What’s in a Game? Part 3

I spend a lot of time pretending to be someone else. I always have. When I was a kid, I would go out in the side yard and play superhero. When I was really young, it was always Superman, Batman and Aquaman, because those were the cartoons I was watching at that time.  As I got older and discovered actual comic books, the characters changed. I became Spider-Man or the Thing.  As I met new characters in various media, my personal cast would change. I became Steve Austin, Lucky Starr, Mar-Vell, or, my perennial favorite Mr. Spock.

As I grew up, I started creating my own characters, usually some sort of paragon or another.  I would mix and match traits, and run through dialog and scenes in my head. Various household objects became amazing devices. My personal favorite was a 30-60-90 triangle that could channel enough cosmic power through it to shave the tops off mountains.

Then I discovered D&D.

I can still hear the angelic chorus even now as I remember that day. I was twelve years old  in the local toy store with a treasure trove to spend, a whole fifteen dollars, when I walked past a shelf with an unassuming box on it. It wasn’t a really thick box, but it had the word “Dragons” on it, so it earned a second look. The back of the box promised to help bring my fantasy adventures to life. What more could I ask? Money changed hands, and the box came home with me.

Dungeons and Dragons swept through my internal world like a kleptomaniac with a get out of jail free card. In a matter of days I went from playing superheroes to Aragorn and Elric. Household items became less important than a good straight stick to use as a sword. I would wander out into the woods near my house and slay all manner of imaginary terrors . . . and then sic them on my friends. What fun!! As the game evolved I went out and bought the newer, larger books. My best friend and I would spend entire weekends slaying monsters and racking up treasure. The adventures of the mighty wizard Gorgonzola still make me chuckle to this day. (For the record, he wasn’t MY mighty wizard. The name was too cheesy for me. It was only later I discovered that was because  it was an actual cheese.)

Since then, Dungeons and Dragons has always been part of my gaming life. When they upgraded to third edition, I went along. When they  upgraded to 3.5 I followed along again, spending hundreds of dollars. I drew the line at 4th edition. I have yet to buy a single book. It hasn’t stopped me from playing the game. I am still a semi regular in a fourth edition D&D game to this day. I’m totally dependent on the rest of the group for the rules, but that’s okay. When a rules issue comes up, they tell me how it works these days and I nod, smile, and kick monster butt.

Now let’s be honest, D&D isn’t the best game in the world, no matter what standard you choose to measure it by. The class/level system doesn’t reflect how people develop in the real world. I am not my job. I have interests that range beyond it, questions that have nothing to do with it, and needs it doesn’t fulfill (which perhaps explains why I got into gaming in the first place.). But D&D doesn’t allow for that in their character system. You can change paths, sure, but you still have to walk a path.This becomes especially true in Fourth edition. You pick an archetype, progress along a very narrow track, making one or two decisions each level to define your character, get your stuff and move on.

Then there’s the combat system. While the game has literally decades of experience to draw from, it still clings to some basic tenets from long ago, like Armor Class. Every system handles combat differently, infusing what reality they can into the process. As the  prototype, D&D has more bugs than most, which loyal fans insisted make the journey. Armor class is one of them, in my opinion. Armor doesn’t prevent hits. It protects from harm.  I understand the abstractions that dictate the system. I can appreciate them and work with them. I also see where they go wrong.  The system limits your options.

Fourth edition goes even further down this road, taking nearly all of the creativity out of combat. You select a target,  run down a list of options, pick one, resolve it, and wait for your next turn. Granted, it does tend to speed up the game, but it takes some of the fun out of it, too. Gone are the brilliant improvisations that rely on the environment. You don’t even have the limited versatility of the magic system (Another flaw, by the way. Spells per day as a hard limit makes no sense at all to me.) to help you out. There are only the power cards, the numbers and the dice.

Despite it all, I don’t foresee a  time when there won’t be D&D books on my shelves somewhere. The system is clunky, sure.  It has holes and flaws, but that’s hardly a shock.  Every system does.  But we have too much history together for me to just walk away. When I think of minions or cannon fodder, I think first of orcs. When I imagine a wizard spell, the first thing I see is a fireball. And the word cleric conjures images of armored mace carrying holy men, not scholarly religious figures in conference rooms. In fact, D&D 3.5  is the first system I introduced to my kids. And it’s paying off, too.

Now they’re running games for me.

Hear that? That’s what an angelic chorus sounds like.

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