Saturday, February 09, 2008

Dungeons & Drags

I wrote a nice little essay I think you'll like, except that I've lost contact with my hosting service and Google Doc's "upload" feature is so bad with embedded images that I might as well just not post it at all.

So I'm gonna talk about Dungeons & Dragons instead.

That's not fair. I'm gonna talk about most mainstream tabletops simultaneously. D&D is just my example, largely because it's got an easy, well-known acronym so you'll know what the hell I'm talking about.

D&D. D&D... D&D?

I don't like D&D.

D&D - and most other mainstream RPGs - are built in a specific way. They are built around the idea that bigger is better. The more content, the more rules, the better the game will be. Hey, the GM can pick and choose from a wider selection, so he can create a wider variety of adventures and that's good!

This idea is so ass-backwards that it amazes me.

You need content, yes, but you have to remember that every game is communicating something. Every experience the players share says something very strongly. Having a million different things that could happen is pretty pointless. Instead, there are about two things that should happen, and they aren't written down anywhere because your adventure is (I hope) quite unique. Anything else will weaken the experience, turn it into a slush of experience points and dice.

There's no depth to running into a dungeon, rolling up goblins, and then rolling up treasure. There's nothing being communicated. You might as well watch daytime TV.

I'm not saying that you should diminish your game for the sake of giving a message. I'm saying quite the opposite: you should have a clear experience in mind when you build your game, and that will guide you to create a great game.

For example, if you run a Star Wars game, it's probably going to focus on the difference between light side and dark side. That's kind of what Star Wars specializes in. The experience will probably be centered around "the struggle not to fall" or something similar. (Of course, now Star Wars has published dozens of RPG books so you can just toss random crap in there, too. Thanks!)

What's your core idea in D&D? "Kill monsters, get XP?" Most GMs have something cooler in mind - "Let's take on a demon! I'll make the villain a demon that controls a horde of vampire bunnies..." or something.

That's not really what's going through the GM's head, though. Instead, he's thinking of a feel for the experience. He's thinking of how he wants the game to play out. He wants the players to feel out of their element, swarmed by hopeless odds, whatever.

Does D&D help him with that?


D&D does not.

D&D's pack of rules - especially since 3.5 - are geared specifically to be completely generic. The d20 system is basically the high fructose corn syrup of the game world. It has no merit other than being easy to mix into things that should never have corn syrup in them to begin with.

This is true of most major tabletop RPGs. As I mentioned, they add more and more content to the game, thinking that makes it better. In turn, they have to expand the rules to cover that new content. When it comes time to release the next version, they go back and revamp all the rules to be more generic, to more easily cover this vast expanse of useless content.

"What are you, some kind of RPG anarchist?"

Yeah, pretty much. There are a lot of indie RPGs out there. These games are tiny, very focused. They are geared towards providing a specific experience. While some of them suck, many of them will provide a surprisingly interesting experience that you would never be able to wrangle out of D&D.

Personally, though, I think playing an existing system is a cop-out. If you have an experience in mind, you should make your own system and content to support it.

If you want your players to go up against a demon and feel the press of otherworldly hordes, you build rules that are strong on attrition instead of win/lose, and contain some built-in system that clashes nicely with the demonic horde's capabilities (giving them a sense of being very alien). For example, I like the idea of making the players use dice, and using dice for all the human enemies... but then have the demonic enemies use cards. If the players acquire demonic powers or devices, they use cards to power them...

Anyway, the point is that that giant stack of lovely books is a giant stack of lovely junk food. Your players may not even realize it, but they're bored and fat.

Mentally, I mean.

Am I being clear? Do you agree?


Yehuda said...

100%. I stopped playing D&D when I saw that only four pages of a multi-hundred page rulebook on role playing contained something related to role playing.


P.S. The rest was roll playing and rule playing.

Anonymous said...

I've never cared for D&D. I find the world to be bland, the system to be intrusive and the GMs who are drawn to it punitive in nature and limited in imagination.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, but what did you two think of other mainstream systems? And the idea of creating your own?

Anonymous said...

When roleplaying, I consider the important parts to be creating entertaining fiction (I default to tragedy and dark fantasy) so that every player is important and gets to shape the fiction.

Rules are one of the elements that ought to help at this. I don't find the D&D rules to help me, personally, all that much. I prefer freeform to them (and most sets of rules to freeform).

D&D is good for certain styles of play; namely, combat- or at least challenge-intensive high-fantasy games where the combats or challenges are actually the focus.

I have played a game of the Mountain Witch (which qualifies as utterly focused indie game). It was okay, but forced me to take GM perspective even while not working as such, which at least to me makes it a very different experience from traditional play.

I do create small rpg systems out of thin air more-or-less frequently and on demand.


Anonymous said...

I've been using my own system since day one of running campaigns. I've looked at other systems and thought they did some interesting things, but ultimately I'm totally in favor homebrew.

Patrick said...

Hey, mage the acension is pretty cool.

Ryan said...

I agree and disagree. I've got more mainstream and indy rule books than you could shake a stick at, unless you had an awful lot of time on your hand or were particularly demented (apologies to MMS). I also run a weekly game, play in another and am about to start running a monthly game. What I've found is that most indy games are great for one or two sessions but rarely work well for extended campaigns. The focus on a particular experience or evoking a certain emotion that they tend to have works well in short spurts but tends to lose players interest over extended periods of time.

The idea of creating your own system is nice, and I've done that but it is time consuming and then there is the endless rounds of playtesting to get it right not to mention the arguments that can be provoked by some of the more rules oriented players, not to mention the probability maths that they'll pull out to wave under your nose to tell you why your dice/card/water balloon mechanic is inappropriate to the situation at hand ;)

For me the play, with my friends, is the focus. We're sharing an experience true, but we're also interested in having a good time together. Its a social as well as a gaming experience. In some cases you want to tell a particularly story, but don't want to spend time developing a system to match or teaching your players the new system and suffering through the potential pitfuls, in those cases you grab an existing system off the shelf that is close then you run with it. What I then do is discuss the session with the players at the end and come up with house rules by consensus that get incorporated into the game. Using an existing system gives my players a common touchpoint - they all know, or at least have an idea, of how the system works so they can focus on the story and their characters rather than learning a new system.

What I've found is that in a lot of cases the system fades to the background. It is the interaction between us which becomes the game and often the system neither helps nor hinders this... its a facilitator nothing more.

Now some systems are better facilitators than others I agree that D&D is one of the worst. But I have run D&D games that have been fun for the players. What I've found interesting is that the more bulky and complex systems (like D&D) can often offer the players a greater sense of 'challenge'. The players feel they are playing against the system rather than you as the GM and that at any moment the static and arbitrary nature of the rules can kill their character dead, which in the action area adds a certain spice that you don't often find in indy or homebrew games.

With indy/homebrew systems their tends to be a focus on story and the GM is often responsible for arbitration as these games tend to be 'rules lite' so the game becomes a shared storytelling experience that is great for drama but tends to be ineffective for action as they rely so heavily on GM interpretation and player consensus. All it takes is one player who is a little more gameist than narrativist and they have a bad night (and that's not what you want - you want all your players to have fun).

The other great thing about buying a game off the shelf is the background that comes along with it. This is one of the main reasons I do tend to dislike D&D you buy 3 books and only get rules, their is no world, no background information. One of the best games I ever ran was Tribe 8 by Dream Pod 9. They had a system that was used (their in house system whose name I can't recall) but that was less than a quarter of the content. The main content was taken up by background information. But not the usual dry descriptions. The background and environment was talked about by NPC's in the game, from their point of view. This was a great resource as a time poor GM it gave me an intimate understanding of the world and how the people who lived in it saw it. So much so that from then on I try to always describe the game world from an NPC's point of view whether I'm doing one of my own games or an off the shelf model. Its not a 10x10 room containing 2 orcs and a treasure chest (as D&D would have you believe) its Gnarsh's room with the painstakingly tended mushroom patch in the corner he meticulously looks after as he's main source of food, the mushrooms grow well here due to the damp and warmth provided by the dragons exhalations heating the floor. It took him 8 days to drag in enough soil and compost to start the garden that he now shares with his life mate.... well you get the idea - it can still be D&D though. To me the system doesn't matter as much as the game and I'll be damned if I blame the system for a game failing, as GM that's my responsibility.

I don't see off the shelf games as junk food, I see them as the meat and 3 veg - standard dinner meal that you can eat every night for weeks on end, while the indy/homebrew is the gourmet meal that is rich and full of flavour and nuance but you couldn't eat every night.

David said...

don't have much experience with D&D, though we did play for a few months in middle school (oh so long ago). After our GM went crazy and tried to run over my friend's sister, we quit playing with him. However we still wanted to play something, so they elected me GM of a near-future dystopia. I created a system on my TI-82 that gave them a random 1-10 (with a +3 if it was something they were good at - and they got 3 specialties). Basically, it was hard to not accomplish something, and I spun a yarn in realtime. Some of the players were bad guys and some of them were working together, everybody could do basically anything they wanted. We played that game 4 days a week for two years and had alot of fun. So I'm gonna go with rolling your own. : ) And damn the rules! edit: We had very pragmatic players who were willing to "role" with the punches.

Craig Perko said...

I'll comment on your comments when I have a chair.

Patheros said...

I was going to post something about this if for no other reason then to defend the countless hours I've put into D&D, but ryan seems to have said everything I could think of and more.

So instead I'd rather like to hear what other off the shelf games ryan and everyone else has played and liked since I have only ever DM D&D.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, chairs. Man cannot sit on bread alone.

I really didn't mean to say that D&D was worthless: playing with D&D is better than not playing at all, certainly.

But you are working against the system much of the time, which I don't much like. Sure, you can have a lot of great experiences in D&D, but you can have a lot of great experiences in any system.

While many indie games are pretty much one-shot (or are so focused that they are pretty much one-shots), there are some that are very amenable to long campaigns. These are usually the ones with very polymorphic rules, so you can get different experiences out of them. Prime Time is a good example.

Also, I used to simply carry over the content from system to system: none of the players ever minded, unless they thought I'd over- or under-represented something in the new rules. There's nothing that says you always need to start fresh when you go for a new experience...

clem said...

I think D&D is alright at it's given domain, which is fantasy combat.

However, the further you stray from skirmishes the greater the weaknesses of the rule set are exposed. I read posts of players convincing their DM that they can get an elder dragon chasing its own tail via ungodly diplomacy checks. Er, no. No. Diplomacy is not mind control.

And even in the domain of fantasy combat, some of the rules are well intentioned but clumsy -- I'm looking at you, grappling. Also, I have a hard time swallowing the concept of character class when a three of the core classes come to dominate every high-level game. 3.5e just doesn't offer fighters that much variety or power. Still, it's a hell of a lot better than what they faced in 1st or 2nd editions. We'll see what they have planned for 4e.

But that doesn't mean it isn't good fun after ordering take-out and a few beers. It's just not going to be much more than variations on goblin clubbing.

It's also handy having the corn syrup of gaming rules as I can hit any RPGA group and roll with whoever is holding a game. I've tried table gaming with my group of ADHD afflicted friends and between frequent smoke breaks and chatter the game never progressed. And besides, designing your own rules is much like designing your own programming language. It's very educational, but it's probably not doing anyone other than you any good.

If you really need D&D to be Shakespeare, try holding a kobold's skull in the air and calling him Yorick.

Kevin said...

Creating your own game for practical play is really much easier than most people would think. The hardest part really is finding the player base. Play testing isn't hard because you don't really need to do that in an rpg if your players can't see the system. You can tweak it behind the scenes and they will never know.

Am currently running a custom-system campaign that is working out decently.

As for D&D.... I think the game experience is best when using the system to guide from situation to situation. It creates alot of filler that rather than roleplaying is more like a tactical minigame (that is the game). RP can come between the hard system.

Craig Perko said...

See, every time I say something like this, I get people who say that "it's good for what I want: brainless dumb shit!"

But that's not true, either. There are some really spectacular indie games that are even better at brainless dumb shit. Beer & pretzels gaming is an experience, and the d20 system doesn't specialize in it.

And Kevin's right: creating your own system is - at least after the first few times - very easy. Surprisingly satisfying, too.

clem said...

So what game mechanics do you specifically find lacking in making D&D a beer and pretzel game?

Do you have in mind something more along the line of Munchkin? I'll grant that that sort of game is great fun, and has the advantage that it can be played in a noisy environment, like a bar.

However, I keep going back to D&D because I like being able to fine-tune character concepts and test how different builds play. If it starts devolving into a collectible card game, I think that would take a lot out of that experience.

Craig Perko said...

Ah? It's not what's lacking, it's what's there.

It can certainly be used for B&P gaming, but it's not ideal. If you want B&P gaming, you might want to look into Feng Shui (the game, not the art of arranging your beanbags and beer bottles) or It Came From the Late Late Late Show. These offer the same level of customization and re-buildability that D&D does, but they're much more "kick ass and chew bubblegum".

Things like Munchkin aren't even worth playing, to me. I hate CCGs, Munchkin especially. They're the antithesis of what I aim for.

Ryan said...

Yeah... definitely going to have to agree to disagree ;)

I see where your coming from and I can understand your point of view and I'm certainly not defending D&D. It has been carefully constructed to provide a very specific experience which has little to do with actual roleplaying. It, is however a nice introduction to the hobby. It's also an engine for selling more product so that WOTC can afford to pay their staff and report profits to Hasbro so that their shareholders stay happy, and if it wasn't good at that then there wouldn't be a version 4 coming out now ;) If you play D&D as intended then you don't need to fight the system... it works as intended, and provides a particular experience. If its not the experience you're looking for, ah well that's where you and D&D will part ways - and that's what most do.

D&D is usually most peoples first RPG experience, not because its the best, but because its the most popular and because it has this rigidly defined ruleset that takes it only one step away from the more traditional board games that the new player is already familiar. Its an easy step for most to take. The larger proportion of players will stay with it. It does what they want, and they're not looking for anything more. Then there are those of us that feel that it could be more... and that's the beginning. Some times we go back to the beginning if only to see how far we have come. Sometimes we go back to help others along the path and to avoid some of the pitfalls along the way that we did. Sometimes we go back and try a different direction than the one we took before.

But... if you'd never played D&D... or someone elses rpg , then you'd have a hell of a time making your own version. Like Sir Isaac Newton said "If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". Without having played the games of others, you cannot critique and improve on them or even reuse the parts that you like. Its only easy to make my own games now that I have played and run so many that I can grab the tools I need from my bag o' experience to apply to the situation. The players accept my 'game' because my experience with other games has given me the confidence to GM with it and know it will work. I still play games that others have written because I would never assume that my way is the best way and I always have new things to learn. I play games that others have written and my players have a blast as do I because if we feel the shared experience will be hindered by the rules then we change it to something we prefer.

Every game I run becomes our (the players and mine) game. Its no longer the game I pulled from my shelf that evening. The original author, if they were sitting in the room with us would probably shake their head and say "that's not how that's meant to work", and they'd be right. We take the game and we twist it to our own ends. Would that happen if it was the first game I ran? Probably due to accident or misinterpretation, but this would not often be of benefit to the game. You need to have an appreciation of what works and what doesn't in order to change the rules.

Now I get a sense of accomplishment and pride when a game of my own creation goes well. When the carefully crafted experience goes off and the players enjoy it. But I get a similar buzz from an 'off the shelf game' that I run or play that goes just as well. Oh, it'll be a different buzz and doesn't have the same level of pride and accomplishment (or maybe its just a different timbre), but it was still fun.

In the same way (and to use Clem's Shakespeare reference), if I was to write/produce/direct a play that was a critical success - damn but that would be grand, but to have that level of success takes work, if its easy now... its only because you've put all the effort in before hand, learning the ropes so to speak. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy playing the part of Iago in the local theater production of Othello. If I get a kick out of playing the part and the audience has a good evening then it can be just as rewarding. I also enjoy going and watching someone else's production of Othello, its not as rewarding as being in the play but its a hell of a lot less effort and sometimes I need that. I might think its a bad performance though, but I only know that because of my prior experience.

Which is why I come back to saying that off the shelf games and yes even D&D is the standard week nights dinner. Its the base, the foundation from which the amazing self created games come from. You add a little pepper which you usually find in the other dish because it worked so well there, and then on the weekend you might cook up a storm based on all the little additions made to the meals during the week. I don't think anything in the RPG field is junk food... don't ask me about CCG's though ;)

Craig Perko said...

I think Blogger isn't emailing me all the updates, because I totally didn't get pinged with this last comment.

I wanted to reply, too, but too much time has passed...