Getting Back On the Hobby Horse

August 1, 2016

It’s time to shake off my cobwebs and get down to work again. Touche isn’t really going anywhere and I think I’ll talk about another project that’s a lot easier to analyze and dig into. Which is odd since it’s much, much more complicated.

See, I’ve been playing pen and paper RPGs since I was a child. I’ve always been emotionally invested in the opportunity to be someone else – a powerful wizard, a swashbuckling pirate, a fanatical defender of my people, a mad scientist, a humble priest. I’ve been drawn toward all sorts of gaming systems over the years, from the AD&D I started with to the classic World of Darkness that got me into online communities to the new wave of story-oriented systems like FATE and Dungeon World.

Dungeons and Dragons, though, will probably always be special. Besides being my first taste at fantasy roleplaying, it also forms the basis of several of the video games many people love – Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Neverwinter, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Eye of the Beholder…the list is long and has its own storied history.

I’ve kept up with the edition changes over the years, griping about the things I thought were a problem but mostly seeing the games move forward toward better play and a better understanding of the “D&D Fantasy”, the game’s own unique spin on the high fantasy of Tolkien and Morcock. That is, until 5th edition.

Fifth Edition D&D shoots itself in the foot, so I’m rewriting it.

First we need to dig into what the “D&D Fantasy” is.

The classic High Fantasy genre has a few conceits about what’s going on.  Chief among them is “magic is real and it does stuff in the real world”. That means that the magic isn’t hard to access for the people in the world; it doesn’t have huge investments of time, energy, or sanity; magic has meaningful outcomes (like Fireball blows stuff up, and Light actually illuminates things, rather than “this attracts good fortune”); and magic is a very real threat or opportunity for anyone on average. There’s also a constant threat of battle. Not necessarily war, but some kind of conflict. The common staples are goblins and orcs, but there are examples from all over the spectrum of fantasy creatures and caricatures. Finally, there’s always some element of self-actualization that matters. Adventurers can go out and, on their own, stop wars, find ancient artifacts, start wars, save the world, or end the world. There’s something that a small group of people can do that can actually change things.

These elements don’t actually describe Tolkien, or many other High Fantasy stories, if you take them all together. Especially if you don’t hand those tools to just anyone – traditional high fantasy has a particular group of independent adventurers who are able to self-actualize, use magic, and engage in combat with hordes of faceless bad guys. In Dungeons and Dragons, though, all of these and more are handed to the players to exist in a world where all of these things are common.

In this way, the D&D Fantasy is a very complex, very powerful world where anyone has the possibility to be or do anything. It’s also a world where magic isn’t the absolute most powerful element, though. There are towering warriors who use massive weapons to tear through armies of goblins. There are thieves and assassins that can eliminate their enemies in a flurry of expertly placed blows. There are masters of shapeshifting, experts at hand to hand martial arts, and archers with unparalleled precision. That means that each of these archetypes, each of this character ideas, has to stand on their own as a powerful hero not only in the story but also in the system. There has to be a way to turn your mystical archer from a dream into a mechanical reality. Something that feels like the idea, the fantasy, you came up with at the beginning of the game.

Fourth edition did that. Every character class fit their fantasy and were mechanically capable. Fifth edition destroyed that, though, and made a linear warriors, quadratic wizards problem again. It’s not just the wizard who should get their fantasy met. Everyone should have the opportunity to fulfill the fantasy of their character, fit into the party, and contribute.

So the first job of the rewrite is to strip away everything that is “Dungeons and Dragons”, take this roadmap of fulfilling high fantasy archetypes, and look at how the mechanics can best present that. There are a few things we keep around, the shape of the house as it were, but for the most part we’re gonna throw it all out and look at what we can do without relying on legacy.

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