Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fundamental D&D

Oh, boy. Where to start?

Recently there have been a lot of "self-assessment" posts popping up around the blog-o-sphere: folks celebrating their 5th or 10th or 20th year blogging (and where they've been and how things have changed) and often including assessments of the "OSR," specifically where the "movement" is, how it's evolved, and reflections/opinions on its development.

I don't write much about the OSR...since 2013 I've got less than a dozen posts with that label (and before that, most of my OSR posts were reviews of "stuff" being produced by folks identifying as part of the OSR community), so it's been interesting to observe what folks are talking about. Especially as there's been more than a little discussion about how the OSR has fractured into multiple groups or "factions."

For me, I see it less as any kind of schism(s) and more just bog standard Balkanization...we (that is, the "D&D gaming community") never really were a "unity" of any sort. The only thing we really shared was a particular piece of geography of the tabletop gaming world...the piece that is most interested in Dungeons & Dragons and its specific pseudo-genre of fantasy adventure gaming.  But we've always had different politics, design aesthetics, play styles, and objectives of play. We've always had  different comfort levels with regard to both game complexity and subject matter (and individuals have seen these comfort levels fluctuate over time!) and some are simply incompatible with each other. Before there was a Black Hack RPG there were people cutting swaths of rules out of their game, and that style of play has always been antithetical and unsatisfying to some of the others. The same "always" line can be drawn between those of a more artistic bent versus the more staid designers.

We're just (re-)asserting our independence as individuals. No one likes to be pigeon-holed.

Recently, deadtreenoshelter coined the term "D&D fundamentalists" for the camp opposite the so-called "art-punks," a term I find exceptionally amusing, especially as I've been lumped into it. With regard to religion, fundamentalism is the strict adherence to the literal interpretation of scripture...a concept which could certainly be applied to any advocate of "By The Book" or "Rules As Written" D&D.  But I've generally been one to question rules...or, at least, experiment with them...in order to gain insight and understanding into the game. If I have fundamental tendencies (I'm definitely not a fundamentalist), it's only because I've already tried the road of the heretic...and found it lacking in one regard or another.

What's a far stranger thing to me, though, is this strange way that the D&D game seems to be developing, as evidenced by the product being produced, both within the DIY crowd (the group that commonly refers to themselves as "OSR") and those followers of the flagship brand, AKA "5E." I'll be honest: until recently, I wasn't paying much attention to either of these groups...probably due to my being a rather busy adult human being as well as a narcissistic naval-gazer. But there seems to be something very different going on right now, and I've seen more than a couple people commenting on it, most recently in the comments of this adventure review over at tenfootpole:

Bryce wrote:
Yeah, I understand this is a different play style. I don't understand the appeal but I acknowledge that it is the dominant play style today, and has been for quite some time.
While GusL wrote:
It seems to me that the 5E zeitgeist goes a bit beyond plot or location based. Ravenloft is clearly better than Curse of Strahd but 5E has changed even since that came out. When I look at contemporary 5E stuff it reads like something entirely new.
GusL has done a lot of respectable adventure analysis and (in my opinion) is a bit of a "5E apologist" (that is to say he really tries to give 5E a fair shake as much as he can, despite having the crustier sensibilities of a true grognard). As such, I am inclined to trust his impressions in this matter...he does, after all, read far more 5E material than myself.

However, it's NOT just the 5E stuff...there's been some paradigm shifts for the indie/DIY stuff as well (while I pay little attention to Ennies, it's impossible to disregard them as a measuring stick of what is popular and "trendy" at any particular moment; the last couple years "OSR" offerings are illustrative). While it's easy to be dismissive of "artpunk" offerings as more style than substance, I think there's plenty to be gleaned from the effect and impact such works have on indie publishing industry...such as it is...AND the possible reasons for its rise to popularity.

Have people forgotten how to play Dungeons & Dragons

That's not meant to be rhetorical! However, the better question might be: Is the D&D community still playing D&D, i.e. something recognizable as the D&D game? 

I feel like I've asked similar questions in the past (though I was probably being facetious). Look, regardless of what version of D&D happens to be a person's favorite, there have been some "givens" to what goes on at the table (virtual or otherwise). Off the top of my head, I might say the usual elements include:
  • A group of players working together (a party of adventurers)...
  • To overcome perilous challenges...
  • Created and controlled by a referee (the Dungeon Master)...
  • Using a specific set of game rules (mechanics, system).
There are, of course, other "usual elements:" inhuman monsters, magical items, dungeons, treasure, etc. But the presence of these tropes vary from table to table (some DMs prefer human antagonists, some prefer less magic, some make little use of dungeons, and some care little for treasure). But those four bullet points are pretty specific to "fantasy adventure games" of D&D's persuasion.

And yet these main elements seem to be shifting. There is little peril or challenge. Players are charged with creating their own drama and conflict. Rules are habitually ignored, thrown out, or subjugated to the whims of individuals at the table. 

It feels a bit like D&D is less a game to be played and more a...a...hmm. Well, I don't really know what you'd call it. 'Something to do,' I suppose. Instead of reading a book or watching TV. It's still a form of play...but it's less and less of a game. Certainly not the same game it once was.

And the funny thing is that for many (most?) folks, I don't think this is a purposeful shift in paradigm. It's a plethora of things adding up, along with a lack of understanding about the game, and how the game functions. Or, at least, how the game functioned once upon a time.

And I think that some of the "knowledge" being put out there these days...especially some of the knowledge being put out as to "what Old School play is"...is misdirected or grossly wrong or non-helpful. God bless these people with their new "Old School Primer" but I read through the document and it's just a huge steaming pile of nonsense. 

I suppose (*sigh* cranky) that I am more than a little fatigued by individuals who started playing D&D in the last 20 years telling me how and what "old school" D&D is...or even just what ANY kind of D&D is. But you try to correct someone's ignorance and they just tell you to fuck off because, you know, it's just an opinion and you're telling them how their particular brand of fun is bad-wrong-dumb. Please let us NOT be preached to.

Or taught. Or educated. Or enlightened.

Two days ago was my (insane) brother's birthday. It seems only fitting that the same day I stumbled across this (insane) post claiming that 5E is this wonderful version of D&D that has only recently been villainized after originally being lauded as a return to "old school" gaming, and that we all have such short memories. 

Obviously, he hasn't read my posts on the subject of 5E from 2013-2015. 

But much of what "Dwiz" is listing in his post regarding trends in Old School design aren't inaccurate...they are EXCEPTIONALLY accurate. They're just, mostly, bad or misunderstood trends that have been as detrimental to the development of the DIY ("OSR") scene as they have been to 5E ("New D&D").  

This is something I want to write about in the next few days...as my time permits. Hope that's okay with folks.
; )


  1. I am curious to read whatever you have to say on the subject, largely because its particulars are outside my understanding.

    My familiarity and relationship with the game of D&D is focused largely on the Basic to AD&D 1st Edition era and then again with 3E. Throughout most of that time I was not a huge fan (understatement).

    People love it though and they love specific kinds of it very much. I am forever trying to comprehend why, so please...explain!

    1. I’m sure it’ll be the usual crap-show. But bloggers got to blog amirite?
      ; )

  2. Is that how you're reading that Dwiz post? Because that's not what I'm seeing them say at all. They're saying that 5E is more "old school" than 4E or 3.Pathfinder, that the people saying that 5E is totally not "old school" have short memories because a lot of people were pointing to 5E as a victory for "old school" principles in the RPG marketplace, and giving a couple of definitions of what "old school" might be. Just take a look at the self-proclaimed "shitty graph" and try to square that with any idea that 5E is "wonderful". And, I mean, after having played it now, I agree with you that 5E isn't what I'm looking for—but also it's a damned sight closer to that than 3E and its follow-on developments of 3.5 and Pathfinder.

    I do question Dwiz's understanding of "combat as war", as there seems to be an equation in that post of "combat as sport" with "tactical combat", and I think that those are pretty orthogonal aspects (to me, "combat as sport" is all about trying to balance combat between the players and their opponents so that all 1st level characters should fight are kobolds and giant rats, while "combat as war" says you can drop a mountain on a dragon even at 1st level but on the other hand watch out for the Dragonslayer effect).

    I dunno where I'm going with this, except my initial point that you seem to have misread that Dwiz post stands.

    1. I have a very long memory, going right back to old school 1979, when I was playing. 5e is absolutely nothing like old school.

    2. I should probably wait till the morning to answer this (so I’m sober) but…whatever. I’m still awake:

      Um…your reading and my reading are…kind of the same? I guess. Except that just being “not 3E/4E” doesn’t really equate to “old school” or even “more old school” and while I suppose, yes, some people back in 2014-15 were lauding 5E as a return to “old school sensibilities “ or whatever, *I* certainly wasn’t one of them. To the contrary, I was saying the emperor had no clothes. The fact that it took others a few years to come around to the same conclusion makes no never mind to me.

      Whatever. That’s not the point. The POINT is that things have shifted, life (and gaming) have shifted…incrementally, little by little, and (along with no GOOD understanding of the game’s roots), things are drifting (or have drifted) out of whack.

      It’s about time for a little “push back;” although I realize I am (probably) Sisyphus in this regard.
      ; )

    3. And I realize I wrote the word “whatever” three times…definitely a sign that my bed is calling!

    4. @JB: Right, I don't think he's saying that 5E is "wonderful", only that it is more "old school" by the definitions he gives than 3.PF/4E. That's it. You seem to have read that as him saying that 5E is therefore "wonderful" and as saying that "not 3.PF/4E" is the same as "more old school". I'm looking at his post and I am not seeing those things.

      On the other hand, I don't know that I agree completely with his definitions of "old school" in any case, certainly not his assessment that "tactical" combat systems are "combat as sport". To me, the key idea that would point to an attitude of "combat as sport" is the inclusion of "encounter balance" systems. Bunch of nonsense. Give me the original Temple of the Frog (I have no idea what changes were made to the later edition of it) with its rooms full of hundreds of soldiers and let the players figure out what to do from there.

      @Alexis: Yes, that's very nice. Thank you for sharing.

    5. Here's a quote that maybe explains why I infer he thinks 5E is "wonderful:"

      "I am on record as saying that D&D 5E might be my favorite RPG, and I think anyone reading my blog would know that I've played a LOT of RPGs."

      That's the last paragraph of the post.

    6. @JB: Yeah, maybe that does read more that way. I concede the point. Still, it seems to me like you're going overboard. Maybe I'm the one who's having an emotional reaction, I dunno. It can't be a reactive defense of 5E, though; I finally played it and I don't like it very much at all.

    7. Maybe you feel somehow "tarnished" having (finally) allowed yourself to play 5E and you're just touchy?

      If so, don't feel bad, man! It's just a game...we play games. No need to turn in your Old School passport and live like an ex-pat.
      ; )

  3. JB, I find myself needing to point out that the phraseology used to define "old school" - such as rulings, not rules, combat as war, creative problem solving, etc., were NOT phrases used at the time. These are things invented on the internet in the 1990s, in chat room flame wars; these are philosophical arguments and terms that have been added "after the fact," and are now often remembered as having been there in the early 1980s, when they were not. Our memories are unreliable, but I do remember when I started hearing phrases and also when those phrases were backdated to a time they weren't used.

    Nor were any of the games I played in between 1979 and 1985 quote, "high lethality." Yes, some people played that way. But "some" does not mean "all." It's ridiculous to take a single loose group of fetishists, label them a faction, then label the entire play style of EVERYONE at the time accordingly.

    Everytime I hear these pundits reach back to a time they clearly didn't play in, they sound like ... oh, hell, why do I even bother ...

    1. @ Alexis:

      Oh, I know. Well, maybe not about the chat rooms of the 80s and 90s (I've never been a chat room type), but I am well aware of the bunk inherent in this phraseology.

      That's the follow-up post (today).
      ; )

  4. Considering how many of those 2014 vintage "5E is old-school" essays came from people who worked on it (directly or as consultants) and had a vested interest in its success, I find them less than convincing. I'm also old enough to recall that both 3E and even 2E also billed themselves as "back to basics" when they were released - 3E made a big deal about bringing back "lost" classes and monsters and using Greyhawk as the default setting and using the same sample dungeon as the 1E DMG, and 2E made a point that it was reducing the bloat and complexity that had come to overwhelm 1E in its later years, toning down a lot of the power-ups introduced by Gygax in Unearthed Arcana, etc. The initial launch of 4E is the only edition change I that didn't (that I can recall) try to position itself as a "return to roots" reaction to the excess of the previous edition (but even it went full nostalgiac in the soft-reboot Essentials line when they re-used the 1983 Basic Set art and trade dress.

  5. I don't buy it. I just don't. You don't need to brand yourself as anything, let alone a fundamentalist to play exploration focused procedural dungeon crawls.

    I've been seeing the rise of this attitude among certian former OSR types that not only does the sort of play we like require a certain set of attitudes and goals but that it requires a rejection of mechanical innovation and worse -- a fidelity to the aesthetics of an imagined Gygaxian past. The OSR was a cool game scene for a time, but it was never as unified as some claimed, it's now fractured in varied ways, and like all nostalgia driven movements it wasn't ever really about recovering a past.

    I think there's two ways to deal with this shattering, one is to double down on the nostalgia and growl at anyone who doesn't. To insist on "fundamentalism" and a so called return to a style of play that never was(when did Dungeons & Beavers start moving away from Gygax's play style? How did Arneson run his table? What was the first edition to include weird stuff like Barsoom encounter tables?). The second is to figure out what play style one likes, what gaming experience, and try to build with it and share one's enthusiasm with others -- even with 5E fans.

    What I like about old games is the sense of exploration and wonder backed up with risk and reward mechanics. The old imagery of orcs and faux medievalism doesn't give me that these days - it's too well chewed for me. Nothing wrong with it though, but I rather enjoy other sources of inspiration beyond Appendix N and Keep on the Borderlands. Still, I think it's possible to design and play adventures and systems that offer procedural dungeon crawls with mechanical support and an exploration focus in almost any aesthetic, and I also reject the claim that there's a play style division based on which palette people illustrate their dungeons with or if they populate them with goblins, coagulated bad dreams, or garden gnomes.

    1. @ GusL:

      To be clear, I don't label myself as a fundamentalist. Re this:

      "I've been seeing the rise of this attitude among certian former OSR types that not only does the sort of play we like require a certain set of attitudes and goals but that it requires a rejection of mechanical innovation and worse -- a fidelity to the aesthetics of an imagined Gygaxian past."

      I am NOT promoting either of these latter claims (i.e. rejection of mechanical innovation OR fidelity to Gygaxian aesthetics). And while I *may* be claiming a certain attitude (or, rather, "approach") might be necessary for comprehension and rock solid game play...well, it's going to be a fairly BROAD approach, not a narrow one.

      [I'm also NOT saying that it matters how one populates their "dungeons," nor is it necessary to be a strict scriptural follower to properly execute a dungeon crawl!]

      SO...um. Since I'm NOT saying any of those things, maybe there's nothing for you to object to here?

      Unless you're objecting to the idea that there's been a drift in how folks play...or even how they understand...D&D as a game. Which is kind of what I'm talking about.
      ; )

    2. Apologies if I put words in your mouth. I've been having a strong reaction to the whole artpunk v. traditionalist / fundamentalist discourse. I am likely shaking my puny fists at some trends in the Classic game space rather then your specific post. For example I see a lot of hate for Mork Borg that mostly focuses on it's look, not its lack of exploration mechanics.

      In general I agree that 5E, Critical Roll and all the other contemporary forms of design and play feel new. I've tried to understand them, and frankly I don't get it. I'd like someone who does to tell me what it's about, but I haven't seen anyway really explain the joys of that playstyle (but then I don't watch Youtube RPG content).

      I also don't think the "OSR" was mostly old stuff, or insofar as it was old it was applying old ideas/rules to newer goals. The principles you've put up, Finch put out in 2008, and I too have repeated, don't really strike me as anything Gygax would recognize.

      If that's the case what we have isn't a return to the old ways (or older then 2008), but another newer way that still needs adapting, tuning, and hammering into shape. I like to present and think about it that way. To set aside old rule books sometimes and just ask myself things like "How does one hold up exploration and make tactical combat less important?" A lot of the time the answer is already there, usually in OD&D, because this is after all a game for children or maybe Prussian army officers. Even when it is though, I prefer not to enshrine it, instead maybe to ask another question "Can I streamline it?"

      Anyway, I'm not sure if we're on the same page - but that's where I'm at with my games?

    3. @ GusL:

      We may not be on the same page…yet. But we’re close. Maybe.

      See my roost recent post (today) which refutes many “Finchisms” that are (currently) held like a banner by members of this group called “the OSR.” I agree, that Gygax and his contemporaries would find it unrecognizable, if not laughable (in many ways).

      But let’s not try to guess at what others might think (neither EGG nor DA are here to provide their opinion and even if they were it might well be colored by legacy issues and touchy egos). My next post (which I hope to write 9/15) is going to talk about the nature of this drift.

      Spoiler alert: it ain’t new. What’s new is the manner in which it’s been allowed to proliferate (thanks to 21st century tech).
      ; )

  6. To drift back to a concept in your post, modern players has moved away from rpgs as game to rpg as event.

    Resource management was part of the original design, as logistical planning was taken from other games at the time. That means encumbrance and bookkeeping.

    Same thing with xp. It is a way to keep "score". This is also a game element requiring bookkeeping.

    A third game element was the concept of player selected difficulty, meaning that players set levels of risk by going "deeper". Higher risk, but more reward.

    Finally, as an example, wandering monsters were a game element added to create a time and resource pressure on the party.

    Each example small piece above were hand waived or ignored over the years, for a variety of reasons.As each of these pieces (and others, such as asymmetrical class progression and sandbox play) were removed, d and d moved away from being a game and more towards becoming an experience.

    I like keeping score and prefer the game elements. My son and his friends do as well. Maybe a discussion of the impact of removing those elements on would be of value.

    1. @ JoJo:

      You are remarkably prescient in anticipating my next post in this series. In fact, I might just copy-paste your comment and have done with it!
      ; )

      (Or maybe not…but you HAVe said enough for two posts. Good work!)

  7. I think the drift has more to do with who's playing the game than what game is being played.

    If given the exact same rule-set (let's pretend it's B/X), I believe millennials are going to play differently than gen-x, who would play differently than boomers. And these differences accrue over time. The culture surrounding generations is just as important as the idiosyncratic generations themselves.

    5e being "the compromise edition", it stands to reason that playstyles will vary greatly. More so than any other edition of D&D.

    1. Having taught B/X to individuals born in the 70s, in the 90s, and now in the teens of the 21st century…and having currently taught the latter group AD&D…I will have to (respectfully) disagree.

      It’s not a generational thing (IMO). Certainly age is an indicator of what can be handled (especially subject matter), but the game rules and the instruction given are the important factors.

    2. Sure, JB, but here the telling factor is the fact that "you taught" these people of various age at various times. What about those you didn't teach?

    3. Yes, Alexis actually hit upon what I was going to mention. You taught them, so they learned the "gen-x way". If they figured it out on their own, their ideas reinforced by peers, their understanding would be quite different. Sure, I'm oversimplifying, but I think there's something there.

    4. I hear what both of you are saying. Here's my response:

      1) D&D is a complex, fascinating game. This (most likely) accounts for all the discussion, hand-wringing, flame-wars etc. that have been going on for DECADES about the thing, even till today! For people who enjoy it, it can fill years of in-depth study (I speak from years of experience)...people are still experimenting with different rule interpretations from the 1970s version in the PRESENT YEAR. Clearly, it's not an easy game to master.

      2) Having said that, a person of roughly the same intelligence as myself, going down the same road as myself (for example: picking up a concise, well-written introduction like B/X) should be able to learn "how to play" and then, with time and attention, delve into the "deeper mysteries" of the game. I don't think it's a generational issue, though perhaps it IS a personality issue. I'm like a small dog determined to gnaw a dinosaur bone, and there are others like me from across the age spectrum. Likewise there are others (of all generations) who simply wouldn't care.

      [there are also many from all generations who have little interest in playing D&D]

      3) My teaching of the game helps accelerate the learning process *AND* instills many of my personal biases, many of which (with regard to the game) come from years of experience playing the game. Leaving folks to their own devices would allow them to learn and (eventually) generate their own biases, but I'm doubtful that they would deviate much from my own IF they were following the same path.

      And that's the thing with your original comment, Venger: regardless of age, generation, or the "surrounding culture," it's the INSTRUCTIONAL TEXT (i.e. the game rules being learned) that will have the most influence on the game being played. Players learning from 5E or Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 are going to build different assumptions and biases and playstyles then someone learning to play on an older edition.

      Drift is ALWAYS possible within game groups, regardless of generation or edition. But an INCOHERENT TEXT is going to get there faster than one designed to support its priority of play.

      AD&D, unlike 5E, is mostly coherent. It's just difficult to parse. Teaching and mentoring helps speed the process of learning it.

    5. I agree that the instructional text is more important than generation, but remember that the text itself, let alone instructors, are products of their time (generation).

      That's why the OSR has so much power, it's a generational thread between 1974 - 1994 and today's gamers.

    6. That's a very good point Venger.

      However, latter edition D&D (3E+) were still written/designed by people of MY age/generation (give or take a couple years).