Friday, January 2, 2009


Still the proclamation goes out: D&D is not about combat. It is about roleplaying.

Yes, I suppose if that’s how you want it. The game is wide enough to allow it to be played in whatever manner you choose. If you and your players enjoy evenings debating the finer points of characterization and interaction, why would I care? Strikes me as deadly dull, however.

Games are, fundamentally, conflict. Making them more abstract by reducing the level of absolutism in the rules does not rationally raise the degree of the conflict. I hear and read the cerebral arguments for the importance of roleplaying and such, but none of these arguments seem to include any account of how conflict and resolution are attained.

Look. It isn’t enough for me to “pretend” to be another person: knight, vampire, cyberpunk assassin, whatever. It was once, when I was ten. The greater distraction that came after was that associated with challenging, overcoming and destroying an opponent: in chess, in football…and ultimately in D&D. Yes, I get a kind of kick from being a short, overweight dwarven fighter, but that doesn’t compare with being the excitement of being a short, overweight dwarven fighter standing on top of a pile of corpses recently begun on their way to rotting by my magnificent prowess.

But that’s me. I lost a lot of my interest in playing the game years ago when I realized most of it was going to be walking, talking to bartenders and merchants and self-aggrandizing local power-holders who, through the voice of the DM, were there to tell me what I should do that night. I just got bored. I got bored with mazes and quests and figuring out the uses of magic items. I got bored with saving imaginary princesses and with always having my immense piles of treasure being taken away by some trick of the DM so I’d have the motivation to go out and get another pile of treasure. I got bored with abstract combats and with DMs sidestepping logic while demanding that I roll for checks to see if my character had the brain to hold his breath while underwater. Sidestepping logic? The inevitable dialogues about what can and cannot be done, what should and shouldn’t be said, what I ought to believe to fit this alignment or what customs my character should follow because he was born in such and such a place to such and such a class of parents. Roleplaying has always had inherent in its structure a pervasive quality of dictatorialness: the whole clerics-give-their-money-away and dwarves-dislike-elves dictums that argued against my having any original thoughts.

As I remember it, most others around the table LIKED these structures. They all seemed to get off on repeating the same phrases session after session, announcing for the fiftieth time that they pull out their +12 hackmaster sword or what have you. My objections that we were entering yet another dungeon or having yet another conversation about the local lord’s missing daughter or once again getting the local rumors from the local bartender were met, I fairly remember, with firm declarations that THIS was the game, THIS was roleplaying, THIS was what we had all signed up for.

And yet, none of the campaigns seemed to last. I would get fed up, I would stop showing up, and then five or ten weeks later I’d talk to one of the other players—one who had defended the DMs campaign—and find out the campaign wasn’t running because Dave or Sean or Kevin had got a job and was now working on Saturdays.

Or I would doggedly stay with the campaign because I liked the people. But the DM would have less and less prepared, or we’d skip weekend after weekend, or we’d have to roll up completely different characters because the DM wasn’t ready to run the old ones, until eventually we never ran the old ones and one-by-one the players would drop out and join other campaigns.

There were a lot of long nights and long, irrational and abstract combat sessions where no one knew where they were standing or who they were standing near, while the DM had his head dropped into the space behind his screen while he made a poor job of moving our attention spans. We’d roll dice or wait while they rolled dice, scratching out pictures or rewriting our characters or talking about the latest movies and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, the DM rolling dice and rolling dice and so on and so forth. It was fine if we had a combat where four of us would fight some large monster like a giant or a treant, but lord save us if we had to fight forty or eighty hobgoblins, as that was going to be a lot of indiscriminate rolling with little experience or treasure in the end to show for it.

So I can see how that would move some people away from combat in the game. It moved me away from the game entirely. If D&D had only been about playing, I wouldn’t now be playing D&D or writing about it. Thankfully, however, D&D was also about DMing…meaning I could create my own world and carry it towards my own philosophies.

Some of those philosophies being that the local constabulary is NEVER poor, since they’re free to exploit the people’s labor to produce food and wealth. And that there are better adventures to be had than stumbling around in some dungeon finding out if room A is larger than room B and rolling dice to deactivate traps. There must be better logical puzzles than whether we should go left or right at the next T intersection. That combat for combat’s sake IS pathetic, but combat to achieve a goal which the party has decided to achieve (without my giving a crap what it is) goes to the very heart of what makes us human.

Curiosity is all very well and good, but curiosity about what happens to be in the local monastery is a very poor substitute for the curiosity about whether some ambitious goal of mine—invented out of my own head—is going to work or not. Because ambition has always made a better story—a better conflict—than documentation.

You may want all your runnings to be about record keeping (names and dates and histories and lineages and long descriptions about who made this magic item and why) and rehashing the values of record keeping, or about the examination of the DMs record keeping as revealed through the DMs roleplaying abilities, but I’ll keep playing a game where the players say, “We want to do this,” while I answer, “Give it a try.”

And this from someone who is insane about record keeping, as this blog shows. But NONE of that ever appears in the running of my world. The record keeping is for my benefit. I don’t bore my players with it, as it’s not what they need to know (unless they ask, and then I pity them).

But I don’t make up temples or underground dungeons. I don’t waste my time with old ruins or city street maps or underground sewers. Mapmaking happens only in those rare cases when its relevant, not during every session. After all, I haven’t been in the airport in Toronto in 7 years and yet I still remember where the bathrooms are. When my players play they always have somewhere to go and they never have to be cajoled or recommended or pushed. I don’t have guides “just show up”—if the party wants a guide, they’re going to have to go find one.

Maybe that isn’t the way you play. It’s certainly not the way Gygax played, according to the evidence of more than one piece of text. But it’s the way I play.


Norman Harman said...

If your really that much into combat and the tactical challenge you should check out 4ed. It pushes that to the forefront. Although, I guess it could be argued that it's not actually challenging cause it's designed (even if they won't admit it) with the premise "Characters shall not die").

But "if the party wants a guide, they’re going to have to go find one" and "the curiosity about whether some ambitious goal of mine—invented out of my own head" sound suspiciously like role-playing to me.

D&D is about more than one thing. It's not all role-playing, it's not all combat, mapping is very small part if that for most games, it's not all random(dice), it's not all story(railroading), it's not all DM, it's not all players, it's not all escapism, it's not all power trip I kicked ass, there's more but I'm getting bored. Finally, D&D doesn't have to be all of those or any of those. It works with whatever subset tickles your fancy.

Strix said...

You can play a great game without combat, but I can't remember a good game that had absolutely no conflict.

Physical conflict is most commonly associated with D&D, but it is possible to have other types of conflict. Political, social, economic, etc... and yet Machiavelli is almost never referred to by D&D players.

I've seen players aspire to overthrow a kingdom using their might and prowess with swords and siege engines. That scenario is a cliche, but there are other ways to do it. A party could attempt to do the same from within court using character assassination, bribery, guile and deceit.

The important part is letting the players decide if they want to overthrow a kingdom and let them decide how they want to go about it.

I don't know why D&D players always choose swords and siege craft. Other players using a different game system might choose a different approach to achieve the same goal.