Today I have a guest post for you from Brian of Welcome to the Deathtrap We’re publishing guest posts on each other’s blogs this week. He put mine up yesterday so you can go check it out there. I have his blog on my side bar below and I recommend reading his posts. His recent articles about system hacking are very good and worth your time. Enjoy!
A while back I was binge reading Grumpy Wizard when I saw an article that really caught my imagination. He described how neither Gary Gygax nor Dave Arneson had actually played Dungeons & Dragons while developing the system. They had both played their own free-form games with increasingly open and evolving role playing elements; Their own respective Formulae of Chainmail mixed with Braunstein mixed with Stratego. Dungeons & Dragons was, at its inception, a mutant third way between their ideas.
After letting Travis’s article crash around in my brain for awhile, it inspired me to go on a bit of a spree: I spent a lot of time hacking rules, and talking to DMs about their games In a late night chat with my friend and dungeon master Stephen Smith, I came to a revelation.
There is no Dungeons & Dragons. It’s very nature means that it will always be a “non-game.” as Gygax once described it.
When you were playing a board game like Settlers of Catan there is a very narrow set of rules. These rules serve as an impartial guideline. Everybody follows them to the best of their ability, and if there needs to be a adjudication, they vote on a consensus, and then check the errata if it is available, later. (Or, if they are rude, they whip out their smartphones and check the errata at the table.) The rules are only subjective in a very narrow sense. The rules are intended to be neutral, and in a sense, inert; a closed system.
Once you create a robust task resolution system to work alongside narrative play, like Dungeons & Dragons does, there’s no longer a neutral andinert ruleset. There’s only an open set of guidelines, and it does not matter how complex and comprehensive the rules are, every table is going to be radically different. The narrator and referee are going to create something that is absolutely unique… and that only vaguely resembles the experience that the game designer had in their head. I’ll use a favorite example:
Imagine a player character decides he wants to seduce a barmaid. Using just the written rules for B/X Dungeons & Dragons, some DMs might call for a Charisma test. Some might roll on the NPC reaction table with the PC’s charisma modifier. Some DMs might do either of those with positive modifiers for the party’s reputation. Some DMs might do the same with a penalty because of the risks involved for the barmaid. Or they might add further penalties for circumstances such as whether or not she’s in a committed relationship. Other DMs might decide, through the logic and reasoning, that the barmaid has zero to gain by sleeping with the PC, and make the task impossible, not allowing a test or roll of any kind. Some might go so far as to change the reaction level of other employees of the bar. And some might decide that that sort of interaction has no place in their table and overrule it. All of these are legitimate ways to resolve the instance using just those rules.
No table is going to be the same experience, because no group of players are going to be the same, and no DM is going to be the same. Even when you use modules, the narrative is not going to be the same. And, of course, you start adding in Home-brew content , and house ruling, and games can start to look radically different.
And accordingly, there is no platonic ideal of the Dungeons & Dragons game. There is no standard to which the game you DM can be effectively compared.
The game I play has very few dungeons, and the dragons are mostly being ridden, when they appear at all. My game might be better phrased as Lonely Ruins in the Wilderness & Agents of Corrupt Aristocracy. Stephen’s game, which I look forward to all week every week, might better be phrased Nightmarish Fleshy Underworlds Intruding into Dungeons & Mostly Eldritch Horrors (when we don’t just call it World of Weirth after what he’s got up on his world anvil account.)
There’s something really liberating in understanding that there is no standard to which you are being held except the enjoyment of the players. No ideal game of D&D that you are needing to live up to. That notion inspired me to start writing my own bespoke BX clone involving a lot of dragon riding with crunch aerial combat. And another built around being the servants of space fairing militant atheist wizards. and it has inspired Stephen to work towards publishing his creation has a source book and series of modules.
The game you were playing at your table is your own; it is unique. When you give up on trying to make it anything but your own, that change of frame will encourage you to modify it, and express it, share it and especially play your game differently. It is a radical and transformative shift to think of “my game”, rather than “my homebrew D&D setting.”
I’m not sure Travis understood what an important door he opened when he pointed out that Arneson and played Blackmoor and Gygax played Greyhawk. And I wanted to share this article on his site to show my appreciation for it. Thanks to his observation, and the conclusions it invites, we are enjoying far more energetic versions of World of Weirth and the Golden Heresy respectively.