On a Historical Perspective

I mean, what the hell, right?

What is with these old games?

Why are the retroclones so damn popular? So popular that the most played version of Dungeons & Dragons isn't called Dungeons & Dragons. So popular that the design aesthetic is influencing the modern version of the game. What is the deal? What is the plain secret answer?

I do not play role-playing games as a form of wish fulfillment.

Hm. Maybe I could be more clear. I do not play role-playing games as a form of wish fulfillment.

I was flipping through some old Dragon magazines the other day from the early 3.0 era. The entire magazine was given over to classes, feats and various other things that one could pick to design, enhance, or build one's character. None of those things have anything to do with the play of the game.  It isn't your special feat that wins the encounter -- encounters in most modern games are designed to be beaten. When you are faced with a choice about what your character does, it isn't the meta-magic feat [maximize spell] that determines their course of action, nor their trained arcane skill. Picking those isn't playing the game. Once you've done the important part, making the choice, the dice rolling and combat is all just resolution.

You see, the reason I play role-playing games is for the role-assumption, the exploration, the adventure. Do I pull the lever? Can I think of the right questions to ask? What will I find here? Can I come up with a good plan? The character I select is just the broadest tool, in the sense that it affects my stance and how I approach the game. Picking the character isn't playing the game.

Now this hasn't always been true. I was a teenager once, staring slack-jawed at He-Man; watching Adam the incompetent oaf infuse himself with power from his mighty metal penis of Greyskull to become the Platonic ideal of an alpha male.

Gary and Dave were around my age when they wrote this game. The audience for their game however was not. They were a bit younger. One can plainly follow the development of the changes in the game in the years that followed as their audience grew. And now that we have reached their age, we play the game the way they did.

Funny thing, that.

So next time you see someone shaking their head at 'those angry grognards', or someone who just doesn't understand why someone would want to play that game without all those feats and bells and whistles, just send them here. Those bells and whistles, feats and encounter powers and other detritus of empowerment fantasies aren't Fantasy Adventure. They are just little marks put down on a sheet.

When you wonder why people are distasteful of crunch heavy character build systems, know it's not because there's something intrinsically wrong with empowerment fantasies. It is just that there are people that prefer masturbatory activities to be private.

9 comments:

  1. When you are faced with a choice about what your character does, it isn't the meta-magic feat [maximize spell] that determines their course of action, nor their trained arcane skill. Picking those isn't playing the game.

    One nuance I would add though is that while resolving a special power is not the game, working towards a special power can be really engaging. So I've come to think that the pages and pages of splat have some potential utility in a this is what you can become if you survive kind of way. Different from character optimization as it's usually played, I think, but not totally unrelated.

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  2. The modern DM is really just a computer simulator and players don't realize that computer RPGs are a pale imitation of their real life counterparts. So they go into an P&P RPG with the expectation that it's all about "leveling" buying powers and magic items. The rules don't help either since they promote this mentality because it sells books. It sucks the life out of the game though.

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  3. I just started getting back into the hobby recently after 20 years hiatus. I'm really disturbed that there is so much divisiveness when it comes to d&d. It's pretty sad actually.

    I've also watched a couple of Chris Perkins games and was shocked by how powerful 4th edition 1st level characters were.

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  4. It's so nice to see that the lovely spirit of "you're playing it wrong" which so pervades the "OSR" is still alive and strong.

    Please, by all means try to convince yourself that your imaginary elf is somehow superior to another imaginary elf. And do your level best to convince yourself that you aren't in to codified make-believe for wish fulfillment.

    This sort of commentary is *exactly* why people are shaking their heads at "angry grognards". Wait... were you being sarcastic?

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    1. Unbelievably people seem to really enjoy smoking crack. Historically much fun has been had taunting those who are developmentally disabled. Who are we to say they are having fun in an incorrect or inappropriate way, right?

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    2. To clarify, now that I'm home from work:

      Your argument, as I understand it, is that there is no type of wrong fun -- That there is no wrong way to play the game, as long as people are having fun.

      This, obviously, patently, is false. There are wrong ways to play chess. There are ways of playing games that remove gameplay. There are ways of approaching a game with preconceptions about 'honorable play' or what play 'should be' like, covered extensively by Sirlin's Scrub Theory. There are ways of having fun I mentioned above that are clearly condemn-able.

      The thing is, when I sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons, I am not doing anything not proscribed mechanically. I am playing a game. I play it, by the rules. Like when I play poker, or play chess, I screw around, talk in funny voices, and have a good time with my friends. This is not the play of the game.

      There is one way to make a pathfinder character. Some options are selected and then the character is made with that. There are mechanical techniques for handling combat in 4th edition.

      If you decide to add something in the game and have it affect the game that there isn't a mechanical system for because you feel you 'should' or it seems like a good idea; then D&D is well structured to take that into account. However it is not playing the way the game is designed.

      What I am saying, is that the gameplay in a 0e, B/X, or even 1e, game is about gathering information and making choices. And that style of gameplay is engaging and has nothing to do with wish fulfillment. It has to do with making good decisions or accepting the consequences of your poor judgement.

      For me, a person who is an adult with a job, family, and active life, it is a very satisfying and engaging way to play. I am empowered, both by being successful and knowing that if I fail, it is because I have made a bad decision. It is a beacon of choices with meaning in my life. A place where my choice matters, unlike the drudgery of the office, or shopping market, or thousands of other disempowering systems and structures of control we are exposed to in our daily lives.

      4e, and to a lesser extent Pathfinder is not about that. Those games are about creating a powerful build and making good tactical decisions in combat. This can be fun, but in my opinion pales in comparison to the first type of play. My choices are constrained to which squares do I move to in combat? What combat actions do I take? And the consequences of those are statistically predictable ones, to the point where I know the break-point of when using [Power Attack] is mathematically more beneficial.

      Of course I am aware of how Pathfinder and 4e support exploration and some of the similar decision-making processes in old-style games, but they do so in a mechanically slanted, character build focused way. At best it is less about your plan, and more about taking actions that hit statistical likelihoods, because even if you search in the right place, you can still fail your roll.

      Are their ways of working around this? Of course, but that is rule 0 and cannot excuse what is actually written in the rules.

      So I can say that yes, if you want to talk about all the cool powers your elf has, than 'what powers you have' is about wish-fulfillment, not about game-play.

      And I don't desire wish-fulfillment, because I am not a teenager. I am empowered and in charge of my life. What I seek is that my choices have meaning. What I seek is accountability. What I seek is adventure.

      Not to move four squares and activate my daily that buffs my friend.

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  5. "Gary and Dave were around my age when they wrote this game. The audience for their game however was not. They were a bit younger. One can plainly follow the development of the changes in the game in the years that followed as their audience grew. And now that we have reached their age, we play the game the way they did."

    This bit struck a cord with me. I started playing D&D when I was ten (with a shiny new Rules Cyclopedia) and what I expected out of the game and how I played the game was pretty damn different than how Gygax did (partly because I was a dumb kid partly because I expected D&D to be more like an interactive fantasy novel than a D&D game) so people dismissing OSR stuff as nostalgia always confused me a bit since a big slice of people who are playing retroclones and whatnot these days are people like me who went "Wait. Wait. Wait. THAT'S how they played D&D back in the 70's *blinks* Wow, it works so much better that way than the way I used to play when I was a kid." Hard to be nostalgic for a kind of D&D that was played before I was born :)

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  6. Your last paragraph has become my quote of the year... thank you!

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  7. I only just found this site, and I wanted to add my voice to those who thank you for maintaining such an eloquent, thoughtful OD&D resource. Historical context is so valuable to newcomers to the hobby as well as old-timers.

    That being said, I'm afraid I don't follow many of the design aims you support here. The earlier editions seem very much like the English language to me: for every rule there is an exception (and an accompanying chart to reference). Many of the cultural references are derived from fantasy literature or movies that I never experienced. But most importantly to me, there seems to be an emphasis on death as a consequence for failure. Perhaps that's more a reflection of my emphasis on communal storytelling rather than the traditional GM vs. players mentality. I could never understand GMs who took pride in their killer dungeons or recounting TPKs with relish.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me share my thoughts, and please keep up the great work!

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