Monday, December 17, 2018

5e: Choices

"... it speaks to their ingenuity and genius in figuring out that games were the perfect way to explore worlds that could not otherwise exist. Almost every modern game, whether played on a digital device or a tabletop, owes some debt to D&D.
"Second, it is a testament to the inherent appeal of the game they created.  Dungeons & Dragons sparked a thriving global phenomenon. It is the first roleplaying game, and it remains one of the best of its breed.
"To play D&D, and to play it well, you don’t need to read all the rules, memorize every detail of the game, or master the fine art of rolling funny looking dice. None of those things have any bearing on what’s best about the game.
"What you need are two things, the first being friends with whom you can share the game. Playing games with your friends is a lot of fun, but D&D does something more than entertain."

In discussing the 5th Edition D&D, I want to be fair.  I have no wish to be catty nor to nit-pick every line.  The experienced RPGer will react the same phrases in the above that would bother me, so let's not parse them out.  I shall endeavor, where possible, to keep to a higher path; after all, I have things to gain by reading the book completely.  I have never played 5th Edition.  There is a lot I don't know about the version; a great many in-game terms that are a mystery to me or that I know only in passing from blogs and other sources.  So reading this book is of benefit ... for all of us.

My goal is to address choices the publishers made in the message.  We know the version was created to gain back players that were lost with the 4e debacle, to regain the trust of the community and to envisage the game in its "traditional" form.  To do this, the company asked for input; and it got a great deal.  For almost two years the subject waxed on throughout the community.  We must assume, then, that the language above was not put together casually.  That each phrase was carefully weighed and allowed to pass only if it gave the right message.  We cannot pretend that anything that is said was written casually ~ though of course we may be as casual as we wish when we interpret, rephrase or ignore.  We do not have a company to run.

Take note, O Reader, how we call back further to the vision of the early inventors, its methods, its influence, its successes, its continued value.  Then we see the first answer to the 36 year gap between this version and its ancestor: the recognition that D&D is a mountain of many, many rules, and that as a player you certainly shouldn't measure how good a player you are by having to climb it.

Let's consider that ancestor.  The Old School Renaissance player may not choose to play AD&D; the system unquestionably had its troubles and, where the cries for something better were concerned, AD&D was a failure.  But when we speak of "editions" of D&D, as we understand editions now, we accept that we're talking about a collection of rules that dwarfs any version of any game that ever came before D&D ... unless we speak of that form of thermonuclear war played by the Rand Corporation.

As far as rules go, D&D is totally off the charts.  The words-per-game ratio was climbing throughout the 1970s due to wargames like those produced by Avalon-Hill and other like companies, but D&D smashed all the barriers.  If we want to talk about the game introducing something that was new that could be measured, until the role-playing game came along no one supposed that the rules for a single game could conceivably fill a bookshelf.  AD&D, supported by a flood of magazine articles and attendant products used to play AD&D, proved not only that a single game could produce as much content relevant to its immediate gameplay as a set of encyclopedias, there was no definite end to how much content that could theoretically include.

This was something the friends who gathered together "to forever alter the history of gaming" understood only too well.  Compare the above from the 5th edition to the first paragraph of the Players Handbook of the 1st edition:
"Even if you are not familiar with fantasy role playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, you will find this work (with its companion volumes, Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide) is a complete game system in itself.  It will stand alone, and it has been written and edited in order to make the whole as easily understood as possible without taking anything away from its complexity and completeness.  If, on the other hand, you are a veteran adventurer of many swords & sorcery campaign games, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will prove to be superior to any past offerings in the fantasy role playing game field.  You will find it easy to integrate your existing character or characters into the new system, and at the same time the game will be both familiar and different.  There are nuances not found in previous efforts.  All the necessary information is presented in clear and concise terms, in a format which logically follows the flow of play."

It is clear, even as we start, that we need to emphasize the completeness of the compendium.  Even as the words are being published above, the Dragon Magazine is demonstrating how incomplete the work is.

More to the point, however, is an acknowledgement of how much is being provided ~ and rather than reassure the reader that no, you're not required to know all of it, we have a promise that the complexity, the reason you bought this set of books, will be maintained.  So in 36 years between the publishing of the Players Handbook 1st edition and its 5th edition cousin, the promise becomes, "No, you don't have to know everything."

I don't want to harp on this, because it is not strictly relevant ... but speaking as a 15-year-old boy shelling out the 1979 equivalent of $205 to buy these three books, I wanted complexity.  I wanted to know every rule.  That is why my DM's Guide ~ the exact same I bought in 1979 ~ looks read.  Because I read it and read it, daily, for at least the first six years I played the game.

That is not the expectation of the publishers of 5th Edition.  They know from their research that most of their buyers are not going to read the 293 pages of the Player's Handbook in its entirety, and that many of the rules ~ perhaps most of them ~ are going to remain a mystery to the readers.  And that, says the publishers, is okay.  Because you don't have to.  That is not our agenda.  That is why we choose to equate the effort to read all these books and know all these rules, and become good at the game, with the comparative difficulty of rolling dice.  The game isn't about rules.  It isn't about complexity or knowing boundaries.  The game is about friends and fun.

This sentiment reads very strangely when compared with the four paragraphs speaking of the ingenuity, the genius, the global phenomenon, the igniting of a revolution and the history of gaming, altered forever.

Stranger still is the choice in these four paragraphs to twice say that D&D is about two things.  First, we are told that D&D is a perfect way to explore game worlds that could not exist and that D&D is an appealing global phenomenon.  Then we are told, Second, that you need friends with whom you can share the game and ...

The second thing arrives in the third paragraph after the above.  Before we are told what that is, we are taken on a journey through the needing of friends:
"Playing D&D is an exercise in collaborative creation. You and your friends create epic stories filled with tension and memorable drama. You create silly in-jokes that make you laugh years later. The dice will be cruel to you, but you will soldier on. Your collective creativity will build stories that you will tell again and again, ranging from the utterly absurd to the stuff of legend.
"If you don’t have friends interested in playing, don’t worry. There’s a special alchemy that takes place around a D&D table that nothing else can match. Play the game with som eone enough, and the two of you are likely to end up friends. It’s a cool side effect of the game. Your next gaming group is as close as the nearest game store, online forum, or gaming convention."

Only then we are told,
"The second thing you need is a lively imagination or, more importantly, the willingness to use whatever imagination you have."

Choices.  After who knows how many drafts of the material above, we are left with two things which we are told that we need, that are then qualified out of existence.

I would suggest that first, if you are going to play D&D, you would do better not to play it alone.  Then second, I would suggest that you use your brain while you play.

I don't say this vindictively or sarcastically.  It is, in effect, exactly what the 5th Edition introduction is trying to say ... except that there is clearly an agenda to positively express these two things in a way that will excite the buyer of the game.

You will have a good time with your friends.  If you go to a game store to play, you will make friends.  That is cool.  If you like using your imagination, this game will give you plenty of opportunity.  But don't worry; as long as you try, you'll be fine.

Again, choices.  There is something in this message that's more than awkward ... it is almost needful.  The publisher doesn't trust that you already know how role-playing games work, or that if you don't know, you're bound to find out without being told.  The publisher wants to be sure you know this, in some strange way that reassures the publisher.  "We've noticed this about other role-playing games that have existed in the past, and all of that is going to happen with this game too."

Why does the publisher suppose we don't know this, and that we have to be told?

For a moment, as I end this, I want to come back around to this phrase: "... it is a testament to the inherent appeal of the game ..."

If it is a testament, and the appeal is inherent, then no matter how much actual experience we have with the game, we don't need to be told.  Things that are inherent are characteristic of that thing.

Were I to hazard a guess, I would say that the publishers were not certain what to say.  They repeated phrases from their focus groups that seemed to say what the game was about ... without realizing that while these phrases weren't wrong, they also weren't insightful.  Which is why the phrasing, in the end, comes out so awkwardly.  We're trying to stuff a bunch of things into a box, rather than explaining how the box was made.


JB said...

While the message may not have been written casually, I daresay the writer (and editor) may not have been especially careful with their crafting of the message.

Oh, what the hell...never mind. I have no polite way to address the bile that this half-assed double-speak raises in my throat. I'm all for a little ra-ra-ra, but really who gives a shit? So much of the texts in these 5E books is useless filler: clearly, folks have heard SOMETHING about the game, enough to get them interested. Can we skip the history lesson and get down to instructional text? We do live in the age of the internet...certainly there must be web sites to surf for those interested in the history and development of Dungeons & Dragons, right? Wikipedia? News Sites? A company blog or an "about the game" article? Can we leave the self-promotion and pandering on the cutting room floor?

No, apparently we cannot. We can't just say, "Hey, you hold in your hands the 5th edition of the world's most popular RPG. We screwed up the last edition, and so THIS ONE has been written to REALLY ring your bell!" and then cut to the How To Play part. We have to read about how genius and influential the game has been because we need our egos stoked right out of the gate. Because, apparently, you're going to take a lot of shit for needing out and learning how to play D&D...let's get some ammunition to throw at people who judge us!

Once again we have an example of the game designers treating their own game (and its players) as contemptible.

[sorry, a little riled up]

Ozymandias said...

It makes me wonder how you or I would write such a product, were we in a position to do so . . .

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm beginning to think that you don't want me to pursue this particular line of deconstruction, JB.

For my part, your fury is reassurance that warms my aged heart. I have, counntless times on this blog, railed at these very issues you raise ... only to receive the dull, blinking eyes of my audience as payment. Here, I mean what I say. I am writing these posts not to quibble, not to rant, not to stir the pot, but to present the content on its own merits.

That you lose your shit as I do so is perfect evidence that the book on "its own merits" shows for want. JB, I would have you and others scream blue bloody murder with every post if I could have my way ~ so long as I am not screaming. I've lost my license. Others on the internet would have me put off because I have refused to give this content its due.

Well, I intend to give this content its due.

So make no apologies to me, good JB. Sun Tzu says know thy enemy as you know yourself. Very well. Let's let the book stand on its merits and let us cry havoc and slip the dogs of war. I can no longer step aside and pretend the book does not exist, as I have been doing.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Technically, Ozymandias, we are in a position to do so ~ whenever we care to take the time.

ViP said...

This baffles me the most : "The second thing you need is a lively imagination or, more importantly, the willingness to use whatever imagination you have."

What is the intended audience here? People who go to book signings and ask the author whence he got his ideas? Which focus group ever suggested to pander to players who are not sure they want to imagine things?

Maliloki said...

Disclaimer: I have played 5e and run games (for now because I'm reaching my breaking point with it) using a heavily modified version of 5e designed to bring actual risk back into the game and allow the environment to actually need to be overcome...a lot of it comes from this blog.

My biggest gripe with 5e, despite some of the rule choices, is the fact that they don't say anything in 1 sentence that could instead be said in 3 wishy-washy paragraphs of crap. If you're going to write a rule system of questionable quality, at least be concise about it.

Unknown said...

"I would suggest that first, if you are going to play D&D, you would do better not to play it alone. Then second, I would suggest that you use your brain while you play."

Why?, doesn´t playing alone allows me to be as complex and as challenging as I want?
Of course, more education means more opportunity to expand the game, and the stress-risk reward signifcative net is indeed a spear pillar of the process. Doesn´t that imply that the shared experience and concesus get resolved if I do both by my own craft? I can´t lie, cheat and disrepect myself if I want a meaninful and conflicted game. Am I not using my brain when I am terrified and sorrowful of my characters when they have to face failure because logic failed or emotion betrayed them?, are they not alive when they triumph and change the setting with their own actions and self accepted choices?

Hubris reveals it´s accountability when the concious thoughts ignore themselves, when the consequences veils the causes because of short sightness right?, why not opt for a hybrid of comedy and tragedy then? characters can change all time, options abound if they know where to look at them. Tragedy strikes when change is refused and comedy could be embraced as a catharsis of maturity... unless they each faked being each other, for they could forge themselves as a two sides of the same coin. If I smelt the coin´s faces, am I not personifying both the pretense of subjectivity and objectivity of human thought?, is it not knowledge when that pretenses get individualized in fact and faith?

I would dare say that the only fact is the possibility of fact, but that fact can only be because of the faith of making a try at a truthful statement, because truth in itself cannot be but a chance at. If an oracle can do this because it is a part of me, just as my characters, am I not being a vessel of verosimilutude and fairness in accordance to both the tragic comedy and comedic tragedy?. Freedom of storytelling and storytelling of freedom should both compound the very fabric of experience, where past meets future and births the present. Isn´t that enough to hard desing every observable role playing process?
Granted, it does demand expertice in the manipulation of the soft threads between what is called science and humanities. Am I not forced isolate and reiterate every single of the threads in order reconstruct logic, ethic and emotion, giving credence to the inherent appeal of the game, for the game and by the game?

If chaos reigns, why can´t it be the opportunity for my lonely untouched island to reach the continent, in order and spin it in so I to meet both my behaviour and response to inter-narrativities through the gestalt of my characters?. I would conclude I am better off alone in that pushing endevour. Can´t I be the god of threshold between Apollo and Dionysus, where the only boundaries and frontiers are tho not boundaries and frontiers?

I would want to discuss the game of the game, but I don´t know how, so I dream with the whole of mankind throught myself.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I believe you misunderstood my statement. It was a paraphrase. A boiling down of what the Preface said. These were not my sentiments, but my interpretation of the book's sentiments.

As for the meat of your comment, the point eluded me.

Unknown said...

It’s hard to explain. I read some of your posts and I strongly disagreed with some of those points, so I tried to argue about that.
I know I did a poor job, after all, I’m not fluent in English and not an expert about the game, just someone that plays alone because she can’t stand people and wants to relive the movies, fairytales and video games she loves using DnD vicariously, by upping the ante emotionally and spicing up the risks. Basically, I tried to reach a communication between the points I don’t agree with and the way I am sure I solved them by playing alone, but it seems I didn’t measure up.

If so, then understanding between us it’s out of the question. I’m sorry for wasting your time.
I’ll continue playing like that: stealing, stitching and chronicling whatever catches my fancy until the game reaches some meaning. For now, I think I’m not even playing DnD, I’m more like rehearsing how the write behind a glass curtain. Might be for the best.
Did you ever say the film Amadeus? There is an scene where Mozart is dying of fever and Salieri is beside his bed, trying to catch what Mozart says during fever attacks. Then, Salieri hapzardly tried to interpret the gibberish and ends up composing the Requiem. I like to think I’m doing something like that with my Mozart-like automated oracle.

I thank you for your attention.
By the way, sorry that I didn’t noticed the public profile thing. Might solve it one of these days. My name is Amber.

Alexis Smolensk said...


In fact I championed solitary play in my book, How to Run, as a means of gaining personal experience with the game and the rules. At various times, out of a compulsion to play, I spent hundreds of hours of time creating random rules and setting generations that would let me play on my own. We're not as far apart there as you might think. I still play on my own, it is only that I spend that time designing rather than actually playing (though I play the designs in my head).

Amadeus the film was brilliant (so was the composer, obviously). I know the scene well; Salieri is on the edge of his seat, thrilled to be in the moment of creation, the two playing off each other, both caring more about the music that Mozart being on the edge of death. Excellent scene near the end of an excellent movie. I experience many moments like that with my partner Tamara, who acts as my Salieri.

Please understand that I am not challenging the beauty or value of role-playing or game design with these posts ~ only with the amateurish effort by this group of company stooges blatantly shitting on the game I love.

Comment again, please. I enjoyed these last insights.