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When the (A)D&D game hit a dead end and what is worth doing now

chimericchimeric Member Posts: 1,163
edited July 2016 in Role Playing
Look at this image.

I got it from an issue of the Dragon Magazine, which I encourage everyone to look at here, collected in full: How beautiful, isn't it? How radiant. This is what the game must have felt like at one point, in its early years. Some people will, of course, say "We still feel that way about it," but we humans have a propensity for letting our feelings get stuck in the past long after they have stopped corresponding to anything real. The picture is from 1983, as you can see, the time of the first edition of AD&D. If I think about when the game ended up in a cul-de-sac, I don't look far ahead from that time to the Millennium when TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast. I don't have to ponder anything WotC did - not the improved rules, because I don't care for mechanics, and much less their derivative corporate inventions and revisions, every one of which was a banal variation on some trope. I don't think about the Far Realm, Eberron, complete diversification with the proverbial gnome paladins or the final degeneracy and wargaming that D&D is now. I forgive them everything, because by then creativity in the game was dead.

What I think about, looking at the years when it was alive, is that D&D was always more of the player's game than the Dungeon Master's. True, early editions gave very much freedom and power to the DM, but that was so they could come up with experiences for players to live through, to wander and fight through. It was rather a visceral game, on a friendly teenager-boy level, it was torchlight and spooks, and the inventions of the DMs and designers, as they kept coming, always brought something fresh to the players. But more than this I like to turn and try to see the game from the DM's perspective, a very different angle. The DM knew everything the players did not, except for that really random and nobody's element represented by dice throws on numerous tables. The DM had to interpret those lists and rolls, pour over them like an augur over a sacrifice, judge, weigh and announce the meanings. The DM lived on the opposite side of the mirror from players. The Player's Handbook warned against looking into The Dungeon Master's Guide or the Monstrous Manual, because that was where all the secrets were. Players were like eaters at a table, with ravenous appetites, and the DM was a cook who had to cook spicy enough and big, at any rate, because they would sweep the dinner away.

To keep players in that boot-camp or summer-camp state of continuous exploration and overcoming the game's designers and authors of letters to the Dragon Magazine kept coming up with new features, places, monsters. Of course they drew on influences, but the tongue-lolling, loping ghoul had not existed before the D&D game imagined him that way, the giants in the game ended up quite different from giants in fairy tales or Tolkien's trolls, the wizard, the cleric soon became something other than the archetypes. And artists, draughtsmen were vital to this development. The Magazine was masterfully illustrated, especially in the early years. The monsters and settings that we know now are all personal takes by genuinely talented people, educated in real, naturalistic drawing, which was what they delivered - when they were not playing around with silly but also very cool cartoons like this:

Nobody knows why this picture is so great or the first one so gorgeous. It's just talent on top of real solid technique, and the same goes for the inventors of the game's ideas. It took skill with words and mental imagery, imaginative range and a dedication to keep players engaged by giving them something true - something truly scary, or really beautiful, or genuinely inspiring. Paladins with their code of honor were not a joke. There was a reason why they could only be human, or why they needed to live up to the strictest standards, and the reason was not, as later takes on the theme would have you believe, that these people had some harsh notions and were not right in the head. They were right in the head beyond what others could understand. And convincing players of such things took commitment from the designers, it all had to be earnest and a labor of love.

An opposite process was already underway in the early 80s. No one had started it, it had begun on its own - a very gradual slide to automation and away from engagement and surprise. It had begun after Gygax phased out D&D as too boisterous in favor of the stricter and better "balanced" AD&D. The motive was, as usual, control. Rules were being laid down one by one. When new creatures appeared, they had to interact and respond or not respond to the growing array of spells, items and deities, cosmology was being unrolled. In the issue I took the poster from there was published, for the first time, a full description of the Astral Plane, its conditions and hazards. It already had githyanki, an interesting invention that immediately coalesced and became an unavoidable staple. From that point on the Astral would be defined as the "silver void" in all the supplements until eventually all players knew what the place was like and who lived there, and so on for all other corners of the designers' wildsome minds. A few years after this a map of them all was drawn, circumscribing existence and showing clearly what was where in relation, every place received a description and a name, and this was called Planescape. The "freedom" of that setting is really an inversion of freedom, Planescape is super-homely with its sense of a thousand possibilities where before they were without number.

Of course, that was not the end of the game. Planescape brought possibilities of its own, only they were already coming about along several axes. Every new setting added something and took something away. But I don't mean to write a history of the game here, I have my own interests. Scroll forward to our times - past WotC, BG, PST, NWN and other abbreviations, a decade more ahead, to this weird year 2016, when, strangely, we find ourselves back in 1998 and playing a game we played when we were teens. Some of us find ourselves making mods, additions to it. And now the question arises: what kind of adventures can we make? By "can," of course, I mean "should." I look at the gameplay of Baldur's Gate and the other Infinity Engine games and I ask myself whether I should make another quest about a villain pouncing on innocents, a lost baby or a dragon. It has been done a thousand times. I have my choice of particulars, of course: I can make the villain a hobgoblin captain, an undead knight or an ooze, I can add a twist so that the baby's poor mother turns out to be a prostitute - well, a courtesan. We don't have prostitutes in these games. But even with this grit the concept still doesn't go anywhere because the AD&D world and its attitudes have been mapped out. We know them. We know them now in this monumental computer incarnation, at a peak of simplicity. We know also the future of Faerun and Sigil after the events of the game - as if they could have an original future. We know what the multiverse is like outside the Forgotten Realms. We know where wizards go astral, we know what happens to a soul, we know who lives in the Border Ethereal and that a medusa there could turn someone in the Prime Material Plane to stone. We know who the gods are, the + bonuses, the defenses, the classes, the ins and the outs.

The logical answer to this situation is to go away and never come back. But maybe that's too logical. The tools are just that, tools, and the game worlds can be what we want to make them (so I say to myself). And the audience is here. The people are here, just as players were there for live DMs. So it's a fucked-up times when everything is on the computer. But the people are alive, they play the game, they play mods. They aren't here necessarily to have more of the same old, same old stuff, reproduced "classics." And some are actually young! It's possible to push the envelope, possible to invent new creatures, characters, relations, within what the toolset permits, of course. There is a reason and a possibility to try to express ourselves, put our ideas and experiences in this imaginative form. We don't have to invent evil clerics of Malar who plot against Nashkel, that's a dead-magic zone. Let's go into the wild-magic zone instead and get that surge to actually bring about something new.

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