Saturday, June 27, 2020

A First Level Dungeons and Dragons Magic User had, and for all I know still has, four hit points. 

This means that being hit by anything at any time will put him out of the game. He is allowed one (1) spell, which might allow him to put an enemy to sleep or open a locked door; which means that pretty much by definition he can only do one (1) thing in each gaming session, so that a person who wants to be a wizard has to effectively sit out the first few sessions while the fighters knock hit-points off Kobolds on his behalf. This would not matter very much if the game was mostly about exploring, negotiating and solving puzzles; but most Dungeons and Dragons games are pretty much about fighting and nothing else. Playing a wizard in low level Dungeons and Dragons is like agreeing to play a conscientious objector in a game which is purely and entirely about crawling around no-man's land with a rifle.
I spent all those years writing fandom articles condemning munchkins and rules lawyers and fantasy frothers and the person I was really accusing was myself. I was a serious G.M. I hated the frothers and the munchkins as they rampaged around their Monty Halls because they seemed to be having fun. 
Puritanism. The lingering fear that someone, somewhere, is having a better time than you are. 
Of course, now I get it. Dungeons and Dragons was a war-game. Magic Users and Fighting Men were playing pieces. The Magic User was like a cannon; very strong in attack; but very weak in defence. The job of the Fighting Men was to protect the Magic User and get him to the point where he could release his 6D6 fireball at the orcs lair.14 And of course, Dungeons and Dragons was meant to be a Monty Hall. There were scrolls which only Magic Users could read; and magic staves and wands which only Magic Users could wield. The wizard was supposed to be wandering around the dungeons veritably piled up with rods of lightning and gloves of thunder; splaffing monsters left, right and centre. The wizard's one spell was intended to be a final back up, the thing that the wizard could unleash in the last resort. I cannot remember the difference between a wand and a staff, but I am darn sure there was one. I do remember that the plural of "staff" is "staves", a piece of knowledge which has often come in useful. 
But I had read Lewis Pulsipher. I knew that if I allowed any of the magic items (which filled up about a quarter of the rule book) into the players hands then I was a bad G.M. a Monty Hall referee. 
Roll attack; roll damage. Roll attack, roll damage.
And yet they carried on coming.
There is now a whole genre of what are called "deck building card games". Some of them, like Magic the Gathering, require players to buy small packs of cards and build their deck from those; others give you a big box of cards, only some of which come into play in any one session. They are based on a carefully designed and balanced numerical sequences of card permutations. The better you know the deck and the possibilities of the deck the more ideas you will have about what can be done with those cards. Playing the game means exploring the possibilities that the cards present. There is a huge pool of cards, but you only ever see a small subset of them; and each new game, or each new pack of cards, reveals more possibilities. 
Those of us who play those games only casually; those of us who do not have the correct kind of memory for facts and numbers and lists; those of us who never collected stamps or engine numbers find ourselves baffled by these games. 
"I am going to teach you to play Settlers of Carcasone. The main thing to remember is never to play your Sheep card and your Curling Tongs at the same time, unless, of course, someone has already released Hornets and you also have Chewing Gum."
For many people, Dungeons and Dragons was a deck building game before there were decks; the monsters and magic items were the cards; the skill was in knowing what to use and when. Gary Gygax said in so many words that that was how the game was meant to be played. Role-playing mastery is knowing the rules. Role-playing grand mastery is knowing the rules of several games. Role-playing ultra-grand-mastery is designing some rules of your own. Role-playing super-ultra-grand-mastery is being the designer of Dungeons and Dragons. 
To some of us, the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio and Deities and Demigods were repositories of narrative; a whole box of possible stories, wound up and ready to go. The first I ever knew of Cthulhu was that he had 400 hit points; the first I ever knew of Elric was that he was a fifteenth level fighter. I sought out the novels to flesh out the statistics. 
Overpowered, magic item heavy, Monty Hall campaigns couldn't have been as rare, or as disapproved of, as White Dwarf would have had me believe. If there was a book which told you how many hit points Cthulhu had, there must have been groups prepared to countenance having a fight with him. 
A dragon in a fantasy story is always a disappointment because he is only ever one dragon in particular, the author's attempt to catch the idea of dragons and put it onto a page. Most fantasy writers baulk a little at even doing that: a reptilian dragon sleeping in a cave on a pile of treasure is too dreadful a cliche to actually put into a book. Anne McCaffrey and Ursula le Guin wrote fantastic dragon-stories but did they get anywhere near the Idea of Dragon?
Stay away from pirates. Even if you are Johnny Depp, stay away from pirates. Pirates are the most potent idea of all; but they won't go into a game or a story. Get within shouting distance and they stop being pirates and become a bunch of ruffians on a boat. We will come back to pirates. 
Did Plato say that numbers were the only real thing in the universe? So is turning a dragon into an armour class and a number of hit points and a damage rating the closest we can get to capturing the true essence of dragonnyness? Or does it trap the idea in particularity just as much as the books do? If dragons are going to fly anywhere at all they are going to have to fly in your imagination. 
People play Dungeons and Dragons because they like manipulating numbers and rules. People play Dungeons and Dragons because they like the physical sensation of rolling dice. People play Dungeons and Dragons because they like the idea of wizards and dragons and because turning the pages of a book and pushing little models around gives them a general sense that they are engaging in fantasy. People play Dungeons and Dragons because it is obscure and esoteric. People play Dungeons and Dragons because the Christian Union has told them not to. People play Dungeons and Dragons because it seems to offer a connection with Tolkien's world. If only I could get the rules to work. If only I could get a set of players who loved the game as I loved it. If only I were three years older and had jumped on board when it was three little stapled books. Then everything would come together and the world on the hex paper would become as real as French and P.E. and Sunday School...
There was a short story in Dragon Magazine about a group of role-players who find that the magic ring has somehow followed them out of the game and into the real world and who made a wish that their real lives would become the fantasy and the fantasy world would become their reality. (I do not recall if any of them had a liking for coloured lip gloss or synthetic hosiery.) "Their Dungeons and Dragons game had become more dear to them than their life outside it" said the narrator. I wanted that to be true. I felt that it ought to be true. Sometimes I convinced myself it was true. 
About the same time came Ralph Bakshi's well-intentioned but catastrophic cartoon version of Lord of the Rings. The trailer included the phrase: 
"A world more real than any other." 
A world more real than any other. That is what I wanted. 

I managed to create quite a little cult following in Mr Hall's classroom. We were allowed to play Dungeons and Dragons in Long Registration provided we did it quietly, and had permission to use an empty classroom at break time. Mr Hall was a popular teacher, although he had a very bad temper. There was a crack in the plaster of the wall of the French room where he had once tried to throw a desk at a pupil. Or possibly he threw the pupil against the wall: accounts vary. It turns out that every school has a crack which a mild mannered French teacher once threw a desk at; in the same way that every university has a library which nearly collapsed due to the architect failing to take into account the weight of the books. He was universally known as Henry Hall. Henry Hall had ceased to be a famous band-leader a decade before any of us had been born. Such is the persistence of oral tradition. Perhaps his first name was Monty.

14 A lot of Dungeons & Dragons was about genocide, but perhaps we will not go into that this morning.

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