This gets to the heart of what I have been talking about with neoclassical gaming. Ryan Dancey, having found some neat social mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard, has suggested that such rules might make D&D more fun for people who would prefer tabletop RPGs to computer games. Mr. Morrow complains, and I think quite rightly, that this "gamest" approach hurts more than it helps. We see this a lot in games. Substituting dice rolls and resource management for the activity itself, in this case, social interaction, which is very easy to do at the table, undercuts what we really want to have happen.
I'm assuming here that Mr. Dancey is interested in games where the characters interact with each other, are parts of their social environments, and are motivated by the peoples and situations that exist inside the game. Festooning these things with mechanics undercuts that. The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them.
John Morrow makes this very point when he says:
[T]he players are no longer making decisions based on what's happening in the setting but wing up looking for ways to wedge things like background mentions or relationship connections into the situation just to get modifiers. This is also one of the reasons why John Kim's Dogs in the Vineyard strategy page explicitly mentions that very broad traits are frowned upon. The same problem crops up in Spirit of the Century and any game where invoking some aspect of a character or their background makes it more likely for a character to succeed. Games that give bonuses for clever descriptions can also get goofy when the players start playing to the GM rather than the situation their characters are in. Yes, it gets the characters to bring those things into play, but there is a point where it doesn't help the quality of game and even a point where it turns the game into a farce…
So is there some way for us to have our cake and eat it too? Can we encourage the sort of activities we want without burying them in mechanics?
I think we can. I think that old-school D&D shows us how. D&D is a game about exploration that has almost no rules about exploring. It discusses the problems of exploring, and gives us tools for tackling logistical issues associated with exploring, and creates rewards of various sorts for exploring, but does these things in a very tangential way. Your character never earns experience points from exploring itself. Instead, you gain experience through moving treasure from dangerous, unexplored territories back to home base. Monsters, traps, and the usual issues of exploration (such as provisions, light, and getting lost) all must be overcome to achieve the goal of rescuing treasure from the wilderness.
Mr. Dancey seems to want a game that is more about relationships and the social landscape. I've discussed this before. The neoclassical approach (and, interestingly, the approach of the guy who actually wrote Dogs in the Vineyard) seeks to encourage the desired gameplay obliquely. The final result would most likely be a game that looks very traditional to most gamers. However, it would have certain tweaks that encourage players to forge alliances and call on their friends for help. If we were just going to house-rule D&D, these might look like additional ways to take advantage of hirelings and henchmen, or at least, the rules dealing with them, rules that grant bonuses in combat for having friends fight with you (either by their diversity, or by their quantity), and for using social resources to solve traditional dungeon challenges. Let's take a look at two examples of what these might look like.
I frequently encourage my players to search for information about a dungeon before they attempt to enter it. Usually, this begins with visiting the local tavern and buying drinks for the old-timers with stories of days-gone-by, and ends with the PCs visiting the local sage in order to verify and flush out what they've learned. It would be easy enough to include local groups like adventurers guilds or wizards guilds, knightly orders, secret organizations like the Harpers of the Forgotten Realms, and the like. Any of these groups might have more information about the places the players wish to explore, as well as specialized tools for tackling the dangers they might have to face. In order to acquire some of the information or supplies, players may need to be on good terms with these groups or even members. However, not all of these groups will be friendly with each other, and membership in one group might earn the enmity of the others.
This sort of thing doesn't even actually require rules per se. It's simply a new way for the players to interact with their local environment. It's simple enough for the DM to implement, requiring only a list of such groups, what sort of information they may have, and how they feel about each other. I use things like this in my game successfully all the time.
Here's another example: a while back, Zak was pondering how to add something like feats to old-school D&D. The solution he came up with was rather intriguing; instead of presenting his players with a dizzying list of feats and their various pathways, he simply associated feats with different social groups, and, when the players reached an appropriate level, they were given the opportunity to learn the feet associated with whichever locale the PCs happened to be in at that time.
It would be simple enough to expand this and other aspects of the game. Maybe certain equipment can only be purchased from certain areas. Lembas bread, for instance, makes it easy to provision a large expedition, but only certain elven bakers can make it. Perhaps certain spells are only known to a particular sorority of sorceresses who carefully guard such secrets. Now where the PCs go to find adventure doesn’t just change the window-dressing (jungle vs. forest vs. plains), but actually affects what sort of rewards they can expect to earn or how their characters develop. Traveling to the Ashen Wastes in order to learn how to fight with a spiked buckler or the dreaded Disintegration spell are exactly the sorts of things we’d expect from a character like Elric or Cugel.
None of these rules violate Mr. Morrow's desire to avoid replacing actual social interaction with resource management or dice rolling. They also encourage exactly the sort of entanglement with the social landscape that I think Mr. Dancey is looking for. Where they do fall down, however, is in dictating what that social landscape looks like to a certain extent. Old-school D&D is incredibly flexible and can be used to model any sort of civilization from Bronze Age city-states to Renaissance-style empires linked by magically powered dirigibles. As the rules currently stand, including the sorts of additions I’m discussing is something the DM will have to tackle when creating the setting. For me, this sort of stuff is part of the fun of world building, but it's a rare to find it in most rulebooks, especially those that purport to be fairly generic.
It would be simple enough to create some Reintsian random tables to distribute this sort of thing among groups created via other random tables, but again, the more we do this, the more we dictate to the DM what the setting is like. Whether that is a bug or a feature depends entirely on the preferences of the group. Unfortunately for Mr. Dancey, attempts to do similar things with prestige classes in 3e fell flat: people just assumed that every prestige class ought to be available in every world, in spite of direct statements to the contrary. Then again, the players who embraced this sort of universality tended to be exactly the sorts that Mr. Dancey says we 40 lost to computer games. Perhaps those of us who are left can be expected to be slightly more careful readers?