Sunday, March 31, 2019

6 things D&D 1e can do for you (and you didn't know)

There is an excellent post over at Marlinka's Musings you should read, as it inspired this post to some extent. Daniel writes at some point in his post that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff. The game is good at that, but if you want something else in it, you maybe should look into other games for inspiration (he names FATE and Nobilis as examples). It illustrates his point well and works for the argument he's making. But it got me thinking: is it true? Are we actually needing those other games to have aspects like narrative flow or philosophical musings in D&D 1e/BECMI as written?

More a Development of Insight than an Evolution

I'll start with a heresy: most of what is sold to us as new evolutions in game design is merely a designer exploring something that is already existing in the original games and giving it a different form*. This hobby of ours is not even half a century old and I think in a way we are still trying to find the words to explain what happened in 1973 and why it mattered.

Yeah, one of those posts ...
 Simple proof of this is that we (as in: humanity as a whole) have always been telling stories and always will be. Same goes for playing games (another abstract form of telling stories, if you think about it). We learn abstract thinking by listening and telling stories, which in turn helps us understanding the world. Preparing us to handle it, as it were. We have the science/philosophy/art to proof this for a long time now.

I've long been saying that roleplaying games are not doing much more than offering various tools to expand language to a degree that the output of an exchange gets a specific flavor mixed with a good dose of uncertainty of outcome, while keeping within the rules of suspension of disbelieve. Those tools manipulate the narrative with specific terms and outcomes and developments that are deemed favorable for the intent of the individual game. However, the collective narrative is the thing and we really know how to tell stories.

There's also lots of science about how language works and why, so I could go and rest my case right there (or at least that's the thesis): if roleplaying games are understood as tools that expand language to form a narrative in a playfull and uncertain way and if that is the innovative part of that original design, then most of what comes afterwards cannot be more then just variations and expansions of what the original games already formulated.

Oracles: expanding language with external tools for thousands of years now [source]
Or to put another spin on this: my theory is that if those rules of yore are read with our more modern interpretations of what a role playing game is or can be, we will find that those ideas are already in there to some extent or at least came up pretty fast.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I'll try to do the title of this post justice, name 6 modern game design trends and show how they'd already been part of the first editions (I'll draw from OD&D and BECMI/D&D RC for this, if I need to):

1. The System Shapes the Long-Term Narrative

The classic 5 saves in D&D had been a great way to guarantee different class reactions to the narrative environment between classes as well as with character advancement. Players are relatively autonomous to do as they please, so no character will feel alike, even if it's the same class. Campaigns will also differ from DM to DM, so the rules for advancement are the only somewhat reliable constant in all of this. Now, Saves are a character's passive reaction to the environment, not player controlled and only to some extent within a DMs control, which means, a characters reaction to the environment is something every player will experience THE SAME over the course of each characters career. It's one key aspect why fighters feel hardy, thieves feels dextrous and wizards feel well versed in the magic arts: they react that way to the challenges the environment throws them (system-wise).  This is true for all first editions of D&D.

2. Players Decide the Difficulties of their Actions

You will often hear that in the olden days DMs would set you a difficulty and you either make it or not. Sometimes people will add that you could argue some bonusses because the situation (or a rule) allows for it. Modern games will often allow rolls with nuanced results, like, say, partial successes. However, there has always been something like the "play without the dice" and even if not everyone had realized this in the beginning of the hobby (which I doubt, actually, since the early versions had been pretty rules light, negotiation must have been the main mode of gaming), it's common sense today for players to explore and use the environment to their best knowledge to gain an advantage before the first dice fall. So the difficulty of a roll was never the DM fiat many would make it to be, it was the end of a negotiation and if the players did play it right, that roll (if  necessary at all) would be an easy one.

3. Character-Driven Narratives instead of Murder-Hobos

It certainly didn't start that way, but BASIC already introduced the idea that monsters could just be "overcome" with wits instead of combat and Moldvay also offers experience points for playing your character and class well (as well as for great ideas and heroic play). Later in the BECMI series clerics will get xp for helping others of their alignment, domain play offers xp, as do jousts and leading an army into war will also garner a character xp. So it's not just "kill and loot" and it is interesting at this point to note that on higher levels (up to level 36 with the BECMI series) there wouldn't be enough monsters or treasure in the world for a group to gain enough xp just with killing and looting (which is why late in the development of 1e you potentially gain more xp for playing your character than for anythiung else ... read here for details). Also: there wasn't that heavy an emphasis on high ability scores and lots of freedom for coming up with who your level 1 character is ...

Diplomacy can be fun, too! [source]
4. Scope

Epic, year-spanning campaigns or one-shots, fantasy or steampunk or science fiction, as many classes as you can come up with (want an example how, have one), highly customizable toolbox of rules (from very low to very high complexity), lots of original material (still in print!), highly compatible with newer versions of D&D (and other games, for that matter), just as easy to house-rule and over 40 years of fan-made material freely accessible on the internet (another example), with all the experience and advice you could need to last several life times of gaming ... that's D&D 1e in a nut-shell. Few games can do that much, most won't even come close.

5. It's not Randomness, it's Controlled Variation

Random Encounter Tables, Random Encounter Reaction Tables, Random Treasure Table, Morale ... Going by the rules, the DM gets to decide very deep in the manifestation process how things shape up. This is by design and it has a very simple reaon: it (1) reminds the DM that there are more possible outcomes to a situation than he could come up with on the spot and it (2) also illustrates that you can still have some controll within that randomness by chosing the selection of possibilities a random table offers to begin with. Lots of games try (and achieve) some of the same effects with story circles or shared narratives to produce recognizable yet unexpected variation, but D&D made this work right from the start in it's own way.

6. The Cheat is in the Game

Many modern games claim that one distinctive new element to older roleplaying games would be that modern games enable players to influence play from a meta-perspective with concepts like story points, for instance. It's always some sort of meta-currency that could help getting characters out of tight spots. The thing is, that's not a new  or "modern" idea at all. I'd say that it was part of those first editions from the beginning in form of magic items, spells like Wish and wonders like Ressurection, you just had to play long enough to earn them. In modern gaming terms you had to "unlock" them, so to say, as they'd only be accessible to higher level characters. In a way it is part of learning the game to reach that point (it's like that famous G. Gygax quote that character background is what comes with the first 6 levels ...). Experienced players (or so is the theory) will have all the meta-currency they need to keep their characters afloat for as long as possible (even later characters, one could argue).

And that's that ...

I was aiming for 10, but that might stretch it a little. The result of this little exercise (for me at least) would be that, well, "there's nothing new under the sun" doesn't quite cut it. Of course there is beautiful and great and creative modern games out there and there's definitely room for more.

However, the closer I look at those first editions (D&D RC is one of my favorite things in the world, as you might be aware), the more I come to the conclusion that it was more the inability to completely express what they had in hands when they published it. They had been quick to adjust, for sure, and many of the first alternative rulesets published were arguably nothing more than what the game intended to begin with: variations of the original game (even when not published by TSR).

Furthermore, and I'll close with this, I hope I helped to show that many of the now popular facettes we have in newer games were also arguably already part of those first games. I mean, sure, you could argue that there might be some better ways to use the dice (or something else entirtely, like cards) and there's still lots to explore. But damn, they did a lot right from the start and even where they weren't entirely on target, it ended up being strong enough to become part of popular (gaming) culture on more than one level.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject. I know, lots of this comes down to taste, and I'm not as much interested in hearing subjective claims about what new game is superiour. Instead I'd love to hear about games that are truly innovative in their approach and why.

Either way, thanks for reading!


 * Conversely it's the discovery and enhancement of those ideas that made games like Vampire: The Mascerade so popular, so there definitely is merit to the process.