Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What D&D Does

As much as I often feel like D&D isn't suitable for modelling any kind of fantasy other than itself, I'm starting to move beyond complaining about it. In fact, I'm starting to think that trying to drag D&D too far from its roots in "dungeon-crawling/treasure-grabbing" gaming is probably a mistake.

(Yes, I am aware that there are a lot of people who play entire sessions of high-intrigue, character-driven D&D with nary a single instance of monster-killing or stuff-taking. I think that's admirable, but I don't really think that's what the system was designed for.)

AD&D 2nd edition's greatest strength was in its deeply detailed and unique settings. Unfortunately, the system operating all these settings was a slightly tweaked version of Gygax's convention-focused 1st edition of AD&D. The system was built for "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam"-style gaming, which is fine until you try to use it for psychic dominatrix cage fighters struggling against corrupt life-sucking sorcerers on a desert planet. The ideas were awesome, but the system just couldn't take the strain of trying to be all types of fantasy to all people.

The endless options available for 3rd edition, especially when taking third-party material into account, made it technically possible to tinker with the system pretty heavily to match the feel you wanted. Still, doing so was often kludgy. 3rd edition gave you the transparency and the tools to twist D&D into nearly any shape, but doing it felt like banging a square peg into a round hole.

4th edition, as I've discussed before, really focused its design on kicking ass and taking... well, stuff. The honesty of this iteration of the game has really opened my eyes to the potential strengths of D&D's own idiosyncratic take on fantasy. After all, if I want something grittier, more folkloric, or more story-oriented, there are a number of other RPGs I can pick up and play (well, providing I can find players or game masters, but that's another story).

I wonder if this is part of the reason that some people have gotten miffed about D&D's newly narrowed focus. I think that for a lot of people, D&D is the only RPG they'll consider playing, so when they see that it's difficult to make 4th edition do things other than magic-rich, combat-heavy delving, they feel like the designers have placed constraints on the game. I see it as the game going back to being honest about what it's meant to do.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from wanting to bolt new stuff onto 4th edition...


  1. In a sense, I guess that is what I'm saying, though I didn't realize when I wrote the post. It's really just my personal impression of the philosophies behind the various games, rather than their mechanics, but your equation is more or less what I'm getting at.

    1e promised an ironclad system for dungeon crawling. 2e ran with the broadened horizons the later-era 1e products played with and took them to a new level, but with the nearly the same system constraints. 3e claimed to be the "return to the dungeon", but really just made the system consistent and transparent so you could mess with it all you liked, but it still strained at the seams if you really got weird with it. 4e says "fuck it" and goes back to the dungeon (and gets it right more often than it doesn't, in my opinion.)

  2. "...psychic dominatrix cage fighters struggling against corrupt life-sucking sorcerers on a desert planet."

    That is the single coolest Dark Sun pitch I have ever seen.

    I'll (grudgingly) agree with you on 4E. It does what it does rather well, but what it does isn't what I seek in my D&D. Horses for courses I suppose

    *tinkers with his 1-3E Glorantha/Birthright hack some more*

  3. Thanks for the compliment. Dark Sun really was a cool idea, but I still think the system was a poor match.

    As for 4e, yeah, I really wouldn't try to do Glorantha/Birthright with it, as awesome as that sounds. (I have my own BRP-based pet fantasy setting that I've been puttering around with.)

  4. I'm not really sure the overly-simplistic "kill things and take their stuff" meme applies to old school D&D as much as so many people seem to think, but I do agree the narrow focus of 4th is what puts many people off. However, the earlier the edition, I find, the more open and less narrowly-defined it really is. Only in retrospect could someone look back and claim those games were all about dungeon crawling. The rules may have been, but the games weren't. Or was that your point?

  5. Having played very little D&D during the time period in question, I can't really speak as to how most people play "old school D&D". I do know that from reading old rulebooks - and especially modules - I do get the impression that the rules were there primarily to support dungeon-crawling, combat, and treasure.

    Like I said, this may not reflect the way the game was typically played outside of the convention setting, but in my experience almost any role-playing campaign played over the long term begins to include a lot of things not explicitly detailed in the rules.

    I don't see the "narrow focus" of 4th edition as a bad thing. I like a game that knows what it is about. I should also point out that since I started playing it last year, our campaign has naturally morphed from dungeon crawling into (still combat-heavy) political intrigue and exploration. Deep roleplaying is just as possible as it ever was.

    So yes, I guess that was my point.