Dungeons and Dragons … and Dungeons …

Fifth edition D&D is out.  Maybe it’s my seeing the Player’s Handbook at the local game store.  Maybe it’s having read those reviews of starter rules.  I just read a review of the PHB and skimmed through a review of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

I don’t have an opinion about 5e, at least about whether it’s good or bad.  I don’t know enough.  It sounds like they tried to undo some of the “why am I not just playing WoW?” of 4e, which is a good goal, but I just don’t know the game.

I never bought 4e D&D.  I hardly played 3e D&D, though I played lots of d20.  I didn’t like the 3e books and pretty much hated the idea of 4e, since, you know, gamers I know have computers and can play WoW or whatever whenever they feel like it.

As may be fairly clear, I’m down on D&D.  So, I decided to do something.

I pulled out my AD&D (1e, of course) PHB and read it, skimming through a bunch of sections, but made an effort to spend some time on those sections I never cared that much about.  When I finished doing that, I pulled out my D&D Basic red book and read through that.

No, I didn’t stop to read every spell description or every monster writeup in Basic.  I did move quickly through most things because, as much as they haven’t been that relevant to me in my life, I looked at some of this stuff (far more AD&D than D&D) a good amount in my formative years.

I got D&D product for my birthday in 1980.  I picked up the AD&D PHB, DMG, MM, and Deities & Demigods in short order.  As with most RPGs where I bought a bunch of books prior to getting older and actually getting into campaigns, I created hundreds if not thousands of characters.

Will I pick up 5e D&D?  Probably not, though maybe something will change my mind.  Would I pick up AD&D today if somehow I lost my books?  Not to play, no.

Still, there’s something about AD&D that I think 3e and 4e, both of which I’m at least somewhat familiar with, lack.  Every version of D&D now strikes me as overly mechanical.  What’s funny is that the Hero System feels less mechanical to me, even though it’s supernumbery.  Something about D&D has always been off when you try to envision taking a fantasy world from fiction and turning around and playing it.

But, it was first, and it was the only real game in town.  I still own zero Tunnels & Trolls products.  Why?  Don’t recall them ever being available when I was young.  Meanwhile, I have a bunch of modules for D&D and AD&D that are pritnear useless to me because they are statblock after 40×40 room after statblock after new magic items after new monsters after wandering monster tables after statblock.  There are interesting story ideas to be sure.  I3-I5 sounds like a cool desert trilogy.  I went to look for inspiration for a desert setting.  I found mechanics.  And, that’s one of the best sets of modules I can think of.

I love L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.  All of the little town shops that have some statted up low level dude do paint some sort of picture to me of a fantasy town.  The interactions of NPCs was something to hang a hat on.

But, getting back to the point.

Which is?

AD&D had something I haven’t felt from 3e and 4e.  It had flavor.  It felt like fantasy.  D&D has caused me to hate dwarves and elves unless you can get into Norse Mythology deep enough for me to forget how much D&D makes me hate dwarves and elves (and I always hated halflings and gnomes, which, by hate, I mean I tried to ignore them as much as possible).  But, that took time.  When I poured over the PHB character mechanics, I was perfectly happy to come up with multiclass builds for elves and half-elves.

Being the primary game in town gives you a lot.  See how reinventing Magic: The Gathering is just a waste of time, unless it’s done as a martial arts game with pictures of real martial artists and was done in 1995.  Still, the PHB made me want to play different characters.  The class system especially but also racial differences made me think of possible PCs.  I should say that the art in AD&D is just so much better than what I can remember seeing in other D&D products for making fantasy feel serious/important.  As silly as I may find D&D undead now, undead then was stylish, no matter how moronic level loss was.

Psionics?  Ludicrous.  Bard?  WTF?  Spell abuse?  Whatever.

What’s my main takeaway of reading the PHB these days?  It’s short.  It’s a lot shorter than it felt.  Note that I only focused on a small portion of it back in the day, but that’s kind of the point.  Back in the day, I was interested in creating characters for the game.  I was interested in what abilities got unlocked as you leveled up, even though I hardly ever played pre-d20 D&D to have characters level up.  Ten or so pages in the PHB opened up a massive world of fantasy.

I’m older now.  I’ve seen better.  I actually can picture fantasy PCs better with Body Pips and Stun Pips than I can with THAC0.  Of course, Fantasy Hero never had the world baggage that D&D acquired.  You didn’t need articles on the ecology of ochre jelly or how flying monsters twice as wide as people were behind dungeon doors that a human had to squeeze through.

oD&D is also so amazingly treasure focused.  Not to say nD&D isn’t, but it’s so fundamental to oD&D the idea that monsters guard treasure straight out of the videogames that came after D&D.  I used to not hate +2 swords.  I quite despise them, now, for their complete lack of flavor or specialness.  Retainers get a lot of paragraphs in those old books, yet I don’t recall, off the top of my head, ever having retainers in any RPG be something I spent virtually any time on or having virtually any impact on play.  But, when PCs died like flies, retainers dying first was great.

I read an article recently, which I’m pretty sure I blogged about, about how the point of oD&D was survival of the fittest.  It was a gamist venture from the wargame roots to survive as long as possible.  Just one more dungeon.  Just one more boss fight.  Just one more check for traps on the empty room with the chest in the corner.  Boardgames, such as Descent, cover this for tabletop play, and, of course, videogames.

Mechanics matter.  When I get together to talk L5R, most of the conversation has to do with character sheet stuff, whether what a character currently can roll or how XP will be spent.  I found better mechanics than D&D.  I quite dislike the 3-18 attribute system, these days.  I do like how D&D Basic/Expert/et al respect stats that aren’t 16+, if only slightly.  I actually quite dislike d20’s every two points is a one modifier, though, as it’s horribly inelegant compared to halving everything.  Nor am I fan of using a d20 for resolution.  It’s fine to roll a d20 for some esoteric table to give 20 possible results.  For standard resolution, however, a d10 is so much better (not to be confused with percentile – percentile is even worse than a d20 for the same reasons – it gives too many empty results, leading to everything feeling terribly mechanical even if it’s possible to scale everything in the game to where there’s no mathematical difference between the systems).

It’s funny to read how 5e making feats optional is bad because it takes away player choice.  Um, AD&D and Basic had nothing remotely like player choice after you adjusted your starting attributes and chose a class besides things like spells.  And, that was not the end of the world.  Sure, systems where you spend XP to make the improvements you want to make are vastly superior … vastly.  But, the d20 feat system sucks.  No, really, it sucks.  It has good intentions, but it sucks.  It has feats you would never take, feats you always take, and so many feats just come across as pure mechanics, lacking any sort of Both Guns Blazing or Carnival of Carnage flavor another RPG might have.

Would I play AD&D (1e, probably not 2e) or Basic?  Yeah, I can see it.  That Basic only has leather armor, chain armor, and plate armor is nice simplification.  Alignments are Chaotic Evil, but they are easily ignored.  I just feel like the oD&D mechanics, though screwy in all sorts of ways, were more elegant than more recent versions of the game.  I write down my strange saving throw numbers.  I have to get a magic weapon ASAP in order to hurt certain things.  I wonder why there are racial limits on classes and hope everyone dies before they matter.  I ignore how busted some spells can be … really, D&D Expert Haste affects 24 allies by giving them double attacks with no penalty … really?!?

I’m not opposed to dungeon crawl play – see interest in HeroQuest boardgame.  I’m not opposed to videogame role-playing.  I think my greatest problem with any new edition of D&D is just going to be the baggage of it never being what I prefer out of a RPG, which is an elegant set of rules for both character creation and resolution to tell stories in fantasy worlds (that aren’t silly).

I can go into a dungeon.  Draw a map.  Hope nobody cares about the party light source or how many feet it provides visibility for.  Hope we don’t have to stop and check for traps every 10′ and check for secret doors every 10′.  Maybe even play a spellcaster, as it occurs to me that I’ve played spellcasters a surprising amount in D&D play compared to other games.

Meanwhile, for more narrative play, I imagine using some other system because the habit, if not the requirement, with D&D is to fall into the dungeon crawl/tactical wargame aspects of it.  Oddly, that other system could be d20, of the Conan sort – I’ve never played Pathfinder and don’t get the sense that there’s any reason to start.  I’d prefer it to be Roll & Keep, but that requires effort and removing expectations.  Savage Worlds is not terrible, but I’m not sure I think it’s adequate.  Hero might be worth a shot, might not be.  GURPS?  No.  Unisystem?  Is there a reasonable fantasy option.  BRP?  No.

I’m not against D&D.  I don’t have a problem with it being an industry leader, nor do I really care that Pathfinder has surpassed other editions of D&D.  Though, I suppose there’s one way I have a problem with it.  It distracts from far better games, even far better fantasy games.  It gives people the wrong idea about what FRPing should be like.  The number of FRPGs that have elves and dwarves is horrendous.  No matter how brilliant the game might be, as soon as I see these sort of generic, I mean Tolkien, nonhuman races, I will lose interest.  Might as well play one of the versions of Middle Earth, even though I have a hard time seeing how to run a game in the world.

Okay, maybe I am kind of against D&D.  I’d rather see games on the shelf that let me play the game I’m interested in rather than some extraordinarily gamey world.  One might say GURPS has that niche, having a universal system for whatever genre you want, but GURPS is too heavy.  Okay, some people really like Savage Worlds.  I tolerate it.  I’m sure the system closer to what I want a system to be has been made, but it probably included halflings or something and, thus, made itself unregardable.

Anyway, for those people who enjoy it, more dragon-subduing for ya … and dungeons.

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