Tuesday, 14 June 2011

I is for Iceberg…Some Further Thoughts

Understanding classic D&D requires understanding that any area created for the game milieu is to be used multiple times, with multiple groups of players, over weeks, months, and years of play.  However, something happened with DragonLance that changed the course of Dungeons & Dragons – the introduction of the strong adventure path model.

By way of analogy, classic D&D sought to create the experience of being a character within a fantasy world, whereas the strong adventure path model seeks to create the experience of being a protagonists in a fantasy novel.  That may seem like a minor distinction, but further thought will show that it is not.

Protagonists in a fantasy novel can expect to survive, or to have meaningful deaths.  Characters within a fantasy world cannot.

Protagonists in a fantasy novel are automatically special.  Characters within a fantasy world are not necessarily special – only what actually occurs in play determines how special you are.  The difference between Conan and an Aesir he kills early in his career are as much a difference of luck as of skill in the “fantasy world” model – at first, Conan is only important because he survives.  In the fantasy novel model, Conan is important before he does anything, simply because he is Conan.

A fantasy novel purports to tell a specific story; a fantasy world is a place where things happen, and then people tell stories about them after the fact.  

If you hop back to my comments about Choice, Context, and Consequence, you should easily see where this is going.  In order to ensure that PCs are meaningful protagonists, and in order to ensure that there is a specific story, the GM must mitigate the consequences of player choices.  He must ensure that player choices do not take the characters away from the story, by death, by other interests, or even by resolving problems “too early”.

Now, I am going to reiterate my mantra:  Play whatever games you like, in whatever way you like.  You don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.  You certainly don’t have to worry about what I think.

But I will point this out:  OD&D and 1st Edition AD&D were both devised to support the iceberg/fantasy world model.  Both experienced explosive growth, and both have a strong following of fans/players to this day.  3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons attempted to follow this same model, and it is arguable that 3rd Edition – especially at lower-level play, or using lower-level variants like E6 – is the only version of the game that rivals (or has ever rivaled) the classic editions.

On the other hand, 2nd Edition AD&D, despite all of its options, bought very much into the fantasy novel model (which was most evident in its adventures and advice to DMs), and TSR went bankrupt.  The unwieldiness of higher-level play in 3rd Edition likewise brought back a strong “adventure path” mentality (you need prep less if you can guarantee what encounters your players will have) – and removing this unwieldiness was one of the major selling points of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Like 2nd Edition before it, 4th Edition seems to have a strong fantasy novel element…although this might be better described as a “computer game” element in terms of its modules at least, which are composed largely of set-piece combats linked by what may almost be “cut scenes” between fights.  Even the skill challenge mechanic, as presented in modules, is largely filler between the main events.

(And, yes, obviously people need not play this way.  Equally obviously, there are some interesting variants being devised to play in more of an iceberg/fantasy world style than in a fantasy novel/computer game style.  Different people play different games in different ways….ultimately, though, sales seem to be based on how the owners market what they’ve created.)

The problem here is not that “fantasy novel” games are bad.  The problem is that the fantasy novel experience is done just as well (or better) at less cost an effort by fantasy novels, film, and computer games.  Fantasy world/iceberg games are done better by….well, tabletop games do them the best.  Nothing else is even in the same ball park.

Yes, I do think iceberg games are better…..both for actual play, and for the industry.  But, if you like something else, don’t worry about my opinion. 

Play whatever games you like, in whatever way you like!


  1. I think you overreach in the 4th edition section. I don't understand how the "computer game" nature of 4th ed individual 4th edition fights relates to the "fantasy novel" aspect you are talking about earlier.

    Are you saying that the nature of 4th Ed fights requires them to be "pre-destined"? Why so in 4th ed and not earlier editions?

  2. 4th Edition is even more closely balanced than 3rd edition, meaning that characters are intended to meet certain challenges at specific levels, all within a paradigm where one must level more than once within the same adventure.

    (This was also a feature of 3e.)

    4e goes farther than 3e in terms of mitigating against chance, in terms of codifying treasure parcels, in terms of codifying character balance, and in terms of predictability of combat outcomes. All of these are included, at least in part, so that the Game Master can determine ahead of time what will happen.

    Without this type of predetermination, it is difficult (if not impossible) to ensure that the PCs are the "right level" for each encounter.

    Part of this is, of course, the fault of the Delve Format. And, partly, the Delve Format was devised to ensure that encounter funnelling of this nature can easily occur.

    If you examine 1e modules, you will notice that, in most cases, there are multiple paths that the PCs can take, leading to wildly different play experiences. This is enabled, at least in part, by the flatter power curve (and resultant broader-based balance) of the game system.

    That broad balance is the key. AD&D 1e and 2e adventurers are largely worn down by attrition. Keeping on, or withdrawing, are strategic decisions based largely on resource management....A factor that was mitigated against in 3e and largely removed from 4e.

    Here's another thing you can consider....in a fantasy world, it is okay for characters to lose equipment due to a rust monster, and that equipment need not be automatically replaced when the creature is slain. There is nothing "necessary" about the character meeting some particular guideline about where he "should be".

    In a fantasy world, random encounters happen. However, beginning with late 3e, WotC began working away from the random encounter. And, if you are going to have a combat system that takes 45 minutes to an hour to resolve such an event, it makes sense to do so. But it does funnel one into a "fantasy novel" where only the encounters that are "supposed to happen" do happen.

  3. I can't help but sagely nod over these pondering rants, as you with your world/novel distinction you've finally nailed an important quality over what set these games apart.

    However it'd be really interesting to bring another element into play: that of narrative.

    A narrative of any sort is anathema to "world" based role-playing, since it can only arise after events.

    Whereas it really suits novel type games... however AD&D 2nd edition & 4th ed. *didn't* build on this et all, instead choosing to funnel the game toward a pre-set goal.

    Japanese tabletop RPGs had an interesting convention in contrast: you rolled for results first, then the players usurped narration to describe *how* the results played out.

    Games based on the FATE system take this even further, where players can directly engage in the narrative. So instead selecting between the various pre-set outcomes of a funneled game, they can directly influence the very narrative of said book - changing *where* said narrative is going and how.

    Granted this is usually framed as an effort for the usual "success" of player characters. However then the GM counters this, by turning these elements on their head and *enforcing* consequences to the narrative twists that were brought into play.

    ...and this "tug of war" of bringing a "plot device" into play only for the GM to twist it around can result in the game going in very unexpected directions.

    So unexpected, that in some ways these *purely narrative* games, offer a freedom more akin to world based games more than the funneling novel based games they've evolved from.

  4. As always, play what you enjoy!

  5. TSR did not go bankrupt because of AD&D 2e, or any design aspect or feature of the game. It was one of their most profitable items right before they died. They were making money on it!

    TSR's death was caused by many, many other things.

  6. Not having direct access to their accounting books, I am forced to go by what statements are available, and my own observation.

    As always, consider the source!

    In any event, it is clear that AD&D 2e didn't make enouth to save TSR.