The other night my son and I were talking about Dungeons & Dragons. He's been playing since he was a child, as I introduced him to the game when he was seven years old. He's twenty-five now. We were talking about the value, or lack thereof, of the fine details in a game like keeping track of the character's encumbrance (how much weight they're physically carrying) or ammo or rations. A lot of players generally don't bother with that kind of minutia.
We were discussing our very different views on what Dungeons & Dragons is.
We did agree that Dungeons & Dragons is not, nor has it ever been, a combat game. This is why the combat system in the game is somewhat vague, with all effects of injury and fatigue being rolled into the simple Hit Points game mechanic. There aren't specific hit locations, no effects of armor or weapon wear, no in-depth rules on fighting style or form.
It's true that, over the years, various game supplements have attempted to add in some of these elements for players who want them, and some optional rules in the various core rulebooks have introduced things like specific hit locations or equipment wear, but they've never been a part of the core game because Dungeons & Dragons simply isn't a combat game.
Dungeons & Dragons is a role playing game. Now, the meaning of that has changed quite a bit over the years. My son sees Dungeons & Dragons as a narrative game, a story. The Dungeon Master is telling a tale and the players are taking on the persona of characters in the story. Published adventures in the current (5th) edition follow the narrative structure of an epic tale, with acts, a beginning, middle, climax and end. That isn't without prior precedent. White Wolf games like Vampire: The Masquerade are run by a game master who's known as the Storyteller, and the game was designed to feel narrative. This is how my son sees Dungeons & Dragons, and this is how he thinks when he's playing.
As he expressed these thoughts, I realized for the first time that when he plays Dungeons & Dragons, it's an utterly different experience from how I play it. I began playing the game in the Fall of 1988. This was shortly before the 2nd Edition was published and the game was still called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. (There was a non-advanced D&D, and I did play it a bit, but it wasn't my main game and it was eventually discontinued. "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" became just "Dungeons & Dragons" again in 2000, with the release of what we call 3rd Edition by the new publisher, Wizards of the Coast.) Back then, game balance wasn't much of a factor. Some character classes were much more powerful than others, but every class had some of its own unique abilities and a niche to fill. Adventure modules weren't built like a story, they were build like an intelligence report. The Dungeon Master wasn't telling a story, but rather serving only as a referee, and the person whose job it was to describe the world and control all of the monsters and non-player characters (NPCs). There wasn't a narrative structure per se, though it wasn't unusual to have adventures follow a rudimentary form of one.
We weren't characters in a story. We were characters living in a detailed world with magic and monsters and all sorts of fantastical elements. I would imagine myself in the body of my character, thinking about the sounds of creaking leather holding my armor in place, the weight of my sword in hand, the crunch of snow under my boots as I broke camp, smelling the crisp, morning air on a world that was home to all sorts of mythical beasts. What would it be like to fight a troll? To cast a spell? To ride a horse while aiming a lance at an ogre? The idea of a role playing game was to use one's imagination to be someone else; someone heroic, or powerful. To play Dungeons & Dragons was to enjoy the ultimate form of escapist entertainment. As my characters, I wasn't worrying about the story as a tale told in a book. I didn't think about events as story elements. I worried about things like having enough gold coins to cover a night in an inn and a hot meal. I worried about whether or not I would have enough arrows in my quiver to make it until I could replenish my ammunition. I worried about my horse being killed under me as I rode into battle against a dragon. I worried about whether or not I'd survive a fight against a horde of orcs rushing at me.
Let me tell you, the possibility of getting killed in that game made it much more thrilling because if your imagination was vivid enough, you might even feel a little fear.
After I said some of these things to my son, he paused a moment before responding. He then looked a little sad. He said "My imagination isn't as good as yours." I asked him why, and he said something very interesting. He pointed out that, when I was a kid, video games were pretty primitive, compared to today, in terms of graphics. They were blocky, pixelated, 8-bit games with 16 colors (maybe). He pointed out that, when playing such a game, you still have to use your imagination because what you see on screen just doesn't look real at all. Then he compared that with the kinds of games he played when he was younger... still not as good as today's graphics but far, far better than what I had. He said that it meant he didn't have to use his imagination as much, and so now he just couldn't visualize things in the kind of explicit, fine detail I could.
That, he said, is why the flavor of Dungeons & Dragons has changed. In the early days, it was purely role playing, with comparatively little overall structure and not a lot of game balance. Later, it began to take on a more video game-ish feel as it tried to replicate some of the elements of computer RPGs. By 4th Edition, it very much felt like an MMO, such as EverQuest II or World of Warcraft. Today, it's a game of storytelling. Things are spelled out more for the players, visual elements aren't as important to gameplay. Adventure modules are laid out like a movie script, with well defined acts, a specific beginning and a specific ending. Yes, older modules had a beginning and ending as well, but the endings tended to be much more open and overall felt more like a sandbox than story rails.
He's right. 5th Edition certainly could be played as a more hardcore role playing game, but it would take the right set of players... players with very vivid imaginations who were more interested in the immersion than the tale. Today's D&D players don't care about tracking encumbrance, inventorying spell components, maintaining weapons and armor... Those things are pretty boring on their face... but what I find thrilling about them is the feeling that they matter... because in reality little things like that matter, and the more I have to deal with them in character, the more real the character feels and the better the immersion is.
In a sense, my son actually doesn't have that problem as severely as many others because when he was a kid he liked to read. He never really was much of a movie buff, but once he discovered books he was off to the races. Nothing exercises and fuels the imagination like a good book, and I firmly believe that today, books are the key to counteracting the mental laziness caused by games that let you outsource all of your thinking and dreaming.
I'm not bashing video games here. I love them, even modern ones. Just this year I've beaten Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4 and Witcher 3. They are fun and definitely serve an entertainment function... but they shouldn't be the mainstay of entertainment for kids. Let your kids play video games and watch TV, but encourage them to read. A lot. Do whatever it takes to get them into reading. Bribe them with rewards for finishing books if you must. Let them stay up an extra half hour past bedtime if they agree to use that time to read. Absolutely do not ever say 'no' when they ask for a book to read. Books are not too expensive. Used bookstores and eBay are a gift from God for the sheer variety and the insanely low cost. There's never an excuse not to buy books for your kids.
The benefit isn't just in the imagination. Did you know that studies have shown that the most reliable way to increase your IQ is to read a lot of books? It's true. People who read a lot are more successful professionally and more wealthy, on average, than people who don't.
After this conversation with my oldest, I decided to start really encouraging my younger kids to read. I'm encouraging my 10-year-old daughter to finish reading The Hobbit, and not to watch the movies, at least until after she's finished it. (Well, the Hobbit movies stink anyway so maybe we'll just skip that entirely.) I took my 6-year-old son to the bookstore and let him choose a couple of books we've been reading together. He saw a toy guitar he wanted, and I told him that when he can read these new books to me without needing any help, I'll buy him that guitar...
...along with more books.
"He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool."
"Don't take refuge in the false security of consensus."