Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons - Basic and Expert - Reaction

I don't think I would be happy in Eden.

I know this sounds like the setup to some really cutting sarcasm, but read this quote and tell me you don't understand:

If the DM wishes, a player may name an heir to inherit his or her worldly possessions upon the death of the character. The local authorities will, of course, take 10% in taxes, before giving the inheritance to the heir. This heir must always be a newly rolled-up first level character. This "inheritance" should only occur once per player.

The more I stare at it, the less and less sense it makes to me. I go through life and I don't even realize there are calluses  on my heart until I see something like this, and for a brief moment I catch a glimpse of what it was like when the world was new.

Okay, now I definitely think that's coming across as sarcasm. I think I'm going to need to be direct. Look at that quote again, see how earnest it is, how innocent, but then also notice how far away it is from understanding the medium it is in the process of creating. It's like watching an old silent movie and one moment, you're in awe because seeing a stunningly original example of sophisticated visual storytelling and then the next moment you're trying to crawl under your seat because it's in service of the crudest, least polished script imaginable. They don't know what they're doing, but at the same time, what they're doing is so bold and innovative that its sheer inertia is what allowed other people to learn why some of their major decisions were wrong.

Because I already went through the trouble of typing it out, let's go back to the inheritance quote. There are so many level there. On the one hand, it's treating characters as interchangeable game tokens - it doesn't matter that your old character died, just transfer their stuff to your new character. But then they try to do some world-building to it, conjuring up a local government that levies taxes and might interfere with the direct transfer of wealth. But then the worldbuilding is kind of crummy, like, what, this is a medieval feudalistic system with an estate tax? An income tax? And it's ten percent, regardless of the character's circumstances? And why are the local authorities the ones delivering the inheritance? Isn't it most likely that the character died in the middle of some monster-infested dungeon somewhere? Wouldn't their possessions have been salvaged by their surviving teammates? And if no one survived, how is this getting back to the new character? And even if one of the old party members did return with your prior character's possessions to give to your new character as a legacy, why did they involve the local government as a middle-man? Who is reporting this income?

Oh, excuse me, I went a little farther than I meant to with that. Especially since I still need to wrap it up by pointing out that the rule finishes by swinging back around to being pure game mechanics. The restrictions on when and how you can make a bequeathment exist quite transparently to try and prevent some unspecified abuses.

And the thing is, Dungeons and Dragons Basic (and also Expert, I guess) is a really good game. It's written with clarity and focus, and you can start playing with five minutes of setup. It's easy to see how it kicked off an entire hobby. But then, also, it's bad. It's brilliant, but it's bad.

The inheritance thing is only one example. There's the thing about roll d6s to open doors, and if I'm reading the rules literally, it seems to imply that a person with average strength will straight up fail to open an unlocked door 2/3rds of the time. Or the way that whenever a dinosaur or other prehistoric creature is listed in the monster sections, it goes out of its way to remind you that they could still exist in a "lost world" type scenario (quotes in the original).

::And seriously, what is up with that? Your world has orcs and trolls and dragons and, indeed, every other fantasy creature under the sun, so why would you need to specify that dinosaurs are extra exotic, even by comparison? Think about your damned worldbuilding for once.::

And yet, for all the inexplicable things. For all the straight-up bad advice (like suggesting thieves steal from their party members or the DM resolve disputes between characters by having an overpowered NPC show up and make them play nice). For all the questionable rules decisions. For all the basic cringe (there are two separate example characters, both fighters - one is named Borg, the other Bork). The fundamentals are strong. I would not be embarrassed to play this game, even today. And that's a genuine accomplishment.


PS. There are two things I wanted to mention that don't really fit in anywhere else in the post. The first is that, while my copy of D&D Basic was very gently used, it did have one solitary penciled-in annotation from a previous owner - the expansion of the equipment list to include "Candles, 1 dozen . . . 1gp." There's undoubtedly a story there.

The other thing is the most singularly bizarre thing I've ever read in an rpg. There is a rule that if you fight a dragon, but deliberately avoid doing any real damage (by using "the flat of the sword") then once your hypothetical damage exceeds the dragon's hit points, it will voluntarily surrender because it understands you could have killed it. So it will agree to serve you. But you'd better sell it right away, because it will turn on you the first reasonable chance it gets . . . that does not include that very moment where you are most likely wounded and resource depleted from fighting a dragon which did not pull its punches at all, whereas it is completely undamaged because using the flat of the sword quite explicitly does not reduce the dragon's hit points.

I'm still on the fence about making the Universal Kitchen Sink Setting, but if I weren't this would be the contribution from Dungeons and Dragons Basic. The notion that there exists this whole underground market where dragon hunters slap the hell out of dragons until they become docile and sell them for obscene amounts of money (1000 gp per hit point) to god knows who for god knows what purpose.

My selection for Dungeons and Dragons Expert would have to be Water Termites. These insect-like creatures live underwater and are surrounded by a balloon-like membrane that they fill with air in order to both breathe and propel themselves through the water like a jet. They attach to the bottom of ships and eat away at the wood, causing them to spring leaks. It was an ecological niche so ludicrous that I had to double check and make sure it wasn't based on a real animal.


  1. lol well written. Especially the 'dragon' rule

  2. Actually, yeah estate taxes were a thing in medieval times. A feudal lord could expect something for confirming someone in their inheritance, from a cow for a peasant household to a lot more for a baron.

    Still doesn't make much sense if we're talking about the worldly goods of the average dungeon delver though.

    But the idea of 'it goes to the heir' looked revolutionary in PENDRAGON where the game is all about being a good knight who passes his estate on to his son. Context is everything I suppose.