Staring out at my dining and living room areas, I see a lot of board games that have been played in the last week or so: Axis & Allies, Life, Clue, Cranium, Monopoly, Chess. This is a bit unusual for the fam, but we've had a lack of external obligations and a heaping pile of rain...plus, I've just wanted the kids to do something besides fire up some sort of portable screen device. I'm a curmudgeon that way.
Board games are not Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen a lot of "board game" posts and discussions around the blogs the last couple-three days...various angles, no one particular thread or thought...and I thought I might take a moment to belabor the point for a moment. Just because.
Because I think it's important.
Because, these days we often draw a line between "tabletop games" and "computer games" and while D&D is often (or potentially) played at/on a table, it's not the same thing as a tabletop game. Role-playing games of the "table-top" variety are NOT the same thing as common board or parlor games.
I think we forget that. We talk about "un-plugging" from our phones or Switches or consoles (or whatever) to play an analog game and we lump RPGs in the same category as backgammon. They aren't the same...they're not even close. Sure, B/X was purchased in a box. So, too, are fancy cigars.
Not. The. Same. Thing.
Consequently (and this is my point...as much as I ever have one), it's hardly any use judging RPGs by the same standards as other games. Yes, they have rules. Yes, they are played for enjoyment. The same could be said of a musical instrument. A saxophone is not the same as Chinese Checkers. Neither is an RPG.
RPGs need to be examined by their own standard. How well do they do the "RPG thing?" It's the only standard by which it makes sense to examine and analyze them.
[*sigh* I don't know why I bother writing this since I'm sure it will either elicit cries of "duh" or deliberate and hard-headed denial. I suppose I just want to record my thoughts of the moment]
People choose to play RPGs for a variety of reasons. People choose to play golf or baseball for a variety of reasons. Pleasure, challenge, camaraderie, stimulation (mental, emotional, whatever), escapism. The "whys" of play is less concerning, less interesting to me at this moment than the hows and whats: What is an RPG? How does its design facilitate play?
And of the hundreds or so RPGs I have owned, read, and/or played over the years, there is one RPG that stands head-and-shoulders over the entirety of the others with the way in which its HOW delivers on the promise of its WHAT.
RPGs provide rules for participants to explore an imaginary environment. There's the WHAT.
That's "all" they do (yeah, it's a bit of a large "all"). But it's certainly different from what a board or computer game provides, namely a fixed structure of finite possibility. There may be exploration that takes place in a computer/board game, but it is always...ALWAYS...a limited potentiality.
RPGs are not structurally limited. Their environs...the imaginary realm in which games are played...are limitless. The rules provide procedure and (some) structure, but the potential for infinite possibility exists in every single RPG, even a game as constrained by procedure as, say, My Life With Master or Dogs in the Vineyard.
The game of chess has a finite number of possible moves or combinations of play, just as does Tic-Tac Toe. Unlike the latter, those possible combinations number so many as to be...for practical purposes...uncountable. But given enough time (or enough computer memory) one could map out every possible sequence of plays given a board with a limited number of spaces and a limited number of pieces.
That's not possible with an RPG.
SO...now that I've defined the "what," we can look at the "how" and for the vast majority of RPGs, we can observe that designers tend to include some sort of conflict or "drama" to help drive the game or (at least) instill action in the game's participants.
Recognize that such conflict isn't necessary to the play of most RPGs (depending on how structurally tight their rules/procedures are). What if I said my fighter wanted to give up the mercenary work and start a farm? What if I decided I wanted to find a local village woman to woo and start a family with? What if the only "role-playing" interaction I wanted was with my neighboring villagers, discussing their issues and petty soap operas?
If the Dungeon Master and other players are on board with this type of game, nothing precludes the campaign from following this road. Maybe the magic-user wishes to start a school for the village children. Maybe the cleric wants to help the local pastor put a new roof on the church. Maybe the party thief decides he's done with his life of crime and decides to be the town sheriff, using his abilities to do "detective work," while being pleasant and sociable and atoning for his past pickpocketing and housebreaking.
Certainly, the rules provided in the PHB and DMG support (and encourage) a different style of play from this, but nothing prevents the group from going this route. Nothing stops the Dungeon Master from having an alien spaceship land in the village green one day, either...perhaps with friendly extraterrestrials that wish the village to board their ship and travel to a distant star to build a new colony or help terraform a planet that's atmosphere is conducive to humans (but not the e.b.s).
Endless possibilities with RPGs. Because the only (stated) objectives of play are "have fun" and "don't die" ...and the latter objective is secondary due to players' capability of creating replacement characters as necessary.
All that being said, the design of an RPG (the "HOW") is what provides the basis of comparison between different RPGs effectiveness of delivering an RPG experience. And in reviewing various RPGs and their designs, I cannot find a design more satisfying than that of Dungeons & Dragons. The premise of the game and the asymmetry of available player options combine to create a unique cooperative experience with modulated levels of adrenaline/stress/satisfaction that is a function of both GM creativity and players' own comfort level with regard to risk-reward.
It is (to me) unfortunate that later iterations of the D&D game have sought to limit and depress these elements.
But most RPGs aren't nearly so pointed or well-designed (at least in concept...all editions of D&D fall down at times in execution of the concept). And, yes, I write that knowing full well that the soundness of D&D's design is due as much to "happy accident" as to any real design chops. Regardless, of the RPGs that I've had the pleasure of playing over the years, there is really only one that comes to delivering, conceptually, as well as (and in as like fashion as) Dungeons & Dragons does. And I'm kind of surprised by the answer:
All the more surprising, because A) I didn't come to that conclusion before just now (when, while coming to this point of my writing, I stopped to review a mental list of all the RPGs I've owned, read, and played over the years), and B) I've been doing some....mmm..."stuff" with Cry Dark Future the last couple days.
[more on that later]
Okay, enough blathering. I've said my piece. Hopefully I'll have a thing or two to say on campaigns and treasure in the next few days. Hasta pronto.