Sunday, January 8, 2012

How D&D is Like Doctor Who

One of the truisms about Doctor Who is that your favorite Doctor is almost always the first one you ever saw on a regular basis. So, in my case, I happen to think Tom Baker completely embodies the character, and it's no coincidence that growing up in the 1980's, his was the only version of Doctor Who I was exposed to for years on television (PBS here in the New York City area, followed eventually by Peter Davidson and Collin Baker, but not until the stamp had left its mark). I think the same thing can be said, to some extent, with D&D.

In my own case, I first dipped my toe into D&D during the White Box days, but really glommed on to it as AD&D. I played 2nd edition, but 1st was always my true love, RPG-wise. That hasn't changed.

What occasioned this observation was the latest episode of the Dreadcast podcast, "Momanatrixs Old School Woes", which describes the reaction of someone who was first exposed to D&D through 4th edition (gads... it's even hard for me to accept that there are people playing who've only picked up the game in the last 4 years) after playing a couple of sessions of 1E/OSRIC. Some of her pithy observations (do listen to the whole thing; it's only 15 minutes and a valuable insight into what is clearly a generational rift D&D-wise):
“I don’t know where I am without a map. Why is there no map?

“These guys are around here somewhere, you’re somewhere over here, so what do you want to do? I’m like, I don’t know, how, how far or how close? I don’t know.”
“Like, I play a druid, and I don’t really have, like, that many… I have barely any… like, spells that I can do in combat. They’re mostly out-of-combat spells. … And that, I’m fine with that, for the most part, that’s okay. But, like, I have this long list of spells, and I don’t have, like, there’s no, like, cards that I have. I have no idea what they do, I have to, like, just look through the book every time? Or am I just supposed to memorize this, like, long list of spells that I have?”
“Yeah, because I like to… what I like to do is I like to pay attention to everything that’s going on, and then when my turn comes around, I’ll be, like, oh! Well, since I’m right here, and this is right here, and I have this spell that can do this to this many people, in this area, of this distance, then I can plan it all out. But now in this game, it comes to my turn, and I’m like, I don’t know what’s going on. And I have to ask, like, five questions before I can even decide what I’m going to do, and I… it makes me feel, it makes me feel dumb.”

At the end of the podcast, they invite commentary, so I'm going to provide some. First off, I would point out that the use of miniatures and battle mats is not limited to 4th edition. It is entirely possible to do so with 1st, or 0E, or 2E, or 3.x. However, running an RPG without recourse to visual aids such as miniatures is a skill unto itself, and it is entirely possible that the DM in question was a little overly vague in his descriptions, or capricious in his adjudication of combat. Obviously I have no way of knowing, but the lack of minis and a battle mat isn't a design flaw of 1E. Heck, we're told that 4E doesn't have to be played with miniatures (good luck with that, though).

As for the spells, well, you need to look up spell descriptions in 4E, too. I don't really see the issue with having to look up the spell description in a book, but as was mentioned in the podcast itself, the descriptions of specific spells could be put onto 3x5 cards if that's easier for you (and I think such a thing was actually done for 1E way back when). But those cards aren't standard 4E issue, either; you need to look up the descriptions in a book either way. Plus, I'm not an expert on 4E spell descriptions, but I don't remember them being any more explicit in terms of effects than the descriptions in 1E.

As for druids not having so many combat-oriented spells, I might disagree. Looking at the 1E spell list for druids, I see all sorts of spells that can be used in combat. But then again, I don't define "used in combat" as "deals out lots of damage to enemies". And that begins to pry open something of the disconnect, I think.

If you listen to the podcast, it becomes clear that it's the ambiguity of older school games that flummoxes the player. She wants everything laid out, "cut and dried". The problem, of course, is that doing so doesn't just cut down on DM caprice; it also limits creativity on the part of the players. So for every time the DM can't say "it's a cloudless day, so you can't use your call lightning spell", there's going to be a time when you can't use stone shape to cause a piece of wall to fall down into the pool of acid, splashing it on the ogre shaman while your thief swings over on the flower stems that were made bigger thanks to a plant growth spell. As a confirmed old school player, I prefer ambiguity that allows for more creativity, rather than certainty that requires conformity.

Having every possibility spelled out in the rules limits creativity in the game by definition, because it takes away from the ability of the DM to either create or respond to situations that the designers of the game never anticipated. Or, taken to the opposite extreme, it forces the rules to become so bloated in their attempt to cover every possible contingency that the game becomes unplayable. 

I find it very interesting that someone whose first introduction to D&D was 4E finds it so difficult to adapt to the tropes and expectations of 1E. Specifically that her objections stem from the fact that not everything is laid out with definitive rules covering it. I've said that I think 4E is much less a role-playing game than it is a skirmish miniatures game, and I predict that Angela would find a game like Malifaux or Heroclix exceedingly to her liking, much more so than a game that encourages extra-rules activities on the part of the DM and players such as 1E.