Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

11 March, 2008

It's the Singer, Not the Song

Eric Sofge speaks ill of the dead today up at Slate in a piece called "Orc Holocaust" in which he excoriates Dungeons & Dragons and its recently deceased co-creator, Gary Gygax. His main problem is that D&D is hack'n'slash while other systems allow for more creativity.

What's wrong with Dungeons & Dragons? It plays like a video game. A good role-playing game provides the framework for a unique kind of narrative, a collaborative thought experiment crossed with improvisational theater. But D&D, particularly the first edition that Gygax co-wrote in 1975, makes this sort of creative play an afterthought.

His criticism continues in this vein and he asserts that the only way for a D&D character to grow or mature is to gain more experience points and the sole way to do this is to kill.

It is certainly true that the formative years of D&D were dominated by dungeon crawls. That is, your characters meet at a tavern, get hired to do or find something, and then head over to a dungeon to start a-killin'. But to say in 2008 that early versions of the game, especially the very first from 1975, were really bad is disingenuous to say the least. The intervening 33 years things have seen lots of change. In fact, things changed so much that people are making retro Dungeon Crawl Classics or adventures that are just like the kind that Sofge bitches about and that dominated play back in the day. If you miss Keep on the Borderlands and its ilk, you are now saved.

But it's also the case that players and DMs have also done their own thing, rules be damned. Sofge slags on D&D for its propensity to limit the imagination of players but this never stopped us from having gay characters despite there being no mention of it in the rule books; to the best of my knowledge, rules delineating how being drunk affects a character do not exist yet taverns and inns offering mead are everywhere in D&D campaigns. Lack of direction from the rules never stopped us from having inebriated alter egos. We were drawn to RPGs because we wanted to flex our imaginations and we didn't need everything spelled out in the most minute detail in the rules because we could imagine things for ourselves and jury rig the rules to conform.

Besides, what's wrong with hack'n'slash? My friend Pete loves those kinds of adventures and, as D&D has progressed, it has made battle much more interesting and fun. Pete was a Marine and developing stratagems for neutralizing the enemy is something he enjoys. Today's D&D rules have more weapons, more fighting styles, and more maneuvers which makes combat much more exciting. One's imagination does not hide away in a closet just because your character marches into battle.

I know people that love D&D and continue to play it. I also know other folks who used it as a gateway RPG to GURPS or ICE and/or to other non-medieval fantasy systems, e.g. – Call of Cthulhu. Gamers choose a system based on personal preference. Today most, if not all, RPGs are D20 systems so that is no longer a consideration for most in selecting a system. Some folks like the detail afforded by GURPS vs. D&D, for instance. Regardless of the game, all players agree that any RPG session will be more fun if you have a good DM/GM. Sofge's problem is that he mistakes rules for destiny. I do not have thorough knowledge of every incarnation of the D&D rules concerning experience points, but DMs have been giving them out for things not elucidated in rules for years. Getting an XP bonus for playing a character well is not something exclusive to GURPS as Sofge maintains. The framework that Gygax helped create has always been just that and to say that all D&D players can do is slaughter is patently absurd.

I agree with Safge in that role playing is best when the result is a fun, intriguing narrative in which everyone takes part. But accomplishing that goal is the responsibility of the players and the DM, not of the rules.
|| Palmer, 9:11 AM


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