Tuesday, May 09, 2006

What is D&D?

I'm sitting here listening to Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. If you have never heard this piece I implore you to do so, else you are really missing out on something. It seems to be breaking my melancholia; so much so that I'm composing another blog. Oh no!

Anyway, on with the topic at hand: What is D&D? Now most people who read this blog would think this a rather silly topic and quite redundant. However, I'm gonna take a different tack with this query. Maybe I should rephrase the question to: When is D&D not D&D?
Case in point: My YC group or as we like to call ourselves "The Olivehurst Boyz" since all of us were raised in the Marysville suburb of Olivehurst, played a variant of D&D using the d20 system called Monte Cook's 'Arcana Unearthed' which later became Monte Cook's 'Arcana Evolved' after Wizards of the Coast had a hissy-fit with the previous title. (Gee, I wonder why?) Btw, as an aside, I hate the book 'Unearthed Arcana' more than I hated the original 1st edition book of the same title. It is a collection of munchkiniana (is that a word?) designed to rip the toupees off the heads of many a DM. I do not use it in my campaigns and I have refused to buy it. How do I know if I don't own one? I downloaded a .pdf of it and said to myself after perusing it, "I am not purchasing this piece of crap." There, you know my secret. Anyway, I digress...
Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved was a wildly divergent version of D&D, and in the minds of many who have played this game, it really stretches the boundary of what D&D is. I guess this would be a thematic question. You see, there were no dwarves and elves and halflings in Arcana Evolved. There were Litorians, Mojh, and Faen. These were not analogs with different names, mind you, these were actually different races. Litorians were bipedal lion-people, Mojh were half-dragons, but were not the same as the template, and the Faen were small elves, in fact, they had two subraces: Quickling and Loresong either of which could spin a chrysalis at 3rd level or higher, in place of getting a feat, and come out as a tiny Spryte with wings and all your gear mystically transformed to the correct size. And this is just a sampling. Giants ruled the lands that were formerly ruled by humans. These giants were nice guys and you could actually play them. Spells were different. I mean a whole different list. Not only did you have to worry about what level the spell was, now you had to find out if it was a Simple, Complex or Exotic spell. One could take a spell template to augment or concentrate on a specific genre of magic (Psionic mage, Elemental Mage, Hunter Mage, etc.). Then when the Arcana Evolved book came out (this was similiar to the 3.0 to 3.5 debacle. Basically, Monte Cook cursed Wizards for coming out with 3.5 so early and then he did the same damn thing and made the former Arcana Unearthed book irrelevant by coming out with his 'director's cut' Arcana Evolved book. Needless to say, I was a tad pissed, and it wasn't too long after that I gave up that campaign setting.), they added a new race, the Dracha (another half-dragon, but instead of the intelligent and bookwormy Mojh, they were more into the warlike aspect of the dragons), and they added evolved levels. And here's a kicker for ya: Rather than divide the book into a DM guide and a player's handbook, they put them both together in one volume, and then slapped a $49.95 sticker price on the sumbitch, and Malhavoc Press did this just a couple months after we all shelled out for our Arcana Unearthed books. Can I hear an amen? (crickets and chirps)....
But even during our stint with this campaign setting, many of my players said, "This isn't D&D" in fact one person said it was "bankrupt D&D". And I had to suffer through this for 8 long months. (When DM's ask, "What type of game do you guys want to play" there's a fundamental reason...). So we eventually quit it (after one night when I threw my books in exasperation and hid in the bathroom for half an hour due to my embarassment of blowing my cool so badly in front of my friends), and played Kingdoms of Kalamar (which conforms more to what D&D should be, I guess).
But that's the question, isn't it? What IS D&D?
What constitutes a D&D game as the players see it?
Another case in point: Audrey P. once told me in passing that she couldn't play in Eberron because it just didn't feel right. It didn't feel like classic D&D. Well, what is classic D&D?
I took a look at Eberron and saw what she was saying. Living constructs, halflings riding velociraptors, magical technology advanced to such a high degree that there were shuttles run by air elementals, telegraphs, airships, etc. I wouldn't say that this was as bad as Arcana Evolved, I mean all the main races were there with the addition of the warforged, the shifter, the shapechanger and all that, and only one added class: the artificer, but the world had just enough of a difference to call into question it's D&D status. I could see a person playing in this world and saying: "Well, it's not the D&D I know."
So what is?
Final example: Way back in 1992, I was playing 2nd edition D&D with the Olivehurst Boyz and it was a homebrew campaign called Syracuse. One day, a star fell into the bay just outside the port city of the same name and it caused a tsunami and washed out the dockyards and coastal shops. This played havoc with the city and the Lord of the City demanded an investigation. Well, no one stepped forward, so the party did. They found the 'star' that was now half-submerged in the bay. After describing it to them, some of them sighed. "What's the problem?" I asked. "Is it a spaceship?" Brent implored. "I dunno. Is it?" I replied cryptically. "Dammit. This isn't D&D! This is Gamma World!" "Well, Spelljammer has spaceships of a sort, and it's D&D." I responded. "Well, it's not REAL D&D." Brent concluded after downing his beer. They were further dismayed when inside the vessel, they found the exploded carcasses of beholder-kin and had to fight Xenomorphs (you know, aliens from the movie Alien and Aliens. And NO I did not mix beholder DNA with the Alien DNA in the offspring as that would have been overkill.... But it's a nice idea, hmmm?).
And so it goes. I seem to remember a module way back in the 80's called "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" in which the players actually investigated a crashed spaceship and got to mess around with laser pistols and such (with limited ammo, of course). And that was D&D, right? I mean you can't get much more D&Dish than 1st edition. Right?
So what's the answer?
I think for most people D&D has to pass the Tolkien test. Plain and simple.
Question 1: Is the physical technology medieval? I would say as long as the physical tech did not go past Renaissance, possibly primitive firearms, it should suffice. (for most people).
Question 2: Are there Tolkienesque races involved? i.e. elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. It isn't just are these races involved, but are they very similar in culture and lifestyle as those same races in Tolkien's books. I mean, an Athasian Elf is a far cry from the Noldor... but, this can come back to bite you. I mean, after all, does the halfling of 3.5 look anything like a hobbit? Hell, no! What about the gnomes? Gone are the big schnozolas. I hope there weren't e-mails saying that the 1st edition gnome was antisemitic?? When I think of a gnome, I think of that red-hat guy on the Travelocity commercials.... which is why I am appalled to see that in 3rd edition the gnome is taller than the halfling!! When will Wizards correct this? I am tearing my hair out!
Question 3: Is there magic? And how strong is it? I have a heavy preference for low-moderate magic worlds (much to the chagrin of my players). Some people don't mind and are truly excited by the advanced magic of Eberron and Forgotten Realms. Kingdoms of Kalamar is low-magic. Greyhawk is moderate-magic. Dark Sun was almost no magic with a heavy reliance on psionics which I think was a mistake, I think many people would consider Dark Sun to be 'not D&D' or at least pushing the boundary. Now this is a question that really fails the Tolkien test. I mean, how many times in all of his books, from The Valaquenta to Unfinished Tales did anyone cast a spell? I can count them on both my hands. And that covers the entire recorded history of Middle Earth! Magic was a very mysterious and subtle art in Tolkien's world. I doubt many players would have the patience for it. The closest thing to a fireball was when Gandalf called out fire from the trees of Hollin. That's it. But in Tolkien's world the wizards or Istari as they are known in Sindarin were really more like priests. They were Maiar serving as emissaries of the more powerful Valar on Middle Earth. So, their power came from the gods, not arcane symbols and proven methods. It's not Hogwart's.
So the Tolkien test doesn't really work, does it?
So where does that leave us? With a meme that is constantly evolving over time? Are we subconciously comparing it to the D&D we knew as kids, i.e. 1st edition?
It's all subjective anyway. One person may not care if it fits some eidolon of D&D as long as it's fun to play. And I guess I can put myself in that fair category. But I guess some people have a hankering to play a specific type of game and when that game is not what they had in mind, though it may share the same dubious name, then it sours them on the idea.
I guess, that's the best way I can put it.
Let me know what you think. Is this an issue worthy of consideration? Or totally irrelevant?


Blogger Yehuda Berlinger said...

Certainly worthy of consideration.

When I read the heading, I thought that it would be a discussion about mechanics, not theme.

It's interesting that people pick up on the theme. If you played Fantasy GURPS, would that be D&D to these people?

If an Orc was good and an Elf was evil, would that be D&D? I can't imagine having to limit my world to the expectations of such a complacent group.


10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

D&D doesn't pass the Tolkien test because the Tolkienesque bits were just thrown in to capitalize on Tolkien's success. (Something Gygax freely admits these days.)

D&D is a melting pot of swords & sorcery with a dash of Tolkien. See the reading list in the back of the AD&D1e DMG.

For myself, when I think of "D&D", I think of things that don't stray too far from the core rules. It is the races, classes, equipment, monsters, treasures, &c. that you find in therein.

Edition doesn't matter. They're all "D&D" to me. (Although I certainly have my opinions on which are "purer".)

But I like more than just "D&D". Just because I think of a game as "not D&D" doesn't mean I won't enjoy it.

The spaceship anecdote is interesting. I've known people for whom scifi & fantasy are two separate things & they don't like them mixed. (I may have even been one of them once.)

For myself, I remember when the divisions in the literature weren't so clear. A fact that was certainly reflected in the earliest D&D campaigns (Blackmoor & Greyhawk), as S3 & DA3 reveal.

I wonder: Would your friend have been OK with the spaceship if the campaign had been presented as "not D&D"? If so, would he have wanted to play at all?

1:58 PM  

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