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.


Callin said...

This is going to come afcross snide but its really not.

What if I want to play a psionic monk? Do I have to go to a completely different system? Can I not play such a character in your game?

Chris said...

Oh, no that's not snide at all Callin, and i'd be glad to respond.

The point behind early D&D is that literally everything was possible. Monks--absolutely, psionics--absolutely, dragonmen--absolutely, six shooters? flying ships? ray guns? Cthuloid monsters? Pooping Gold? Absolutely to each and everyone.

What changed with later option-rich games is that they wrote all those options IN the game. The became a sort of inseparable part of the game. And in a very real way the more the game became defined, the less it could be in our imaginations.

In short it was our job to come up with psionic monks and flying centaur men.

You'll notice that Arneson's Blackmoor was famous for containing nuclear tanks, crashed spaceships and the like. Arduin's Grimoire which was verymuch int eh spirit of D&D contained insect men races, and magical technology.

The 3 LBBs used the titles Fighting Man and Magic User, I think, with the idea in mind that these were general archetypes that could bve expressed in lots of different ways. Your fighting man may use his fists, and mine uses a falchion. The ethos here is "you define the particulars. Don't make us do it for you. That takes all the fun out of it."

The idea is creative feedom not delineation. At least not on a wholesale basis. Does a GM need to delineate how psionic monks work in his world? Sure he does, and it will lead to house rules. But the way he chose for it to work did not have to agree with the way I chose for it to work. Later games limited this.

There is a really good article on the evolution of house ruling at Mythmeres blog here:

That may help explain kind of what I'm talking about.

So to sum up, yes. Let's talk about your psionic monk and see what we come up with.

Now some people don't like this. They like being able to take their PC from one friend's campaign and drop him in another. They liek knowing that their psionic monk is the same--or darn near--to every other psionic monk in AD&D anywhere.

Well, there's something to be said for that. Gary himself claimed AD&D was to accomplish that very thing--we all know where that went. And I claim that there's also something to be said for letting each person express their own unique or collective vision born of the fires of their own imagination.

I geuss the question is how do you want to game? In the end, either way is entirely valid.

Callin said...

So now I have to ask, what's the difference between you creating the rules for a psionic monk or another publisher doing it (other than you retain control)?

To me, it is essentially the same. I as a DM can pick and choose what options I want to include. Heck, I can decide I don't want clerics in my game even though they are "core". Personally I like the fact someone else will do the "grunt" work of providing my game with options (such as monks or psionics) and all I have to do is pick and choose which of them I like and don't like.

Maybe because I've been playing this game so long, I do not cater to the players-It is my world and my rules. My players can ask for stuff but it is always ultimately up to me. No matter how many splatbooks and rules are released.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like we've had a similar journey. I started with Holmes, quickly moved to 1e, dabbled with Basic but preferred 1e. I never used all the rules and stayed passionate about the game for a couple of decades.

These days my 1e ardour has cooled and having spent a lot of time looking at the original game, I now realise that is the game I've basically played all along. Ironically I think they got it right first time, it's just a pity that they didn't have a mate who was a decent editor when they were putting the game together in a garage.

Anonymous said...

what's the difference between you creating the rules for a psionic monk or another publisher doing it (other than you retain control)?

I reckon I can answer that. As soon as something appears in an "official" rulebook, players see it as an entitlement rather than an option the DM can choose for his campaign. Whereas when the DM and players cooperate to introduce a new element, that sense of entitlement isn't there.

Greylond said...

What version of HackMaster are you talking about here? Because the new HM is pretty modular, I've seen people drop certain parts of it and play it just fine. Just want to make sure because some people played or looked at HM4 and automatically assume that the new(current) version is the same.

Chris said...

In a word Callin--imagination. I get to create it. Now, I'll admit there is certainly something to be said for having things ready made for you. In a world where many of us are too busy to even find the time to game, having those options presented to us on a platter is a nice convenience. I'm not even saying it's wrong to do so, or to want that. To each his own. I love reading RPG splatbooks, modules, worldbooks etc. almost as much as I love reading fantasy. I like seeing what someone else has taken the time to create. But in the end what I really love is creating things myself--I suppose that's one of the reasons I write, DM and draw. Don't know how good I am at them all, but I sure enjoy doing it. Same reason I love music and still play it.

And I must say I agree with David too, who seemed to get the gist of my rather longwinded post. If the commercial game designers start feeding us all these options as a part of the official ruleset, then people start coming to expect them--whether you want them or not. And when you start adding all the options into a game from the start it can limit creative freedom. Lastly, we are always in danger of falling into the pit that Gary alluded to in his quote.

And again, I should mention that the kind of game Gary is describing is fine if that's what you are looking for. Some people really have fun with it. I just don't happen to be one of those people, and evidently Gary wasn't either.

Chris said...

Hey Greylond--i've been meaning to email you. I'm talking about Hackmaster Basic. I haven't managed to convince myself to spring for the AHM books yet. Don't get me wrong, I love Hackmaster. I just can't quite bring myself to commit to it. Partly for the reasons I mention and partly for reasons I'm not even sure about. To be honest I'm haivng trouble digging up $140.00 for the Hacklopedia and PHB. I have Frandor's Keep too, and some 3e Kalamar stuff, and of course my KODT collection, and some downloaded Hackjournals.

I've tried to get several people to start a HMb game with me, but noone seems willing to. That would give me a better idea, and at least I could speak from an informed point of view.

That's partly what I wanted to email you about, and also about how your online games work. I'm not real thrilled with online play, but it may be the only chance I ever get to actually try the game out. To tell you the truth i don't feel very qualified to GM it. I might have tried HM4, since it was so much like AD&D, but HMb seems like a much different animal.

I would love to confer with you more about it though.

Thanks for continuing to stop by. And btw I am enjoying your learn to hack frandors keep blog--good stuff :)

Greylond said...

I can understand about the cost but IMO the books are worth it. I've bought them 6 or 7 months apart and saved up in between. I don't buy a lot of RPG books any more but when I do, I make sure that I buy ones that I know I'm going to be using for a long time which is the case for the PHB and the HoB. I know I'm going to probably get 9 or 10 years of play out of them so it's a good investment.

Google+ Hangouts is pretty good because you get to actually see and interact with the other players.

Depending on where you live though we might be able to find a nearby HM group, email me or drop by the K&Co forums.

Anonymous said...

0e was a mess, horrible editing, no production quality to may have just as well been a little brown book that read, "do anything". But for something trying to a real game, from table to table, group to group, tourney to tourney, it was complete chaos and a game that meant nothing. There were also a million of laughably large gaps and holes in the game. 'Twas was like a chess game with a random number and type of pieces, but the play at another table nothing from the one before had any fungible values or premises, so now piece type 1 doesn't not exist at all, piece type 2 moves in a completely different way...just anarchy at all levels. That is not the way to build a sustainable game that will last, it's it's way to sell boxes of nothing headed to a one hit wonder and a mere "curiosity".

I think 1e was an attempt to put the mass confusion to rest, but leave plenty of room for innovation. Its a solid framework, not a non-existent vapor lattice.

Anonymous said...

No offence Anonymous, but that's crap. It's all too easy to form that opinion after a casual glance at the original rules, especially after being used to properly edited RPGs.

As someone who has gone to the trouble of copying the entire text of all three booklets and then reformatting it into a single volume of a style similar to Labyrinth Lord, I can say with some authority that the original game is most definitely NOT full of holes, nor would I call it rules-lite.

It's a shame Gygax and crew didn't bother to take the time to do what I did, they might've been able to prevent 38 years of misunderstand and confusion.

Ironically, as someone who spent almost 30 years as a 1e devotee, I have to say a properly edited version of the 3LBB looks like a neat and polished RPG in comparison to the wonderful but labyrinthine chaos that is 1e.

Chris said...

Yeah, I have to agree with David. The nice thing about the 0e pre-Holmes, was it had tons of kewl stuff that had come out for it.

1e wasn't really an attempt to "clean up 0e. Basic did that. But lots of the options were reserved for 1e. In the end that became sort of a problem.

The magic that was original dungeons and dragons was more accurately preserved in Basic and later Expert. Mentzer kind of took it in a different direction, but original D&D was powerful. 1e was more, well, controlled.

That being said I played almost strictly AD&D for over 20 years. My link to Mythmere's comment about houseruling really nailed it that after you got past the idea that you had to play with all the crap (read extra rules) in 1e it's actually a very open and forgiving system. Which is the way me and my friends actually played it. In other words we were playing a version of original D&D with bits of AD&D added in.

Anonymous said...

In other words we were playing a version of original D&D with bits of AD&D added in.

Me too, which is why my player's and I are happy to play LL + AEC and freely mix and match it with the old 1e stuff.

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