Tuesday 14 June 2011

I is for Iceberg...as in, “Tip of the”.

As you may know, Gentle Reader, I am somewhat active over at EN World.  Recently, I have read a number of posts there that, taken together, make my head spin.  Specifically, once again, the idea that in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, any treasure included in a scenario was “meant to be found”, and how this belief skews understanding of classic game play.

On top of this, I am finding more and more that people simply don’t “get” the game as it was originally intended.  In this post (http://www.enworld.org/forum/5579186-post70.html) Bullgrit writes,

The problem is that *everything* is a feature.

Treasure was “devilishly” hidden in classic D&D. You had to search everything to find it.

Traps were everywhere in classic D&D. You had to leave stuff alone to avoid them.

Every conversation around here about classic D&D becomes a daisy chain of “it’s your fault.” Didn’t search the random bags: you missed the treasure. Did search the random bags: you fell for the trap. Either way, it’s because you just weren’t a “skilled player.”

Nothing was wonky back in classic D&D – “you” just don’t/didn’t understand the brilliance.

This is not to say that everything was wonky with classic D&D. Classic D&D had truly wonderful stuff as well as really wonky stuff. I just find it problematic for conversations and discussions to have *everything* presented as wonderful and brilliant. I also find it insulting to the truly great stuff of classic D&D.

And in this post (http://www.enworld.org/forum/5591748-post56.html), Keefe the Thief writes,

All modules should contain the following disclaimer:
"Warning: if your PCs discover most if not all the treasure in this module, you were Doing it Wrong (Doing it Wrong is (TM) by TSR, Inc. 1984). Please cf. DMG pg. 84 (heading "Bullgritting treasure and your campaign"). Many treasure items are only included so that the DM may cackle maniacally into his Horned Helmet when his players don't find them. These boots are made for walking, but these treasures are NOT ALL made for finding". 

Now, maybe I shouldn’t let this sort of thing get to me, but it seems strange to me to imagine that, in a game, all victory conditions are “intended” to be met.  I dislike the 4th Edition concept of, effectively, “wandering treasures” that not only follow the PCs around until they are located, but also happen to consist of whatever the PCs/players are attempting to find.

This is inimical to game play as it was first conceived, and may be inimical to “game play” overall.  Victory conditions that you cannot avoid are, in fact, not really victory conditions at all.  When the choices that you are allowed to make determine not the outcome, but the route to the predetermined outcome, you are indeed playing something akin to Candyland with your sister….just a more complicated Candyland with multiple tracks. 

In this post (http://www.enworld.org/forum/5587811-post83.html), which is one of the better posts on EN World, Ariosto writes,

Roll d20 and add to it for "high enough" for just about everything if you like, or don't. That is about as irrelevant as you can get, unless you get into the ideological baggage that has come along with the "core mechanic" puffery and clobbered common sense in some quarters.

It's the layout of the board, the victory conditions, the way that players interact, that makes Monopoly what it is. "We roll a pair of dice" is trivial, no different from Backgammon, and you could get the same spread -- which is what matters most, not the cubes as artifacts -- in other ways.

Ever play Monopoly with a bunch of cock-eyed house rules? "How come the game takes so long?" Well, that's what happens when you don't put properties up for auction. "How come a couple of lucky rolls gave Andy such a lead?" Well, that's a consequence of your "free money for landing on Free Parking" variant.

"While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed." That's the facts, Jack, about the original D&D game, and some particulars of what "the campaign" meant in Blackmoor and Greyhawk practice were pretty essential parts of the whole. They were not slapped on "play styles" with trivial effects; they were the game that had been playtested and developed and demanded and in 1974 offered.

It was a "massively multiplayer" game, in which "the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts". Two referees handling 50 players would be fine. In Blackmoor, there was
Originally Posted by Dave Arneson
... a great deal of emphasis being placed on the players themselves setting up new Dungeons, with my original Dungeonmaster role evolving more into the job of coordinating the various operations that were underway at any given moment. At the height of my participation as chief co-ordinator there were six Dungeons and over 100 detailed player characters to be kept track of at any one time."

It was a game in which risk of character mortality, along with other probabilistic factors, played a key role:
Originally Posted by Men & Magic
Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top, and to begin with they are weak, so survival is often the question, unless fighters protect the low-level magical types until they have worked up.

One powerful way to get fighters for protection was as henchmen (or "hirelings of unusual nature", to use the original phrase). Drop that aspect from the game, and there you have the notion of charisma as a "dump stat".

Of course, there was no rule limiting a player to but one character at a time in a campaign. Gary Gygax (with Rob Kuntz as DM) eventually had his Circle of Eight, including at least one character (Bigby) who I gather had gone from monster to henchman to PC.

Magic users and fighters, clerics and dwarves and elves -- the options had a different character, a different balance, in that strategic context. Remove them from it, and it's like removing various pieces from their design context of a World War Two game.

Now, start whacking away at what's left in seemingly random fashion:

-- No more 1 attack/level for fighters vs. normal men & equivalent, and no more armies of such troops for them to command or conquer, and no more baronies to develop and defend.

-- No really notable limits on demi-humans to offset their advantages.

-- Preservation of the formerly endangered species of m-us, even if only by a general protection of PCs from having done unto them as they do unto others.

-- More easing of life for m-us with a "nerfed" spell here, a dropped rule there, much more frequent use of spells (especially those of higher levels).

-- Much easier manufacture of magic items.

-- Instead of it getting, at higher levels, ever easier to land a hit and harder to land a spell, swap in a different scheme.

-- Drop XP for treasure (scoring a goal), awarding points instead for getting into fights and having to deal with traps.

And so on.

It occurs to me that a good metaphor for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign milieu, as it was originally envisioned, is an iceberg.  You might spot it while sailing on the high seas, but you are really only seeing the top 10%.  The vast majority of the iceberg remains submerged.

In the campaign model where multiple groups of adventurers might scour the same areas in search of adventure, it makes sense to include treasures that might not be found.  First off, it gives the latecomers something to look for.  Moreover, though, it allows for an experience of a “lucky find”.  If there are 100 treasures hidden around, and any given group will only find around 20 of them (and I am making those numbers up out of whole cloth), it stands to reason that, if you only place the 20 treasures you expect to be found, the players will instead only discover 4.

This has nothing to do with the GM cackling maniacally into his horned helmet, and everything to do with good campaign management.

Likewise, if Tactic X is always the “right” tactic, then the game quickly becomes boring.  To maintain interest, sometimes X is the “right” tactic; sometimes you are better trying Y.  If X is often the right way to go, making X a poor choice prevents complaisance.  It also indicates the mass of the iceberg floating below the waves – things are not set up simply to reward a particular set of choices.  There is more going on; the world is bigger than the portion you are currently exploring.

Folkways, by William Graham Sumner, 1906, p. 20:

There was an element in the most elementary experience which was irrational and defied all expedient methods. One might use the best known means with the greatest care, yet fail of the result. On the other hand, one might get a great result with no effort at all. One might also incur a calamity without any fault of his own. This was the aleatory element in life, the element of risk and loss, good or bad fortune. This element is never absent from the affairs of men.

I not only expect this aleatory element in a fantasy rpg, I have no interest in a fantasy rpg that fails to evoke it.  Like an iceberg, much is below the surface.  The closer you get to danger, the harder it is to predict exactly what will happen.  IMHO, fantasy (novels, films, short stories, or games) is interesting specifically because it can evoke the more primitive, fundamental aspects of our minds....what lies below rationality....and then give it meaning within a framework that our rational minds can comprehend.

expect a fantasy game to allow me to step outside modern modes of thinking, at least to some degree, and gain a wider appreciation not only of the rational process that created the game, but of the "mythic universe" as well. Likewise, I don't want a game that treats magic like technology; I want a game that treats magic like an extension of a universe that is rife with consciousness and will.

Anything less seems sterile to me.

(And note, that I am talking about fantasy rpgs here. I have different criteria for science fiction and superhero games. But, whatever the game, "Don't whine at the table" is always
 among my list of criteria.)

When trying to explain classic campaign models to others, consider the iceberg as a metaphor. There is more than the 10% you get from an "adventure path" -- the setting is richer, more detailed, more dangerous, and more fun.

(This post was originally going to be “I is for Illusions”, but, well, this seemed to be the better topic.  I’ve reproduced what was to be my opening paragraph below.  I had intended to bring up the Robert E. Howard story, The People of the Black Circle, and especially the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, Thuvia, Maid of Mars , which I think are key to understanding how illusions worked in classic D&D.)

There are certain topics that have had more written about them than others, and, in the case of Dungeons & Dragons, adjudicating illusions is one of them.  In the heyday of the game, the authors understood illusions largely through the works of those authors listed in Appendix N of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.   Illusions were the stuff of imagination.  They were to be used as creatively as the players and Game Master could devise.  They were not intended to be hemmed in….or, at least, not hemmed in to the degree later editions have done.


  1. I really, really liked this post. I agree that there is a huge cultural break between 1E and 3E/4E. Switching XP to fights changes the goal of the game.

    My least favorite change was creating a risk-free teleport (which totally changes high level play from 2E on).


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