Sunday, November 3, 2013

What is D&D?

Tenkar's Tavern asks the question, At what point do house rules become their own rule set? I think it's an important question, and one that deserves a conversation larger than just one blog (no matter how excellent I think said blog might be). It's a question that points to the heart of our hobby, and hearkens to the earliest days of the hobby, in terms of how the game was actually played, and how people who played it thought of it.

At Metatopia this weekend I made the point that, back in the earliest days of the hobby (1974-1979 or so), one person would have a copy of the LBBs, an issue of the Strategic Review, a home-brewed magic system based on Piers Anthony's Xanth books, and the Ready Ref Sheets from Judge's Guild, while someone else might have a photocopy of Men & Magic, a few issues of Alarums & Excursions, and a bunch of house ruled combat tables based on his years as a white belt in the SCA.

Today, we would say they were playing completely different games, if one compared the mechanics.

And yet back then they were both called "playing D&D". You'd take a character from one campaign and play it in another without any thought, converting stuff on the fly. The definition of "the rules" was flexible enough to accommodate house rules. You didn't need a different name for what you played. It was all D&D, even if they were nigh unto unrecognizable from table to table.

We took the "don't let us do the imagining for you" imprecation seriously. "D&D" was less a collection of specific rules and a general style of play - an aesthetic.

I can't help but think that we're seeing something similar in today's OSR. Not outside the OSR, I should add - someone playing Dogs in the Vineyard isn't likely to bring in the conflict resolution system from Shock, the shared narrative mechanic from Donjon, and say "we're playing Dogs in the Vineyard tonight." The silos are too well-defined, and modern games are too dependent on rule mechanics rather than the aesthetics of play.

I must wonder if the fragmentation that some lament in the OSR isn't actually a hearkening back to the earliest old-school aesthetic. I don't think the labels really detract from that aesthetic, because they don't really define walls so much as sources. Picture a game played using the Labyrinth Lord rules with the mountebank and jester classes from Adventures Dark and Deep, plus the encumbrance system from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and a couple of printed-out issues of Crawl. 

You're still playing D&D.

Thoughts on e-books

So on one of today's Metatopia panels, I happened to be talking about e-books and electronic publishing. I get the impression that I was on several panels at the con to carry the flag for the reactionary, old-school aesthetic, as I'm not what one might call leading the vanguard when it comes to electronic publishing options.

But I suppose having a counterpoint to the perspective that says "all information should be free! Put it in as many electronic formats as possible, and loose them all into the wild!" is a valuable one. I am not a member of the Rising Tide.

That said, I did come out of the panel with several insights and thoughts on the subject.

First, I had not considered the fact that turning off the copy-paste function on my own pdfs makes it nigh-unto impossible for the vision-impaired to use a screen reader to read the files aloud. I am told, however, that the multi-column formatting of the files makes that more difficult than it might otherwise be. Which brings me to...

Second, I am giving serious consideration to offering my books in a .mobi or .epub format, if I can find the proper venue. If for no other reason than to accommodate those who need something that is much closer to a plain text format for reasons of accessibility.

Third, and most important from my point of view, I would like to see pdfs (and other electronic formats that can handle such things) really embrace the functionalities that set them apart from print books. To be frank, I have little interest in pandering to every hipster who has an e-reader that requires some odd proprietary format just so he can have the same book on all 19 devices he owns. But when you start talking about including multimedia capabilities into the files, and actually integrating the nature of electronic books into a game, then I start to get interested.

Imagine a book where the examples of play are actually links to YouTube videos showing a group playing the game at the table, with integrated graphics to call out the mechanics. Where combat diagrams are animated .gif files. Where an adventure is contained in four pdf files, three of which are password protected, and the players need to get to a certain point in the adventure before the others are unlocked. Changes await both the players and the GM. Layering that allows someone to customize a rulebook by picking and choosing rule elements. The possibilities are enormous, and growing with the technology.

Although nothing will ever in my mind replace the visceral experience of holding a physical book in my hand, and I will almost always prefer that format to an electronic book in my own reading and gaming, I do recognize that e-books offer opportunities that dead tree books don't. I lament the trend to replace real books with e-books, because but most such efforts are merely replacing paper with electrons and whose benefits are offset by the advantages, in my opinion.

I am, however, excited at the prospect that e-books offer new and more vibrant and immersive experiences that regular books cannot. Perhaps "e-book" is in this case a misnomer. In that sense, I do not see the one as replacing the other so much as offering an alternative, just as television is an alternative to radio, but radio still endures for a number of really good reasons.