D&D as habits and culture

This really could have gone into Seminar instead. I edited it as an epilogue to our Lamentations/Ottoman playtest and included it in that YouTube playlist, and it does fit and make most sense that way, but as an idea, it’s probably going to generate Seminar-style discussion.

Maybe not the most serene discussion. I can’t think of anything more designed to prompt elaborate excuses and explanations than “why do you play strangely if it’s called D&D,” but that’s what it’s about. And I needed a good airing from the participants, in order to understand how to write this thing better.

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8 responses to “D&D as habits and culture”

  1. Alt-History Nostalgia

    One of the things that has been on my mind since playing and since we had this discussion is the large drift that occurs between what happened and what is.  For example, I encountered some phenomena from 1978 in 1984, so in my mind they come after my experiences. Even though chronologically they existed before hand. And how much this infects ideas of D&D, but also of design and play.

    So, I had to think back and excise some of the contamination that had taken place over the years. I have been thinking about what the rules are, versus how I played them. I took to heart the idea I encountered that (paraphrase) …any rule which gets in the way can be removed or changed… Yet that was not even enough, because I made my first hack of D&D (81) in 1982 over summer vacation. Early on I was inspired to begin shaking up the rules. And then came contamination from AD&D. 

    Thus far it has brought me to two conclusions:

    • How much modern design is based on faulty memory and data and assumption? No one really tests some of these ideas; they just encode them in the prose and in the mechanics. Also see: Runquest, RQ2, RQ3 / Cybperpun2013 vs CP2020… and many other games. 
    • When played with RAW, these are entirely different and unique games from one another and the accepted cultural narrative of one monolithic D&D is not true. Some of them are better games than we remember.

    …and a short corollary to the above

    Every iteration of D&D/AD&D is its own game and needs to be treated as such.

    • Hey Sean, I’ve been wondering

      Hey Sean, I’ve been wondering where to post this, or even whether to restrict it to a personal conversation, but after looking around, I think it’ll do very well right here.

      I’m working off my series Finding D&D, specifically Part 2: Communion. Briefly: you are a pastor of a very widespread, far-flung church institution. Given the institution’s breadth and history, you have a lot of leeway to adapt its doctrine or traditions to suit yourself and to meet your local “flock’s” needs. It’s a lot like a parish or specific church as a building in which the community is perfectly happy to say, “well, that’s how we do it here” with a certain authority or sense of place.

      There’s a bit of denial at work in this entire situation, just as with “real” churches. On the one hand, you’ve been able or allowed to focus greatly on a specific text as the real or at least the best-realized or most-applicable form, regardless of its position in publication history or regardless of its deep dis-attachment from many of the other forms including the modern “official” one. On the other, you still maintain the imprimature of the official church or religion, both officially in terms of being active in the RPGA and culturally in terms of saying outright, “We are playing D&D.”

      As long as that denial doesn’t get stressed or tested, it’s safe. As long as you don’t turn around and openly challenge any hierarchical or committee-type proclamations or claims, the organization is fine with you representing and maintaining the brand, keeping the flock “in the fold” as it were. Similarly, as long as you turn that authority downward or inward, reinforcing it with your basic benevolence, then no one in the group will get feisty or demanding about how to do it, or what version is better, or what we might or should do instead. It’s weird: the bigger organization is allowing you to customize or specify, and trusting you not to make trouble, and the flock is looking to you to represent or best express the “meaning” (relevance to them) of the organization, or as they would see it, the “game” or the “faith.”

      The simultaneous security and anxiety of such a position is no surprise either. It is, after all, at the heart of an incredible body of dramatic literature over thousands of years. In most real-person cases, and here I’m talking about real religions, I see the default as a profound mask of contentment, with a strong tendency to divert any conversation into one’s preferred venue or practice. (E.g., your tendency to shift anything and everything we talk about to Moldvay.) Yes, the person may experience discontent and may say so among friends, but never in casual interactions or when “in the robes,” and the default is always pleasant neutrality – with a solid wall of stable indifference, or perhaps immovable tolerance, if challenges do arise.

      So all of this is to express my appreciation that you are finding Adept Play to be a place for valid, open reflection. I see you saying, “Hey, maybe at this moment I don’t have to shift it all over to Moldvay to keep everything in a safe discussion zone,” or “Yes, my knowledge of texts and historical events has become a nice narrative supporting my own practices and statements, but has strayed from those actual texts and events.” I infer that this can’t be easy.

    • It is not easy in terms of

      It is not easy in terms of doing a better job of mining my own experiences. There has been so much discussion and play over the years, so many experfiences that the essence of those experiences require some effort to uncover and separate. While I did not come to Adept Play to discuss D&D (irony), I realize it has been valuable to do so. And I am striving to look critically at the game(s) without needing to apologize for the enjoyment of playing them. And thus look critically at my own experiences and assumptions, without the need to apologize for having played and enjoyed those games in general, and the Book of Moldvay in particular, over the years. I suspect it will be an ongoing process and will likely culminate in a fantasy heartbreaker, but that in the end it has been and will be a positive experience. 

  2. Circle of hands

    I played Circle of hands thursday, with new players to this game. And this discussion totally helped me to understand things. Here are some examples of what I've seen and how I really felt the system helped.

    First, we arrive in this community. One of the player was looking for something "are those people really loyal to their leader?", "can a sorcerer hide in plain sight in the people ?", the whole beginning was about that. The game went along. At the end of the game, we wanted to convince the leader to stop its quest of hunting a beast in the forest. And everybody was looking to "how to find to right way to convince him". It was obvious, the leader was a gentry, my friend 1 was a gentry and he succeded at his charmed roll, and I succeeded at my charm roll. The peasant character of my friend 2 was arguing for another way. We went and it worked, of course, the gentry with a succeeding charmed roll could only have the best solution to convince his peer!

    This made me thing of this. If you have a planned climax with a specific adventure "this guy is hunting a beast and the PC have to stop him", well, at the beginning of the game, you need to find what the adventure is about, what is the threat, and what is the mean to solve it. So of course, you need perception checks, empathy checks, social checks, and the only goal is for you to mechanicaly find the information about the "good way" then process it as a player to follow the discovered plan.

    But here it go backward: the gentry speaks to a gentry who is charmed, so of course, what he says is the right way. No need to "discover" what was the GM's right way.

    Another related behaviour. My friend 2 discusses in this kind of gray zone between Out of Character and In Character, about what the group should do, ie. which way to convince the gentry leader. He's a peasant, and he says "let's confront him pubicly", and starts to negociate what the group should do, instead of saying how his character is reacting to what's happening in game. It's weird, it's like your character shouldn't disagree, because they are a group, where in fact playing it would lead to a dramatic scenes.And I'm not sure I would have understood all this without this discussion! 

  3. In the second segment Ron is talking about how when one plays “D&D” or what one thinks of as D&D, automatic behaviors kick in: we search the room; or the mage gets back there and I get my bow ready and the meat shields take point, etc, etc. Of course due to the features of any given game, tactics and approaches to situations will develop, but in my experience this is less that than it is something akin to scripting and executing macros in an MMO: automatic behaviors that *replace play*.

    I had to hop in here and comment even though I haven’t finished the videos or read the other comments, because what Ron is describing resonates with me so strongly, specifically in my experiences playing a Moldvay module (Old School Essentials: challenge and capitulation) and running Worlds Without Number (I flinched). Both as a PC and as the GM, this behavior became excruciating and exhausting to me (even as I sometimes engaged in it myself) that I have had no desire to return to those games or most anything like them. Hell, as soon as my WWN campaign was finished I sold my book immediately. I hadn’t quite recognized this behavior for what it was until I heard it pointed it out here. Why can’t we simply play characters? Why is real character play in this mode seen as disruptive and destructive?

    • Stated in agreement wth you: looking back at these sessions and at the discussion posted here, I realize how I’ve also come through a transition. I’m done with un-played play. If present-day me were to replace the three-years-ago me, I would not have managed to get through even the first hour of the first session, without closing off play and demanding of almost everyone present, “what on earth do you think you are doing?”

  4. I think I remember watching these before, but I just rewatched them. It’s interesting because I actually have a book shelf that is organized around these habits. Mork Borg, Old School Essentials, Whitehack, Xas Irkalla, The Nightmares Underneath, Worlds Without Number, Low Fantasy Gaming, just to name a few.

    I put them all on a shelf together because I perceived them as fundamentally being played “like D&D” which is to say a squad of characters (who are mostly bundles of limited resources) repeatedly exploring dangerous places primarily for for fortune and survival. The “motive” for doing this activity kind of shifts around from each of them but I always envisioned the core activity being mostly the same.

    That activity largely being made up of the things discussed in the video. Half-In/Half-Out of character group brainstorming on how to proceed. An assumed common goal for the group that is to stay together against all other considerations. Cautious approaches to risks and rewards. Careful expenditure of resources per unit of encounters/time/area. Basically a tactics exercise of the group vs. the adventure site.

    This video series now makes me tilt my head a bit at that shelf and wonder if its possible to view them from another angle. Can they be played as situation focused games approached by full characters? Perhaps with dangerous places being big part of that situation, but not just a haunted house to explore and defeat?

    • I want to stress first that what I’m criticizing in the discussion isn’t a style of play (whatever that means), or as Sean suggested, a paradigm. It is at best stupid, muted play, if indeed it is play at all. I see it more as cosplay called “playing D&D,” as distinct from any actual play one might do using an actual D&D text (pick any of the approximately 15 historical titles). Addressing your question therefore requires separating two variables.

      One of them, or rather, the biggest context, is whether people want to play differently from what you describe (the topic of the post). If they do, then arguably, any text could be sitting on the the table and enough informal game design will occur during the first hour of play that we can say, fairly and without qualification, that they are playing successfully. But also that they are no longer in any meaningful way using that text any more, regardless of whatever snippets of system or terminology of characters/foes remain. How much sharpie-pen elimination and replacement of text is involved – were they to do so; few people bother, if anyone – would be case by case, for titles and tables.

      The other variable is text as such, meaning, given the desire to play , which of these texts would surprisingly inspire and, procedurally, respond to this desire. I submit that Mörk Borg qualifies, as I hope to demonstrate over a series of posts. I also submit that most would require a fair amount of the sharpie-ing I mention above, which you and I and most other role-players do almost reflexively anyway. I also submit that some of the other titles fail miserably, being nothing but a marketed correspondence to the phenomenon being discusssed, and would effectively be abandoned as text and supplanted by table-rules (call it “interpretation” to save face) in order to be played.

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