Monday, October 17, 2016

Nothing Remains Interesting If Anything Can Happen

In 1902 H.G. Wells gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine. In part, he said this:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.

I agree with Wells here, and I think that this is a very fine expression of one of the several disagreements I have with conventional D&D criticism, to wit, that appealing to "realism" has no place in our assessments. Almost surely we've all heard several arguments like this: "You want a mechanic for realistic [weapons/bows/armor/movement/mounts/encumbrance/rations/falling/swimming/boating]? But there is no place for realism in a game with wizards and fire-breathing dragons!"

As Wells points out, not everything can be fantastical and surprising and wahoo, because then the whole work collapses into indistinguishable, unapproachable mush. In our case of the fantasy D&D campaign, of course, we are certainly able to support somewhat more of an eclectic combination of elements than Wells could in the course of a single story. That's fine. But our players need some guidelines and parameters for how things work -- they can't make any valuable strategic choices if the DM is prone to springing crazy nonsense about everything, all the time.

And particularly for the new player (who is, in fact, most people), an excellent methodology is this: Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there. This provides a very rich set of shared expectations and intuitions quickly, without reading tomes of background text to get into the milieu. Play can start immediately, and their instincts for how a sword, water, door, rope, horse, torch, mirror, spike, or tree work admirably, assuming a reasonable DM who is attentive, observant, and fair about things like that.

In old-school D&D we can give the new player a low-level fighter, who is mundane in practically all ways, maybe skip telling them anything about the rules at all, and just ask them to role-play honestly with the physical equipment with which they start. It works out perfectly fine and much of the time that player will be more creative than the person accustomed to working with lists of skills and feats. Notice that their tools principally come from the standard equipment list, which in Original D&D had no explanatory text of any kind associated with them (players were expected to be generally aware of the world around them and medieval-level technology).

Of course, realism can't be everything; as per the golden rule, it's balanced against playability of the game. But personally I see no reason why not to "dial in" the ground state rules of things like mundane combat, movement, archery, encumbrance, foodstuffs, riding, swimming, falling, etc., and I wholeheartedly support "realism" as a legitimate point of discussion in that part of the game design. In fact, frequently it serves to discover the most elegant rule. If someone says "it doesn't matter", then having a correct rule shouldn't trouble them any more than having an incorrect rule. Whereas if someone were to argue that a more-mangled base reality is always better in a fantastical game ("because dragons"), then it runs up against Wells' observation here: Then nothing remains interesting, and nothing is coherent to the part-time player.


(Hat tip for the quote: B.J. Johnson).

23 comments:

  1. I'm cool with this as long as the game doesn't turn into a session of "papers & paychecks"

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  2. Gonzo, off the wall gaming with little regard for the real world has its place, but that place isn't baseline D&D. Campaign play in particular benefits from that familiar grounding. I wonder if that's why I've never done any extended campaigns in D&D's weirder worlds: Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Planescape. I love them for one offs, but I've never had the urge to continue further with them.

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    1. "Baseline" fantasy offers something close to a perfect balance of exotic and familiar that makes it easy for people to grok. I think the only other genre that comes close is post-apocalyptic settings.

      A higher weirdness content with fewer familiar touchstones mean a player has to work harder to buy in, but I think there's an opposing principle where if the world is *too* familiar, like a game set in modern or near-future times, it restricts a player's license to try things because they fall too readily into learned behaviors from real life.

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    2. It isn't the baseline anymore. Check out the home-brew stuff - always more races, classes, etc. Looking for more abilities and exotic options.

      If you follow the 5e RAW in terms of numbers of encounters per day, and the recommended XP per encounter, then you'll go from 1st to 20th level in less than 35 in-game days.

      The baseline now is the idea that hundreds of exotic races live in harmony and can be anything they want.

      Gygaxian D&D (OD&D through AD&D) was based on a low-magic pseudo-medieval tolkeinesque mix of races and such. Even though it was higher magic than those sources, it's still vastly different than what D&D represents today.

      I for one prefer the older approach. Why? Because it promotes more of a campaign/character development model. Level advancement is very slow in my campaigns, because we're focused on the characters and their stories, not getting to the next level. Nowadays, players expect to gain a level every 2 or 3 sessions. In my world they're lucky to gain a couple a year (although it's faster at the beginning).

      My campaign has been in the Forgotten Realms since it was released in 1987, but remains much closer to the lower magic Realms as originally presented.

      It takes some work to reign in some player's expectations, but overall I find it very worthwhile, and makes it much easier for me as a DM too. Most players I find are sticking with the game much longer when the focus isn't on gaining levels, abilities, or trying the latest "build" and instead focus on the world, the characters, and the stories they make.

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    3. Interesting observations. Obviously this blog is not 5E-oriented, so when someone here says "baseline fantasy" we have to assume they're talking classic pulp literature (i.e., Gygax Appendix N).

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  3. Rules are made to be broken, as some say, but the frequency and timing of when you do it is important. If you're constantly, thoughtlessly breaking the rules, what's the point of even playing the game?

    Suspension of disbelief is like a bank account. It's easy to overdraw from it, especially if you're constantly making little withdrawals and not keeping track of your balance. If you're using it for big purchases like flying, fire breathing lizards or traveling faster than the speed of light, don't blow your budget on dumb stuff like wonky physics or implausible personal interactions.

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  4. Gygax's claims that you were choking on gnats if you accepted fire breathing dragons but rejected too many deviations from plausibility never agreed with me.

    This is off topic, but I seem to recall AD&D had written rules for Ability Score Adjustments at something like a 3:1 points ratio. OD&D has rules for this. Moldvay Basic has rules like this at 2:1. Does AD&D, cause I can't locate these rules in the PHB or DMG, and we used them all the time back in the day.

    Thanks for any pointers.

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    1. AD&D does not, to the best of my knowledge - maybe your DM back then simply used B/X character generation rules, since everything was broadly compatible? On the other hand, 1st edition defaulted to the more generous "4d6 drop lowest" schema for ability score generation (2nd edition reverted back to "3d6 in order" as the default), and Unearthed Arcana had still more generous methods of character generation; I get the feeling that the ratio-based adjustments were deemed unnecessary given the all-around better characters that were being generated at the time.

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    2. Daniel is of course correct. Part of AD&D's fame/infamy is that it tends to have a lot of fragmented table-based subsystems with no core mechanic.

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  5. My apologies in advance for the off-topic question, but I've recently purchased and played Book of War. Is there a place I can direct a few questions I have?
    Thanks

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    1. ... or maybe there are some Book of War fans who read the blog regularly and can help out w/ a few rules questions.

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    2. At the top of the page click on "View my complete profile" for contact info

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    3. Thank you. I've pinged that address again with my questions. Hopefully I'm not getting filtered out. I appreciate you for taking the time to look our questions over.

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    4. He does read them, though he doesn't always have time to get back to people right away. Give it a couple weeks. I know he doesn't filter out Gmail, though, so if you used that you should be fine.

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    5. My apologies, I'm currently in one of my massive professional work back-ups!

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  6. Daniel Wakefield,

    You are probably basically right. B/X didn't exist back in 1979-1980, but looking at the OD&D rules, there were ability score adjustments that seem very close to what we were using. Maybe AD&D players just adopted the OD&D rules as a meme from an older edition and almost nobody realized where they came from.

    I didn't play 2nd edition and wasn't aware they went back to 3d6 in order. That seems like it would make playing your choice of class pretty difficult. What was wrong with 4d6 drop the lowest and arrange to preference, I wonder? It doesn't create cookie cutter PCs like building characters with a pool of points.

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    1. Ah, okay. Didn't know exactly what year you were talking about. Just based on a combination of personal experience and reading about other people's experiences online, I've concluded that very few people played an edition "purely" - that is to say, they carried forward some amount of throwbacks to previous editions... stuff that they picked up from the person/group who first taught them to play, even if they subsequently bought a different set of books/rules.

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  7. "Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there."

    This doesn't have to be elaborate. Just a couple of quick sentences before the campaign starts. "It's real world medieval Europe with a few rare wizards and clerics bolted into the background. You've probably only met two of them in your life, and you've never seen a dwarf, an elf, or a kobold."

    As with everything else, you just have to get the player buy-in first. If they come at you with half-dragon characters born in the Abyss, raised in a floating castle, and enslaved by aboleths, you're going to have a much rougher go of establishing that faux-medieval world.

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    1. I agree with that 100%. The shorter the required backstory to get started, the better. Get the active play going ASAP.

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