Monday, March 10, 2008

Who Needs Genuis?

In today's Slate, Erik Sofge pens a scathing critique of Dungeons and Dragons, and it's relatively broken system of morality. He claims that the game is about nothing other than blameful slaughter of arbitrarily defined "monsters" in the name of acquiring material goods and advancements in power.

Sofge is right, and he's wrong. Dungeons and Dragons subscribes to what I've come to regard as the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" school of Good and Evil. Monsters are, by nature, irredeemably evil enough that they are effectively incapable of change, but enjoy it just enough that you can ascribe an element of choice to their actions - and thus justify punishing them. This is in contrast to The Lord of the Rings, where the Orcs are implacable agents of evil because they're under the direct control of Tolkien's version of Satan, being, after all, the twisted creations of same.

Sofge is correct in that, at it's base, Dungeons and Dragons isn't about telling an uplifting story. But then again, neither are children's games of Cops and Robbers or most Jason Statham films. And many immature gamers are playing a cross between Make-Believe, and their favorite action movies. And, let's face it, in many action movies, if they didn't tell you who the good guys were, you'd never figure it out on your own. But Dungeons and and Dragons traces its decent, through the original Chainmail (not the one that Wizards of the Coast created just a few years ago) to wargames - where the whole point is assemble an army of what are, in effect, toy soldiers, and battle it out with the other guys army of toy soldiers. This is why high level Wizards (or Magic-Users as us old-timers remember them) bear a distinct resemblance to artillery pieces - they suck in hand to hand combat, but they'll lay waste whole companies of line troops with a single Fireball. The creative play aspect of Role-playing feels like an afterthought in older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, because it was - the game was more about giving a combat résumé to your world-beating fantasy generals as much as anything else.

But where Sofge goes astray is with the idea that Dungeons and Dragons HAS to be played this way. For the most part, it is - thirty-plus years of baggage will do that. Veteran D&D players tend to default to that mode of play, especially when dealing with people they haven't played with before - if you know nothing else, assuming that you're going on a dungeon-crawl/killing spree is a good bet. But the game itself does nothing to force you to play this way. If I decide that I'm going to make combats frighteningly dangerous, and give the players their rewards if they talk they way out of trouble, I'm perfectly capable of doing that. I might have to tweak some rules here and there, and set expectations, but I won't break the game in doing so, and nor will I strip it of its "Dungeons and Dragons-ness." If I penalize, rather than reward, the player characters for murdering Orcs in their sleep (as opposed to finding a less-lethal way of incapacitating them) - I'm not breaking the rules as they are written. (But keep this in mind - the Navy Seals wouldn't leave a group of sleeping enemies alive and well under that circumstance either - after all, unless you knew you wouldn't be coming that way again, you'd be faced with the possibility of having to fight them on your way out - but this time, you'd have a non-combatant princess in tow. One man's atrocity is another man's smart fighting.)

Sofge falls into the trap that a number of boosters of Gurps and the World of Darkness allow themselves to be caught in. The rule books to just about any role-playing game are an instruction manual about how to take an imagined world (even one based on say - the War on Terror in Afghanistan {and yes, there is a game based on that - it uses a variation on the current Dungeons and Dragons rules}) and break it down into an abstraction ruled by funky, polyhedral dice. The "framework for a unique kind of narrative, a collaborative thought experiment crossed with improvisational theater," is both a creation and the responsibility of the players.

Dungeons and Dragons is a holdover from when the hobby, being brand new, was immature. And, because of its ubiquity (pretty much everyone who games knows how to play D&D), it is the most common point of entry into the hobby. People new to anything have an immature understanding of it, and many people enter the hobby as children, or young adults. As people mature in the hobby, many "graduate" to other games, where the rules systems are tailored to support a more mature style of play. However, to be honest, a lot of gamers never really mature much beyond the kill-goblins-take-treasure style of playing. And they tend to stick with Dungeons and Dragons. You can be unpleasantly impressed that a 12-year-old is still happily riding a tricycle when he could be mountain biking - but it's not the tricycle's fault.

Sofge is correct in that there are dozens of more innovative and sophisticated games than Dungeons and Dragons. Runequest, Sorcerer, Bureau 13, Traveller, Champions, Epiphany, The Morrow Project, UnderGround or Ars Magica are all excellent examples. And many of them are out of print, and/or the companies that created them have folded. It is Dungeons and Dragons ability to stay relevant in the face of its lack of sophistication that had kept it around, despite being obsolete. There will always need to be a gateway into the hobby. And despite being somewhat outdated and unsophisticated, Dungeons and Dragons fits the bill.

1 comment:

ben said...

My panties of pink Theology:

+10 to charisma (only effective in gay neighborhoods)

100% resistance to STDs and AIDS (if you have cloak of abstinence)

+100 to intelligence as defined by republicans

-10 to defense against hypocrisies

Special powers:

Can create worlds in 7 days