Monday, May 26, 2014

A Very Simple Ideal

I suppose I can't wait.

We can call this Part II of why I love D&D.  And as I said with my previous post, that requires separating why I love D&D, and why I don't love the various other near-forms of D&D.  What is it, exactly, that separates this one game from all the others?

I should be clear.  I love D&D as it was originally proposed, and later elaborated on, up until 1981.  After about the later winter of '81, when I was still 16, the game began to change.  I remember we all talked about it at the time, the group that I ran with and other groups - about twenty people in all, switching and playing at my high school, plus a few adult DMs we knew who ran very serious games.  D&D was barely out of the box, and everyone could tell it was changing.

Mind you, in those days, no one I knew referred to the DMG and the Player's Handbook as "AD&D."  I didn't actually encounter that until the late 90s, and for me it wasn't widespread until I saw it on the internet. But I digress.

The change wasn't in D&D, but in the other games that were coming along - Rolemaster & Ice Law and Tunnels & Trolls were the biggies, supported by the appearance of Greyhawk, Empire of the Petal Throne and the Dragon Magazine.  These weren't seen as 'bad,' but it was a recognizeable change, and we discussed the positives and negatives of those changes.  Some of the DMs began to experiment with hit location, which became all the rage for a long time.  Everyone tried building a scheme for it, including me. Lots of ideas came out of the Dragon, and we experimented with those things too; some of those ideas got into my campaign.

A sort of fetishism began to arise.  For example, there were modules, and then there was Tomb of Horrors. ToH had a strange fascination for a particular kind of player - a kind that was beginning to emerge and become more popular.  We recognize them everywhere today.  I'm talking about this kind of player.  The reason for the appearance is quite clear.  The young high school students who where there to embrace the game as gathered steam (call it '77) were hitting the age where they were failing university at 21.  Failing university and getting crap labor jobs and beginning the age of the man-boy.  I remember there were groups that took to playing ToH every weekend, for months at a time.

Other fetishes were growing: larping, dressing up for sessions, tournaments and so on . . . oh yes, the game was certainly changing.-
I saw it then, and I still see it now, as proof that the actual participation in the role playing game isn't enough for a certain type of player.  Oh, they like the game well enough, but they don't have the imagination necessary to get everything they want from simply playing the game.  So they develop other habits, participation events, fetishes and so on to compensate.  To make them feel involved.

Anyway, I was going in another direction.  The game culture was certainly changing.  Why didn't I change with it?  Why didn't I feel the need to dress, or swing a live weapon, or play death sports like the ToH every weekend instead of my campaign?  Why is it when I was told who or what Lolth was, my general response was 'meh' (hadn't been invented yet)?

I only have guesses.  I had a very popular world.  Between '80 and '92 I ran between 5 and 14 people every Friday night, year-in, year-out, from my parent's kitchen table and the high school cafeteria to my crap first apartment, to the university club and the house I rented, and from there into my condo.  I took great jobs, I went to university, I had a kid . . . and all of that was with one group that included people I knew in high school, ex-girlfriends, co-workers, co-students, my wife and so on.  I never had any trouble getting players.  I was always turning away players, in fact.  And when the main group left in '92, it wasn't very long before I had another group, that I kept until '97.

(then my life fell apart, but that's not important now)

So I didn't need change.  My game was fine.  My game is still fine.  I never needed modules because I found them trite and predictable, and I felt my own adventures were better.  If I ran a world where the plot lines ran like Excalibur or Conan, the modules were like the awful Conan sequel or Red Sonya. I'm saying I wasn't 'great,' but I was a fuck of a lot better than Red Sonya.

The logic of 2e simply escaped me.  3e was worse.  In my Advanced Guide, I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of tension - where it comes from, how to build it, how to handle the players once it's built, how not to lose it yourself in managing all the stress it creates and so on.  Virtually everything about the mechanics for 2e, 3e and especially 4e seemed about destroying as much of the tension as possible, and using the rules to do so.  More hit points, more shortcuts to more hit points, more elaborate ways to heal, less and less meaning to the subject of 'dead' . . . and the elaboration of skill sets that would entitle the character to eventually do anything, even circumvent the need for thought.

When I look around, all the other systems seem to be doing the same thing.  What I know of Pathfinder and the rest just looks like a lot of super-empowerment to the point of blandness.  The difficult thing about superhero films is that they are so easily just meaningless walk throughs from A to Z, where the hero is never seriously threatened and the only real 'conflict' results from someone - or everyone - holding the idiot ball.  The later rules for role-playing games all seem destined to make this the norm.  And this is not what I like about role-playing.

I like that people have to die.  I like that they can't do most of the things that they imagine.  I like that they recognize their limitations.  I like that they don't have a tool that will do that thing for them.  I like that they're scared, and they have to plan, and they think there's a good chance it will fail.  I like that the way isn't clear. That things aren't certain.

I don't even like alignment because it gets rid of a seriously important character-driving conflict - the dilemma.  The player in my world who plays their character with the certainty of always knowing what the character would do is the most horrifically boring characterization, ever.  How ungodly dull is this?  The character never questions their motivation?  Never finds themselves pulled between two possible decisions? This isn't a character, this is a corpse.  Save me.

I know there are some who would blame video games, but in fact both video games and this eventuality in other role-playing games comes from the same source.  Humans like a sure thing.  And they will sacrifice excitement, purpose, hope, celebration or relief in order to get it.  Most humans, given the opportunity, would rather stand like a dead thing nailed to a dead thing's stand in front of a slot machine guaranteed to pay off than feel a moment's tension at not being sure.  And they would continue this preference even after they had grown wealthy.  Because most humans are sad, fearful sacks of dung.  They only push through the terror each day makes them endure because they're more frightened still of what might be on the other side. And most humans don't do this one thing well.

Tomb of Horrors, I think, was a fetish because you knew you would die, and that took the pressure off.  A slot machine that never pays off is as comfortable as one that always does.  For some people, pulling a meaningless handle is enough.

(joke intended)

D&D, the original D&D that I began playing in '79, before the change, loved this death thing, and appreciated that people would try to live.  That was a very simple ideal, and I find myself still surrounded by people who want to play in a game where that is still the ideal.  It is just harder to find that ideal when the rules are designed to fuck with it.


  1. I love this post. It's such a seemingly small part of the world, but tension is the crux of D&D just as it is the crux of drama.
    It's why there is always a conflict -- you are never introduced to a week in Mr. Bean's life where he gets up, eats breakfast, goes to work, comes homes, eats dinner, goes to bed, and nothing extraordinary occurs. Even Mr. Bean has to encounter an unusual fruit stand or bicycle or what-have-you.

    There is a confusion between what we want and what we need in many parts of life. We want stability and understanding -- they're easy and tranquil; we need instability and tension -- they keep us learning, thinking, developing. It's worth mentioning Louis CK's bit on Conan about 'hating cellphones' ( wherein he comments on our desire to hide from the tensions that are in the back of our minds every day with our trusty phones.

    The notion of 'escape' and 'escapism' is often associated with media and literature and game, but there is also an assumption that 'escape' means relief from the day-to-day tension insofar as there is no tension at all.
    I like how Tolkien described it in 'On Fairy Stories' ( which states "But there are also other and more profound "escapisms" that have always appeared in fairy-tale and legend. (...) There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. And even when men are not facing hard things such as these, there are ancient limitations from which fairy-stories offer a sort of escape, and old ambitions and desires (touching the very roots of fantasy) to which they offer a kind of satisfaction and consolation."
    Tolkien does not mean fairy-tales (or their variety of modern reimaginings in fantasy mediums) should be free of these profound terrors of human existence, but that they merely have the advantage of consoling those fears and sources of tension.

    Death is very real in life, but heroism is more faint outside of distorted histories and legends; and heroism is born of success against conflict. D&D -- especially a "harsh" D&D -- dramatizes conflict and builds tension, and only by surmounting said tension can a character be a true hero (even anti-heroes do this, only to emphasize either their anti-heroism or heroism).
    Looking back, it may have seemed so easy to kill the giant serpent and rescue the ancient tablets before the doomsday cult got a hold of them, but when it was happening, it was more real than worrying about buying groceries or seeing the doctor: it was the conflict that made the characters heroes, or left their corpses in the dirt.

  2. “The young high school students who where there to embrace the game as gathered steam (call it '77) were hitting the age where they were failing university at 21. Failing university and getting crap labor jobs and beginning the age of the man—boy”
    . . .
    Therefore, the socioeconomic failings of many gamers forced a change in game design such that the rules became a more extensive venue for escapism or wish fulfilment?
    . . .
    If this is true, one would conclude that
    “I have seen the enemy, it is us.”

  3. oooh not been here for ages, read this:

    "Tomb of Horrors, I think, was a fetish because you knew you would die, and that took the pressure off"

    and went up a level. It's the first time I've seen it expressed and I had not consciously acknowledged it as a thing. Now that I have I can't accidentally lose it. Thanks!


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