Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Boring Old D&D

Dennis commented thusly on my last blog post:
"This week, my older boy and I started playing a campaign dungeon crawl board game. My friend, the game host Adam, the other adult player Emily, and I were discussing RPGs at our lunch break. Adam was telling us how he's usually uncomfortable with RPGs because he's not really into "doing voices" or trying to think like a fantasy person. He's much more into the puzzle-solving, tactical decisions, and finding ways to gain advantage from the rules side of game play. Hence his preference to play these sorts of games that sort of mimic D&D play, but with just the interaction with the rules and the current state of play to worry about. 

"I think he would 100% agree with this blog post, and honestly, I agree too. Knowing the rules, including the in-game lore that comes baked into the rules, is not destructive metagaming at all. It's good game play. 

"He was curious about how someone could play the same game for decades and not get tired of the rules, though!"
[emphasis added by Yours Truly]

Ah, yes. Boring old D&D, right? Let's get down to it. 

I'll start with this: my kids have been playing more video games lately than I like, which is probably about a quarter of what their friends play. They have Nintendo Switches with a couple-three games, the main one of which they play being Minecraft, a game that shares a lot of its play elements with old style (if Basic) D&D. Prior to this Christmas, they'd shared a single Switch, but my daughter received her own as a gift, and now they're able to do much more...cooperative play, for example, or networking with friends who own their own consoles. 

Yesterday, Diego asked if he could download Fortnite, a game that has been all the rage with his classmates the last year or two. Sofia asked if she could download Roblox, a game that is popular with kids in her class (and which I remember, was very big with Diego's classmates when they were Sofia's age). I told them both that I would "think about it," balancing the pros (21st century social networking and friendship building) with the cons (stunted development of mind/imagination as your entertainment is piped directly into your brain). I'm still thinking about it.

Video games are a vice. They can be addictive, they can lead to obsession. Are they as destructive as, say, alcohol or drugs or pornography or caffeine? Probably not...but they are damaging. And the damage they can do, minor though it is, can hit you in multiple ways from multiple angles. Relationships. Health. Mind. Maturation. I don't let my kids drink booze or coffee or surf porn or smoke...as a parent, why should I not police their gaming?  

D&D is not a board game (duh, says the choir I'm preaching to...just hold on). Yes, "duh," you say, no shit Sherlock, D&D isn't a board game.And yet there are plenty of folks, including longtime RPGers who've left D&D play, or who only play later edition D&D who look at the game I play and say, "sure, it's not a board game, but it's not much more than that, is it?" Guys (and Gals) who see the thing in the most simplistic of terms:
  • Kill monsters (roll-roll-roll)
  • Get treasure (count points)
  • "Level up"
  • Rinse
  • Repeat
How boring is THAT? Where are the bells? Where are the whistles? You play a fighter? So, you're a walking stack of hit points with a backpack to put treasure? And a sword and heavy armor? And all you do is charge and roll a D20 and play a game of dicing for attrition so that you can get an abstract "score" of points based on g.p. value in order to gain MORE hit points? How is that even FUN?  Didn't the whole novelty of the thing wear off after the first couple sessions? 

Hell, didn't the novelty wear off after the first couple of encounters?

And for some folks, the answer to that question must be a resounding YES, as evidenced by their own actions...their leaving of the hobby, or their moving on to other games, or their need to make D&D about something other than the game (It's about the "role-playing!" It's about the story making! It's about the strategy of character builds! It's about the camaraderie of friends playing together! It's about annoying the other players at the table and doing PVP! Etc.). The game...as written, as designed...is simply TOO SIMPLISTIC, even if you play the "advanced" version with its extra options and tacked-on complication and fiddly-ness.

For those people...well, I can only imagine what they must think of me. I mean, what do you think about a guy who's been playing the same game for 40+ years? Haven't you explored (or drawn) enough dungeon corridors? Haven't you found (or given out) enough treasure chests? Haven't you killed (or run encounters with) enough imaginary monsters? Isn't it BORING? 

Why not just play Sniper 3D (a stupid video game that I currently have loaded on my phone)? All the mindless bloodshed and violence, all the imaginary gold coins and points (and leveling), all the new gear upgrades and none of the WORK it takes to play (or DM) a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Right? If what you want is BORING OLD D&D why not just get an app that lets you murder-hobo in the free minutes that you can sneak during the course of your humdrum day? Take out some aggression on imagined foes! Feel good (*ding!*) about another "achievement" earned!


For all the imagination I see on display these days -- the huge numbers of tabletop games and RPG products on the market (both digitally and in print), the huge numbers of video games on the market, the huge numbers of TV shows and films on the various channels, networks, and streaming services -- for all the imagination I see on display these days, there is a surprising lack of imagination on display. 

Old D&D isn't boring. YOU are boring. Or, to borrow and repurpose a pithy phrase from a shopping bag picked up at a bookshop some years back: "If you think playing old D&D is boring, you're doing it wrong."  If you're tired of the game, you're not really playing the game to its potential.

Most games of the "board" variety, like most consumable entertainment "product" (movies, TV shows, video games, etc.) are FINITE. They have limits; they have boundaries. They END. You can take a game like, say, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and play through it 3-4 times before it gets tiresome. Other games, like Red Dead Revolver might only be worth a single playthrough. Films and TV series are similar (some are worth a re-watch)...same with books and (probably) story arc campaigns of the type published by WotC.

But unlike these forms of entertainment, D&D is ENDLESS and INFINITE. For all practical purposes, anyway...there is (maybe) a limit to the human imagination, but in some 5,000 years of recorded history we haven't yet reached it. People who focus on the "killing" and "looting" aspects of the game are, in fact, missing the point of play: these are mechanical elements of game play (as is the Vancian magic system) that enable D&D to run. They are not the objective of game play anymore than the engine of a car is the "objective" (or point) of owning a vehicle.

Does it really not make sense? I'll try to clarify even more:
  • D&D is a fantasy adventure game...it provides (imaginary) peril and danger and as a game requires rules (systems, mechanics) for modeling its inherent violence. There are LOTS of good reasons why the system works as well as it does (that's for another post), but you NEED the system in order to run a game of fantasy adventure with perils, dangers, and inherent violence.
  • So why play a game of "fantasy adventure?" Well, I've addressed that before in a different long-winded post. Rereading it...well, I don't think I could restate things much better but (for purposes of this post) I'd just emphasize that experiencing fantasy adventure is kind of the opposite of experiencing boredom.
My daughter and I spoke at length yesterday about the kinds of games she enjoys playing (because she complained she doesn't like the same games Diego and I do, and neither he or I want to play her type of games). I found that the games SHE enjoys playing on the playground at school are (mostly) variations of video games her friends play, imaginary games based firmly in the gameplay of games like Doors, or Choo-Choo Charles, or Minecraft. Often, one or more participants will take the role of narrator, describing what occurs while the other kids react within the context of the game...it is imaginary play based on video games without the video game console.  

[not much different from how my friends and I played at her age...except that we were running D&D without books and dice]

The human imagination is an amazing thing, and (in conjunction with other likeminded individuals) can provide hours of entertainment without the need to resort to dice or rulebooks or gaming consoles. Boundless as it is, however, it requires grist to mill and fuel to go (I've written about this before, though it was with regard to artwork)...and here, HERE, is the main, major difference between "boring old D&D" and any number of other finite, consumable forms of entertainment: it encourages (some would say requires) you to go out and expand and explore and research and fill your mind and imagination

Instead of stunting growth and development, D&D (done right) increases growth and development.

Finite, closed system games (like all video games) do not do this. To build a world (as a Dungeon Master must) requires you to study geography, history, politics, philosophy, religion, economics, military warfare, agriculture...whatever!...all to varying degrees depending on what points you are emphasizing at the moment. Depending on what part of your imagination you need to expand for the requirements of your campaign.

And the exploration of the world (which is the part of the players) will expand their own imagination and understanding, even assuming they DON'T participate in outside research, because of the necessity of reacting to and meeting the challenges the Dungeon Master offers them.

I can't praise it enough. 

Closed system games don't offer this "mind expansion." Instead, they offer the opportunity for system mastery...board games, played enough, will evolve competent strategies, opening moves, specific tactical plays and functions that randomizers can only somewhat mitigate...in the end, one hopes for adequate opponents to offer challenge.  Understanding this, I see why a game like Magic: The Gathering maintains its popularity...it is endlessly evolving, endlessly offering NEW tweaks and forms of system to master. For the aficionado of competitive MTG play, any ennui is dispelled with each new series issue.

Old D&D, of the kind I play, does NOT evolve...au contraire, the more I tweak the rules, the more I end up going back to the tried and true default systems (more often than not). Instead, it is the PARTICIPANTS of the game (the DM, the players) who end up evolving. I am a different Dungeon Master today than I was a year ago, let alone three-four decades ago. Likewise, I'm a vastly different player (very much improved) than I once was. Very much improved...and loving it.

Tired of the rules? Tired of boring old D&D gaming? 

No, not at all. My interest and excitement only deepens the more I engage with it. Many long-lasting games have simple rules that are easy to master. It's important not to conflate "complexity" with "depth." The rules are simple so that they don't get in the way of the game. The game play is what makes D&D the King of Games. 
: )


  1. I get what he is saying.

    Imagine having to use a drum, guitar, and bass along with maybe a person singing and trying to come up with new variations over and over again. Sure it would be fun for a year or so but after that you would have ran out of options.

    1. Is that sarcastic?

      Um. How many songs did Rush write? How many songs did the Police write? Like, genuinely GOOD songs? Over how many years, collectively?

      And how many mediocre songs were written by similar three-piece bands? Or even GOOD (GREAT) songs that never were heard because they were written and played by someone not Rush and not The Police?

      And many of those bands didn't care because they were just having a blast making music...writing it and playing it and entertaining themselves and others?

      Seriously, 7B, you're making my point for me. And maybe that was YOUR point. But sometimes it's tough to tell with this internet thingy.
      ; )

    2. I think he's kidding. I did see one 'letter to the editor' from the 60s or early 70s that mathematically proved we'd run out of original music by 1975 or so. Seems that letter missed a variable or two.

    3. Yeah, we didn't ACTUALLY run out of original music till circa 1999.
      ; )

    4. I was being sarcastic.

      And I probably missed a 80s synthesizer joke coparing its apperance and ruining music to 3e ruining D&D. Don't get me started on Autotune/4e.....

      But seriously you can even compare revamping a old adventure as a comparison to covering a song.

    5. Now you're hitting me where it hurts!
      ; )

  2. I will have to read this over again a few times. It's posts like this that confuse me in regards to what it is you enjoy and why you enjoy it. You don't go in for the Story, Narrative driven games but 'it's not just about killing monster and taking stuff'. How does that work?

    How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with paper and dice? How is it more than the rules when the focus is so often all about rules? World Building, my favorite part of gaming, often strikes me as a by-product here, maybe a fun or interesting one but with little bearing on the game except as window dressing.

    Yeah, very confused. Sorry. There is a profound statement here my brain isn't grasping for some reason.

    1. Ha! Thank you for the comment, Adam...I really appreciate it.

      I *almost* mentioned you in this post (multiple times) because I know you have this particular blindspot. I refrained because I didn't want you to think I was singling you out for ridicule or something. We (you and I) have had many back-and-forths around this topic; I understand your mental block, even if I don't know exactly why it's there (I could hazard a guess or two...).

      I'm hope to write a new post on this in a day or two, but just to address the specific questions in your comment directly:

      1. What I enjoy as a player is different from what I enjoy as a DM, BUT it all revolves around the experience of fantasy adventure. Just 'how that works' is by taking the fantasy world seriously, whether as a DM or a player. The degree of commitment is higher/harder as a DM, but the rewards are also greater.

      2. Because there IS a story. The story is about YOU (i.e. the player) not the situation at hand.

      3. The rules exist to facilitate play. Play encompasses more than the rules.

      4. For the DM, the world building is not a "by-product;" rather, it IS the game (or the bulk of it). Having something to hold up ('Hey, I've been detailing my game world over 20 years! Look at this!') may be a "by-product," but it's also evidence of time and effort spent.

      Maybe that helps, maybe it doesn't. Maybe my next post in this vein will be more elucidating.
      ; )

    2. I think there is another story. Worldbuilding is story creation. The mad wizard trapped gods in the 12 level of his dungeon and they remain there to this day is the outline of a story. Part of D&D is discovering that story and unraveling it's mysteries. Even Keep on the Borderlands has a story. Much of it is implied but it has a story. That story is the context provided to the players up to the point that the game starts. Once the game starts, that's a game and part (not all) of the game is collecting and piecing together the pieces of the story that happened before the PCs arrived on the scene.

    3. @ Travis:

      You're not wrong...context and background (whether applied to world building or scenarios) ARE inherent stories in the D&D game. But Adam is talking about proactive story creation (or, at least, story attention) as part of gameplay, not background.

      Not to put words in his mouth but PROBABLY he cares not a bit if there's an interesting reason for a dungeon being present if the sole reason it exists is for PCs to loot the thing.
      ; )

  3. JB, I just want to say that I do get it, lest you think that your articulation of the concept was unclear to everyone.

    1. Thanks, Sterling. Also thank you for your kind words re: my B/X Companion book.

  4. Sort of matches my experience with Megadungeons. The game really came alive for me when I got the players 'mostly' out of dungeons.

    1. And that would be due to the attention spent on the world ("campaign") not just the adventure ("dungeons").