Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From One Generation to the Next

So people are talking about the generations of D&Ders. And, as usual, I don’t really identify with what the author is writing about.

Part of that is my near total lack of running into any friction for my gaming. Nobody teased me about it. I was encouraged to bring my gaming books into school. My 8th grade English teacher used the NPC generation tables in the 1e DMG as part of a creative writing exercise.

But more than that, I don’t think the level of acceptance of D&D in the culture at large had a huge effect on how we played the game. Rather, I think it was the assumptions we brought to the table.

If you look at Grognardia’s Ages of D&D, you notice that the Golden Age doesn’t even look like D&D as most people know it. Players didn’t invest with their characters the way they’re encouraged to do so now. You rolled 3d6 in order to generate your character, meaning you had no idea what you were going to play until after you’d rolled your stats. You probably had a handful of characters ready to go at any time, and might play your cleric or your wizard depending on factors like which was too busy training up to their next level (something that didn’t happen automatically) or what the group was likely to need tonight. Taking your character on vacation with you and playing in a game across town or across the country was a completely natural thing to do.

But above all of that, D&D was a game about exploration. Monsters were not opportunities for EXP but resource sinks; every fight limited how much longer you could spend in the wilderness or dungeon. Barely any effort was made to balance encounters. Carefully mapping the dungeon unlocked opportunities for finding unguarded or lightly-guarded treasure which was the key to gaining those first few very precious levels.

Unfortunately, early D&D did a poor job of explaining itself. The assumption was that most would learn the game from someone who could trace their learning of the game back to Gygax’s group. Even the Basic boxes fumbled here; the clues were there but not everybody connected the dots. “Why should my characters become better killers from gathering treasure?” was a commonly heard refrain.

2e muddied these waters. The advancement mechanic moved to class-specific criteria: wizards and clerics earned EXP for casting spells, thieves earned EXP for acquiring treasure, fighters earned EXP for slaying things. Even more transformative was the stuff coming out of DUNGEON magazine. Gone were the funhouse dungeons like Castle Greyhawk or thematic ruins that were all about place. The adventures crafted by the Hickmans like Ravenloft and the Dragonlace series, already described as classics, were seen as the model. Everything had to be about story. The assumption that the PCs would be accompanied by a small army of henchmen, something obvious to the first generation of DMs, now seemed weird. You never saw Strider or Raistlin or Elric hanging out in a tavern, interviewing mercenaries to see who would go into the dungeon with them. Charisma transformed from being one of the most important stats in the game to being everyone’s dump-stat.

By the time TSR hit financial troubles, few still played the way that first generation did. The game was about story now, which meant actually killing characters became a hassle. Steps were taken to insulate characters from death, like going unconscious at 0 hit points instead of just dying, giving PCs max hit points at first level, and making resurrection spells more common.

When 3e came out, you could easily see that perceptions of the game had transformed drastically. Now D&D was seen as a game about combat. You earned most of your EXP from killing things, which meant wandering monsters stopped being a threat and started to be a boon to characters who needed just a few dozen more EXPs to level up. The game became more about mechanics; we got all sorts of new ways to differentiate our characters with numbers, like feats and skills. (And, suddenly, nobody’s character could tie knots or swim anymore.) The DM was given tools to balance encounters so that fights were more likely to be “close calls” or, at least of “reasonable” challenge. And to aid in this, each monster got massive, page-long stat blocks, allowing the DM to craft their own monsters using the same rules the PCs used to make their characters. The chains of feats and class abilities made character creation a mini-game, on par with deck-building in games like Magic: the Gathering.

With 4e, D&D had completed its transformation into a game centered around combat. Only, it turned out, that wasn’t really what the fans wanted. And with 5e, the focus was moved back to stories.

Unfortunately, the chassis of the game is still built around the exploration model of the original game. So it does story in a rather clunky way, requiring all sorts of bizarre tweaks (like ubiquitous resurrection magic) to smooth out the rough patches.

Ok, but how does this history help us make sense of D&D’s multiple generation gaps? Well, each generation comes to the table with its own expectations and assumptions. The oldest Grognards play a game about exploration and personal challenge. They want to use their own brains to overcome the challenges and fully expect to use their real-world knowledge of things like physics as well as the rules of the game to triumph. They approach combat as a war and expect to need to use every clever idea they can muster to just survive. Character death is just part of the game to them. They don’t invest in their characters as much, and might not even name them until they’ve reached 3rd level.

After them come the Voyagers. They wallowed in the crazy imaginative worlds of TSR from the ‘90s like Planescape and Dark Sun. They want simple rules that will keep things consistent but don’t get in the way of telling their stories. They love having entire sessions go by without touching the dice and really want to delve into the orc warlord’s backstory. Hacking the rules of the game to better fit the strange settings they love creating is very common. Meta-knowledge is something to avoid. Fights can be tense and dramatic, but not really why they came, and most discovered, sooner or later, that they were best served by the Basic/Expert rather than the Advanced rules. If the DM’s world is described as “Game of Thrones in Oz” or the player has an original character race with a detailed description of how its biology evolved, you’re probably dealing with voyagers.

3e engendered a new generation that reveled in rules mastery. They expected intricately balanced encounters that utilized the rules in new and challenging ways, but they viewed combat in the game as a sport, to be played within a certain set of bounds. The solutions to every challenge was on the character sheet; 10’ poles and using spilled wine to find hidden passages were replaced by skill checks and character abilities. DMs obsessed over encounter design, always seeking to create unique circumstances that conformed with the rules of the game, but did so in new and surprising ways. For some groups, story became simply a path that strung together one gorgeous set-piece battle or skill challenge after another. Crunch reigned supreme and everything else was just fluff. If you hear grumbles about how D&D doesn’t allow enough mechanical differentiation between characters (or, how you really ought to be playing Pathfinder), you’ve got some Rules Masters in your group.

We have a new generation of players coming to D&D today thanks to streaming games. They thrill to the roll of a natural 20, but they seem to be just as much about story as the second generation, perhaps even more so. They’re not as excited about exploring strange and alien worlds; rather they seem to prefer the tried-and-true high fantasy that’s considered D&D’s default. They also don’t appear to be as interested in kit-bashing the rules as the story-focused gamers of old, beyond crafting new backgrounds, races, and classes. They want to play the “real” game with as few tweaks as possible. And they apparently love the idea of not really earning EXP at all, but rather going up levels when their characters meet milestones in the journey of their personal and group stories. If you’re group uses “Milestone leveling” instead of awarding EXP, or the DM bends over backwards to avoid character death, and most especially if they only started playing in the last three years, you’re probably playing with Epic Stream players.

If you want to talk about generation gaps, discussing expectations and desires seems a far more useful taxonomy than simply Old vs. New, or even TSR-era vs. WotC players. And keep in mind, few groups or even players are purely one or the other. While I started in the “Golden Age” with the Grognards, I was self-taught and started the game with many of the Voyager’s assumptions. And, on top of that, most of my groups are dominated by players who are new to the game, so there’s a lot of Epic Stream influence in my games as well. How much mileage you’ll get out of this discussion will depend largely on your exposure (or lack thereof) to people with alternative expectations. When you find someone at your table making odd assumptions, it’s time to start asking questions. From my (terribly not scientific) experience, you’ll likely find the source of those assumptions comes from when and how they started playing the game.


Ryan Marsh said...

Thanks for linking to my piece, I love the breakdown of the timeline for D&D. I think people are focusing a lot on the first part of the article, but not as much on the ending. The beginning was just to offer a framework of where D&D was coming from my perspective. If you played back in the 70s, I assume by the time the Panic really set in, you were old enough to ignore most of the backlash. Starting the game in the late 80s just after the Panic went crazy, and being super young, you didn't have the world experience to ignore the outside pressures. You, in some ways, bought into the propaganda. At least in my experience, and the experiences of a few around me.

The real point of the article was the ending, which doesn't get as much traction. The fact that no one group "owns" D&D and that we all need to be reasonable to one another. I am on 5e and OSR groups/boards all day and not one day goes by without the OSR groups calling 5e "baby D&D" or 5e groups claiming all older gamers are bigoted curmudgeons. Generally I believe that on both sides this is minority, but it is a extremely vocal minority that can stir their base up. I was post to two different groups about a month ago,one 5e and one OSR. Literally in the same 5 minutes I was called a Nazi in the 5e group and a SJW Cuck in the OSR group. At the exact same time.

I was trying to write a piece that was reminding people were we came from, and how today is a much better place regardless of edition played. So we should all be thankful. I guess the moral was lost through the message though.

Tedankhamen said...

Very succinct, matching my own experience started at the tail end of the 80s.

trollsmyth said...

Ryan Marsh: My pleasure! I enjoy reading your blog. Apologies if my post came off as critical of yours; that wasn't my intention. I mostly go over my history of D&D because if I tell people I started playing in '81 in Texas, they'll jump to conclusions about Satanic Panic, etc. I met people later who had their books taken from them, or were even forced to burn them at a church gathering, but for my friends and I, that was only crazy stuff we saw on TV.

I'm in total agreement with you on the fact that nobody "owns" D&D. Even WotC legally owning D&D can barely nudge how we play; they can get all excited about gender-bending elves, but for the rest of us it's a trope so old Order of the Stick was making jokes about it sixteen years ago!

So this post is really my experiences with the "generations" of D&Ders I've encountered, their desires and expectations for the game. This has really been useful for me because it allows me to cater to my audience, set expectations at the start, and, quite frankly, avoid playing with folks I'm not going to enjoy playing with. Your D&D may not be my D&D and that's ok, but life is also too short to play sub-optimal D&D, especially when you can fix your issues by playing with a different group.

Seeing US social war stuff infiltrating the hobby is just annoying. Most of the rest of the world has better things to do than getting wrapped up in our neurosis (like play D&D). The idea that you know everything there is to know about a person by how they handle PC death in a game of make-believe is just childish, but yeah, you run into it a lot in the lesser platforms and chat groups, which is why I'm not a huge fan of most social media.

Tedankhamen: thanks! And I love the name. :D

Vagabundok/Zigurat said...

I'm in a Mexican FB group, almost everyday a DM complains that their players ruined their game by not following his carefully planned and, perhaps, written story. A few days ago I posted that I had a solution for all parties involved: the GM should write a novel and the players should join my LotFP campaign. Of course, everyone felt offended and I was called names. My conclusion is that in Mexico, people don't know what's what.

penguindevil said...

I'm an "electrum" era player. I played basic D&D for a couple of days, just enough to know that I was into it and moved straight to AD&D in which I spent about every spare minute between 1981-1985.

I do recall some of the "satanic" worry, but it didn't enter much into my life. In the early days that I played it, my school even had a Dungeons and Dragons elective for a while, from 12:30-2:30 on Fridays.

I really haven't played any in thirty years, except for maybe a half dozen sessions in some newer edition (maybe 5?) with some friends who are younger and probably started playing in the 3rd edition days.

But I didn't like the 5. AD&D had lots of rules about playing, not so many about characters, and there is so much weird detail to be figured out about the characters in the new versions that making them is tedious, and playing seems less fun to me. However, I have no hostility to the new editions. The game I play is an artifact of its time, when a small hobby that appealed to a little niche of geeky dudes started to become popular... There was still so much funky weird stuff about it. It's obvious that it had to change as it got more mainstream, but I'm perfectly happy sticking to the old stuff, as it's what I know and love...

So I'm getting back into it now but strictly AD&D 1e, and using the same books I had in 81. But what I'm really doing is finally discovering the wealth of OD&D, AD&D and just RPG stuff in general out there on the internet now. It's really amazing! No matter what version, or even what game, I love seeing how much love and energy people put in to getting their stuff published, whether in actual book for or on a blog. It's all great fun!

trollsmyth said...

penguindevil: Welcome back! You chose a great time to get into the game. A lot of the old books have been reprinted by WotC and can be found either in dead-tree form or e-book. And there's a healthy online community, writing new content or playing what-if with the old ideas.

Simon said...

Good post, but I think it misses out a big difference between the Original Grognards of 74-77 and the first mass-market gamers of ca 1981-1988. IME the two games were very different. In the Stranger Things Generation we weren't rolling 3d6 in order or interviewing henchmen, our PCs had names, they probably were Cavaliers or Rangers with Double Weapon Specialisation who could take on small armies at 3rd level. We were the Munchkins! But we were still exploring site-based dungeons like Keep on the Borderlands, not pre-written stories - it's just that we were slaughtering every MF'ing orc in the dungeon, and rarely running away.

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CountingWizard said...

I believe that of all the changes that have occurred in D&D, the divergence from the rule that treasure = primary source of experience points had the greatest effect on the game. Treasure was a necessary mechanic to entice and immediately reward players for doing the activities that make D&D fun. And for OD&D, unlike nearly every other rule that was vaguely spelled out and left to referee interpretation, treasure had very specific rules on where they appear and how much value was present. The quickest way to kill a D&D campaign is to arbitrarily reward experience.

When you remove treasure as the game mechanic for gaining power and benefits, you also completely change the journey of a player group through the dungeon. Why should players ever take a branching path if they think the goal of their quest lays ahead on the main path? They aren't rewarded for that detour. If they are rewarded, that reward will certainly be delayed and not tied as clearly to the decision to take risk.

Brandon Lighter said...

Interesting premise, but really these "generational shifts" are more representative of play-style and personality than when or under what edition or from whom you learned the game.

Anecdotal Example: I play in a very multi-generational group (player age ranging from 13 to 60).
* I was raised on AD&D and am very much a "Rules Master", I've memorized every optional rule and change of the rules from 0th to 5th, and even before 3rd was a gleam in WOTC's corporate eye, carefully and constantly tweaked the mechanics of my games to bring everything into a knifes-edge balance.
* Conversely, our current DM started with 4th edition, but hates the combat and mechanical elements of the game, preferring high-concept story telling and immersive worlds: he is definitively a "Voyager" despite having never played any Pre-2010 incarnation of D&D.
* Our oldest player has been playing since the 70s, a true grognard by age and experience, but is very much an "Epic Streamer". He always wants to play the bare-bones form of whatever the latest version of the game is, whether that was 3rd or 4th or 5th, and was arguing in favor of milestone leveling back ~2005. And has always aggressively applied plot-immunity to certain PCs when DMing.
* And our youngest player (13), who has only ever experienced 5e and Pathfinder, is all about old-school exploration and applied player knowledge, and keeps a pile of character sheets of expendable PCs beside him at all times. So, a tiny "Grognard"...

And all of our other players are mixes and matches of the four described types despite their ages and gaming experience.