Friday, January 11, 2019

5e: The Two and a Half Stumps of List Teases

“The adventure is the heart of the game, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. An adventure might be created by the Dungeon Master or purchased off the shelf, tweaked and modified to suit the DM ’s needs and desires. In either case, an adventure features a fantastic setting, whether it’s an underground dungeon, a crumbling castle, a stretch of wilderness, or a bustling city.”

The reader will find this quote on the top left of page 8 of the 5th Edition Players Handbook, beginning the fifth page of explaining what the game is without factually explaining anything about actual game play. The writers have found it very difficult not to launch into lists of game fluff, and they don’t hesitate to do it here in this passage which is part of the heading (beginning on page 7) called “Adventures.”

Whatever D&D may have been once, or however it might have been played, the goal here is to bake the “adventure” right into the meat and potatoes of the game. Though above it says the adventure is the heart of the game, we’re also told that consists of characters embarking on an adventure and that a campaign IS a string of adventures joined together. There is no mention at all of characters “doing their own thing.” The setting is not free-form, it is not three dimensional, it is not flexible. It is THIS. You, dear reader, are expected to understand this completely.

The reason why every character is different is so that they will complement each other. And they must cooperate. That is the only way the adventure can be completed. It is all here on the page, in black and white.

Moreover, NPCs exist as characters in the play, described as “patrons, allies, hirelings or just background extras.” Make no mistake. This entire system is designed, like a Hollywood movie, to move the actors into the celebrity frame so that they can be the heroes of this picture. The only other entity mentioned who might have an actual agenda is the villain! And why is there a villain? Why, to drive the adventurers (players) action, of course.
None of this is new. The company has been hammering this point for ages now and we’re all familiar with it. If there is anything to say here, it is only this: before the release of 5e, the company opened the game to player input ~ and the players popularly asked the designers to untangle D&D’s famously convoluted ruleset. I remember very well the many blog posts written on the subject, and flame wars besides, about this very decision on the company’s part.

Given the company’s choices, we must assume A) that so few people expressed any interest in open gaming that the company felt it wasn’t worth mentioning it at all; B) the company carefully skewed the inquiries so it was impossible to give any answer that wasn’t about adventure-based gaming; C) the company, having games to sell, doesn’t actually give a shit.

I’m going to go with C. After all, we’ve been very sure to include a line about purchasing adventures … and since every list describing adventures (it may be this, or this, or this, or this, or this) that’s appeared in the introduction so far sounds like a sales pitch for something the company is selling, I think my guess is likely.

Moving on. Still on page 8, we’re next introduced to “The Three Pillars of Adventure.” I’m beginning to love this sort of passage in this book, because … well, that’s not important.

Our three pillars are Exploration, Social interaction and Combat. The description under “exploration” is essentially a rehash of a description two pages back:
“Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.”

Not only have we covered this, we’ve been told that the play of D&D essentially IS this, in the “how to play” section. But now we’re going to be told something else, that play also includes social interaction and combat.

I have heard of writing a book by committee; I think this is the first example I’ve come across that reveals book editing by committee.

Social interaction is obviously role-play; but for whatever reason, confusion in using role-play to describe talking as your character and as the adjective to describe the game, we’ve decided to go with “social interaction” instead. Let’s have a read:
“Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.”

Another list of possible adventures ~ it is the only kind of description we know. Please notice, however, that there is something strange in this list of four examples: all three describe talking to creatures in order to GET something.

Is there no other reason to talk to creatures? Does it mean breaking bread with the scout and talking about friends and family back home? How about helping the rescued prisoner get over their shock and trauma by asking what we can do? Does it include spitting in the face of the orc chieftain while we tell him to shove his mercy? Though, okay; I’ll concede that last. There’s only one way to talk to magic mirrors.

If it's going to be adventure all the time, however; and if that adventure puts you in the star chamber and everyone else is basically a servant of the plot, then NPCs only exist to provide you with that crucial exposition you desperately need. So why not smack around a scout or hang a wretched prisoner from his ankles over a dungeon chasm? Why not grovel for your pathetic life in front of an orc chieftain, knowing he’s going to let you live (you are, after all, the star of this film – and the orc chieftain is supposed to die on page 41 anyway). Why not go Captain Kirk with a magic mirror until you convince it to give you the info you need and then kill itself in an apoplectic philosophical fit. Why in hell would you ever just talk to anyone? They can’t even remember that you said cappuccino and not latte.
“Combat … involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on ~ all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives or forcing a rout.”

Lists, lists, lists. So, basically combat is the ultimate in social interaction: getting what you want without having to talk. Good. Plain, simple, straight to the point … whether you’re doing this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this …

Combat, however, ends with this:
“Combat is the most structured element of a D&D session, with creatures taking turns to make sure that everyone gets a chance to act. Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.”


Uh, yeah.

I so can’t wait to see the “structured” rule that explains how surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield works. Or other wacky stuff.

It is bits and pieces like this that seriously challenge my willingness to take much of what I’m being told at face value. I appreciate that it is turn-based system; but was it really necessary to describe the system as “everyone gets to take their turn”? How is that visually helpful? Could we not have rather said, “To effect an ordered, practical system of resolving battles, the game employs a turn-based system similar to chess. While a mechanical departure from realism, the method enables many complex elements to be controlled by the participants of the game, while adding features that give the feel of immediate, simultaneous interaction.”

Nope. We “take turns,” ensuring “Everyone gets to play,” because what really matters with combat is that no one feels left out. Oh, and we get to swing weapons and kill every enemy.

This is what we call a “tone problem.” It’s a situation where your writing pisses on your own writing in a way that makes the emotional moment you’re trying to create sound very silly and squicky. Like letting your 73-year-old grandmother read excerpts from porn sites aloud in church.

That’s why my heart doesn’t race when the writer mentions “a mysterious lever” 17 words after using the phrase “wacky stunts.” It just makes me think, wow … you need a paper towel?

Sorry for writing another of these posts. I have to admit, I really wanted to know what the next part of the book was going to talk about and I’ve promised myself not to read anything of the book unless I’m going to write on it immediately upon reading. I want all my blog reactions be “in the moment.” So if I want to know what fucked thing the book is going to say next, I have to write the blog post as I read.
It’s a motivation technique.


Ozymandias said...

"I so can’t wait to see the “structured” rule that explains how surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield works. Or other wacky stuff."

Don't hold your breath...

Alexis Smolensk said...

I think there's a funny internet relationship with that particular line, Ozymandias. Regardless of the belly laugh that many had and embraced with that scene, it is plain and clear that it was not added to the Two Towers as a moment of humour. Definitely not wacky. A million ignorant man-boys with little ability to pay attention had a field day with that scene precisely because they missed the in-universe logic.

The audience was to understand, as demonstrated by the scene in Fellowship where the elf could walk on snow without breaking through (established in the books), that elves existed in the world without real weight. Legolas could "surf" down the stairs because he weighed, well, nothing; and no one would doubt the believability of an empty shield sliding down a flight of stairs. We all learned the physics of that when we were kids, exploring with sleds on our basement stairs.

[everyone did that, right? it wasn't just me and my friends?]

So here we have established in a handbook that cries from the rooftops about the amazing world of magic, that completely misses that there was Tolkien magic involved in that Jacksonian scene. Legolas coming down those stairs WAS structured; pretending that players in a D&D campaign could do the same is ridiculous for the reasons why Legolas' scene wasn't. Players have weight.

As a DM, I occasionally have to explain these things to players, but not really very often. It makes it harder when the book is written by people who do not know what they are talking about.

Ozymandias said...

Which then leads us to: what if elves didn't have weight?

Not literally but a DM could rule that elves we're, like, one-quarter the normal weight for a similarly sized human.

And that, I think, is one of the major problems with D&D, as currently written: it doesn't lend the DM or player to take these things seriously.

Alexis Smolensk said...

How could they? One absolute necessity to being able to run a fantasy environment means breaking habits such as pointing at something "unbelievable" and screaming "foul!"

How do these people suppose that fantasy doesn't include tall tales such as those surrounding Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Febold Feboldson, or Seven League Boots or the nest of European Fairy Tales, or Dante and everyone else who ever constructed a mythical reality in their minds. How does one cry "foul" with a straight face when THESE are the backgrounds that D&D owes its existence to, that it ought to defend with all its will?

"Wacky?" Holy shit people.