Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Vids

[man, I've been writing some longwinded posts lately]

Waaaaay back in the comments on my "Drift" post, John Higgins wrote:
When I started playing in the 90s, we had two texts to draw from when learning how to play D&D: we had the Classic D&D Game boxed set (which has pretty much all of the same rules as Mentzer Basic and Moldvay Basic, any differences are minor to the point of trivial), and we had whatever AD&D 2nd Edition hardcovers and splatbooks we could get our hands on with what little money I and my fellow teenagers could scrape together (and the text of 2nd Edition is *terribly* prescriptive, always harping on the reader to practice "good roleplaying" over desiring high stats or powerful magic items or a powerful character, really driving home the dissonance between the venerable AD&D rules and the then-ascendant "trad" culture that said RPGs were all about story and character). 

And what did my friends and I learn from these texts? Very little, actually, because before we had ever rolled our first d20, we had already been thoroughly corrupted by JRPGs - Final Fantasy VII in particular - and assumed without even paying a jot of attention to the texts or the rules of (A)D&D that a role-playing game was a story simulator with some combat rules bolted on, just like the console and PC RPGs we were already familiar with. And so that was how we (mis-?)(ab-?)used (A)D&D.
This was a comment I meant to come back to, but never did (in my defense, I did have a lot of other stuff I wanted to jot down on Ye Old Blog before forgetting about it). However, John's comment in Friday's post about Second Edition Story Awards gave my brain a poke:
While I would never defend 2nd Edition's XP system, I'll say that it at least gets a perfectly functional implementation in the Infinity Engine video games (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale). Monsters are worth exactly as much XP as in the tabletop 2e core rules, but every time the party completes a task or mission or quest (or slays the "final boss" of a dungeon), some fixed XP award is granted which appears to bear no formulaic relation to anything else (beyond, likely, the built-in assumption that the party will be of a certain level when they complete the task, and so the reward is vaguely commensurate with the difficulty and XP needed for a party of that level). I would even go so far as to say that Baldur's Gate is an example of the 2e XP system "working as intended" - insofar as it deviates from the text of the rulebooks but lines up quite well with how I remember every single 2e-playing group I've ever encountered actually running things.
So let's talk about the video game thing. Specifically computer RPGs that emulate fantasy adventure gaming in a style similar to Dungeons & Dragons.

I have, of course, played a couple/three of these over the years, but probably not as many as one might expect of a geeky D&D blogger. Fact is, my family didn't even have a personal computer in the house till sometime around 1988 (an Amiga 500 for the curious), which was purchased around the same time I was entering high school. This probably seems crazy to folks now, but my parents even debated whether or not we NEEDED a computer (this is before the ubiquitous internet, young 'uns) and while, sure, it was easy enough in those days to say "computers are the FUTURE," there wasn't much imagination for what one would USE a computer for in the home. I mean, we had a typewriter for goodness sake (which I used to type term papers and such in middle school). Would a word processor alone be enough reason to justify the expense? 

Because the MAIN thing most kids were doing with PCs in those days was playing video games, and my parents weren't big fans of such things...for any number of reasons (most valid). They certainly weren't getting the 'puter for that. We may have had some idea that I would have learned how to code or write BASIC with the thing...but once we got it home we found the thing's proprietary "user friendly" OS was absolute shit for this purpose (you couldn't even ACCESS code with it), so those dreams died on the vine. In the end, it did turn out to be a pretty shitty investment. I wrote a few papers using Word Perfect in high school (that I could just have easily done by hand), and I played a handful of video games before the system became obsolete (sometime around 1992). But my parents were divorced by then, and I was in university (or, later, work) where I had access to computers when I needed them.

I didn't buy a computer for myself (my first laptop) till after I was married and had purchased my first house (circa 2005). And that was with the idea that I might start doing some writing stuff (like games or books or something). 

I give this brief history as a way to explain: I have never played games like Baldur's Gate or Pool of games published in collaboration with TSR and aimed at emulating the AD&D game. For gamers of a certain age, these video games were their introduction to tabletop gaming...their development as D&D gamers were largely informed by these games, and their assumptions and expectations of play exhibit the sentiments instilled by these products.

Contrarily, I was tabletop gamer looong before I ever fired up "Bard's Tale" on my old Amiga, and as such I come to the CRPG genre with a different perspective: here is a way to play (in abbreviated fashion) D&D when D&D isn't otherwise available to you. At times when I didn't have a solid gaming group, and yet still had a deep desire to play, it was something that could scratch an itch. These games SUCK compared to the thing they were supposed to emulate, but they were OKAY.  Plus, no need to juggle schedules with all the players: fire the thing up and the entire party is present. Sure, they lack the personality of real players (I hope!) and probably the creativity when it comes to challenges....but they are, at least, absolutely reliable.

Not D&D
But I'm not relying on these games to teach me how D&D works or plays. I am not looking at these games to show me how (as a DM) to design a campaign. I see them as the limited entities that they are: SSI's game Phantasie III is cool enough to have PC's travel to other planes of existence (the Plane of Light, the Plane of Darkness, and the Netherworld)...and, at the end, also gives you the choice whether to join the bad guys or good guys by the end (saving the world or damning it)...but compared to an ACTUAL game of D&D, even such choices and options are incredibly limited.

At least, if you're used to running a game that isn't a railroad / adventure "path" travesty.

Hey, I played one or two of those old "Fighting Fantasy" books (Choose Your Own Adventure with dice); they were a little better than a CYOA (or TSR's "Endless Quest" series), but you're still only playing someone else's story. A computer RPG is a bigger, sweeter version of the same thing, using the computer's computing ability to juggle and care for all the fiddly bits and dice rolls. But it's still just playing out someone else's story. And it is constrained by the limitations of the medium, in a way that the human mind and imagination just is not. And fun as it is, as awesome as it may be to play, NONE of these CRPG's provide adequate teaching or preparation for running your own campaign as a Dungeon Master; at best, they can give you some ideas on how to be a storyteller, just not the same thing.

Because it's not just about drawing dungeons or wilderness maps, and it's not just about coming up with good "scenarios." To paraphrase an old war aphorism: all campaign ideas seem good until they make contact with the players. Managing that, is really what being a Dungeon "Master" is all about. 

[though being a "master" of the system is also an important bit]

Now, I joke fairly regularly about being an Old Man...I do that on the blog, I do it with my family, I do it with 20- and 30-somethings I come in contact with. But I'm not really that old at all...I certainly don't feel "old" (middle aged, yes...and I've got some creaky past injuries that bother me from time-to-time). Despite my slow start with getting into the "computer thang" I'm not completely hopeless/lost/uncomfortable when it comes to technology...if I'm resistant to it, it's mainly due to my annoyance with having to learn new ways of doing things, not an incapacity/fear of doing so. But while I'm not really an "old man," I am old enough that (especially with regard to gaming) I straddle two worlds: life before ubiquitous (user friendly) computers/tech, and life after. And because my formative years were from "the time before" so, too, are my sensibilities about a LOT of things. I watch too much TV and read too little compared to what I once did, for example, but my opinion of what is "too much" and "too little" is directly informed by the fact that once there was less TV to watch and more books worth reading on the shelves.

[ooo...someone's probably going to get mad about that last statement]

My particular perspective is a shrinking one: the more years pass, the more folks are born on the other side of the Great Divide. Plenty of people born before the advent of the "smart phone" have grown up never really knowing the "inconvenience" of a phone tethered to your wall. Plenty of folks in their 30s have never known a television that didn't have at least "basic" cable...or even the days of changing a channel without a remote control (can you imagine!). I was just explaining to my kids how, when I was their age, MOST of the home baseball team's 162 games could only be heard on the radio...and how that allowed folks to do other things (while still listening to the call) instead of sitting on their ass in front of their video altar.

The Dungeons & Dragons game was published by a middle aged man, but it was written for folks of a younger (and more imaginative) persuasion. And it is still being published for those types of individuals. But the number of "young people" of the '70s and '80s, are far outnumbered by the "young people" of the '90s, '00s, '10s, and (now) '20s...and that outnumbered sensibility is only going to get greater the more time passes. My own kids, now D&D players, have never yet played a computer RPG...but even their sensibilities are colored by the time in which they live. They have so much more need of much more need of being entertained instead of finding ways to entertain themselves. Video games and tablets and cell phones and laptops are just such an easy drug to hook up to...let alone a television set with a gazillion channels and streaming services.

Damn frigging insidious.

To all my "young" readers that are trying to unlearn D&D lessons taught to them by computer games...or the lessons of editions of D&D that were written to emulate video games that were created to emulate D&D: I feel for you. And I don't judge you or your particular notions of what D&D "is." And I will try to help (if I can) or point you to better bloggers/writers than myself (when I can't) to try to offer you different options, a different perspective. I'll try. 

But right now, I have to wash some dishes. They haven't yet invented the app to do that.


  1. Um...well...

    There is also this app called “kids”, that if you use the right program, will wash the dishes for you.

    Speaking of kids, their favorite form of “rpg” to be an improvised “Theater of the Mind”, which I adjudicated by the “pick a number between one and ten” ploy. Now, they only want to play computers. I normally only get a day off every ten days or so, so I don’t have time to set up and play anything with them, unfortunately. But, I like to.

    1. Tell me when Rosie the Robot is available at Home Depot. That's more what I'm talking about...if I still need to put the dishes in and take them out (and clean the china and teflon by hand), then it's not a big deal for me to push a button on my old Jenn-Air.

      "SmartWash" my eye.

  2. App ... "app"liance. What Cavalier said.

    There are plenty of crap apps out there.

    1. I meant “app”lication. You know…what geezers like me used to call “programs.”
      ; )

    2. I'm sorry. Pro ... grams? You mean, like on Television?

      You young'uns and your words.

  3. I'm also of an age where computer RPGs weren't my initial introduction to RPGs, but I can't deny that fantasy-themed video games, from Adventure for Atari 2600 and Colossal Cave Adventure for Apple II, through the Gauntlet games, Dragon's Lair, JPRGs like Dragon's Lair, Ultima, and so on DID have an effect on how we played D&D.

    But it was probably no greater effect than how those great (often cheesy) fantasy films of the 80s affected the game. Or the many books of fantasy, mythology, and legends that I read back then.

    Our D&D play was informed by the rule books. We never tried to reinvent the game to be more like what was available on early PCs, consoles, or in the arcade. Ideas for characters, monsters, dungeons, or adventures did sometimes come from the games we played, just like they came from books and film. That was about it.

  4. I'm not that old (35) but I don't think I had ever played an RPG before d&d. I started d&d around age 12, we had a Sega Genesis, an Atari, and a PC, but no computer RPGs. I had played both Myst and Zork before that point though. I do enjoy computer RPGs but I think my desire to play them actually came from me trying to replicate my tabletop experience.

    1. Yeah, I'm probably making gross assumptions and stereotyping younger gen gamers.

      What I probably *should* have added is that this is something I JUST DON'T CONSIDER when it comes to tabletop gamers. I just figure they came to the game the same way I did: through a pile of books and dice. That's not always (or even MOSTLY) the case, especially with the kids that came through on the 2E career track. The late 80s / early 90s (i.e. the era of 2E) saw a number of these types of games on the market...for a while they were THE type of action/adventure game (for the non-Mario crowd) up until the advent of Doom (1993) which saw the rise and takeover of first person shooters (and the way they've evolved the CRPG format).

      I'd imagine the folks who started with 3E were as likely brought in by earlier gen gamers (i.e. their parents) as by video games.