Thursday, October 20, 2016

Story Bricks and Volo

This is an intriguing read. I have to admit, I have very mixed feelings about it. For instance, at one point Mearls says:

In the end, it's still a giant book full of monsters. No one would argue with that. But I just think that if that’s all the Monster Manual is, then we're selling ourselves short.
Ok, cool. I can totally groove with that. So long as what you do is better than a giant alphabetical list of monsters. But he follows that up with:
So the idea was, the kind of genesis of it, was that want to do something that's more story oriented.

Now, largely what they appear to be talking about here is the back-and-forth between Volo and Elminster, which looks to be very reminiscent of the comments by hackers and the like in the margins of the old Shadowrun books. Yeah, I suppose that might make it more fun to read, but does it make it useful at the table? Or am I going to be flipping through the book, scanning the text and trying to find where this or that snippet of info I want is hiding in giant blocks of dialogue?

Mearls bit about living in a “post Game of Thrones” world is interesting. I see where he’s coming from, but I think he’s oversimplified the timeline. I mean seriously, has he never heard of Michael Moorcock, Martha Wells, Steven Brust, Katherine Kurtz, or Ursula K. Le Guin? All of those folks were writing amazing fantasy, far from what we’d consider the standard fare, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Back then, everyone talked about how fantasy as a genre needed to escape the shadow of Tolkien, and they did it. Now you hear a lot about how far we’ve come, and how we need to rediscover our roots in Tolkien, Dunsany, and Howard.

But I can totally see where Mearls is coming from. D&D grew out of a mishmash of pulp and Tolkien and spawned its own thing which has become, in a way, self-referential and self-reinforcing. I’ve heard of this referred to as “gaming fantasy” and when people talk about “generic fantasy” that’s totally what they’re talking about. It’s the fantasy of EverQuest and WoW and, yes, default D&D now.

But the last time D&D attempted to interject more “story” into the game (and, amusingly enough, spawned all those Volo’s Guide books) was the ‘90s. And you’ll have to cast about far and wide for someone who says that was a heyday for the game.

Here’s the thing: if you want story spoon-fed to you, you’re totally set with Paizo’s excellent adventure paths. Even if you’d rather do them as 5e, they’re not too terribly difficult to translate.

I don’t think that’s what Mearls has in mind. He’s more about supplying us with story-bricks we can use to build stories. Which is cool, if the bricks are cool. Here’s what Mearls has to say about mind flayers:

What's the biology of the mind flayer? But no one asked about its feelings. But when you think about, it the game tells me that mind flayer has an 18 intelligence. The highest intelligence a human can achieve, that's their average. Literally, they walk in the room and they are the smartest being there. They are smarter than every human they've ever ate. So talking to us is like meeting dogs, for them. What’s that got to be like?

And here’s where the problems start. Because, as cool as this is, Zak did it better. The web is full of really good stuff, and if you’re not producing stuff that’s better than that, are you doing anyone any favors?

But for a guy like me, it gets worse. Because I’ve been thinking about how mind flayers work for over 30 years. I know how their reproductive cycle works, and while the tadpoles and the elder brain are neat, I’ve got adventures, settings, and themes spanning multiple campaigns about how that works (without any elder brains) and what the relationship is between the mind flayers and the aboleth and the beholders. I can tell you exactly what it means to be a member of a centaur herd, the different sorts of relationships elves form, what makes Abyssal different from Infernal and Common, and literally hundreds of other tiny details that I don’t have to stop and think about because I’ve already internalized them. When I need those details, they’re right there.

Which means anything in a new book must be extremely awesome to get me to do the work of replacing my head-canon. That’s setting the bar really high.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to clear; Zak’s thoughts on mind flayers certainly did so. But, again, you need something exceptional to make me interested, and I haven’t seen that yet in this book.

But I’m still going to buy it. Why? Because at least a third of it is an alphabetical list of monsters that I can use in pretty much any campaign I run.


Anonymous said...

Agreed. But some of the implied setting material in the Monster Manual was quite evocative, even if I did not use it for my campaign world. I doubt that anything involving Elmister (a character I deeply dislike) could improve upon the simple elegance of what the MM presented and then allowed you to use, or not, as you choose.

trollsmyth said...

And I'm a bigger fan of Elminster than most (largely, I think, because I stopped paying attention to him when he stopped by Ed Greenwood's alter ego on the pages of DRAGON). I do like the idea that the argument between Elminster and Volo means that the DM gets to pick which, if either, is correct; in a book like this, having unreliable narrators is only good.

Artifice said...

I agree on all points, including the fact that I'll buy it.

But they're likely writing for the newly initiated, not the old and grizzled. Some people can read a 1e stat block and come up with twenty hooks, but most people go "oh, Very Rare, 1-4 appear..." as their eyes glaze over and they drift off to the next block. Something like Volo's might spark some creativity in newer DMs, as well as ones that never really broke out of the standard descriptions. Showing people that there's options will hopefully be a good thing.

It's a long road from Strategic Review #1 to Zak's monologue on Mind Flayers, and I think something like Volo's will be a better bridge than what came before. It's not going to revolutionize the blogosphere or up-end grognards everywhere, but it might help Joe Blow and his buddies who are playing alone in the University quad. Those guys aren't out looking for interesting gaming blogs, they're just trying to play the game.

What really grabbed me is that D&D is held prisoner by it's own lineage and tropes. That couldn't be more true. As soon as Mearls and company can break out of that mold, there'll be real room for movement and improvement. I'm guessing it'll happen around half-past-never, unfortunately.

RipperX said...

Hey now, the 90's was a good time to be a gamer! I love my copies of The Complete Torch Bearers Handbook, Van Richton's Guide to Harpies, and that one adventure where you got to call the 800 number at the end of the module and hear a special message from Elminster himself, for just $4.95 per minute! (Don't forget to get your parents permission)

trollsmyth said...

Artifice: Volo's might spark creativity in new DMs, but it might also just bore them to tears with pedantic details that don't really matter. WotC still hasn't embraced any sort of efficiency in its aesthetic, even as they've realized that gaming groups treat new stuff the ways soldiers treat new gear: if they can't find an immediate use for it, it's just extra weight and gets left behind when the mission starts.

An in-depth, how-to-make-the-most and how-to-subvert-expected-tropes guide to the monsters would be awesome. But Volo's looks too much like "here's some amusing repartee that restates a lot of what's in the MM." Granted, we've only seen a few pages, but so far I'm thinking this is more a bunt and not even a double, forget hitting it out of the park.

Ripper X: :p and ;D