The Half-Baked Guide to Better D&D, Part 4: Strangers Meet in a Foreign Land

Imagination Against Literalism

Yesterday, I had a typically good talk with my friend Jonathan Tweet, lead designer of the D&D 3.0 rules and co-designer of 13th Age. He’s trying to get local atheists to form a community based on science and lively debate, which he enjoys, rather than dissing on religion, which he does not. I treated him to my meandering thoughts as I tried to express my newest ideas on how D&D could be better. He got impatient waiting for my point.

So, point first: D&D or any roleplaying game, really, should help you see the world in a new way: the bower in a city park as a fane, a culvert as a lair, a rock pile as a ruin.

There is no true rationality in human experience. Nothing makes sense to us unless it makes emotional sense. A knife, a hammer, a desk – these objects may not move us to passion, but we still fit them into our emotional framework. We name the thing — that is, give it an abstract category — and then assign it a personal value. Our attention is selective, and until we go through this process of assigning a value to a thing, we scarcely recognize the thing exists at all. If something isn’t food, water, shelter, a relative, a mate, a friend, an enemy, or an obvious tool suited to an urgent need, then it may take a higher function of mind to give it value. And once we assign it a value, it can be tough to assign it a new one.

As Magritte observed, a pipe is not a pipe. The picture is not the thing itself. But even the thing itself is not literally a pipe. Consider that it is a pipe only because we use it for a certain purpose. If we didn’t know about that purpose, we might see a corncob with a piece of hollow wood stuck into it, or a deep spoon with a hollow handle. And we wouldn’t be wrong. A pipe is an idea, not a thing.

One of the main functions of art is to break us out of naïve literalism, to assign a different value to the things around us, to expand our metaphor space. Nothing makes sense to us unless it makes emotional sense. If we can learn to form new emotional attachments to things around us, we become more flexible thinkers, potentially happier and better at coping with the world. When I was a kid, I set out to learn as much about animals as I could. I knew the difference between a grasshopper and praying mantis when I was six. For the most part, other kids just dismissed both as “bugs.” We inhabited different worlds. (Mine wasn’t necessarily superior. They cataloged and assigned value to different things, like to a football team and its roster, and this helped them communicate and cooperate in ways that seemed strange to me.) When I saw a mantis as more than just a bug, as this cool little monster with its own neat adaptations for catching prey, my world became larger. We all need a rich bank of metaphors to work with.

Fantasy stories posit a world where objects may have hidden magical properties and metaphors expressed as magic spells have a direct, transformative effect on the environment. We get a thrill from odd little juxtapositions that let us see the world in new ways. Fantasy thrives on this thrill. Also, it reflects what Freud called the dream work, the transformation during dreams of personal experience into sneaky metaphors. However, where Freud thought this had to do with the release of repressed thoughts presented to consciousness in a coded, less provocative form, I think it has to do more with memory consolidation. As the brain works through unresolved emotions experienced during the day, it packs down your memories from the day and decides what to keep. The experiences that get integrated into longterm memory are those we can best connect with our existing associational and emotional framework. Fantasy helps us rework the very structure of our brains and trap new ideas and insights that we’d otherwise lose. Which is all a way of saying that it breaks our literalist mindset.

Literalism, that is, the tendency to see a pipe as always and only just a pipe, is almost a synonym for stupidity.

So what does this have to do with better D&D?

I’ve already used the term “literalist D&D,” where you try to play the game according to the design of its creators. The game doesn’t work this way. It’s a medium for people to teach each other about the world and about themselves, using a rough procedural framework and universal myth symbols to hold the conversation, to collaborate on a story. It’s a different thing from what’s generally called a “game.” It may be neither superior to nor inferior to other kinds of games or storytelling, just different. Those of us who read books have probably all been confronted by people who say, “Why read the book when you can see the movie?” But they’re different experiences; you get different things out of them. The question naively assumes that a book experience is just a cut-rate version of the movie experience.

You can play D&D like a board game, but there are better board games. D&D is a roleplaying game, where even as a player you help create the story and define the terms of “winning.” You don’t just inhabit a role that’s handed to you; you define the role.

If you want a story that’s uniquely relevant to you, then you need to help write it yourself, and the DM has to give you scope to do that.

People Versus Stats

It’s not just things we assign a value to: it’s other people. D&D gives people a new context for showing their value to each other, which is why stats-obsessed D&D is such a wasted opportunity. Being valued as Dirk the 12th-Level Thief does not distinguish a person as a human being unless they bring something of themselves to Dirk as a unique character, like their particular brand of cleverness or humor, which has been allowed to profoundly impact the direction of the campaign. If Dirk is just a set of stats and the DM has pre-scripted the outcome for Dirk’s involvement in the game, then anyone can be Dirk just by grabbing or copying his character sheet.

One on One Is Best, Sort Of

Ideally, every person would have the attention of his or her own DM at all times. Recall the point-of-view issue I explained in an earlier essay. It’s much easier to keep a player in character when the DM doesn’t have to explain what a bunch of other players are witnessing. I don’t know why this isn’t acknowledged more. The D&D rules as far back as I can remember have emphasized group play; but the best times I had playing D&D as a kid were with a DM and one player. It’s easier for the DM to keep the player immersed in his or her role; it’s easier to mold the adventure to a single player’s desires and personal issues than it is to pull off the trick for a whole group. With just a DM and one player, you have two people collaborating on a story about their world. In my YA novel, I try to get this across. The adventure soon becomes a collaboration between Tess and Steve, a vehicle for them to negotiate their relationship, with the other characters in supporting roles, often just along for the ride.

Authors usually work alone, but there have been many famous and successful two-author collaborations. But how many three-author collaborations are there?

D&D is not exactly like a book collaboration. The DM has the biggest job and supplies the most vision. D&D is to some extent the player or players versus the DM, even if the DM’s larger goal is properly to facilitate a good story rather than defeat the players. And learning to be the valued member of a group has its own rewards. Maybe it’s possible to acknowledge the strengths of one-on-one play and bring them to the dynamics of a larger group.

The Experiment

This has all been highly abstract. I’m going to make it concrete soon. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll start a D&D campaign and try to apply my ideas about how to make D&D increasingly fun.

I’ve talked with the owner of a local computer shop here in Redmond, Oregon, and he will recruit up to five guys to be in the campaign. Before every session, we’ll spend a few minutes discussing what worked in the previous game and what didn’t. We’ll use the questions I posed earlier, and I’ll come up with strategies for making the game better.

The setting will be central Oregon. This is a very beautiful, varied landscape and highly volcanic. To the west lie the peaks of the Cascade Range: Hood; Jefferson; Three-Fingered Jack; Washington; Black Crater; the Three Sisters of Charity, Faith, and Hope; Broken Top; Mt. Bachelor. In the near distance is the cinder cone of Black Butte. To the southwest, in a loop around Bachelor are the high lakes and the headwaters to the Deschutes River at Wickiup Reservoir, where right now landlocked salmon cram into the reservoir’s upper reaches to spawn, watched from the pines by dozens of bald and golden eagles. Beyond the lake loop, far to the south, are other mountain lakes, including the world-famous Crater Lake, an eight-thousand-year-old volcano filled to over a third of a mile depth with sapphire-blue rainwater, and host to the aptly named Wizard’s Island, a name I won’t have to change. To the southeast is a network of lava-tube caverns. To the east, detached from the range, another high crater rises from the landscape, its caldera divided by a cinder cone into two lakes, Paulina and East. A hot spring warms the south shore of East Lake, and towering above the crater is a vast rampart of obsidian, half a mile high, and miles long and wide –a vast source of paleolithic wealth to the local tribes.

In addition to the Deschutes River, which winds south through the mountains and then back north across this country, there’s the Metolius River, the Fall River, the Crooked River, and innumerable smaller streams birthed from the mountains. Straight east lies a narrow canyon valley on the edge of the Ochoco Range, its mesas broken into hives, and castles, and watchtowers of rock, its flanks pocked with cave mouths. To the northwest, rise the fantastic outcrops of the Smith Rock complex, one of the greatest rock-climbing destinations in the country.

Making this area the setting for a game should help my players see their home in a new way. It will also cut down on the work I have to do.

I’m going to start with a subset of the D20 rules, only settling on the abilities for character levels up to 3 or 4, including spells. I will bring in higher-level rules and more powerful monsters later in the game. I want to constrain the rules and “discover” the more advanced ones as we go. Maybe I’ll create new rules and spells to keep things mysterious. In any case, I’ll take advice from the players about what they’d like to be possible in the game.

The whole area is a frontier on the edge of a kingdom, and powerful bad guys have moved in to key landmarks, maybe a lich, a lycanthrope wizard, a dragon. They are loosely aligned under a Mad Archmage, and want to expand their territory and ultimately challenge the king. There are a few garrisons to the east and fortified towns, with the biggest in the Bend area.

Crater Lake and Wizard’s Island should be the redoubt of the Mad Archmage. Black Butte might be the lair of a dragon. The lower Crooked River canyon has an impressive, isolated hill surrounded by grassland, on which an improbable estate is perched (in real life). Someone will have to live there, a vassal and watch warden to a kingdom duke who lives ten miles further up the canyon near Castle Rock and Chimney Rock. The Dee Wright Observatory on Mackenzie Pass, a tower made of lava rock in a vast barren flow with islands of trees on it, might be the astrological tower of the lich. The caves southeast of Bend might be inhabited by the Master of Rats, the aforementioned sorcerer lycanthrope.

I’m going to flesh out some key NPCs. Both the king and the bad guys have agents and double agents in the towns. The king is recruiting adventurers to go on missions against his foes. As the adventurers gain notoriety and the trust of the king’s agents, they’ll be given more important and hazardous assignments. They’ll be grouped with strike forces of other NPCs, some of whom will harbor traitors.

The big bad guys will be agents of even larger, shadowy forces and nasty ancient magic.

Issues to Deal With

I expect to develop new strategies as I go to address the following concerns (I’ll probably come back and expand on this list over the next few days):

How do I set short-term and intermediate goals for the party without railroading them?

How do I keep combat tight and interesting to everyone?

How do I maintain a sense of dread and mystery? How do I pace the adventure so as to build and relieve tension?

How do I address the needs of players who will no doubt have very different value systems? Do I encourage them to specialize in such a way as variously to promote their analytical or free-associational bias?

How do I deal with the viewpoint issues?

What kind of props will I need?

How do I get the players cooperating to solve problems rather than merely hanging on my next word, or, worse, getting bored?

* * *

I’m letting all the players know that this is an experiment and fodder for my blog. I’ll post updates on how it goes. It will probably be a week or two before I have anything to report. In the meantime, I’ll get back to the account of my road trip with Lucius.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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