Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Classic Dungeons & Dragons and The Curse of the Over Designed Game

Recently on the WoTC forum there was a thread on Limits in D&D. The original poster was in favor of these limits in some cases. Then marched in the very vocal opponents of the old school ethos. I say opponents, because they couldn't rationally discuss the purpose of limits in what D&D Next is evidently trying to achieve, but they have to berate, denigrate, insult and vilify any other style of play but their own. The reason I mention it here is because I think there is a need for a paradigm shift in terms of what limits in a game system are all about. And I'd like to selfishly hold up Classic Dungeons & Dragons as the ideal example of what D&D can be.

The war-cry of many a modern gamer is that there should be no limits on the players ability to create the PC of which he dreams. If we were to encase the cry in a word it would be OPTIONS!! And maybe with a louder shout AND EVEN MORE OPTIONS!!!!! Don't tell me I can't be such and such a race, don't tell me I can't specialize, don't tell me I can't have that skill, don't tell me I can't be an 8 foot tall orc, don't tell me I can't have feats, powers, or burp lightning and poop gold. ... *Whew*

Their is a consensus even among the designers of 5e that the game has shifted away from the DM being the judge, adjudicator, referee and master of the game. He is no longer the creator of the world even--but the players have an equal and some would argue even more of a say in the development of the world than the DM ever had. Now, practically this is a bit of an overstatement. DMs are still in control, it's just that their creative power has been limited by the ever expanding list of options now available to players. In a sense to remove one set of limits (to the players) another set was imposed (on the GMs).

It is this very fact to which Gary Gygax alluded in his Gamespy interview in regards to 3.5:

GameSpy: Have you had a chance to play or even look at some of the current Dungeons & Dragons games?

Gygax: I've looked at them, yes, but I'm not really a fan. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It's done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.

Now, should I tell you what I really think?

Source -- emphasis mine

Well, I would argue that such modern approaches limit everyone--not just the DM. True, the DM had his creativity and power limited, but the players were constrained within whatever band of options the rules outlined for them. Allow me to explain. In D&D everything is technically possible. A quick look at the early games made it clear that the "future is wide open" as Tom Petty would say. There were few constraints and endless possibilities. In fact everything that players have now were a possibility, but they didn't have to be. Once written in as a rule it has strength as "having to be allowed." I can't tell you how many times I have had to listen to "but it's allowed in the rules!"

Now do modern DMs sometimes say no? Yes of course they do, even if what some player wants is written in the rules. My intuition is that they have to do it alot more now than they had to in the past. It might be for this reason there is now a section in the current DMG on saying yes to your players. *Ack!!* The question is what ethos is communicated by such a gaming structure? I submit that it is player options come first. And we end up right were Gary was talking about above.

So am I against character options? Absolutely not. I am just against a rule set that outlines every possible option. Okay, maybe not every possible option, but so many there's little wiggle left if I want to so something else. So what's the answer?


When Gary Gygax wrote Advanced Dungeons and Dragons it didn't take long to realize that he was writing a rather strict interpretation of what the Original game had been. He even admits this in his preface. In fact quite a few gamers realized this and the backlash was as palpable as any edition war today. To others it was also obvious that Gary had to set his game apart from the cooperative product that was Original Dungeons & Dragons. The purposeful exclusion of Dave Arneson from the work says volumes about his real purpose. Thing is even Gary realized this. It was widely known there were many rules from AD&D that Gary did not use in regular play and in the same above interview with Gamespy they asked him,

"GameSpy: Then can you look back and say, 'This was a mistake, I shouldn't have done this?'

Gygax: Oh yeah. There's a number of things in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that I never should have done. I shouldn't have put Psionics in there, but somebody talked me into it. Some of the combat, weapons vs. armor, and weapon speeds I just would have dropped."

And he mentioned other things in other places, such as removing the monk.

The point is here, even Gary realized he had created a game that diverged somewhat from his and Arneson's original intentions. An open creative game that urged players in the close of one of the Little Brown Books: Why have us do any more of the imagining for you? Take this basic framework and imagine the hell out of it!

Such a framework gives the barest structure by which players and DMs could adhere and the opportunity to take it where ever their imagination would allow. Such a game does not give the DM ultimate power over his players. A reading of Gygax's Mastering the Game quickly proves that such play is detrimental to the game. A killer DM mentality was never "written into" or even impled in the old school ethos. But a cooperative approach between players and DMs in the imaginative process has always been encouraged. How else could the game have ever survived if this wasn't the case? The argument that old school equals tyrant DMs is hogwash--(even if I am one : ) Have a player that wants to play a Dragon? Go for it, if it fits the world the GM has in mind. Or talk it out and maybe create a new world in which this is possible. Want to poop gold?! Welcome to a bawdy rendition of King Midas' Curse! The sky very literally is the limit--though I don't know if I would want to go with that last adventure idea ...

In such a game, restrictions drop away to give space to the imagination. Did such an age encourage players and DMs to work together? Absolutely. We weren't restricted by a list of predescribed options. We made magical items, wrote new spells, created new races, abilities, powers, classes and on and on. we were creating the game as much as we were playing it.

But such a wild and free environment wasn't exactly good business practice. TSR under Gary felt a need to protect his interest--read profits. And we think WoTC was the only company that felt industry pressures?? Gary himself said in his introduction to AD&D that there needed to be some standard set of "this is the way it is". D&D play had become so individualized and creative that two games seemed little like each other. This didn't exactly allow tournament play, or people's innate desire for externally imposed structure. Hence I give you AD&D. Business control problems solved, Problem was, lots of creativity went out the window when AD&D entered in. The wild and woolly days of 0e were being declared irresponsible and chaotic. Come to the Advanced edition and play the real D&D. But that's not the way everyone felt ...

Fortunately TSR decided to appease the grumbling grognards (yes we had them even then) by the production of a slightly cleaned up presentation of the 0e ruleset: "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons. Ostensibly meant as an introduction to "Advanced"; Basic was really just a re-presentation of the 0e rules. I'm not sure all that went into the decision to do this (notice again that Arneson had no "official" part in the Holmes set). But I can see how Gygax is trying to paint 0e as an inferior, or basic version of the game and his as the ultimate or advanced edition. I know I for one fell for it. I wouldn't deign to actually "play" basic even though I had the set. I would settle for nothing but the best, and that meant Advanced D&D. But I don't think Gary added much beyond consolidating all the options in the earlier books and adding rules and options he didn't even use himself. Essentially Advanced became "his" expression of the game that even "he" didn't really use.

Which leads us back to the cleaned up and elegant expression of the rules that was Holmes D&D. Improved upon only slightly in terms of editing and layout in the Moldvay/Marsh/Cook volume. Now, to be completely honest, the rules had changed a bit. Weapon damage, hit die and the like were slightly modified. But overall it was the same game. It was simple and elegant, like a beautiful mathematical formula (forgive me I'm a mathematician). And it did something else too. It preserved the strong spirit of the game. The creative fire that had been unleashed in 1974.

Oddly enough what we see in subsequent iterations of the game is like Return of the Living Options again and again and again.
AD&D begins to allow power creep as more and more options creep into the game. And what do you see happen? 2e tries to reign back into a more core game of Warrior, Priest, Mage, and Rogue, but quickly expands to the most massive game yet known. And we see the same cycle repeated with 3.5, including a change to the core mechanic as well. 3 and 3.5 exponentially add to the option fever until 4e makes a desperate bid to regain control of the game. In the process of course they lose a good 25% (total WAG on my part) of their fan base. Which now 5e is attempting to regain. How you may ask? By trying to return to the basic core Classic Dungeons & Dragons feel.

You could call this The Curse of the Over-Designed Game, or you could label it The Cycle of RPG Dysfunction as Chase did in his excellent entry at Intwischa. I tend to lean towards the overdesigned game, because it is exactly what keeps me from committing to Hackmaster.

It is no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that I have a great love for the Knights of the Dinner Table and Hackmaster. I have come mere millimeters away from converting to HM time and again. But the problem is that though Hackmaster very nicely enshrines my style of play within its rules. There are simply too many rules and options to deal with. The game begins to feel a little, well ... constraining. I mean I like the style in Hackmaster, but not always, all the time. And with that many rules we begin to deal with the same kind of problems I mentioned above. I mean I don't like putting HM in the same league as say 3.5 or Pathfinder, I think it is a very different game. But I do fear it suffers from a bit of overdesigning. It just doesn't let me feel as if I can spread my wings like earlier editions.

Undoubtedly, some will call me on claiming that AD&D is too restrictive and that I'm getting back to my roots with something more like B/X. I mean AD&D was my game of choice. But, back when I played AD&D we really did not use all those rules. Just like Gary we played what was really a B/X game with a few more classes and race separate therefrom. Now older and if not a bit wiser at least a better reader, I understand that to really play AD&D there are lots of rules I do not like, or would not use. Which make me realize, when I describe the type of game I want to play it looks a lot like what Arneson and Gygax designed all those years ago in 1974; and presented in near perfect form in 1981.