Monday, January 9, 2012

Evidence From Unlikely Sources

A couple months ago, Brad from Skull Crushing for Great Justice published a graphic describing his circular obsession with D&D.  I can imagine what he will think of my reprinting the graphic, and of cleaning it up a little; he doesn't like me very much.  My personal feeling is that it's the only smart thing I've seen printed on his blog.  I don't like him very much, either.

But I've been thinking about this for two months:

I've been thinking about this because it's very definitely something I used to suffer from myself; and it's taken me two months because I haven't been clear exactly why I don't suffer from it any more.  That is, until it hit me this morning.

I have to qualify a little, however.  It wasn't that I played different versions of D&D, but I did stop D&D consistently for Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, Top Secret, Rolemaster and other games, up until about 1992, after which I pretty much quit everything except for D&D.  I think I could call it a 10-year process of change.  What's funny is that, until seeing Brad's graphic above, I hadn't thought to question the change.  I just thought at the time, "Well, I guess I don't really care about the other anymore."

I think it was something more fundamental than just my mood.  I think I solved the problem because of my growing attitude towards the world I wanted to run.  I shall try to explain.

Prior to 1988, my general approach to running and designing a game was very much like most:  draw out maps, make towns, make lists of NPC's, draw up encounter tables, draw out dungeons, etcetera.  All very normal.  But in '88, I had two things come together in my head for the first time that changed my perception of game design.  The first was another after-game bullsession about what a crappy, crappy thing the equipment list was, and how every addition to the equipment list was weapons, armor and more crap for dungeons, and how crappy that was.  My players in general agreed there wasn't much point in accumulating coin if there was nothing worth spending it on.  I had to agree, but I couldn't see a point in making longer and longer lists of items that didn't really matter in the game.

The second moment came when I was in a bookstore in the north of Calgary called The Book Shoppe, which was a crazy, cluttered maze of far more volumes than one could expect to fit into a two-story house ... and it was there I found a whole wall full of old encyclopedias, about a fifty sets of them.  One set was a match to the encyclopedias I'd grown up with as a kid, dated back to 1952.  Why the old woman who ran the shop thought anyone would buy them, I don't know, but I did buy them, for about $40 as I remember.  I bought them because in that moment my trade system ideal was invented.

Why, I conjectured, should an object have the exact same price no matter where in the world it was found?  And if objects had different prices, wouldn't that encourage players to buy and trade objects, if they shipped them from high supply to low supply?  Wouldn't that be something really new and different for players to spend their money on?

Alas, it was never to be so.  I did have some players who were interested in trade, long ago, but the system was a disaster in the first ten years and it never really worked out.  The system is marvelous now ... but it turns out that I have no players really interested in buying and selling.

Still, that doesn't matter anymore, because the trade system only changed everything about my world.  Forced to hinge more and more on the system - maps, roads, demographics, treasure placement and so on - the world increasingly became an unified whole, just to support this one project I began 23 years ago.

But no, that's not what lifted me out of Brad's circular trap.  The real change began as I exchanged short-term loss for long-term game.

D&D is almost always played in terms of short-term gain.  "I want fun, and I want it now!"  A painful and difficult struggle through featureless landscapes doesn't make much for a game, so a dungeon is conveniently inserted and - since the travel times dwindle to nothing between rooms - we have solid short-term gain.

Except it's a very small gain.  Like anyone who has had a heaping helping of extended hedonism, even fun gets to be a sort of awful, hellish prison, simply because it does not take long for it to become woefully repetitive and dull.  Dungeons, for all their convenient distraction, are in the long term very empty distractions.  To quote a film: "Wealth can be wonderful, but you know, success can test one's mettle as surely as the strongest adversary."

They exist without point and without purpose, and after twenty sessions or so there is a yearning for some kind of 'point' to all the mayhem and bloodbathing.  Another level leaves one as empty as another bottle does a drunk, or another sexual partner does the promiscuous.  And all too often, the easiest efforts to fill that yawning emptiness are new rules and new games ... but these, too, all lack any cohesion, so that hobo-like the players drift, and drift, and drift.

When I began to see the problems of designing my world not in terms of the few days, or the fortnight it would take to draw out a dungeon, but the years of research and effort it would take to really build something deep and comprehensive, my world began to settle upon a bedrock that would fill that hole - not just for me, but for my players too.  All this railing I do against rails, this hammering chorus about the virtues of sandboxing, this is all because when you lift the goals for the players out of the pits of immediate gratification, the game offers something different.  It offers purpose.

When the rules are set in bedrock, they cease to be the libretto that scores the game.  Sessions become less and less about how the game is played, and more and more WHO plays them, and for WHAT they are played.  It becomes clear WHY the game is played. 


Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

I think myself and my husband had been following that same circular pattern. We play a lot. So much so, we're usually finished with entire campaigns in just a month or two, when we have time to play pretty much all day every other day. Because we play so much, we end up getting bored and switching to new game systems to try break the monotony.

Something that has changed how we look at D&D was watching HBO's A Song of Ice and Fire adaptation, A Game of Thrones. Both of us loved how gritty and dark it was (we're now reading the series).

As West End Games Star Wars RPG players, we both really enjoyed that combat was always quite deadly in that system, and we both felt that's what basic out-of-the-box D&D lacked for us. Hit points make for a lousy token-counting risk assessment game.

We've almost done away with hit points since playing a Game of Thrones 3.5e rules variant that made hit points a lot less significant. (Yes, I know, 3.5 isn't your cup of tea, but I think it's possible to keep AD&D's feel if you're willing to be ruthless and cut 3.x to pieces. Really it ends up being AD&D with Skills and Powers and a couple other rules options.)

It's made our games deadly enough that our current characters are very wary of dungeon crawling, unless the reward is significant. Their first adventure, rescuing a lady kidnapped by orcs, went very very badly, with all of them ending up captive themselves, and on death's door. With every failed escape attempt, the orc had less and less patience for the shenanigans of the PCs (it reminded me of The Great Escape). By the time they had escaped, all they'd gained was gold, an appreciation for their own mortality, and an undying hatred of all orc kind. From then on, they've done their best never to take an adventuring job that doesn't offer significant reward. By significant, I mean they have to gain something really special and rare: magical items. Gold just won't cut it, especially after the cost of recovery after their ordeal burned through most of the gold they looted from the orc and his horde of goblins. Of course, they dread having too many magical items, since those things attract rather too much attention. These characters are content to be normal every day people who only adventure if they're really having trouble make ends meet. They're real people, not Adventurer of the Week material.

At last, I've found a kind of D&D I can enjoy, with all the elements I like, and none of the elements I don't! And to think, it only took me a decade.

Arduin said...

I think Sharon above hit the reason I love roleplay, and this blog in general.

Unlike any other game I've ever encountered, D&D is capable of growth and change with the player.