Thursday, January 25, 2007

Forays into Gamism

For years, I played only pen-&-paper games that fell either into the broad category of Narrativism, or into the special class of funny games, such as Great Ork Gods. (Yes, yes, all usual caveats about games not being G, N or S apply, but you know what I mean.)

But, lo and behold, I have recently made some forays into gamism, by playing all three editions of Dungeons and Dragons. The results were, shall we say, mixed.

Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, red book, is a relatively easy system. I played a "play this without a GM" adventure together with Jasper Polane. I have forgotten the adventure's title, but it was an official TSR offering, and consisted of exploring an old, abandoned castle in a swamp.

The game was hilarious, but for all the wrong reasons. First, the system doesn't really seem to facilitate tactics at all. Character creation options are minimal, and there appeared to be an utter lack of interesting combat manoeuvres as well. Our elf could attack and cast one single spell. Our thief could sneak and attack, but all his other thief skills were so horribly low at first level that you'd better not try to use them. Our cleric could, well, attack, having no spells at first level. Our wizard could cast one single spell, and, uh, attack. Not much fun to be had there.

But second, the adventure was so deadly that we checked the appropriate level of characters ("an adventure for characters of level 1") repeatedly. Our very first encounter was with 1d4 spiders, all of which had a poison that forced a character to make a saving throw every time he was hit - and if he failed (>50% chance), the character was dead immediately. Fun! Luckily we met only 1 spider, but it was nevertheless the end of our thief.

This was one of the easiest encounters in the game. My favourite encounter was somewhere at the end, where you'd meet 1d6 fish that all had four attacks with a deadly poison per round. A first level character would have a very low chance of surviving even one round of combat with even one such fish. The adventure ended with our 1 HP mage running screaming from the castle after all his friends had been killed.

This left me thinking: "How did anyone ever reach level 2 in D&D 1st edition?"

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd edition was my first roleplaying game. The very act of making a character so I could play "The Priest's Challenge" (or "The Cleric's Challenge"?) with Jasper reminded me why it was such a bad game. It is almost impossible to find anything in the book; the system is hopelessly complicated and obscure; and the GNS-incoherence drips of every page.

I was here to play gamist, so I wanted to make a tough cleric with some good fighting capabilities. Taking a look at the spell list made me cry in frustration. At least 70% of the cleric spells is utterly useless, except for situations so narrowly defined that you can never know in advance that you'll encounter them. "Purify food and water"? "Warp wood"? "Talk to plants"? Come on!

The adventure itself involved talking to a lot of people, while using your clerical powers almost never, and using the rest of your character sheet never at all. Makes you wonder why you calculated your armour class and wrote down your five saving throws... In the end, my gamist goals were once again thwarted, though for different reasons that in my first edition game. There the challenge was too tough, here there was no real challenge.

It left me thinking: "Why on earth in Transmute metal to wood a level 7 spell?"

Dungeons and Dragons, 3.5, on the other hand, was a brilliant success. I have never had as much fun making a character as the days - and it were days - I spent devising the most overpowered summoner I could possibly create. It was understood that we would play a dungeon crawl adventure, and the GM allowed us to use any and all 3.5 material. Since I had access to most 3.5 books, including the Complete Mage, Complete Arcane and Unearthed Arcana, the sheer amount of tactical options at character creation was overwhelming. I literally spent days trying to fit all the pieces: the feats, the classes, the prestige classes, the spells, the familiar, all these interdependent variables that together form a hugely complicated puzzle.

My first level wizard can cast an extended Summon Monster I thrice a day, with her monsters getting a +4 Strength and a +4 Constitution bonus. It's a great character to piece together, and it's great to see her in play. (I also devised a strategy that would make the Ultimate Magus prestige class a very good option.)

When we played, the GM first put us in a town so the character could get to know each other, and stuff like that. Frankly, it was a little boring. But once we entered the dungeon, haha! We had a whiteboard in which we could draw the 5-foot squares, and we slew many monsters, surviving only through our cunning and daring, and getting 700 XP in the process. Yes, let's go on to level 2! More options! More cunning and daring! Gamism rules!

This experience has left me with a new respect for D&D 3.5. They really did a good job with it, not only compared to the earlier editions, but compared to tactical games in general. The huge amount of extra books they've created are also not just an attempt to earn more money; they really do enhance the game, by bringing many new options to the table. Because such a plethora of books can only be created by a big company, I think we should also note that D&D 3.5 could not have arisen in the indie community.

Which is not, of course, a criticism.


  1. The adventure was "The Knight of Newts", and it clearly wasn't 1st-level by the rules, even if it said so on the cover.

    That said, I don't really agree with your conclusion about Basic-red-box-D&D: Both the deadliness of the dungeon and the characters' lack of power are part of the game's Step-on-up. Goal of the game is to outsmart the dungeon so your character survives. It's the players that are tested, however, not the characters. Here's your magic-user, he has 1 spell and 1 hit point. Can he make it out alive? That's the challenge.

    While D&D 3.5, I think, tests the characters. You build a wizard, he goes into the dungeon so we can see how he does. However, the decisions the player makes during the adventure aren't really decisive in the wizard surviving. (In fact, the deck is clearly stacked in his favor.)

  2. Christoph Boeckle31 January 2007 at 20:54

    Interesting, Victor!

    I haven't played AD&D 2nd edition since the 3rd edition was published, but my memory recalls the same problems you do.

    We're playing in a little D&D 3.0 campaign with rotating GM (every 3-4 sessions) and little add-ons. It's quite fun when taking the right approach!
    Can't wait to level up my barbarian/rogue.

    And as always, it's a pleasure to see a new post on your blog!

  3. Jasper, sure, the deck is stacked in his favour in D&D3.5 - in the sense that the characters will survive most adventures. But I've already seen a near total-party kill, although we played only two sessions, so I'm not so sure about there being no real chance of dying!

  4. I've played all editions of D&D, starting with the Basic set in the late 70', and worked (and payed) my way through the rest of the editions. My opinion is that the 1st edition Advanced D&D was the best as it had more heart. 3.5 Edition has it set up to make mega characters that don't have to use the players intelligence to keep them alive, they have feats and extra spells to do that for them. The weaker a character is...the smarter he must be to survive. While I enjoy 3.5 immensely, I see it as creating super-characters with power feats that take away the fun, especially at higher levels when you are virtually indestructible.