Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pen and Paper Dungeons & Dragons

Pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons is the greatest game ever played. 2nd Edition, v3.5, it doesn't matter -- it's the fundamental idea, the epic story-telling that I appreciate. Hence, I want a new game system that focuses on that aspect.

The current pen and paper role playing movement seems to be working towards standardization and commoditization. These are great strategies for designing video games or running Wal-Mart, but they marginalize the human potential available in the pen and paper role playing environment, and that's exactly the trend I want to reverse.

I go to the store and buy a bag of chips. It's pretty much the same, whether or not I buy it here or in Costa Rica, whether or not it was manufactured here or in Iowa, whether or not the guy on the Dorito machine was a new apprentice or a venerated master. But that's an artifact of the modern age, and it doesn't belong in a feudal setting. The reason it's pervasive is because it fits well into the restricted worlds of video games and rule books. But we the people are capable of more than that.

I don't deny the historical existence of a longsword, but I reject [ longsword, 15gp, 1d6, 4lb ]. The longsword and the rapier are like the horse and the dog: broad classifications for things with different functions, but within which there exists wide variation. If we're role playing generals in an army, then this level of abstraction would be appropriate for the troops, but when you're playing a particular character, I expect a greater level of detail. And to some degree you can do this with D&D today, but however you dress it up, the game mechanics will at some point distill it back down to a simple 1d6. That's what I want to change.

The same thing applies to magic. In D&D you drink a potion and it has a fixed effect for a fixed period. It comes in a single unit. There's no such thing as drinking half. You cast a fixed number of spells. They have fixed effects. It doesn't matter how hard you try, or how much preparation you put into it. It never tires you out and it never gives unexpected results. Why? Why doesn't a magic circle of protection that I spent a week preparing have greater value then one I scribbled in under a minute? Why doesn't a botched incantation cause a downpour instead of a lightening bolt? I want a messy world. I believe in uncertainty.

Of all things in D&D, combat seems at once to be both the focus of the rule system and the most restrictive and unrealistic of its features. You fight with just as much vigor whether your hit points be one hundred or one. Your arm is never broken. Your face is never scarred. That coil of rope you're carrying is never cut. Combat is tricky because it's fun. We want to do it often, but we want to not die, and if wounded we want to recover quickly. It's no fun to role play being bed-ridden for a fortnight.

The solution I see is to play multiple characters, generated on the fly with loose equipment lists. There are no classes. There are no levels. You start with a name and a back-story. You are carrying that which you might reasonably be carrying. How good you are at scaling a building and slipping into a second story window isn't decided until the need arises. The world doesn't revolve around you. There aren't rooms of monsters waiting to be activated. If captured, you'll probably loose your stuff -- permanently. The obstacles set before you aren't all matched to your ability. Sometimes the answer is run or die -- permanently.

The whole point of playing D&D is to be part of telling a great story. And the rules to D&D only serve two (useful) purposes: let the characters have a reasonable expectation of the outcomes of their actions, and balance the power of the players. It's no fun to be too weak or too strong. And there's no point in playing if you can't effect the world in predictable ways. But that's it. That's all. Limit the rule system to this, and make everything else up.

Of course, I have no idea what this limited rule system would look like. But I have a few ideas, and I think they're worth trying...

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