Friday, May 05, 2006

Roleplaying in a More Excited Time...

The good folks over at Pelgrane Press (designers of the very good Dying Earth RPG) asked a number of RPG game designers what some of their favorite "lesser known" games were. Actually, being British, they asked what the designer's "favourite" lesser known games were, but that is beside the point. The answers varied and included a great deal of the history of the roleplaying industry, with games like Amber and TSR's Saga System being mentioned by a few. Matt Forbeck's answer, Adventure!, by White Wolf, almost took over the topic of today's article, but that will have to wait until Monday. Instead, I am going to focus on one of the unifying themes of their answers, and bring up some of my thoughts regarding Burgandy Skies comments about "Young Urban Gamers."

You see, all of the game designers were talking about games they thought were FUN. Sometimes it was the mechanics that made the game fun, sometimes it was the setting, and sometimes (and I really have to believe this with the positive comments regarding Amber and Nobilis) it was about the person who was Game Mastering the game. Burgandy, in her comments regarding the overwhelming focus on the Urban in modern D&D, was hinting that the focus on the urban in the modern d20 game was alienating her (and possibly others) and had repercussions into her enjoyment of the game. In other words, "Uncle Monte's" Ptolus, and its influence on designers, has made D&D LESS FUN for her.

I agree with many of her comments about the need for more Wilderness based, or at least the use of Wilderness, in published materials. When you have core classes like the Ranger and Druid who are Wilderness naturals, it seems odd that it would be a neglected adventure type. Personally I think there are two factors combining which are behind the relative lack of Wilderness vs. Urban adventures. There is also a general trend that is affecting Burgandy's fun, but that will be discussed below.

The first factor is that Wilderness adventures are hard to write and provide a good narrative structure. It is no accident that the first Dungeons and Dragons adventures took place primarily in "dungeons." Going room to room killing monsters may not be much of a narrative, but at minimum it allows for some sort of narrative control by the author (GMs can improvise, adventure authors cannot). If you think about even such well written adventures as White Plume Mountain, it is still a dungeon crawl with little focus on getting to, or back from, the dungeon. In fact, the first "White Box" of dungeons and dragons recommended that you buy an Avalon Hill game called Outdoor Survival to use as your Wilderness rules. The Basic Set focused on dungeon adventure and wilderness rules were added in the Expert Set. The first adventure I can think of, which came with my Basic Set, which incorporated wilderness into the narrative was Keep on the Borderlands even then the wilderness sections were secondary to the very large "dungeon." The first module included with Basic Sets was In Search of the Unknown. It was difficult for beginners to use and was entirely dungeon based. As I said, the Expert Set included Wilderness rules and it also included the first real Wilderness adventure. The clumsy, but exciting in an Edgar Rice Burroughs way (don't get me started on the Burroughs/Mystara connection), Isle of Dread. Isle of Dread fully used the Expert Set's wilderness adventure rules, but highlights the narrative structure problem of wilderness adventures.

The narrative problem was largely addressed in the late 80s/early 90s when writers were finally becoming skilled at the "event based," rather than "site based," adventure style. Site based adventures can be fun, especially ones like Ravenloft (which actually a fusion of event based and site based adventures), but are easier for fledgling Gamemasters because the site helps form the structure. Event based adventures require flowcharts and timelines, but they make wilderness adventures far more plausible.

The second contributor to the growing urbanization of fantasy adventures is the growing urbanization of Fantasy writing. Authors like Michael Moorcock, in his Wizardry and Wild Romance, argue against the bucolic idealization of fantasy like Lord of the Rings. Moorcock argues that "important" fantasy is Urban fantasy. He doesn't necessarily mean that the adventures are city-based, but he does mean that they are anti-idealized. All the talk of happy elves, etc., isn't what makes a compelling tale for Moorcock and his opinions of Lord of the Rings are contrarian to be sure. Moorcock, and I would argue Monte Cook and Sean Reynolds, embraces the avant-garde, even gothic-punk, feel of games like Vampire the Masquerade and bring such sentiments to the game table. Like with Moorcock, there is a kind of elitism on behalf of writers like Cook and Reynolds, of course in all these cases the elitism is backed with a heavy dose of talent. Who but Monte Cook, could release "his own" Player's Handbook? Cook is a figure who looms large in gaming, and Planescape and 3rd edition are testiments to his talents, but like many luminaries his shadow may be getting too big. In a way, the City -- like the dungeon -- is an easy way to substitute environment for structure. The city is like a living dungeon where some "monsters" cannot be freely killed. I like Urban adventures, I think of most roleplaying as a form of superheroes vs. supervillains even my fantasy, but I can see the value in Wilderness adventures as well. I also see a need for more discussion/implementation of them. I am not alone, Burgandy Skies isn't alone either, in fact I would argue that "Home Under the Range" in Dungeon 134 is a wonderful wilderness adventure. Even if it takes place underground.

More important than whether adventures are wilderness, dungeon, or urban based is a trend I see in a lot of gaming today. It is the sense of elitism I get from both designers and players. Not all, to be sure, but some. When I read modern "mainstream" roleplaying books, I don't feel like I am being introduced into something fun. It is more like I am being handed a bland tome, but told that "imporatant" adventures/products have been written. Gaming has always been geeky, but now it is geeky and happy with its niche. Gone is the evangelization aspect of the hobby, in is the domination of the niche. There are designers who break the mold for sure, Matt Forbeck is working mainstream games that add elements of the roleplay hobbie, but the fact that Heroscape and D&D in no way share staff/input is ridiculous and indicative of the problem.

When I first heard about D&D I thought it might be fun. The game was about fantasy, like the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Greek Mythology. But like most people I wasn't sure what roleplaying was or how it could be fun. That is until I read the foreward to the Basic Set:

I was busy recuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave.

Sometimes I forget that D&D Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I'm reading or a movie I'm watching. The original D&D rules are a classic. They gave the first gaming system for fantasy roleplaying and, in my opinion, are still the best set of rules on the market.

Earlier works had similar tones:

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic, exciting, and imaginative game of roleplaying for adults 12 years and up. Each player creates a character or characters who may be dwarves, elves, halflings or human fighting-men, magic-users, pious clerics or wily thieves. The characters are plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and cavers run by another player: the referee, often called the Dungeon Master.

"Adults 12 years and up?!" Imagine how excited I was to read those words at 12. I was an adult! Even the very first edition of the rules werre filled with excitement. As cocky as Gary Gygax often sounded, he always oozed excitement and you could feel how much the creators enjoyed their new creation, the roleplaying game.

But the modern rules are often not as evocative. Minus the ten words of encouragement on the back of the book, the first words a new player encountered when reading the Third Edition Player's Handbook were:

Character Creation Basics: Follow these steps to create a beginning first level character. You will need a photocopy of the character sheet, a pencil some scratch paper, and four six-sided die.

Okay, "That's not fair," you shout, "what about the introduction?" Well, unlike the other editions that came before the introduction, but since you asked.

Welcome to the game that has defined the fantastic imagination for over a quarter of a century.
When you play the Dungeons and Dragons game, you create a unique fictional character that lives in your imagination and the imagination of your friends. One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (DM), controls the monsters and people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face he dangers and explore the mysteries that your Dungeon Master sets before you.

Pretty bland. To be fair, there is a list of posible things that can happen to your character that is printed below that paragraph, but the list lacks the enthusiasm and wonder that the first contained. The new rules were written by people for whom role-playing was old hat, for people who had played before, and with an emphasis on how things needed to be "updated." The rules themselves are an improvement, to be sure, but the tone and the execution of the material lacks the magic of the earlier, more purple, prose. Roleplaying has become jaded and methodical and not excited and evangelical.

What about Monte Cook's "Player's Handbook?"

You hold in your hands a book that attempts to express its own reality. It is a setting—not just with places and characters, but with the rules that define how those characters operate within those places. Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved is based on the idea that the best way to describe a thing is to define that thing. It is a roleplaying game rules set based on a popular rules set, but different in its own ways. It’s fantasy roleplaying taken in a new direction.

The whole, my rules are better than your rules sentiment pours from the words. There is little to excite the reader, rather the focus is on what sets his rules apart and an existential mission statement. No evocative purple prose, not thrilling stories to share, just "this is what I do and this is new, oh and better." Not all games today lack the old charm and excitement, Shane Hensley's Savage Worlds has it in spades, as do other games, but the flagship and the engineers who built the new flagship don't have that inner fire. They lack the impulse or capability to evangelize, they assume their high status is sufficient and that turns off people like Burgandy Skies.

So, I'll leave you with the first words a reader of Savage Worlds encounters:

A mighty barbarian ascends the cold mountains to slay the legendary ice-wyrm...
A group of scholars and gumshoes discover something Man Was Not Meant To Know in the ancient hills of New England...
A band of holy warriors, loot-hungry thieves, and soldiers of fortune raid the lair of a vile liche to end his reign of terror...
A patrol of young soldiers discovers a mysterious temple to an unknown demon deep in the jungles of Vietnam...
A group of heroes blessed with incredible powers created the Justice Guild to fignt powerful arch-villains ben on taking over their city...

These tales and more are waiting to be told in...


Hmm...maybe I want to play these games after all.

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