Saturday, December 22, 2018

5e: An Introduction to Nothing

"In the Dungeons & Dragons game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends). Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city, a haunted castle, a lost temple deep in a jungle, or a lava-filled cavern beneath a mysterious mountain. The adventurers can solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure."

Some might think that with this single quote, to of page 5, second actual page of the 5th Edition Players Handbook, I'm moving through the material too slowly.  I'm in no rush.  I have plenty of time to investigate one paragraph at a time.  My goal here is not to give a review of the book or the game, but to identify the intent of the publishers, to examine their choices and see what they want participants to understand or believe.  That's why I think paragraphs like the one above deserve a close look.

Between 1974 and 2014, there have been established certain terms and phrases that have become universal to the role-playing game.  Players make characters.  Not adventurers.  And the publishers understood this perfectly, because while they made the bold move to newly define what players make, they also knew those same players wouldn't quite accept that ... so they added, in brackets, "(also ...)"

I want to be in the room when this sentence, or position, was discussed.  I imagine that certain marketing types, eager to sell "adventures" like the idea that the player characters could be rebranded as "adventurers."  I can imagine one of them saying, "See?  It just works together."  And it does.  Yet I can't recall anyone in the last four years talking about 5th edition and referring to their fighters and wizards as "player adventurers."

The book seems full of this sort of presumption.  It appears again with the next phrase: you don't "play" with other adventurers, you "team up" with them.  And oh, those adventures are your friends.  Yes, we run plenty of tournaments throughout the world where you'll sit at a table and play this game with total strangers, but we're not talking about that now.  These adventures are played by friends, because darn it, we want to make sure that as we're describing this game, we want you to have a very positive attitude about it.

With the next sentence, we want to make sure that your "team" "works together."  I don't have any problem with that in principle.  I don't want to be a part of games where the players work against each other or where they don't see the importance of acting together.  But why does this language ring of corporate lingo?  Why are the five things listed that the group can explore essentially the same thing said in five different ways?  Why is the sentence structure so that, taken literally, you can only do these five things?

Tell me if you know, because I don't follow modules and I'd have no idea ... but did the company, by any chance, release modules or parts of adventures between 2014 and 2016 that depicted a dungeon, a ruined city, a castle, a lost temple and a cavern?  Oh, and I'm sorry to quibble, but lava-filled caverns occur under volcanoes, not mountains, and because of the pressure that lava under the ground creates, the cavern would be molten and without room for adventurers.  Here's a small reminder of how pressure under volcanoes works, from October 17, two months ago:

But yes, that is quibbling.  My apologies.

A big one for me is why "solve puzzles" is the first on that list.  "Talk with other characters" I can understand.  The name of the game is "role-playing."  The initials are not SPG.  Nor do I understand why battling fantastic monsters is deliberately framed as separate from the acquisition of fabulous magic items and other treasure.

Someone specifically chose this language.  Someone took the time to separate these concepts: we don't kill monsters for their treasure.  We don't kill monsters and get treasure.  We kill monsters ... and we stumble across treasure in an unconnected way, as a fourth thing on this list after puzzles and talking and killing.

Perhaps I am overthinking it.  It would be easy to believe that this is a stumbling, cluttered, amateur hack-job of a paragraph, written by a low-paid writer cramming corporate terms into an player-friendly attempt at poetic license.  After all, this is the third attempt to name what D&D is, in less than two pages:

  • "They were tired of merely reading tales about worlds of magic, monsters and adventure.  They wanted to play in those worlds, rather than observe them."
  • "It's about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky ..."
  • "The group might explore a dark dungeon, a ruined city ..."

Nor is that all.  Further down the same page, we have three more examples:
  • "Sometimes an adventurer might come to a grisly end, torn apart by ferocious monsters or done in by a nefarious villain."
  • "The many worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game are places of magic and monsters, of brave warriors and spectacular adventures."
  • "The worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game exist within a vast cosmos called the multiverse, connected in strange and mysterious ways to one another and to other planes of existence, such as the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Infinite Depths of the Abyss.  Within this multiverse are an endless variety of worlds."
And it happens one more time on the very next page, where a long paragraph hammers this list style example-giving right into the ground.

It doesn't ring like a clumsy writer.  It rings like a list was provided of things and the writer was compelled to compress the list into the smallest number of words possible.  Moreover, it is a style of writing that has been used to describe D&D all the way back to the first edition.

We all know that D&D is a hard game to describe well.  Words don't seem enough to grasp all the things these lists try to present, nor is it easy to find phrases that explain quickly what it means to create a character and act as a Dungeon Master.  These concepts don't present themselves as self-evident to the uninitiated.  I have never, since beginning this blog, tried to explain in a single short post what D&D is to someone who has never heard of it, seen it or played it.

The first time it was explained to me, the explanation came about 90 minutes before I sat down to play ~ and that experience instantly eliminated any need for explanation.  Since, whenever I have needed to explain the game, I have simply said, "Come around and watch; then you can decide if you want to play."  This has always worked.

I suppose you've got to write an introduction to a book like this.  But does this book include plans for  Castle Ravenloft, the dark dungeon, the ruined city, the Infinite Depths of the Abyss or any of the worlds full of magic and monsters?  Then why are we talking about them?  Shouldn't the introduction to this book address itself first and at once to what is in this book, the one we're reading?  I think so.  All this other falderal is unnecessary fluff, like the ads jammed at the front of magazines and old school comic books ~ stuff we have to turn past to get to the material we wanted.

It does get there: halfway through page 6, with the heading, "Using this Book."  When I write another of these posts, I'll start there.


JB said...

Without getting "riled up" again: again, I'm prone to think this is more simply a matter of poor (i.e. non-careful) writing. I see this kind of shit in my own hack job games that make me cringe and stuff the texts back in a folder, rather than publishing them and putting my name on it: a bunch of cliches thrown together in an attempt to evoke the "right feeling" without just coming out and saying something useful.

Doing it once, maybe twice, could be forgivable (I'd be more willing to do so)...but the repeated hammering of the same fluff and nonsense, just reeks to me of padding the page count for the sake of having more space to throw in more art, creating that beautiful coffee table tome that folks are going to want to purchase.

And that's another unfortunate part of the industry these days: the assumption you have to put out some sort of giant, glossy hardcover or else no one will take it seriously enough to buy it. Here's an interesting anecdote that might throw sand in the assumption: Renegade Games put out three RPGs this year, all successfully funded by Kickstarter. Two (coffee table hardcovers with full color fantasy art) raised around $20-$25K. The 5"x8" 80-page softcover raised more than $54K. Why? I'd guess it was because the game (Kids on Bikes) was something more folks were interested in (a rules-light, "Stranger Things"-type RPG).

But I suppose you can't tell that to Industry Honchos..."The monster tomes still raise $25K!"

Fred Daniel said...

To a significant extent I believe the various editions of the game reflect the values and norms of the cultural time and place they are wrtten... zeitgeist, if you will. When I read any D&D through that lens it all kinda makes more sense. 1974 D&D reflects the midwest of that time, especially wargamers and science fiction/fantasy least as I recall it having lived it.