Thursday, February 5, 2009

Two Dollars Worth Of Advice

This is my 100th post on this blog.

This isn’t bad for nine months of posting, of giving my two cents worth, a little better than once every three days. And I think lately I’m posting more often, and at greater length. It’s not so much that I’m long winded; it’s only that I always find one more relevant point to add.

If I had a complaint, it would be the tendency of my gentle reader to make an assumption about my world from a single post, despite there being a great many back posts to the contrary of what I’m accused of. I try to let such things slide, rather than point them out ad nauseum. But people rarely read back posts on blogs.

For that reason, I’ll take this opportunity to make some salient points.

I play AD&D, or 1st edition as its called, almost entirely out of the first three books, the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. To some degree I use large parts of the Deities and Demigods (including the Cthulhu and Melnibonean chapters), the Unearthed Arcana and the Fiend Folio, but I also find large parts of those books to be, well, stupid. I once stole parts of the two Wilderness Guides, but I don’t own them and later I improved on those rules with my own logic, so I don’t use them anymore. I have done the same with books of the 2nd and 3rd editions. The 4th edition I consider a joke.

I did not see any reason to consider or add any character classes beyond the first three books. The one semi-exception has been the bard, which has always proved to be a problem to recreate or manage, as invariably my efforts make a class that is too powerful or—more often—too weak. I have a bard running in my world now, and he seems to be happy with the character. I’ll include my home rules on that subject at some later point.

As the 1980s developed, it became clear that the emphasis of further rule manufacture was going to be on character development. This was a problem with the pre-AD&D game that I thought was brilliantly solved with the PH. I am apparently alone in that thinking. Pound after pound of material continues to be churned out on the character, particularly the dreaded skills system (I played a skills system with Rolemaster and found it despicable), focused principally upon more equipment, more spells, more skills and more superfluous rhetoric intended only to increase the thickness of the binding.

I understand it from a business angle. It is far easier to focus upon the finite constructionism of the character rather than upon the environment. The second edition made it very plain that the environment would be a fractured series of disconnected modules and localities, and to hell with the unified whole of a world. Put out maps so that DMs can count hexes between adventures for the purpose of healing and we’re done. Don’t worry about what might be in those hexes (unless its another “adventure”), and similarly don’t get too concerned with international politics, economics, law, cultural influence, artistic or sociological or religious movements, climate, chronic wars or anything else which might affect more than one hex at a time. Oh, yes, produce a module about a city or a “nation,” recognizing that the nation shouldn’t have more than two principal cities, and then talk about factionism without doing more than sketchily explaining why this faction or that faction has the motivations that it has. Merely describe them as “evil and insane” or “methodically hedonistic” or some other empty phrase and then point them at the party as fodder for pushing along the DMs tale or for combat purposes. It’s too difficult to create a deeper, complex motivation, and no one wants that anyway because the players is happy with the kind of wooden, two-dimensional cultural logic to be found in Star Wars and Star Trek.

Operating in a world with no adequate frame of reference—meaning that there is no way to say the DM is wrong about his interpretation of a given band of people or the religious/philosophical questions that influence them—helps to keep the players off-balance and at the mercy of the world’s maker. Remembering always that the world’s maker is not the DM sitting across the table from you, but some stranger you’ve never met who has taken his undergraduate education in English Lit or Computer Programming to the highest level possible, cranking out modules for general use with the corporate-approved guideline stapled to the wall above his or her desk. And of course such guidelines exist. There shall never be gratuitous sex included in a module. There shall never be any undue emphasis on religious belief in a module. All modules will include potentially marketable features. And so on.

But even if there were no restrictions, even if we lived in a world where the marketing department of an RPG gameshop was somehow made toothless by the offices existing in some nether-realm where rent did not need to be paid—modules and the worlds in which they’re placed would still suffer from the lack of imagination. Because anything which is slapped together for the use of the mass public must depend on it being simple-minded enough for the public—even a nerdy public like the RPG community—to enjoy without feeling unnecessarily challenged. There have been various rare games unleashed that have proven too complex to be popular…many of us have a pet example.

My imagination, too, is not up to the challenge to create a deeply integrated, complex and easy to grasp world, where every player in it enjoys the benefit of a lifetime of experience in that world and thus the conceptual grasp of its culture and physical nature. So I use the planet Earth. There are more profound, screwy, compelling, inspirational or creepy possibilities in the actual world than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. Even more than one Horatio.

I encourage you as a DM to consider redesigning your world based upon the whole, or some part, of the planet Earth. In the very least, if you find yourself typing search terms into Google such as "D&D adventure ideas," I suggest that what you do is to go to wikipedia, find the "random article" button and pound on it. Within ten minutes you will stumble across some concept so completely out of your given experience that its incorporation into your world will spin your player's heads. We no longer live in a world where "ideas" are hard to come by.

Look all around you.


Carl said...

Great post, Alexis.

You've really sold me on the idea of using Earth, or Pseudo Earth as a D&D world.

A friend of mine uses a primative western Washington state as his D&D world. I was using the eastern half of the state with a fantasy world overlaid on it before I went sci-fi.

In one of your earliest posts you describe how the Earth is so much more interesting geographically than anything you or an artist could produce. My friend and I agree, and that's why we both use a real place to base our world upon.

The thing that most attracted me to your blog and something I'd like to see you do a 101st post on is the economy of your world and the lengths you've gone to to make it work and through that how it became believable and usable. The D&D economy from the beginning has struck me as wrong. It doesn't make sense, prices are arbitrary and it's easy for players to exploit those weaknesses to gain amazing financial advantage in a world where, by all history, they should be struggling just to feed themselves.

Cheers and happy 100th.

Alexis said...

You'll remember, Carl, I once published my costs and received a violent backlash on how unrealistic those numbers were...becuase people are habitually used to the ad hoc, yet dogmatic numbers from their treasured books.

I will be publishing something on economics soon, but I've been waiting until I can wrestle my treasure tables into some kind of submission. I shall think on it, however, and write a series on it in the next few weeks.

Thank you for the support.

Alexis said...

Incidentally Carl, if you are IN Washington State, I am across the border in Canada. Want to drive eight hours tomorrow and come play in my world?

Carl said...

I would, but I have my own game scheduled. I'll take you up on that offer in near the future, though.

Regarding the backlash you recieved on your price list -- at least you did research and had the notes to prove it. Also, you actually went to the trouble of figuring out the cost of finished goods from the cost of producing their raw materials. Given that, and my research using your method, I'd say it's a much better system for accurate prices of stuff than throwing darts at a board.

I think opposition to rule changes, either in my own games or those of others, is from people who've learned the system and how to exploit it. When your changes threaten to remove their exploits, they cry foul. Also, some folks in our hobby don't deal well with change. You may have noticed this trait among RPGers.