Books have had a good run. Sturdy, portable, with a great user interface, for well over two millennia books have been the easiest way to distribute and conserve ideas. But there is a new kid in town, and he is quickly taking over. The internet has killed the newspaper. Magazines are barely breathing, and books are next.
And I for one say good riddance.
I don’t hate books. I have a lot of them. Some of them I love dearly. There are books in my library that are full of memories; many of them are gaming books. Each one acts as a sign post to some new idea found within the course of my life. They contain passages that echo within my thoughts and emotions, and the ides that are manifested in those roman characters printed on fibrous pages either opened a new world, or challenged my ideas of the existing one. For those of us who have grown up with books, and especially those of us whose favorite games tend come in books, it may seem strange that I’m so willing to throw these old friends under the bus.
Oh, it’s not easy. When I say good riddance to books, it’s is not without more than a tinge of regret. But the strength of books does not lie within its physical form. It lies within the fact that up until now it has been the best taskmaster for its goals. This is an important thing to remember when evaluating our tools.
A group of my students, young game-loving nerds in their late teens and early 20s took it upon themselves to pick up a new Red Box (also known as the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set) and learn to play this game that I talk about so much. Not only am I an enthusiast of D&D (to put it mildly…full snarling nerd may be a better description), I’m also keenly aware that it was one of the major contributing forces of the strange and wondrous gaming revolution that we currently live in, and that newest version of the game is always striving to stay relevant within that revolution, even though some of its fans don’t want it to be. I often do strange things like ask my students to actually play analog games, which they often loathe to do until you plop one in front of them.
My augment is that you can get closer to the game elements and mechanics in those games rather than trying to use inference and whatever bits of information that devs and designers decide to interface with video game mechanics. And as much as some people would like to put up divisions between analog and video games (or even the various business categories that make up the analog and video game industries), there is a constant conversation between them, in a relationship similar to (and sometimes as frustrating as) the relationship between novels or graphic novels and movies and television.
I’m not always successful getting this point across to a bunch of young know it alls…but that’s to be expected. Youth is wasted on anyone but me. Needless to say that I’m thrilled when I get though, just a little.
Their report back to the game was mixed. The first and most important lesson D&D, the group learn in spades—D&D needs a good Dungeon Master. Thomas, who elected to serve in that role, has all the qualities you need for a good DM. He has a keen sense of fun, picks up audience (i.e. player’s) cues and is more interested in being fair than to be right. If Rikky (Rock’n’Roller) elected to be DM, he would have want to try out the death and dying rules as soon as possible, and would have figured out how to expedite that goal with revisions to The Twisting Halls as necessary. Rikky’s not a tool, he just always has a keen realization he is playing a game, and games are meant to be punished.
But that’s a good lesson for them to learn. I think video games are always looking for balances in validation vs. challenge and ways that it can get the computer to act more like a director or a Dungeon Master when it comes to pacing narrative and game play.
But there were trouble spots.
“The rogue and the wizard did crappy damage,” Tom told me.
“The wizards, okay, but that magic missile is neat, right?” A wizard having this problem didn’t seem odd to me, and I am fucking ecstatic that the auto-hit magic missile is back in the game. Absolutely count me in as one of those folks who thinks that magic missile is auto hit, or it’s something disguising as magic missile. I lost that argument a few times in 4e dev. The real WTF moment was the rogue damage.
“No, magic missile was cool. Rob used it a lot. He also liked the charm of misplaced wrath or something like that. Stunning a guy is good!
“A 1st-level stun?” I asked. That seemed odd to me and I hadn’t read the new powers yet. “Is it a daily?”
“No it’s an encounter! It’s really awesome.”
Later I looked it up. Encounter power; daze until end of your next turn, not stun. That seemed more reasonable.
But wizard weirdness aside, I had to get to the important point—was the rogue using his sneak attack? I could tell by the look on Tom’s face, he had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
All in all, a group of young adult game enthusiasts raised on video games had a good time playing D&D, but did not feel like they had a handle on it by the time they got done playing that box. This, along with the various things I had heard from the war stories, finally had me cracking open the box and play through the solo adventure.
I was disappointed. You start out on a wagon on a lonely road, with Traevus a mule driving dwarf merchant who is taking you to Fallcrest.
Let that sink in—your introduction to D&D is playing Miss Daisy to a mule driving dwarf.
Things get better, goblins attack, and you can imagine yourself doing something to get into the action, but even the illustrations on the first page are ill-conceived. On the page where you get some flavor text telling you about your destination and the features of the world you’re passing by on your donkey carts and then later introduces you to goblins (and refers you the illustration on page 5) it gives you two pieces of artwork…one of a female human, and the other of a male elf. Because we don’t have their likenesses engrained within our popular culture. The goblin illustration here and either a map of the area, or a landscape of the Moon Hills would have been better choices.
While the story has some twists (like the guy on horseback shaking his fist in frustration at fleeing goblins) most of the choose-your-own-adventure is consumed with filling out your character sheet and explanation of meta D&D concepts. In many ways I think that it assumes you’re more interested in learning the rules and assumptions of D&D than playing a fantasy roleplaying game. That may be true for your hardcore D&D player, but that is not true for the potential D&D player. We are dealing with potentiality here, folks.
Soon, the solo adventure starts droning on like a 2e rule book, and the game is find the important bits. The rogue in Tom’s game did poorly because sneak attack is explained once, as a paragraph of text in the seven paragraph long section 86. And unlike most the other toys you get as a rogue in that paragraph, it doesn’t have a card. So I think more often than not, the striker is going to go without his striker mechanic when people try this game out of the box, and new players will get the impression that being a rogue just sucks.
But these little mishaps aren’t the main problem. Anyone who has worked in the RPG industry knows that they are common. RPGs are quite complex, and can’t get the staffing or often learn from the processes from other game studios. The biggest problem is that if you are trying to get new players to love D&D you should never put the beginning product in a book—not in this day and age. The wonder and revolution of D&D is not that it has complicated rules. It’s that you can be transported into a world cooler than you get to live in, and be a hero. Very few of us fell in love with the game by reading it. We did so by playing it. We learned the rules when we had to, and someone usually the dungeon master showed up. We learn how to play games by playing them. And today (and this may come to a shock to some of you) we can teach people to play games though interactive interfaces.
Books are going away because the internet is a better avenue for the distribution and conservation of ideas (at until Skynet becomes sentient…but hey, I don’t care what those movies hint, if that happens we are screwed). RPGs in books are going away because it is not impossible for you to have a table-top RPG that uses digital interfaces to help people play the game.
It’s just that few people are doing it yet.