Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why do I even like D&D, anyway?

Yesterday I hinted at the partial existential gaming crisis that I've been grappling with for some time now. Yes, I'm still currently running a D&D campaign, and I'll carry it on for as long as I can, but I'm not sure that I'll ever want to start up another one. I have a sneaking suspicion that there might actually be better ways to game. This, of course, begs the first question: does it really matter if I'm not playing the best possible game? Do I really need to "optimize" my leisure time?

I believe it does matter, and for largely the same reason that Pascal's Wager fails as a theological point. For the unfamiliar, Pascal's Wager is an old chestnut of Christian apologetics that says, basically, the believer has everything to gain and nothing to lose, while the unbeliever has everything to lose an nothing to gain. If God exists, the believer gets heaven and the unbeliever gets hell; while if God doesn't exist, nothing happens to either one. So a rational betting man ought to play the perfect odds and just believe.

Of course there are lots of problems with this idea, as many very sharp folks have already pointed out. Problems like:
  • If you don't really believe, God will know anyway. You can't fool an omnipotent deity with lip-service! More to the point, belief (as the quote goes) "is not a pair of socks" that you can take off or put on at will. Someone who doesn't believe cannot simply flip a switch and start believing in the absence of good evidence, no more than I could now convince myself that the sky is fuchsia or that we're all breathing orange marmalade instead of oxygen.
  • Pascal's Wager need not apply to the Christian God at all. It technically applies to all religions, all deities, and to all other potential claims about rewards and punishments in the afterlife, thereby rendering it meaningless. How do we know that it isn't only Muslims who get heaven, and everybody else who gets hell? How do we know that the soul doesn't transmigrate after death to a plane of existence inhabited by invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters? In the absence of any evidence linking a claim to reality, there's nowhere to go from here.
  • Finally, and this is the one that actually has something to do with my point, the whole premise is flawed to begin with, because the believer does not have everything to gain, and the unbeliever does not have everything to lose. Setting aside all questions about the existence of God, the soul, and the afterlife, there are very real gains and losses in this life -- you know, the one we're sure actually does exist. Factor in all the harm that religion does in this world, to say nothing of the happiness and comfort that most atheists report feeling once they've cast off their superstitions, guilts, and fears, and it becomes apparent that the equation is anything but one-sided.
In short, the eerie and uncanny feeling that I'm feeling now about my gaming actually bears a strong resemblance to short and equally eerie span of time that I spent as a deist, as I was shrugging off the Roman Catholicism of my upbringing and coming around to a more rational, naturalistic understanding of the universe. As a Catholic, I believed, 100%, everything that the Church taught to be true -- but of course that time also was riddled with doubt and guilt and fear and this bizarre cognitive dissonance borne from the fact that the world doesn't really have any magic or miracles in it, and yet my religion required me to believe in the paranormal. As a deist (one who believes in a hands-off God who created the universe but thereafter let it run like a clockwork machine), I was able to cling to Catholic traditions and still say I "believed", but there was always this strong feeling that I wasn't being intellectually honest with myself. And now, as an atheist, I'm pretty happy with the fact that a nice, clean, parsimonious and scientific understanding of the universe all at once makes the most sense and brings me the most personal comfort (largely on account of the notion that this life is the only one we've got, so it really matters to live it to the fullest). Atheism squares with everything I know about reality, in a way that deism and theism simply never could.

In other words, choices do matter, especially when choosing how we spend what little time we have to enjoy this life. And sometimes the littlest things -- like sitting around a table with friends and family and rolling some funny dice and talking in funny voices -- sometimes those things can bring us the most joy. How I game matters. I don't get to do it as often as I'd like anymore, so making the most of it really matters.

And what do I want out of my gaming? Yesterday, I rattled off a list of the things I've found I don't like. Today, I'm going to try and get at what I do like. Then I'll have a basis for comparison -- a set of criteria from which to (objectively) choose the best possible RPG. So... what do I want out of my games?
  • Above all, I want a system that encourages role-playing. Not just talking in funny voices, but real, emotionally affective role-playing. A game is best when it kind of means something, when it kind of feels like art in the making. There is, at present, this modern preoccupation with making sure that gaming is "just a game", that it's "not art", and everybody's play-style is equally valid. (Imagine that: postmodern relativism is the current orthodoxy among gamers!) But here's the problem: not everybody's play-style is equally valid in every situation. Like, for example, when a gamer who prefers deep-immersion role-playing gets stuck in a group of hack-and-slash war-gamers. For my part, I need a game that mostly favors that kind of immersion, while also allowing for the other aspects of the game that I find somewhat enjoyable (exploring worlds, tactical battles).
  • I want a game where the rules don't get in the way of things, enabling maximum spontaneity from the GM. This tosses AD&D and Savage Worlds right out the window, both being crunchy enough that they tend to require considerable preparation for even the shortest and simplest of adventures.
  • And I want a game with flexible and powerful genre emulation. This is capability to adapt the ruleset to any number of different genres, from fantasy to sci-fi to pulp to modern-day action-adventure or mystery. Traditionally, this is where all versions of D&D have tended to fall flat. They can do fantasy and sometimes sci-fi (mainly space opera) fairly well, but they're not ideally suited to modern-day action. The level and magic systems are two key reasons for this, and Epic Six does a good job fixing the problem, but's not the ideal solution.
  • Picking out the genres I like best: high fantasy (e.g. Tolkien), steampunk, pulp action-adventure (e.g. Indiana Jones), space opera and "soft" sci-fi (e.g. Farscape, Stargate), goofy modern paranormal sci-fi (e.g. Ghostbusters), and the story elements (if not necessarily the gameplay elements) of the "JRPG" video game (exemplified by Final Fantasy). Any tabletop RPG that I choose will have to handle all of these (in various admixtures and combinations) relatively well.
And this brings me back to the question that I asked in the title of my post: if it's deep-immersion role-playing, rules-lite spontaneity, and the aforementioned list of genres that I really like and really want out of my gaming hours, why do I even like D&D anyway? D&D doesn't seem to line up with that list of criteria particularly well. D&D is great for hacky dungeon-crawls, light and casual role-playing, having a framework of rules that keeps the game running quickly and smoothly (with few surprises), and it lives in its own particular genre that splits the difference between high, low, and weird fantasy.

What gives? Off the top of my head:
  • D&D (namely Basic D&D, and followed shortly by AD&D 2e) was the first RPG that I'd ever been exposed to. As a high-school student long obsessed with Tolkien and newly in love with Final Fantasy, to encounter D&D for the first time was to discover an enormously fun new hobby that inherently combined two things I already really loved.
  • D&D is still the gorilla in the game store, kind of "the only game in town". Just as "playing Nintendo" was once synonymous with "playing video games", it remains the case that one can sit down to play any tabletop RPG at all, and the casual observer will think, "oh, they're playing D&D."
  • Certain artifacts of the system are just so cool and beloved that I wonder if I could ever let go of them. Polyhedral dice are one example: games that use only d6s or only d10s seem to lack some of the spark, the soul, the fun. Classes and levels are another: having come from Final Fantasy to D&D, they seem part of the very definition of "RPG" (even if many FF games later abandoned classes)!
  • One of the things that I try to "do" with D&D is "make a game that feels like Final Fantasy". This requires high magic and lots of leveling up. Another thing that I try to "do" with D&D is "make a game that feels like The Lord of the Rings". This requires the opposite: keeping magic and character levels low. D&D does a good job of splitting the difference already, and any other game that I choose will have to do the same.
That's approximately where I was stuck a couple of weeks ago. Then I started looking around the internet, mainly on game sites and forums which were dedicated to a broad base of RPGs, not just D&D. ( was a great resource, as you might expect!) And in my next post, I'll explain what I found, and I what I did with it, and where I am at present in my gaming existential crisis...

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