Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Honestly...Can I be a Bigger Nerd?

When I was a kid, it used to really irk me the way non-gamers (especially parents) would refer to all role-playing games as D&D. “What are you kids doing? Playing D&D?” No, we’re playing Marvel Superheroes. “Whatever. You know what I mean.”

Hmm, I’d think (as a know-it-all kid who would one day grow into a know-it-all adult), I may know what you mean, but do YOU know what you mean? YOU mean “role-playing game.” Dungeons & Dragons is just one of many.

In the 21st century, it’s equally irksome to hear people refer to RPGs as table-top RPGs with computer RPGs being the “default RPG.” From where I stand, nearly all computer games marketed as RPGs bear little resemblance to the term. WoW and similar MMORPGs ironically come closest to the original term as players choose different roles and work together in teams. Most console and PC games have only a single player in a single role (if Fable is an RPG, then so is Halo…your “role” is Master Chief!), and games where you control “parties of adventurers” (from Bards Tale up to the latest Final Ultima or whatever) bear a superficial resemblance to a particular type of true RPG (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons), but there’s no actual “role-playing” that occurs. It’s more of a resource management coupled with action/exploration. Whatever. As Stephen King says in his Gunslinger series, “the world has moved on.”

Well, somewhat anyway. There are those of us still playing, buying, and creating traditional RPGs (i.e. for the “table-top”) so not everyone is quite as eager to throw their imaginations out the window and jump into one giant pot of computer zoning…at least not as their only form of recreation.

And yet, there are problems in paradise. Bad blood. Disagreements that rear their heads and cause in-fighting and back-biting in something that (one would think) would be a strong brother-/sister-hood community. I refer of course to Dungeons & Dragons and the Eternal Edition Wars.

Why does D&D matter? Who cares? They’re all just games…can’t people leave well enough alone? Can’t we all just get along and agree to disagree?

The answer to the latter question is: of course. The answer to the former…well…

D&D is the granddaddy of RPGs. It is a touchstone and common piece of many gamers’ history. Even those that don’t play D&D anymore can relate (somewhat) to those that do based on a shared past. It is many, many gamers’ introduction to this hobby/industry called “role-playing.” Role-playing, to me, is much more than a simple game. It is a tool that can act to open one’s creative mind, in much the same as any of the traditional arts can. Which is why I consider it an “art.” Even D&D, a silly little game based on a ridiculous premise that there are dungeons to explore and treasures to win (i.e. “a buck to be made”) by defeating dragons and other fantasy opponents.

As a common touchstone to this hobby/art gamers share it would be nice to have some agreement on what it IS. Unfortunately, this is extremely difficult as the game has gone through many, many iterations over its nearly 40 year history. This of itself wouldn’t be so difficult if players were to study the history of the game, but generally players are more concerned with PLAYING (that is the point of the game, of course!) and are content to work with the game “as is,” in whatever its current incarnation.

Fortunately or not, art has value to us and those players that do more than dabble in the hobby generally begin to attach meaning and sentiment to the game. And if that meaning and sentiment is concentrated in or attached to a single game (or a single edition!)…well, this is what leads to fierce battles of ideology, not to mention hurt feelings.

[kind of like the silliness of religious Holy Wars…oh, boy, we have all these different Holy Writings that tell people to “be good” in order to “find Heaven” but then we kill each other for taking our own distinct path. “No, no, you can only be saved through JESUS; can that Mohammed crap!” Silly, silly, silly.]

Rather than fighting blindly, it may be helpful for us to really consider what we actually think about Dungeons & Dragons. Over at the Mad Tower, Dave posted what defines D&D for him. I think this is a great exercise…certainly something to be considered by any player with a dog in the Edition Wars fight. I mean, it doesn’t help to just yell at someone for “being stupid” (even if it is cathartic) if you can’t even put into words why you think they’re crazy.

Take me, for example (you’ve read this far anyway). I have talked shit about pretty much every edition of D&D, and even though I prefer B/X today, in past years I had plenty of derogatory things to say about it (including and especially regarding the issue of “race as class”). Looking back, I can see that I was both young and stupid at the time (or rather, ignorant and “not thinking clearly”)…but even in those days I would still have considered B/X to be “Dungeons & Dragons.”

So what is D&D to me? Welp, I’ve been thinking of that since this morning (really!) trying to define it in my head. It’s not easy.

[and by the way, it’s no good to say “I know what it is NOT.” That’s a cop-out. If you’re going to do this exercise, let’s be positive and constructive, huh?]

First off, for my part I feel it’s necessary to be a bit more specific than Dave’s definition, which boiled down to “playing fantasy characters in a fantasy world kicking fantasy monster ass while rolling a D20.” That would certainly translate across every edition (to date) of Dungeons & Dragons, but would also include an awful lot of other fantasy RPGs. Unlike my parents, I don’t consider all role-playing games to be “D&D,” so I’ll need a more narrow definition.

The problem is, it’s damn hard to do so…especially considering the murky origins of the created in a primordial stew of various hobby groups prior to being codified in textual form. In the end, since we’re discussing Dungeons & Dragons specifically, not just role-playing (or Midwest War Gaming) in general, I am forced to rely somewhat on the authority of its main creator: Saint Gygax.

[all apologies to Dave Arneson… for better or worse, once Gygax took the reins he defined what “Dungeons & Dragons” was all about]

Now, I agree with Ron Edwards that there is no “archetypal” Dungeons & Dragons game…but there ARE recognizable trends in the game across multiple editions that I find mark the game as its own particular entity (albeit one that’s had a few nips and tucks). I look at these trends, rather than Gary’s specific “stamp of approval” because I find some later editions sans Gygax (like 2nd and 3rd edition) to still be fairly true to the game he shaped until the 1980s.

Plus, I don’t want to piss off even more people by saying “2nd edition isn’t D&D.”
; )

In my opinion, here are the elements that make any edition of Dungeons & Dragons specifically recognizable as a true member of the D&D family:

1. Theme/Premise: all games involve a team of adventurers exploring a fantasy world, overcoming a variety of challenges, and “improving” thereby. Adventurers face real and mortal danger in the form of monsters and traps, and mental challenges in the form of “tricks” or puzzles, and are rewarded with treasure. Often, the areas of exploration are underground (i.e. in a “dungeon”). Exploration of the unknown (and surviving what is found) is the key occupation of the players. Reward for good play allows increased effectiveness which increases range of exploration.

2. Character generation: includes a standard set of base attributes, randomly rolled. Characters may be a cut above your average “fantasy world citizen,” but in general they are very mortal peons that will need wit, skill, and luck to survive to higher levels of play (this is part of the “reward” system). Characters are classified by (duh) “class.” Class determines role in the party. Adventuring parties are expected to include members of several different classes, so as to fill several different roles. By necessity, the number of classes (and thus roles) are limited…fighter types, wizard types, skill monkey types, and clerical types (which provide certain special abilities). Basic playable species always included the allied peoples of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits (“Halflings”), and Humans. Monster races are never a default player species, except when mixed with “human” blood (half-orcs, half-ogres).

3. Each character class has its own sphere of authority, areas in which they excel. Fighters fight, magic-users cast spells, thieves have “special skills,” and clerics have “special magic” (of the healing and undead fighting nature) unavailable to magic-users. Each class is of value in its role, though not necessarily able to stand toe-to-toe with other classes if not in its “sphere of authority.” For example, a fighter cannot waltz in and out of areas stealthily like a thief, even though she might bash open a lock/door rather than picking it.

4. Spell magic is based on the Jack Vance Dying Earth books…spells are memorized and then “lost” upon casting. This has been the basis of magic since the game’s origins. Other fantasy RPGs use different types of game mechanics for “magic systems;” D&D uses Vance. A character with more levels can cast more spells and more powerful spells.

5. Combat... is resolved through an initiative-attack roll-damage roll-hit point reduction system. Characters have an armor class, based on defenses, that determines the chance to hit. All damage is subtracted from hit points, an abstract measure of a character’s health, vitality, luck, and fatigue. There is no penalty to a character’s effectiveness for damage taken. Once hit points are reduced (a character’s luck has “run out”) characters are dead. Hit points are slow to recover except with the use of magic (potions, clerical spells). More experienced characters take a longer time to recover naturally than less experienced characters (perhaps due to an experienced player taking a blow that would sprain or break a limb while the novice has his limb severed, i.e. killing him). Armor class impacts whether or not hit points will be expended (i.e. whether or not a character will be hit and damage taken). In general, there are no defensive actions a character can take (for example, parries or dodges); this is factored based on armor worn and (usually) dexterity bonus. Combat is a necessary system, but left abstract, so as not to become the center-point of the game.

6. Also... Effects that may harm a character outside of physical combat offer characters the opportunity to make a “saving throw:” a throw of a 20-sided dice that may mitigate or eliminate the effect completely. Only rare and powerful effects force a character to forgo a saving throw. Saving throws include magical effects, poison, paralysis, petrification, and being caught within a blast of dragon fire. All of these effects use non-combat resolution methods (for example, spells and dragon breath do not require attack rolls), or are a last ditch chance to save someone from instant death (poison), or both (death magic, petrification). The amount needed to make a saving throw is based on character level with more experienced characters having easier chances to avoid effects, perhaps based on luck or heightened awareness. Different classes have differing effectiveness for specific types of saving throw.

7. “Game time” in the form of 10 minute “turns,” melee rounds and imaginary hours, days, and years are all formalized and their counting is a strict resource to be measured. IN-game time has impact on duration of spells and effects, light, food, the healing of hit points, and the recovery of spells and (in some editions) decreased effectiveness due to aging. Rate of movement is needed for characters, in part to help measure time within the confines of a “dungeon” environment. Time matters.

8. Improvement of character is measured in “Levels” like a Freemason or something. A low-level character is a shlub, a grunt, a peon. As a character gains experience points, level increases. Level is tied to in-game effectiveness. A higher level character is more effective and more difficult to kill (more hit points, better saves) thus opening up more game content for exploration (a low level character is confined to the easiest levels; high level character can go anywhere they damn well please).

9. Levels refer to “levels of explorative content” as well…the 3rd level of a dungeon is deeper and more menacing, providing new and interesting monsters and treasure than the 1st and 2nd level. Players’ reward for good or long play is improvement of one’s character level so as to open these new areas for exploration and find the more powerful monsters and treasure items. Good play = increased effectiveness = greater range of exploration. This is the basic reward pattern in D&D.

10. DM has final authority as referee over the game and is expected to play “the environment” and any imaginary individuals other than the player characters. The DM is expected to challenge players but to “be fair,” though enforcement of these ideals is left to individual gamers rather than codified in rules. Players are presumed to have full authority over the actions of their characters (presuming said characters are un-fettered by in-game effects).

11. Monsters operate under different principles from player characters. Monster hit points are generally considered to be a creature’s over-all toughness/vitality, though again measured abstractly. Monster attributes are fewer and simpler than those of player characters, generally allowing for ease and speed of handling by a DM that needs to “play everything except the PCs.” Certain monsters (e.g. goblins) have a tradition of being fodder, while others (e.g. dragons) are known for being formidable. Increased character effectiveness (i.e. “leveling up”) opens up new challenges to players as their characters are able to face these greater foes.

12. Skills are unnecessary or, at most, an optional component of game play. Character’s have the appropriate abilities for their class: good hit rolls for fighters, spells for magic-users, thieving abilities (whether percentage or circumstance based…backstabbing being an example of the latter) for thieves. Game systems are measured by utility, making use of all dice, rather than one particular type of dice roll.

13. Wealth accumulated is a measure of a character’s power, reputation, and ability. Magical items acquired provide the means to expand their power and influence beyond normal means. Character leveling increases effectiveness rapidly over the first few levels, gradually plateau-ing at the higher levels…acquisition of magic items allows effectiveness to continue to climb even at the higher levels. More powerful items are found in more dangerous areas providing greater rewards to characters with the increased effectiveness (and courage!) to seek them out.

14. No equipment needed to play except: paper, pencil, dice (of multiple shapes and utility), and the game text. Miniatures are useful but NEVER required. Imagination IS.

Now that’s about all I can think of right now…and let me tell you, I’ve been thinking about it a LOT today. Certain editions may stray a bit off track (2nd edition AD&D’s revised experience system, for example, makes the game fairly incoherent) especially with the addition of certain supplements. However, even "core" 3rd edition D&D adheres mostly to these “14 D&D Presumptions” (the inherent skill system being the one transgression, and the multi-classing madness pushing the boundaries of “class as role”).

For me, when you start knocking any of these off the list, the game ceases to be Dungeons & Dragons. For example, Palladium Fantasy screws the pooch on #3, #5, #12 and usually’s not even close. GURPS fantasy, even if used to create a similarly themed game, misses on #2, #4, #5, #8, #9, #11, #12, and generally #3. Yes, you can play an elvish warrior kicking dragon ass in a dungeon and making off with loot, but you’re playing a different game.

Of course, these games designers are NOT trying to pass themselves off as "D&D."

Since I don’t own 4E and can’t go over it line-by-line, I'll leave it to more knowledgeable folks than myself to decide if and when it fails to follow any of these “traditions.” Just from what I’ve read, it seems to miss on at least a couple, but maybe I’m mistaken.

You tell me.
; )


  1. Chello!

    I am mostly a 1e player myself, but I don't feel that 3e misses with the multi-classing. Yes, it can diminish the archetypal, but anybody who takes more than 1 extra class really cuts their throat advancement wise. Even taken 1 extra class can slow you down in some of the areas (extra fighter feat, spell advancement, etc).

    The inherent skill system at least tries to adhere to archetypal ideas by using the cross-class mechanic. Of course, when I ran 3e (3.5 actually) for about a year and a half, I used "rule #0' to great effect. No dumb-ass halfling monks in my game! :)

  2. @ Anthony: Actually, I always liked the idea of the halfling monk (goes back to my Bards Tale days...), and even went so far as write up a whole D20 world centering around a monastic order of warrior halflings. Never got a chance to run it though...

    Anyhoo, I don't think multi-classing breaks D20...AD&D had multi-classing after all (and elves have generally been hybrids across editions). However, the ability to multi-class in EVERY class...well, as I said I think it pushes the boundaries of class as defining the role of a character (what's the role of a fighter/thief/cleric/wizard with 2 levels in each class?). "Class-less" systems exist for other fantasy RPGs, but those aren't "D&D."
    : )

  3. D&D4 ticks more of these boxes than you'd think. #4 is the only one that strikes me as completely out, while #2, #12 and #14 are a bit wobbly, and could go either way depending on how strict you want to be. Everything else fits right in.

    Doesn't make it any more fun to play though! ;)

  4. The ability to multiclass into every class in 3e is only POTENTIAL (much like all the multiclass combinations in AD&D 1e Unearthed Arcana were.) The 3e DMG clearly points out that it's under strict control of the DM. Which classes are available (if at all) is for the DM to decide. So, it would be perfectly sensible, and "by-the-book," (and an example is even given) to not allow dwarves and halfling wizards, for example.
    Also, always BtB, the DM might decide that training is in force to access another class, feats etc.
    Also, as Anthony noted, as soon as you move into just another class, the cumulative XP penalties become really steep. Finally, speaking of classes, Prestige Classes are totally optional.
    Just as a general comment, all the slander I read about 3e seems to stem from people who have not bothered to even read the books (the DMG in particular). When I read that someone knew someone who had a five-classes character, and based on this extrapolated to how the game works...well, it simply shows that someone did not do his homework.


  5. 4e mostly breaks #4 and #14 (maps are needed) and partly #12 (essentially all of the classes can access all skills equally well; each class chooses very few skills at which it excels).

  6. IMHO most of the characters in the literature EGG cites in the famous appendix can not, or only poorly be represented by a single Class.
    With the 3rd edition multiclass rules you can create some of these.
    I find it much easier to create a Grey Mouser like character in 3rd edtion than in AD&D (who statted him in the Lankmar City book and, if memory serves, also in Deities & Demigods).

  7. The Mad Tower???

    Should I be insulted? Or were you just mixing me up with the esteemed creator of the Castle of the Mad Archmage the Greyhawk Grognard?

    Good post.... I think I'll have more thoughts later. This is an interesting exercise isn't it?

  8. @ David: Um...apologies? Sometimes I use shortened versions of was not meant to be offensive (I think being "mad" can be a good/entertaining thing with blogging...I wasn't calling it the Dumb-Dumb Tower or anything!).
    : )

    @ Everyone: again, I don't think multi-classing is a "D&D Deal-Breaker;" combinations of class have been present since the get-go (with the Elf in OD&D). I have seen many supplements (and players) with very watered class combos, though.

    @ Kelvin & Antonio: if 4E breaks Vancian magic...well, that IS a deal-breaker. Not because it's a fantastic system...but because it's D&D's system. I hadn't heard that one.

    By the way: I had heard that #6 through #9 were heavily different from prior editions. Any truth to that?

  9. @JB~

    I figured it was something like that! Glad I can be entertaining!

  10. Great, thought-provoking post as per usual!

    Nice Dark Tower reference, BTW! Love that series!

    Just a note: I’ve never really liked multiclassing. I’ve always believed in D&D as being about archetypes. These days, I’ve been toying with the idea of running Castles & Crusades using “feats” or what I might call “talents” as a means of pseudo-multiclassing. For instance: you want your thief to be more like the Gray Mouser, you can take talents that give him something like the Mouser’s skill with magic (instead of trying to get into the potential mess of multiclassing).

    And I’ve been struggling to find a term other than “hobby” for roleplaying, and I think you’ve given me that alternative term: ART! Why didn’t I think of that! Thanks! The art of roleplaying!

    I’ve always given credit to D&D for many things in my life:
    - Fostering my creativity and imagination
    - Helping me learn the ins and outs of not just creative writing but writing skills in general
    - My love of not just fantasy fiction but literature in general
    - Honing my acting skills (I was in a lot of plays in high school and college)
    - Allowing me to become more extroverted as a person

    My dad was not a big believer in flights of fancy and the power of imagination. He used to call cartoons “educational programming” in an attempt to mock them, but he really didn’t get the irony in what he was saying (since cartoons like Looney Tunes exposed many a youth to things like classical music, history, etc.). He also didn’t like the fact that I was into reading, specifically fantasy fiction. I once drew a map of a fantasy world for a 5th grade English class assignment, and he took a look at it and snorted with derision.

    “This is what they’re teaching you in school?” he scoffed as he glared at the map, and he really took offense at a drawing of a dragon I had made. He never really understood the concept of the “play” of youth as being the “work” of the young (i.e. the importance of play in early human development).

    Anyway, enough about childhood trauma.

    I just abhor conflict, so I’ve been taking a neutral stance on the “purity of D&D” discussion. I know, I’m probably being lazy. If I have time, I’ll have to someday delve into 4E and really make an informed decision on my thoughts.

    In the end, perhaps it is a good thing that there is no agreement on what the art of roleplaying is. It is all things to everyone, and isn’t that the best way to approach life in general?

  11. “...traditional RPGs...”

    Heh. No matter how we think about it, we cannot avoid the qualifiers when we talk to others who—through opinion or just experience—think of it differently.

    Now, defining D&D: Without challenging whether its a worthwhile exercise, I wonder if it can really be done. Because, no matter what definition you come up with, I bet I could come up with a game that fits that definition but which you (and I) wouldn’t consider D&D.

    I tend to think it’s relative. You can’t really define what D&D is so much as you can distinguish it from other things. In shining a new light on the object, you reveal details that weren’t obvious before.

  12. Let's see...

    #6: In D&D4, you've got "saves". These work like a defence in combat, so an attack can target Fortiutde, Reflex or Willpower in the same way a physical attack might target AC. There are also saving throws, which are tied to these, where you roll a d20, add your Fort, Ref or Will bonus, and try to beat the difficulty, which usually starts at 10 but can go higher for more difficult saves.

    #7: There is a bit of strict timekeeping in D&D4, but the unit of time is the encounter. Pretty much everything is tied into the encounter as an abstract unit.

    #8: This is more or less still in effect. Because the game places such emphasis on balance, that sense of opening up the game as characters progress is still there. The key difference is that there isn't much of a power curve, because as your abilities increase, so do those of your opponents; D&D4 at level two feels much the same as D&D4 at level twelve, there's just more stuff. First-level characters are far from useless too.

    #9: See above. I'd say this is pretty intact. Played by the book, obstacles in the game rise in level relative to the player-characters, so it's always challenging, even if never too easy or too difficult.

    So I'd say there are two "same but different" in there, and two "more or less the same".

  13. On the subject of computer RPGs- I always thought it was interesting how so many games take the worst parts of the table top game (the dice rolling, the combat) and the worst parts of a cPRG (the linearity and pre-formed plot) and you combine them, and get Final Fantasy and other jRPG drek. And then more people play them than D&D. I must be missing something vital.

  14. Just a note that saving throws in 4e have a different meaning than in 3e. There are Fort, Ref and Will, and they work like AC, but they are not considered saving throws.
    There is the concept of a saving throw however, and it's based on a unique number to beat (IIRC it's 10) to end some negative effect on the character. Some races or classes may give bonuses to the save depending on circumstances. In some ways it works like saving throws in Swords & Sorcery and White Box.

  15. > However, even "core" 3rd edition D&D adheres mostly to these “14 D&D Presumptions” (the inherent skill system being the one transgression, and the multi-classing madness pushing the boundaries of “class as role”).

    It doesn't adhere to tule 11 either: ?onsters operate under the same rules as the PCs and they can even take class levels. In fact I'd say they're even more complicated because they've got their custom abilities (breath weapons etc.) *in addition to* the normal skills, feats, etc.

    Of course PCs can turn the tables and take monster levels if the DM allows Savage Species.

    In principle, this is a design I really like. Everything's pretty "fair" as it's the same rules applying to everyone. It's just so very exhausting in practice for the DM for very little actual benefit. It'd be fine in a computer game, though.