Monday, December 22, 2008

The Disenchantment of the World

Robert Fisher recently made a nice little post that reminded me of a thought I'd been having as well. In it, Robert quotes someone -- from ENWorld of all places! -- who notes that, "how versatile and multi-functional so many of the magic items [of AD&D] were. They were powerful, and they were odd, and fascinating, and most important of all a lot of them could do all kinds of things." The commenter adds that "By comparison so many of the magic items of more recent editions are bland, plain, uninspired, and uninspiring. It’s like using a piece of technology from the eighties or something. The items are overly specialized, technical, usually limited to one specific function, top-heavy in design and capabilities."

I definitely think there's something to this. Whenever I read my little brown books, I'm constantly struck by how much more, well, magical the magic items seem to be. One of the reasons is because, more often than not, the descriptions of the item contains almost nothing in the way of explicit mechanics. They're suggestive of mechanics but they provide no unambiguous way to handle their use in play. They're mostly flavor text that doubles as game mechanics and so, as I read these entries, I find myself thinking, "What does that mean?" and "How would that work in play?" My answers to these questions almost always result in items that aren't just pieces of magical technology but something much more intriguing.

Take, for example, the old standby -- and something even I will admit is a rip-off from Tolkien -- the elven cloak. This is what OD&D has to say about it: "Wearing the Cloak makes a person next to invisible." Next to invisible? What does that mean? Contrast this to AD&D, whose description of the item, now dubbed the cloak of elvenkind, is much more specific:
A cloak of elvenkind is of a plain neutral gray which is indistinguishable from any sort of ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when it is worn, with the hood drawn up around he head, it enables the wearer to be nearly invisible, for the cloak has chameleon-like powers. In the outdoors, the wearer of a cloak of elvenkind is almost totally invisible in natural surroundings, nearly so in other settings. Note that the wearer is easily seen if violently or hastily moving, regardless of the surroundings.
The description then goes on to give specific percentage chances of how invisible the wearer is, from 100% in heavy growth in natural surroundings to 50% while underground and illuminated by the continual light spell. I'm not keen on this degree of specificity, but, even with it, there's still some wiggle room for the referee -- and players! -- because what constitutes "heavy growth" as opposed to "light growth" is a matter of opinion. You can see, though, that, even with all the expansive physical/metaphysical description of the cloak, its functioning ultimately comes down to a D100 roll.

Third Edition, as it so often does, pares down Gygaxian flavor text and reduces AD&D's baroque mechanics to banality: "This cloak of neutral gray cloth is indistinguishable from an ordinary cloak of the same color. However, when worn with the hood drawn up around the head, it gives the wearer a +5 competence bonus on Hide checks." Fourth Edition is even more laconic: "Gain an item bonus to Stealth checks equal to the cloak’s enhancement bonus." There's not even a nod to flavor text.

I fully understand why D&D's descriptions of magic items have developed the way that they have, but that doesn't mean I have to approve of it. In my opinion, the so-called "Christmas tree effect" is not a consequence of there being too many magic items in D&D (though I have no objection to making them rarer). Rather, it's the result of reducing magic items to being a collection game mechanics that always and everywhere work in the same way. If an elven cloak is always a flat +X bonus to skill check Y, then of course the item becomes problematic when combined with other bonuses gleaned from other sources, thereby lending credence to the absurd notion that magic items need to be "reined in."

I grow ever more convinced that the quest for "objectivity" and "balance" in roleplaying games is the surest way to bleed all the magic out of them, as well as to create an audience that then perceives any "imbalance" as a flaw requiring yet more corrections and re-tunings to overcome. Certainly this approach sells more books and helps give further justification to "Sage Advice" columns and the like, but at what cost? "Game balance" is a chimera and not the cool three-headed variety. To embrace this is one of the keys to appreciating and enjoying old school play. It's something I embraced with great joy and I've never looked back.

32 comments:

  1. IMHO, Tunnels & Trolls resembles OD&D more strongly than AD&D does, at least in terms of avoiding the insistence on codifying, specifying, and reducing to game rules.

    I know it's got silly spell names, but if you check out the biggest source of examples of what T&T can be all about -- the solo dungeons -- you find that only a relative minority are all about the whimsy.

    T&T never had a magic item list, but it was assumed everywhere that there *would* be magic items. It was all on the GM to make them up.

    I consider that awesome, in the same way that V&V's "you can also just make up a set of powers, including game mechanics, for your character, and if the GM approves, run with it" is awesome.

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  2. I agree with this 100%. I loved the magic items sections in the older versions of D&D. In 4e, all of that sense of wonder has gone. You might as well read the Littlewoods catalogue.

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  3. I think it's that 4e is conscious of itself as "optionable material" for computer games, just as so much fiction today is written with a view to how it will be made into a movie. What can a computer do with "nearly objectionable"? What does it care that it be indistinguishable from a normal cloak? But "gain an item bonus to stealth checks equal to the cloak's enhancement bonus." That's almost runnable code!

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  4. Despite being old school and raised on Judges Guild, I always kept magic items more rare than most DM's. Some campaigns I had it was a big deal to get a +2 weapon. Something like an Elven Cloak, often just a toss-off item in Monty Haul types, would practically be the artifact you get at the end of a big dungeon adventure in my games.

    I think my occasional stinginess with the items helps me put more weight, importance, and also a level of personality (without it being a thinking thing)into it that might not be right there in the description.

    Just like Tolkien seemed to have put a lot of personality into the sword "Sting," despite the fact that it was maybe just a +2 weapon and glowed when orcs were near, the scarcity of magic items in Middle Earth automatically gave items a certain Gravitas. Combined with a great character (like Bilbo with the sword), a somewhat lower power item can seem like so much more if the DM wants it too.

    I gotta agree with Ed in his post above. Speaking of personality, those old T&T solo dungeons had loads. I didn't run T&T so much as I stole some of the vibe from those products to use in my D&D. I still have Mirror World and Naked Doom as dungeons in my major city.

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  5. Your blog has been on fire this holiday season, but this post just rolled a crit. You've used the devolution of the magic item to perfectly describe how today's D&D has ended up being so unplayable for me. Well done.

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  6. Not just magic items are dry in that "4e" game (its kinda funny how they call it "forth edition", seeing how this is the first version of their Magic the Gathering RPG), but you dont even have to figure out how an item works! They said it not fun, if the players dont know what they find, so they say to just drop the item on the players laps.

    Some how I find 4e plays a lot like WarhammerQuest (another systematic game that riding the coattails of an awesome and legendary game), but at least WHQ has batter flavor texts (not to mention who you can wing the $%#& out of that game with just the Initiative score!).

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  7. Sometimes I think we should strive to never use a monster or magic item straight out of the book. Give everything history or personality or both. Even from the older editions.

    Certainly this approach sells more books...

    But does it really? Do we really know how many newcomers discover the hobby only through Wizards brand of D&D but get turned off by the complexity? Do we really know how many old timers think of picking up the hobby again but get turned off by Wizards brand of D&D?

    And how many others are there like me? I’ve got five 3.0e hardbacks, one 3.5e (second-hand), and one 4e. I’ve got a bunch of RPG stuff on my Amazon wish list, and not a single Wizards product. Is it because I’m an anti-D&D snob? No, my anti-D&D days were in the 1990s. ^_^

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  8. ...and a point I probably should have made in my post on the topic...

    I remember coming up with adventures inspired by an oAD&D spell or magic-item.

    Contrasted with 3e where—besides not being inspirational—it seemed anything strategic I wanted NPCs to try to do with spells was foiled because so many were reigned in stronger to a tactical scale. (e.g. Invisibility stripped of its indefinite duration. Hold Person dailed back to such a short duration.)

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  9. It's also interesting how the cloak gets weaker each edition as it turns from a power to a plus.

    I think a good magic item is one that gives you a power you don't already have in real life. Near-invisibility, that's cool! A modest bonus to some skill? Meh. Worse, with a magic item economy you get cousin items for other skills, and all these bonuses just get baked into the PC builds and NPC stats and monster stats and DC's. If your special power is assumed, it's not special.

    The other side of the blandification of magic is the increase of mundane magic. Tracking torches and lanterns a pain? Buy some sunrods. Encumbrance too annoying? Handy haversacks for everyone. Screw up the rules for costs of scribing scrolls? Boccob's blessed book to the rescue. Sometimes I really want to smack the WotC designers around with a locked gauntlet.

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  10. (er, scribing spells, not scrolls..)

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  11. Part of the problem for me was the Diablo-isation of magic items in 3E. I've frequently heard the criticism from my players that "Only the modern D&D item system could make a flaming, demon-slaying katana seem dull." as they scribble down the multiple weapon qualities of yet another cookie-cutter, level appropriate item.

    Even the unique named items in 3E (the Frost Brand, the Apparatus of Kwalish, etc.) lack a lot of the grandeur and mystique they had in the old days. Sometimes less (description) is more.

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  12. A very, very thought provoking topic.

    One solution to this may be to combine magical item effects so that any one magical item has multiple effects that are completely unrelated. Perhaps these additional effects are not stat, or crunch, based at all, but roleplaying ones.

    Perhaps the elven cloak can make you near invisible, but also makes spotting others wearing similar cloaks possible as well as those under the effects of an invisibility spell. Perhaps it also attracts intense interest from elves, who would like to know exactly how one of these rare items has ended up with one of the characters. Other effects that the player characters can discover so that it is not a line of text on a character sheet with some stat modifiers attached to it. Imagine their surprise when one of the characters dons it and immediately after, spots someone else in the room with them, wearing one, looking right at him ;)

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  13. I believe magic items have evolved the way they have due to the incessant arguments caused by the old skool way of defining them. The old skool way only works if the players really place themselves in the hands of the DM. That doesn't always happen.

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  14. The decline in the flavor and flexibility of magic items has the same reason as most everything else in D&D as it has changed editions.

    There were people at the table who couldn't learn to play nice with each other and make compromises and consenses so a perceived need to codify things took over.

    It's disappointing to me, but where my group is concerned I am allowed to be a lot less rules-bound, as long as they understand my reasons.

    Thanks to this the next campaign I will be running is going to be the most old-school style campaign I've ever run, and I'm looking forward to it.

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  15. I agree with what MtbDM says. Rules for magic items (and lots of other things) have tightened up because of the incessant rules arguments that took place in old school games. Also the general movement of the DM from iron-handed tyrant toward 'game moderator' also has a lot to do with it.

    I love me some old-school D&D, but rules arguments and never knowing what to expect when moving from one campaign to the next was definitely wrong-bad fun.

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  16. I believe magic items have evolved the way they have due to the incessant arguments caused by the old skool way of defining them. The old skool way only works if the players really place themselves in the hands of the DM. That doesn't always happen.

    This is a topic unto itself.

    The 3e designers strove to take the DM out of the equation. (Though I fully believe they meant experienced groups to put the DM back in.)

    For the designers, this was to make the game easier for novice DMs. Unfortunately, a complex system that requires study and mastery isn’t easier for most people. Most novice DMs end up relying on the help of players with more experience, but that’s a solution for any system.

    For some players, however, this design seems like the answer to the inexperienced and/or immature DM/player. Except that it really isn’t. You can’t fix those problems with rules. You fix inexperience with experience. You fix immaturity with growing up. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts.

    So “taking the DM out of the equation”—at least from what I’ve seen—doesn’t really address these issues for most groups. It only does violence to one of—if not the—greatest strengths of the pen-&-paper game.

    From the 4e PHB, this edition seems a little schizophrenic on the issue. It some ways it explicitly tries to put the DM back into the equation. In other ways, however, it continues the “we must continually eliminate any ambiguity—no matter how slight—no matter the cost”.

    Back to the topic at hand. The thing about D&D is that with each edition, the designers want to make things more systemized than before, but they don’t want to carry it “too far”. They don’t want to turn D&D into the Hero system. Yet, the cumulative result of multiple editions each doing this a little is that it is going to end up being the Hero system. Just with levels instead of µlevels.

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  17. I consider that awesome, in the same way that V&V's "you can also just make up a set of powers, including game mechanics, for your character, and if the GM approves, run with it" is awesome.

    It is awesome and it's one of the reasons why, despite my youthful snobbery and my continued misgivings, I'm thinking seriously about taking a second look at T&T.

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  18. That's almost runnable code!

    I felt that way about 3e a lot of the time too. Part of me feels somewhat uncomfortable making that connection, since it feels like a cheap shot on par with shouting "nerd rage" at someone if they dislike something in a newer edition/interpretation of a geek institution. But I really can't shake the feeling that the cart is now pulling the horse in game design and that the WotC editions of D&D really are "analog video games" with very little in common with their forebears.

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  19. The other side of the blandification of magic is the increase of mundane magic. Tracking torches and lanterns a pain? Buy some sunrods. Encumbrance too annoying? Handy haversacks for everyone. Screw up the rules for costs of scribing scrolls? Boccob's blessed book to the rescue. Sometimes I really want to smack the WotC designers around with a locked gauntlet.

    Very well said.

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  20. Even the unique named items in 3E (the Frost Brand, the Apparatus of Kwalish, etc.) lack a lot of the grandeur and mystique they had in the old days. Sometimes less (description) is more.

    I couldn't agree more.

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  21. And I don't think even the old magic items were magical enough.

    Yeah, there was a bit of flexibility and mystery in the old elven cloak, but it didn't really become "magical" in my games until, as someone mentioned above, the elves started to wonder how this adventurer ended up with a garment usually reserved for their nobility. At that point, elven cloaks became fun again.

    - Brian

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  22. I love me some old-school D&D, but rules arguments and never knowing what to expect when moving from one campaign to the next was definitely wrong-bad fun.

    Them's the breaks.

    For myself, I have concluded that the possibility of rules arguments is something that can never be eliminated. Heck, people argue with MMO developers all the time about how this or that mechanic is implemented, so I doubt a pen and paper RPG will ever be rid of such stuff either. So I accept this reality and focus on the unique joys of figuring it out for oneself and muddling through. That's part of what has kept me gaming all these years and it's something we old schoolers just take in stride.

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  23. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts.

    Bravo!

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  24. I remarked on the phenomenon recently when one of my "4E" characters acquired "Boots of Spider Climbing." At least to me, the name suggested walking on walls and ceilings a la Spider-Man ... but the actual effects are far more mundane.

    Brian's "computer code" observation seems to hit the mark, even if that's not (although it may well be) exactly the actual rationale.

    It may also be part of why charms, illusions and other potentially subtle and ruling- (more than rule-) based effects have been downplayed.

    The bottom line at least in 4E is that the game is essentially reduced from being an RPG to being a tactical combat board game.

    The broader problem goes way back. I love how T&T leaves not only magic items but monsters up to the imagination!

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  25. By curious contrast, The Fantasy Trip quite elegantly (IMO) made the transition from tactical combat board game to role-playing game. Some of my observations at the time about spell durations in TFT seem to have come up again in "3E D&D," but that's relatively minor next to the bizarre combination of mechanical detail and descriptive abstraction in 4E. To me, rules-heaviness in an RPG is warranted only by "simulation" -- in the sense of depicting the "secondary world" in ways that serve the imagination.

    Really, I think it might be salutary for scenario writers to eschew system-specific stuff as much as possible. At least start with a draft on those lines, and then add stat blocks and the like if you must. It seems to be getting a bit topsy-turvy, not only in WotC's products but in the amount of energy put into producing "retro-clones" versus creating exciting new material for adventures.

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  26. Sunrods are almost a necessity in 4E, because while you could buy a lantern ... there's no oil for it on the equipment list!

    So, I convinced a DM to let me buy some oil. Then, it was like pulling teeth to get any kind of combat use from it. Now, I think the "Molotov cocktail" bit got a bit overblown in old games -- but any kind of lamp oil is by definition notably flammable, "oil slick" is a slippery fact of life, and smoke screens and scalding are familiar to many from deep-frying mishaps.

    Fortunately, I was allowed to get a bit of tactical advantage from a pot of oil in an encounter in which my character was otherwise pretty impotent apart from his one Daily Power.

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  27. Eww, now that bugs me. Things in game should simulate real life with the caveat that magic and gods and all that exist and work as stated in the rules.

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  28. Really, I think it might be salutary for scenario writers to eschew system-specific stuff as much as possible. At least start with a draft on those lines, and then add stat blocks and the like if you must. It seems to be getting a bit topsy-turvy, not only in WotC's products but in the amount of energy put into producing "retro-clones" versus creating exciting new material for adventures.

    There is much wisdom here.

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  29. It'd be interesting if companies started to do that, selling a module with a separate stat pack for any given system.

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  30. "Fourth Edition is even more laconic: "Gain an item bonus to Stealth checks equal to the cloak’s enhancement bonus." There's not even a nod to flavor text."

    Except for, you know, the flavour text.
    PHB p.250
    "This cloak of swirling leaves, crafted in the elven tradition, increases your stealth."

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  31. Except for, you know, the flavour text.

    You are quite correct, though I think the larger point about the way magic items have been mechanized in the post-OD&D world stands.

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  32. This is a really great blog post, but it is sort of ruined at the very end. Game balance is necessary for any game. What I feel you are disliking are balances that have nothing to do with the game. Balances such as challenge level to party level and PC level to PC level. Much of what is considered "balance" is totally game ruining in my book.

    The other, far more jarring comment is the turning away from "objectivity". What is a referee, if not objective? A referee is not in the game to create the rules, but to enforce them. Remove objectivity and there is no game.

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