D&D — the only place for moral ambiguity?

I was asked earlier this week on which games have influenced me as a writer and designer, so I thought I’d draw attention to the granddaddy of it all, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.  In fact, maybe D&D can still influence the game industry for the better.  How do you approach the tone and feel of your game?  What can you do above and beyond creating fun gameplay?  The DM Guide asks the DM to take into account the DM or game style, usually somewhere between two perceived extremes.  Here are a few of them and what they could mean for video games.

Gritty or Cinematic
In this sense, gritty refers to realism and consequences, while cinematic implies an action movie.  Even with these explanations, the two terms represent a false dichotomy.  “Realism” is pretty darn boring — you think reality television is entertaining because it’s real?  No, it’s entertaining because they take artistic license and take pains to heighten the drama.  Conversely, a gritty gunshot wound is actually pretty boring if it takes you 5 hours to painstakingly operate on it.  The best gritty parts are inherently cinematic.  Maybe the intended dichotomy here was serious vs. entertaining, but Sande would fight you to the death if you said serious games could not or should not put entertainment or fun at the top of their to do list. 

Silly or Serious
Lighthearted or Intense

I’m glad they brought up these dichotomies and noted you’d probably end up somewhere along the scale.  I’ve seen a lot of video games that are just unenduringly serious.  Comic relief will help wonders, no matter how important saving the world is.

General or Thematic
This dichotomy interested me especially.  What exactly is a general game?  One that meanders with no reason?  Have you seen any examples of “general” video games?  When creating a game with a story, whether emergent story or narrative, consider your theme, because you will probably end up with one or several whether you realize it or not.  While what is theme could be a topic of an entire post, I’m always amused by point number 10 on this blog.  Best theme of a game I’ve worked on?  The Witcher: “There is no good or evil, just decisions and consequences.”

Morally ambiguous or heroic
Speaking of good and evil…  Personally, I love morally ambiguous choices.  I love having choices at all in video games.  But by the same token, many people have insisted they like playing heroic characters, who often have a clear right and wrong.  Check out the responses to my post on unlikely heroes for some opinions on the hero.  Can you feel heroic if you made the right choice but you didn’t save the world, or saved the world, but made a horrible choice?  Is there room for more moral ambiguity in computer games?

So now you’ve got an idea of player types, themes or approaches to your games.  What can D&D tell you about telling the game story?  I’m not done yet — see you next week!

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4 Comments

Filed under Game Design, Writing

4 responses to “D&D — the only place for moral ambiguity?

  1. Deirdre

    Thanks for sharing your influences!

    The D&D Monster Manual was a favourite to flip through on the way back home from school and en route to the Atari 2600.

    Looking forward to the next entry.

  2. John Boomershine

    D&D has been one of those games that are only fun to play when you’re not playing it ‘right’.

    I played first edition back in the day, when it came in the pink box and the rules were less than a quarter of an inch thick. It was fun. Five or six people in my one-horse Midwestern hometown got together regularly to play, and a couple of them were girls.

    Then later the 2nd edition came out. Someone had given the ruleset some steroid injections and sent it to boarding school to learn statistics and calculus. Suddenly learning the rules was a chore, and the emphasis shifted from a group interpretation of the rules to a fanatical DM’s understanding of the rules. More time was spent on the rules than actually playing and having fun. If you weren’t ‘hardcore’ about Dungeons and Dragons you didn’t feel that comfortable being in the group. The group shrank to three people, all of them guys.

    Then 3rd edition came out and suddenly you felt compelled to buy an entire encyclopedia set of rules manuals to keep up with things, so that if you ever got caught up with this lengthy amount of reading, and actually found other people still willing to play D&D at this point, you might have a chance of holding your own in an argument about the rules with other freaks who had enough free time to absorb and interpret 50 hardbound manuals’ worth of data.

    The only time I had fun with 3rd edition (indeed, the only time I’ve even *played* D&D in the last fifteen years) was at a friends’ house in Fredericksburg, Virginia where people were much more interested in having fun than closely observing the rules, so much so that the GM wasn’t stopping the fun to do die rolls or manage the initiative rotation. It was back to ‘old school’ and it was awesome.

    The same thing happened with West End Games’ Star Wars RPG. I loved the original edition by Greg Costikyan. I played it in college, and had sixteen people playing in my campaign simultaneously. It was awesome. Then they started inflating the ruleset and publishing ever more stilted editions, and people who felt compelled to stay current with the published material gradually lost the will to continue playing.

    The same thing also happened with Squad Leader by Avalon Hill. A fun beer-and-pretzels board game dealing with tactical World War II combat became Advanced Squad Leader where someone decided to model every last technical aspect of that period’s ground warfare, until almost all of the fun and abstract ease of play had been beaten out of it, and a quarter-inch-thick ruleset had turned into a three-ring binder (so you could add more rules addenda whenever the company churned them out). Casual people stopped playing, hardcore people stopped playing because they couldn’t find enough casuals.

    So I guess the moral of the story is, “Don’t let the bloated, insufferable, self-important ruleset get in the way of the storytelling”.

    Having said all that, I have just acquired the three core manuals for D&D fourth edition, and I am looking forward to studying them. The guy at the bookstore assured me that it was a best-seller, but I have yet to hear any real buzz about it. The approach in the writing thus far seems to take a more casual approach rather than the massive index of rules that 3rd edition was. We’ll see if I can get a group together!

    – JB

  3. Thanks for the comments! Of course, I must say 2nd edition is the best version ever (Hi Zeb!). That said, 4th edition is looking good. The DM who first ran 4th edition said 3rd edition was all about “If it’s not in the rules, you can’t do it” while 4th edition will be like “If it’s not forbidden in the rules, you can do it.” Then like 2 minutes later he stopped a player from trying to do something, but that’s another story.

    Looks promising!

    -Anne

  4. Pingback: Whither D&D? Episodic gaming and MMOs « Writers Cabal Blog

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