Wednesday, January 30, 2013


When you talk to people who have played the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game from the 1980s, one of the things that you'll learn is that almost no-one ever bothered using all of the rules. While there are a few different reasons for this, the one that is most applicable in my case is the fact that I didn't learn how to play the game from actually reading the rules. Instead, I was taught how to play by a friend, his older brother and some of his friends  In turn, I taught other people how to play. As a result there were a number of us that all played the game in roughly the same way, and ignored many of the same rules.

But it turns out that there were some rules that were almost universally ignored. One that is held up to this day as an object of poor game design is the rule that allowed for Player Characters (effectively, the players' avatars in the game) to earn Experience Points for collecting treasure. Experience Points were a form of in-game reward that tracked a character's level of "on the job learning" as it were, and, along with the idea of "leveling" is perhaps more than anything else, is the mechanic most associated with role-playing games - tabletop, console, personal computer et cetera. For many players, myself included, the idea that a character who happens to find one hundred gold coins buried beneath a barn has learned something about how to use their skills and abilities was ludicrous. To this day, it's not hard to find players and former players who openly deride the rule, and even other games have made special mention of it as something that they don't do.

Looking back and thinking about it, it's not actually as stupid an idea as it seems on its face. But it only makes sense within a greater framework that isn't explained very well in the AD&D rulebooks. In a nutshell, the rule does make sense - so long as you presume that gold, despite the game's inflated prices, is valuable enough to not leave lying around, and thus that to actually get at any given amount of gold, one has to overcome some level of potentially-lethal threat to do so. In other words, the amount of money that player characters could obtain in a given amount of time was intended to be directly proportional to the absolute difficulty of obtaining it. Without this presumption, you quickly ran into situations where the easiest path to character advancement was to convince the Dungeon Master to leave unguarded hoards of treasure around the countryside. But, taken into account, this understanding could be used to make quick determinations about a number of things.

Of course, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was simply a game, but the idea that information often makes more sense in a context other than the one in which it was presented is, perhaps, universal. The infamous court case where a woman sued McDonald's after badly scalding herself with hot coffee is often sited as an instance where American litigiousness and unscrupulous lawyers after undeserved paydays combine to wrongly punish people and companies whose only crimes are having deep pockets and stupid customers. But tell someone that internal memos from McDonald's showed that the company was knowingly recommending that coffee be kept at a temperature higher than was considered safe as a money-saving tactic, and they're often surprised. And that simple fact casts the whole affair in a new light.

In a world where information often seems to come from black boxes, a certain level of skepticism that one is being given the whole story is often healthy. The answer to this, of course, is not to simply disbelieve everything one reads or hears, but to have more sources of information. And not to assume that our first impulses (or even lasting ones) about something are necessarily correct.

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