Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Everything Old is Kinda New Again. Kinda.

Mr. Dancey seems to be a good touchstone for sparking ideas just lately. He’s most recently given us a peek into his Ryan Dancey’s Storyteller’s Guide to D20 Games. The core appears to be opening up the game to improvisational input from both the players and the DM. I’m curious how he’ll tackle the issues of trust. The Trollwife and I have been playing games in this style for just over a decade now, I think. It grew out of our trust for each other. She’s long known I DM by the seat of my pants, weaving ideas out of random bits of inspiration that float too close to escape, right there in the middle of the game. And I know she’s more interested in a fun game than simply “winning”. She also understands that adversity, wonder, and depth, both in character personalities and their interactions, make for a better game. If she wants to throw in a kindly old uncle, an ancient legend about a trickster-god otter, or a hallucinogenic plant, just off the spur of the moment, I’m more than happy to take her idea and run with it. Our games are like jazz jam sessions, riffing off one another to create something far cooler, deeper, and powerful than either of us could create alone. I’m curious to see how Mr. Dancey tackles the trust issues that are at the heart of this sort of play.

(We’ve had less success with me as a player. I tend to be far too passive as a player, mostly because I’m horribly out of practice and I worry about stepping on her toes too much. We have the same problem when we go dancing. I’m thinking maybe salsa lessons are in our future.)

I’m also intrigued by similarities in theme that I’m seeing in this thread over at RPG.net. These older versions of D&D had a lot of blank spaces on the map. The idea was that the DM and players would fill in a lot of the holes. Nobody knew what your D&D game would be like. In the early days, campaign settings were few, and it was assumed your DM would make up his own.

Today, things are very different. We’ve got entire books devoted to a single monster. We have giant, choke-a-mule tomes like Ptolus, complete with hand-out menus for in-game restaurants, discussions of local customs and fashions, and enough adventure between two covers to take your characters from the earliest days of their adventuring careers all the way to post-world-saving retirement.

Paizo’s “Pathfinder” books are an excellent example. The adventures are complete in every detail. The world is fleshed out, every NPC has a name, personality, relationships. The settings are described not only as they currently exist, but also with histories. The setting of each adventure is complete and hangs together like a work of art. The adventures are lined up in order, with a narrative flow and rising and falling action that give you the sense of taking part in an epic saga.

Things were different that Christmas, lo these many years ago, when I got the Basic D&D boxed set that included the Moldvay red book. The rulebook was only 64 pages long, complete with character creation, combat rules, spell and monster catalogs, DM advice, and sample maps. Also in that box was the classic adventure “Keep on the Borderlands”. KotB was about as unlike a “Pathfinder” adventure as you can possibly get. First, nobody had names. Even the Castellan and his neighbors had no names. No discussion was made of their relationships to one another. Was the blacksmith his bastard brother? Or just a simple hireling? The module gave you no clue. This lack of detail extended to the “dungeon” as well. The monsters in the Caves of Chaos also lacked personal names. Even the deity worshiped by the evil cult was unnamed. We did get a bit of description about how the different monster groups related to one another, which were allies and which were enemies, but little more.

Today, this would be seen as a half-assed adventure, incomplete, and barely playable. But back then, it was exactly what we needed to get our games started. The key to getting the most out of KotB is understanding that it is not an adventure. It is, instead, a setting.

Some folks have laughed, for instance, that the NPCs in the Keep itself have no names, but they do have stats and treasure. The implication is that players are expected to slaughter the inhabitants of the Keep and take their stuff, like the stereotypical psychopaths that many assume we played back then. The truth is, you were not supposed to do any particular thing. You could do anything! KotB doesn’t assume the players are going to be allies or friends of the Castellan or the other inhabitants of the Keep. The players could join the evil cult in the Caves instead. Or they could play the two sides off each other, “Yojimbo” style. No assumption is made, and so all possibilities are left open.

This applies to the names as well. Yes, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books were an inspiration for D&D, but also listed in the back of the Moldvay basic rulebook as potential sources for ideas are Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Baum’s Oz books, and Burrough’s Barsoom novels. Other than a basic Iron Age level of technology and the existence of magic, little was assumed about your setting, and simply naming the inhabitants would color your world in broad strokes. What do the blacksmith and his finished works look like? You get a very different mental picture with each possible name: Snorri Torvaldson, Rajik bin Jabal, Titus Asinius, Vor of Helium, Jack Pumpkinhead. It’s amazing what something as simple as a name can give you. The blacksmith’s home and workshop may simply be a rectangle on a map, but Snorri’s is built of heavy timbers with daub-and-wattle walls and a thatched roof, while Titus’ home is built of bricks, with a tiled roof and arched windows. Rajik’s wife is covered from head to toe and veiled, so that only her eyes can be seen, while Vor’s wife wears nothing but jewelry, each piece lovingly crafted by her husband when he was wooing her. The sword (normal) for sale in Jack’s shop is probably a cavalry saber with brass basket hilt and red tassel, while the same sword hanging on Snorri’s wall is a broad, two-edged blade with a lobed pommel.

This was the genius of D&D in those days. The game was a thin skeleton, a bare frame upon which you and your players hung the themes and styles you were interested in. Were the players noble and proud knights, seeking to stamp out injustice and raise the banner of civilization in the wilderness? Cut-throat mercenaries, eager to spill blood for the highest bidder? Foppish rakes looking for distraction in a world slowly slouching towards collapse and dissolution? Basic D&D and KotB could do it all. Yes, some assembly was required, but back then, that was half the fun. Just as with the ubiquitous use of house rules and homemade monsters, setting, themes, and styles were all up for debate.

Now Ryan Dancey seems to be beating on the same door. As D&D approaches it’s newest incarnation and we hear about “power sources” and various setting assumptions, Mr. Dancey is suggesting a style of play in which the players learn to be open about what the games they play will feel and look like. I’m not suggesting here that Mr. Dancey is attempting a throw-back to the way we played D&D back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Rather, instead, I’m suggesting that there are common themes of trust and invitation, a greater openness to tinkering, twisting, and putting your own stamp on the game. I’m also not suggesting that there is an absolute dichotomy here. D&D 3.5 still requires a lot of imagination and is still very open to a wide array of settings. But as the game has adopted a more rigorous set of rules, it’s begun to fence in a lot of what used to be open pasture. D&D 4.0 seems to be moving further in that direction. It’s going to be fascinating to see how ideas like Mr. Dancey’s are embraced, and how the interaction of the various play styles influences the development of D&D, and RPGs in general.

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