Friday, November 19, 2021

Different Strokes

The other day, I was looking for video reviews of old adventure modules (something to listen to while doing housework) and stumbled across an old Goodman Games video in which four of their prominent designers, listed their Top 10 D&D modules (TSR era) of all time. 

As such videos go it Par for the usual (as in, no mind-blowing opinions/info got dropped). And, yet, I was fascinated enough to go back and re-watch the thing and make up a spread sheet charting everyone's individual list. Because what was interesting was just how surprisingly crappy their favorite picks were and their justifications for including specific adventures.

That's "crappy" in my opinion...but my opinion is one of an adventure designer. And these guys are adventure long-time ones with more book credits under their belts than I will ever have. That is what caused me to sit up and take notice. You know, if three out of four designers list Sinister Secret of Salt Marsh as one of their Top Ten faves, then, hey, maybe there's something to take a look at there. On the other hand, when they blather on about Ravenloft being one of the greatest of all time with regard to design, it makes me question their abilities at all.

So I rewatched the thing and dived deeper. Some of the dudes had picks I agreed with. Some (clearly) did not. But what I came to realize, as I watched this video was that their lists were largely based on something more than "design." They were influenced by nostalgia, reputation, size/scope and...more than anything else...fond memories they've had of times actually running/playing these particular adventures. The guy who picked Ravenloft as his number one claims to have run it 5 or 6 times (even taking the same players through it more than once). The guy who listed the Desert of Desolation series as his favorite has run the entire thing more than once and had a blast doing so. 

The fact that they have fond memories of playing/running Ghost Tower of Inverness or Palace of the Silver Princess or whatever...because that's what they had the opportunity to play/run as a youth...should not be a knock against their opinions, any more than it should be a knock against MY lofty opinions of Forbidden City or Tomb of Horrors or whatever. The fact is, it's tough for MOST of us to be critical against the things we hold in esteem due to rose-colored glasses of the past.

And as my son likes to point out: different folks have different tastes. 

[of course he only points that out when it excuses his enjoyment of a song like Pitbull's "Fireball," which I am absolutely convinced is THE WORST SONG I'VE EVER HEARD. I don't know that it's the worst song ever written (that "honor" may go to some other Pitbull song), but it is hands down the absolute most awful piece of trash masquerading as "song-writing" that has ever tortured my ears. Worse than "Party in the USA." Worse than "I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt." Worse than "You Remind Me Of My Jeep." Worse than Crazy Town's "Butterfly." I would willing to put it second to that stupid "Good Is The New Bad" song I had the misfortune to hear on Disney radio the other day (that one even makes Diego cringe), but then I hear Pitbull's opening "lyrics" and want to punch my face through a wall of glass. 

Yet everyone else in my family dig that stupid-stupid song. Even my wife (who claims to not like Pitbull). There's no accounting for tastes. I consider "The Hotel California" one of the best songs of all time, and some people hate the Eagles. But I would rather listed to Ice-T singing "Evil Dick" (from his Body Count days) than Fireball. F**k that garbage. I won't say I hope Pitbull dies a gruesome death...but if he were to spontaneously combust some day and all his gazillions of dollars be donated to some worthy charity, well, I can't deny I'd be more than content]


Now, as I wrote in my last post, all RPGs provide rules for participants to explore an imaginary environment, but they are distinguished from each other by HOW they execute this exploration. And it is in the execution of these "HOWs" that we can best judge them.

And, yes, because of the limitlessness of the (RPG) medium, it is possible to contort mechanics into doing all sorts of things that the design doesn't support. Back in the day, we transported a couple of our high level AD&D characters to the Marvel Superhero version of earth, converting all their stats and abilities to standard FASERIP scores. That was some bunch crazy (and I don't recommend it)...but for us, it worked and we had half-elf weather goddesses and psionic-slinging bards brushing up against mutants, cyborgs, and aliens...for a while anyway.

BUT, as I wrote about recently, different RPG groups have different priorities of play, similar to what Ron Edwards once termed "creative agendas," a term from the (now more-or-less obsolete) GNS theory postulated on the Forge. Dungeons & Dragons (the old pre-1983 version about which I'm concerned) pushed a particular priority of play and conceptually executed it rather well:
  • the premise contained a joint objective (everyone wants treasure)
  • deadly challenges force engagement (pay attention or die)
  • asymmetry forced players to cooperate (different classes bring different skills to the table)
  • simple mechanics increase accessibility (roll dice, look at chart)
  • kitchen sink setting provides many possibilities for exploration (the length and breadth of pulp fantasy fiction)
For those who wonder why it is that D&D has remained "king" of the market for so long, one really only has to look at the excellent way in which the game executes its objectives. It's not that people LOVE "pseudo-medieval fantasy" ...some people want to retch at the idea of "high fantasy." It's the fashion in which the system functions and interacts that makes it the master of the RPG realm. 

The ONLY game that really comes close is Shadowrun. It has a joint purpose (players need to complete missions...for money). It has high pressure (i.e. deadly) stakes. It has SOME asymmetry...magic and cybertechnology don't mix well, and both are (generally) useful for completing missions. Plus the priority system of chargen ensures PC types have different strengths. But its setting...being both near future and far more far less mysterious (less avenues of exploration). And EVERYone has the ability to use firearms (the great equalizer) making many teams feel a bit "same-y." Also, the premise (PCs being beholden to missions given by Mr. Johnson) makes the game the equivalent of "quest-giver-at-the-tavern" Every Single Time...a rinse-n-repeat that gets old with no endgame in sight.

Unlike Dungeons & Dragons.

And that's the BEST of other RPGs...most fall down in even more ways. Asymmetry is the usual one; while most of the challenging RPGs do well forcing cooperation between PCs (safety in numbers!) none have quite the distinction...nor emphasis...between different PC types, even in games that have "classes" (including Marvel's "power types," Rifts' "O.C.C.s," Vampire's "clans," etc.). It's not like the VtM group is saying, "man, we really need a nosferatu to round out our coterie!" 

Here's the thing, though: that ain't a priority of play for MANY players of RPGs. Being challenged is a priority of play supported (and enhanced) by the design of Dungeons & Dragons, but some people aren't looking for that. Some people just want to explore a particular genre/setting

Westerns, outer space, superheroes, Lovecraftian exploration, Cold War spies, post-apocalypse, secret vampire society, zombie survival, steampunk time travelers, whatever...there are RPGs written to provide rules for just about any "imaginary environment" one might want to experience. You read it in a fiction novel, you saw it in a movie, you had a weird dream...wherever the strange inspiration came from you think it would be "cool" to live in that particular setting for a while. And that kind of play appeals to some folks: a shared daydream, if you will. 

Most RPGs fall into the category of facilitating this style of play. Most. 

D&D isn't about genre/setting satisfaction: there are better games that explore "pseudo-medieval" (Chivalry & Sorcery, Pendragon, Ars Magica, etc.)...better games, even, that explore struggles between law and chaos (Stormbringer, Warhammer) in a "realistic" fashion. D&D, as originally written, is wholly unconcerned with realism and almost unconcerned with genre for the tropes of adventure fiction. 

The idea of genre emulation or setting exploration has a vast appeal. It's super cool! I get drawn into it myself! My shelves are filled with RPGs for settings/genres that are wicked-awesome. Zombie cowboys (Deadlands), pulp adventure (Hollow Earth Expedition), time traveling zeppelins (Airship Pirates), etc. In my experience all these games tend to be extremely short-lived, no matter how heavy-handed the GM (and it generally takes a heavy-handed GM to get the game even beyond the chargen stage). None have any long-term duration. And yet some people desire nothing more from their RPG than the type of exploration afforded by these genre-specific RPGs, happily jumping from one to another. One day ElfQuest; the next day Star Trek.

Different strokes for different folks.

There are other priorities of play found in those who regularly play RPGs...two more really. I don't really want to discuss either one of them, however, as I have nothing positive to say about them (different tastes, fine); likewise, of the two "unmentionables," one is only designed for incidentally. But neither is conducive to long-term play except in the most toxic and/or insular fashion. And these days, I am all about the long-term play. 

What I am now wondering...and what I have sometimes wondered in the past: is it possible to design an RPG that functions conceptually as well or better than D&D. AND...a "flip-side" it possible to write a genre/setting-specific RPG that generates the same type of "perpetual game experience" that D&D does. 

Considering it right now, I actually think the latter has already been done, at least in one genre. Heavily developed Traveller or games like Ashen Stars or Bulldogs...RPGs in which the PCs represent the crew of a single ship provide a reason for players to cooperate and "adventure" together, unfettered from the needs of being challenged in a D&D-type long as the table is cool with that type of play. Lots of "imaginary environment" to explore in space; shared/joint concern (maintaining the ship); need for cooperation among the PCs...although the asymmetry isn't quite there. And with good reason: if each PC is responsible for one aspect of "ship survival" (engineer, pilot, etc.) and any PC gets killed, the entire ship goes down. The perils of operating in a hostile environment (same would hold true in submarine-type RPG).

Genre exploration is most usually executed with scripted stories...and while that's functional for that priority of play, it cuts out the beating heart of D&D, destroying what makes D&D great. And, yet, that is what many MANY individuals equate with fun, authentic D&D much so that some DMs simply cannot run a game of Dungeons & Dragons without some sort of storyline/plot. Sad (to me), because the game as written takes care of player motivation, leaving nothing for the DM but to construct a world that is imaginary environment worthy of exploration. 

Why must you force story down the players' throats? What are you trying to prove? What has destroyed your trust in your players?

Different tastes. 

All right, that's enough for today. I want to take the dog for a walk before I pick up the kids from school. Next week they have the week off, so posting will (probably) be light. Have a happy one, folks!


  1. Good thoughts re: need for asymmetry. As newer systems strive for balance, there is a sense of "sameness" that removes one of the core tenets of the original game, a need for different archetypes for success.

    Of course balance is achieved in other ways in D and D and ADD, but each class is just as defined by its limits as its strengths.

    I also agree that at its core, the original game,scratches a particular itch that other games don't. I'd be interested in more of your thoughts around the interplay of priority of play and sandbox style of play, which I believe is its best expression.

  2. This isn't really germane to your main point here, but apparently Ice T and Body Count are still touring, and have been all along. I just found this out a few months back.

    1. Ha. Yeah, I'm not surprised.

      My Body Count days (such as they ever were) ended circa 1993. These days, I'm more inclined to surf the Yacht Rock station for some boozy Steely Dan music.

  3. Re: interplay if priority and “the sandbox”

    With regard to ANY edition of D&D, is there really such a thing as a non-sandbox game? That is to say: doesn’t every DMG ever written discuss world building (BY the DM, FOR the PCs)? Even if the party STARTS their adventuring career in a local dungeon, they’ll (eventually) move out and into the larger world of the campaign.

    But, I suppose, some folks start with the world rather than a dungeon. Either way, I think priority of play remains the same (or, rather, is unaffected). It’s just that the D&D system SUPPORTS a particular priority of play.

    (The effectiveness of that support across editions can be debated)

    But let me ruminate a bit…maybe I have a better answer then THAT to contribute. Hmmm…

  4. It's going to take me days to process all the things I disagree with here. Lol

    That said, it is well said - though I largely skipped the 'those kids and their crazy music' tirad - and definitely gives me things to think about. 🤔

  5. I think (though I have not actually experienced) Traveller could work in the same way. It has pretty much all the same drivers and challenges. The characters all bring different things to the table through the genius character generation system. Rules lite and everyone is always looking for cash just to pay for everything and so it's totally diagetic to the game - unlike D&D treasure for XP (after a certain point what do the PCs need so much money for? Where is all that loot coming from or going to in a quasi-medieval setting?)

    1. Yes, Traveller would seem a possibility...although because of the ubiquitous space travel and immensity of the universe, it requires a lot more development by the GM.

      Also misses on asymmetry in character design.

  6. I think the GM development is sort of a more or less situation. Since dungeon exploration isn't the goal individual locations don't need to be as developed (at least on a room by room basis) and since the level of cultural devlopment is closer to our own you can have say a store and have a good idea whats in it.
    I also think the assymetry is totally there. You can decide to go for a weapons expert type, a scientist type. a pilot etc. If you wanted to build, say, the A-Team (as asymmetrical a modern adventurer group as any) you could do it with Traveller style generation (albeit indirectly to some extent).