[a necessary interlude]
From the comments on Tuesday's post:
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...
and Jojodogboy wrote:
...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&D moved away from being a game and more towards becoming an experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of this is really "new."
From The Forge: Provisional Glossary (Ron Edwards, 2004):
Changing from one Creative Agenda to another, or from the lack of shared Creative Agenda to a specific one, during play, typically through changing the System. In observational terms, often marked by openly deciding to ignore or alter the use of a given rule.
The aesthetic priorities and any matters of imaginative interest regarding role-playing.
Emphasis added by yours truly. Please note, that I'm not using the old (since deemed obsolete) terms described as GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist). Instead, think of "creative agenda" as an individual or group's "priority of play."
Edwards's 2003 essay A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons is also a helpful starting point. However, the most important thing to take away from that article (for purposes of this blog post) is:
Prior to AD&D2, the available texts were reflective, not prescriptive, of actual play. Their content was filtered through authors' priorities which were very diverse.
[evidence to support this statement, especially the first sentence, can be found in a multitude of interviews with the original developers of the game that are available on the internet (especially from Ernie Gygax and Mike Carr, DMG editior). A common theme is "we were writing up the rules as they were played." Evidence of the different priorities can be seen in the recounting of different styles of play between such individuals as Gygax, Arneson, Ed Greenwood, Bill Willingham, etc.]
Edwards (along with others) was attempting to formulate some grand theories of RPG design; something that (at the moment) I have exceedingly little interest in doing. But to do so, he had to take a look at Dungeons & Dragons, how it developed over time (if only in passing), and how later RPGs were derived from it and the early hobbyists. This he did all the way up to the D20 (3rd/3.5 edition) days. For my purposes, digging out the pertinent D&D stuff is a damn chore, made harder by the lack of importance he attached to the game other than as an interesting point in the evolution of role-playing...but the digging can yield some results.
And here's the thing one finds: the development (whether for the good or the bad) of the D&D game is a damn repeating cycle. Wargames provided a systemization of war; Braunstein injected story-centered elements into the system. D&D provided a systemization of those individual stories; mid-80s D&D added "meaning" (story again) to the campaigns that D&D developed. 3E and 4E tried to add back (or re-emphasize) system/mechanics for D&D; 5E added backgrounds and story-oriented mechanics (like insight, advantage/disadvantage, etc.) back to those mechanics.
Every time D&D gets around to nailing down how it wants to be a game, someone's imagination gets fired up and says, "gosh, it's too bad the rules get in the way of us doing this..."
Reading that quote from Jojodogboy, I was struck by how much this was directly reflected my own experience in the 1980s. We did play with all the rules, but we gradually found ways to sidestep (or ignore) rules that "detracted" from the (non-bookkeeping) play at the table. Encumbrance getting you down? Make sure you have enchanted armor and portable holes. Don't want to count rations? The party finds a new magic item: a bag of food, that makes sure you're always provisioned. Need to stop worrying about training costs and general leveling? Just introduce new characters already leveled to an appropriate number for the current scenario (like pre-gens, except they then become permanent PCs or NPCs)...especially ones with (*shudder*) backstories that linked them into the ongoing campaign.
All of which is to say: we (my group) started drifting play to something other than resource management, challenge driven Dungeons & Dragons. Something far more interested in character interaction, and far less concerned with dungeon exploration...even though we weren't playing Dragonlance or 2E or anything (this was circa '86 and '87). What do high level characters do? They plot...often against each other, when other actors (patrons, nemeses) aren't present in the campaign.
But this type of play isn't expressly present in the AD&D (yes, Jeffro, it can be inferred from hints found in the DMG, but it's far from explicit). And it's not even close to being supported by the rules (Quick! What's the dowry for a French baroness? How much arable land do you need to grow enough grain for your standing army without starving the peasantry? What's the cost to build a working mill and how many assistants does the miller need? Can they be goblins? At what point does a patriarch achieve "saint" status? Etc.). Played over a long enough period of time, events arise that are far outside the scope of the instructional text...and often these things take hold of our imaginations with far more "grip" than the study of pole arm differences.
And when the "bean counting" of the actual rules get in the way of these "more interesting things," well, what do you suppose happens to them? They drop away, of course...shunted to the side. So it goes. And folks start asking "why can't my wizard use a sword?" And perhaps you invent a mechanic for it (martial weapon proficiency feat, anyone?). Or perhaps you don't. Perhaps you don't care that a beer run may be beneath the dignity of 8th level characters. Maybe you just think a beer run (with necromancers) sounds like a fun side trek. D&D is the "anything game," right? And you can certainly drift it however you like. Folks have been doing so decades before the current edition of D&D was published.
So what's the difference? Here's the difference: while "drifting" of play has existed since the primordial days of D&D (in part because of the way the original, incomplete rules spread in incomplete fashion), the decision whether or not to drift play (and how play drifted) was confined to individual playgroups. A new group, going to the store and picking up a rule set would start with an instructional text (mentored by veteran players...or not) and then go their merry way. In isolation.
Now we have the internet.
NOW we have "social media platforms." Now we have streaming videos. Now we have talking heads discussing their drifted play theories developed (perhaps) as a personal style/preference and promoting it as the true or correct method of play. And we have players learning how to play from these sources because:
A) a laissez-faire attitude from the flagship publishers (hey, play what you like...just pay us),
B) an instructional text that is not written for accessibility (too large, too padded, for a fan base that...let's face the reality of our times...aren't super into reading instructions).
C) a system of rules that...since at least 1989...has been largely facing issues of incoherence. That's another "Forge-y" term (apologies) which, in this context, I'll define as "outlining a priority of play without providing a system of rules that support that priority."
FOR EXAMPLE: stating D&D is about creating and telling stories without providing you with tools (rules, game mechanics) that allow players to address premise, create and control plot arcs, or that are overburdened with simulation minutia (how many coins does a backpack hold? how much damage does a long sword do?...as opposed to deciding whether a fight - and the outcome of the fight - furthers the story being told at this particular moment).
Incoherence in design ends up leading to drifting a system into "something else" (see the definition of "Drift" above: not just disregarding rules that are "inconvenient" but also ignoring or "fudging" dice results that don't support the preferred outcome...whether that be "fun" or "telling a good story" or both!). And while an individual table wishing to drift their game (as mine did, BITD) is FINE (if a bit silly...there are other games DESIGNED to do these things), holding up drifted play as "proper play" (and promoting it as such) is problematic, in a number of ways:
- It confounds as confuses newbies (not a way to grow the hobby)
- It fractures and polarizes the gaming community.
- It stymies actual innovation (there ARE other games to play).
- It promotes an attitude of rule-breaking (this has carry over to other arenas).
- It disregards what the system does well.
And, for me, that last point is what I hope to address in my next post: getting back to what actual D&D is, and some of the elements of the game that we should be championing.
[one last point: the rise of the internet and the ease with which individuals can now publish their own gaming material...specifically adventures and supplements...is also a major issue, when the publications are based on poor understanding and/or drifted play. These modules and supplements provide part of the text by which players and DMs learn the game...following the examples of others!...and if these are written in incoherent fashion, it can lead to even more frustration and misunderstanding]