Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Picaro and the "Story" of D&D

I mentioned previously that I believe Dungeons & Dragons has a "story," by which I mean a thematic core. I probably never should have used the word "story," because the word carries with it too many expectations, chief among them being a degree of coherence that I don't believe D&D, on a purely game mechanical level, is capable of attaining or that its creators sought to attain. I'm of the opinion that "story" is, to use a wretched bit of jargon, a meta-game artifact. That is, it's what you get when players, looking back on the events of their characters' adventures, ascribe a meaning and relevance to it all that's simply not inherent to the bare facts of the adventures themselves. It's much the same way that we frame the biography of a famous man so as to highlight the events that contributed to his being or doing the thing for which he became famous. The famous man's life only has a "story" when looked at as a whole and by presuming that the fame he achieved was somehow always "meant to be" from the beginning.

Now, I don't want this post to become a philosophical discourse on fate or teleology. My digression here was to help me assert that D&D, purely as a game, doesn't promote or encourage a story. Story is an optional extra added on top of the game, either by ex post facto pattern-finding (which is, generally, the old school sense of story) or by imposing it on the game beforehand (which is, generally, the newer approach). I think it's important to make this clear, because many gamers assume that all RPGs, by their very nature, including D&D, are "story games." Indeed, many D&D players, primarily those who entered the hobby in the post-Dragonlance era, accept this assumption without question and may have even been drawn into the hobby because they were attracted to the conception of an RPG as "fantasy novel where you're the hero," which is how the hobby was promoted throughout the 80s and how it's largely been designed since the 90s.

With that behind us, let's return to the question at hand: what is the thematic core of D&D, which is to say, what is its organizing principle? The game may not, of itself, tell stories, but, given that gamers almost always find stories in their play, what kinds of stories does D&D support natively? This is where my regular invocation of pulp fantasy rears its head again. I think it's easy to get hung up over the specific elements of this pulp fantasy story versus that one and argue, as many do, that D&D doesn't "model" pulp fantasy very well, because this or that element either doesn't exist in the game or is in fact prohibited by the rules as written. If that's the way you judge D&D, then, yes, I agree that it doesn't do a very good job of being a pulp fantasy game.

I'll return to the modeling issue later, because it's very relevant. For now, though, it's important to realize that there are common elements that undergird all pulp fantasy stories and it's these elements that D&D picked up and built a game around. They're the underlying assumptions that, taken as a whole, (largely) explain why D&D is the way it is and why it has an affinity for certain types of "stories." As I read pulp fantasy, the assumptions D&D takes from it are the following:
  • The protagonists are "rogues," by which I mean outsiders generally of low station (though not necessarily birth) who live on the margins of society.
  • Said society is generally corrupt, or at least venal.
  • Consequently, the protagonists generally pursue personal betterment (whether monetary, secret knowledge, position, etc.) rather than more "noble" goals.
  • Despite this, the protagonists sometimes achieve noble, or at least broadly beneficial, goals in the course of their pursuit of personal betterment.
  • The world is generally humanocentric, with non-humans relegated to the margins, which is why the protagonists often interact with them.
  • Magic is (at best) unreliable and (at worst) downright dangerous (if not morally dubious).
I would also add that pulp fantasy stories are generally episodic in nature, with each one being discrete. Likewise, characters and setting elements tend to be strongly archetypal, even clichéd. Both characters and setting may "grow" and change over time, but such things aren't the point of the stories; they are consequences of them. Thus, pulp fantasies are generally not written to recount the biography of a great man, even though, when taken as a group, many stories may, over time, be read in that way. Of course, there's no necessity that they will or even can be, as a great many pulp fantasies are "just a bunch of stuff that happens."

With the exception of the last two entries in my bulleted list, there's a strong affinity between the pulp fantasy story and the picaresque, which is probably no accident. The picaresque is a clear antecedent of "adventure stories" of all sorts and many pulp writers latched on to the Picaro archetype as an ideal vehicle for telling lurid, sensationalistic tales set in far-away lands. I contend that it's here that we find the thematic core of D&D and that the game was written on the assumption that most characters would come from this mold. I see, for example, few alternative explanations for why characters improve in D&D through the accumulation of wealth.

My feeling is that one's level of dissatisfaction with D&D is closely related to one's dissatisfaction with picaresque stories. If your preference is for something more "epic" than a bunch of rogues -- possibly with hearts of gold -- on the make, then you're likely to see D&D as lacking in some way. And many gamers have from the very beginning. Eventually, whether by nature or nurture I can't say, the vast majority of fantasy gamers wanted something more out of fantasy than Picaro in a wizard's hat, which is why we saw the growth and popularity of things like Dragonlance and many of the myriad campaign settings TSR published during the 2e era. But I contend that, in most cases, D&D is simply a poor fit for these settings, because its thematic core evokes the picaresque rather than the epic. To do the latter, one must change D&D in various ways -- and so its publishers have, either by modifying it on a campaign-by-campaign basis (as was commoner in the past) or by modifying it permanently (as has been done in recent years).

I hope there's something coherent in the above, as I'm still working out some things in my head and may well not have been clear. So, to summarize, in case I was indeed opaque: D&D is a game founded on pulp fantasy, which is a modern development of the picaresque. The game was designed on the assumption that the typical PC would thus be rogueish and possibly venal rather than nakedly heroic. Its rules, while not necessarily good at emulating every particular example of pulp fantasy, are built to support this assumption. While D&D is flexible enough to do other types of fantasy, the farther one gets from pulp fantasy/picaresque roots, the more "broken" the game is likely to seem. To this I'll add that the history of post-Gygax D&D has largely been one of trying to "fix" this seeming brokenness in various ways, which has led us to where we are today -- a game divorced from its roots and of limited appeal to people such as myself who prefer its original one.

27 comments:

  1. Interesting and very astute observation. This helps give my conception of Vox Draconis a more concrete thematic direction to follow. Thank you!

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  2. An astute observation. I have previously expressed views to the same effect on English and Hungarian forums, although less comprehensively. I find it notable that while the last two of your points are not strongly present in D&D (even old school play), they are not alien to it, and can be reintroduced without a problem.

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  3. D&D can support pulp fantasy, but it can support others as well. I think it's better at pulp fantasy by having weaker low level characters who advance through violence and accumulation of wealth. Definitely "roguish" as most members of society don't travel around and kill stuff.

    Pulp Fantasy also tends towards the morally grey...but that doesn't make dyed in the wool good guys impossible...so those stories can happen. I think those "stories" (developed after the fact)would be rarer then more Conan-like "stories".

    D&D can accommodate these sorts of "heroes" too. I mean, the alignment scale does expand from one end to the other for a reason.

    I can't say the typical PC would be venal per se...as PCs aren't really "typical"...they are fringy...outside the norm. When the world is venal, they CAN be altruistic.

    Maybe the PCs ARE largely venal and the unique few aren't. Dunno. Maybe this is why in AD&D the Paladin is strapped with such strictures.

    I think that D&D was created to be more generic and open so that people can have characters and later stories that are what they want...not necessarily pulpy or not. The point was personal preference and roleplaying what people wanted...and in the end the shift came about because more folks shifted away from the pulp towards the high fantasy...and the game system shifted to meet that desire. Add to this the shift of the game development from a few guys to TSR and the marketing to develop a business which IMO has taken the game further and further from it's roots.

    Anyhow, I'm meandering.
    Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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  4. "While D&D is flexible enough to do other types of fantasy, the farther one gets from pulp fantasy/picaresque roots, the more "broken" the game is likely to seem. To this I'll add that the history of post-Gygax D&D has largely been one of trying to "fix" this seeming brokenness in various ways, which has led us to where we are today -- a game divorced from its roots and of limited appeal to people such as myself who prefer its original one."

    James, I don't agree with you very often, but I'll agree with the above 110%.

    All too often I think people treat D&D as the ultimate "Generic Fantasy RPG". It's not - it has certain strengths and weaknesses and styles of play/themes/settings that work much better or much worse with it. And I think as D&D left it's roots and became more popular, all sorts of widgets and gewgaws were forced onto it in order to make it more "realistic", or "flexible" or "cinematic" etc..

    The end result, four editions later, is a bizarre hybrid pen & paper video game-esque RPG that, if anything, is now just as non-generic as the original, but far, far more complicated.

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  5. This post is why this is my favorite RPG blog right now. Always something to think about.

    What I'm thinking is that while you are doing a good job of outlining the most likely cultural influences for D&D, I think that it is very important to emphasize that the way D&D formed and changed is through play. The people who played and ran the game were doing their most to have fun with the game and decisions were based off that.

    I think you're on to something that these pulp fantasy novels were a point of reference. But was it the primary one?

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  6. Similar thoughts have been bubbling around in my heard for a while, but you've stated them quite well. An interesting post.

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  7. James, have you seen "Gamers: Dorks Rising?" The plot illustrates the conflict between the DM/storyteller and the freewill of the PCs. The DM is actually an aspire writer that is forcing his story upon the players who constantly complain that his campaign constantly "breaks" the rules. I highly recommend that you view this movie. I'd be interested in your review.

    What you are describing is at the heart of the bifurcation of D&D game play. Sandbox versus adventure path campaigns. Unfortunately, the latter style has become dominant and I can no longer regard such campaigns as games but instead "gaming entertainment." (See me recent blog post.)

    It took me years for me to figure it out. My search for answers during the last year eventually brought your blog to my attention. Keep up the good work.

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  8. @M.Gunnerquist...
    Dead on target dude. Well said.

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  9. You are saying that in old-school D&D "Magic is (at best) unreliable and (at worst) downright dangerous (if not morally dubious)?" I don't get this. I have heard numerous complaints over the years that D&D magic is if anything TOO reliable and predictable.

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  10. I mean, the alignment scale does expand from one end to the other for a reason.

    It does and I have some thoughts on that, which I'll post later in the week. However, I'll say here that I don't think it's a coincidence that alignment is one of the two areas of biggest complaint about D&D over the years.

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  11. I think you're on to something that these pulp fantasy novels were a point of reference. But was it the primary one?

    In the case of Gygax, almost certainly, particularly when you look at the evidence of how he ran his Greyhawk campaign, what he stated were his influences, and how he wrote his fiction. Remember too that OD&D arose out of the pulp fantasy revival in the late 60s and early 70s, when many authors and stories were back in print for the first time in decades. That's not a coincidence.

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  12. You are saying that in old-school D&D "Magic is (at best) unreliable and (at worst) downright dangerous (if not morally dubious)?" I don't get this.

    I suppose it depends on what think "unreliable" means. In D&D, spells rarely fail outright, barring extraordinary circumstances or saving throws, but a magic-user is limited in his magical power. He cannot call upon it without specific preparation beforehand and, once he's cast his memorized spells, he has recourse to no innate magical abilities. Magic is thus something an MU does but not something he possesses inherently. Hence all the complaints that the class is underpowered and weak compared to the fighter.

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  13. There are also negative or unpredicatble side-effects to various D&D spells: sleep can catch your friends as well as your enemies in its area of effect, fireballs expand to fill space, lightning bolts reflect to their full length, fly has an unknown variable duration, polymorph other can accidentally kill the recipient by system shock (as can haste, at least in AD&D), teleport can land you in midair (likely death) or within solid matter (certain death), contact higher plane has a significant chance of driving the caster insane, and so on.

    This becomes even more of a factor when Supplement I added numerous cursed magic items that are indistinguishable from the beneficial items but dangerous or even deadly to their would-be users (crystal hypnosis ball, bowl of watery death, necklace of strangulation, rug of smothering, cloak of poisonousness, mirror of opposition, bag of devouring, dust of sneezing and choking, scarab of death, etc.). Knowledge that such items exist is going to make most players think long and hard before "trying out" a newly-discovered magic item unless they've witnessed an NPC already use it successfully.

    Magic in D&D (pre-3E at least) is not without its risks.

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  14. I found this post extremely interesting and thought provoking and took the core idea behind D&D in ways I hadn't really expected. I also think you give a very coherent analysis oif pulp fiction. I would just ad a couple of things that I had always thought lay behind D& D. The one is a sort of set of Enlightenment ideals (goodness and order triumphing over evil, with emphasis on good order in planning and a general faith in the idea that intelligence will prevail); the other is a n echo of 'Manifest Destiny, with pioneers (rogues and rebels, the 'original' American heroes) led by gods but dependent upon their own abilities, courage and nous to clear the wilderness and making it safe for the establishment of havens in which they can live and prosper.

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  15. The game was designed on the assumption that the typical PC would thus be rogueish and possibly venal rather than nakedly heroic. -I could not agree more. Even though I didn't get my start until 1e AD&D, my early impressions had nothing to do with heroism. -I can vividly recall my monk running from a giant centipede. :)

    I think this is something lost on much of the new generation. It is incredibly fun to play scrappy characters with humble beginnings. Limitations are a critical aspect of roleplaying. -Not because limitations ensure game balance, but because they make a PC's life difficult, unpredictable, and ultimately exhilarating. I love M.Gunnerquist's 'Gaming Entertainment' term. It's a very apt description for much of what is called roleplaying these days.

    James, I agree pulp fantasy was a strong influence on Gygax, and no doubt had much to do with the way the game was designed. However, what about Gygax's own "Saga of Old City" as evidence for the type of stories he felt the game might elicit?

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  16. ... alignment is one of the two areas of biggest complaint about D&D ...

    Okay, I must admit to being curious as to what you would say the other biggest complaint is? No flame-bait, btw, I truly would like to know.

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  17. I love M.Gunnerquist's 'Gaming Entertainment' term. It's a very apt description for much of what is called roleplaying these days.

    Thank you. I adapted it from the term that describes modern pro wrestling.

    Vince McMahon frequently describes his televised wrestling shows as "sports entertainment" because it's not actually a sport. The shows are scripted and the outcome of matches are determined ahead of time. This is done in order to maintain consistent interest for the fans.

    I feel that adventure paths are a valid form of entertainment. But I cannot honestly call it a game anymore if the DM is required to occasionally fudge dice rolls in order to reach the end of his story. The analogy to pro wrestling seemed apt. Adventure paths are not games. The adventure path is gaming entertainment.

    I don't have a strong desire to play adventure paths any longer.

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  18. Indeed, many D&D players, primarily those who entered the hobby in the post-Dragonlance era, accept this assumption without question and may have even been drawn into the hobby because they were attracted to the conception of an RPG as "fantasy novel where you're the hero," which is how the hobby was promoted throughout the 80s and how it's largely been designed since the 90s.

    I think that the myriad of computer games and MMOs/MUSHes/etc. that copied D&D (to one degree or another) are an equally-huge influence on the modern perception of D&D and story-driven gaming. I think it's likely that more people have come to know D&D and role-playing in general through PC gaming than through rpgs themselves.

    re: "story": Most PC games from the 1980s through to the present feature story-driven plots as their central feature, and players are expected to want to read/play the story through to the end. By their nature, most PC games are also epic in scope, tone, and theme, even if the player may not literally be saving the world by the end of the game. PC games are also finite---both in geography (PCs can't wander beyond the edges of the map, because they don't exist), and in plotline (once the player has exhausted the story, there's no need/interest in wandering off the edge of the world, because there's literally nothing else to discover/play).

    Allan.

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  19. >>>>I love M.Gunnerquist's 'Gaming Entertainment' term. It's a very apt description for much of what is called roleplaying these days.
    >>Thank you. I adapted it from the term that describes modern pro wrestling.

    ... but since "sports entertainment" was coined, serious fans have been using it as a euphemism meaning, "anything in pro wrestling that's illogically crappy." It's a term of derision when actually used by anyone not associated with WWE.

    ... so when I read "gaming entertainment" here, I read it the same way as I read "sports entertainment"... a cheap knockoff and a pale imitation of the real thing done by people who kick around what the "art form" used to be.

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  20. I think this is something lost on much of the new generation. It is incredibly fun to play scrappy characters with humble beginnings.

    I think this is what most frustrates me thematically about 3.5e. Although characters aren't too terribly powerful at 1st level, the feat/prestige class progression puts a strong focus on "what I want to be when I grow up." For me, at least, 3.5e prompts me to spend too much time making plans for my character's future that are totally unconnected to what actually happens to my character. In some campaigns, 3.5e ends up imposing an ongoing duty to min-max your character that really seems to distract from the idea that the character is growing more powerful as a consequence of his exploits.

    4e gets away from that problem somewhat by making it virtually impossible not to min-max your character except by making deliberately underpowered choices. Of course, it also gets rid of the whole "humble beginnings" concept entirely, so net loss in my book.

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  21. I think this is what most frustrates me thematically about 3.5e. Although characters aren't too terribly powerful at 1st level, the feat/prestige class progression puts a strong focus on "what I want to be when I grow up."

    Agreed. Personally, I enjoy 'classless' games. However, it is very difficult for a game to balance character choices without creating a 'build' mentality, (which I decidedly do not like.) That said, I think 'character builds' are what most new gamers look for these days. Oddly enough, I think 4e does this rather poorly. As you imply, in 4e it looks like you've more choices than you actually do. (But I think this has more to do with 'what can be programmed' rather than thoughtful game design.) On the other hand, early D&D left the majority of character choices to gameplay rather than character building. It was a simple way to do things, and it worked quite well.

    ... so when I read "gaming entertainment" here, I read it the same way as I read "sports entertainment"... a cheap knockoff and a pale imitation of the real thing done by people who kick around what the "art form" used to be.

    I don't read "gaming entertainment" as a positive thing, but not quite that negative. I read it as a casual sort of roleplaying. One where the PCs (ultimate) success is an overriding factor in the progression of play. -It's not so much if the PCs succeed, but how they succeed.

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  22. I don't read "gaming entertainment" as a positive thing, but not quite that negative. I read it as a casual sort of roleplaying. One where the PCs (ultimate) success is an overriding factor in the progression of play. -It's not so much if the PCs succeed, but how they succeed.

    Exactly.

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  23. However, what about Gygax's own "Saga of Old City" as evidence for the type of stories he felt the game might elicit?

    I think it's a very good indicator of what Gygax saw as "typical" of D&D adventures. The Gord books are, after all, Leiber pastiches, albeit very idiosyncratic ones and Leiber was a HUGE influence on Gary.

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  24. Okay, I must admit to being curious as to what you would say the other biggest complaint is?

    Magic. In my experience, alignment and Vancian magic are two things gamers complain most vociferously about in D&D. There are other things, of course, but these are the ones that garner the most attention.

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  25. Allan,

    I think you're right that computer games have had a powerful, if often unacknowledged, influence over the development of D&D since at least the 2e era. Computer games, until recently, weren't very good at emulating sandbox play, so they instead focused on compelling storylines and I imagine that's affected the expectation of many gamers who've come to tabletop RPGs after having already played computer versions.

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  26. Well said, Viriconium. Traditional D&D - along with much pulp fiction and Western movies - are very much expressions of the traditional "liberal" values of Locke, Hume and Adam Smith.

    The characters are primarily concerned with self-aggrandizement, maximizing their own share not only against other adventurers and entities (including those who properly own the resources) but also against the "unwarranted interference" of the powers-that-be.

    If they have any "nobler" motive, it is to create a "safe place" for themselves and their dependents (which usually involves remoulding their surroundings in line with their own values)

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