game and only really shares a brand and some labels.

    We ended up here because of the need to increase sales & profit (normal) and the easiest way to do this was through feature creep and removing the risk from the game (the difficult bits). But I also think because the people who developed and played the game reflected the societies in which they grew up and they were no longer prepared to run the risks as individuals that Dave & Gary thought were normal, even in a fantasy world.

  8. Okay, I can agree with your rant. I find the modern idea that the GM is somehow the servant of the players to be anathema. The GM is not the fan of the Players ... or the monsters. The GM is there to be neutral and impartial. If you do something stupid then you need to face the consequences. I find it absolutely demeaning when the GM accepts a substandard solution because that player is "in the spotlight" and ignores and nerfs all the players that are actually trying to solve the problem. A scenario should not be "guess the specific solution I am thinking of" proposition but the players need to come up with something plausible.
    I think the low death rate movement is a symptom of the combination of the fragility of low level characters and the "combat is the only option" mentality. High lethality systems like RuneQuest all give the players and characters a lot of tools that they can use to fabricate non combat solutions with.

    1. The GM should be a fan of the game and the setting, not the individual characters (player or non-). That is, we can LIKE individual characters, but there shouldn't be an attachment to their survival.

    2. I definitely agree with this.

      Sure, when I GM, I of course root for the players. I want them to succeed, to cleverly solve my puzzles, to overcome or circumvent the obstacles that stand in their way, and dispatch my monsters and loot the place - I don't feel better about myself when they don't succeed or bad things happen to them.

      However, for their success to be meaningful, it has to be difficult. The enemies fight just as dirty as they do, and sometimes - due to lack of planning, recklessness, and yes, even pure misfortune, - they fail and characters die.

      The thing is, that's the type of game I enjoy, whether I'm the GM or a player. And I can totally see how some people might not enjoy it, just like how I don't care one bit about soccer or football or baseball). However, just like how I can say no to an invitation to play soccer, I can say "no, I'm not gonna soften up the game, and if it bothers you, you might want to skip it".

      This type of gaming requires a certain type of player and a certain type of GM/referee, for sure - but that kinda goes for everything, anyways, right?

  9. There's nothing new about the sense that the difficulties and forms of resilience and strength of the past are falling away in the present. I think it might be something related to change - and a difficulty seeing new difficulties and the virtues they demand.

    I think of the Hagakure - written by a worried samurai in the early 18th century when peace threatened. Yamamoto spends way too many of his aphorisms lamenting how terrible the kids and thier interests are. Stuff like this:

    "It is said that what is called "the spirit of an age" is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world's coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation."

    Yet I think in the background of this, knowing how Japan changed with the Shogunate and modernity we can see some of what Yamamoto might have been missing. Now I don't know if as an older guy I can see the change in my own culture with more positivity, but I hope I can figure out what's replacing the things I know and why they're popular?

    As to elfgames? I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about the "Fan" space of 5th Edition - whole online communities sharing drawings and projects from their games - identifiable as fan works. For these players consistency may be more important -- everyone has to know the scene your animation or story is referencing, meaning every table's adventure in Avernus needs to have the same progression and ending? Just an idea?