Youth and Game Design

I remember one of the earliest (second edition) campaigns I ran. Sitting with my notebook; laying out races and classes and planets and plots. I found myself assailed by all these questions.

How come wizards forgot spells after they cast them - shouldn't magic be like a skill that you know? Why can't any race be any class? Why are saving throws split up they way they are? Why do you get experience for treasure? How do all these fantasy races and monsters get along? Shouldn't all the dungeons make sense?

When I was younger, there was a great deal I didn't understand. The first failing I had was a lack of familiarity with the source material. The second was realizing that realism, both in design and art, is a limited dead end. Another was failing to recognize the game design implications of these choices and why they were made.

I know I was not the only person with such ideas - the urge to have things 'make sense' in a realistic (as opposed to naturalistic) way is a strong one. It shows up in many modern systems.

My 'realistic' approach in youth was to say level limits were silly. Dwarves were just humans in mountain hats and so could be any race or any class, as opposed to dwarves being elemental fay creatures of stone and earth whose societies and morals differed from ours the way ant society differs from meekrat society. Both maintain verisimilitude. I made elves, halflings, minotaurs, gnolls, orcs (and scro) and a dozen other races humans in funny hats. Huge sheets listed with level limits so high they weren't limits at all - anybody could be anything.

Unsurprisingly this led to parties with a small human contingent and more then a few questions about why humans were still around. Hackmaster has fairly relaxed level limits, but still, the majority of my parties are human. Why? Because non-human races are (in most cases) limited to basic classes. So when people want to play a monk, or a double specialist, or a druid, or what have you, they see that mostly they have to pick human or half-elf. You can have your special thing be your race, or your class can be unusual if you're human. Not only does this encourage a human-centric game, but it allows players to keep a handle on their character.
  • These level limits weren't just about capping character ability - they were about making those non-human races more than just humans in funny hats.
  • Magic was about a system of effects that could be adjudicated in play, involving casting time, high experience requirements, and either expensive research or random non-player driven acquisition.
  • Saving throws about about the abstract and fantastic nature of the saves, not a realistic representation of basic defenses.
  • Treasure gives experience because that is the real source of power in the game and you are rewarded (more) for your success in acquiring it, not your ability to slaughter the guardians.
  • The knowledge that the information we have about the world we live in and our ability to access it is an anomaly when compared with the whole of human existence, means that anything more than eight miles away from where you were born could contain anything seen or unseen - even today new things are constantly being discovered.
  • Finally a dungeon may make sense, but keep in mind it may have stood for hundreds of thousands of years - anything within that context may make sense.

As I discovered Hackmaster, and rediscovered old school play, I had exposed myself to more and more of these original works. After reading Vance, I understood the didactic, mathematical, super-science that was spell formulae , and it no longer seemed confusing to me. I became familiar with picaresque literature and understood the pulp gestalt of the roots of Dungeons and Dragons. Most importantly I understood the game design reasons behind each of those decisions and how each accomplished their goal with laser-like precision.

The thing that's clear now, after having a system that tries to answer all those questions that I had when I was 14, is that it is a slippery slope indeed. I can see where it led people (many people) who were like me and wanted things to 'make sense'. There are half a dozen 20 page threads on a variety of topics, drilling down to the final resolution on these issues - and I don't even visit 'millennial edition' dungeons and dragons forums.

The thing I think about most is how well the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was put together. It's a game that is very modular, and yet the vast majority of things that have been done to improve it, generally don't. Did Gygax know? How much of his creation was science, and how much was art and guesswork? In the end, I've been a much happier DM once I understood the source material and embraced it. My sessions are filled with play instead of rules discussions. I can't imagine running anything else without a obscene amount of house-ruling. I'm glad I outgrew my youthful need to have everything make sense in a specific way.

1 comment:

  1. I really wish a lot of those ideas that "didn't make sense" had been explained by Gygax in the rules. It seems he assumed the reader had the same background in fantasy and gaming as he did, while the truth was that many people new to both were playing the game and got confused. Also, I am not sure he understood the game the way we do today, after all these years of analysis. If he didn't, then it's even more remarkable how well it really does work!

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