Saturday, February 10, 2018

I'd Like to Be Wrong

What edition do I play?

For some years now, I have been describing my game as a Frankenstein's monster of the original AD&D books, but I wonder how true that is, any more.  Especially in the last five years, with extensive changes to various elements of the combat system, increase of the sage abilities, expansion of the wiki, considerable redesign of how monsters and spells work ... there's still a hint of the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but it is definitely dying.

Yesterday, answering the question where my rules came from, I decided to have a look at the old DM's Guide, to see what was left ... and realized I hadn't reached for the book in almost six months.  Not one time since getting the online campaign started again, which is strange.  Truth is, I just don't need it any more.  I've surpassed it.

Used to be, back in the day, I would turn to the book once in a while as reading material, looking for inspiration.  Some passage in the book would make a half-hearted attempt to discuss something like titles for nobility or the building blocks for a laboratory and I would be off for days writing detailed structures or researching medieval alchemy ... and that pattern went on for decades, until I squeezed every drop of suggestion from the book.

I watched as the other editions came in; got copies, perused the tables and so on, less enthusiastically that others ... and couldn't help noticing again and again that these later editions utterly failed to bring in new rules.  And so it was with every other RPG that came along.  The format was settled by those early games, like Traveller, like Rolemaster, and two generations of designers added nothing to it.  Design the character; design the combat system; design the spells or tech, the magic items, the list of feats and skills.  Add an equipment table.  And then stop.

And what did the supplements include?  More characters, more spells, more tech, more equipment.  More of the same.  And as this went on, and on, and on, I shook my head at all the people who seemed satisfied with this, who purchased room-fulls of the same material, the same concept, the same design, repeated ad nauseum.

So it goes.  Nothing has changed.

Yesterday, I realized one of my characters possessed a mountaineering knowledge that had been acquired at 2nd level, which I had failed to expand.  The game had been on hiatus for six months, wih players talking about how it would probably never start again, and I had simply forgot.  I didn't realize until the character went to third, and I had reason to look at that list of sage abilities.

[I would have appreciated the player reminding me when we started again, a month ago, but I know that players often resist this sort of thing because they presume I'm "busy" ~ but I'm always busy, and yet stuff gets done]

I wrote the rules, caving and cave finding, mountain routefinding and rock foraging, skiing, and it wasn't that hard.  Took two or three hours ... easily the same amount of time I might spend playing Patrician-3 for relaxation, while listening to a film, a lecture or a documentary.  Instead, I did this.  And it wasn't that hard.  None of the skills are particularly powerful, they are at best occasionally useful ... but the key is that they don't cost the player anything.  The player gets the skills for free.

I don't want to get into point buy systems here, but just let me say, this is why point-buy systems suck.

My larger point is that players, left to their own agendas, will constantly get themselves into situations where what they can do becomes a big issue.  And DMs will constantly get themselves into positions where how does this work becomes a completely different issue.  Yet the entire design industry in the role-playing community has consistently decided that the solution to this is to have the DM just make shit up.

This is an astoundingly bad strategy.  Yet everyone just lives with it.  Hell, there are a significant number of DMs who argue that it is better this way.  Better?  How, exactly?  Since when has any design strategy been improved by the designers just not doing anything?

I used to think this was an oversight.  That the designers failed to realize that, if the players wanted to climb a mountain, or fight in waist-deep water, or start an armorer's shop, there ought to be rules for it.  But I wonder.  I am beginning to think that while Gygax might have had some of those things in mind, as rules that could be made some day, the rest of the designing community was more inclined to say, "Fuck it.  They have dragons to kill.  They ought to be happy with that.  I'm not making rules for shit that doesn't involve killing dragons."

So we have had tons and tons of gaming skull-sweat to create, justify, expand and build adventures for an endless parade of reskinned, functionally equivalent races and character classes, all of which are mysteriously embraced by the vast community [please, I beg of you, don't try to explain the infatuation with "dragon-borne," which resemble orcs and run like drow, and are apparently nothing at all like dragons] as the most interesting part of a game, deserving of endless bulletin boards and comment threads that repeat and repeat how great they are.

All of which leads me to believe that most RPG players represent the least brightest pennies in the piggy bank of humanity.  And that perhaps all the abuse, all the exploitation, all the bad advice, all the short-shrifting of design, all the monumental oversight and resistance to solve real game problems, is somehow a phenomenon of awarding bad karma to those who deserve bad karma.

I'd like to be wrong.  I see the response to the additions I make to rules on the wiki and it is always positive.  I fill out a few details about how to fit skiing into the game and I get cheers from my players.  It causes me to feel that others would receive a like benefit from their players, if only they would design something that players could do, or want, that wasn't another spell, or another magic item, or another character class to run.

I'd like to be wrong.  Two years after publishing, How to Run is still selling (half the time I depend on it for a significant part of my income), and always, always, I get good reviews for it.  People want insight, they want explanations, they want an answer to the question, "How do I run this fucking game?"  The question is everywhere, constantly everywhere, on every site, on every thread, on every format, from video to text to podcast.  How, how, how?  Yet all the company can say is to have something big explode into bar where the players are sitting, or have something try to assassinate a player, and then give it a tattoo or a weird ring so the players are interested in where it came from.

That is it, for the most part.  Plot hooks.  Lists of a hundred plot hooks, repeated plot hooks, the same plot hooks written into the Dragon Magazine in 1983, the same plot hooks that have been used by every B-movie since the 19-teens, the same plot hooks that were used to write stories about Kit Carson and Jesse James in the penny-dreadful books of the 1850s.  Plot hooks and big bads, and the same dreck between, and oh how the money pours onto the game store counters to buy another one.

I'd like to be wrong.  Someone, please, tell me that I'm wrong.  Tell me that this isn't it, that there's a groundswell of participants who are smelling the air and noticing how stale it has become after forty years.  Please tell me that "playing for 30 years" means expertise, and not someone who is dumb enough to play the same game over and over, in the same way, for the same reasons, pumping out money for the same trash, for thirty years.  Send me to a website.  Footnote a source. 

Because I've looked.

Typical D&D Player
Ah well.  Hello.  I'm a D&D Player.  And I can explain both how to run and how to play, if you'll just take the time to keep reading.  I have an extensive wiki with lots of house rules on it for things you've probably never thought of; I have a few books for sale; I am starting a podcast for people who are interested in becoming better DMs.

Yes, I'm a bit tetchy. But look around you.  Look at what's happening.  Would you expect the one guy not giving you the same advice as everyone else, the same useless advice that's been given for 40 years, not to be a little tetchy?

Remember when Pai Mei snatched Elle Driver's eye, because she just wouldn't "get it?"  Yeah.  He was a little tetchy too.

Us crazy teachers with excessive wisdom usually are (even Gandalf has his days) ... but don't worry.  We usually come to a bad end.


Pandred said...

So, most of the time these posts don't get a ton of comments, and I know as a content creator that makes it hard to get a bead on what you're accomplishing.

I'm chiming in to at least say: I don't have a good response, but I'm thinking about it.

Designing mechanics is just harder than designing equipment or plot hooks. And pre-internet at least, it's not as if you could just dump an older rule willy-nilly if it seemed not to work. Otherwise you end up with virtually useless nonsense like the Wilderness and Dungeon Survival Guides.

Alexis Smolensk said...

And nonsense they certainly were. At the time, however, I remember feeling excited about the problems that were presented, with solutions that were at least attempted. Swimming and climbing rules, weather rules ... not that I can remember more than just a few things.

Apparently the bad sales of those books convinced people not to go down that road again ~ when it should have been a sign to DO BETTER. Ah well.

I'm just making a solid attempt just now for making mountain climbing rules and yeah, it's damn hard. But I see this sort of thing as having terrific potential in redefining the game ~ I'm only sorry that most don't see it that way.

Samuel Kernan said...

I would bet that having rules for more things would get the players thinking about the different possibilities for play, and away from the focus on character creation as the time of maximum possibility and creation.

Pandatheist said...

It’s my impression that large publishers, particularly WotC, believe that new players buy more books, and make up the largest percentage of their customers. And while new players could more easily benefit from more rules specificity there is a fear of overwhelming them with a host of situational rules. So they focus on updates and refinements of current rules systems rather than build new ones. Which isn’t to say that no one is doing it. Veins of the Earth had new rules for spelunking and cave exploration. Matt Colville has a pretty successful kickstarter going right now with new stronghold rules. But without a niche audience who have already bought into the idea that new rules are beneficial, most publishers are going to focus on entirely new game systems or refinements of pre-existing rules structures rather than try something new. Combine that with “rules light” systems being in vogue and its a tough sell. It may all boil down to a question of marketing and customer demographics.

Archon said...

Well, I guess sturgeons law is a factor; 95% of everything is crap. I suppose D&D was going to regress to the mean eventually.

(and how about: .)

Archon said...

(As a secondary concern, expecting D&D to produce original ideas now is like expecting Lord of the Rings to; the original creators are dead or locked out, and a corporation is controlling it. - the analogy can be extended to D&D rip-off games, and LOTR rip-off fantasy novels. Look to places which are not D&D-related, and you might have better luck with people who are genuinely trying)

Alexis Smolensk said...


What you say is not wrong. I suppose I just feel that if something is "better," eventually someone will find a way to monetize it. I write posts like this in the hopes that I will nudge people out of their complacency and get them thinking. I don't know who might be reading or what inspiration they might take from such note writing.

Hollow Scribe said...

As a relatively new DM, I do take inspiration from your blog and wiki. Sadly, too few people discuss rules and DM-ing in any meaningful way, which is probably what new DM's need the most.

I think you need enough rules to properly model reality in some way. Weapons with different properties are great. But I don't need several hundred pages of imaginary triple-axes and explosive bananas with endless +1's to extremely specific combat situations. There's a value in realizing when you have enough rules for something, so you can move on to all these areas that don't have enough rules... like skiing, or whatever. You're doing that. A lot of people aren't. That's probably the reason for your game system being the single best "rules heavy" variant of D&D I've seen. That's something, I guess.

JB said...

I am so sorry I haven't had a chance to be active on the blog-o-sphere the last couple weeks; reading posts like this just fires up my itch to go back and re-read your posts that I have only (previously) skimmed. Just laugh-out-loud amusing (loved the Elle photo, even without the explanation, by the way).

A couple thoughts:

Are you actually giving a little praise to Gygax here? He did attempt to elaborate on his systems (both with the AD&D game and some of his later, supplemental material)...attempts that haven't been made in much greater effort since his departure. Regardless of the debated merits of the material, he does appear to have been EXPANDING, rather than (or as much as) REFINING the material.

"All of which leads me to believe..." I can see how you reach that conclusion (and I laugh as I read it and agree it's the obvious conclusion), but on second pass, I wonder if it doesn't instead signal the contempt the company has for the customer. I have more to say on the subject, but I want to talk to someone first.

Your comment about the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides...that their FINANCIAL failure led to an abandonment of that paradigm of quite insightful and something I hadn't really considered (much of the theme of this post is something, sadly, I hadn't considered...). It reminds me of Chivalry and Sorcery, an old RPG often derided as "too complex"...and yet in many ways it is about on par with the complexity you've instilled into your own "home brew" rules. It's as if the C&S designers decided "we want a system that addresses all the various rules we might anticipate our game might require in the future." And it's still not THAT large of a book (perhaps due to its narrow scope of setting)...but for something of that complexity, it was perhaps unpalatable to the unwashed masses who could purchase a "simpler" fantasy game (like Basic D&D) and add complexity (AD&D or house rules) as desired.

Ugh. So much to say. This is why I need to read your blog daily instead of weekly.
; )

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sigh. Yes. I have praised Gygax. You can start the band playing now.

Elle was my favorite character. In my movie, Elle kills Beatrix in some terrifically painful manner, then realizes she's sick as fuck of Bill's endless moronic prattling and kills him too. Then she goes all blazing saddles and kills the director and the film ends with J.J. Abrams yelling cut over Tarantino's dead body.

But we can't always have it our way.