Bookending my previous post, in which I speculated about what D&D means to different groups of players. I didn’t think this post was necessary, originally, but a comment by Brian Gleichman has convinced me otherwise. Tempting as it was to dismiss it, between the veiled insults and a self-evident failure on Brian’s part to read the page very carefully (in case any of the rest of you were wondering: I am not Ambrose Bierce, the renowned satirist who died in the early 20th century), I think it’s probably better addressed, because he raises at least one good point. I spent a fair amount of time talking about what I think D&D isn’t, but I left what I think it is mostly between the lines. It’s probably better to be clear, especially when making statements such as “the import of mechanics is limited.”
As an initial clarification, I’ll say: That’s not the same as “the rules don’t matter.” More on that in a little while, though.
What is D&D? To me, it isn’t any of those rules in my last post. It’s not 3d6 chargen, or 4d6, or point-buy. It’s not level draining, or lack thereof. It’s not wandering monsters and random treasure, or the absence of same. Those are just elements, and every one of them is dispensable. To re-use a metaphor I threw at Brian, they’re like team uniforms in baseball. It might (arguably) not be the Yankees without the pinstripes, but it’s still baseball. It might not be OD&D without level drains (at least, some people would say it wasn’t), but it’s still D&D.
D&D, to me, is essentially about the creative experience. It’s a modern form of the age-old entertainment of sitting around the fire swapping stories. That’s been happening since the development of fire and language, and D&D. D&D is knights setting forth on quests for the honor of their liege and their lady. It’s swordsmen confronting sorcerers and demons in a clash of steel and magic. It’s a group of friends battling against encroaching evil with the fate of a village, a nation, or a world on the line, and emerging victorious… or going down fighting, spitting in the face of the All-Devourer. It’s gods, heroes, and monsters, and often characters who’re hard to separate into just one of those categories. It is, in short, not what’s contained in the rulebooks, but something greater that emerges from them, as a play well-acted is greater than the words in its script.
Only it’s more than that, too, because it’s not just one story. It’s multiple stories, being created by the gamemaster and the players alike, simultaneously and in cooperation with each other. It’s not reading a script, or even writing one; it’s improv and round-robin.
That’s the important part of the game, as far as I’m concerned, and it is absolutely the same as it’s ever been since I first cracked a rulebook.
The mechanics, as I said in my previous post, are still important. But they come in after all of that. The mechanics are there to resolve conflict and other questions. In D&D, they’re also there to provide randomness at times, although this is far from universal in RPGs — Nobilis and Amber both manage fine without the dice.
The mechanics are important to me insofar as they impact the experience of the game. As a player or a GM, I’m looking for the mechanics best suited to allowing me to realize my game. This might be Cyclopedia D&D, or it might be 4th edition — both feel very similar to me, although that’s a topic better suited for another post. It might be a non-D&D ruleset — HERO is a perennial favorite of mine, and Nobilis is a wonderful diversion. But I could play the same game in 1e or 3e as I do with the Cyclopedia or 4e. I have, before 4e was released.
House rules, you see. If I don’t like 3d6-in-order chargen, I dispense with it. I’m still playing the same game. I can change level draining to stat drains. I can make up rules for guns. I can change Vancian memorization to a mana-point system. I can give everyone maximum hit points at level 1, start the campaign at level 3, set the campaign in the Bronze Age or the post-nuclear new-Dark-Age future or inside a spaceship. I’ve done all of these things at one point or another. I’m willing to bet that almost all GMs with a couple of campaigns under their belts have done similar things. And maybe you like it and keep it, or maybe you decide it doesn’t work and revise it, or maybe you even trow it out and go back to the rule in the book.
I remember when Old School meant not only doing that sort of thing, but celebrating it. Embracing the flexibility, the sheer possibility, of the game. I still can’t see the use of house rules as anything other than an admission that the rules in the book, as-written, are of relatively minor importance to the game, and can be replaced with something that works better for the individual play group. And I see that as a strength, not as a weakness.
It seems, though, that some of the new “old school” don’t see it that way. They agree with Brian:
Yes, D&D is to use Scott’s words a- “…game of rules”. And there is no irony in Old School saying that, as their whole mindset is a return to the original version of those rules and the methods of play they inspired.
A D&D Campaign is more than the rules of course, as is any other RPG. But relying upon this fact to say we all (no matter the edition) play the same game is as foolish as saying that those playing GURPS are playing D&D. It makes you look silly, and it belittles people playing older editions for no reason.
To each his own, of course, but… I can’t understand that outlook. And to find it belittling that we could all be playing the same game after all of the time that’s passed and all of the changes to the rules? I look at it as inspiring, myself.
I suppose in the end, D&D is what you make it.
Closing thought: I wouldn’t say people who play GURPS are playing D&D. But I would say that GURPS players and D&D players are playing, ultimately, different variants of the same game. Roleplaying transcends system. Some systems are better than others — but only for a given purpose, or perhaps more accurately for a given outlook. If you want a fairly-realistic and deadly combat system with lots of options, you could house-rule D&D… or you could use GURPS, which has designed toward that aspect. If you want something more rules-light and abstracted, you could house-rule GURPS… or you could use D&D.
Hopefully that’s a little clearer on where I stand.
- What is D&D, Anyway?
- The Rules Gap
- Hanging in the Balance
- Ten Monsters I Love (But Rarely Use)
- 4E from One Year In
Categories: Philosophy and Rants | Comments (11)
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