An easy search of the net will turn up many clever, labour saving items for D&D players. There's no need to reach 5th level and be burdened with the trouble of choosing the "tiny hut" spell over some other ... a simple object, often for sale at the local market, solves that trouble for you. And this is but one object; there are scores of others.
Children's stories are filled with like things: instant boats and seven-league boots, wardrobes into other realms, turn-keys and what have you ... so the precedents are set. These things have precedent and therefore a kind of legitimacy ... in children's stories. But imagine for a moment that we're watching a film like Cast Away or Alive. Tom Hanks shakes himself awake, looks around him at the deserted beach ... and then reaches for his belt, produces a magic boat and sails away. The South American soccer team climbs out of the wrecked plane, pop a bunch of ready-made cabins into existence, complete with 200 ft. high radio transmitters, and all is well. One sound reason that much of the world is sick to death of superhero films is that every problem is instantly solvable with magical tools, powers or what-not. As popular as these films are, there's a certain, um, woodenness to the proceedings. A futility, if you will.
There's a reason why I must reach back 20-25 years to find film that instant technology would certainly spoil. A more recent film, like Gravity, relies upon the main characters lack of knowledge to impose a barrier between Ryan and self-rescue. Ultimately, she's saved by the technology that waits for her to arrive and press buttons — which she's able to do because she's trained to do it. Surpassing the hazard calls for some luck and remembering what to do ... with help from Matt at the beginning, who walks her through the first steps. This is unlike Hank's character Chuck who has to keep himself alive for four years that he can do absolutely nothing about, while he waits for his circumstances to change. Or how the characters Nando and Roberto must strike out absolutely blind into a frozen wilderness after no other choice is left. They don't know what they're doing; they must experiment, because the way isn't clear; it isn't solved by anything except their will to keep on living.
We've moved away from such story lines these last two decades, for good reason. We have more technology, considerably more. Much of recent technology it is a wonderful thing. Whereas the tech of the 20th century disunited people through institutionalisation, breaking up families and separating people thousands of miles apart, the present technology enables constant contact, amusement, easy rescue (for those who embrace this technology intelligently) and a sense of belonging. To isolate Ryan in Gravity
, the writer has to remove communications; and while the justification in film for this is logical, the go-to method of isolating individuals by removing our everyday technology, and all its back-ups, is a tired trope. And so, to reflect our present reality, in which all the gadgetry around us makes us feel so much more superhuman than human, the mass of the population is drawn towards superhero plotlines. It's natural that D&D players, living in the present and not the 14th century, and having the precedents they do, will flock to game technologies that transform them into Batman-in-the-D&D-gameworld, rather than making them suffer the real difficulties of explorers of the time like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta
. I include a link for the latter because I expect most of my readers have never heard of the man; I learned about him in high school, in a school system where the accurate
actions of people other than those in my home country were considered relevant for children.
We do not seek to play with a mind to conquering pre-industrial problems. My game takes place in the 17th century ... a time with advanced mathematics, architecture, thought, comparative religious freedom, republicanism and free trade, very far advanced beyond the princesses-in-towers gameworld that Gygax conceived. I have magic in my world, including foldable boats — but these things are incredibly rare and cannot be purchased over the counter at a bazaar that's supplied like a present-day supermarket. There are no campfires with wooden seats — and I must ask, since it's magic, how come the wooden seats don't come with cushions? How come they aren't plush chaise lounges, with side tables and bowls of grapes? If we're poofing into existence one kind of furniture, why for heaven's sake can't it be something more comfortable?
Let us suppose that you and I, and our two friends, have been asked by the President of the United States early in 1803 to strike out into the new Louisiana Purchase territory to seek a most direct and practical water communication across the continent — a continent that our particular culture knows very little about. Now, 1803 is vastly more advanced than my 1650 gameworld, and ludicrously more advanced than Gygax's concept ... but it doesn't have magic or instant-on technology of any kind. So for the purposes of discussing how an adventure plays out for true, it is close enough for our purposes (and besides, I know that most of my readers have no understanding whatsoever of historical events that happened outside their country, not to mention a serious lack of them inside of their country as well).
Now, if this were 5th Edition D&D, with all the resources that system offers in the way of magic that can be purchased at Ye Olde Magic Shop, where we never run out of goods though no one ever sees the deliveries, and we had the money provided by the United States of America, we'd have to wonder how it could be possible that the whole continent hadn't been mapped from the air by flying magic users centuries before. Seriously: the expedition makes no sense from a 5e perspective. Life is soooooo easy in terms of provisions, magic and methodology that surely America would have been discovered a millennia ago and settled completely by the 11th century. So let's not use 5e as a resource.
If we're talking 1st Edition AD&D, then everything we need is still sitting right on the shelves, waiting for us. The boots, ropes, poles, wagons, whatever, will all be perfectly strong enough to last virtually forever, without our needing to change them a whit from what the common people already buy. When Meriwether Lewis arrives near Pittsburgh landing, there's no need for him to have a keelboat built to specifications — which he did — the item is right there on the equipment list. There's no need to be selective in our weapons, either: every weapon has the same name, the same utility, the same exact proportions, whether it's made in Austria, Brazil or China. "Preparation" for the adventure is twenty minutes of players buying equipment, writing it down and quibbling over the price before setting off, sure that anything they need on the way will be found in a dungeon or something. There are dungeons all over North America, after all, chock full of treasure, magic items, extra weapons and of course more food. Food, by the way, is just "rations." There's absolutely no need to be more specific. Rations are perfectly good in any weather, over any length of time, wet or dry. One day's rations are always enough for "one day," no matter what we might be doing, whether we're sitting on a warm, sultry riverbank or spiking ourselves to the side of a mountain-top. The one rule we must constantly remind ourselves is unquestionably true: "simple makes the best gaming." And oh my, are these things simple.
Now, we mustn't question any of this. Lewis & Clarke's real expedition was a terribly boring, dull, long-lasting slog. No one had any interest in it, no one cared the least about what they found, there were no exciting bits and we only remember it now because we're forced to read this awful monotonous prattle because it's written about in history books. OUR expedition across America will be way, way more interesting, because none of it will be realistic or tediously life-threatening in any way, there will be literally hundreds of illogical monsters living in illogical habitats along the way to make sure we're totally inspired and when we've completed our journey, we certainly won't bore listeners with our account of how many things we killed, how many traps we found in dungeon rooms and how much treasure we hauled away.
Because D&D is the best game in the world ... so long as nothing in the world infringes on the fantasy of the sort of game we play. We don't want to experience anything like L&C had to experience, what with learning how to make things and do stuff, while relying on others to help us survive, learning all the while. Plus managing a lot of incredibly dull details that only detract from gameplay. Ugh. We want "adventure." Especially if it has all the characteristics of other adventures we've already been on, where we can point an object at it and make it go away.
Normally, at this point I'd call it a post and hit "publish." The relevant points have been included and for anyone willing to read between the lines and make the necessary connections, the relationships between point-and-click gaming, movies about physical trials and children's stories can be pieced together. I've written hundreds of posts in this form. I've had lots of practice.
Were I to describe a pervasive feeling about role-playing games in general, that feeling would be disillusionment. The games were so good once upon a time; the adventures so interesting, the groups so enthusiastic, the sense of having control so appealing that it's hard to reconcile how lately, those elements aren't there. Something has gone wrong with the game; or the community; or with DMing in general; or I just don't have the time to dedicate that I had once. And for all those reasons, the feeling is also there that maybe, just possibly, it is time to quit D&D.
What is the game, anyway? It's cool and all, with it's pocket campsites and such, but in retrospect of the things that are going on, like my job, my family, covid, the trouble the country is getting in ... sometimes D&D seems so, well, juvenile. We are, after all, playing pretend. This is a children's activity. It's a safe setting for children to express their fears and desires, without the consequences that real situations create.
As children, we start to pretend between the ages of 18-24 months. It happens almost at once. Usually, the pretend begins with an object substitution: common ones are logs becoming boats and cars, or sticks becoming guns. Starting after 3 years of age, pretending becomes increasingly interactive, where multiple children pretend together that they're playing house, acting out characters from literature or video, giving the doll they're playing with an active roll in the conversation by providing their lines. This creates relationships between the child and their dolls or stuffed animals, even bestowing personalities on one soldier vs. another, such as depicting a soldier saying he doesn't want to fight while the sarjeant tells him everyone has to fight. These interactions are copied from witnessing adults talk in real life and in stories. Through pretending in this fashion, the child begins to "role-play," portraying identities and traits that they'd like to have, as well as providing alteranative traits to other children or inanimate objects.
These things are hard-baked into our learning processes. Pretending to make a phone call without the need of a physical object; using a wooden block as a phone; pretending to be another person while making the phone call; pretending that we can teleport ourselves to another place and time by snapping our fingers; or inventing a name, personality, motivation and so on for a stuffed puppy ... these are all things we don't have to be taught. We just do them. In fact, if a child doesn't do these things, it's taken as a clear sign that something is medically wrong with the child — that's how universal this behaviour is.
The process includes our growing comprehension with gender roles, our place in the family, our relationships with friends and strangers ... everything, in fact, that makes us "us." It is an interesting thing that this process has hardly stabilized prior to puberty, which tends to shatter all our preconceptions about how we might deal with the unknown hypothetically, in our imagination. So it is worth noting that if you began role-playing games when you were 9, and you have memories of those games, you ceased to be the same person by the time you were 13. By 15 and 17, our priorities are so completely different from what they were in childhood that it's not surprising how many children play D&D and like games for hardly two years before quitting. Post-puberty, we're changing so fast in our outlooks that in comparatively few years, we jump from playing dress-up to performing Shakespeare in front of live audiences, including the whole school; or to slamming our bodies against those of strangers in attempts to win city-wide football competitions. It's dazzling how fast goes that gap between 9 and 15 ... try to compare that with what we may have done in the six years before turning 35, 45 or 55.
In short, nothing you believed when you were very young and playing this game can be felt by the present you all these years later. You weren't "you." And you are a very different person, with astoundingly different problems, not to mention different needs where it comes to activities that thoroughly occupy your emotional and intellectual capabilities. Daily, if you're older than 18, whether seeking an education or working at a job, you're handling details casually that would have terrified us at the age of 9 or 10. No matter how hard you try, no matter how loud you shout, you cannot dumb yourself down enough to make a simple game matter as much as you need it to matter ... not if you'll go on pursuing an activity of make believe and pretend play.
For it to have any real value, you'll have to invest that play with a level of creativity and imagination that supercedes your daily life — that is the only real path to achieve escape, if escape is what you want. Otherwise, however you drag yourself through the rituals of throwing dice, the simpler you make the experience the harder it will be to find it meaningful. The harder it will be for you to care. The harder it will be to continue the charade that you do care, when in fact you don't.
The disillusionment I see is nothing more complicated than watching people "grow up." Growing up is a good thing, obviously. We need grown ups to make the world function. But the play we indulge in has to grow up as well; and that means digging deeper into making play harder rather than easier. It means putting the seven-league boots in the closet and getting immersed in deeper subjects, such as cartography, calculus, philosophy and dramatics.
And so now I'll call it a post and publish it.