Saturday, January 16, 2010

Up on A Tree Stump #4: The Value of D&D's Early Creativity, Improvisation and Play

Up on a Tree Stump™
(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life

The Value of D&D's Early Creativity, Improvisation and Play

©2010.  Robert J. Kuntz

{An edited first draft extracted from my combined essays}

There was an acute difference in game-rules being used in David Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign and in our corresponding Lake Geneva Campaign under the leadership of EGG and myself and their participants. As has been historically noted, each "Campaign" had different rules, those at first initiated by David and his players, then as revised and rewritten by EGG as we play tested the D&D game in its soon to be published form.

Though there is a distinction of how the adjudications evolved in each game group, there is a thread of similarity in both which ties them tightly together:  they both relied on improvisational and creative play.

As there were no rules, but only notes and whatever existed in the minds-eye of each creator (or DM), spontaneous play WAS the course served.

The (role)-play tests evolved to reform the rules as published, and to this day folks may still believe that this was necessarily the form we adhered to during these play tests. To that I will say:  yes and no.  Partial rules were always being implemented and added as the play tests discovered a new set of challenges and areas as yet uncovered, and this lead to a furtherance of the rules as written by EGG to cover these circumstances, until, one might say that he, sitting back, finally said:  "This is enough, this is the core of what we’ve experienced and what is needed for gamers to experience what we just played."

So, what we experienced during the play tests was the growing act of Being and Doing.  The play test was a promotion of ideas that had various forms given to it by the acts themselves that varied inside our group conception of interchange.  This of course continued to free us as the actors and designers within the play; and this, more importantly, allowed for a constant progression of creative and playful nuances to occur.

Let me pose a simplified example of what occurred many times in that manner. Imagine wanting to climb a wall and there are no rules for it, as there were none for accomplishing this in-game task then.  Let’s take a look at how we may have handled that circumstance then during the course of play (the following is a recreation only):

R:  1) "I want to climb the wall."  NOTE:  The need is established here but not the instrument (the rule is not yet understood, and that is in turn understood on the surface by the player, as their PC has no such ability but assumes that he may be able to accomplish the feat notwithstanding).  This may have been couched similarly: 2) "Can I climb the wall?"  Both instances beg the DM's adjudication.  The DM is the arbiter of this event as dictated by the inputs forthcoming in interchange...

G:  1) "How do you accomplish that?” NOTE: or 2) "Yes, you can try." This is the first input field.  This establishes "yes" it is possible, but not HOW, as we have not as yet deduced that from the inputs.

R:  1) “Well, I look for jutting spots on the escarpment to cling to as I climb and I shed my armor. I climb slowly and use the hammer to lodge spikes into the wall to create perches.  I proceed cautiously.  Before ascending I tie the rope about the armor and attach its free end securely about my waist.”

G:  “Okay.  What's your Dexterity?”

R:  “12.”

G:  NOTE:  This is where the DM makes adjustments (+1/-1 to the inputs).  As the escarpment has been described as 80' high and straight up with some protrusions, we now have a base for ascertaining an on the fly ruling.  Here the DM decides to use 2 six-sided dice to ascertain the difficulty range, though in different circumstances in the LG Campaign this choice was easily substituted for different types and numbers of dice to expand or contract the numerical ranges.

+0 for dex
-1 for length of climb (would have been higher if the PC had not noted that they were proceeding slowly and cautiously)
+0 for armor being shed.  This may have been an extremely high minus if it had not been shed

Thus a +1 input on 2 six-sided dice.

G:  “The base is 7 and you need an 8 or better on 2 six-sided dice.”

R:  Rolls:  “9.”

G:  “You make it to the top of the cliff, but your armor is still below, which I imagine you pull up.”

R:  “Yes.”

G:  “That takes a minute--there you go.  Well done.  Give yourself 100 experience points for good planning.”

Note that this probability sequence, once used and re-used, became second nature with us.  In this instancing exchanges occur quickly and deductions become normal in respect to inputs.  This progresses matters for which there are no steadfast rules, or in turn belays the use of books and their referencing, expediting in all cases the action of the event and the participation of the players (both DM and PC) on a primary level.  This creative improvising can be tracked from these first occurrences during play to their printed forms in the DMG’s many tables, but in my opinion, the latter provides an incomplete idea of how we in the LGC conducted such matters and to which EGG never totally adhered.

…The New D&D:  The Lessening of the Play Experience

The built in safety net in the newest RPGs only exemplifies what is already known in that regard: Even if the rigidity of form is adopted, as in numerical expressions and tables and endless charts for myriad events or perceived game driven engagements, even if the players "feel" that there is fair and equitable treatment being proposed, in the end, the DM, however rigid and defined the system may be, can always call upon the fantastic if he or she is unfair or unyielding or selfish, breaking all barriers of pretense with but one summoned monster from the ether which demolishes said party of PCs anyway.  Players may scream in the end about equality of CR levels or what not, but done is done.  In retrospect OD&D assumed a standard of fairness of adjudication as its core principle in DMing the game.  Thus I find that this sacrifice of play in the new D&D—and supposedly in answer to player demand or a perceived design need--has never held water with me; and it appears beneath the surface as a red herring implemented to justify new rules favoring a finite structure that in turn explode PC-dominant positions within the game.

In turn, this new RPG “safety net” creates and sustains a totally manufactured and assumptive way of imagining a player and thus their regulated environment, making sure that they are not over-wounded (disfavored) in the game.  This of course does not present a realistic portrayal of any event driven fiction (role) and its backlash is the need driven participation of the player to succeed time and time again.  When faced with challenges or loss, they can point back at “balance or fairness,” the very things that have in fact been worked out of the game play due to structuring it in this manner. In essence, the apparent reason for this conceptual deletion of value-driven accomplishment is due to marketing and grooming of the play environment to keep players, like in computer games, happy as larks with their perceived rewards and gains.

Now let's take a look at a different way of viewing this from the other end of the telescope.

Immersive play furthers creative thought.  When a player substitutes intuition and creativity for game mechanics only, they are not immersing themselves in a growing experience through which they become better decision makers or strategists.  This very lack summons a ground of clay that makes any stance for learning or achieving beyond a redundant and non-immersive pattern impossible. Such participants instead comfortably root to where and when they will choose to implement powers and repeatable set in stone strategies.  They may reach for dice with the knowledge that they have achieved a numerically advantageous position as they have before them all of the inputs in print to arrive at that calculation, so they are assured in most respects of a positive outcome.  This is like opening a door.  It takes little thought or planning.  It's like eating a bowl of noodles.  Some may dangle, but the fork can rearrange them.  It is in a word boring; but the consequences for those who limit play under such a premise is more than just boring, it's frightening.

If we attempted to construct a specific mechanic for each or any one of our real world actions and/or specify or attach relative times and other values for doing so based upon a multitude of raw and variable inputs, we would soon need a computer to arrive at such extrapolated deductions and also a wave of corresponding experience to make fair assessments in arriving at the derived principles.  That is not possible as we are not the sum of human knowledge and worldly existence, so we must seek comparative improvisation to reach expansiveness in play rather than seeking models with built in limits that bar such creative extrapolation.

The further one closes off their mind to experience, the less they participate and in turn the less value they derive from such experiences.  Only value-added achievements spur growth.  EGG used to welcome players at conventions to test their metal in Greyhawk Castle, especially those who claimed to have higher-leveled and well-appointed PCs. These types who were never challenged to produce efforts equal to gains in their DM's campaign soon found, much to their consternation, that their flimsy "strategies" were nullified in a DM's game where real thinking was involved.  This close-mindedness often, and unfortunately, always goes back to the DM, for it is he or she who sets the examples and difficulties for their players.

A closed, or oftentimes, routed mindset, allows very little expansion for abstract thinking.  The more one sides with a finite approach as opposed to an open-ended play environment the more one will become reliant upon a structure that codifies itself within a box.  This is fine with many game designs as all reach superimposed limits at some point, but when applied as a model on top of an RPG which in its conceptual range is based upon playing out broadly expanding fictional situations and forms, it is anathema and is in contradiction to the inherent honesty of design relating to the matter overall and on sundry understood levels.

Within an open model as OD&D presents, players and DMs can choose what they need and ignore or discard the rest. They may even change what they need from within the selections and even come back to those they did not think worthy at first to re-examine them.  There is always a creative flow at work within the mutable parts. Attempt to do that with closed models and their static forms are always broken if not challenged as their entire event and statistical stream must be re-imagined and re-codified.  Once an RPG loses a model of play oriented expansiveness it, in my estimation, becomes at best “role assumption,” as the PLAY in the most inclusive and creative use of the term is no longer considered important to its titular description.

Thus each game/rules form dictates the mode, the mode dictates the expression, and this as a combined cycle dictates the outcome. Within these there may be variances, such as what to add to any given sequence, but if these particles as a whole are on the front end designed in to perpetuate the ending cycle, then outcomes are assured no matter the available sources for input (re:  as in a computer program). This is true with all devised systems.  OD&D’s system was there to implement and to improvise as one experienced it. This remains its absolute strength to this day.

In summary one might break down the aspects of the D&D game in its initial stage, and then the D&D game in its current stage, thusly:

OD&D 1973 play test and forward: Play grows out of games and play-fiction.  War games>miniature games>parlor games>make believe>story-telling.  Rules mix with play but do not burden them.  Play becomes the focus, to the point where EGG discards major rules as published to concentrate on his home-brew style that we both adopted in the play test version. In bringing the game to consumers this aspect is stressed more than once as a fundamental theory as there is no way to "formally" adjudicate every instance of play as play is seen as forever open-ended. Through AD&D 2nd edition this finds purchase and is on many levels adopted, spurring creative implementation of home-brew rules even in the face of TSR's attempted rules codifications for IP reasons.

3rd Edition onward to present: The game goes through drastic changes producing a new rules structure and eliminating in-house rulings.  The play aspect is foreshortened, being replaced by skills and feats.  The creative aspect of playing and thinking is routed into a statistical mode of balance siding with the players.  The DM's use of rules improvisation is depleted as rules dependency becomes a reality due to overt, formal structuring.  We no longer have open-ended play but what is now a semblance of a computerized flow-chart implemented on the table.  Part miniatures game, part role-playing, but with no real extenuation of imaginative input as this is all deduced up front for the player and the DM.  We now have a formula-based RPG.  ADA has arrived.


I climb the wall.

Roll your dice...

I succeed.

OK, you're up.  And with your feat of quantum carrying, you did so with your armor on.

Don’t I get experience for negotiating that very deadly obstacle?  It says so here in the book.

Right.  Is 500 enough?...

…RJK (Somewhere near Betelgeuse)


Dan of Earth said...

Wow, excellent post. I have no comment really, I think I'll just digest it.

Timeshadows said...


Thank you for this excerpt.

May I ask you to comment on the weight of Caprice in those early days, as well as in your ongoing understanding of (Role/Play)?

Was there a lot of 'let the dice govern play' going on, or were dice used more as a gauge for informing the Referee of the conditions surrounding the attempted action on a sliding scale, rather than as an absolute, binary outcome juncture?

From what I have understood, not only from this post of yours (among other former TSR folks, as well as others of the 'BitD' crew), is that the action took place in a consensual space, a meeting of the minds, and that the value of a player's plan wasn't merely a template of success/failure, but in the actual stimulation of the Referee-Player(s) 'space', with the -role- of the dice merely being the 'weather report' at the time of the character's attempt.
--Am I just seeing what I want to see in these posts?


Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Hi Timeshadows,

>May I ask you to comment on the weight of Caprice in those early days, as well as in your ongoing understanding of (Role/Play)?

If you mean by caprice, our ability to make up things on the fly, that was going on all the time when there was not a rule already made to judge a given game event. Its weight was more at the beginning of course and less towards the end, which bears direct relation to the codification of the rules as these were extracted through play. As far as a percentage in weight I could not say beyond that.

The understanding of role/play are in my knowledge indistinguishable when performed in combination. One plays a role; in that make-bleieve role they play... Though I have noted this elsewhere in my blog posts, we were experiencing a new game form, the likes of which we had experienced in their disconnected parts during life: games, make-bleieve, fictional portrayals, etc. The play was intuitive and at once a learning curve; we relied on EGG's input at times when situations would need clarifying. This would at moments suspend the act so that EGG could decipher a process, which in turn lead in part to the use of on the fly decision making via the dice. This spurred the use of inputs on both sides. It also spurred the continued probing on the player's parts, as they realized that they were one edge of a sword cutting through the matter.

>Was there a lot of 'let the dice govern play' going on, or were dice used more as a gauge for informing the Referee of the conditions surrounding the attempted action on a sliding scale, rather than as an absolute, binary outcome juncture?

The dice were used to determine outcomes as described in the rules as written and as a method for determining those parts that were not formalized, such in the example I posed about climbing. They took upon a casual implementation in the game and no more.

>From what I have understood, not only from this post of yours (among other former TSR folks, as well as others of the 'BitD' crew), is that the action took place in a consensual space, a meeting of the minds, and that the value of a player's plan wasn't merely a template of success/failure, but in the actual stimulation of the Referee-Player(s) 'space', with the -role- of the dice merely being the 'weather report' at the time of the character's attempt.

We were playing a game, so all gamers concern themselves with success and failure. We were also play testing, as we had with dozens of other games, so we knew that the final result was dependent upon our naturalizing to the rules as these took shape. There was stimulating converse/actions being forwarded before, during and after such sessions. The realized play was, IMO, uncovered in afterthought at best as the game will be a game and keep one engaged during its length. As far as the dice, again, in this -role- was as a barometer at times, yes, if that if more succinct. It was a conclusive one too, with negative, positive or negligible results attached to the readings. I gave only one example where the DM and player interact, but many of the behind the DM screen rolls to ascertain that range were not known to players and for many good reasons within the scenario's context, etc.

Timeshadows said...


I realised after writing the above questions, that I could have simply asked:

If the Player had needed an 8 and rolled instead a 7, was there any real difference between that 7 or a 4 or a 2, given the nature of the bell-curve, where 2's and 12's results had a much lower probability than the 4/10, or 6/8 distributions? Or was the entire continuum of less than 8 simply binary failure?

Thanks again.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Okay. I'm a little tired. Scaling. Yes, if it was a roll that was determining such, we would weight that on a sliding scale. That was was another way, just as we did it with D% later on. :)

Timeshadows said...

Thanks. :)
--I appreciate your taking the time to address that. :)

sorry. :(
--Hope you feel rested up and spiffy soon. :D

Ragnorakk said...

Pretty amazing post, sir - thanks for sharing your thoughts & experiences.

Endymion said...

Great post, Rob.

I've often heard people claim that 3e was more structured and limiting, like a computer algorithm, but you're the first to back it up with actual analysis.

I'd just add that there must be a cultural component to this, as well. Any rule set can be broken or ignored, you just need a little confidence and imagination. I've spent some time playing Rolemaster (e.g.) and, while it has some attractions, it also is waaay too complex. I almost inevitably ignore most of the rules and make things up as I go. I wonder if the reason players today are perhaps reluctant to indulge in free play of the sort you recall is because the presence of technology itself has contributed to a regimented life that discourages initiative. Or is it something else (I mean, besides the fact that the rulebooks themselves lack the encouragement of DM autonomy that EGG was always so vocal about)?

Just my two bits.

rafael beltrame said...

wow, that was pure history gold, rob! im glad you can take some time and share with us.

here 100 xp for you, for very well writen text :D

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Thanks Rafael, Robilar can always use 100 xp. I shall apply it to my honorary PH balance... ;)

@ Mark: I hope to answer some of your questions and complement some surmises in my newest post, though I think that more questions may arise, all fine and dandy, of course. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary!.

Chgowiz said...

I have a completely different tack to take on a question because it just leaped out at me...

G: “That takes a minute--there you go. Well done. Give yourself 100 experience points for good planning.”

A quick search on Google found this further explanation on Dragonsfoot:

Yes, when anything that would be bonus or beyond monster kills/gp value was added, we explained the particulars in every case (making notations for the end of the session regarding such). We would also give bonus experience on the spot: GREAT IDEA! Give yourself 500 bonus exp, etc. So that added another dimension, as well, as can be noted.

How did this practice start? Was it a concept that was present from the first games or who tried it out first?

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

@Chgowiz: I gave this some time to regurgitate but ended as a blank as to who used it at first, but it was always there in my mind, so EGG may have indeed been the spark. I believe that Dave Arneson's group used similar methods of rewards for good play as well, though I cannot find that reference either.

This idea always spurred the players to creatively manipulate the game environment, of course, once again stirring out of the box thinking and play. And, as I have noted elsewhere, we were expressing each and every methodology as it formulated (like kids on the playground), later to be included or discarded in the final version, didn't matter. EGG and I were always being impressed by the level that players were taking the component parts of the game and re-imagining their use, so this was also an appreciative nod to those players who went the distance and reached outside what we in turn had imagined. Hope this helps. Re-reading my posts at DF and surrounding posts at that time also gave me another idea, so thanks for probing into the matter. :)

Chgowiz said...


Thanks for thinking about it. I've found that I do this on small bursts, but I think making it explicit is an excellent idea. Thanks!

Now I'm curious as to your other thought...