I was reading this review: Review of Dungeon Magazine #1. I followed links and read some blog posts about oD&D.
To say I totally get what is being said about how the nature of oD&D was different from what people often think of as the point of RPGs these days is hardly value add.
I could cite examples, bring up anecdotes, and contrast with what I play. Sure, let’s do some of that.
The gist of one of the blog posts I ended up reading was that D&D wasn’t about killing monsters. It was about loot. Okay, right, kill and loot, kill and loot. Except no, take away the kill part. Killing monsters was the most common form of challenge overcoming, but it wasn’t just that it didn’t have to be, it had nothing to do with the goal, which was to accumulate treasure. XP gains from monster smiting were horrid. XP gains from meaningful treasure were how you badged up, uh, I mean, leveled up.
Well, there’s more to the gist. Gistierly, the play experience was the extremely gamist one of leveling up. Didn’t I just say that or doesn’t everyone know that? Again, it’s the difference between an aspect and the end all and be all of play. Leveling up was the end all and be all of play, to where death was part of play because death prevented just continuously leveling up.
The argument being made was that balance existed not in terms of PC vs. PC or PC vs. challenge but in terms of PC vs. game. Weak characters died. Poor decisions led to death. Bad luck, more death. The group was fighting against not progressing but each PC was also fighting against not progressing to where there were advantages to other PCs dying – this last comment being mine and some arguable value add.
I believe it’s the combat example in the AD&D 1e DMG that shows PCs of uneven levels in a party, where low level thief gets killed because … low level thief.
I find PC death problematic for reasons I went into in some blog post. That’s because what I play isn’t supposed to be a survival contest. It could be, but that’s something to get into later. oD&D death was the norm because, hey, start playing some new dude and hope for weak encounters with goodly treasure, which, actually, didn’t need to be that goodly due to the constantly increasing XP requirements to level.
An anecdote for the obsession with treasure was my playing the gold box Pool of Radiance computer game. I memorized the game after a certain point. I couldn’t care less about killing monsters except for how fixed encounters had fixed treasures. Some treasures were just hidden and could be accessed with no fighting. Wandering monsters were annoyances that slowed down my completing pieces of the game, which, admittedly, did involve quests that involved killing monsters. Now, I played it so many times that I did go looking for random encounters at times just to do something different. But, I was usually focused on how to turbo level up one half-elf fighter/magic-user/cleric and eventually got to the point of just turbo grabbing the +5 longsword.
Killing monsters couldn’t cause level increases to any sort of meaningful degree. It was always treasure or rewards.
Contrast with what I play. Okay, RuneQuest is this loot model and, thus, an exception, with the level system not being so rigid or possibly better put as a stage system, which ends up working out the same. Even when I play or run level systems, Conan d20, I don’t think about how players should be earning levels. I think they should just go up a level every 2-3 sessions because the variety at the mechanics level is gaining abilities, not creating a new character. L5R is not impossible to play with highly divergent PC abilities, after all, shugenja already exist. It’s just not oriented towards the idea that a new samurai will pop up every couple of sessions, even though that would actually make sense.
I can totally see a campaign of yoriki where the yoriki die constantly. After all, samurai are supposed to die. But, the player expectations would have to be completely different. Out goes character development. Out goes coherent narrative.
Gamist play has drama. Narrativist play tries to capture the drama found in fiction, where you set up a scene where everything is at stake. Simulationist play gains drama from how things happen to the character that aren’t preplotted and not just a mechanism – the character exists in *this* world where what *this* character chooses to do has impact – it’s the drama of the reality of the game. Gamist drama is the same drama you find in other competitive endeavors, the dice/cards/whatever either go your way or they don’t and stories are made when the unexpected happens or when there’s a high level of unknown or when crucial mechanical decisions are made.
But, I can get that from playing things other than D&D or some RPG. I can get that from CCGs, from mahjong, from solitaire. I could get that from computer games, if I played those anymore.
Is there a point to the idea that a RPG is really just an exercise in maximizing loot gain? Can’t Descent, WoW, or all sorts of other things achieve that experience without the rigmarole of using a RPG framework?
For some people, I guess not. There’s something about the more open-ended experience of tabletop play or maybe it’s the people you do it with or the milieu where a kitchen table is qualitatively different from a computer screen. I’m certainly willing to play a loot Roll-PG and not willing to play a MMO. I’m willing to constantly create new RuneQuest characters rather than go through resurrection over and over.
But, it only works when that’s what is expected. Yes, all things come back to the idea that everyone needs to be on the same page. In this case, if one player thinks the game is about achieving in character goals and another is looking to level up, it’s going to be frustrating. I know I’ve been on one side of that, the question is whether I’ve also been on the other. I can imagine I have.
Consider HoR. It’s easy to focus on your PC and basically ignore what other people are trying to accomplish that doesn’t maximize your XP and your certs and your Honor. I can believe I’ve been that player at one time or another, where I was focused on maximizing rewards (“loot”), where someone else was role-playing to not their level up maximizing benefit.
The more I think about this, the more I think about this. It interests me, at least, that sometimes I’m not the 100% storyteller that every quiz says I am. I can be the treasure guy, though not when it’s just boring old money to be had.
It’s a matter of being in the right mode. Unfortunately, I commonly see cases where the modes are different for the players. Anyway, that style of loot play can be fun. I don’t want to take the position of the snobby narrativist who deems gamist play to be the realm of boardgames. But, there shouldn’t be any mixed messages. If all we do is loothunt, we shouldn’t be worrying about some NPC’s sick parent or whether my +3 boomerang of paralysis has a name or not. Otherwise, I’m going to break out of loothunt mode and start wondering whether I’ll find a NPC to help or whatever. Then, there should also be no attempt to compare such a loothuntventure to something with a nonmechanical story.
Others may be able to deal with the mixed natures of such games. I just end up baffled to where I don’t optimize my loothuntventuring.