Friday, July 31, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons

Someone who read my profile and was struck by this line: "It so happens that I'm not a huge fan of D&D per se, but that type of game is what we're talking about here. " asked me, reasonably I think, why I cared about Dungeons & Dragons then. The context here was a discussion about the "OSR movement" (which I'll post on at some other time because that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish) in which I guess it was questioned why I should "care" about discussing D&D when my stated opinion is that I don't necessarily even like it.

Well, that's a fair question. Maybe I should give a quick and dirty "RPG autobiography." That way you can see where I'm coming from and what I'm up to when I talk about RPGs.

I started off very young (2nd or 3rd grade, so it would have been... 1979 or 1980 or so?) I had a friend, who's house I really liked to go to because he was kinda spoiled and had a complete collection of the Kenner Star Wars toys. This was before The Empire Strikes Back came out, so, again... confirmation on the date. That movie came out in May of 1980. He also had a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (don't know which one) and he attempted to run me through a scenario. I say "attempted" because, frankly, I was much more interested in his Death Star Playset than I was in this game he was trying to get me to play. It didn't "click" with me yet.

Not too long afterwards, though, I "got it." I actually picked up (or was given, more likely) the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Guide, and reading through that book finally made me understand what the game could be all about. I had always been a fan of the fantastic: mythology and fantasy, and now here was a game where you could take on the role of one of those fantastic heroes and go... do cool fantastic stuff. That said, I still only sporadically got a chance to play; that friend with all the Star Wars stuff? He moved away. I didn't know anyone with D&D anymore, although I saw them at bookstores, department stores and the hobby shop down the street from me, and flipped through them every chance I got to absorb what I could of the ambience.

A few years later, in late elementary school, middle school and junior high, I had some friends who played and were also fantasy fans. We'd lend each other books, argue about who was cooler between Tarzan and Conan; Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander, and... we played D&D. For the first time, I was able to take the concept I liked and run with it. About this time, Endless Quest, TolkienQuest and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks were out too, so I ate through those at a voracious pace.

However... I quickly became disaffected too. The whole paradigm of what characters did in D&D; the obsessive searching of empty rooms in bizarre "dungeons", the focus on killing for treasure and experience... that didn't resemble at all the fantasy stories that I loved, and which was the whole reason I was so fascinated with the promise of fantasy roleplaying. There was an awful lot of strange arbitrariness in D&D too that really rubbed me the wrong way. I also tried out lots of other games, mostly the TSR ones like Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Boot Hill and others, but eventually I kinda fell away from gaming as I advanced into my High School years. I was still friends with these same guys and still saw them, but they got distracted by the other pleasures of being a teenager too. I don't know if they also were disaffected by the way D&D was structured or if I was unique in that regard, but in any case, I left D&D in the mid-80s, well before Second Edition came out, and didn't look back for a long time. Other than a handful of looks on the shelf at the bookstore to see what was going on with the hobby from time to time.

In the mid-90s, three things happened more or less together which changed my attitude on gaming substantially. The first was that I discovered the White Wolf games; Vampire and Werewolf. I was instantly caught up in the excitement of playing in this innovative (well, it seemed like it at the time) setting, and I hate to say it, but the pretentious "storytelling" vibe also appealed to me too, seeming to eschew all of the things that I had disliked about my D&D experience, and crafting a roleplaying game expectation that was more in line with my tastes. I eventually became equally disaffected with White Wolf, but at the time, it was a tremendous influence on me.

The second thing that happened was that, while in the apartment of a friend of mine doing something (I forget what) I saw a boxed set of Top Secret S.I. in his room. This led to a conversation about gaming, and later to a session or two. With adults. Gaming with adults, who apparently had similar tastes as me in what we wanted from the game (a happy coincidence that at the time I had no idea how wrong that could have done) was such an improved situation from the junior high gaming I'd done years ago, that I really could see how my gaming ideal; the one that I left the hobby because it seemed unrealizable, was perhaps realizeable after all. One of the other guys had been big into Traveller, so I picked some of that up too, and my own copy of Top Secret. And I started buying Werewolf books. Mostly to read, but I did use them on occasion, too.

And the third thing that happened was that I discovered the nascent internet. Now, I could read news, essays and arguments on the old Usenet forums and private messageboards about gaming. I even tried my hand at playing in a play-by-email game or two.

These three things together meant that I rediscovered gaming as a viable hobby and never once looked back. That doesn't mean that my gaming was necessarily all that good. I was in grad school, working full time, married, having kids, and otherwise very busy. The guys I gamed with were also getting married, graduating and moving away, going on internships, working long hours and studying even longer hours... in short, our gaming was good when it happened, but the schedule was infrequent and irregular. None of us in those days looked at D&D.

In June 2000, I finished my MBA and took a full time job, moving across the country for work and taking my young family with me. This was about the time that Third Edition and the OGL came out. I found this movement fascinating, and now with a regular schedule (which meant time) and a regular largish paycheck (which meant disposible income) I jumped back into D&D again. Third Edition initially seemed to have addressed many of my concerns; the system was now robust enough to handle a variety of tasks that the older editions either ignored or handwaved away poorly, and much of the arbitrariness was taken away. I felt for the first time that I could play D&D the way I had always wanted to. When d20 Star Wars and Wheel of Time came out, I came to see the possibilities of the system as a whole (although I also remarked that Star Wars and Wheel of Time were, after all, not too far removed in tone from D&D). When d20 Call of Cthulhu came out, I finally agreed that d20 could do anything I needed it to. In fact, the d20 Modern game seemed designed specifically to facilitate just that.

Cracks in the seams started showing themselves, though. 3.5 came out. What? I just bought this stuff, and now you want me to rebuy it for a few minor changes? Well, a lot of the changes weren't minor. Or, at least they weren't few. But they weren't necessarily improvements either. Some of them were, but some of them clearly took a step backwards. This helped me to start seeing things without the rosy glasses of excitement in the moment. d20 wasn't necessarily that great of a game after all. It didn't work well across the entire spectrum of levels. Higher level d20, especially D&D, was in fact very tedious and difficult to play. I realized also that a lot of folks didn't play the way I did; I took to heart the motto "tools not rules" and used the rules of the game in ways that suited me, not bothering to nitpick and double check every single skill check DC and crap like that. Other people found the game very difficult because of the arcane web of rules that governed every possible thing you tried. I didn't; like I said, I ignored a lot of rules unless it looked like it'd be fun to use it, and played fairly fast and loose, and so did my group, but I can see the merit in the problem anyway.

The inherent D&Disms also started to really bother me after a while. Magic was everywhere. As prestige classes, feats, items, monsters and spells proliferated, I found many of them trite and silly. The whole tone of the game started to wear on me. The game didn't play well "cinematically"; without a battlemat, it was difficult to run a decent combat. This is when I realized that, although it had been flexible enough to allow me to play the games I wanted to, it really was designed around a "back to the dungeon" concept; a paradigm that drove me away from D&D in the first place. Again; D&D didn't resemble anything I had ever read or would want to; my whole problem with it in the first place.

However, this time rather than give it up, I decided to roll up my sleeves and find a way to make d20 work for me. It wasn't really that hard; if I don't like high level play, I can avoid it by keeping my games at low and mid level. A few house rules, most of them cribbed (rather than designed by yours truly; a talent I do not really possess) from Unearthed Arcana and third party publishers banged the inherent setting that the mechanics implied into something much more palateable to me. A few other more drastic optional house rules reduced the need for so much magic all the time, and in fact did away with some of it.

The modular and moddable nature of d20 came to the rescue, and while what I prefer to play has a passing resemblance to D&D as written, it's really also got some very notable differences to the point where a few people have said that it's some other d20 fantasy game altogether.

I'm OK with this. I've made my peace with d20. Rather than continue to look for the mythical "Holy Grail" of gaming systems, I've got one that I can use for almost any game I could possibly imagine wanting to run, with only a minimum of fuss to customize the system for the game in question. There's still a few things I don't really like about the system, but I shrug and live with them. They're not dealbreakers for me anymore. Not only that, the positives outweigh the negatives in this case; I can swallow a few things I don't like in order to get the stuff that I do.

So, when Fourth Edition was announced, and it immediately became clear that backwards compatibility with my d20 stuff wasn't going to be a high priority, my interest in it waned to a mild academic curiosity. I had no interest in actually adopting those rules any more than I had any interest in adopting the older rules that drove me away from the game in the first place. Could I make them work for me? Sure. I'm a much more experienced and tested gamer now; I know what I like, I know why I like it, I know how to get the experience I want from any game. But why bother? I had a game that already did most everything I wanted; why would I want to start from scratch rebuilding it, to arguably not even be any better off than I already was?

That's where I am right now. I've run, in the last year, three D&D games, but only one of them really resembled "standard" D&D very much. I played in another long-running D&D campaign, Age of Worms, and everybody involved was ready for it to be over I think when it finally was. Right now, I'm in a BRP Call of Cthulhu game, and enjoying the change of pace.

But, I find that I also crave D&D. In spite of the problems I have with it, I find that I've got a strange love/hate D&D relationship. I want it. Even if it turns me off to play it too much. So, my house-ruled game, that's almost D&D 3.5, is after all my favorite game after all; the one that I most prefer to run and that I most wish someone would run for me.


Badelaire said...

"But, I find that I also crave D&D. In spite of the problems I have with it, I find that I've got a strange love/hate D&D relationship."

Pretty much sums up my relationship with it as well. It's what I cut my teeth on, and I really enjoy playing it some times, but there's always some level of frustration with it, no matter the edition.

Joshua said...

Like I said earlier, though---I'm at a strange place where I've more or less made my peace with D&D though; in fact, in a lot of ways I'm re-converging with D&D on some issues. I used to have my system of choice preference be a d20 Modern game with a handful of house rules; now it's built on a D&D 3.5 base. But with more house rules.