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Posts Tagged ‘Mutants & Masterminds’

Those who know me even passingly well will be aware that the playing of games has been a significant element of my life for a very long time. This year in particular has been somewhat notable, as I’ve stuck with my usual regime of board, card, and computer games, but my long-standing involvement in tabletop wargaming has come to what feels like a very definite end, while I’ve spent more time on role-playing games than in any year I can recall.

d20

Having been out of RPGs in a serious way for the best part of two decades, one of the interesting changes in the hobby is the way that people have been giving serious thought as to what makes these games appealing and how best to approach running them as a referee/storyteller. So I thought I would offer a couple of small thoughts on this front, mainly to do with the massive influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the whole genre and how it affects play-style and attitudes.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to synonymity, Dungeons & Dragons is to role-playing game as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner – maybe even moreso, with the rise of Dyson and so on. I routinely refer to my ‘Saturday night game of D&D’ even though I don’t believe I’ve played any flavour of the game in 25 years. The reasons for this association are not exactly obscure – if D&D didn’t invent the genre, I’ve no idea what did, and it was certainly the game that made the biggest cultural splash back in the late 70s and early 80s.

So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise if we find the influence of D&D over RPGs generally to still be incredibly strong. It continues to be a massively popular game. How popular is it? Well, a friend started up an RPG club recently, which he almost-inevitably called ‘Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying’. He probably needn’t have bothered with the ‘other roleplaying’ as the majority of the respondees made it fairly clear they were only really interested in playing either 5th Edition D&D or Pathfinder (a game originally derived from the more complicated 3rd-and-a-Half Edition D&D ruleset). More objectively, nearly two-thirds of the games run on roll20 – the website which facilitates most of my current gaming, which is web-based and international – are of some variant of D&D, or a system closely derived from it.

And one gets the impression that even when veteran gamers say they want to play something other than D&D, and end up playing a different rules system, on some subconscious level they still think they’re playing it – or perhaps the subconscious assumption is that all RPGs are really like D&D when you actually get down to brass tacks. And I’m not sure this is always necessarily a good thing. Hopefully making people more aware of the implicit biases and assumptions of D&Dthink will help them shake them off, and lead to more interesting and varied gaming experiences.

Perhaps the single most defining and influential feature of the original D&D rules was that they developed out of tabletop wargaming (or ‘toy soldiers’ to the uninitiated). Commentators have observed that the perceived weaknesses in the original conception of D&D, many of which have filtered down to us today, arise from the fact that it was originally intended for each player to control a whole bunch of characters rather than just one, in something much more akin to a skirmish-style wargame.

To some extent that’s what D&D remains to this day – it is, at least, the most basic playstyle of the game. Players generate a team (traditionally ‘party’) of characters, who then wander about in tunnels usually killing everything they possibly can and looting the place of treasure and other good stuff. The rules were originally not much more than a combat system with rules for character advancement, and while recent editions have addressed things like character backgrounds and motivations, there’s not much mechanically in the rules that requires these to be enforced. The default setting of D&D is the dungeon-crawl rather than any kind of structured narrative, and the default role of the DM – in theory – is to impartially implement rules procedures.

I write this as someone who doesn’t play D&D, as mentioned above, so bear in mind I may be biased – but that kind of experience appeals to me less and less as time goes by. Perhaps this makes me more sensitive to apparent occurences of D&Dthink when I’m playing other games – but I do think this is a genuine phenomenon.

What kind of thing am I thinking about? Well, earlier this year I was trying to figure out what a game was (it was a slow day) – in short, what is it that a board game like Chess and a freeform RPG like Fiasco share, that we can call them both games? I couldn’t come up with anything solid, but it did occur to me that in Chess, one player wins – it has a defined victory condition. That’s also true of most tabletop wargames – games usually have winners and losers (and occasionally tied results).

D&Dred

Every D&D rulebook I have seen says that, in the game, everyone wins by having fun, and maybe they’ve meant it, but many of the D&D groups I’ve played with seem to have had the working assumption that everyone ‘wins’ by getting through to the end of the dungeon/adventure intact, having won every fight on the way (or at least run away from the big monsters successfully). And so ‘winning’ at D&D becomes primarily about being good at combat, both individually and as a team.

Individually, this takes the form of learning the rules backwards and coming up with the best choices, options, equipment and combos to make your character the baddest ass possible, regardless of all other considerations. Interesting characters are discarded in favour of optimised ones, and people spend hours cooking up absurd creations like half-Elf multi-classed sorcerer/monks, based solely on how their numbers stack up rather than any character- or story-based reason.

As a group, a similar thing happens – there’s a kind of Mission Impossible mentality, where every group has to have a fighter, a healer, a ‘face’ character, and so on. To be honest I have less of an issue with this, given the diverse group of comrades is such a trope of fiction from Lord of the Rings to The A-Team, but what I do find is that people still have the D&D team ‘roles’ in their head when thinking about groups of characters for other games.

I have seen D&Dthink in action quite a few times this year, in most of the games I have played. The main games have been Numenera and Mutants & Masterminds. Numenera is essentially the D&D experience re-skinned as a science-fantasy game, with a very simple and elegant ruleset which does not give extra attention or emphasis to combat as a means of conflict resolution. M&M is a fairly ‘crunchy’ game rules-wise, and it does assume combat as a major resolution mechanic, but this is because it is intended to simulate the action in superhero comic books, where every problem can be solved by a fist fight.

Overall, D&Dthink seems to be less of a problem the less complex and more abstract the ruleset is – D&Dthink is all about working the rules to your advantage – and so it was less of an issue in Numenera. Nevertheless, maybe it’s just the nature of fantasy RPGs – there was a lot of worrying about combat and intense, serious discussion about how best to divvy up treasure, and one keen young player asked many questions about the possibility of making a particularly vicious monster into a playable character type.

M&M is a lot crunchier and prone to min-maxing (this is RPG-speak for super-optimising your character to absurd degrees). As a comic book purist, I am a noted pain in the neck as an M&M GM, as I insist on characters having strong concepts and logical rationales for their powers. I think I must have helped eight or ten people come up with characters for M&M games this year – and it was here more than anywhere else that I saw D&Dthink casting its peculiar spell.

No matter how carefully I explained that I was hoping to recreate the feel of a ‘classic’ superhero team, very odd choices of characters and powers kept coming back to me – lots of interest in Healing as a possible superpower, not because it’s common in the books or particularly logical for that character, but because years of playing D&D had conditioned folk to believe that every team needed a healer. Someone else wanted to play the long-range support specialist, sniping from concealment – again, a solid choice for a D&D character, but not really the stuff of super-teams.

On one occasion I agreed with a potential player that he would play a super-speed character. He came back to me with a creation the most notable feature of which was a magic electrical sword which paralysed anyone it hit and did extra damage 20% of the time. None of this was remotely rationalised, it was just the best way to spend points and wreak the most havoc in combat, both of which would have been absolutely the way to go in most D&D games.

(Needless to say, this guy, like several others, ended up not participating in our game, mainly because I wouldn’t allow them to work the rules as they desired. One of the things about D&Dthink is that the rules are treated much more as some kind of holy text, not as something to be hacked or modded to make a better experience for the group.)

One of the most useful ways of thinking about RPGs that I’ve come across is something called the GNS triangle, G standing for Game, N for Narrative, and S for Simulation. These are, it is suggested, the three main approaches to RPGs – some want to have a game-style experience where it’s all about cleverly working the rules to ‘win’, others want to tell a genuine story, others want to replicate the style of a particular genre of fiction (maybe even a specific movie or TV series).

D&D is absolutely a Game-style RPG, as I hope I’ve made clear. Numenera and its sister games probably tend towards Narrative-style gaming. M&M, at least when we play it, is very Simulationist (although inevitably providing a good narrative is part of the genre experience). It seems a shame that a Game-oriented approach like D&Dthink should crop up when people are running N- and S-style games, but given D&D‘s dominance it’s only to be expected.

I don’t know. Hopefully, as players, people can make themselves aware of the existence of these kinds of thought patterns and try to go beyond them – my own M&M players have proven to be quite flexible when I pointed out just what was going on. And, perhaps more importantly, GMs can keep an eye out for D&Dthink and do their best to close it down before it gets started. When you’re actually playing D&D, D&Dthink can be perfectly logical. When playing a game in a different style, the best you can hope for is that the game will be odd and a little unsatisfying; at worst, it can wreck the whole experience.

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