Sunday, November 11, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons - Companion Player's Book and Master Books - Reaction

There's a lot of good, weird stuff here, but it's presented oddly. It's like the most creative person you know is pacing the floor, brainstorming, and they're just tossing out idea after idea to see what sticks and they're not filtering themselves because they don't realize they're not alone.

Guys, I don't think Dungeons and Dragons knew that it was weird. But it was. Very. Weird.

Even as early as Basic, where "Elf" and "Dwarf" are professions, directly analogous to "Cleric" or "Thief." That's weird. Or the thing in the Master DM's Book, where it walks you step-by-step through how to calculate the experience point award for killing a baby neanderthal. That's weird. Or, earlier, in the Companion book, where it's going through the unarmed combat rules and entertains the edge case where you're boxing a hydra and it makes sure to remind you that it doesn't count as a knockout until you punch out all the heads. That's. Weird. Or the part where it's describing generalized lycanthropy and it says that elves, dwarves, and halflings can't become werewolves, but nonhuman primates can . . . and . . . and . . . you get the point.

I mean, you get it, right? It's not just me. I didn't just read a book that acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for a group of heroic adventurers to encounter an orangutan that transforms into a seal under the light of the full moon only to be the only person on the internet to notice that it's tonally at odds with the otherwise straight-faced contention that it would be unrealistic for a Dwarf to reach level 13?

That is, of course, the strength of Dungeons and Dragons, but it's also the thing that makes it frustrating as hell. As the originator of a genre, it quite literally had the last word in what it meant to engage in hobbyist fantasy worldbuilding, but it uses that privileged position to just assume that whatever it does is both natural and inevitable. Own your choices, people!

For example, why on earth are there 15 different polearms (including three variations on the halberd) and only three types of swords? It will be a mystery until the end of time. As will the decision to include "wish" as a spell. Hint: if you have to put in so many caveats, maybe it would just be better not to have it as a player power (although, to be fair, wizards did need a buff to help them compete with high-level fighters' "stay at any castle for free" ability).

Ah, okay, that's enough for now. I rag on D&D, but only out of love. The companion and master sets are kind of spinning their wheels a bit and seem to exist mostly to stretch out the time before you have to retire your character (unless, of course, you're playing a spellcaster and you get fantastic new powers that shake the pillars of heaven), but this seems mostly tied up in early D&D's semi-articulated conceit that ownership of a high level character was both an accomplishment and a goal, instead of just another mode of play (which actually wound up making the optional "start at high level" rules feel kind of transgressive). In the end, I think the game is probably better with just Basic and Expert. Once the human classes start outpacing the demihuman classes, and the magic classes start completely obliterating the nonmagic classes, the game just starts to show its cracks. Best to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.


PS - It's not my intent to tease the Ultimate Kitchen Sink Setting so relentlessly, I'm just having a hard time coming up with a good method of distribution and updating. This time the entry is the Blackfire Cauldron - a magical item that is sort of like a reverse fire. You put in ashes and then whatever the thing was originally comes out.

That's the sort of magic I really love. Unique, memorable, vaguely mythic, and not easily reducible to a sort of mechanics-driven adventuring equipment. You go to the Blackfire to restore something that was consumed by fire, but only if the thing was so precious to you that you gathered up the ashes. It would make an amazing temple, or ancient ruin, or sacred grove or whatever.

Which makes it kind of disappointing that the book implied that there was one in every major halfling settlement and that it was primarily used for the crafting of stealth potions. Not that there isn't a certain charm to thinking that in default D&D the halfling religion revolves around the worship of shadow and the powers of night, but I'm fairly sure they didn't mean to seed those sorts of implications. Though it's kind of funny imagining that Bilbo Baggins was a part-time necromancer - just on Sundays and holidays, of course, nothing disreputable.

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