Saturday, May 16, 2009

MtG, D&D, RPG's, and Me

I saw my first collectible card game tournament today. A bit late to the scene, I know, but I’m an old bastard. What can I say.

What drew me there was the hope that I had finally found a store in my state that sold RPG books other than 4e. Upon entering the place, I was taken back by the sheer number of pudgy teenage boys shuffling cards and eating junk food.

You see, I never understood the attraction of the whole card game thing. From Magic on down. I didn’t get the attraction when they first came out, and still don’t get it after having tried it a couple years ago. Back in the 90’s, when TSR was going under, not knowing the inside scoop, I blamed those card games for killing my hobby. I could never understand how D&D players could be lured away from D&D to play such a thing, forsaking the hobby and causing it to die off--like it was so obviously doing, since none of the bookstores or hobby stores stocked D&D books anymore. I never would have predicted that a card game company would eventually, with the release of the OGL, save and preserve the hobby for all time.

I’ll be 39 next week, my birthday falling on the next D&D Gameday (thanks WOTC!). I’ll be a few years older than Gygax was when he created D&D. It’s kind of odd to think that a guy my age created a game I loved so much as a kid, but I do see the connection in our common roots and interests.

Gygax was a history buff, particularly military history, which lead him to military miniatures wargaming. D&D was an offshoot of that experience. Likewise, I was a big history reader as a kid. After devouring the set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, at age 9 I was let loose in the local library to consume all the history, archaeology and biographies I could find. I wasn’t into sci-fi, and had never heard of fantasy books. I liked escaping into the past, discovering different cultures, understanding the great figures and the great events that shaped the world. When I was introduced to D&D as a freshman in High School, I saw it as a way to actually take part in the same sorts of things I had only read about. I was especially interested in medieval history at the time, so it was a perfect fit.

I was never a gamer, in that I never liked to play games like card games, board games, checkers, chess, or anything like that. I still don’t. As a kid, I liked to go out in the yard with my friends and make believe we were superheroes, or Planet of the Apes, or SWAT, or war, or cowboys and Indians, or King Kong v. Godzilla v Rodan v. the Smog Monster. The mechanics of those make believe games didn’t matter much to me. We just went with whatever we felt would be the right way to resolve all the conflicts, in order to have the game over by the time we were called inside for dinner. As such, the D&D mechanics didn’t matter that much to me. They were just a vehicle to let me play make-believe at the kitchen table with my brother.

I played D&D because I wanted to be someone great. Someone important who did big things. Growing up as I did, in the area I did, there wasn’t much hope of that in real life. It wasn’t even a possibility that went through my head. I expected my life to be: graduate from high school, work in a factory, have a family, grow old, and die. That’s what everyone I ever knew did. D&D let me be something more.

As we got older, our game changed as we changed. As my level of understanding of history and the real world grew, so did the game world we played in. Our shared love of history let my brother and I put all of that into the games we played, which allowed our game to grow in scope. We became bigger players on the fantasy world stage as our characters grew in level.

My love of fantasy novels began after I got into D&D. Starting with the Hobbit and LOtR, I eventually read every mainstream fantasy author for the next 20 years. Later I got into the boks that inspired Gygax---Leiber, Howard, Moorcock, etc. Fantasy novels didn’t get me into D&D, but they did complement my interest in history and in big things being played out on the world stage. To the extent that I could relate to the little guy who came from nothing but who went on to do big things, I would love the book all the more. Plus, the books fired up my imagination. No longer was my creativity limited to what happened in real history with real cultures. I could imagine anything I wanted to. It was all possible in my D&D universe.

I don’t look at D&D so much as a game, as I do a vehicle for the imagination. A means of escape to alternate realities which I only read about in fiction or non-fiction, where I could be whatever I wanted to be.

I think that’s why I never understood the collectible card game thing. It is just a game, no different than chess or monopoly, in that they don’t allow the same level of escape that D&D does. While they share common mythological elements like dragons and demons, it isn’t fantasy. It’s just a game. Even my short-lived experience into the MMORPG world left me feeling the same way. There was no bigger picture, just endless killing and looting, with ever more things to loot and kill. No immersion, just addiction. I don’t enjoy playing games. Never did. I enjoy imagining.

I took a break from D&D from the time 3.0 came out until late 2006. As such, I missed basically the whole 3.0/3.5 era. My roots are in the AD&D/2nd ed./Red Box world. Back in 2000, my brother and I and some friends bought the 3.0 core books, but never used them. When we decided to start playing again in late 2006, since 3.0 was what we had, it’s what we used. We didn’t even know there was a 3.5 or what d20 was all about until 2007.

After taking about 7 years off from the hobby, I find that both I and the hobby have changed a lot. For my part, I have learned more, and so bring more of that to the game. I am more multi-faceted, I have more depth as a person, and therefore so do my games.

Over the last year or two, as I reviewed more of the 3.0, 3.5 and d20 books that were published during my hiatus, I see that the game has changed too. As the 3.x game evolved, it became too rules focused for me. At times, even the houseruled 3.0 game we play, which is a lot like AD&D in feel, is too rules-cumbersome. The rules sometimes drag us out of the immersion of the scene we are in, whether that scene be combat or non-combat. It takes us out of the immersion of being part of GREAT EVENTS that shape the world. It seems that most of the splat books that came out, especially In the latter years, focused on combat and all things related to combat. Eventually, the next incarnation of the game followed that evolutionary path and became what appears to be primarily a tactical miniatures wargame. There seems to be far less of a focus on the fantasy immersion element than earlier editions of the game.

Seeing this card game tournament today made me think that this is the best route 4e could have taken for its survival. I think the electronic culture of video games, IM, MMORPG’s, and the constant structured activities in kids lives these days, to the extent that you don’t see kids going out and playing in the yard, making up games with whatever is at hand with their friends, has made the influences on kids today very different than mine. Therefore, the game they would enjoy playing would be very different than mine.

The end result is shown by the answer to this question: When was the last time you saw a kid today reading a non-school book just to learn something for the sake of learning? I don’t mean Wikipedia or web pages. I mean a big thick adult book on a non-fiction subject that they either bought or got from the library, which was totally unrelated to school, a rock band, or a video game or other aspects of popular culture? I think it’s telling that in the bookstore in which I am typing this rambling pile of words, there are exactly 2 ½ shelves of RPG books and 38 shelves of Manga. I counted. 38. For Japanese comic books. There are only 4 kids in the whole Barnes and Noble superstore on a Saturday afternoon, one of which is 7 and sitting next to me with her mother, whining that she wants more candy. The other 3 kids are teenage girls sitting over near the magazines reading tabloid style magazines.

If you characterize the game Dungeons and Dragons as a vehicle used to express your interests, then maybe latter day 3.5 and 4e are completely appropriate for today’s audience. They don’t get into the larger scope stuff in the core rules. It’s not about historical-based anything. It’s game mechanic based, where the game mechanic takes precedence over fantasy immersion, historical period immersion, or role-playing a character while in character, method-acting style, immersion. While you can use the core rules to make the game larger in scope, the core rules don’t have it as an assumption or an expectation that you would actually make a game as I described in the last sentence. The primary assumption seems to be that the bulk of the game is centered on tactical combat. The design of the game follows that assumption. As such, it seems to be that a lot of people trying to make a 4e game into another style of game other than tactical miniatures wargaming, are having a tougher time of it than in earlier editions.

I think this may be why so many (mostly older) gamers are getting into the old school gaming thing, or checking it out. We want to go back to a simpler thing which reminds us of simpler times. To a game where we can let our imaginations run free, and where the game mechanic was a means to that end, and not an end it and of itself.

With so many of us being older, having grown in knowledge, maturity, and depth, we realize we have less need of rules to get us where we want to go. It’s about the fantasy, the immersion, the history and the creativity it unleashes in us. Not the mechanics---the “game” part that makes me feel like I am playing Stratego or Poker or Battleship or Monopoly or an MMORPG or Diablo 2.

So, after drinking this (now cold) overpriced Chai tea, and after having wandered over to the 2 ½ shelves of RPG books in my ever-increasingly futile attempt to find a non-4e RPG book on a store’s bookshelf, I guess I’ll wander over to the history section and read about Vikings and imagine how I can incorporate that into my game next week. Even if I buy a Viking book though, I won’t be reading it tonight. Tonight I start the “Prince of Nothing” series, which looks to be right up my alley.