Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Requisite "Why I Like the Old School D&D" Explanation

Qualifiers first! I have a lot of love for 3rd edition, it's my most-played D&D of all time and it's just absolutely beautifully presented. I think 4th edition is rather sublime in its design and I love how elegantly it balanced the game and how dynamic and collaborative it made the combat. I am not an edition warrior and look forward to playing any flavor of D&D that cool, fun, engaging people want to play with me.

What's more, I believe that it's not really what D&D you play, it's how you play it, and that pretty much all "system problems" can be solved or addressed through agreement and awareness of the mutual goal of having fun.

Starting around 2008 I began to seriously investigate the growing OSR movement as an alternative D&D. What led me to this was what I saw as a growing disconnect between player expectations in the game and the established paradigms of story management on the part of the DM.

Let me try to parse that a little better.

Part of this came from a similarly-timed exploration of some of the "indie scene" side of RPGs, mostly the stuff being posted and talked about on the Story-Games forum. Studying these I grew to realize that in the traditional D&D model, it's actually pretty hard to tell the stories you want to tell using the system.

It's not hard to tell stories - stories are the natural, awesome outcome of playing RPGs. But telling the stories you were hoping for is something that story-games and more narrative-focused games do a whole lot better.

D&D exists a lot more in this plug-stuff-in-and-see-what-happens kind of world. You generate heroes, sure, and you have hopes and dreams and ideas of what they're going to do and how they get there, but all that story stuff is much more in your head (and sort of in your "hopes and dreams" of what you're going to be playing) and rarely explicitly makes it out onto the game table outside of providing behavioral motivation, and when it does, it's invariably twisted and tweaked by the needs of the table's collaboration.

This is pretty awesome in its own right. But I feel like I have seen a lot of discussion about the disconnect between what most D&D players seek out from D&D and what actually ends up occurring in playing it. This disconnect isn't a bad thing - appeal is appeal, after all, whatever gets you sitting down at the gaming table is great, and more often than not players don't even realize they didn't quite get what they wanted initially because what ended up happening was just as awesome and fun.

Starting with 2nd edition, exploding in 3rd edition, and carrying over to 4th, we've seen a system focus on expanding codified character options. In theory I think this is absolutely fine - encourageable, even - as I'm a firm believer (by and large) of giving players what they want.

So what we've seen in the more recent editions is players bringing highly customized, often highly unique characters to the table. They tend to be pretty individualized to taste. Having gone through an extensive option-choosing procedure to make one, the character is often pretty well fleshed-out in the player's mind.

I feel like the expectations - no, expectations is a little charged, let's just call them "narrative desires" - a player brings with their individualized, fleshed-out character are going to be quite different from the far more (possibly open-minded) ones they might have with a much more quickly and/or randomly generated character.

You can probably see where this is going.

Now a conscientious and experienced DM might actually appreciate and be able to decrypt some of these mechanically-implied narrative desires such a specifically unique character would have. They might, if creative and talented, be able to weave together a story focused on those desires, interrelating them to the desires of the other characters, and so on. Doing all this is pretty casually considered "good DMing".

The DM does not have many mechanical tools to do this, however. He or she is given this challenging task of compartmentalizing player desires and then meeting them, both individually spotlighting and encouraging collaboration between these different, pre-defined adventurers. To do this he or she is given a large collection of monsters and dungeon design tools and some adventure creation advice. Not much in the way of "a character is built this way, then focus on this; if that way, focus on that" despite all the different build options.

On that particular front of expectation-meeting, we're seeing D&D be wildly outdistanced by games like Apocalypse World or Shadow Of Yesterday or Burning Wheel or the like.

Once I caught the game design bug my mind began to be filled with Fantasy Heartbreaker ideas of how to address those individualizations with much more specific counter-mechanics. Unfortunately my brand of creativity is pretty complexity-averse, and more and more I appreciated the rules-lightness of older editions which didn't address these issues so much as not perpetuate them as strongly in the first place.

Here's what I love, love, love about the older editions; and I fully recognize the DM-perspective bias in this: the focus on the more "macro" level of playing D&D, which is pretty wargamey in a different way, where D&D is more of a God game where the players plug their characters into the DM's world and decide what they do but everyone at the table is approaching things from a much more elevated "hey, let's just all see what happens" perspective. The desires placed on the emergent story are much more up in the air, and it's a different kind of investment for everyone, less tied into the individuality of the character and the predictability of their advancement (though I suspect that's still a factor) and more an overt recognition of the greater appeal of collaboration and fun and humor and unexpected situations and so on.

I think that classic D&D better plays towards this viewpoint - quickly generated characters that tend towards a higher degree of disposability, looser ruleset for accommodating unexpected situations and general narrative fun, and a world that embraces a bit more of the wild and wooly "gonzo" weirdness that looks more interesting from the macro perspective and not so crucially tied to the simulationist verisimilitude that's so much more important from the character's ground-level perspective.

So, yeah. That's where I'm at.

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