Wednesday, July 8, 2009

UP ON A TREE STUMP #3: D&D’s Ongoing Paradigm Shift

Up on A Tree Stump™

(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life

©2009 Robert J. Kuntz

#3: D&D’s Ongoing Paradigm Shift

A game is a game is a game. We all agree on that. But D&D in its many facets breeds different abstracts of the game idea for each person who experiences it. This is the paradigm shift that is in fact ongoing through that games unique presentation. It will never end and there is no argument for or against what is better. The concept is open-ended and mutable, indefinable beyond the points of its mechanics, as the influences—each player and every DM—in essence sets their own game scope and projects it along a singular, and in many cases, ever diverse path. We incorporate endless and diverse data from many sources and project it into each unique structure, unifying the base philosophy as each evolves into an interdependent whole.

That said, there are some basic tenants that cannot be ignored as inconsequential to good play or good DMing, as this is still a game. A game, of course, predisposes the use of strategy and tactics used by its players therein. Even in Monopoly, for instance, that simple but far ranging and ever-present concept is always, or should be, at the forefront of every player’s thought process.

Imagine playing a board game such as Monopoly without a plan, without gauging the “lay of the land,” so to speak, and note how far such players progress within its territory as compared to players who otherwise adhere to such tenants.

Of course if Monopoly had not been created with a mind to the use of player tactics, then we would have but another example of a game of limited range with consequences garnered from just rolling dice and ascribing personal success or failure while doing so to luck alone.

As noted--and as an unrelenting telling point, in terms of infinite structural choices possible in such a mutable game as D&D--there are no Apples and Oranges within any games perceived and/or adopted conceptual range; and only understanding what a game with a set of rules “is” for its participants and that each participant understands their individual levels of investiture of resources is paramount. A game is a game is a game.

Yet what distinguishes a game from being a challenging or less challenging one in any of its presented levels is the degree of thought and expansion given to its base range of expression. As DMs will set that tone from the beginning—structure—such base understanding is more or less passed along to their players thereafter. Inherent structure will only move from its initial perceived base in D&D through the interjection of shifts that directly reflect back upon the game’s most important tenant: that there is always an expanding possibility range within an open structure. As originally expressed by EGG and D&D’s first co-designers, this is an ever-present and intuitive gaming philosophy. Further, the more these types of shifts are present, the more each participant grows through their use. Expansion expands.

Thinking Horizontally and Vertically: As D&D has an ever-expanding range of possibilities, creative lateral inputs (horizontal shifts) will indeed elongate the structural base in those directions. This is the most important part of a published adventure, as many vertical shifts (which I will explain hereafter) are not as structurally prevalent within such abstracts intentionally scaled for specific ranges as they are within home-brew scenarios. On the whole this is where the phrase “Apples and Oranges” does apply to a greater or lesser extent.

As the inclusion of horizontal shifts is limited only by the creative inputs of the designer (or DM)--and in the home-brew scenarios, by the players, as well, and more-so in this case than within a published scenario—we may continue upon this extending, linear path forever. Perceptions aside, this still remains linear unless the base itself as presented is not only elongated but also challenged for its range, no matter how extensible it is perceived to be. That is where verticality comes in.

In game design one cuts across the axis of the horizontal with vertical lines of design, extending the whole in the process. As the base expands laterally, it also expands outward and thus holistically onward exponentially. It only stops when it reaches self-imposed or insurmountable, and often artificially introduced, design limits. This expansiveness can be realized at any level within the DM’s or player’s expression whenever each can interject to the model during moment by moment game exchanges—and this is one of the most profound aspects of our game, and of course of unlimited expression, overall, which the game maintained from its onset as its strongest, most immutable tenant.

The “Dial” of Design: From a flat-line base of the horizontal we interject extensibility to it, creatively widening its base; and perceptually this looks and feels like a set of “rolling hills.” When one inserts the vertical model into this, that is when these expressions can potentially reach for the height of mountains or the depth of seas, even with their “tiniest” portions. Verticality comes in so many examples, as it did in the Original Campaign, but one could say that it is a dial DMs and players place over each horizontal aspect and rotates to note its effects upon their ranges or limits. A good set of journalistic questions—Who? What? Where? When? Why? And How?—can be a useful dial--a creative barometer—when so applied, and we as designers and DMs are always expressing same, whether we are consciously aware of what is for the most part an intuitive process. It is important to realize, however, that its application has no limits at any time as long as the DM and his or her players accepts its ongoing inclusion as part of the gaming process.

“Vive la Difference”: Players accepted what EGG and I offered in the Original Campaign as a range of possibilities and indeed communicated within that same accepted range with us, knowing that the parameters were established and open. In so doing they learned to expect anything and we in turn learned to expect a range of responses befitting that same model, and certainly expected that these could and would challenge our abilities. In turn, all participants gained by this open model. Participants--DMs and players alike—were enhanced along many levels, and mainly creative and logical ones. Tactics and strategy came to the fore. There was no random die roll, anymore, as verticality added or subtracted from that. We were now merging with the realm of possibilities to the extreme, and within our mindsets stayed aware and open to that endless panorama. Everyone learned their own gaming limits and ranges and at the same time expanded their personal ranges of thinking and expression.

Two quotes from Lao Tzu apply here to cover every perceptual base about D&D’s ongoing shifting terrain:

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

“He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.”

May you never get caught in a dead-end by an iron golem…


Timeshadows said...

...without a Fly or D-Door Spell.


Rob Kuntz said...

Heh, betrayed by an ellipsis... Or, without a pet rust monster...

Timeshadows said...


I normally love that depth of analysis, but when I first began to read your post, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of aphasia.
Fortunately, after a nice cuppa', I was able to dive back in and enjoy, with sagacious nodding, your very visual and textural description of probability densities and interactions with 4th-wall-conscious players.

It also reminded me a lot of the 1e text, itself. :D


Rob Kuntz said...

Euphonia: "Non riuscivo a parlare"

Aphonia:: "I understand..."

I thought to add some tiered examples and a graph constructed in PS, but other duties drew me away from that. I am happy you enjoyed it. Yes, probabilities, the endless quest in RPG. :)

The Iron Goat said...

I apologize if this is a bit of a tangent, but I’ve been curious for a while…

Both you and EGG have mentioned at various times that the players in the original campaign were particularly organized tactically and had many tricks and “plays” of their own. Could you share some examples of that? It’s always been unclear whether that just meant “prod everything with a ten foot pole,” or whether the group was at the level of “okay, let’s run a 42B on ‘em!”

E.G.Palmer said...

Heh! It's neat to see you refer to the journalist question frame work, who, what, when, why, and how. I've just been working out applying that to monster description text.

Rob Kuntz said...

Hi Moonlapse,

Funny, just now listening to "Goodnight Moon" by Shivaree...

So to put your answer "to bed," so to speak, I will do it in part by quoting from Mark's previous post on DMing Philosophy (below): "What happens when you (e.g.) put Bottle City on the second level of Castle Greyhawk? Well, you might lose some incautious low level PCs, but what else happens? First and foremost, you undo their expectations that they will exist within a bubble of appropriately-scaled encounters."

Keeping in mind our current topic please understand that the open model of gaming philosophy was present from the very start of the very first adventure into the Castle to playtest the rules. The fact that Gygax and Arneson were both already accomplished game designers lent a solid understanding that there was a new prospect before them as designers, and thus by induction, that this was to be a learning process for them as well as the players. Thus within the exercise of playtesting (i.e., experimenting within a new and evolving gaming environment) nothing was left out as inconsequential to the thought > to rules > process. Every stone, however its ending point as included or omitted from the final perception of what the game "would be," was examined, and extensively so in many cases.

This lent a breadth to the acceptance of input and output on the DM<>Player exchanges, which IMO, does not exist at the highest levels in toady's game play, though that is to be expected, I suppose. Thus from the beginning players were well aware of that range and adapted well to many tactical contrivances which by today's standards might now even be considered passe, depending. Clay balls rolled to test for slanting corridors as there were many in the Castle which would lead the party stray; caltrops used to cover retreats, poles used to probe, etc. The very light spell on a wand was at the time ingenious, just an example of what might now be considered mundane. What was always happening, however, is that the players, wanting to discover the depth of this new gaming concept, were actually in high gear doing so, exploring every nuance, some that EGG and I had never considered, such as throwing a continual light spell on a person's head, in essence blinding them. These imaginative forays in turn inspired us, of course.

What really mattered,m however, is the tactical thought process. Yes, given the appropriate mood and leader, the party learned to be wary as they perceived that anything could happen, it was all new to them and thus monsters and situations were all new (there were no books like today), and they knew that we as DMs (from the previous experiences as accomplished board- and miniature-game players) were very accomplished, which in turn made them respectful and only enhanced their wariness. Typically as a unit, they cooperated rather well, thus that is why Mark's comment that I used to introduce this answer bothered me. In essence, at least in Greyhawk, no players would have been lost in this encounter. Why? Due to their respect and caution, if on would have moved to do such a stupid thing as touch a bottle bolted to a plinth with magical symbols attached to it, the other players would have hog-tied them. The first thought of any sane player would be, WHO? That is, who the hell had the power to place something as weird as that here? Answer: Look in your pockets, it's not you. Thus it's above your head, and players KNEW that. It's obvious.

The players, cooperated and many had special orders or contingency plans if something were to go away (escape plans, tactical retreat, a spell they would immediately use in such and such a circumstance, etc. IOW, they were prepared and thus could execute quickly by merely nodding to us as the DMs in most cases, The best players were good at execution of plans due to their being bred on table top and miniature games, not be overlooked, that.

Hope that answers sufficiently.

Rob Kuntz said...

Hi EG. I've used those journalistic methods for time unaccounted. They are really great for monsters. Actually, for life in general. No problems, only solutions...

Timeshadows said...

> perks at mention of graphs < :D

That is so full of Badassery that it instantly resolves Bildungsroman without the entire ordeal of the passage of years.

& no, no cookies. :)

Rob Kuntz said...

Yeah, Timeshadows, there was a lot of coming of age for everybody, then.

No cookies? Awww. I shall suffer the disappointment. ;)

Endymion said...

Hey . . . slow down there, Tex er Rob. I was just sayin' that FOR THE NEW GENERATION of players, those raised on PC RPGs and a contstantly scaled encounter environment, you're going to lose a few. [Well, maybe I didn't say that exactly but that's what I meant]. They'll come up to the Bottle and say "Well . . . we're only second level so it must be okay for us to touch this . . . squish." I have no doubt players in the original campaign were cautious and smart and perhaps scared sh**less much of the time to touch anything because they knew the sadistic deviousness of their DMs (more on that in my pending review of MoZ). That's what I actually think is MISSING in the way many RPGs and RPG derivatives (like PC games) work these days. That's one aspect of my DMing philosophy that I consider to be a bit old school and that's why I LIKED the idea of putting something really nasty in front of modern gamers who might otherwise feel the whole world will be scaled to their level. Basically, I agree with Bubbagump's summation -- create a balance between the scaled and unscaled. I think putting at least a little fear in your players increases inventiveness, creates a synergy that enhances the game for all and does some of the other things I was mentioning.

Rob Kuntz said...

Hi Mark,

Oh I agreed with all of your points, but extracted that one only for clarification and expansion purposes.

Thankee! ;)

Tex er Rob :)

Endymion said...

To misquote (abusively) Lao Tzu, "The Dungeon that can be named is not the eternal dungeon"? I think you're actually entering Musashi territory with this post, though: you've reached the void, the technique of no technique, the ultimate pinnacle, and you're talking at a level I can't quite reach. Some of this stuff you mentioned in Plant Master, but you're going way past that here. To get back to the Tao, would you say you're suggesting there must be some balance between stucture and creative possibility in design or do you feel there should be only a structure that eventually crumbles and becomes completely open and, in essence, like the Tao and nameless? This is almost reminding me of MoZ, truth to tell -- you bombard the players with all those Blakean minute particulars (spiraling chaos as you say), but some kind of order, a path, an understanding of their true mission, emerges almost spontaneously. Anyway, I ramble . . . .

Rob Kuntz said...

Hello Again Mark :)

I am suggesting that there is the structure one adapts, and no more. Outside of that I describe the structure that I played and DMed under. I also point out from my POV what I consider to be the "perks" (thanks Timeshadows for the use of that word earlier and thus making it readily handy, now) of our "Protean" structure, which was an ever inclusive one, as detailed in my major post (to Moonlapse) following the original.

And yes, the need to order things oftentimes reduces itself to "rulings" which can or cannot be "spontaneous." There is a void here, and it is the fact that distilling the past from a totally unique occurrence of playtesting D&D as it formed, and everything intuitively ingested from that point, cannot be fully reduced to a prescription, for if it could, that would have been done in EGG's reductions in print.

I have reduced my game theory, at least regarding its more introductory parts of weight and range,so that could act as a bridge of sorts to understanding the mindset that was intuitively at work in crafting the game then, as I was EGG's prized student.

My best suggestion towards reaching an ideal was expressed in the first Lao Tzu quote. I will add this: remain open, create if you must, and remain true to form, always.

Hope this helps. :)

Rob Kuntz said...

On second thought, I will post some examples to describe my points about horizontal and vertical inputs, but later, as I am winding down tonight.

Ciao :)

Timeshadows said...

Great stuff, Te-... Rob.

> After spiking the door and hanging the braid of bells on the latch, I sit, lotus style, upon my floating disc for my four hours of meditation <

grodog said...

*grodog curls up into a rope trick: 'tis a bit more comfy than the Disc, and keeps one dry in the rain :D


Rob Kuntz said...

Goodnight Timeshadows. Sweet meditations.

And Grodog, before you get too entangled in your rope, consider my last Lao Tzu quote of the evening as I listen to Vivaldi: "He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know."

Ciao Bella :)

Timeshadows said...

@grodog: I try to avoid unnecessary use of Extra-dimensional Spaces. Spooky things can happen.

To Purchase List-
* Gorgon's Blood
* Lead Sheeting
* Kwiq-Gro Ivy Vines
* Thank you card for rjk :D

Rob Kuntz said...

Good morning everyone! Thanks Timeshadows, how thoughtful. Robilar shall dispatch his youngest dragon south to secure the gift. :)

Mark asked: "...would you say you're suggesting there must be some balance between structure and creative possibility in design or do you feel there should be only a structure that eventually crumbles and becomes completely open and, in essence, like the Tao and nameless?..."

One part addresses style while the other suggests a _totally_ open gaming concept, akin to parlor games. Though we were adaptable in the playtest and design of the game, the latter would have never occurred, though parts of it were ongoing in the decision-making process when expressing outcomes.

As EGG stated so many times, he never used many of the rules, which means, of course, that being a competent designer and being able to weigh probabilities by inputting his estimations and those of a player's, he arrived at an appropriate -/+ which could then be added to a simple 2d6 roll, 2d6 roll, d20 roll, etc. On the main, use of the negative to positive bell curve was a standard choice for quickly dispensing with such matters.

The above is an example of many things, including verticality. It is also instructive in the sense of openness to input--there are no tables here, no reference to skill sets of players, no static or rigid numerical constant, and thus the singular outcome is left to understanding the situation (what is and/or what it is perceived to be) and how we as DMs were on the fly assessing the applicability range of ingeniousness that was countered/amended by available resources/intentions in deriving the end numerical plus or minus. We were probability calculators... :)

More as I have my second cup of java-lava-kava-latte... :)

grodog said...

@ Timeshadows: I first read:

Purchase List-
* Gorgon's Blood

as "Grodog's Blood" and figured you must feel particularly strongly against extra-dimensional spaces!

@ RJK: "He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know."

Hmmmm: sound somewhat R'leyhian ;)