Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On System

I know I can’t be the only one tired of comparing one retro-clone to another, one edition to another, retro-clones to the editions they ape, and different entire games to each other. There’s lots of useful discussions to be had in this vein, but there’s also a lot of internet monkeys flinging poo. I know because sometimes I allow myself to be one of them.

What I would like to propose is that those of us running some recognizable version, variant or direct descendant of D&D to stop doing this. Not just the poo-flinging, but that we stop discussing editions of D&D as if we were art critics comparing individual sculptures in some snooty gallery. My main argument here is not the usual “Can’t we all just get along?” or even “Won’t someone think of the children?” Instead I would like to suggest that the very concept of ‘system’ as it is usually applied to D&D is an unhelpful shortcut. System is an illusion.

D&D (at least prior to WotC’s 3rd Edition) is made up of a variety of mechanical components but the idea that they cohere into a single system seems like an article of faith more than an established fact to me. Additionally, the intellectual framework underpinning the importance of system implicitly establishes system as a thing unto itself, as if it possessed its own agency. Yet a close inspection of individual playgroups and their usage of varying interpretations and house rules denies any authority that system-idolators might wish to claim. Within the narrow context of “D&D type games” (a label I will not define here), system just doesn’t matter.

Gary Gygax never played AD&D as published, so why the hell should we care so much about that system? Or why should we give a rat’s ass about cleaving unto the systems offered by the lesser lights that followed him? Furthermore, I reject as ridiculous any argument that the original Gygax campaign ever played OD&D as published. Have you read OD&D lately? I can’t believe that anybody can play it as it appears on the page. It’s a goddamn mess. A glorious one, full of wonder and mystery, but a mess nonetheless.

A parable: Adam and Eve are walking in Eden. They hear the distant thunder and trumpets that indicate God is passing through the far side of the garden. They go to see Him but since God has a much higher movement rate, He’s gone by the time they get there. Instead the two find some big footprints He’s left behind. “Here is God!” says Adam, gesturing towards a footprint. “No, here is God!” says Eve, pointing to a virtually identical footprint further down the trail. They proceed to argue over which footprint 'is' God. Meanwhile, the Serpent is laughing his ass off because not only have Adam and Eve mistaken signs of divinity for the divinity Itself, they’re so worked up they’ve completely forgotten the simple fact that they live in Paradise.

Brothers and sisters, it is time that we stop arguing about the stupid footprints. My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D. Interpret, interpolate, edit, house-rule, mangle, spindle, mutilate. Run that text into the ground. Import crap from other editions, other games. Break it and remake it in your own image. Only once you have your own version of D&D up and running does D&D in any way exist. The texts are mere echoes, shadows of someone else’s D&D. Use them to bootstrap your own D&D into existence. That’s all they’re good for.

If you meet Gary Gygax on the road, kill him.


  1. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Too late, he's already dead.

  2. This is one of the rare times when someone cuts to the heart of the matter.

    If you haven't just defined the nature of the OSR then what you missed is fiddly bits.

  3. Wow…a call for maturity. Nice.

    Isn’t this kind of the point of all those non-specific-edition Fanzines that are being published? One unified body of knowledge with every gaming group’s “system” up-for-grabs?

    I can get on board with your idea, Jeff but I have to ask: should any distinctions be made between 20th century and 21st century D&D? There are certainly several major differences of system between TSR editions and WotC editions…such that published materials may be incoherent between such.

    Word verification: “kingsise”

    The answer to: how big is Jeff’s proposed task?!

  4. Yeah. This makes good sense to me.

    Like you say, it can certainly be fun to compare editions and see things like, "Hey, look how magic item X changed!" but it seems to easily fall into "Edition and sub-edition Y is better D&D because look how magic item X changed!"

    The online fanbase for D&D does seem to have a lot of... connoisseurs. What vintage is your D&D? What vineyard is it from? And so on. (I'd stretch the analogy more, but I don't know enough about wine to do it.) But when it comes to sitting down to the table, well, I'll bet you can get a pretty good buzz from whatever vintage is on offer.

  5. hould any distinctions be made between 20th century and 21st century D&D?


    Seriously that what it boils down to. We know more and we can share what learn quicker. It not evolution but rather we can do more with the rules we have and known how go deeper when we want too.

    New fans of older editions have it better than the original fans like myself because they draw on the benefits of experience.

  6. If you meet Gary Gygax on the road, kill him.

    ...And take his stuff.

  7. Perfect use of parable and right between the eyes, Jeff.


  8. No! Follow the Gord! The Holy Gord of Greyhawk! :P

    Hmmm... I wonder how much XP Gary would be worth?

  9. Preach it man, preach it.

    This is a subject I've given a lot of thought to recently, and I agree 100% with every damn thing you just said.

    Very good post.

  10. Anonymous1:46 PM

    "What I would like to propose that those of us running some recognizable version, variant or direct descendant of D&D to stop doing this. Not just the poo-flinging, but that we stop discussing editions of D&D as if we were art critics comparing individual sculptures in some snooty gallery."

    And then you go on to do just that....

  11. You have just made my day.


  12. I agree wholeheartedly--stop bickering, start playing!

    I hereby nominate this post to be included in the "Best of the Gameblog" posts on the right nav so that future readers can look, listen, and learn.

    /lest they forget to stop, drop, and roll amidst the flamewars they've stumbled upon.

  13. And then you go on to do just that....

    Are you referring to me intentionally excluding WotC's D&D? Guilty as charged. I feel a stronger case can be made for a coherent system in WotC's version, as I see more ligatures between the various subsystems. Maybe I'm wrong on that point, I dunno. Additionally, I feel a lot more confident talking about the TSR versions and their clones, so please take "at least prior to WotC’s 3rd Edition" as an acknowledgement of my own weaknesses rather than an attempt to kick them out of the club.

  14. Amazing piece. I need to think it some.

    I hate to respond contrary to the spirit of the post, but I do think that it is significant that you draw the line between 20th and 21st century D&D's (I like that nomenclature; did you invent that JB?). Because, unfortunately, the right to mangle, fold and splinter the game is no longer communicated to today's customers. The current model is to accept rulings from the corporation on high.

    This to me, who really has no particular allegiance to the OSR, is a major point of conflict and why I will keep attacking the kind of consumerist thinking that makes gamers worshipping slaves of a single corporation.

  15. Something of the odd man out (not being a real fan of any edition any longer) I think what you describe is, in part, why I am not so much the D&D buff. I see far too much the, 'This version was the best/right version. You play the bad/wrong D&D!" mentality, when all of us have always played the game differently from each other.

    Beautiful post Jeff. I'm tearing up here...you'd think I had human emotions or something...

    Barking Alien

  16. Brilliant, Jeff! Absolutely ringing with truth!



  17. lovely post and good advice.

  18. There's nothing wrong with being an edition connoisseur if you're talking to other edition connoisseurs. Your "it's all good!" attitude is certainly better for addressing the masses, if that is your intended audience.

  19. What I like about not getting hung up on defined systems of rules, is not just that you are then free to cherry-pick parts of different systems we like, but that it supports the notion that we can all be authors, all be innovative, and make parts that work better for us.

  20. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Very nice and very well put.

    Play the game you want to play has always been my mantra.

  21. "Only once you have your own version of D&D up and running does D&D in any way exist. The texts are mere echoes, shadows of someone else’s D&D. Use them to bootstrap your own D&D into existence. That’s all they’re good for."

    Oh hells yeah.

  22. If what you are talking about is civility alone, I'm all in favor of recognizing that other people aren't evil for playing a different game.

    I'm even in agreement that mechanics, ultimately, don't matter, except as a personal preference. But mechanics aren't system. It's important to remember that.

  23. If it's not B/X its crap!

    Just kidding. I love all editions. Kumbaya...

  24. I think I can completely and totally agree with this, despite my complete abhorrence of anything D&D. Thanks for a great post!

  25. This is timely. I've been deliberating what system to use to run an old-school feeling sandbox using existing D&D material (Myth Drannor boxed set, to be exact). I've been pondering and pondering, but this post and another post by Dr Rotwang that I remembered make the same point: Just Pick.

    I'm going to be running a "D&D style game", right? So I should just use any old system and hack it to suit me. The feel of the world and the pacing of the game is more important than what dice get rolled and what taxonomy is used to distinguish the characters. Given that, it doesn't matter that I'm going to be using Savage Worlds—it'll still be D&D at heart.

  26. Settembrini2:47 AM

    Jeff, you are one of the people grasping my somehow complicated-for-many idea of building blocks.
    Really, everything you can do in A/D&D you can do in 3rd. It´s all there, and the real differences are oone of module design culture and player expectations. Culture, and that´s what you DINDN´t want to get into the differentiation debat, no Also: I use stuff from all editions in my 3e games every week. So are you telling me that this actually doesn´t work? Or that I´m doing it wrong?

    Please, your Electro-Skeleton was transfered DIRECTLY from the FO! incarnation, as were several modules/situations and artifacts.

    Also: Without 3rd, none of us would be posting here.

  27. Efnisien3:59 AM

    Amen brother.

  28. "everything you can do in A/D&D you can do in 3rd"

    Well, the point is that if I go and join a random 3E game -- which I did! -- it probably won't be so freewheeling and fast like A/D&D -- which it wasn't!

    Favorite topic of complaining in the 3E group I'm in: annoying DMs who MAKE UP RULES ON THE SPOT. Horrors!

    Everything you can do in A/D&D you can do in FUDGE. Everything you do in A/D&D you can do in BRP. Hey, this is fun.

    (Sorry, just needed to vent.)

  29. Anonymous5:45 AM

    That´s factaully fasle. I was saying: Everything in A/D&D exists as building block in 3rd. Not so in FUDGE or SMUDGE or whatever.

  30. Nice stuff, Jeff. You make the point really well.

  31. This is great. I think you are right, especially in your argument that the best plan is to pick one and then start ripping out the wires.

    It all changed for me when I understood that you can't really play in someone else's game world -- once you start playing it becomes yours (no matter how much you try to adhere to some conception of what it "should" look like.)

    Even if I tried to play in Gygax's Greyhawk with my home group in 2009 I couldn't. I have different players, they have different experiences with roleplaying, the knowledge of the hobby and different options is different, and I am not Gygax. No matter how closely I hew to what I think is orthodox, the moment my group sits down it is "our" Greyhawk and it begins to diverge more from any kind of orthodoxy as we play.

    The best part of the OSR is embracing this and recognizing that the fact that every table plays it different is a feature, not a bug.

    Great post.

  32. Anonymous9:22 AM

    The last three paragraphs are probably the most sensible things I've read regarding this subject. Full marks!

  33. DRAX40K10:18 AM

    Awesome post! I've played every edition of D&D, and loved them all for what they were, and currently I love and play 4th Edition. I've made my 'choice' and It's gaming 'paradise' for me. More power to those who prefer the retro editions, may they find their gaming 'paradise' as well.

    You are terribly wise Jeff, and I enjoyed your analogy!

    Also, be assured, If I should come across Gary Gygax in my travels, I shall draw my Hoturi Hanzo sword, and Gary Gygax will be cut.

  34. @Olman: "Because, unfortunately, the right to mangle, fold and splinter the game is no longer communicated to today's customers."

    Warning! Reading the 4e DMG will render your viewpoint obsolete on account of wrongness! Avoid at all costs!


    I have to echo others and say your exclusion of 21st century D&D undermines the entire point of your otherwise excellent post. If that small phrase was left out I would agree with you entirely. I have played every edition of D&D from 0-4 and I've done exactly that - crafted my D&D out of each system (and without a craft skill to boot :) ).

  35. @Thasmodius I've heard very good things about the language in the 4e DMG regarding improvisation and kit-bashing. I'm really hoping that those ideas are communicated down to the players and while I'm sure a lot of it goes on, it does not seem to be the default approach to D&D anymore, at least not among the groups I've seen playing it. I'm sure hoping people like you are the majority and that I'm wrong.

  36. The problem Ive run into in playing OD&D with newer players (predominantly 3.x players) is the difficulty in communicating the idea that the solution to a situation can NOT be found on the character sheet. Maybe its the experience of the games they've played in but its been my experience that non-AD&D/OD&D D&D players seem less in tune with the older ethos of description and roleplaying over mechanics and rollplaying. Hopefully Saturday will prove this to be wrong as I will be playing in a 3.5 game. However even with the language in the 4.0 DMG the newest edition still does not work for me for improvisation (I attempted it in the campaign I ran but the only saving grace was the players were slower to figure out what they were doing then I was to ram something together)

  37. Settembrini4:29 AM

    See? A cultural problem. If you tie it to editions, then you are reinforcing and affirming this cultural deprivation. It´s the reservation, and you guys gladly walk right in. Hint: You won´t be allowed to build Casinos as recompensation.

  38. @Settembrini

    How does acknowledging that there is a disconnect affirm it? And does anyone have any suggestions for helping instill the open take on situations for newer gamers?

  39. Anonymous9:01 PM

    The other day when Dave and I at Armored Gopher were discussing the best parts of our Rise of the Runelords campaign, while sitting around converting characters over to PF RPG, it did indeed strike me that the stories we were telling were the same kind of stories I've always been able to tell about the best D&D campaigns I've been a part of, and that also goes for the stories I have of my Eladrin Paladin from Dave's Lost Shards of Dawn 4E campaign as well.

  40. Anonymous6:52 AM

    Well said!

    A couple of years ago a friend broke out his original D&D box set. My character was an 'Elf'. His name was Anwar. After a green slime landed on his head, we decided he had a jaunty cap. A few minutes later a group of gnolls killed our party of two.

    Lots of fun and apparently memorable as well.

  41. Anonymous12:13 AM

    I mostly agree with what you have said. But here is the points I don't.

    D&D 1st, 2nd and 3rd have a feel, a look, of similarity and ideals. 3rd although was the death of D&D, but there was enough of what makes D&D still within the pages for it to be called D&D.
    4th on the otherhand, does not have the feel or look, nor any similarity to any of the before.
    4th Simply is not D&D, they can put the title on their, but that does not make it D&D. Sorry.

  42. Anonymous4:50 PM

    Of COURSE it's annoying when DMs change the rules on the spot. It completely undermines the verisimilitude of the world.

    "Wait, all this time I've been able to do this thing, and yet I never knew about it, and as such I always did this other thing, which I now can't do?"

  43. @Anonymous: "Make up" rules on the spot, not change them.

  44. This made me think of a conversation I had a few weeks back.

    A friend of mine who I use to play 1st and 2nd edtion D&D with moved back to town after being gone for several years. He immediately jumped in to our S&W complete campaign.

    After a few sessions I asked him what he thought of S&W compared to the versions he had played in the past.

    He told me he never remembered which version of D&D he had played, only that he had fun playing D&D.