Archive for December 14th, 2009


fates worse than death

One frustration I have with Dungeons & Dragons is that, past a certain point, all play is basically the same.  You find a “dungeon” of some kind, you seek the treasure, you maybe slay a “dragon” of one kind or another.  This is awesome.  But is it inexhaustibly awesome?

It bugs me a little when grognards complain about how D&D 3e and 4e is nothing more than a video game, as if D&D was somehow more substantive in the past.  That certainly isn’t true of OD&D or the B/X stuff, which are unabashedly mixtures of wargaming and board games (not to mention the video games of the day), with only the very lightest of “role-playing” grafted on.  While 4e defines your “role” as Poorly differentiated guy with Kung-Fu style #5, 0e defines your role as Poorly differentiated Schmuck #3 lost in a subterranean death-trap.  At most, your character is a collection of a dozen integers, a lust for gold, and (if you’re one of those namby-pamby actor types) an outrageous accent.  It’s always been this way.

In addition, the game really doesn’t handle stakes much higher than loss of Hit Points very well: in fact, not at all.  So, maybe the Princess falls in love with your Savage Barbarian Bandit, maybe not; but the question is either to be resolved by GM Fiat or a simple dice roll, and in any event the real story is about how many wandering monsters you’ll encounter while stumped by a puzzle in the catacombs.  The story’s not about you: there’s no story at all.  Like life, Dungeons & Dragons is what happens while you’re making other plans.

All of this taken together, it strikes me as absurd that “campaign play” is the idealized mode of Dungeons & Dragons.  When every session is, broadly speaking, like every other session; when every character is, broadly speaking, like every other character; when the only tension is whether you’ll have to create a new and almost interchangeable character at a lower “experience level,” that is, to see whether the time you’ve invested thus far has been wasted or not . . . It’s almost like some kind of Dadaist prank: a story with no plot and no characters, only a setting that appears to change.  It’s the exact opposite of fantasy literature.

Don’t get me wrong: the game is very fun, and I enjoy playing.  But I’m not sure I enjoy it an infinite amount, and I think the idea of prolonged campaigning – more than about 5-10 sessions or so – is some weird parasite that grafted itself onto the wonderfully designed board game elements of D&D and eventually devoured the entire thing.

What would a D&D “campaign” look like that was designed to play itself out in 5 sessions instead of 30?  Instead of a mega-dungeon, which everyone on the Internet has been obsessing over as the sine qua non of a successful D&D game: a micro-dungeon.  And cram all the crazy action you’d expect to see in a 30-session build-up into a very cleverly designed world?

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009
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