Wednesday, September 29, 2021


Yesterday, the Seattle Mariners won again and got within half a game of a playoff spot...a playoff spot that has eluded them for two decades. They are currently vying for one of two open "wild card" spots along with Toronto, Boston, and the Yankees. Those teams have respective run differentials of +167, +72, and +49, a number that means how many more runs have they scored over their opponents for the season. The Mariners? Their run differential is -50. Throw out Monday's 14-4 win over Oakland and they'd be -60. Generally speaking, they haven't won games by blowing out other teams...the M's don't have the Big Bat offense other teams have, and their starting pitchers have been UGly. They've just been a scrappy, never-say-die team that's managed to gut out a bunch of 1 and 2 run games with clutch hitting, lights out bullpen, good defense, and inexplicable lucky breaks.

It's ridiculous. I'm still wearing my Mariners ball cap, and with four games to go in the season. Still not quite buying in...but I am watching. The kids and stayed up way past bedtime last night.

The school soccer team I'm coaching is struggling. We've been blown out and blown out and blown out, and unlike the M's, we don't get a 162 game schedule. Although we are playing in the 5th grade boys league, almost half our team are 4th graders. Only five of our 15 players have played together. Only a couple kids played any type of soccer last year (when the schools were closed for the pandemic), and for several kids this is their first time EVER playing soccer. Every team we've played against has been bigger, stronger, and faster than us...many have had multiple kids known to play on "select" or "premier" teams. 

This weekend, our best player (my son) has a schedule conflict: his premier team is playing at the same time on the east side of the water. While my plan was to have him go to that while I coach the school team, he has asked if he can skip his premier game in order to play with our band of misfits. See, he's scrappy, too. And even as he gets frustrated with the school's team to execute even simple concepts (he refers to them as a "dumpster fire"), even though there's less than half a dozen kids on our team that he's even known, and only three that he'd really call "friends"...he feels a duty, a responsibility to helping them out. He knows what he means to their team and he doesn't want to give up on them, let them down, pick your pithy phrase to reflect "loyalty" and an unwillingness to quit.

The other day, Havard was reflecting on the "edition wars," the pointlessness of...and the wasted time spent...bashing other folk's preferred versions of the Dungeons & Dragons game. In his view, those who engaged in such grumpy bickering should look at their actions with embarrassment. Instead of "focusing on the negativity and the things that divide us," Havard urges us fun experiences together? Remember that "we have a hobby that we love?" Something?

I guess he's not urging us to do anything except to NOT be negative. To be open-minded about other's preferred editions and welcoming to their preferred style of play. And (if I'm inferring correctly) to be glad and grateful that this is growing the hobby (i.e. getting more players into it).

So, okay...I have a different take on the "edition wars" from Havard.  For one thing, if it is (or ever was) a "war" it's one that my side LOST a long, long time ago. Circa 1986. The "war," if one would call it that, was over about the time Lorraine Williams took over TSR and changed its focus from creating games to publishing books. When 2nd edition AD&D was published in 1989, replacing Gygax's byline with Zeb Cook's, the war was officially, completely lost.

Folks like me have just been fighting guerrilla actions since then. 

My bitching-and-moaning about new style players and my criticisms of 2nd or 3rd or 4th or 5th edition D&D isn't a "war." Really. It is an attempt to keep alive an older style of the game that some folks might prefer to be relegated to the trash bin. Because it's one thing to say:
Hey, there are older editions of D&D and, here, you can buy copies of it on eBay, or PDFs from DriveThru and isn't that an interesting curiosity / piece of history? You can really see the war gaming roots and how funny, strange that style of play once was (not to mention how misogynistic, racist, and unenlightened the gaming community might have once been)....
And it's quite another thing to say:
Hey, there was this game that was new in the 1970s that blew people's minds and that was really fun to play, so much that it grew into a phenomenon that had profound effects on games and culture, and while it changed substantially some fifteen years after it's creation, maybe there's something to its original game play that's still fun and profound and exciting and worth playing, not just watching as a live-streamed "show."
See, I'm scrappy, too. And while I'm smart enough to know the "war" has been lost and times have changed, and more people would rather be shown or informed by others than take the time to educate themselves (by reading books, for example)...while I'm smart enough to see "times have changed" I'm stubborn enough and squeaky enough to keep shouting "hey, but don't forget..." 

And sometimes I say (or write) things in an incendiary way in order to get forgetful folks' attention.

Last week I wrote a post that declared there is only one, true edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and that the particular edition in question was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the first edition, penned/compiled by Mr. Gary Gygax. This...predictably...ruffled feathers, but as the point of my post wasn't about justifying the position, I didn't take the time to elaborate on my statement. 

Here, then, is the elaborate justification; we'll try to take this in order:

OD&D (the original Little Brown Books) was a proto-version of Dungeons & Dragons. It is not and was not "complete," crystalized, or a fully formed vision of game design. Its own creators (Gygax and Arneson) did not agree on how it was to be played, and had wildly divergent styles. Until it ceased being published, it was in a constant state of evolution, each new supplement adding or changing the original rules. Other gamers ended up creating their own versions and variant designs: Warlock, Arduin, Tunnels & Trolls, etc. It is amorphous. It is imaginative. It is wonderful...but it is not a single, concrete game. It cannot function without addition. AS A GAME (not "as a concept" or "in spirit") it is not "true;" in many ways, the LBBs themselves were supplementary material for the Chainmail rules that only (later) evolved into a distinct form of play.

Basic (Holmes edition) D&D was designed to be introductory, specifically introductory, to the game of Dungeons & Dragons, and is thus far from complete. It draws parts from OD&D, the first supplement, The Strategic Review, Chainmail, and the Warlock variant. Its rules diverge from the AD&D game it was written to introduce and is not compatible with that, nor with "official" OD&D rules.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition): this is the TRUE version of D&D. It took what had come before then adjusted, edited, and codified it into a singular vision of game play with rules covering every anticipated potentiality of game play. Note: not "every potentiality," just what was judged as being part of the scope of game play. Folks interested in "coloring outside the lines" would certainly be allowed to do so (outside of official, sanctioned tournament play), but were adjudged to be be playing something other than "standard" (i.e. "true") Dungeons & Dragons.

B/X(Moldvay/Cook/Marsh) D&D: another introductory game; it is a streamlined version of OD&D + Supplement I that leaves out some of the stickier complexities (race/class separation, weapon adjustments, AD&D ability score modifiers, 9-point alignment) in favor of simplicity. The best introduction to "true" D&D and nearly fully compatible with AD& much so that many folks in the 1980s were able to combine the two editions into a single mishmash with varied results. It sacrifices complexity and nuance for accessibility and ease of play.

BECMI (Mentzer) D&D: yet another revision of the introductory game; not only was it written for an even younger audience (complete with solo tutorial adventures), but it was written in such a way as to NOT include monsters, spells, and content specifically designed/developed for Advanced D&D. It became its own separate line of play, though again designed for simplicity, lacking the complexity, nuance, and interlocking of systems found in AD&D. While it is designed as a "complete" line (taking player characters from level 1 all the way to immortality through discreet rule systems) it deviates far from the singular vision found in "true" version of the game. Played straight, BECMI D&D does not call to mind the fantasy literature or pulp fiction that inspired the original game; instead, every player is on a quest for legendary power and (eventual) godhood. It is staid and mechanical, less organic, and in an effort to be more "family friendly" (or less controversial) has lost some of its original character...and thus some of its potential game play. The original game may have accounted good stronger than evil, but evil (as a player choice) was still a possibility. That possibility was all but excised in the presentation of BECMI.

In terms of the Seven Elements identified for "true" D&D game play, it begins to fail on both the "magic is limited" and "economy is present" scale. BECMI D&D lacks the various checks-and-balances for both magic and wealth found in AD&D; as a consequence, long-term game play turns into something very different from "true" D&D (see the Principalities of Glantri and Thyatis/Alphatia gazetteers for examples). 

[just like to note that I spent a couple hours yesterday combing through some 100+ pages of Frank Mentzer interview notes to find his own preferred version of play. As of the early 2000s he was still running his home game with what he referred to as AD&D 1.5 (AD&D + the Unearthed Arcana) in combination with his own Immortal set rules. His reasons for including the UA was fairly simple: he'd compiled and edited much of the work himself and was quite satisfied with its usability in terms of the D&D game. He also did not favor the totally "humanocentric" vision that Gygax did, and so liked the extra power given to demihumans in the UA]

Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: while mechanically very similar to 1E, it lacks the original vision of the "true" game's designer (evidenced by many stylistic changes) and begins to fall down in both the "economy is present" and (mainly) the "cooperation is necessary" categories; the latter because the default reward (advancement) system of 2E has the character classes pursuing disparate goals from one another. The shift in tone for supplementary material (especially "module" adventures) starts to break the elements of "PCs are heroic" and "the Universe does care" as more and more railroad-y or excessively moralizing texts are published, forcing PCs into certain avenues of play.

Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons: moves farther from the game as originally designed, overemphasizing "violence is inherent" (through its reward system), breaking "cooperation is necessary" (by de-emphasizing asymmetry), and paying only lip service to "economy is present" with rule stipulated treasure/monetary amounts at every level for both PCs and NPCs. On the adventure front, more of the same trends as from the mid-1980s (see 2E above).

Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons: extreme over emphasis of "violence is inherent" coupled with extreme DE-emphasis of "magic is limited" and "economy is present." Interestingly, there is a return/resurgence of "cooperation is necessary" but NOT via asymmetry so much as specific "adventure roles" needing to be filled for successful endeavors...still this is more of an aside, and adventures can certainly be written for specific groups lacking particular role characters. The same issue with published adventures continue.

Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons: extreme de-emphasis of ALL elements EXCEPT "PCs are heroic" and a warped/twisted version of "the Universe does care" which does its best to coddle the players rather than challenge them in any meaningful form. Even the idea of "D&D is a game" (element #1) is de-emphasized, as the idea that D&D is an amusing pastime, performance/show, becomes ascendant and character advancement is no longer tied to character's pursuit of specific objectives but is instead linked to how well the players perform the story being told. The singular vision that once guided the GAME of Dungeons & Dragons has been cast aside for a "do anything you like" attitude...objectives of play, mechanics and rules, all are meant to be changed and discarded as whim (and "fun") dictates. The term "D&D" doesn't refer to a specific game but, rather, a particular brand/IP that has been purchased...ostensibly to be "played," but what that play looks like will vary from table to table.

"Sixth" Edition Dungeons & Dragons: are you serious?

Harsh, harsh words, Old Man (actually, I'm trying NOT to be harsh in this post but, whatever...). JB, you're telling folks there's only one way to have D&D fun, and if it's not the same way as yours, then they totally suck. 

No, I'm not.

At least up until 1985 or so (i.e. about when the "war" was lost), the D&D game still had a uniting, singular vision that people could fall back on REGARDLESS of the rule set that was being used at the table. That vision, clumsily stated in the original Advanced D&D game allowed all players, regardless of system, to get on the same page when it came to the question of "what is (D&D) game play all about?" Some folks didn't like the answer to that question, and handled their dislike in different ways (drifting the system, changing games, quitting the hobby, whatever). Some folks just took a break for ten or twenty or thirty years, either because they either A) didn't see the potential promise of game play or B) didn't feel the effort needed to reach that potential was justified, and they could get their "kicks" somewhere else. 

[you can count me as one of the latter folks who first kicked AD&D to the curb in exchange for other games (a LOT of other games) and then spent a decade plumbing B/X and finding its depth (as designed! and well designed!) to be less than satisfying]

But that singular vision, incorporating those seven elements (to a lesser or greater degree) was a unifying force and you can SEE that in, for example, Prince's recent "No ArtPunk" adventure design contest: adventures were written for AD&D, B/X, BECMI, OD&D, retro-clones, ACKS, etc. but all finding a way to create interesting "dungeon" adventures suitable for their particular systems. Dungeon crawling by itself is NOT indicative of "true" D&D play, but it IS an important portion of the game aspect of D&D...and recent adventure offerings (both 5E and "OSR") seem to have very...mmm..."strange" ideas of what such design entails.

The point being: *sigh* yes, you're still playing "D&D" even if you're not playing AD&D. But if you want to play the game in its "highest expression," you have to start with AD&D. Other versions...especially pre-1985...have similar guiding spirit/principals and (more usually) recognizable tropes. But you can't play post-1985 editions of D&D as they are designed and written in the same way that the game was originally set down and codified.  Sure, you can take a late edition version and twist it or tweak it or drift it or could also just run GURPS or write your own damn game. could play the TRUEST version ever written and just spend your free time designing a fine campaign that is supported by the rules.

That, I guess, is my "scrappy" message. If you've never tried it and you find "old" D&D objectionable for some reason (it was written by white American men for white American men, or it exhibits too many colonialist sensibilities, or whatever)...I get it, I sympathize, I understand. Try giving it a chance. Try giving the crazy-ass rules a chance. If you're an "OSR" aficionado who prefers something lighter, rules-wise and are turned off by the opaque, clunky writings of Gygax...I get it, I sympathize, I understand. Try giving it a chance. Try reading it and parsing it and running it.

If you've run or played AD&D before, and just can't understand why anyone would still want to play the game based on that particular antiquated/clunky version of the rules anymore (or for WHATEVER reason)...I get it, I sympathize, I understand. I do! Really! But did you really give it your best shot? How long ago was it that you tried running it? How have you grown/changed since then? I know technology has changed a lot since the 1970s...the ability to create easy-to-use spreadsheets and play aids is incredibly simple. And it makes it O-so-easy to run the crunchy bits with just a little time and energy.

Maybe...try it one more time?

All right, that's all I have time for today. Have to go pick up the kids from their (club) soccer practice. Which they are doing in the pouring rain. Like troopers.

Go Mariners. Keep proving me wrong.
: )

Monday, September 27, 2021

Back in 1986...

...two films were released in theaters, films that were similar in many respects. Both were of the comedy-action-adventure variety. Both were produced by Hollywood production companies. Both were made for under $25 million. Both had special effects that were "iffy" (especially seen through the lens of our jaded 21st century eyes). Both featured a male, American "everyman" type being drawn into an east Asian world of supernatural strangeness, with the American being an individual of destiny.

Both films had a supernatural, demonic, Big Bad Guy adversary armed with magic and minions. Both films centered around a plot of abduction that required the hero to perform a "rescue" in addition to combatting various mooks and monsters. Hell, both had Victor Wong in supporting roles.

I was 13 in 1986; both films carried the (then fairly new) PG-13 rating. I saw both in the theater. At the time, I enjoyed both. When I rewatched them, a few years later (on video) I found one to be clearly much so that I've watched it many times over the years, have owned it on VHS and currently own a deluxe BluRay version of it. The second film was so bad, I couldn't believe I'd even liked it (hey, I was 13!) much so that I've never bothered to watch it again.

The first film was Big Trouble in Little China from John Carpenter; it earned barely over $11 million, a bonafide box office flop. The second film was Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child: it earned over $149 million. 

Big Trouble in Little China has a 74% Rotten Tomato rating and an 82% audience ("popcorn") rating; by comparison, The Golden Child has a 22% Tomato and a 47% audience score. Both of these scores reflect and echo my own feelings on the films. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell (the star of Big Trouble) have stated they are proud of the film they created. Eddie Murphy has referred to his own film as "a piece of shit" (that was in '89)...and time has not been any kinder to the thing.

Thirty-five years later and I'm no longer 13. While I can see Big Trouble in Little China for the lightweight (if fun) film that it is, it still remains a personal favorite. It's not great cinema, but it's good...and it may be the best use of Asian American actors in a non-period Hollywood film prior to the turn of the century. Lots of reasons can be given as to why (financially) it failed so miserably in comparison to its inferior contemporary but, really, who cares? As far as I (and tens of thousands of others) are concerned, time has told the tale that ticket receipts alone could not.

There's something there that can (maybe) be applied to the various "edition wars" that crop up with regard to Dungeons & Dragons.  Maybe.

Back in 1986 my friends and I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, not B/X. We used all the hardcovers published to that date. We worked in certain aspects of Mentzer's Companion rules (where we could fit them into an advanced game), and we made use of some (not all) articles published in Dragon magazine. Of course, we also had house rules and variants that were regular parts of the game.

But that was thirty-five years ago. A lot of different editions of D&D have been published since then. A lot of tinkering, a lot of changes. And a lot of changes in Yours Truly. I'm not 13 anymore; I'm a bit more discerning in my tastes...even my tastes when it comes to "fun." 

All right, more on this subject (well, on the subject of different D&D issues) later. Maybe tomorrow. Hopefully tomorrow. 

Have a great week, folks.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Seven Elements

As promised in my last post:

I realized my whole theme of "true D&D play" likely touched a nerve or two, and for that I apologize. I suppose I could have called it "advanced play" instead of "true" play...but what is "advanced" game play but the highest form of a particular game? You can play a simpler variety of MANY games...a fast version of Monopoly, for example, or a scaled back version of Axis & Allies. For a quick night's entertainment  - or as a tutorial for new players - that works fine and dandy. Dungeons & Dragons, as (perhaps) the greatest tabletop ever invented, can perform adequately for years even in a "basic" form (like B/X). But the game is given its highest expression in the form known as AD&D.

First edition only.

Here, then, are the seven elements of advanced ("true") D&D play, as I see them:
  1. D&D is a game.
  2. Cooperation is necessary.
  3. Violence is inherent.
  4. Magic is limited.
  5. Economy is present.
  6. PCs are heroic.
  7. The Universe does care.
I've not listed the elements in alphabetical order, nor order of importance/priority, but only in the order I intend to discuss them. Regarding "importance," there could certainly be some debate, but ALL of these elements are essential to game play. And it is (partially? completely?) the presence of these elements that sets D&D play apart from other games, and that sets AD&D apart from other editions of the game.

Each element requires elaboration. Let's get down to it:

#1 Dungeons & Dragons is a game 

I can already hear the collective multitude shouting "duh" in chorus. But consider the many implications of this element. First off, games have RULES, and D&D is no different. Rules constrain the actions of both the players and referee (Dungeon Master, DM). Games have means of winning and losing, and of judging both. Death in D&D is one of several possible "failure states" of the game, though certainly not an insurmountable one (as raise dead, wishes, and divine intervention can all attest).

Constraints influence game play. There are limitations places on classes and races available and their use in combination; there are limitations placed on levels attainable (based on class/race combos) and on the capabilities of characters at various levels. These limitations are in place for reasons...reasons of shaping the scope and scale and direction of game play. Same with limitations of available spells, weapon selection, armor use, etc. 

Game rules are meant to be followed in the prescribed manner. When a situation presents itself for which a rule is not present, a rule must be formulated by the table. When a rule presents an inconsistency, the referee (DM) must make a ruling on the issue in order for game play to proceed. Players and referees have differing roles and responsibilities determined by the game rules. And as final arbiter of the rules presented, DMs must have a thorough knowledge of the game rules...DMing D&D in its advanced form is NOT for the faint of heart. 

People play games for many reasons, all linked to enjoyment (even if one simply means to challenge themselves, it is the challenge that is being enjoyed). When we play a game, we agree to abide by the rules...both those of the textual rulebook and those of etiquette, both of which may vary from game to game and from table to table. 

D&D is a game...all of the above applies to its play. It should also be noted that, because true D&D is a game, we can also signal what it is not. It is not a performing art. It is not improv theater. It is not a mechanism for constructing a story in the conventional sense (as one would find in a novel, film, or play, for example). Exploring the human psyche or condition is not an objective of play, and its design is not supportive of such. It is not sport. It is not a platform for addressing social inequities in a meaningful fashion. It is not a simulation of reality...though (as discussed below) some verisimilitude is to be desired.

#2 Cooperation is necessary

This element does not address the "social contract" of its participants (that's part of element #1) but rather the method of game play itself: D&D as a game of fantasy adventure is cooperative. It is meant to be played by groups of players, not single individuals, and even pairs (one DM, one player) will find the game decidedly rough without additional participants.

Players (that is, non-DM participants) play characters of asymmetrical capabilities. None of the various character types are created "equal," though all have niches in which they excel or (at least) perform admirably. However, even without a VARIETY of character types, sheer numbers of cooperative players can win the day where individuals or non-cooperating parties will fail miserably. 

Consider that a group of player characters (PCs) working in concert, act as a large pool of hit points..."sharing the pain" in a way that allows ALL (or most) to survive, while generating more actions and/or attacks. Fallen characters can be aided by their comrades (by being dragged to safety, healed, raised, etc.) and can do the same for others when the shoe is on the other foot (as it will, eventually, be). Of course, the old adage "two heads are better than one" is more than apt when it comes to the various riddles, challenges, and complications that face the average adventuring party...and some obstacles will be presented that simply cannot be circumvented without multiple PCs working together.

AD&D is designed in such a way that no single character type holds ALL the benefits and capabilities of effectiveness. The greatest paladin in the world can be brought down in a crush of goblins using the grappling rules. The most powerful archmage of the setting will need to sleep eventually. No character is an island in D&D, and the players that cooperate in the most efficient manner will, in the long-term, have the most sustained success.

#3 Violence is inherent

D&D is descended from war games and its design reflects the fact and the play assumptions of the genre. Each character encountered (player or non-) has a set of hit points that provides an exact amount of punishment that can be sustained before being least temporarily...from play. Huge swaths of the rules text are given over to weapons and armor, combat and battle, deadly conflicts of physical, psychic, magical, and (in the case of clerics) spiritual type. 

D&D is not a game of court intrigue and political machinations. It is not a game of back parlor deals, treaty negotiation, and real estate development. It is not a game of buying and selling commodities, arranging marriages, diplomatic complications, or the challenges faced by individuals fighting depression, ennui, or issues of self-esteem and self-worth. Any and all of these things MIGHT (or might not) appear in play...but they are neither the point of play, nor a priority of design.

The design of D&D reflects the intrinsic dangers of the world. Characters can die...or can be turned to stone, charmed, captured, level drained, etc. Generally speaking characters WILL die...often humorously or ignominiously. It is an expected part of game play, and should not prevent players from taking bold action. Played cooperatively (see #2) even death may be overcome in the D&D game...and it will be meted out in spades to the opponents and monsters that come into conflict with the PCs. The source material for the AD&D game (pulp fiction featuring face-punching protagonists) reflect the base assumptions of an adventure game, a game of violent action. While caution and intelligent choices are laudable, timidity and indecisiveness are not (and recklessness is a failure to play cooperatively).

The violence of D&D should be embraced by all at the table; managing the risk of threat to one's (imaginary) life and limb is one of the main components of the game.

#4 Magic is limited

D&D is a game and as such has rules which constrain the game. Magic is a major component of D&D and yet is very much a limited resource in the game. Spell-casting is grueling work for characters, requiring hours of (game) preparation just to have access to a handful of spells. Spells are limited by the need for verbal, somatic, and material components. Spells used are forgotten (until recovered through sleep, study, and prayer). There are no "at will" cantrips, laser eye beams (at least, not from PC casters), or spells that provide huge benefit at no cost. Even the mighty wish spell will age the caster several years (possibly killing the character through system shock).

The acquisition of spells in no mean feat. Magic-users may only add spells to their repertoire as they find them, and even those found may not be comprehended, depending on the character's intelligence. Clerics are limited in spells by the whims of their deity (and the deity's opinion of the cleric's piety) and, as with magic-users, the highest level spells are limited to character's of great wisdom. Of course, all spell-casters are limited by their level: power must be earned through bold endeavor.

Likewise, magical items must be earned by player characters; there are no "magic shops" and characters must brave dangers and dungeons to earn every single +1 weapon. Most enchanted items are limited in the true D&D game: many items have charges or are single-use in nature. Cursed items abound in every category, ensuring there is always risk involved in the use of any enchanted item. Many items require command words to access their abilities, and often magical items are saddled with alignment restrictions that can damage, destroy, or level drain would-be wielders of the wrong faction. Rare indeed are the entirely beneficial items, making them highly prized by all...such items tend to make their owners the targets of thieves, assassins, unscrupulous nobles, etc. 

PCs may construct their own magical items and research their own magical spells, but only at tremendous cost (in terms of time and money)...the process of doing so is never easy and success is never guaranteed and often entails its own adventure as enchanters must search out special materials, usually the organs and body parts of extremely deadly (and rare) monsters.

Flagrant use of magic in the D&D setting...towns lit with continual light, flying carpet travel services, etc.... is likely to bring unwanted and hostile attention on offenders. Magic is rare and wonderful in the true D&D game and is respected because of it. It should never be an answer to all problems, nor a replacement for the conveniences of modern day life; doing so renders D&D something other than an adventure game.

#5 Economy is present

That is to say: money matters. From the very beginning of character creation, players in a true D&D game are concerned with the matters of wealth and resources. A first level character only has a limited amount of starting capital with which to outfit themselves, and must choose wisely.

Acquisition of treasure thus becomes the primary concern for PCs. Ready cash is needed for a variety of expenses: food and adventuring equipment, armor and weapons, hirelings and their monetary needs. As characters advance, more money will be needed for training purposes, possibly for spell acquisition, tithing and guild fees, and (of course) magical aid in the form of raise dead (and other recovery) spells. Specialists will need to be contracted: sages for information, armorers for troops, engineers for the building of strongholds. And as characters reach the levels of domain ruler, even more wealth will be needed for expenditures on henchfolk and permanent investments (buildings, mills, bridges, fortresses, etc.). 

While this "bean counting" may seem cumbersome, it is absolutely essential to the game play of D&D as originally codified. Without an economy, without a need to spend, the desire to acquire treasure dissipates...and it is that need for treasure (for "money") that drives D&D game play. It is one of the objectives of game play that unites the disparate player characters, the thing that compels cooperation as much as survival instinct, because it is needed by every character type. Tying it to the reward structure of the game (where each gold piece of treasure = one experience point towards leveling) engenders the risk-reward assessment that is at the heart of true D&D game play. 

Resource, demand, the use of wealth, the logistics of encumbrance...these things are the core of D&D game play. What matter the Lich-Lord's army if you cannot feed your own? How can you hope to arrive at Smaug's lair or Mount Doom if you cannot afford enough food for both your mount and the pack animal that must carry it? Many are the D&D players that have complained that D&D isn't enough like The Lord of the Rings...have they read Tolkien's books? Challenges regarding food, water, and travel are rife throughout the series!

And the game's economy is tightly bound to resource management. Equipment and gear...even the magical not "indestructible" in AD&D. The item saving throw matrix on page 80 of the DMG is proof enough that rough usage will quickly deplete the party's inventory. Making use of oil flasks as "fire bombs" is all well and good until you find yourself out of fuel for your lantern. And the limits of magic (see #4 above) means that the care and maintenance of mundane equipment is of utmost importance. Even that sword of "metal, hard" will break eventually, if struck with enough "normal blows;" hopefully, the character's adventures earn enough wealth to carry a backup weapon or two.

Without an economy, and an emphasis on wealth and resources, one cannot play D&D as designed. And the verisimilitude such games rules offer aids in both the immersion and engagement of game play.

#6 Player characters are heroes

"What?!" I hear the cries through the darkness of the internet. "Heroes?! That goes against every principal of 'old school' role-playing!" Mmm, mm, mm. Slow down folks and give me a chance to explain.

The player characters are the most important characters in the D&D game. They are charged with braving fantastical challenges and facing deadly perils. They are adventurers; they ARE heroes. Without player characters, there is no game. 

And they are heroic...favored by the gods. This is made clearly evident with the design choices of HIT POINTS and SAVING THROWS; such is explained at various points in the DMG. These avatars of the PCs are special...we (the game's participants, whether player or DM) are concerned with the actions they take. It matters to us whether they succeed or fail. With regard to that part of the game, they are most definitely the "stars" of the show.

This does not mean they won't fail or die or have their limbs cut off by a sword of sharpness. It doesn't mean they won't be captured and brutalized and they may well wind up starving to death in some lightless subterranean labyrinth, or bleeding out at the bottom of a pit trap. A character's DESTINY in D&D is not written in stone. Always remember, D&D is a game (see #1), not some sort of narrative structured story-telling device. PCs are heroes because of the ACTIONS they take, not because of the FATE they've been handed by an author. 

And as such, player characters should be respected. They should not have their roles as heroes usurped by NPCs of the DM's creation; they should not be upstaged by various narrative "cut-scenes." The action of the game should be focused squarely on the player characters and their intentions and desires...that is the design of the D&D game. NPCs (monstrous or otherwise) are a dime a dozen; they exist as obstacles and allies and sword fodder FOR THE PLAYER CHARACTERS. Only the PCs count as heroes in the D&D game. Their lives (and deaths) are, ultimately, the only ones that will matter to the game's participants. Ever.

#7 The Universe is a caring one

Building on #6, it is important to understand that the Dungeon Master (DM)...that ultimate creator of the D&D human and cares about the players and their characters. I will state it is impossible to be wholly impartial as a referee...which is why we make use of rules and randomized fortune generators (i.e. dice) to ensure that we do not err too far to one side or another.

However, we care for our players (and their characters)...if we did not care, if they did not matter, we would not bother creating challenges for them to confront. We want them to be challenged...because we love the game and want to continue playing it, and the game will not hold the players' interest if we make the game too easy or too difficult. We (the DMs) want the players to be engaged with the game play....because that will hold their interest and allow us to continue playing; as I wrote in #6, there is no game without players. And remember #1: D&D is first and foremost a game.

DMs MUST care about the campaign (both the setting and its players), because if the DM does not then no one else will. For the game to reach its maximum potential, the Dungeon Master must be heavily invested. They must know the rules, they must create the world, they must build "dungeons" and scenarios and situations that will intrigue and delight their players. That means a lot of time, effort, and thoughtfulness being expended by the person who elects to play "Dungeon Master" to the table.

How can such a person NOT care what happens?

The game universe (i.e. the DM) of a "true" D&D game cares about the players because they must. Because it matters how much treasure is made available. It matters how much magic and resources the players are able to access. It matters how the challenges of the party intersect with imaginary world being created. It matters whether or not success or failure happens and what impact (if any) that will have on the development of the ongoing campaign and its "legacy."

In its advanced form, the D&D game is neither frivolous nor capricious; it is not thrown together thoughtlessly, nor is it run carelessly. There is too much to the game for the DM not to care. And for any particular game table, the DM is the embodiment of the game's universe.

Thus, the D&D Universe cares. That doesn't make it kindly, nor wrathful, nor malicious, nor generous....although, as a human being, DMs will exhibit all these emotions and more. However, the competent DM will not allow such feelings to unduly influence the play at the table, because (the rules being what they are) doing so has the potential of breaking the game. And the DM cares too much. 

How could they not?

Aaaaaaand...that's all I've got for today. Cheers!
: )

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Classic Priming

It's been nearly a week since my last three posts, and I've been using my (little) free time since then to think about my "theme" and just exactly what I want to write. It's tough, because there's a lot going on in there "world" of D&D gaming.

Hold that thought.

First, let's start with someone else's blog. If you haven't read The Retired Adventurer's essay Six Cultures of Play, you really should. I've read it multiple times over the last couple months, trying to absorb it; yesterday, I listened to a podcast reading of the essay (while doing household chores), and feel like I've got an even better grasp of these concepts...trying to see how they fit with my own experiences AND those reports from others that I've read about. With regard to Dungeons & Dragons, two thoughts keep drumming in my brain when I consider the development/evolution of role-playing:
  1. Is it too late to close the barn door?
  2. Should I even be worried about the escaped horse?
I know several, very respectable minds who would say the answer to #2 is a definitive NO, and thus #1 isn't even worth bothering about. This is the mindset of, "hey, I have my game, I'll run it how I want, and everyone else can go to hell." Other, less respectable, minds feel the same way...or at least reach the same conclusion: "it is what it is," they say.

And, yes, there are folks who just want to find a way to make money off whichever way the wind happens to be blowing. A war profiteer can sell guns to both sides of a conflict, after all.

But I am a jackass. And I have made a bit of a rep for myself railing against (and failing to accept) just "what is." Shouting in the darkness is pretty much what I let's fucking go!

In recent days, I have come to the conclusion that there is only ONE TRUE edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This is, of course, patently and provably false, as any gamer with half a brain can tell you: people of all stripes continue to play every edition (and variant) ever published (by my count: about 13) IN ADDITION TO two dozen or more various hacks, heartbreakers, retro-clones, and homages. Yes, I agree...I am an f'ing idiot to make such a statement.

There is only ONE TRUE (published) edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I suck and I'm wrong, and I can feel the rotten fruit and garbage folks are pelting me with, even as I write this. And the HATE...the venomous hatred that folks will have for hearing me say such a dastardly thing. Because I'm guessing a lot of folks (well, my readers anyway) know in their heart of hearts the truth (or suspect the truth) of my statement, and it won't necessarily sit well with them for a VARIETY of reasons. And the harder that sits with you, the more pushback and resentment and hatred I expect to receive. 

[maybe some puzzlement, too...but those folks have been puzzled throughout this series. I have an inkling of WHY that is, but I don't want to address it...not in this post, anyway]

So, go ahead, say it with me. You all know what the "one true edition" of D&D is, don't you? I don't even need to write it (though I will), because for anyone who's reading this blog post, there's probably a particular image of a particular edition that comes to mind when one hears the term "Dungeons & Dragons," a color illustration that (for whatever reason) is thoroughly branded in your brain in association with the game. Probably. I'd guess at least 90%. Even if the image has NOTHING to do with the edition (or game) that you currently play/run.

AD&D. The "first" edition. Gygax's opus. That's the one: the one true game. 

Not OD&D (all respect to Arneson's legacy and Rob Kuntz's opinion...yes, I've read your book). The original books were a proto-game, something in it's formative stages, an add-on to Chainmail, a rules-ifying of Braunstein. Not B/X (although that's still the best introduction to learning/teaching the game) nor any of the other "basic" versions. And definitely not Cook's cleaned-up 2E or any of the later, innovated versions. Certainly not the currently published 5E which (in my opinion) makes a mockery of earlier systems with its attempt to compromise on all fronts. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, that hoary, draconian, curmudgeonly trilogy of tomes (DMG, PHB, MM) crystalized the "system" first begun with three Little Brown Books...three books that were so woefully incomplete that they led to half a dozen supplementary volumes and countless variations of The Game across college campuses in the U.S. and military bases throughout the world. AD&D by itself...with no additional volumes necessary...was whole and complete. Everything else added later...the Fiend Folio, Deities & Demigods, Unearthed Arcana, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, etc....were at best ICING and, at worse, blatant ca$h grabs. Whether you like them or not (I like several), ALL are superfluous to the game. Many do more to BREAK the game's function than actually aiding it.


It is not a perfect game...there are few (if any) games that ARE perfect. It has inconsistencies and missteps. Polymorphing undead. Alignment language. Sex-based limitations on ability scores. Color spray. Many examples abound...nearly all are eminently correctable without destroying functionality (i.e. without breaking the game). And while not perfect...and definitely a tad on the "complex" is a wonderful game. Extremely playable. Incredibly enjoyable. My favorite game of all time, and one of the greatest games ever created.

And one of the most misunderstood.

And I'm not talking "misunderstood" because of inherent misogyny or colonialist attitudes or whatever. The misunderstanding I'm talking about is How To Play The Game and What The Game Is About...basic foundational pieces of game play, in other words. Part of this is due to ineptitude on the part of the author (Gygax). Part of this is due to a grandfathered community of OD&D gamers already playing with wide variation prior to AD&D's publication. Part of this is due to new entrants to the hobby, coming in with incoherent ideas of what D&D play IS and not being disabused of their notions by a publishing company (under ANY banner or ownership group) whose aim has been and continues to be turn a profit from this "thing" (Dungeons & Dragons) that we don't quite understand ourselves

John Bell's essay (cited at the beginning of this post) fails to address it within any single one of his "six cultures of play," but of the six it is the Classic model that comes closest, specifically with this line:
The point of playing the game in classic play is not to tell a story (tho' it's fine if you do), but rather the focus of play is coping with challenges and threats that smoothly escalate in scope and power as the PCs rise in level.
[emphasis added by me, as usual]

Bell may have been more accurate in stating that "classic" play is not meant to "tell a story" in the same way as a trad, neo-trad, or "story gamer" tells a story, but the point of play is NOT limited to wandering around (and blundering into) challenges of proportionately increasing progression. D&D, as played in the proper style, is not a video game, and does not operate under the assumptions of video game play. Or rather, it has SOME similarity to...generally RPGs (here I'll cite The Bard's Tale and SSI's Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus) which took their cues from Dungeons & Dragons, but which were limited by their particular medium...namely, the requirement of being finite and requiring an endpoint to their "story."

Correct play of D&D (and, yes, again, throw your tomatoes at me and insert your own air quotes every time I write "correct") involves the telling of not one but THREE stories, only two of which matter much, and NONE of which require any sort of "emotional satisfaction" from an unfolding narrative structure. These are:
  1. The Setting Background
  2. The PCs Actions
  3. The Campaign's Development
The setting background is all the DM-facing stuff that goes into preparation before the game is played. It is the creation and outlining of lands and power structures, determining the whys and wherefores of any dungeons, "histories" of the world, thoughts on why monsters exist, and conceptualizing how magic functions. It's all the various bits and pieces of "fluff" that the DM must add to make a setting suitable for running a D&D game; it can be amorphous or specific or gradually built-up over many sessions of gaming. It can be based on real world stuff, fiction novels or film, or anything else. This particular story matters far less to the players than the Dungeon Master, as "sensibility" of a setting is only a secondary concern compared to the action at the table, assuming the DM is competent at their craft (i.e. if the players are more thrilled discussing the setting's background than "what's going on" in play, then there's a major issue with the DM's ability to generate engagement).

The second story being told, and the one of most immediate concern for everyone at the table, is the story of the player characters' actions. This is game play itself and (as I've written before) it should have all the narrative structure and theming of a really crazy camping trip...which is to say: not much. It is simply the story of what the PCs did during any particular game session. It is not concerned with PC backstories or drama, it is concerned with ACTIONS. Was there a fight? Was a dungeon explored? Did anyone die? Was there a really noteworthy victory won? Was a PC transformed into something "unnatural?" Was the shopkeeper a surly cuss? Did the goblins become unexpected allies? Etc. D&D, correctly played, provides player engagement in the moment because of the circumstances of the game, not because of any "meaningful constructed narrative." And it is that player engagement that leads to emotional investment of a much deeper sort than one pre-constructed prior to play.

The final story being told over the course of a true and proper D&D game is that of the campaign's development. This is the story...the legacy really...of a DM's setting/world after having been met by the players. As in real life, no one knows when the game begins just who will end up being the hero, who will be the goat, who is destined to die in tragic (or humorous) fashion or how the history of the campaign world will be written. Depending on the length of the campaign being played, the setting may be RADICALLY changed over time, with kingdoms rising and falling, regions getting "nuked" with magic or monsters, old dungeons being cleaned out, and new dungeons being discovered...not to mention all the failures and successes along a path littered with the corpses of dead (and raised and re-killed) adventurers. By the end of such a campaign...IF it ends...a common theme may be discovered, but just as likely one may find an interesting "world history" featuring the antics of many important (player character) individuals of a minor or major impact.

The problem with "classic" play as defined by Bell...and ONE of the reasons behind the shift to "trad" when imagination and/or effort on the part of the Dungeon Master fails the players at the table. When there is NO engagement, because the world is too simplistic, boring, undefined, unrealized...when the game is nothing but a scaled up version of the Dungeon! board game, then yes, players will try to find their OWN methods of having fun, creating dramatic backgrounds to spice up a bland setting, inventing funny voices and quirky personalities for bland avatars that represent nothing more than a collection of numbers scribbled on paper. Gygax himself recognized this and wrote about in his section The Ongoing Campaign (DMG, p. 112):
"...there must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and the good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play...their actions having meaning above and beyond personal aggrandizement."
"Classic" play is thus NOT limited to "challenge-based play," solely for the sake of progressing to fighting bigger monsters with larger treasure hoards. Good play on the part of players does lead to advancement, earning them the right and (hopefully) ability to take on such challenges, but this isn't the endgame of play itself...not by a long shot!

Likewise, please note that Gygax's text is NOT relating to the establishment of domains and strongholds. As he writes in the paragraph just preceding: "...even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges." He is talking about sustaining campaigns through something more, in order to stave off "participant attrition" and "enthusiast ennui." The complete envisioned by Gygax and codified in his AD&D tomes...was supposed to be more than that.

What is was never supposed to be, though, was what it would become after his ouster from the company in 1986. Every iteration has of the game since Gygax closed his formulation of the DMG (circa 1979), every variant...even Gygax's own!...have taken the game farther and farther away from the fashion in which it was meant to be played. This drift in the game's design parameters cannot entirely be laid at the feet of the publisher, of course (more on that in a second), but it is the publishers (TSR, WotC, Hasbro, etc.) who ultimately bear responsibility for how the game is played. Only the publisher, as owner and caretaker, have real authority and influence over the customer base.

And the current publishers have, largely, abdicated their responsibility, instead focusing on marketing and selling their brand. "Have fun! Make the game what you want!" they say [so long as you continue to put money in our pocket...that's the unspoken bit]. Consider this: if they ACTUALLY came down and said "this is the way you're supposed to play D&D" would there be the confusion and arguments and misinformation about the game being spread far and wide on Ye Old Internets? Would there be blogs and talking heads decrying one edition or another? Would there be youngsters turning to Matt Mercer when trying to figure out HOW one is supposed to play this D&D game?

So, instead, you have people buy the game...and then abandon it on a shelf. You have people that "dabble" a bit...and then move on to other hobbies. You have enthusiasts who lose their enthusiasm...and drift into RPGs that better facilitate their priorities of game play. 

And you have a plethora of people screaming bloody murder at each other over something that should be the most amazing, innovative game ever invented!

NOW...when I write that there is only ONE TRUE edition of D&D, I'm not being facetious. Nor am I being judgmental of your particular preferred edition of play. Heck, I'm about to publish another supplement for the B/X game myself (before the end of the year, fingers crossed), so it would be great for me personally if you were open to other versions of the rules!

I'm not trying to denigrate your tastes, your style, or anything else. And I'm not saying that AD&D is a perfect game, nor that E. Gary Gygax was a perfect designer. I'm just saying it's the greatest game I've ever encountered, and Mr. Gygax was largely responsible for its best iteration. And I'd like more people to play it...and play it in the manner it was intended, which is neither "classic" nor "trad." Nor is it (generally) in the fashion of the OSR, nor of the OC/Neo-Trad school.

Right at this very moment, I have a post-it stuck to my DMG with 7 elements of "true D&D" jotted down. In a way, these elements are the things I'd like to institute as a replacement for the mythic Old School ethos I rebutted in a prior post. They are not meant to function as a new "primer"...I suspect none of my readers need such elementary instruction in D&D game play...but they are meant to "prime" the reader, as in to make ready (e.g. "prime the pump") for game play, both as a player and as a Dungeon Master.

That will be tomorrow's post, since this one has already gone long. Please feel free to post your scathing denouncements in the comments section.

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. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Dispel Myth(s)

Just picking up where I left off...

Yesterday I asked a not-so-rhetorical question "have people forgotten how to play D&D?" The pat answer is "Of course not, people all over the world are still playing D&D and enjoying the heck out of it!" The evidence is fairly clear: tons of book sales, tons of convention goers (when pandemics aren't getting in the way), tons of presence on social media platforms, blogs, web forums, etc. The game is again being sold in toy stores and there's all sorts of attached merch and related D&D product.

Clearly the game is enjoying a popularity unseen since the 1980s. Doesn't that indicate people are playing the game? Isn't that popularity coming from the enjoyment folks feel playing the game?

Perhaps. But I'm inclined to think rather differently. 

Regardless (the marketing of D&D is probably a subject for its own post) today I'm writing about folks who are actually playing the game, and specifically to folks who gravitate in the group referred to as "the Old School" or "the OSR" (for short). The OSR is just another marketing term, another badge of identity politics. I know my published works (including blog posts) ties me to the OSR label, too, but I honestly don't identify much with it. I am a gamer...a middle-aged gamer (I'll be 48 this year). I've been playing RPGs with dice since 1981...that's coming up on 40 years. My love affair...with RPGs started with B/X but it has run the gamut over many, MANY different games though the years.

I'm just a geezer that likes escapist fantasy games. 

And D&D is the one I know best. Not only because it's the one I've played the longest, but because over the last dozen years I've spent a LOT of time and energy "deep diving" the game, researching its workings, its history, its development. Because I love it, and because I find it fascinating, and because it has had such a dramatic impact on our culture...not just "gamer culture" or "geek culture" but world culture. For me, Dungeons & Dragons has much the same way that a theologian feels about the Bible or a historian feels about classic treatise written by ancient Greek and Latin scholars. It's worth my study.

SO...the OSR. A movement, a market, and (originally) an umbrella term for folks who like to play an older version of D&D. Not an older style, mind you...simply an older version. 

[because "style" is largely a matter of taste...different styles of play have been around since the early days of the about or listen to interviews with various TSR luminaries to see what I'm talking about]

As the OSR has moved from an identifier of game preference to an industry, there has been a loss of knowledge about the fundamentals of how to play the game.

And part of the reason for this is this strange and nutty adaption of (and adherence to) a set of stylistic assumptions/guidelines used to define "old school" play. Things like "rulings over rules," "heroic not superheroic," "unbalanced combat," "emphasis on player agency," "high lethality," etc.  These ideas have been taken to heart, cherished, and championed by members of the OSR pretty much since 2008 when Matt Finch published his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

I combed Ye Old Blog this morning, but found no mention of the Quick Primer and nothing about Finch, except for an off-hand remark that I'm not a big Swords & Wizardry fan. That doesn't mean I'm unaware of Finch's work: I've both S&W and the Primer downloaded on the hard drive and have read them before. But, especially with regard to the Primer, I think a little context is needed for BOTH of these works.

Finch wrote S&W in 2008 because the OD&D rules were out-of-print at that time. He used Wizards of the Coast's OGL to release the rules so that folks could have and play the game (the original books have since been made available in PDF format). 

The Quick Primer was released alongside S&W in part to explain to "modern" (post-2000 players) the differences between new versions of the game and ORIGINAL (OD&D, 0e, White Box, etc.) Dungeons & edition of the game that was primordial and not yet fully formedIn this context, as an overview for modern players coming to OD&D needing a radical perspective change, it works fine as a "quick primer" (hence the name). But treating it as a treatise on the subject of "old school play," or as gospel truth, or even as being applicable to other old editions of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X, Holmes, AD&D, etc.) is a catastrophic, erroneous leap to make...let alone foundation on which to build a gaming paradigm.

Let's examine some of the accepted ideas  of "old school" D&D gaming that have sprung from this false understanding and see if we can't destroy their fallacies.

Simple or Few Rules: while older edition versions of D&D do not have nearly the "bloat" found in later editions, calling them "rules light" is hardly appropriate. Setting aside BASIC games (Holmes, B/X, BECMI) which were specifically written as beginning instruction manuals for new players you will find that both OD&D and AD&D did nothing BUT add rules to the game over time: OD&D added five supplements in addition to additional instruction presented in The Strategic Review magazine, nearly all of which were eventually incorporated, and AD&D added manual after manual all the way up to the 2nd edition, which would take the same tack. Even Mentzer's BECMI had an ever-expanding list of instructional texts (not just the Companion-Master-Immortal sets, but the new rules provided in Gazetteers, some of which...non-weapon skills...would later be incorporated into the Rules Cyclopedia). The fact that some people prefer simpler rule sets (like B/X as a standalone game) is NOT endemic of "old school play."

Rulings not Rules: perhaps the worst phrase ever coined in the Old School lexicon. Gygax's instructions to create one's own rules for situations not covered in the textual rules is probably the most misunderstood part of old texts. His admonition "why let us do more of your imagining for you?" was a proscriptive against folks writing to TSR for rules arbitration (in effect, he was saying "Figure it out yourself!"). But just because the rules can't cover EVERYTHING doesn't mean they don't cover SOMEthings...and for many things (like combat) there were existing rules...and more were being added all the time (see above). Finch's statement in this regard was regarding the incompleteness of the OD&D system.

Heroic not Superheroic: another oft-quoted "gem" about how old school PCs are aspiring to be Batman, not Superman. Rubbish. Superheroes are super because they have inherent supernatural powers, and there are PLENTY on display in the D&D game: magic-users, clerics, druids, illusionists, paladins, rangers, monks, and bards all have "super powers" not found in ordinary folks. So do characters with psionics. And if you don't think a high level fighter's ability to cut a swath through 10 or 15 or 20 mooks in a single round isn't "superheroic" (see the rules in both Chainmail and AD&D) than I guess we have very different ideas of the human possibility spectrum. Old school PCs of the mid-high level range are hopping through other dimensions, fighting dragons and demon princes, running kingdoms and commanding armies...this is not "Batman level" stuff. Old school characters are larger than life, much as their inspirations (Conan, etc.) were.

"Forget Game Balance:" and this is why we end up seeing so many published adventures that pit low level PCs against godlike super-beings. Just because encounters aren't "engineered" to allow PCs to win (see 4E, 5E, and 3E's Challenge Rating system) does NOT mean that combats or challenges are "unbalanced." If I throw a dragon in the first chamber of my dungeon meant for 1st and 2nd level characters, that's not "old school;" it's being a crap Dungeon Master! The D&D played using old edition rules is very much about risk assessment and threat management, and about players having the choice of how to approach perils to life and limb. But part of the art of DM'ing is in designing challenges that are difficult without being impossible. And rewards should certainly be commensurate with the challenges being presented, in order to tempt PCs into untenable/difficult situations.

High Lethality: this one, I suppose, is a bit in the mind of the beholder. If you're the type that sees ANY player character death as being "highly lethal" (because you're used to an edition of D&D with "death saves" and "healing surges" and whatnot), then sure...old edition D&D is "highly lethal." But if your definition of "high lethality" equates to "Total Party Kill" (or near-TPK) than, no...old edition D&D does NOT necessarily have a high degree of lethality. Death in D&D is a fail state for the players; it generally indicates 'you screwed up.' It is a possible penalty of poor (or unlucky) play. However, it is easily mitigated by the ample number of ways to bring PCs back from the dead, and by the relative ease with which new characters can be created and advanced. I have found AD&D to be especially forgiving with regard to PC death (due to higher hit points per die, more clerical healing at low levels, and the use of negative hit points as a "buffer")...but even with B/X the game need not be "highly lethal." DMs must still balance encounters based on party's experience and ability.

Emphasis on Player Agency: um...what? If you mean players aren't laboring under a DM practicing illusionism than I don't think that's something very specific to "old school" play. But regarding PCs having a "choice" in what they do in-game (again, not something specific to old editions of D&D!) there are plenty of ways that player agency is restricted and curtailed in old edition D&D: see charm spells, hold spells, paralysis, petrifaction, and (yes) death. Plenty of ways exist to take a player out of play for short (or long durations). If you're talking about an "open sandbox world" unfettered and unconstrained, I'd counter with a plethora of published old edition adventures featuring "trapped" player characters, including Castle Amber, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Ravenloft, Dungeon of the Slave Lords, the Desert of Desolation series, the premise for Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, etc. 

Referee Impartiality: um...again, is this indicative of "old school" play? I think not. However, while I am a strong proponent of not fudging the dice...ever (and you should be, too!) I have to say that I love my players and I want them to succeed at overcoming challenges (yes, even though I cackle with glee when their characters die). Why? Because for me (as a DM), allowing players to succeed allows their character to advance which in turn allows me to open up new content and newer more cunning challenges and situations. It's a win-win for everyone. Likewise, it's really tough to run a long-term viable campaign if you let ONLY dice dictate what monsters and treasures are encountered by your a DM you must be willing to set the ship's course; the fun is in seeing how the PCs navigate the waters. And reading Gygax's text in the 1E DMG, I think he was pretty much of a similar mind.

Aaaaand...that's about it. Any other long-standing precious beliefs about ostensibly "old school" game play that I need to stomp all over? If you think of some let me know. Otherwise, please feel free to grump about how wrong I am in bashing OSR-approval-stamped credentials of "real D&D play."

Next Post: I hope to start writing a series about actual "fundamentals" of game play (at least for older editions; sorry, can suck it). Need to fill this newly created void with some constructive stuff. Stay tuned!
: )

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fundamental D&D

Oh, boy. Where to start?

Recently there have been a lot of "self-assessment" posts popping up around the blog-o-sphere: folks celebrating their 5th or 10th or 20th year blogging (and where they've been and how things have changed) and often including assessments of the "OSR," specifically where the "movement" is, how it's evolved, and reflections/opinions on its development.

I don't write much about the OSR...since 2013 I've got less than a dozen posts with that label (and before that, most of my OSR posts were reviews of "stuff" being produced by folks identifying as part of the OSR community), so it's been interesting to observe what folks are talking about. Especially as there's been more than a little discussion about how the OSR has fractured into multiple groups or "factions."

For me, I see it less as any kind of schism(s) and more just bog standard Balkanization...we (that is, the "D&D gaming community") never really were a "unity" of any sort. The only thing we really shared was a particular piece of geography of the tabletop gaming world...the piece that is most interested in Dungeons & Dragons and its specific pseudo-genre of fantasy adventure gaming.  But we've always had different politics, design aesthetics, play styles, and objectives of play. We've always had  different comfort levels with regard to both game complexity and subject matter (and individuals have seen these comfort levels fluctuate over time!) and some are simply incompatible with each other. Before there was a Black Hack RPG there were people cutting swaths of rules out of their game, and that style of play has always been antithetical and unsatisfying to some of the others. The same "always" line can be drawn between those of a more artistic bent versus the more staid designers.

We're just (re-)asserting our independence as individuals. No one likes to be pigeon-holed.

Recently, deadtreenoshelter coined the term "D&D fundamentalists" for the camp opposite the so-called "art-punks," a term I find exceptionally amusing, especially as I've been lumped into it. With regard to religion, fundamentalism is the strict adherence to the literal interpretation of scripture...a concept which could certainly be applied to any advocate of "By The Book" or "Rules As Written" D&D.  But I've generally been one to question rules...or, at least, experiment with order to gain insight and understanding into the game. If I have fundamental tendencies (I'm definitely not a fundamentalist), it's only because I've already tried the road of the heretic...and found it lacking in one regard or another.

What's a far stranger thing to me, though, is this strange way that the D&D game seems to be developing, as evidenced by the product being produced, both within the DIY crowd (the group that commonly refers to themselves as "OSR") and those followers of the flagship brand, AKA "5E." I'll be honest: until recently, I wasn't paying much attention to either of these groups...probably due to my being a rather busy adult human being as well as a narcissistic naval-gazer. But there seems to be something very different going on right now, and I've seen more than a couple people commenting on it, most recently in the comments of this adventure review over at tenfootpole:

Bryce wrote:
Yeah, I understand this is a different play style. I don't understand the appeal but I acknowledge that it is the dominant play style today, and has been for quite some time.
While GusL wrote:
It seems to me that the 5E zeitgeist goes a bit beyond plot or location based. Ravenloft is clearly better than Curse of Strahd but 5E has changed even since that came out. When I look at contemporary 5E stuff it reads like something entirely new.
GusL has done a lot of respectable adventure analysis and (in my opinion) is a bit of a "5E apologist" (that is to say he really tries to give 5E a fair shake as much as he can, despite having the crustier sensibilities of a true grognard). As such, I am inclined to trust his impressions in this matter...he does, after all, read far more 5E material than myself.

However, it's NOT just the 5E stuff...there's been some paradigm shifts for the indie/DIY stuff as well (while I pay little attention to Ennies, it's impossible to disregard them as a measuring stick of what is popular and "trendy" at any particular moment; the last couple years "OSR" offerings are illustrative). While it's easy to be dismissive of "artpunk" offerings as more style than substance, I think there's plenty to be gleaned from the effect and impact such works have on indie publishing industry...such as it is...AND the possible reasons for its rise to popularity.

Have people forgotten how to play Dungeons & Dragons

That's not meant to be rhetorical! However, the better question might be: Is the D&D community still playing D&D, i.e. something recognizable as the D&D game? 

I feel like I've asked similar questions in the past (though I was probably being facetious). Look, regardless of what version of D&D happens to be a person's favorite, there have been some "givens" to what goes on at the table (virtual or otherwise). Off the top of my head, I might say the usual elements include:
  • A group of players working together (a party of adventurers)...
  • To overcome perilous challenges...
  • Created and controlled by a referee (the Dungeon Master)...
  • Using a specific set of game rules (mechanics, system).
There are, of course, other "usual elements:" inhuman monsters, magical items, dungeons, treasure, etc. But the presence of these tropes vary from table to table (some DMs prefer human antagonists, some prefer less magic, some make little use of dungeons, and some care little for treasure). But those four bullet points are pretty specific to "fantasy adventure games" of D&D's persuasion.

And yet these main elements seem to be shifting. There is little peril or challenge. Players are charged with creating their own drama and conflict. Rules are habitually ignored, thrown out, or subjugated to the whims of individuals at the table. 

It feels a bit like D&D is less a game to be played and more a...a...hmm. Well, I don't really know what you'd call it. 'Something to do,' I suppose. Instead of reading a book or watching TV. It's still a form of play...but it's less and less of a game. Certainly not the same game it once was.

And the funny thing is that for many (most?) folks, I don't think this is a purposeful shift in paradigm. It's a plethora of things adding up, along with a lack of understanding about the game, and how the game functions. Or, at least, how the game functioned once upon a time.

And I think that some of the "knowledge" being put out there these days...especially some of the knowledge being put out as to "what Old School play is" misdirected or grossly wrong or non-helpful. God bless these people with their new "Old School Primer" but I read through the document and it's just a huge steaming pile of nonsense. 

I suppose (*sigh* cranky) that I am more than a little fatigued by individuals who started playing D&D in the last 20 years telling me how and what "old school" D&D is...or even just what ANY kind of D&D is. But you try to correct someone's ignorance and they just tell you to fuck off because, you know, it's just an opinion and you're telling them how their particular brand of fun is bad-wrong-dumb. Please let us NOT be preached to.

Or taught. Or educated. Or enlightened.

Two days ago was my (insane) brother's birthday. It seems only fitting that the same day I stumbled across this (insane) post claiming that 5E is this wonderful version of D&D that has only recently been villainized after originally being lauded as a return to "old school" gaming, and that we all have such short memories. 

Obviously, he hasn't read my posts on the subject of 5E from 2013-2015. 

But much of what "Dwiz" is listing in his post regarding trends in Old School design aren't inaccurate...they are EXCEPTIONALLY accurate. They're just, mostly, bad or misunderstood trends that have been as detrimental to the development of the DIY ("OSR") scene as they have been to 5E ("New D&D").  

This is something I want to write about in the next few my time permits. Hope that's okay with folks.
; )