Friday, 8 August 2014

Fifth edition thoughts - the depriving background?

A quick comment on a piece of fifth edition D&D.

At first I was generally positive about the idea of the so-called 'background' - the personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws. Now I'm not so sure. It seems more gimmicky as time goes by, more predetermining of narrative as if establishing the characters for the first chapter of a novel, a set narrative, rather than supporting an exploration of another world - and ourselves - wherever it leads; and a shortcut avoiding the need for fuller player engagement, or further restricting player freedom.

Why play to someone else's prewritten background if you can decide one for yourself or start vague, as light as in a DCC funnel, or with a single word or less, and let specifics emerge in play, based on choice and the elaboration of the world in the interaction between players and GM, and characters, factions and landscapes? I'm genuinely curious as to the justification. Surely not just to save more of that increasingly precious time..? If so, I've got a suggestion - do less. None of us have to do everything we're sold.

Linked with this is the question of why so many if not all imagined worlds would run off the same few conceptions, let alone a set of supposed real-world or pseudo-mediaeval ideas typical of what could be considered generic, or 'vanilla', even hackneyed in 2014.

Running deeper than that though, I think the background here may be a counteraction of one essential aspect of D&D since the very beginning in the mid-1970s. Let's remember it for a moment - an era pre-cellphone and even pre-PC, of fewer technological crutches - a time when kids roamed relatively fearless and free, in a world of sweat, grease and cassette tape, and adults had a truer time out, un-networked and unpixellated; a world of hallucinogenic vision, free love, free thinking and freedom fighter: an age of analogue, that is, the continuous real. Of pen and paper, and people with their actual physical bodies in all their perfect imperfection engaging with each other around a table, working between and among the relatively few rules as much as with them: being there, giving it everything and feeling the imagined world maybe closer than foreground - in their beings.

The background, because it's not numbers on a scale, but words, seems analogue. But as a frame or a cell for the character to slot into, a point on a scale itself, it's actually digital. It obscures fuller space and its broader potential. We do have digital measures like ability scores, but these don't generally limit the imagining - they provide a means of testing its suitability for a set of assumed physical laws, underlying constraints. A background bounds the imagining even beyond this, pre-empting the idea or guiding it into a more conducive pigeonhole as a presumed prerequisite. It papers over the cracks as if the cracks are not meant to be there, rather than glorying in them as a feature of nature and encouraging us to fall through, go beyond, like Alice. This doesn't seem true to the history of the game, or more importantly its essence, the potential of living beings.

Maybe not so quick, but that's the argument, devil's advocacy or not. It may be others can follow it further and deeper. I think we're open-minded enough to at least consider it.


smiler said...

Shit Porky, I didn't know how much I missed you til you came back.

Lord Gwydion said...

I agree that the presented ideals, bonds, flaws, etc. are limited. But I also see them as a) optional and b) customizable.

New players can use them as written. My friends, when we played, used or modified them to suit their concepts, or came up with their own whole cloth.

And the backgrounds' flavor and proficiencies can be used and the other stuff ignored if people don't like it or it doesn't suit their campaigns. Or they can make up their own to suit their campaigns, like Courtney at Hack & Slash is doing.

Callin said...

I suspect in the future most Backgrounds will be world-centric, whereas these are more generic. Imagine the Backgrounds for something like Dark Sun or an Arabian setting.

Also, I think Backgrounds were a nod to the more modern indie rpgs where character play is more important. In those games players like to have clearly defined backgrounds and things to play off of.

Older D&D was basically "create characters on the fly during play" at least as far as "who" they were. Some modern gamers want predefined things to play off of as it feels more real to them. Personally I always thought the "yes, I was a professional rock-climber in my youth" 2 years into a campaign was all a bit arbitrary.

However, Backgrounds can be used or not used as desired. I suspect the players that need/want that level of development before play starts will use it, but those who prefer to develop on-the-fly won't use it.

Porky said...

@ smiler - However long it lasts this time, wherever we go it'll be the same moon shining down on us both.

@ Lord Gwydion - I agree too, in part. It's optional of course, but customising within the concept won't change its nature, that digital structure. I think the approach could be looser-reined than it is, giving more slack by being finer-grained, less regular, to help the newer player better sense the scope beyond. Of course, there has to be a certain thickness of grain and a certain amount of regularity or it might not seem to be a new product, or be a product easy to get into. It also has to reflect expectations generated by the direction fourth edition took, and beyond that third.

@ Callin - I think you're right about the influences and the likely direction. The development of background in play could be expected to be well-integrated, in that presumably any given group expects emergence from the shared context - less 'I was a professional rock climber in my youth' than 'we used to scale the sea cliffs for shale bee honey'. As with so much, it comes down to the communication between the players.

Porky said...

This set for early D&D takes a more freeing approach, essentially being a single word for inspiration plus the related ability and some quick-start core equipment (and companions in the case of the animals). But in a more rules-light system - like OD&D for a start - even this is unnecessary, although a sample could work well as examples of more familiar concepts to show a new player. Any player can go freer still just by choosing anything at all that fits the shared understanding - and helps shape it - then agreeing a similar scope of ability in a quick exchange with the other players and GM, either at the outset or as related situations arose - it's easy enough to take presumed ability into account in any given ruling or roll.

JD said...

I believe D&D is Gygax's feverish vision of the digital age, interpreted with analogue tools by what you might call an "analogue native" ... That's why the games translate so well into the digital. Extensive use of tables and charts could be argued as other indicators that this is the truth and nothing else. But the way you present it, it's well worth some more reflection.

Other than that, I agree with you. It's not only unnecessary, but problematic even for all the reasons you give (and maybe more?).

What's wrong with the good old "Character-development is what happens on the first 6 levels ..."? Every now and then I get the impression that rules like this support the illusion that players are consumers, not creators. And that's poison for the game.

Porky said...

That's worth reflecting on. It makes me wonder to what extent D&D could have been - or become - a flight from the rigour of wargaming and the need to model the real world, and to a lesser or greater degree despite the core creators. Gygax worked in insurance of course. Linked with that, Dave Arneson is quoted here (and thanks to Semper Initiativus Unum for the link) as saying:

"We would get in these arguments, though, about historical accuracy, the latest translation of the latest book, and what was "real." Going into a fantasy world was actually again kind of a copout from my point of view. I didn't want people always coming up with some new book saying we just had to use because it was right and the old one was wrong."