No such thing as D&D

This was meant to be a different post. I was going to talk about rehabilitating post-D&D GMs and players. That particular fuse will have to wait for its match. As I worked on the intro, meant solely to prevent readers from declaring me a heretic, it kept growing larger. And larger. Until it became its own, quite distinct thought. And now it is its own post. Rehabilitation post-D&D will have to wait. For now lets question its existence.

What is D&D? Depends on whom you ask. It’s a game of dungeons and dragons where dungeons are passe and dragons are to be avoided. Of heroes going on epic quests where said heroes may have to save-or-die at any point. Of sacrifice and raise dead. Of mystery and stat blocks of gods. Of imagination and dozens of rulebooks. Of tables for every occasion and “GM knows best”. Of Tordeks and Pun-Puns. Of Tolkien and Conan. Of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale.

It is all those things and more. It’s everything and therefore nothing. This is its legacy and its tragedy. D&D doesn’t exist. A mass hallucination, an alluring mirage, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. It is not a game. It is a cultural artifact. Everyone has their own D&D. Every gaming group, every online forum, every game designer. They all play their own D&Ds, they all discuss their own D&Ds, they all make their own D&Ds.

This uncomfortable truth is at the core of some of the fiercest misunderstandings of the hobby. It goes deeper than “optimizers” versus “true roleplayers”. Saying you play D&D conveys minimum useful information beyond “fantasy” and “class-based”. It is impossible to have a conversation about D&D without laboriously establishing common ground first, and not many people realize the need for that. Or, rather, not many people realize that “D&D” is not common ground. Instead, we put forward our opinions based on our versions of D&D against different opinions based on different D&Ds and are amazed that others have come to different conclusions.

Of course, all roleplaying games are by definition unique to the group playing them. They are a process, an ephemera, an experience. However,  a focused game system produces similar experiences, while a generic system can be used to play different games. But that’s just it – D&D is not a generic system. Instead, it is THE system. The first such game that existed, the first game most roleplayers tried. And thus it is the tool that all too often gets used for any job, regardless of its fitness.

D&D’s development history reflects that of many successful software projects. It’s early history is a classic example of feature creep. As the hobby was being developed, as it stretched its metaphoric muscles for the first time, players tried to achieve things that core game didn’t offer, by bolting new sub-systems onto it. D&D’s middle history is all about legacy content. It had all these “classic” features that made it up, and it tried to streamline them and make them more useable. And while mechanics got smarter, the inherent incongruences were made all the more obvious. D&D’s modern history was a departure from tradition. Yes, 4e. The designers actually tried to make the game focus on something. And the game was better for it! Of course, focusing on one part of D&D made it not the D&D that half of the community played. And the edition wars raged on. And, finally, the future: Next edition.

On the one hand, designers of Next recognize the immaterial nature of D&D: they promise us rules modules to build the game that most resembles D&D of our own. On the other, everything they’ve shown so far I’ve hated, because it wasn’t my D&D. It’s already full of assumptions about the core game that I’m not interested in. And if their best attempt at producing most bare bones basic core D&D that everyone will accept fails, is there any hope for the final game?

Which makes me wonder: do we really need a new D&D at all? Can’t we accept D&D as the origin point from which the hobby has sprung, to be remembered fondly? Can’t we be content with Dungeon World and 13th Age and Cortex Fantasy Roleplaying and others? All less than D&D. All more than D&D.

Whatever Next will be, it won’t be D&D, because D&D only exists in our imagination. Reality can’t compete with it.

Next iteration

New D&D Next playtest is out! That means lots of reading, making notes, and being snarky. All the things I’ve done with the previous iteration in one convenient package. I’ve rather enjoyed being an ass in my notes in the past, so that’s what I’ll do again. This is an ongoing commentary as I read through the new rules, comparing them side-by-side with the previous version, so it will probably make more sense if you read the files with me. It is also rather detailed.

If you don’t feel like reading the 4000 words or so, here’s the short version: this is a much better playtest. Things got polished, many of the oversights were remedied. But new oversights were made! Of the two significant new parts presented, character generation and encounter building, the latter fails to live up to promises and doesn’t work. Disregarding that, we got a playable game. This one I’d actually consider running a playtest of. Regrettably, it’s still going in the direction I don’t like, but at least now it looks like it might get there. Continue reading

Supernatural

D&D Next playtest suggests D&D may be headed back to simulationism. Seemingly unrelatedly, the “fighter linear, wizard quadratic” issue is being brought up, as it also seems poised to return. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it describes the rate of power growth of those and similar classes, which leads to wizards completely overshadowing fighters at higher levels. However, simulationism is at the core of a faulty assumption which leads to linear fighters. A faulty assumption that fighters have to be non-magical, mundane, well-trained people.

Let us start by stating that there is nothing wrong about playing a game where wizards eventually are the best – as long as that’s the explicit assumption that players accept. For instance, in Ars Magica main player characters are all mages. But often players also make mundane servants called grogs, and take them on adventures with individual mages when plot calls for it. There is never a doubt that mages are more powerful and more important (not necessarily capable of feeding themselves or finding their arse with the map drawn on their trousers, but that’s where grogs come in). But that is not the game D&D promises. It promises we can all be heroes. Warrior kings and archmages. Sword and Sorcery. Not Luggage Carrier and Sorcery.

If that is what the game promises us, if that is what the game designers aim to achieve as they sit down, where does it go wrong? With mundane fighters. Wizards, or at least D&D wizards, break the rules. They don’t do simulationism. They don’t do conservation of energy or any other stupid physics laws. And we can’t take that away from them – that’s their core purpose. But if fighters do obey some approximation of simulationist physics, they have no chance. Ever. If fighter design starts with “well, what can a man do with a sword?”, they are doomed. Because wizard design starts with “How soon should the wizard be able to change the world with a snap of his fingers?”

Thankfully, we seem to have avoided the atrocious “balancing” principle of wizards being dominant later on somehow compensated for by them being weak and useless at the start. All but the most hardcore oldschoolers seem to agree they don’t miss wizards stabbing enemies for 1d4-1 damage with their dagger because their 2 spells have run out, so I won’t beat on this dead horse here.

But back to our fighters. They’re not going to be on par with wizards in their ability to influence the world by themselves. No teleportation, no mass fly, no control weather. Instead, in order to compete with wizards, they need to be able to occasionally overcome them. They need to be able to shrug off the dominate they’re hit with, break through the wall of force, and wrestle the aberration into which the wizard turns themselves. In short, they need to be supernatural.

This is what Book of Nine Swords did in 3.5, and the reaction to it was very telling. Did it invalidate the core, mundane fighter? Sure it did. Mundane fighter’s idea of advancement was learning how to trip people up, or, more often, gaining a small bonus to attack or damage. Incremental and very rarely exclusive – others could learn same tricks if they cared to. Warblade’s idea of advancement was learning to parry spells with their sword. Which one is high-fantasy fighting man, capable of going toe to toe with wizards?

If they’re not supernatural from the start, fighters should become so by the time they turn paragon. There are a myriad ways to frame this: divine lineage, divine patronage, other firm’s lineage or patronage, sword magic, channeling chi, force of will… Artifact weaponry, if nothing else. Why artifact? Because merely relying on equipment is not sufficient, as wizards also have their allotment of magical stuff. No, if a fighter is still mundane but armed with a mighty sword, said sword should be a part of their class, i.e. kensai from 3.5 (terrible mechanically, but right idea).

Only by acknowledging the fighters as supernatural in their own right, and encouraging the DMs to do the same, can we avoid the issue of linear fighters in a simulationist game.

Next: on a serious note

In the three days since I put them up, my notes on D&D Next playtest materials have become the most read post on this blog. Hot topic, eh. It has been pointed out repeatedly that while observant, they’re too sarcastic and childish. I’d say there was a clear warning saying these were personal notes and not an analysis, but obviously that wasn’t communicated clearly enough. Failing that, I’ll do the next best thing: I’ll write the actual analysis that I said I wouldn’t. Yes, I’m caving it to peer pressure. And yes, I fully expect this post to get only a fraction of the views of the previous one. On with the show.

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Notes on D&D Next Playtest

As I was reading the playtest materials sent out yesterday by Wizards, I made notes of things that stood out, in hopes of making a post out of them. About half way through I realized I have no desire to write any analysis on these notes, and you’ll see why soon. Instead, I’ll put them up here for what it’s worth.

First and foremost: this is a cut-down version of the rules. WotC wants to see which parts of the rules are essential and shouldn’t be left out. I’m all for it. So some of these points will undoubtedly disappear after a few iterations.

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