Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dead Thinking

By the time Unearthed Arcana was released in 1985, my friends and I had been playing the game for almost six years. I’m sure that for some players somewhere it was a shot in the arm, but for us it was largely a piece of junk, full of typos and badly worded design flaws. While some of the ideas had merit (notably cantrips), most of these ideas had already been put forth by Dragon Magazine and had been incorporated into campaigns by the players themselves.

I bring up the U.A. because it indicates the thinking process of the company that continued to sell products for the game, resulting in three flaws: A) they were perpetually behind in their thinking process, rushing to solve problems that savvy DMs had already solved on their own; B) they continued to perpetuate the original flaws of the game; and C) they were interested most of all in selling the same game over and over again, reworded or “reworked,” as exemplified by the 2nd and 3rd editions and the books released to support them.

I need not discuss the lag in thinking, as this is to be expected with a corporate mentality. Eventually, the game players split into two factions—one of which is clearly visible everywhere on line, which discusses the latest releases with the avid interest of pop fans everywhere. As this group does little thinking for itself, and is dependent on the corporation to feed it, there’s no need for the corporation to be particularly forward thinking. This plays to point (c), in which we see that all you need is a shiny new cover on the same old shit in order to sell product. Car manufacturers have been playing this technique since their inception.

The other group doesn’t buy product. This group doesn’t need prefabricated plastic-dungeon sets, as they know they can make their own with a few power tools and effort. This group doesn’t need another book with sixty pages of character creation, forty pages of weapons, eighty pages of magic items and sixty pages of spell descriptions (with two pages of equipment and one page describing “outdoor adventures’). Thus, this second group has NO IMPORTANCE WHATSOEVER as to the commercial development of the game, which has become the only public face that anyone can see.

Having dismissed points (a) and (c) therefore as mostly uninteresting, let’s discuss point (b)…flaws and failures in the original system.

First and foremost is clearly “alignment,” the brain child of Gygax probably, who felt that players couldn’t have a personality without grafting some standardized graph onto it. I never knew anyone in the first half of the eighties that used it, with the exception of Paladins, forcing them to be “good” in order to limit the character at high level. Later on, I met a string of rather queer DMs who felt that it really fueled character development—though none of them could explain how, and I learned to stay far away from such people as they tended to pocket silverware and such. The public relations problem the corporation was having with the fact that the word “evil” was being used at all in association with a “children’s” game practically guaranteed that alignment would continue to have relevance in the commercial game—along with the clear understanding that parties should be encouraged towards the “good” path.

I have made an unending stream of players happy by merely using the words, “I allow evil paladins.” In fact, I don’t give a rat shit how a paladin behaves…having read Le Morte de Arthur and thus knowing that knights behave in all sorts of ways. Moreover, it’s just common sense. Death and decay are part and parcel with nature; the GODS, having some greater knowledge of the natural world, would have less invested in the notion of mortality than mortals…and thus what care they that paladins rip goodwives asunder and butcher little children? All the more meat to occupy the outer planes and from which to pick an army.

Paladins aside, the problem was made worse with the advent of the Unearthed Arcana, which tried steadfastly to establish character codes, such as those of the Barbarian and the Samurai…characters which, if we were to believe what we were reading, would be run more by the DM than by the players, forced to kowtow to pre-set character traits loaded with punishments for “incorrect behavior.”

Why should I, as DM, suddenly have to behave as the character police every time a puffed-up fighter wants to take a shit in the woods? Or, in the case of the barbarian, wants to behave rationally in the face of extreme danger? It was clear from the first readings that these characters were woefully over-supported with powers and abilities in exchange for the political correctness of their class structures. I saw no way in which this would support the game as designed, so I disregarded the new classes. I took some of their features and sprinkled them among the original classes (without restrictions on their use).

For about six months I heard protests from people wanting to try the new characters. After six months most of these people had had their opportunity to do so, in someone else’s campaign. Interest quickly died.

Free action, I found, was a better sell than character abilities.

Let me take a moment, here, to reflect on another failing in the character system as it stands now—and as it is loved by the commercial advocates of the game: the use of skill points to buy skills to create characters not restricted by class.

I admit, I’m not fully clear on how this manifests itself in the present 3rd edition game. I’ve looked over the tables and read the rules, and I feel confident that the system came directly out of RuneQuest, dressed up of course. I played that system as part of another hybrid, Middle Earth, and hated the system immediately. Here’s why.

It takes very little time to discover the most efficient way in which to use skill points, to create the strongest most efficient players. While there may be other skills available, one has to be an idiot to take them rather than the more practical skills. Our deviating idiot will find his or herself constantly demoted to the second rank in every encounter—because they don’t get +7 when they attack and they don’t cast magics enabling them to fly or what have you. Whatever the system, pretty soon you have twelve characters running in your world who are all exactly the same in their abilities. And don’t say it’s not true, because I’ve seen it happen again and again. If you’re the sort of person who is willing to pay points for useless skills, come on over; I have a used car for sale that you’re gonna love.

So what about character classes? Ah, that gets us down to the nitty-gritty at last. Let’s discuss characters next.


  1. I played a LG Paladin for 2 1/2 years real time. My fellow player was adventuring with a LG Swashbuckler. The two had the same alignment, but drastically different characters. We spent a great deal of time, in character, arguing over the finer points of virtue. We also spent a great deal of time out of character debating the value of an alignment system at all.

    We were both playing the same alignment, a very restrictive alignment, with very different outcomes. What purpose did an alignment system even have if two such polar opposites could exist in the same strata? It was blatantly apparent that the character of the characters was driven by the player, not the alignment.

    The example of the Paladin is a good one. In 1990 or 91, Dragon Magazine printed rather detailed descriptions for Paladins of all alignments. Which kind of begs the question of why an alignment system even exists at all?

    When the behavior of the characters is driven more by their class, the player, setting and situation it has no bearing what so ever.

    It is handy as a reminder for NPC's though.

    Skill points in D&D or any system isn't exactly useless. Have you ever tried to make a Shadowrun character? I too have seen people spend weeks working on spending all those points and adjusting options just to sit down at the table to discover they're playing the same basic character as everyone else. I've also seen a group of players work together to create a very specific party. One in which the characters compliment one another and makes them much more prepared to deal with the unknowns of an open-play style campaign.

  2. I admit, I haven't played Shadowrun, it coming out following the time I turned my back on the "community." But your description of the characters choosing skills to compliment each other suggests that they consciously chose to create "classes" of their own.

    I appreciate your comments, they are good ones, and reflect our thinking back in the day.

    Three of the players in my world right now have NEVER played with alignment and have no concept of it. This is to their benefit.

  3. In a recent game, the DM (Seamus) let us create / invent our own alignments and modified NPC reactions accordingly. This was inspired by some source I do not recall (I'll have to ask him). One of the provided examples was LG = Liberal Granola. I took it and ran with it. The other party member created his own, which was an extremely rude send up of NG - just like his character. Leaving the alignment open like that was excellent. It really allowed us the opportunity to nail down the characters personalities, desires and motivations. We created characters you wouldn't otherwise see in a DnD game.

  4. -Mike
    (I keep forgetting to sign off on my comments)

  5. I have to say this. I cringed at your last response, Mike; I find just about everything about it very distasteful. That is, in being not serious. The LG thing, the inventing your own alignments...better if I don't get specific.

    Perhaps you didn't understand my point. I'm not looking for an "alternative" to alignments and character codes. They're junk. The game doesn't need them.

    And I haven't had a chance yet to make one other thing clear: I have always hated campaigns where character "personalities, desires and motivations" don't start with A) power; B) wealth; and C) more power.

    These are the only human motivations which are interesting (thus being the human motivations which are used to write dramas and adventures).

    Other human motivations, such as "fun", are used to make comedies. And I don't see this game as a comedy. I don't play with people who think it is. (Remember about the walrus thing?)

    Of course, there is love and sex...but I've never found a satisfactory way to mix these with D&D. Nor any expressed desire from anybody to do more research into it.

  6. I agree that the game doesn't need alignments. I wanted to give a humorous example of just how pointless they really are as a way of expressing my agreement with your position.

    As for the silliness factor or "fun" quotient to the game in which that example was drawn, well, ok.

    I'm sorry you find the style in question distasteful, but I think it supports your original observation further if two disparate groups still come to the same conclusion - in this case, alignment is useless. While you might surgically remove the benign tumor that is alignment, we lampooned it mercilessly. Either way, it was recognized as shit by both parties and removed.


  7. In Shadowrun, one of your starting options is (perhaps was - I haven't played since 2nd ed was released) to account for your starting cash. One option is 1,000,000 newyen which can be spent on cyberware. The collection of cyberware in the game is not a short list, it is contained in a number of books, updates, periodicals, online sources and updates released by the company that marketed Shadowrun. It was one of the single, largest selling features of the game and it was built right in at the character creation level. Everyone at the table would have to buy a copy or wait to develop their character until after the other players were done with the Shadowtech book, for example.

    And yet everyone would sit down with characters that had skill wires, wired reflexes, body armor, personal combat computers, mono-filament whips, diamond kote swords, yadda yadda, etc etc. They were all clones of the same basic character.

    On the other side you had the same thing for magic users, riggers, deckers, etc... endless source material that was "required" to create a new character.

    Every time a new source book came out everyone would want to build a new character that had all this new wetware and hardware... That experience alone killed entire campaigns. Campaigns would last as long as the publishing cycle held back from releasing new material. Which is to say the game was restarted every 4-6 months.

    Skills in 3rd Ed. D&D are nothing compared to cyberware in Shadowrun.


  8. "I have always hated campaigns where character "personalities, desires and motivations" don't start with A) power; B) wealth; and C) more power.

    These are the only human motivations which are interesting (thus being the human motivations which are used to write dramas and adventures)."

    I find this to be an extremely… narrow view of human motivations. Other possible motivations are the well-being of loved ones (easily employed by having characters with, you know, a kind of social origin), patriotism (I mean, urgh, but, you know…), idealism (which is so extremely common that I can't even fathom how you missed this), thirst for knowledge, and so on.

    I'm also not sure which dramas and adventures you're reading that these are the only motivations you happen upon.

  9. Well, first, let's not forget I wrote this comment ten years ago, and that we as people evolve. Were I writing this post today, I would not be so provocative.

    Dramas and adventures written about loved ones, patriotism, idealism and a thirst for knowledge are ALWAYS about a) power; and b) wealth. The boy and the girl trouble themselves before yielding to one another over trust, which is to say, "If I trust this person, will they use their power to fuck me over?" The Patriot is always fighting the vested interest based upon power and wealth. The Idealist fights the same battle. A thirst for knowledge is always opposed by those who use their power to thwart research, revelation and so on.

    It isn't so much the narrowness of my motivations, but the narrowness of your definition of power.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.