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Introduction to Each Post in This Series
On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.
Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |
Keep that in mind. I don’t like talking about serious matters on this blog. This is supposed to be goofy and fun. But bear with me. Every election cycle, there are lawsuits by candidates wanting to get their names at the top of the actual voting ballots. Why? Because people often pick the first candidate they see. This tendency to pick the first option has an affect on how RPGs are played. I don’t want to feed the ridiculous notion that good science is practiced via the internet — no, 100 YouTube videos of a thing found after a focused search does not mean it’s a trend among 325 million Americans, let alone 7.5 billion humans — but we work with what we’ve got, right? I asked my friend, Sly Flourish, to run a poll for me. He has a much larger footprint than I do, and so his poll didn’t disappoint. The results?
These results show that over half of gamers chose the first option presented in the 5e PHB. I don’t think this is a coincidence, but let’s dig further.
Let’s consider another example: 4e skill challenges. I have a lot of thoughts on those but will refrain from going down that rabbit hole. Instead, I’ll just acknowledge that they could have been designed better, but with the caveat that they were far more maligned than they should have been. Their introduction in the Dungeon Master’s Guide was were presented in the The 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 introduced us to progressive and branching skill challenges, but the one time I saw each in a Living Forgotten Realms adventure, they weren’t received well. “What is this? Just do a skill challenge!” You didn’t see them often. In fact, Wizards of the Coast themselves didn’t use these in their own published adventures. Even the ballot-maker voted for the first entry (so to speak).
Again, this isn’t great science. There’s limited data, some of which is based on my personal experience, but for what it’s worth, I ran a gaming club that almost 300 people considered themselves part of, I ran a gaming convention for two years and worked admin for several others for decades, and at one point I was organizing games every single weekend across as many as 6 different locations. My experience may count for something, and this example is consistent with what I’ve experienced in many other contexts. Also, this is consistent with a well-documented psychological phenomenon.
I want my table to be a constitutional democracy, but much like citizens often get in the way of democracy (freedom includes the freedom to be stupid), so do players often get in the way of gaming. My writing is at its best when I’m writing legal briefs, not blog posts, and certainly not gaming handbooks, so I don’t have an answer as to how you should present these materials. All I have is a thought that I hope game designers will take to heart. They’re usually better equipped to solve a problem like this. It just depends on whether they’re aware of the problem and willing to fix it. Right now, options are presented as a simple list, with the first option appearing at the “head of the table.” Somehow, readers need to view these options as equal. King Arthur had a round table so that no one would be seen as at the head of the table. I’m not sure how to do that with writing. Something has to be written first, but game designers have to find a way to to make sure each option is an equally valid choice so that when multiple options can be used in the same game, they will be. Or maybe we should keep reading after the first option.
Democracy is still the best form of government, so my table will always be a constitutional democracy.
Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)