Day 69: When is D&D not D&D?

October 4, 2009

When is D&D not D&D? Most of the time, really.

Much like human cultures, the play experience of Dungeons and Dragons evolved in small, isolated, tightly knit groups, and then the internet ruined it.

When D&D first came out in the 70s, ndividual GMs were given a grand vision – but that vision wasn’t realized or even broadly structured through the provided rules. Look at this contemporary review of OD&D to see what I’m talking about.

So GMs, still called “referees” at the time, took to the various early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. They assembled players, tried to play, dealt with problems, made rulings, and had fun. Those GMs experienced the thing we now call a shared imagined space, and it stuck. D&D became a phenomenon, shaping early nerd culture.

But because of the isolated-groups factor, and the need to tinker with or reinterpret the early rules, the actual play of D&D started to take on wildly different forms. People playing the same game in other cities or regions could be using wildly different techniques – from devolution to the six word RPG, right through to elaborate puzle construction, through to mock-up siege battles. These differences didn’t matter, because the groups were more or less isolated from one another anyway, but some players realized they weren’t maximizing their fun, but could rarely find ways to improve their situation.

Enter the Internet, early cultural haven of geekdom, where these discussions about how to make the game more fun took on strange and exotic shapes. An example of this is the ever-recurring discussion about realism, whereby players latch on to realism as a way to make their play more satisfying. Over time, these discussions took on familiar patterns: Would Indiana Jones be more fun if it were more realistic? How can you inhabit the imaginary space if it doesn’t obey concrete rules? And so on.

The Internet also created new troubles, because, by its nature, internet discussions lack nuance. People with differing play styles would rarely be able to come to terms, because both sides expressed that they were “playing D&D”. Phrases like “rollplaying vs. roleplaying” and labels like “munchkin” frequently served to only muddy the waters further. Pointless, endless arguments resulted, and the flames of those wars still burn today, fed by the volatile runoff from the Internet’s various gaming cesspools.

But in some places, a fairly coherent language for describing play emerged. That language is still evolving, but even so I think of it as my omni-tool for communicating about games.

So to bring it back to Tag’s Folly, we ask: How does Tag’s Folly differ from D&D?

Well, first of all, the game has a specifically Step-on-up creative agenda; the players set up expeditions to try to beat the Wastes, not to experience any sort of story.  To this end, my role as a GM is to build and place encounters appropriately, to make the Wastes a sensible environment in which to be challenged.  This also means playing the monsters in a way that is true to their skills, their psychology, and their stats – and not to scale the difficulty of encounters to make them more appropriate to the party that encounters them.  In this context, no “plot” is developed, and any stories that come out of play are the result of players telling stories about what they accomplished.

Socially, the game is extremely different from the standard D&D situation.  In a normal D&D group, one player – usually the most enthusiastic one – corrals his friends into playing a game, and is also the GM.  This player thereby takes on responsibility for the game’s fun – after all, he recruited his friends, prepared the game, and has a massive amount of authority via the structure of a GM-centric game.  This, to me, is a massively unbalanced social scene, and Tag’s Folly doesn’t fall into that trap.  Instead, the game explicitly requires players (i.e., not the GM) to schedule sessions and provide the hook that takes the party “out the door.”  This, in my opinion, helps keep the game more balanced, because the players have to start by doing the work that shows they want to be there.

In terms of system, very little is different in Tag’s Folly.  My attempts so far to improve the encounter generation algorithm haven’t been successful, for example.  So the game sticks to the D&D 4th Edition rules quite closely – to the point where characters must be “legal” qua the character builder.  Here’s some notable exceptions:

  • I restricted the races and classes so that player characters would have a natural tendency to find common ground within their ethnicity.
  • Sessions are designed with about 2-3 encounters in mind, and sites are designed to be either tightly focused or at least compartmentalized.
  • So far I generally avoid using Skill Challenges, as I find basic skill checks very comfortable and familiar from my experience with 2e and 3e

Also, our techniques are always evolving at the table.  I do find that things have gone most smoothly when I am well-rested, with extremely well-prepared encounters.  Likewise play goes best when the players both know the rules relevant to their characters, make fast decisions, and so on.

But for color, I’m having a blast.  I have painted a whole lot of color on the game.  On its face, this world with Tiefers, Wasters, Sawtooths, Gecks, Gants, Scurvs, Grays, Sentinels, and Vulgar Gods sounds categorically different from D&D’s standard tropes.  Really, the impact of those decisions on the mechanics of play is miniscule – but I still think it’s important.  Dwarves, Elves, and Orcs have become so commonplace in our culture, nerd or not, that it can be easy to see them more as pieces on a board than active elements of fiction.  I hope that the world I’m sketching out here is interesting enough that a player naturally inhabits the fictional space, and that a while later, you can even forget that you’re roleplaying.

D&D, but not exactly.


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