Thursday, July 26, 2012

3 Stages of Exploration (Part 1)

[hey folks - I'm heading out to the San Juan Islands tomorrow morning and am expecting my internet access to be slim-to-none until next week. To mak-up for it I've got a loooong (4 or 5 part) post that I am going to try to set-up via blogger to post every day or so while gone. We'll see how this goes...]

Okay, just forget everything I’ve ever written up till now.

At least for the moment while reading this particular piece. Look, anyone who’s been reading this blog for awhile knows my opinions on subjects can seem to be wildly contradictory (D&D is the greatest! D&D has stupid premise! D&D combat is incredibly efficient! D&D combat is clunky as hell! Etc.). It’s not that I’m this fickle imbecile or ADHD dude that just writes “stream-o-consciousness” (usually…when I’m drunk is another story).

HOWEVER, it IS just a blog I’m penning here, and it’s reflective of my opinions and my opinions change. ALSO, I have tendency to write when I get “fired up” about something and sometimes (when my head is cooler) my stance relaxes a bit.

Sometimes, not always. Skill systems are still fucking stupid and a waste of space in 99% of all table-top RPGs, for example.

So for now, just ignore things I’ve written previously as I delve into some not-so-random thoughts that have been percolating. Perhaps these notes will resolve some of the contradictions previously penned here, perhaps not…blogging about D&D (at times) is a bit like wrapping your head around a Zen koan. It’s more of a meditation on concept than an actual study or essay.

Okay? Got it? Good.

Let’s preface this by acknowledging, one more time, that D&D is a game. Designed as a fun pastime. Hopefully enjoyed by the consumer, hopefully lucrative for the publisher. It’s not supposed to be life or death, it’s not supposed to cause you to neglect your job or your marriage or your schooling or your kids. It’s something you do outside of “real life.” Okay, everyone on the same page?

On the other hand, D&D (and many other RPGs, but here I’m writing about D&D in particular) is certainly more than your average game of Scrabble or Monopoly, or even strategy games like chess. Other games can certainly elicit emotion in folks tied to winning and losing (depending on a person’s competitive nature), but Dungeons & Dragons can inspire all sorts of feelings depending on how deep one dives into the imaginary realm…and because of that, much print (ink and digital) has been spent discussing, arguing, and kibitzing about various aspects of the game. It IS a phenomenon, at least with a small segment of the world population, and has been for nearly 40 years. But, yeah, you already knew that, too.

SO (just getting to the point here)…this post is about the experience or concept of D&D as something GREATER THAN a simple game of “enter the dungeon, kill the monster, collect the treasure.” I want to talk about the larger concept of role-playing…or rather of “fantasy adventuring”…than just its elementary game components.

Why? Because. Just bear with me, all right?

Dungeons & Dragons as is (and here I’m looking at the pre-1989 editions, i.e. the Old School editions of D&D)…"Old School” D&D AS IS can be broken up into three distinct phases:

- A low-level dungeon delving stage
- A mid-level wilderness exploration stage
- A high-level “world shaker” stage

This is the concept as initially laid out (somewhat haphazardly) in OD&D, later jumbled up a bit in AD&D, and finally organized in B/X and streamlined in BECMI. First you go into the dungeon, then you come out of the dungeon and explore the wider world, then you carve yourself a niche and engage in the politics of that world (managing a kingdom, going to war, forging alliances, founding religious movements, magical research, etc.).

Each of these three stages represents a different level (forgive the term) in the development of both the adventuring player character AND the dungeon master (who must properly manage the exploratory scenario).

Basic Stage: Exploration of the Hazard Site
Expert Stage: Exploration of the Imaginary Landscape
Master Stage: Exploration of the World Creation

[these are NOT, by the way, terms I’ve thought long and hard about…I may very well revise them later, but the phraseology will do for now]

I’m going to get into the specifics of each of these levels in a moment…with the objective of then having a discussion specifically relevant to their interaction and the future of the game (yeah, wow, right?) but for now let’s set that aside and talk about the design principles at work here.

Or rather, the lack thereof.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that a game designer could have come along and written a three stage game like D&D by design. “Let’s make something where game play has three distinct types of exploration and presents three distinct challenges for the players, and let’s include rules whereby one stage naturally [or unnaturally…see below] leads to another.” It’s possible a designer could have come along and done this…but that’s not really what happened.

At least from my readings of the books and the forum discussions and the various internet histories out there, the evolution of the D&D game appears to be fairly cut-n-dry:

1) Concept came about as a merging of several factors: interest in pulp fantasy (especially Howard-style ‘sword & sorcery’), medieval wargaming (including the added fantasy of Tolkien which often reads like a war story…which it is), with an idea of playing a game as an individual “character” (rather than a troop of men). The last can be (I think) directly attributable to the Chainmail game system. Chainmail provides rules for medieval wargaming (i.e. moving troops around the table), but then also provides rules for individual “heroic” characters in order to model fantasy novels (Tolkien). For example, it’s all good to say, “My riders of Rohan are charging your troop of White Hand orcs while my elves snipe from the woods”…but how does one model a single Gandalf? Or Aragorn? Or Lord of the Nazgul? You don’t have a platoon of wizards (as you do with Napoleonic riflemen), so you have to create some rudimentary rules for the lone “hero figure.” Which is what Chainmail did. Given that, it’s an easy step to say, “Hey, what if EACH player played a single heroic figure?” Add in the neutral referee providing challenges and you have the basis of the Dungeons & Dragons game…or rather, the basis of Arneson’s Blackmoor.

2) Now that you have the basis of “system/concept” you need to develop the environment and methods of game play; i.e. where the hell are the players doing their thing, and how is the referee developing challenges (and what are those challenges)? Enter Arneson…and Blackmoor…again: Characters are given a suitable task (by S&S genre standards) of seeking out treasure. Characters are placed in a static environment (dungeon), providing both an objective and a limit on what’s possible (they can enter or leave but are otherwise constrained by the adventure). The environment is stocked with challenges (“hazards”) to be overcome. At this point, the game is still simply a game…it is mimicked in many other board games that have been published over the years (Dungeon!, DungeonQuest, Siege of the Citadel, etc.).

3) Players and/or referee gets bored with “delving” and want to explore the world outside the dungeon. Lands are invented; as well as their histories, legends, and politics. Characters begin exploring the countryside, facing new challenges (not just monsters, mind you) and acquiring more treasure…the latter of which is necessary due to the “point system” developed during the “delving stage” to keep score. Increasing effectiveness (i.e. going up in level) requires higher and higher scores (i.e. more XP, which is received mainly from treasure). And what to do with all this treasure, besides (literally) cart in around with your party? Invest it in castles and “improvements” to one’s domain and hirelings to man the castle walls and spell research, etc.

4) At this point some long-standing characters are retired as players want to play other new characters; however, many players (I suspect) have grown somewhat attached to characters that have long withstood the test of time (and the fierce challenges of a wargaming referee). These players have developed personalities for their characters as well as personal histories and (imaginary) reputations and want to continue to “adventure” – though now their adventures consist of land grabs and politicking, making alliances and making war, creating new spells and powerful magics and religions and fighting to hold on to the things they’ve acquired over the course of months (or years) of game play.

Then the whole ball o wax gets written up in a couple-three game booklets (and published) for others to play. Because it’s found to be obsessively good fun.

What I’m describing is (in theory anyway) the theoretical evolution of the game and its levels (or rather) stages of play…an evolution and tiered hierarchy only poorly understood by the game’s creators themselves. After all, they were busy playing (and tweaking game play) at the time while it was being developed. It’s hard to take a step back when you’re in the midst of running a campaign six nights out of seven for a growing number of enthusiasts and see exactly what you’ve wrought, especially when your eyes are filled with dollar signs.

We, of course, have the benefit of both hindsight and distance…should we choose to use ‘em (which we don’t always do, seeing as how we’re busy playing and tweaking the rules ourselves).

Now, the problem with how ass-backwards this is may not be readily apparent to most, but that’s the bulk of what I want to talk about in this post (and possible remedies, if I get to ‘em without boring the crap out of you). First you have to buy into Dungeons & Dragons being “something more than your average game” (remember that part?) and second you have to examine this BIG PICTURE view of the game in light of an RPG being “something more.”

[to be continued]


  1. As usual, I admire your insight and your ambition when it comes to tackling the fundamental issues of the hobby and D&D in particular. Looking forward to the next post!

  2. JB, nice break down of the three levels of play. I like the terms as you have them now.

    I feel that the disconnect between mid and high level adventures does stem back to Chainmail/wargaming. That is, people always seem to have problems with what to do past name level. I think that's because they're not looking at the paradigm correctly. If one examines what Gygax and Arneson both were doing (and even Bledsaw), the lower levels were essentially "scenario-creators" for the wargame at name level.

    That's just my take on it, of course. :)

  3. The two latter stages of play (outdoors and domain) all but died out during AD&D. All you saw for high level play was endless streams of killer dungeons. I think the problem is that it isn't viable to produce adventures that feature outdoor travel or domain play since those things will limit the game worlds that can use them which, in turn, limits the DMs that are willing to buy said adventure. Basic D&D got around this primarily by limiting all players to the same game world.

  4. Yes and no.

    Gygax was initially quite surprised by the concept of "modules." Hew as really quite puzzled why anyone wouldn't want to make up their own adventures. It took Judges Guild and the success that Bob Bledsaw had with that medium to convince him that TSR was "missing out on something."

    Look, instance, at the original Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements for 0E. They're essentially just rule changes, new classes, and the like. Very little actual world info compared to something like the later Greyhawk folio, Forgotten Realms boxed set, or even the Known World Gazeteers.

    So, yes, once TSR jumped on board, the Known World was very much a shoehorn.

  5. Hedgehobbit,

    I wouldn't say domain came remotely close to "dying out" with AD&D. What it did do was go entirely underground, as there was little or no support for such a concept, certainly by the late 80s. But that does not mean that players did not design, run and manage such worlds - this was a hot subject of conversation at conventions I attended and with which I was involved in the 1986-90 period.

    You simply can't judge this hobby on the basis of the marketing plan, nor make generalizations about the "death" of any part of the game simply because it wasn't published in slick booklets.

  6. For me, D&D always got the first two stages backwards. I usually ran wilderness exploration (searching for the dungeon) first and then dungeon exploration second.

  7. JB, as far as the evolution of the game goes, I wonder if you're aware of one word: Braunstein. A quick search of blog doesn't reveal that you've written about it. Here's Seattle's own Ben R's writing on the first role playing game