Saturday, May 28, 2016

What does D&D do?

I have a long list of blogs that I read - most of them are linked on the side of this blog.  I discovered that people talked about D&D on the internets when my tabletop friends in college talked to me about class tiers in 3.5, and I discovered the D&D blogosphere after that.  The most recent addition is the Critical Hits blog, which occasionally features articles applying contemporary economics to a theoretical 'typical' D&D world with an emphasis on murderhobos and murderhobo-related industries.

The most recent post, talks about the process through which one transforms an idea for a game into a game.  While the game described is interesting, I was realizing as I read the post that I didn't begin the process of making Prodigy with any kind of explicit design goals - I didn't have anything like

"Project Brief: Valkyries is a tabletop RPG about group of all-women/trans/NB/agender mercenaries who take jobs raiding planets left for dead by the Galactic Empire.
System: Hack of the Demon Hunters RPG, with heavy card-based elements for easy swapping of weapons, shields, class mods, etc.
Inspirations: Borderlands, Destiny, Dead Iron, Warhammer 40k
Necessities of Presentation: No white dudes in the art, strong cultural representation, possibly afro-futurism.
Practical Concerns: Representation vs appropriation, Norse themes with PoC representation and cultures (more research might be needed, because Norse largely  = white, and we want to be careful there).
Feel During Play: Quick decision-making, weapons/items as abilities to add to die pool, dark humor + hope, badass PCs, feelings of capability, even in the face of incredible odds, large-scale enemies (quantity and size), over-arching theme of fuck the establishment/patriarchy." (same)

At the forefront of my game book or OneNote folder.

And the initial thought was, well, shit.  I've been working on this project for over three years, and I'm only thinking about this now?

This, of course, leads me into thinking about why I didn't have any design goals or desired 'feel during play'.  And my initial, gut-response was that I wanted to make a game that felt like D&D but fixed many of the problems that I had experienced playing in several of its incarnations (for example, the inability of characters to develop organically (outside the level structure), the role rigidity (coded as 'niche protection' in some circles).

As I'm thinking about this, the last thing I wanted to do was to create a game where the setting was tightly integrated with the rules of the game - I felt that one of the problems in many RPGs, and one of the causes for the system agnosticism/game-swapping tendencies of players I've had and people I've read, is that they are almost hyper-general.  GURPS is the obvious example of this, but D&D, in every incarnation with which I've had exposure, makes no demands of its setting other than a general pre-industrial, (and often pre-firearm) timeframe - so we can have D&D games set in 1650, or feudal Japan, and the rules are the same.  I'll come back to this a little later, I think.

OK, so I have a couple components from which I can draw my design specs: I want a D&Dish-type game that allows for character progression without 'leveling up', enables characters to pick up entirely new skillsets not related to their character's original 'class' without penalizing them, and that intimately connects the setting with the mechanics.

Everything except for that first condition is a fairly operational design goal - if you look at the spec and the game, you can determine whether or not the spec has been met.  That first one, though - what is a D&Dish-type game?

And the more I think about it, the more I come to, who's D&Dish-type game?  Because, every gaming group plays something a little different.  And this is true, even among games that harken back to the good old days when D&D was young - one of them tracks the characters' progression from adventurer to conqueror to king while another chronicles fundamentally broken individuals trying to survive in a incomprehensible world that is indifferent to their existence.  A third focuses exclusively on subterranean exploration and looting.

Yet, all three label themselves D&D-type games.  All three are considered, at least, in my small corner of the D&D blogosphere, equally well-regarded as D&D-type games.  When I compare the experiences offered with these three games with the immersive world oft-discussed by Alexis, I find a very different type of game, different than the game that Zak S runs.

Well, that was a helpful exercise.  It's pretty clear that D&D-type games are just that - they are a genre of game, rather than a singular gaming entity.  Anyone who has ever played with more than one group of people could have told you that.  With that out of the way, there are a couple ways we can try to define a D&D-type game: we can look for commonalities between all games that call themselves D&D-type, or we can look for very broad generalization that encompasses everything we see.

This is not uncharted territory; people have done things like this before.  However, this kind of ontological discussion gets troublesome very quickly, and so the only research on the topic that I think has any merit is one that avoids the question entirely (it's available for free here).

In conclusion, then, the question of whether or not a game is D&Dish-type cannot be operationalized.  And even if it were an acceptable game specification, I don't want the same inconsistency of experience clearly available in the wide, wide world of D&Dish-type games.

So, what do I mean when I talk about D&D?  What is my D&D?

The problem with answering this question, at least, lies not in the vagaries of ontology but in the fact that I as a DM and world designer have grown and changed immensely over the course of this project.  My D&D experience began with Neverwinter Nights, which defaults to the hack 'n' slash railroad.  I learned about sandbox-style games when I discovered the D&D blogosphere maybe 5 years ago.  As I've played in them and run them, I've learned a great deal about what they have to offer, to the point where I have trouble playing through video games that so blatantly offer them (like here.  I stopped playing right after writing the review.).

So, while I'll outline the kinds of activities in which I want my players to partake below, I do so knowing that I am still growing as a DM and designer and that much of what I discuss will change over time.

Primarily, I want my players to have two things which may seem paradoxical.  I want them to feel deeply attached to the world - invested in NPCs and locations such that their concern motivates and demotivates character action (investing their gold into building a mill for their farming community, not defaulting on a public contract because they know that the authorities will take it out on their families in town, etc.).  I also want player skill and player knowledge to take center stage - the personality and characteristics of their characters should not take up table time - and so gameplay will be the intersection of the players' collective knowledge with what the characters can physically achieve in the game world (with character knowledge used to frame the situations in which the players and their characters find themselves).

The result of this is that D&D, to me, is a problem-solving game.  I set out a challenge (my go-to is how does the small group of players acquire the documents held in the keep?), the players then decide how to accomplish that task (or whether to accomplish that task, as the case may be), we see how effective that plan was (usually, it's determining how well they have shot themselves in the foot), and the players improvise.  All four of those stages are equally important to me.

I also don't like dungeons, particularly.  The kind of extensive labyrinths found in 'classic' D&D never made much sense - while I dutifully drew complex after complex in my foundling days, I always wanted the dungeons to be functional spaces, and it is incredibly difficult to make a large, functional dungeon (especially if you start factoring in labor costs, time required for construction, and the like).  Architecture is purpose-built, and saying that wizards demand weird dungeon hallways with no signs or understandable floor plan is a cop-out answer.  If a wizard is organized enough to design their own lair and have the money to build it in a reasonable time frame, then that lair is going to be fairly well-organized; the alchemical lab will be near the stillroom, the barracks will be near the entrance, the wizard's bedchambers will be near the laboratory, and it will be fairly convenient to get from the barracks to the mess hall and back again.  If they are insane or poorly-organized, then they won't have the wherewithal to design and oversee its construction (even if they have the funds, they'll need to hire an architect who will absolutely be well-organized).

This bleeds into a philosophy that the world will have an internal logic that is understandable and will become reliable for the players.  One of a player's primary tools is that of prediction, and those predictions should be come more and more accurate as the player gains more experience with the world - if all of the Sluagh the party has faced have been some sort of skeletal being covered in a translucent goo, pretty soon, anytime the party finds group of skeletal corpses, one of their first moves should be to determine whether or not any of that goop is on/in/near the remains.

I've seen worlds and games where that is not the case, where the DM handwaves everything or gleefully admits that the world is organized according to their whims.  In such an environment, there is no point in trying to learn about the world, because that knowledge serves no purpose.  What this means, then, is that the players' engagement will only ever be surface-level.  Because there is no structure underlying the game world, the setting's only function is to contain the sites of adventure, rather than actually motivate their existence.

Coming back from that, then, I want this game to provide tools that will nurture the players' relationships with the world without promoting the kind of acting and character-driven nonsense that is best left to LARPing (which I enjoy but don't want in my tabletop), a setting that rewards players gaining knowledge about it, and allows them to do anything they wish within the setting (from piracy and pirate-hunting, merchanting, exploring the frontier and ancient cities, to inciting revolution, among others).

I'd been feeling a little stuck in writing the Prodigy book for a while, I think due to the fact that I had only a partial set of design goals.  With those goals detailed a little more, I now have a clearer idea of all the work I have to do for it.

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