What edition do I play?
For some years now, I have been describing my game as a Frankenstein's monster of the original AD&D books, but I wonder how true that is, any more. Especially in the last five years, with extensive changes to various elements of the combat system, increase of the sage abilities, expansion of the wiki, considerable redesign of how monsters and spells work ... there's still a hint of the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but it is definitely dying.
Yesterday, answering the question where my rules came from, I decided to have a look at the old DM's Guide, to see what was left ... and realized I hadn't reached for the book in almost six months. Not one time since getting the online campaign started again, which is strange. Truth is, I just don't need it any more. I've surpassed it.
Used to be, back in the day, I would turn to the book once in a while as reading material, looking for inspiration. Some passage in the book would make a half-hearted attempt to discuss something like titles for nobility or the building blocks for a laboratory and I would be off for days writing detailed structures or researching medieval alchemy ... and that pattern went on for decades, until I squeezed every drop of suggestion from the book.
I watched as the other editions came in; got copies, perused the tables and so on, less enthusiastically that others ... and couldn't help noticing again and again that these later editions utterly failed to bring in new rules. And so it was with every other RPG that came along. The format was settled by those early games, like Traveller, like Rolemaster, and two generations of designers added nothing to it. Design the character; design the combat system; design the spells or tech, the magic items, the list of feats and skills. Add an equipment table. And then stop.
And what did the supplements include? More characters, more spells, more tech, more equipment. More of the same. And as this went on, and on, and on, I shook my head at all the people who seemed satisfied with this, who purchased room-fulls of the same material, the same concept, the same design, repeated ad nauseum.
So it goes. Nothing has changed.
Yesterday, I realized one of my characters possessed a mountaineering knowledge that had been acquired at 2nd level, which I had failed to expand. The game had been on hiatus for six months, wih players talking about how it would probably never start again, and I had simply forgot. I didn't realize until the character went to third, and I had reason to look at that list of sage abilities.
[I would have appreciated the player reminding me when we started again, a month ago, but I know that players often resist this sort of thing because they presume I'm "busy" ~ but I'm always busy, and yet stuff gets done]
I wrote the rules, caving and cave finding, mountain routefinding and rock foraging, skiing, and it wasn't that hard. Took two or three hours ... easily the same amount of time I might spend playing Patrician-3 for relaxation, while listening to a film, a lecture or a documentary. Instead, I did this. And it wasn't that hard. None of the skills are particularly powerful, they are at best occasionally useful ... but the key is that they don't cost the player anything. The player gets the skills for free.
I don't want to get into point buy systems here, but just let me say, this is why point-buy systems suck.
My larger point is that players, left to their own agendas, will constantly get themselves into situations where what they can do becomes a big issue. And DMs will constantly get themselves into positions where how does this work becomes a completely different issue. Yet the entire design industry in the role-playing community has consistently decided that the solution to this is to have the DM just make shit up.
This is an astoundingly bad strategy. Yet everyone just lives with it. Hell, there are a significant number of DMs who argue that it is better this way. Better? How, exactly? Since when has any design strategy been improved by the designers just not doing anything?
I used to think this was an oversight. That the designers failed to realize that, if the players wanted to climb a mountain, or fight in waist-deep water, or start an armorer's shop, there ought to be rules for it. But I wonder. I am beginning to think that while Gygax might have had some of those things in mind, as rules that could be made some day, the rest of the designing community was more inclined to say, "Fuck it. They have dragons to kill. They ought to be happy with that. I'm not making rules for shit that doesn't involve killing dragons."
So we have had tons and tons of gaming skull-sweat to create, justify, expand and build adventures for an endless parade of reskinned, functionally equivalent races and character classes, all of which are mysteriously embraced by the vast community [please, I beg of you, don't try to explain the infatuation with "dragon-borne," which resemble orcs and run like drow, and are apparently nothing at all like dragons] as the most interesting part of a game, deserving of endless bulletin boards and comment threads that repeat and repeat how great they are.
All of which leads me to believe that most RPG players represent the least brightest pennies in the piggy bank of humanity. And that perhaps all the abuse, all the exploitation, all the bad advice, all the short-shrifting of design, all the monumental oversight and resistance to solve real game problems, is somehow a phenomenon of awarding bad karma to those who deserve bad karma.
I'd like to be wrong. I see the response to the additions I make to rules on the wiki and it is always positive. I fill out a few details about how to fit skiing into the game and I get cheers from my players. It causes me to feel that others would receive a like benefit from their players, if only they would design something that players could do, or want, that wasn't another spell, or another magic item, or another character class to run.
I'd like to be wrong. Two years after publishing, How to Run is still selling (half the time I depend on it for a significant part of my income), and always, always, I get good reviews for it. People want insight, they want explanations, they want an answer to the question, "How do I run this fucking game?" The question is everywhere, constantly everywhere, on every site, on every thread, on every format, from video to text to podcast. How, how, how? Yet all the company can say is to have something big explode into bar where the players are sitting, or have something try to assassinate a player, and then give it a tattoo or a weird ring so the players are interested in where it came from.
That is it, for the most part. Plot hooks. Lists of a hundred plot hooks, repeated plot hooks, the same plot hooks written into the Dragon Magazine in 1983, the same plot hooks that have been used by every B-movie since the 19-teens, the same plot hooks that were used to write stories about Kit Carson and Jesse James in the penny-dreadful books of the 1850s. Plot hooks and big bads, and the same dreck between, and oh how the money pours onto the game store counters to buy another one.
I'd like to be wrong. Someone, please, tell me that I'm wrong. Tell me that this isn't it, that there's a groundswell of participants who are smelling the air and noticing how stale it has become after forty years. Please tell me that "playing for 30 years" means expertise, and not someone who is dumb enough to play the same game over and over, in the same way, for the same reasons, pumping out money for the same trash, for thirty years. Send me to a website. Footnote a source.
Because I've looked.
|Typical D&D Player|
Yes, I'm a bit tetchy. But look around you. Look at what's happening. Would you expect the one guy not giving you the same advice as everyone else, the same useless advice that's been given for 40 years, not to be a little tetchy?
Remember when Pai Mei snatched Elle Driver's eye, because she just wouldn't "get it?" Yeah. He was a little tetchy too.
Us crazy teachers with excessive wisdom usually are (even Gandalf has his days) ... but don't worry. We usually come to a bad end.