Thursday, April 12, 2018

Core Principles

Fair's fair ... I can accept that I'm an old grognard and that where it comes to the game of Dungeons and Dragons, I'm conservative.  I'm ready to change the combat and experience rules, throw out a lot of the peripheral material designed to support character design, rebuild monsters, consider mechanics that standardize role-playing and such ... but where it comes to "the core principles of the game," I'm utterly inflexible.

I made mention of those principles in the last post and was not called out on them.  I find that reassuring.  It suggests to me that the reader has a good idea of what I mean ... at least the gentle readers who still visit this blog.  But I feel that the subject needs to be reviewed now and again: particularly when I make outlandish claims that stupid shit being done by the WOTC is going to kill the game.

Being inflexible, I don't believe I'm writing an "opinion" about those core principles.  Rather, I'm writing about what the core principles ARE, whether or not I write anything.

The game, as we know, started as a battle game invented by a group of university students.  Without mentioning names, this group created a series of rules to dictate how armed, armored figures could fight each other to the death in colosseum framework, for the pure pleasure of rolling dice to determine if my armed figure could beat your armed figure in a fight.

That establishes the first two core principles of what became D&D.  D&D is about fighting.  And D&D is about resolving issues by throwing dice.

Now, we live in a world where a plethora of players would argue that the game has "evolved," so that it is no longer about those two things. In fact, role-playing doesn't even need those two things, so both can be discarded without anything whatsoever being lost.  I strongly disagree.  Both fighting and die rolling have been discarded by a particular kind of player because these are both things that are outside the player's direct control.  Fights are not necessarily won.  They might be lost.  And dice, rolled openly, fairly, cannot be made to favor any individual, no matter how earnestly that individual feels about the importance of being personally stroked by the game's play.

Fighting and Dice are threats.  Threatened people despise both.  And it is very, very clear from the rhetoric gushing forth on the internet, that most of the present adjustments to the game revolve around the removal of game threats.  Specifically, anything that gives the emotional feel of losing.

Let's go back to the beginning. The originators of the game began to notice themselves growing emotionally attached to their own battle figures, particularly when those battle figures succeeded in a string of battles, due to the odd nature of random number generation.  Talking about it among themselves, it eventually happened that they began to make unique and specific rules surrounding the persona of long-term survivors ... which eventually morphed into the creation of drama-fed mechanics: charisma, intelligence, wisdom, alignment [for good or ill] ... and ultimately motivation, ambition and character.

These, then, became the next two core principles.  Character we know well.  Attachment, however, is often overlooked, misunderstood or frankly made meaningless by the present-day rhetoric.  But the core purpose to making a character grew out of the attachment the player had for the character.

The character mechanic was designed to feed this attachment.  And because dice rolling was a key structure of the originator's design, one that they liked, and because it was clearly understood that what made the character's likable was that they survived fights, the character-building rules that followed employed dice and the acceptance that not all characters would be equal!

In the arena, some characters deserved to die. Other characters deserved to live, ALWAYS through luck, either luck of the attack die or luck of the character stat.  That was the thrill, the core principle: to throw characters into an arena and SEE which characters would die and which characters would live.  Because seeing, without knowing ahead of time, was exciting.

From this, role-playing evolved from an attachment into a powerful desire to make those characters more and more real in the players' minds.  The passion to speak for the character, to sketch the character, to devise habits and aspirations, weaknesses, prejudices, dispositions ... these things were naturally evolving things within the framework of dice-rolls that went against all our plans, that favored or disfavored our designs, the results of which we had to overcome by our wits and risks, in a way that did not seek to break the fourth wall by insisting that the DM solve those problems for us!

It is all about the love.

But of course, not everyone felt that way.  With the rush of players who flooded into the game in the early 1980s, thousands and thousands of players recognized at once that the DM could break the fourth wall, any time; and because of this, there developed a particular kind of recognizable player who missed the whole damned point of the game. 

This player hated failure; hated the very idea of failure for the sake of failure.  For this player, any altenative to failure was better than failing ... even in a game where the probability, nay the certainty, of eventually failing was very much the point.  This player, then, turn to gamesmanship: the use of dubious, not technically illegal, obtaining of advantage, by turning the screws on the DM, by means of rules lawyering, bemoaning a lack of balance, coercion, whatever was necessary to turn the game in their favor.

We recognized these players.  We recognized when these players had gotten a hold of an existing group.  We walked away from such groups.   It is quite possible to read dozens of articles written at the time, in the Dragon magazine and elsewhere, about this type of player.  We understood the player was a threat, yes ... but we assumed, if we kept this player out of our games, we were fine.

THEN the company, the fucking company, made it clear with the release of second edition, that the company could be played.  And steadily, through the 1990s, and the 2000s, the fucking gamesmanship fuckers have been gameplaying the company, en masse, driving the company to make more and more ridiculous concessions, pissing all over the core principles of the game, until fights are seen as boring, and dice as unnecessary or changeable at will, where character creation is regulated and processed to guarantee the utter greyness of balance, where role-playing is GOD in an Olympus where the mechanics have been cast out and made lame ... and where attachment to character is a bloody joke, because really, who cares?
"I stopped playing him because, well, I got tired of playing a healer, jeez, it's so boring; I'm playing a tiefling now; her parents were killed when half the planet was destroyed; I really like her because she has green hair ..."

It is this distance from the character that is killing the game; a distance that is increasingly encouraged by every official position taken on what the game is about.  And yes, I would expect a lot of people to just not get that ... because they are children of the way the game has been fucked over these last 30 years.

That moment when the originators began to realize they were identifying with their cardboard chits, playing the combat game of Chain Mail, was the result of a human biological habit, one that we are utterly unable to resist, called anthropormorphism.  It is what enables us to make characters of anything and everything, from toasters to moons.  We can't help ourselves.  When we see a drawing like that in the text above, we give human traits, emotions and intentions to completely impossible things, because we are built this way.

However, when we seek to hold things more and more at arm's length, insisting that everything can be controlled, that it has to be controlled, denying uncertainty, denying failure, building superficial constructs where those things can't occur, in order to make ourselves feel safe and comfortable, we increasingly divorce ourselves from everything that makes something pleasurable, exciting, surprising or spontaneous.  With statistics, and cheats, and parity ... we drain the blood out of things.  We make them less human.  Less tactile.  Less lovable.

Less alive.


Zilifant said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Alexis. The current version of the game promotes things like "balanced encounters" to make sure the characters aren't facing something tougher than the characters themselves. And there are so many quick and easy ways to heal and layered mechanics to prevent character death at all costs that nothing is every truly risked by the player. I played in a few games of this recently and it made me want to puke.

It may be true that D&D is more popular than ever, but the thing they are doing in my opinion is NOT what D&D has always been about for me and I want nothing to do with it.

Dirk said...

The Avalon Hill game Ambush! Came out in 83, which must have been slightly before I found my first game group.

Ambush! was a solo board game of 'man to man combat' set during WW2.

I don't recall that it had rules for any sort of character development but I think it did have rules that gave 'characters' experience of some sort.

I named the GIs that survived and when they went out on a new mission I started holding them back a little, letting the new guys that I had no attachment to yet go first to find the minefields and snipers :P

That is what I thought of when I was reading your post here. I should dig out those boxes and try to play that game again.

Oddbit said...

Literally last weekend my character was disintegrated.

In one attack, in one puff of green laser and dust they were gone.

Everyone paused for a moment in a dramatic appreciation for the moment. (not positive appreciation, but in a sense of actually taking it in.)

And then we promptly discovered that disintegration in that edition wasn't permanent death, with 1 minute and a 10k diamond you too can be resurrected. And if you act now you can spend 1k in diamond dust and recover that pesky permanent level drain in just one more round!

I think part of me was actually more disappointed that once again death was not a real risk.

I'm getting real tired of DMs that pull punches or retarget their attacks when I'm low on hp. I've just stopped informing them of my hp state for that reason. As I've played in campaign after campaign, I think that makes me even less invested in the character. With no risk of loss, why care?

Oh and for context that's an 8 year old character. They've died before a few times with convenient solutions on hand previously. Given the difficulty scaling of the adventure itself I wasn't TOO put off by it, but this is just core rules and blech.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

I had always thought in terms of my players getting too attached to their characters, which led to them begging me to let them survive or bring them back from the dead. And I had always framed my refusal to do so as "life isn't fair, get over it." I had never even considered that having actual risk to one's character might lead to stronger attachment if they survive.

Regarding fights being boring: part of that is definitely due to how combat becomes a monotonous slog in some versions of the game. But I would expand "fighting" to "conflict", since elements that don't involve swords and armor can still lead to significant risk and excitement. (I was initially thinking of deadly puzzles and traps, or those stories where a person has to play a game to save their life, but person-vs.-environment can be a great source of risky conflict - heck, the Outdoor Survival board game was specifically recommended in the original D&D rules.)

Excellent post.

Oswald said...

I think part of the reason roleplaying worked so well with the game is that it's part of navigating threats. The gm can start introducing threats that are far outside the rules, tense negotiations with monsters, etc. The reason roleplaying was adopted by the wargamers so heavily is that it provides near infinite vectors to navigate and introduce threats in a dungeon.
I never understand why there's a need to force d&d so far outside what it's designed for. The rules are clunky and require houserules, the designers weren't first rate. But the general ideas and principles were solid enough to keep interest going for decades. There's rpg's built around different scenarios from d&d, wargames, deck building card games, rpg's that work fundamentally different from d&d. It's like trying to take a very well designed toaster and add parts until it can be a lightbulb too.