When I got word that my parole officer was out of town Friday night, that gave me a chance to sneak out of the house and down to the local nerdery to partake of a night of forced laughter and damn-near visible levels of gamer miasma. (In a perfect world, game stores would make enough money to run industrial air-conditioning units at full blast.) There weren’t any suckers on hand to play a proper game, so that forced me to partake of a story-telling game that revolved around plot and characters in which everyone gets a say in what goes on and everyone knows all the rules and everyone knows pretty much where things are going and how they are going to end.
I’m talking about fifth edition D&D, of course.
This latest iteration of D&D reminds me of my wife’s son. Having been there to help raise him for years, he acts a little bit like me, but you don’t have to look to close to see that he owes far more to his actual ancestors than to his purported parentage. In the case of D&D, the ‘actual parentage’ would be storytelling games like…oh, who are we kidding, I’ve never played any of those artsy-fartsy table games and don’t have a list handy. I guess…Heist? That’s the latest game the fluffers at RPG.net are fellating, right?
You know the types – the DM is an equal partner. Characters direct the action. Every question is answered with a “Yes, but…” Listening to a podcast the other day, the host mentioned a game where the players even had a level of control over room sizes. My heart nearly stopped. I had to take a break from soaping up my car and sexily rubbing my hefty manboobs all over the windshield when I heard that.
It’s a real shame DFiveD went that route, but the more I play it, the more I realize that it’s just one big story game prancing around in D&D’s dead skin.
Friday night, bored with the utter lack of suspense, I decided to play a little meta-game. Without telling anyone at the table, I decided to see how hard it would be for my character to die.
The answer – really, REALLY hard.
The rules are set up to make it extraordinarily hard for characters to die. My third level sack of hit-points, a sword and board fighter, charged into every combat (both of them in four hours…sigh), triggered every trap, and generally jumped in the path of danger at every opportunity. My dude got burned, fell thirty feet, stabbed, sliced, diced, and poisoned, and managed to survive the night.
Once I had to make a couple of death saves, but that was it. There were so many hit points on the table, and so many ways to recover them, that nothing I did mattered. The DM and players moved heaven and earth because they were worried about my character dying. The game ground down as everybody searched for ways to keep my secretly suicidal fighter alive. They loved that he was so willing to bear the brunt of things, and thought him heroic. They wanted to know about his motivation.
He just wanted to go into holes in the ground, kill things, and come out with shiny gold coins so that he could go into holes at the local brothel. That’s his motivation.
I’ll give the DM this – it was a proper dungeon crawl. We were trying to recover a magic sword for a local duke so that he could claim an inheritance that would allow him to make a power play to eliminate a rival threatening to oh my God this is some Game of Thrones garbage and there was no way the DM would let us fail to recover that sword lest the precious story he and the players had agreed on be ruined by something as stupid as a die roll.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know why they even used the dice. All they did was determine whether the adventure was a rousing success or a close call. Hell, there’s more uncertainty in combat in a game of Amber Diceless than in D Fate D.
Death is the price you pay for taking stupid risks in a game. It is the ultimate price, and it’s a powerful incentive to encourage players to think about what they are doing. It has the potential not just to ruin their plans, but to ruin their everything. Take that off the table and you change the game drastically. It becomes a game of manipulating and working with the DM rather than manipulating and working against the rules.
To think I risked six months in the clink for this? That’s the last time I ever sneak out on my parole officer. Unless there’s a guaranteed game of Holmes or Moldvay on the table I’m staying home next time.