Thursday, February 7, 2013

In the Before Time...

Howdy again! 

If you're looking at this blog at all, I feel it safe to assume that you know what a tabletop RPG is, who Gary Gygax was, and have at the very least heard of Dungeons and Dragons. If not, here's the short version. Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game penned by Gary Gygax a good long time before I was born. The premise is simple: Players take on the role of adventurers delving their way through a dungeon or castle or sub terrestrial operational theater or some variant thereof. The intended goal is usually, but not entirely limited to, killing things and taking their stuff. One may even encounter and try to kill (usually unsuccessfully) a dragon.

At this point, I'm sure you're saying to yourself that this seems fairly obvious. Self-evident even. Here's the catch: While this seems to be the original intention, things have evolved massively over the years. While this game and many others that came afterward assume this to be the main method of play, it's only a small fraction of what people do in their own homes. Again for veterans, there is a point I'm building to, I think. After four years of playing, I've finally had the chance to actually have a character trudge through a dungeon. Strangely enough, not in D&D.  Now if only I could find me a dragon to off.

So what does all this mean? What's the point? What is this lunatic getting on about? Simple. Over the years, the mentalities of those embroiled in this hobby have evolved. The questions now would be how, why, and what does this  mean for other rookies like me? After talking to those who've been there, I've taken some time to speculate.

The How

While I have yet to look through the older versions of D&D (anything before 3rd edition), I am of the impression that the idea was that the person running the game set up an obstacle course of some sort, and the other players would run through it using the set of skills and equipment their characters possessed. From there, players started having a bit more investment in their characters. They gave them personalities, families, homes. In a sense, they crafted them into people. The next logical step would be the characters' life, or in this case, story. Interest for some shifted from how much loot they drug out of the ground to what kind of plot they crafted. The story over the stuff.

The Why

Familiarity breeds contempt, maybe? Some people using this medium got it in their heads that doing the same thing over and over was a limited use of a boundless tool. In response they took it elsewhere. Fantasy got a little too cliche, so some went for sci-fi. Others wanted to see what could be done with superheroes. For others, medieval fantasy was fine, but what about doing the same thing in a more modern setting? Still, for others, the problem wasn't the genre, but what they were doing in it. Why traipse through some musty tunnel? Why not go on a crusade across the countryside? Why go dig for buried treasure when it can be brought to you with a little intrigue?

Still though, there are other reasons. For some that I had the opportunity to chat with, it was a case of antagonism.

In the course of running through a trap-laden maze, the occasional character death is to be expected. Repeated victories required greater obstacles to surmount, causing GMs to come up with new ways of attaining said character deaths. Some fair, others not so much. An arms race like this is what led to things like the Tomb of Horrors, and numerous other silly and cheesy traps and monsters. In the normal case of handing high caliber weapons to people without experience or skill in handling such things, some people are bound to go overboard. Why else would they have made ridiculously beardy tools of death if the goal wasn't to rack up a PC body count? The mentality went from providing a challenge to competition. Understandably, some people didn't take too kindly to this methodology and moved on accordingly.  I have to wonder if this was the inevitable end goal for the game's design or if it really was a horrible case of miscommunication.

What Does This Mean for the Rest of Us?

Some players are in this for drama and narrative. Others like hack and slash kill-fests. Me? I kinda like both. On the plus side, many games nowadays provide content to satisfy both sides of the fence, though most tend to lean a little to one side or the other. On the downside however, many players lean a lot to one side or the other. Those who want to punch things in the HP need to share time with those who'd rather discuss a situation, rather than hammer it. While there's nothing wrong with either approach, any conflict can really test a beginning GM. (Not to mention dealing with players who've been traumatized by past experiences.)And when game systems assume a certain method of play, and your players have had their fill of that particular MO, a noob can sometimes be left high and dry, especially if said method is something new they'd like to try. Even if it has been done to death over the decades.

What Do We Take Away From This?

Probably not much. Yet. I'm mostly setting the stage for future discussions, but I do want to leave people with something to think about. For instance, what kinds of things have shaped your gaming career? What past experiences do you think noobs should go through? Rites of passage, if you will.

 There are some things in here I do want to come back to at a later date, but I think I've rambled aimlessly enough for one day.

In the meantime, stay classy!


  1. In a way, facing hurdles makes you better at overcoming them. Similarly, being more comfortable with a certain kind of content will probably make you appreciate it more. Being confronted to all sorts of devious traps makes you better at treading dungeons carefully and preparing for all kinds of situations, so you'll probably die less (barring GM escalation for the sake of killing characters). Every puzzle you beat gives you experience you can rely upon when solving new ones, so you'll spend less time scratching your hand and running in circles. And the more you role-play, the more used you get to using smooth talking to get what or where you want faster and without always defaulting to combat.

    What I'm trying to say is that while it's normal to have preferences for any kind of play style, having a bit of everything really makes for a more complete experience in my opinion. I don't have much of a mind for traps and puzzles myself, but when I am exposed to them as a player I really think hard about them and am amazed by everything other people come up with. They in turn give me ideas of my own that can really spice things up.

    On the other end of the spectrum, fights can be really boring even if they're supposed to be action. But if you approach them with originality, they can become as much of a puzzle where you put the environment to good use and exploit lateral thinking to resolve things differently than just "hitting them in the HP." Sort of like playing a fighting video game where you can "attack" or "not attack" versus one with dozens of spells or abilities to choose from depending on context.

    So overall I think it's best to have a bit of everything, but also not to shut your brain down when the game doesn't focus on your favored approach. Look at what others are doing, learn from it and join the fun. That's what makes you grow as a player, and eventually a GM. If you stop caring and just roll the dice when you're asked, *anything* is going to get boring.

    1. I couldn't agree more. Variety is the spice of life, and it troubles me when bad experiences lead people to exclude certain things in games because of them. Especially if it's something that I know I can learn from, but have yet to come across. Thank you very much.