Thursday, September 16, 2021

The "Drift"

[a necessary interlude]

From the comments on Tuesday's post:

GusL wrote:
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

Creative Agenda
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? 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 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]

More later. 


  1. What you are calling a bug, the company considers a feature. Where once upon a time, Gygax wrote in the Dragon Magazine that he didn't want to adjudicate table arguments, the present WOTC has made it clear that it wants its fingers in the pie of every game table. It WANTS confusion, misunderstanding and dependency ... because this is a much better business model for the company.

    Gygax and Arneson, et al, wanted individuals playing the game. The company wants slaves.

  2. The game drifted at the get go. That drift even had Gygax adopting/creating rules from others play - psionics, bards etc. Warlock, Arduin, Tunnels and Trolls come to mind as drifts. Fuck even Ready Ref Sheets. It never stopped.
    I don't think D&D is a thing. Gygax didn't even play by his own rules. Monard was right - they played and made shit up.
    Alexis I think there is a cash flow model in the rules but when rule 1 is enacted one is free from the tyrany - if they so choose.

    In the end it's a game with hit points, armor class, magic and funny dice that captured our imaginations and let us play our imaginations - hopefully having fun.

    Appendix N is the fuel of the imagination for one player in particular - and others if so inspired.

    I enjoy conjecture, study and understanding especially about DnD and rpgs but in the end there is no THE GAME.

    Maybe instead of trying to figure out what Dungeons and Dragons is, we should just make shit up and play more.

    I have looked to you for thoughts on gaming for a long time - fuck you even published your own drifts.
    I wish you drifted more and played more.

    Be safe Blackrazor, may your blade stay sharp.

    1. @ Unk:

      I guess I wasn’t clear enough about my definition for the term “drift.” Drifting is something that’s done IN PLAY and it’s not just about crafting variant rules (“house” or supplements). I haven’t published “drifts;” I’ve published additions and variants meant to work with the “standard” (as designed) method of play. I’ve also provided my own “alternate” rule system (pejoratively referred to as a “fantasy heartbreaker”) meant to emulate the priority of play with a different, variant rule system.

      I understand your sentiment (let’s just play!), but I think it’s a lazy…and unsatisfying…road to take. In my opinion, you are over-simplifying just what RPGs are, and disregarding (or discounting) the power of the medium, the impact they can have, and the secondary resonance they produce in both the gaming community and our culture as a whole. I think the idea that D&D is *only* a fun game with funny dice is a gross disservice, and kind of a shitty position to take.

      BUT (as I said) that’s my opinion. Yours clearly differs.

      I appreciate the kind words; I will try to keep my blade sharp (or, at least, polished). And I will continue to “make shit up” and find time to “play more.” I just wrote an AD&D adventure for Prince of Nothing that was fairly well received…you can read his review here:

  3. The quote that the early designers were just writing up what they did is very telling. What drew me to the 'OSR' (whatever that is) were the discussions of the REASONS for the rules. Wandering monsters SEEMS unnecessary until you realize it creates time pressure and a feeling of a world that moves outside of pcs. Gold for XP seems strange, until you realize that it motivates players to explore and create non violent solutions.

    The rules don't explain the benefits or purposes of the rules. They were created to address specific issues discovered in play by people who played 20 hours a week over several years. When they were written down, no one thought to explain WHY they were there. So no problem in taking them out, as there was no obvious link to dealing with issues at the table.

    When I started playing my BX clone of choice with this insight, I cannot believe how much my running the game improved.

    Of course now my two groups are high level so I'm kind of on my own :(

    (I have the crunchy bits, like food requirements for troops and economic stuff from the system. I lack ways to handle the variety of ways high level players can respond to a problem. I think the key is to endanger things they care about, as its getting tough to threaten them directly without getting too gonzo.)

    Honored by the quote btw.

    1. The rules don't explain the benefits because, well, they were rules...the idea of "designer notes" and explanation sidebars wasn't really a thing in 1970s game design (and probably not till the 1990s and later).
      Monopoly doesn't bother to explain why you start with $1500 or why you roll 2d6 instead of 1d6 right? Just follow the directions!

      The problem with early D&D was 4-fold:

      1) The OD&D books were issued, not as a complete game, but as a BUILD-ON to other games (Chainmail, etc.) and folks who didn't understand the base texts were left to flounder.
      2) Until the publication of the DMG, the game was in a constant state of FLUX: new supplements were coming out with substantial changes to BASIC, CORE RULES (supplements I-V, eventually replacing the foundational text of Chainmail with Swords & Spells!)
      3) Holmes Basic game (meant as an introduction) cherry-picked from multiple sources (OD&D, Chainmail, Supplement I, the Strategic Review) and ended up being substantially different from both OD&D *and* the codification (AD&D) that was to come.
      4) When the game was finally codified in AD&D, it wasn't released at once but over YEARS, requiring constant adaptation even by the "hardcore" rule sticklers.

      RE High Level B/X

      My B/X Companion (shameless plug) offers some ideas for high level play. Not just talking about DM notes: the monsters and treasures included should be suggestive of threats, curses, and perils you might want to throw at PCs.

      Otherwise...well, you could always shift to AD&D.
      ; )

  4. Jojodogboy hit the nail on the head with moved away from rpgs as game to rpg as event.

    What I'm getting from this series, JB, is a collection of examples demonstrating that D&D is not always played as a game, by a strict definition of that word. I favor Bernard Suits’ definition:
    "to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

    Maybe it was played as a game more often 40 years ago than today. Certainly starting with second edition AD&D the rule books included explicit statements undermining play as a game in favor of play as entertainment. For example, the DMG states on p. 51 “in a good role-playing game combat is a drama, a staged play.” To be charitable this comes near a statement about the combat rules not being ultra-detailed and therefor needing some descriptive embellishment from the DM to make the results more engaging. To be honest, though, the 2e DMG even more explicitly breaks D&D as a game on p. 103 with “allow the player characters to hit or inflict more damage than they really should,” after having provided specific rules for succeeding and failing at hitting and quantifying damage.

    If we’re playing a game of soccer and one team is really much better than the other does the referee start calling missed kicks by the poorer team goals? If he or she did would it still be a game? Not by any definition with which I’m familiar.

    If I’m running in a road race and decide to take a short cut through the park am I still in the race? Certainly not if anyone sees me or I have any sense of sportsmanship.

    If we’re playing a game of chess and I realize after your last move, that my previous move was a mistake, do we back up the game so I can fix my error? Only if it’s a teaching exercise, certainly not in any tournament I’ve participated.

    Can one play D&D as entertainment? Sure. Is it still a game? No.

    1. Right. And I've discussed this before...a few years back. Let's see. Try this one:

      I don't know Suits, but he seems to be on point in distinguishing "game" as a place between "play" and "sport."

      But D&D as entertainment? As something to simply be consumed? That's a step below even "play" (which at least implies participation). That's an interesting thought/development.

    2. I didn't mean to suggest by "entertainment" that non-game-conforming play is purely passive, but lacking the "lusory attitude" as Suits calls it, of accepting the constraints the rules provide, one is playing make-believe, not a game.

  5. My point on published houserules was they any were drifts now published.

    I am aware that playing the game has had an impact but everyone is not playing the same game or rules in totality. People who play the game have made the waves. It's like guns don't kill people, people kill people with guns.

    I am not here to argue but understand, and make my points more clear.

    I respect your position.

    I guess if we spend out time trying to uncover how people made shit up as they played I umm find that a bit pointless. When you could be playing.

    I may be misunderstanding, most likely am.

    When I started playing D&D in 1977 I was 9 years old. My friends and I under the wings at times of more experienced players - teenagers played, and made shit up. Noone I knew played by the rules because the rules were to make up rules as needed.

    We played D&D but it was not THE GAME. I assert again that the very creators of the rules did not use their own rules.

    I apologize if I have missed the point, but what is the point of trying to figure out what few if any used in totality.

    I want to understand better not be counter to your position unless it is warranted.

    Thank you for the reply.

    1. Right on. Perhaps I need to tighten my language so that it's more understandable.

      To be clear, when I'm talking about DRIFT I'm not talking about "changing rules" (adding, subtracting, house rules, etc.) though in practice, such changes are generally a necessity. Drift is a change in play priority (changing the objectives of the game play as designed).

      One can keep the same PRIORITY the same AND alter rules and then play would not be considered "drifted." If you award $500 to a player that lands on Free Parking, you are not altering the objective of Monopoly. If you discard psionics from your campaign, you are not changing the priority of AD&D.

      However, if I say "Our AD&D game is more about intrigue than combat, and we're going to remove hit points because PCs don't die in our game." ...well, that's a bit more than a house rule saying you can sacrifice a shield to ignore one hit. That's a serious shift in what the game's all about.

      Now I agree with you that in its primordial days (and even after!) the game rules were in such a state of flux that their were wild deviations in rules between tables...even those tables of the primogenitors of D&D. I'd say, however, that they largely shared consistent priorities of play (at least within their own table/game spaces), regardless of what rules they were using.

      But designers are wont to tinker. They knew the end result they wanted, and they tried to build systems that supported the play they wanted. Those who followed after received our knowledge from their publications...and used them for different priorities.

      That's drift.

      And NOW drift has proliferated (because of our interconnectedness brought on through technology) and confused the actual game play such that some people (generally new-ish to the hobby) evidence a misunderstanding of what the game is (or was).

      For example:

      Critical Role is not D&D. It is a show.

      Hope that's more clear. As to whether or not it's pointless for me to write about it. Hmmmmmmm...well, sure, maybe, I guess? I could just keep my thoughts to myself and play D&D (my particular way) and let the world burn.

      But then you wouldn't have these entertaining blog posts to suck up your time.
      ; )

    2. I'm only interested because I'm a hardcore RPG nerd who likes history and figuring out how things work so I can create cool stuff, and play the game according to my personal preferences.

      Beyond that, I, too, would prefer we all shut up and play.

      My drift D&D is different than most, and borne out of necessity - running online games for strangers, 90-minutes per session a couple times a month. That's why I self-published Crimson Dragon Slayer D20.

      If a gamer stumbled upon his own drift preferences, I urge him to pursue it. Life is too short to play someone else's version of D&D.

    3. "B/X Blackrazor: catering to hardcore RPG nerds since 2009."
      : )

  6. Well said and I get it much better. In my defense on pointlessness I certainly fell short in explanation. I saw this as a delve on why people like chocolate ice cream. That is not the case, and I apologize.

    Thank you for the informative and kind reply.

  7. When I started playing in the 90s, we had two texts to draw from when learning how to play D&D: we had the Classic D&D Game boxed set (which has pretty much all of the same rules as Mentzer Basic and Moldvay Basic, any differences are minor to the point of trivial), and we had whatever AD&D 2nd Edition hardcovers and splatbooks we could get our hands on with what little money I and my fellow teenagers could scrape together (and the text of 2nd Edition is *terribly* prescriptive, always harping on the reader to practice "good roleplaying" over desiring high stats or powerful magic items or a powerful character, really driving home the dissonance between the venerable AD&D rules and the then-ascendant "trad" culture that said RPGs were all about story and character).

    And what did my friends and I learn from these texts? Very little, actually, because before we had ever rolled our first d20, we had already been thoroughly corrupted by JRPGs - Final Fantasy VII in particular - and assumed without even paying a jot of attention to the texts or the rules of (A)D&D that a role-playing game was a story simulator with some combat rules bolted on, just like the console and PC RPGs we were already familiar with. And so that was how we (mis-?)(ab-?)used (A)D&D.

    But even without the influence of video games, it's easy to see how and why the 80s-90s trad culture had already become dominant: because it's a super-easy trap to fall into, to imagine that gearing your roleplaying games to story and character is more "artistic" and therefore "superior." It's easy to be pretentious when you don't know what you're talking about.

    We didn't know beans about old-school D&D back then… so we just thoughtlessly discarded whatever wasn't useful to our "tabletop JRPG simulator that kinda sort uses the D&D combat rules" play-activity. And then patted ourselves on the back for being clever little improv dramatists.

    That, at least, is the appeal of the trad cum neo-trad/OC playstyle.

    1. @ John:

      You have very adroitly pointed out one of my biggest blind spots: the advent of computer (video) RPGs.

      My family didn't even have a personal computer until the (late) 1980s and while I was familiar with games like "Bards Tale," I never even had the chance to play such a game until '88? '89? By that time, my PERSONAL RPG gaming experience had included a LOT more than what BT (or similar CRPGs) could give, namely: a nice, self-contained story game/puzzle to solve.

      But such never was (and never has been...for me) a substitute for the long-term, open-ended, no-story-arc campaign. They were simply temporary be played when one didn't have time...or access, or do "the real thing."

      For D&D players for whom these were their FORMATIVE EXPERIENCE / ENTRY to the concept of fantasy adventure games?

      AH. Now it makes more sense.


      This is a mother-f'ing uphill battle.


  8. I don't understand this phrase, perhaps because it is drenched in multiple negatives:

    "But such never was (and never has been ... for me) a substitute for the long-term, open-ended, no-story-arc campaign."

    I've never played a campaign without a story arc in my life ... understanding that the "story" I'm speaking of is the one that ACCUMULATES in the past, not one that PREFABRICATES the character's actions. So I ask you, what the hell are you talking about?

  9. Players that have never experienced a drift happen at their own table may not see how it can be purposefully orchestrated.

    1. Yeah...and I can see how some tables would WANT to see it purposefully orchestrated.

      The issue I'm looking at is play (or expectations) that are "drifted" ... sometimes inadvertently! ... before folks even come to the table.