I’ve been thinking about Dungeons and Dragons lately. It’s an interesting social phenomenon.
(Before I go any farther, I should make it clear that I’m not out to bash D&D. I earned my gamer cred a long time ago, and I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I learned D&D on literally Dungeons and Dragons. None of this "Advanced" stuff. And 3rd edition? We dreamed of a third edition! We wondered if we’d ever see one the same way I imagine the ancient Norse wondered when Ragnarok would happen. Sure, it was coming. One day. Some day. But today? Nah.)
What’s most interesting to me is that when I sit down to look at D&D now, I don’t see a strong role-playing system at all. At least not in the way we typically mean role-playing. What I see is a good gaming system. There’s a subtle difference. The D&D system has very little to commend it outside of two factors: A) easy mathematical modeling and 2) modularily. The first creates the second, though the second is a legitimate boon to gamers.
Think about it. What’s the most well-known icon in D&D from a functional player’s point of view?
(I disregard an observer’s point of view because in my general experience, outsiders to the D&D experience have little to no idea how the vast majority of D&D players play the game in practice. Most seem to hold an idealized vision of D&D which does exist to some extent, but generally falls far short of the reality.)
No, not the dragon. Players rarely fight actual dragons. Not the wizard, though the fireball spell comes in the top 5 archetypal icons. The beholder, with its giant central eye and numerous eyestalks, has made impressive ground in many minds. But I think all of those fall short of D&D’s ultimate symbol.
+1 long sword.
It’s every young player’s dream. The magic sword! You get +1 to-hit on a 20-sided die, and it does +1 damage (If I recall correctly, the base is rolled on an eight-sided die, so it’s a fairly large improvement). Whee! It doesn’t sound like a lot, I know. But hey, it’s just a start. There are +2 swords, +3 swords, and… dare we dream? +4 and +5 swords out there! Right. Does anybody think anybody walked around medieval France in search of a +1 sword? Yet D&D players do so with frightening regularity.
The +1 sword has no basis in mythology. It has no basis in legend. It has no basis in any folk tradition whatsoever. It’s a sword that an engineer would love. Precisely quantified, predictable, replicatable across settings, and very easy to explain.
Dungeons and Dragons may have given the players the tools to create a role-playing game, but I believe that examining the rules shows an attitude and implied culture that doesn’t care about the role-playing whatsoever. Let’s see it for what it really was: It was the attempt to create a video game before the computer technology for actual video games existed. All of the elements were there. Easy mathematical modeling, an incremental reward system (gold, XP points, treasure), and bosses. Somewhere in our collective unconscious, we yearned for the ability to put the math to work to crunch the numbers and say, "You know… If I spent all my proficiency points on dart skill, I can throw three every turn. I get three extra damage on each… So I do more damage than a long sword! Sweet. Load me up, Scotty."
(In my limited experience, this represents the general line of thought expressed by many/most D&D players.)
Maybe we should be happy. It wasn’t enough that math could conquer our world. We had to invent whole new ones for it to conquer, too.