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:
- Is it too late to close the barn door?
- 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 do...so 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" side...it 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 older...computer 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:
- The Setting Background
- The PCs Actions
- 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" play...is 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 game...as 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.