Saturday, January 8, 2011

D&D is a Great Big Mess

When I say that "Dungeons & Dragons was a great big, gloriously incoherent mess," as I did the other day, here's my primary point: D&D isn't really about anything, except perhaps fantasy adventures, with "fantasy" being defined so broadly as to include, literally, anything that isn't possible in the real world and "adventure" being defined almost as broadly. D&D doesn't devote much time to telling you what it's about. Its rulebooks are never self-conscious enough to devote any pages to the game's "themes," for example, and its explicit literary allusions consist primarily of bibliographies of inspirational books rather than anything more concrete. Consequently, the question of what D&D is about falls to each player and each referee to answer, with there being no single answer that is "right" or "wrong," even if some answers might be closer to what Gygax or Arneson might have had in mind.

This isn't to deny that Dungeons & Dragons includes lots of "markers" that stake out its territory. Its selection of character classes and races and the presence of magic and monsters all imply a world largely derived from Western ancient and medieval legend, supplemented with more recent fantasies deriving from the same. At the same time, few of the game's markers are so well-defined as to exclude the importation of ideas and concepts from other sources, thereby making it easy, say, to drop robots or dimension-hopping travelers into your campaign without undermining its essential "D&D-ness." Indeed, I'd argue that this kitchen sink approach is one of the most vital parts of what makes D&D the game it is.

Secondarily, my point is that the rules of Dungeons & Dragons weren't created according to some a priori plan. Rather, they grew organically through play to meet very specific demands. D&D is thus a Frankenstein's monster and, while many may be repulsed by the stitching and bolts that hold this patchwork creature together, I continue to marvel at the fact that it came to life in the first place. Of course, because the game's rules have this quality to them, they readily admit to the bolting on of yet more rules without much worry that doing so will somehow undermine its designers' "vision." I'd be hard pressed to believe that either Dave or Gary had much of a vision for their game beyond creating and sharing something that they found enjoyable to play.

The RPGs I enjoy most are those that are, to varying degrees, great big messes. I like rough edges in my games, things that rub me the wrong way and thereby encourage me to engage the game actively rather than passively. A terrific side effect of a game's being messy is that such games rarely tell you what you should do with them. That's probably why, of late, I've been so engrossed in games like Space Opera, another great big mess of a game that, even while it's providing stats for nearly every weapon conceived by man from the dawn of history to the far future, never once stops to tell you what to do with all these rules systems and sub-systems it so generously provides. I like that. Heck, I love that and wouldn't mind a few more games in this vein.

11 comments:

  1. One of my friends was reading the monster descriptions in my copy of Monsters & Treasure, and asked me in what way they were ordered. I replied that they were listed in the order they occurred to Gary at the time he typed them. For some reason, we both found the idea very amusing.

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  2. Yay for great big Frankenstein's monster messes!

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  3. Totally agreed. It really is loads of fun to play in a game where, for all practical purposes, anything should be able to happen. The game's edges should be blurry, where you can't quite make out the boundaries, but you can get the general lay of the area.(Tunnels and Trolls springs to mind as well; but it is a cousin after all!) My ¢2.

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  4. Consequently, the question of what D&D is about falls to each player and each referee to answer...
    So true.

    I think part of what makes D&D the biggest rpg on the market is the same thing that makes the Bible the U.S.'s top selling book -- it has such a profusion and variety of ideas that just about anyone can identify with it.

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  5. I think part of what makes D&D the biggest rpg on the market is the same thing that makes the Bible the U.S.'s top selling book -- it has such a profusion and variety of ideas that just about anyone can identify with it.

    That may be the first time in the history of RPGs that someone has drawn a positive connection between D&D and the Bible... :)

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  6. I've found 4E to be less messy than previous editions, though mess tends to accumulate.

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  7. Ha! IT'S ALIVE!

    (hehehe)

    Well stated.

    And on a biblical note:

    God bless our mess, for it is a glorious mess...umm...amen? :)

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  8. Paul said: "One of my friends was reading the monster descriptions in my copy of Monsters & Treasure, and asked me in what way they were ordered. I replied that they were listed in the order they occurred to Gary at the time he typed them."

    Of course, looking closely, they do come in ordered blocks by type -- (1) Humanoids (chaotic "giant-types") by increasing HD. (2) Undead by increasing HD. (3) Greek chimerical-types. (4) Faerie types and demihumans (lawful/neutral). (5) Flyers. (6) Elementals. (7) Slime crew. (8) Real-world animals.

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  9. @Delta, you're right. It's easier to see the order when looking at the reference table than it is in the middle of the descriptions. I still enjoy the mental image of Gary scratching his beard while musing, "let's see... mermen... and of course goblins...."

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  10. This is a wonderful post James.

    I've often imagined the game was created in this fashion, going along following a particular idea and than having to move on another section and Gary saying, "Hmmm. Let's do this part differently."

    "Why?" says Arneson

    "Eh, I just like it better. It'll be fun."

    For me, that conversation took place a long, long time ago and my tastes have changed. I do really appreciate the insight however into the mind of a dedicated fan of this style of game.

    (I apologize if this comment reads oddly. I'm terribly sick to day. Gaming blogs make me feel better :)

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  11. The fact that I had a robot and Warhoon Martians in my Tegal Manor games as a kid is a good indication of great, nutty ways you could go with fantasy adventure.

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