Dungeons and STR+2

I’ve been thinking about Dungeons and Dragons lately. It’s an interesting social phenomenon.

(Before I go any farther, I should make it clear that I’m not out to bash D&D. I earned my gamer cred a long time ago, and I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I learned D&D on literally Dungeons and Dragons. None of this "Advanced" stuff. And 3rd edition? We dreamed of a third edition! We wondered if we’d ever see one the same way I imagine the ancient Norse wondered when Ragnarok would happen. Sure, it was coming. One day. Some day. But today? Nah.)

What’s most interesting to me is that when I sit down to look at D&D now, I don’t see a strong role-playing system at all. At least not in the way we typically mean role-playing. What I see is a good gaming system. There’s a subtle difference. The D&D system has very little to commend it outside of two factors: A) easy mathematical modeling and 2) modularily. The first creates the second, though the second is a legitimate boon to gamers.

Think about it. What’s the most well-known icon in D&D from a functional player’s point of view?

(I disregard an observer’s point of view because in my general experience, outsiders to the D&D experience have little to no idea how the vast majority of D&D players play the game in practice. Most seem to hold an idealized vision of D&D which does exist to some extent, but generally falls far short of the reality.)

No, not the dragon. Players rarely fight actual dragons. Not the wizard, though the fireball spell comes in the top 5 archetypal icons. The beholder, with its giant central eye and numerous eyestalks, has made impressive ground in many minds. But I think all of those fall short of D&D’s ultimate symbol.

+1 long sword.

It’s every young player’s dream. The magic sword! You get +1 to-hit on a 20-sided die, and it does +1 damage (If I recall correctly, the base is rolled on an eight-sided die, so it’s a fairly large improvement). Whee! It doesn’t sound like a lot, I know. But hey, it’s just a start. There are +2 swords, +3 swords, and… dare we dream? +4 and +5 swords out there! Right. Does anybody think anybody walked around medieval France in search of a +1 sword? Yet D&D players do so with frightening regularity.

The +1 sword has no basis in mythology. It has no basis in legend. It has no basis in any folk tradition whatsoever. It’s a sword that an engineer would love. Precisely quantified, predictable, replicatable across settings, and very easy to explain.

Dungeons and Dragons may have given the players the tools to create a role-playing game, but I believe that examining the rules shows an attitude and implied culture that doesn’t care about the role-playing whatsoever. Let’s see it for what it really was: It was the attempt to create a video game before the computer technology for actual video games existed. All of the elements were there. Easy mathematical modeling, an incremental reward system (gold, XP points, treasure), and bosses. Somewhere in our collective unconscious, we yearned for the ability to put the math to work to crunch the numbers and say, "You know… If I spent all my proficiency points on dart skill, I can throw three every turn. I get three extra damage on each… So I do more damage than a long sword! Sweet. Load me up, Scotty."

(In my limited experience, this represents the general line of thought expressed by many/most D&D players.)

Maybe we should be happy. It wasn’t enough that math could conquer our world. We had to invent whole new ones for it to conquer, too.

5 thoughts on “Dungeons and STR+2

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  2. Rob

    Actually, a +1 or +2 sword would be a better-designed sword. I’m not familiar with D&D. Back in college, I played briefly with Steve Jackson Games’ system. There, a sword would have more hit ability based on quality of manufacture, design, etc. Were I to try making a sword, I would probably have to make it out of wood. I could in fact hurt someone with it, although one might wonder if I’d have been better off leaving it as a baseball bat.

    A convict in prison could make a shiv with better qualities. A metalsmith could make an even better sword. Someone with skill in damascus steel manufacture could do even better.

    The problem is the DM letting the players know what they have. He could tell them “This is a better looking sword” or “The craftsman knew what he was doing here!” and hide all calculations and dice throws from the players.

    Given the paucity of information available to the players, letting them see the dice throws and know the power of a sword makes more sense.

    BTW: In the SJG form, there were odds of a sword breaking. In a programmable calculator-assisted version of the game, we even kept track of wear and tear and required players to get weapons sharpened. I’ve still got my HP-41CV around here someplace…

  3. Lightwave

    I must say I can’t disagree more. The *fun* that comes from any group game, IMHO, has little to do with its rules and procedures. Its about everything else that goes on around the game. Its the banter, the comrodery, the time spent with friends, the jokes. But with DND there’s two other elements: the story telling and the role playing (note here that DND is not roll playing, as in the roll of the dice).

    Yes, when I play UNO, I’m thinking about the Draw Four Wild Card as its symbol. But that’s not what makes it fun. When I play Halo, I’m thinking about a good sniper rifle, but that’s not what makes it fun.

    The rules and procedures simply create the framework for folks to have fun and role play. The rules can’t make you role play well, nor can they make the DM (or Dungeon Master, who runs the game) do a good job. The time spent with others is what makes it fun. If you have a group really in to role playing then its even more fun. If you’ve got a Dungeon Master who is a great story teller, then its awesome.

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