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Conversation: D&D play culture

This conversation runs parallel to the recent post-play conversation among the participants of my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. Jon wanted to discuss similar things in terms of his own decisions about titles to play, so we took some time for that.

For orientation, here's my position: that the cultural presence of "D&D" in the hobby has created a play-space, or perceived how-to and what-about, that exists above and beyond any texts, and even above and beyond play-desires and play-experiences. Therefore when playing a game tagged with that title or closely associated with it, e.g., the recent branding of such an association via the initials "OSR," people display specific limitations, focus, and standards for their activities in play.

I'm focusing on some of those which are (i) evidently confused or intrinsically murky and (ii) may be observed in others or, for a given player, from time to time, but which are more present across more people when playing a game tagged in this way. Significantly, as well, these features are not particularly called for or necessary given the specific rules nominally being used, and may even contradict the texts - but are effectively perceived as "the way to do it" and obviously highly internalized as such.

Anyway, Jon lays out his interests very clearly right at the outset of the video, so check it out. This is a nice conversation - it has an unplanned and rather heartwarming happy ending.



Sean_RDP's picture

I enjoyed this conversation a great deal, especially as how it again brings up Moldvay, but in other ways as well. I had a few thoughts and wanted to expand on one  a few.

4th Edition was such a different animal for me in 2008 than it is now. I am listed as a play tester in the book and as a member of the RPGA Living Greyhawk admins, I was able to do some playtesting of the material. By the time we got the material it was mostly set in stone, from my observation. So, any of our observations were likely just filed away. I won’t lie, when I realized this it caused some frustration on my part and maybe a bit of ego bruising. Childish on my part perhaps, but it was such a different game than 3rd edition that many of us, who wanted a 3.75, were miffed.

I have run and played 4th edition in the meantime and I found that there was enough D&D in it, whatever that means, and I have had a good time playing it. I have been tempted to try 13th Age and see if that iteration sparks my interest. Proponents of 4E have convinced me it needed a second glance.

I was intrigued about the comments about starting at 4th level as it relates to Moldvay. Instead of immediately rejecting the idea because “that’s not how ya do it”, I instead thought back to the through line (for me) of the last couple months. And that is that Moldvay Expert is a different game than Basic.  Of course, I pulled out my copies of both the Moldvay and Mentzer Expert set rules to take a look.

The difference is even murkier than you might think in the Moldvay Expert. On the first page of rules is a section titled. “Using D&D Expert Rules with an earlier edition of D&D Basic.” It goes on to explain that the 2nd edition of D&D Basic, the Moldvay red/purple, is fine even though there are some differences. But if you played with that earlier, again no mention of Holmes, edition, here are some things to look at.

It talks about the idea that the DM should use their own judgment to fill in the gaps. This goes to what Ron was talking about in regard to “how do you do this?” and the many instances where there are no rules. This is what it says in the text:

In reading this book, DMs and players should remember that situations will arise that are not covered in the rules. In these situations, the DM should use personal judgment to resolve any problems. The freedom allowed to players and DMs is one of the strengths of the D&D rules system, and that has been continued here.

It then goes on to speak about alignment. The alignment definitions are looser than in the Moldvay Basic and all mention of good and evil are gone. But the it is still the Law/Chaos/Neutral.

This Expert set was clearly designed to follow up Holmes. Somewhere, somehow, for some reason it lead to a revision of the Holmes into the red basic edition. The actual “changes” that this part of the Expert rules addresses are less than a page.

All this said, starting at 4th level in Moldvay feels like playing an entirely different game. I am not saying that is good or bad; I still think the same aesthetic is there. But the two games have a different feel to them that is more than just adding on levels.

Thanks for sharing the conversation.

Helma's picture

Figuring out trust and mistrust in role-playing leads even somebody that never played any edition of Dungeons and Dragons to those games. The only real experience I have with anything D&D related is trying to make a character at a convention – to be very clear, that was last summer, so it is 5E I’m (not) talking about. I found the whole experience overwhelming to say the least. After 2 ½ hours I came away not with a character but with some notions about the game/the players (I went into "observe people mode" after a while). A lot of the other people in the room came with friends who obviously already were deeply involved in playing and had a lot of “helpful” suggestions for them. The gist of it was: you have to optimize your character in every way possible to be able to survive the first five minutes of playing because the GM is out to get you. I was quit surprised that somebody who was playing other games with me had suggested I would like this kind of game. But something stuck with me after that and developed into prejudice, which is bad because it hampers me and possibly influences my play. Hence I’m trying to watch and understand as good as I can anything coming up here that is D&D related. To give some example for my prejudice: Any time a player at our table (we were playing RuneQuest, kind of) showed signs of “you can’t say this out loud, the GM will use it against you” when we are talking out of play – my thoughts are “you played to much D&D my friend” (though I do not know at all what others at the table may play otherwise). Any time somebody tries to get more information from the GM than they would provide on their own – ouch, D&D catching up with us again, leave it be, I doubt your character would behave like that. We were lucky that everybody coming into our game adjusted fast, so it really wasn’t much of a problem, but I find myself being wary of playing with others because I have the most fun playing when I can separate my thoughts from my characters to the point where I’m pretty certain shit will happen but my character wouldn’t know what I know so they can in no way influence that. If I want to win a game I play bordgames. The one thing I wonder about though is: how can a bunch of games that happen to be labeled the same, although the seem to be quit different games in many cases, influence everybody’s behavior so strongly. Most of the people in the discussions say they have not played their edition of D&D for years but the influence of it is so strong anyway. What is going on there, what is going on, for the most they have not even played the same game/edition?

Sorry, this is longer than I intended it to be and maybe incomprehensible, but I felt I wanted to get it out here anyway.

Sean_RDP's picture

That is a typial experience, even though the game is not supposed to be about winning. Some expressions of the game early on, the convention modules in the late 70s and early 80s (and beyond TBH), created a competitive atmosphere. Which table could succeed better than the other tables. I suspect those who created that material were not intending to turn D&D/AD&D into a competitive sport, but that is what happened. When 3rd edition came out, there was no doubt that some builds were more effective in combat (notice I did not say better) than other builds. And that exacerbated the situation. People would reject a character that was built to be interesting or useful in non-combat situations in favor one that was optimized for battle. 

It can be a labor to try and play any iteration of D&D in a way that makes it both enjoyable and interesting. It can be a labor to DM D&D for people with wildly different expectations. But there are good D&D experiences to be had out there, with each and every version of the game. The labor is often worth it.  But, if you never play the game, you really are not missing out. 

Ron Edwards's picture

... how can a bunch of games that happen to be labeled the same, although the seem to be quit different games in many cases, influence everybody’s behavior so strongly. Most of the people in the discussions say they have not played their edition of D&D for years but the influence of it is so strong anyway. What is going on there, what is going on, for the most they have not even played the same game/edition?

I provided my best attempt to consider these questions in my Finding D&D series, but time will tell whether that has any impact or effect on the general dialogue.

One historical point that I didn't mention in that series, but should have, is the role of a single newspaper article about D&D in 1975. It was just quirky enough to picked up by the Associated Press, which is to say, available for reprint outside the original paper's distribution. Therefore it served as an inadvertent advertisement all across the United States, and is the only reason that the term "D&D" became considered the one-and-only original version of the hobby. In other words, the title's special status was a cultural accident, not a grassroots or activity-based phenomenon.

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