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Monday, March 7, 2011

Interesting to me...

I find it interesting that, despite having no interruptions today and nothing else to do, I still have had a hard time sitting down and typing out today's thoughts. I have been musing on the whole "We explore dungeons not characters" thing for a while now, mulling it over along with a couple of related topics; namely player character social class/background and character generation. I tie all of these together because it reflects the depth we give our characters at start. I have also been thinking about the whole "Commercialization of the OSR" and "OSR is dead" stuff, but not as much. Additionally, I have had a few further thoughts on D&D campaign ideas and the "default" D&D setting. My thoughts are a bit scattered today as I keep bouncing around from topic to topic like I am trying to work on a unified OSR theory, which I am not, but I finally convinced myself to sit down and start typing so maybe that'll help crystallize what I am thinking into something useful.

To start with the "Dungeons not characters" thing, I guess I should first confess that I have fallen in line with pretty much every major trend in gaming since I started. Randomness and simplicity were the order of the day in the beginning and I was all about it. The first thing I ever DMed was B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I DMed it for my dad and a party of NPCs I created to accompany him. His character was a Halfling fighter named Mee the magnificent (who eventually had a son named Mee II). We didn't care that the caves were a few hundred yards from the keep and just off the road*. It also never occurred to any party I have ever sent through that module that perhaps they should tell the authorities at the keep, who have an ARMY at their disposal, where the hidden enemy fortress known as the Caves of Chaos were. Maybe they just wanted all the riches and glory for themselves.

Eventually, as DMs, we were told we needed to make our worlds (and adventures) more believable, more realistic. I was reading this stuff in the Dragon pretty early on in my gaming experience and it sunk in hard. That is what really killed the megadungeon for me. I wound up with lots of small ruins scattered across my campaign world's landscape. Eventually, the "Underdark" concept arrived and I started throwing in vast subterranean adventure areas again, but they were never the same as the old megadungeon.

I don't think the style of play had changed drastically over the years until after 2nd edition hit the streets. My style of DMing did pretty drastically change after 2nd edition arrived as a result of my one and only pilgrimage to Mecca (Gen Con '90). I played in the AD&D Open and the charity events there that year and it completely changed the style of my DMing for years afterwords. I know everyone hates the 2nd edition style of railroad module, and I do too. The abuses of module design, particularly by the end of the 2nd edition era, were substantial and irredeemable. That said, the "encounter flow chart" plus keyed locations style of play catapulted me from "He runs a pretty good game" to "He is an AWESOME DM!" status locally, so I may be a little biased towards having a little railroad-eyness in my games when I have a plan. When I don't have a plan, which is about 99% of the time, I still roll some dice and fly by the seat of my pants; but I have written some pretty damned good adventures that used the encounter flow chart style.

I think it's a matter of contingency planning that makes most people hate the "railroad". A well written "railroad" adventure CAN go off the rails with a decent DM that can wing it. I think the 2nd edition modules that everyone hates so much were just written so that a crappy DM could still get you to the end of the story and the story was like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book with only two possible endings. Success- Most of the time, whether you did it by yourself or needed Elminster/Drizzt/Raistlin/Bigby to save you OR Failure- Where regardless of how much heavy artillery the DM had to throw in to help you and whatever number of shock troops came to the party's rescue they still managed to screw it up bad enough that no rock star NPC could pull their fat out of the fryer.

I also fell in with other schools of game mastering thought, either through actual play or through reading about them or talking with people who had played. I got "in media res" from West End's D6 Star Wars. I got "Story Telling" from White Wolf's Vampire the Masquerade**. I got practically religious encounter balancing mechanics from D&D 3e***.

Now, how does all of this related to the dungeons not characters question? I guess it's that at each point along the way we have been told to invest more into our starting characters, to give ourselves more role playing potential right out of the gate. When I started playing D&D you rolled 3d6 in order and played what you got, with few exceptions. You picked a class and a name then bought some equipment off a pretty short list of stuff. Maybe you had a character concept, but probably not. You weren't real attached to your character at this point and would not start developing any real attachment until you had played him a few times. Even then it would be more like the attachment you had for the 82nd airborne counter in your D-Day board game after they took out the 2nd SS panzer counter against all odds**** than it was like it is today.

By the time of late AD&D 1st edition things had started to change. Unearthed Arcana had social class and family tables and Oriental Adventures had them on steroids. Now you were much more fully invested into your character than previously. Your randomly determined background turned into a character history in your head, sometimes even on paper. At some point in here it became suggested that we give players extra rewards for fleshing out their starting characters, either as extra starting money or an experience point boost or even a starting magic item. By the time we were playing 2nd edition around here it had become so standard that Lance was mocking the process, it seemed like everyone was an aspiring actor and needed character motivations for every action they made. Simply adventuring for riches and glory had fallen by the wayside as everyone (except Lance) had angst filled reasons for needing to become an adventurer. I blame the influence of White Wolf pretty much completely for that.

Now, I think the whole character background thing is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take us away from our roots where we use the player character as a "piece" in the game. At the very least it makes any PC a very important piece in the game. The background, whether it's completely randomized or wholly from the mind of the player, gives us a much bigger investment in whether or not our character survives the adventure. Our character took a lot longer to create once we added in a whole back story. Equipment lists also got longer here, so they even take longer to equip. Much, much longer.

This leads us to a desire to change character generation too. Now nobody wants to play a fighter with a 6 CON, so we invent a new method of rolling our characters to avoid just such a possibility. My standard was to roll 4d6 keeping the best 3, 7 times keeping the best 6*****, arranged as desired. So now you came to the table with a character in mind, you didn't just make due with the random guy you rolled. Sure it was still random, and it made AD&D stat-worthy characters most times, but I often hear people talking over what role they will take on in the party before anyone touches the dice. Mona will be the Cleric, Ash will be the Thief, Lee will be the Fighter, etc. Rarely does anyone play a different type of character based on their stats. Now they might if they want to experiment some. Point buy systems only make this phenomenon stronger.

So now you have lovingly crafted a character and most likely given him some kind of background even if it's not required by the game system. You have spent some time making sure he fits the needs of the party and you have equipped him along with the rest of the party to avoid redundancies. You have probably spent at least an hour on this guy and you have breathed life into him via his personal history. You are invested in whether or not he survives, and the longer he survives the more invested you are. Now you are at a point where you'll get pissed if the DM kills your character, let alone the whole party******.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think there is anything wrong with investing in your character, to a point. The problem comes from not investing in more randomly created, old school style characters; and in changing your character creation rules so that you can come to the table with a concept and see it made completely as you envisioned. I figure that if you came to the table with a Conan style fighter in mind and you rolled a 5 for your Strength score you need to figure out how to roll with that, it is not up to the DM and not up to the game system. Maybe you play as a Thief that is a Conan wannabe, or maybe you just put that character concept back on the shelf for next time, eh? What's wrong with coming to the table with a blank slate and creating a character when you get there?

Now, on to the commercialization of the OSR and whether or not it is dead, as they are related to each other. I think the rumors of it's demise may be a bit premature. For profit goods produced by the OSR can't help but be a good thing I suppose. If they are good, they will sell. If not, then they won't. I don't see why anyone is annoyed about people profiting from their hobby. Gary Gygax profited from his. The production values of some of the OSR stuff are quite good, or so I hear. I haven't bought much from the OSR, just Ruins and Ronin. I keep meaning to buy some other things too, but money is tight here and I have a wife, 3 kids, 2 dogs and 3 cats to feed first. All told, I don't understand what the problem is, despite having read numerous blog posts about it, because it's not like fanzines and free stuff killed D&D the first time around; if the for profit producers of old school stuff screw it up we'll just start another OSR in the future.

Lastly, I have been ruminating on the "default" setting for D&D. The default is a multi-racial setting in an apparently post-apocalyptic world. This kind of makes me wonder why we haven't been playing Gamma World for all these years instead of D&D. Tolkien gave us the concept of our standard good guy races and bad guy races, D&D ran with that. We aren't playing in a heroic age type setting, if I had to place a historical analogue to the default D&D setting I would say that it is like early medieval Europe. A mighty civilization has fallen and we come from petty kingdoms seeking to rebuild it's glory while at the same time looting it's ruins. In some ways their technology was much more advanced (or their magic in a fantasy world), in some ways ours is; particularly with regard to weapons.

My campaign ideas, generally, are based on exploring historical cultures and settings; sometimes I throw in a neighboring culture that didn't really live next to them. Usually I add a liberal dose of fantasy elements, more or less, depending on where I want to go with it. Sometimes that'll be the full on AD&D special with all the races and all the magic, that's where I went with my Garnia setting where several tribes of iron age Celts migrated to a pretty standard fantasy world. Sometimes it'll just be adding a bit of fantasy to the real world's history like I did with my Viking campaign where I added just the fantastic elements that the Vikings themselves believed in. Sometimes I just pick a culture I like and draw them a new map to be on. Sometimes I take a bunch of these different elements and mix and match. I have found though that most players don't have much interest in actually playing in non-standard fantasy worlds; so, sadly, the closer you cleave to their expectations of what D&D "should" be the more likely the successful run of your new campaign.

Oddly, I don't think this is true of published settings. Dragonlance did fine with it's changes and that only seemed to encourage TSR to come up with even more non-standard settings like Spelljammer and Planescape. They pillaged history for the various Forgotten Realms setting additions from Al-Qadim to Maztica. Some of these were fairly well done and rather successful, some not so much. Even post TSR D&D has had some success with non-standard settings it would seem, Eberron springs to mind although I am not particularly familiar with it other than it's use of arcane machines that cropped up in some of the boxes of WotC miniatures I bought.

Some of the coolest D&D settings I have ever seen sprang forth from my wife Mona's mind. I mention this because she had a pretty cool pirates-in-the-age-of-sail-meets-D&D-fantasy-world where there was a city called Ampersand (which makes me kind of smile every time I read that people want to call our game Ampersand) and because she doesn't really DM much, like twice since I have known her is all. Her stuff is always uniquely outside the standard D&D box and I have always loved the idea of playing in her worlds. I just find it to be too bad that the expectations of certain players for a certain flavor of D&D have discouraged her from DMing more. Shooting down my Zulus-invade-China-with-unicorn-riding-laser-sword-armed-elves setting is no big deal to me, I have run more D&D games than pretty much anyone else I have ever met and I have had a thousand campaign ideas that I never got around to trying. It's criminal to shoot down something as cool and unique as hers though.

That's all for now.

*Depending on which scale you believe, I believe in using the map of the caves scale, but the overland map lists the distance in hundred yard increments; it matches the caves map scale if you alter it to 100'/square rather than 100 yards/square.

**Which I never played, but knew several people that had played and kept begging me to run for them, only years after the WW craze did I actually take the plunge and play a WW game, Mage: the Ascension, it was fun but nothing I'd really want to do all the time and that GM never really wanted to run it again anyway since he was more of a Werewolf: the Apocalypse fan.

***I know 3e was not the first place that encounter balancing was mentioned, every version of D&D dating back to the original explores the concept at least a little, notably in the random encounter tables for dungeons, but 3e really made a science of it and preached balance as a virtue. I have since backed off of this in a big way because, hey, sometimes an encounter should be too tough for the party to handle.

****Wargamers know what I am talking about, the irrational feeling of affection for a cardboard counter after it has been lucky for you is real. My wife still mocks me for the sadness I felt when I lost my Grossdeutschland unit when playing Panzer General back in like 1995. I foolishly named my units when they achieved 5 stars of experience so I could more easily tell them apart and remember their individual battle records.

*****8 times if Comeliness was used in the game, only really an issue with Oriental Adventures here, we never really adopted Comeliness as a stat in our "regular" D&D games even after it was introduced.

******Which just goes to show how cool my players are, they spent the entire month of December with weekly TPKs after making complex Oriental Adventures characters every week. Sure, they eventually revolted at the idea of taking hours of character creation every week, but they just wanted to play standard occidental AD&D instead rather than quit playing in my games all together.