The Ghost of Arneson and D&D Next

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: ,

I’m not in the playtest.  I’ve got much too much going on with CoZ and have no interest in getting into a rules NDA.

My feelings in general to “brand D&D” have been dismissive.  TSR is long gone and the company who bought the rights to the name and product was an entirely different animal and the games they made were different genras altogether.   I have a hard time recognizing the meaning of any of the 3e, 3.5 4e. etc crunch I read, even when the odd identical term is used, the numbers are nonsensical.  D&D is on the fender but under the hood is a different machine.  So D&D next held no more interest to me than any other RPG I don’t find attractive.

But a casual read of the buzz floating about has led me from having no interest to slowly being surprised and intrigued.  So I read Mike Mearls recent reddit conversation and that’s what prompts this post.

I’ve been seeing things in the 5e discussions that are making me blink, and wonder if the ghost of Arneson is haunting the design team (although I’d be very surprised if Mearls and co realize in the slightest who’s design ideas they are echoing.)

Here is what I’m talking about:

“…it's OK to do different things with D&D.  One of the things I really want to do with Next is build in different group and DM styles, and make it clear that those are just ways to play the game. Like, if you're group likes to make optimized characters the DM runs the game in Nightmare mode and that's fun, or the group that hates combat uses story-based XP and never fights anything.”

“D&D at its start was a simple system with guidelines that could be tailored to the players. The game was a co-operative effort by the players (Each having strong points and weakness.) to overcome the obstacles (Problem solving.) set up by the DM, The skills (Such as found in my AIF game.) allowed you to build your character. As each edition came out new layers and more/different ruled were added. Some good, some bad, always more restrictive in some way even if it was a more 'simple' game.

“My emphasis was always on the story telling and problem solving, “(OD&D Forum)

“Just combat alone is boring a lot of the time. But I usually prefer story and plot over a lot of combat anyways.”    (Kobold Quarterly)

“They all pay lip-service to the roleplaying part, but they all end just having you roll different dice for different situations. There again, that has taken away from a lot of the spontaneity of actually roleplaying. When I do my games, I give roleplaying points for people staying within their character. If they want to go out and kill things, that's easy to do, and a lot of referees that's all they do, but there's more to it. The richness is not in just rolling dice, the richness is in the characters and becoming part of this fantasy world.”  (OD&D Forum)

“We're looking at skills right now and trying to determine if skills make you better than you are (a flat bonus that adds to your ability check) or strictly make you good (a flat bonus that takes the place of your ability modiifer). So, the 8 Wis rogue with perception training might just be at, say, +5, rather than at +3 added to a -1 Wis check.”

“I also wanted to get in something on educating your character so one could learn different skills.” (Pegasus magazine issue 1).

Skill in Arneson’s Adventures in Fantasy RPG are acquired through an Education system or as part of your character background.  Interestingly, skills in AiF both give a flat bonus to an ability check or give a flat bonus/target number in place of an ability score modifier; which depends on the nature of the skill.

“You can see this in how we've handled themes and feats. A theme is like a kit, in that it represents something in the world of D&D. You train as a healer, or study to become a magic-user.  Themes are built from feats, the mechanical expression of the theme's story.  A player can take a theme because he's more interesting in his character's story and role in the world. The mechanics are part of that choice, but the key thing is the story element and the roleplay opportunities it offers.”

“D&D at its start was a simple system with guidelines that could be tailored to the players. The game was a co-operative effort by the players (Each having strong points and weakness.) to overcome the obstacles (Problem solving.) set up by the DM, The skills (Such as found in my AIF game.) allowed you to build your character.  As each edition came out new layers and more/different ruled were added. Some good, some bad, always more restrictive in some way even if it was a more 'simple' game.  My emphasis was always on the story telling and problem solving.”   (OD&D forum.)

“A lot of the changes between 2nd edition and third edition are actually changes in so far as what I originally wanted to do with the D&D system.  For instance with the different classes and the different fields you could learn.  I wanted to do that originally, but it was considered too complicated and people couldn’t handle it.  Well now that’s come back, you can do that.  You could really make a unique character class with the variability; and I always wanted to do that and I do that in my original campaign even today.  So I feel vindicated because a lot of the stuff I wanted to do has now been added.  People don’t realize that I came up with it way back when.  You have to look at an early first edition to even get an idea of that.  So, I’m happy.”  (Mortality Radio interview.)

“Backgrounds are not linked to class, so a fighter can choose the criminal background to become stealthy or good at picking locks.”

Arneson’s Gaming:
This is a fair description of the “merchant Mafia” and “bandit” characters in Dave Arneson’s campaign.  (it is also a feature of my Champions of ZED, by the by)

“We definitely want to avoid making it abusive, but I think it's kind of funny that getting drunk and charging into a dungeon might be a good idea.”

Arneson’s Gaming:
A familiar theme in Arnesons games including the wizard Bozero from  original player John Snider and this one reported in one of Arnesons gen con games, “We finally chose one such corridor (with some trepidation; walking single file can be dangerous!) after a drunken fighter named Richard leaped into a linen closet and tripped….Finally we came to an open stairway with circular stairs down which we heard music playing. Richard stumbled down the stairs immediately. The rest of the group halted and tried to decide to follow him or not” (Alarums & Excursions #15, October 1976)

“We're looking at capping at level 20, but giving a set of options for uncapped advancement beyond that.”

 “There have been two other players {Bob Meyer and Richard Snider) that have reached 20th level (getting  them a free dinner, pat on the back, and retired character), but they have gone to a higher plane.” (First Fantasy Campaign 1977)

“We want magic items to feel awesome. I want the +1 or +2 to be something that you might even gloss over, and part of me wants to try designing the game without them.
I'd much rather have a hurricane flail that generates buffeting winds, knocks arrows out of the sky, and summons an air elemental than a +1 weapon. Key is - how many people agree with that? Are +X weapons/armor/etc iconic to D&D?”

“We’re trying to capture a different flavor of how you do magic and how you implement magic… Too often it seem like these magic user they run around with spell books the size of semi trucks and they just crank them out like some kind of assembly line; and were trying to put a little bit individual variation into the spells and how they are used.  Again, just to catch the flavor of a fantasy world where you can’t assume the orcs you’re going to find are the same old orcs and you can kill them in the same old way.  I had a big argument way back when about dragons because they came out with all these different color dragons and to me they are just cookie cutter dragons.  I always thought that dragons should be huge blusterous things that, each of them, are unique.  Too often you sit there and the player says, “well, we’ll just assume that its 2 hit dice and armor class 8 etc.” and I like to say, “well, okay that’s the little ones, but you’re fighting a big one.”, or  “You’re fighting the tribe from that side of the hill, not the other side.”  Magic is probably one thing that is the most unique aspects of fantasy worlds. “ (Mortality radio interview.)

It’s important to note here that first magic items Arneson designed for play were intelligent, aligned spell casting swords.  He made a list of each one and it’s powers.  Magic items in Dave’s campaign were always of the quirky and unique variety with a story behind them.  Not simply a generic flaming sword +2 or what have you. “The Magic Swords of mythology are varied creatures that can give great power to their owners, who sometimes are helpless without them.” (FFC.)

“In the closed playtest we ran before the open one started, we had a lot of feedback that healing was too limited. With hit dice, we tried to introduce a more robust mechanic for natural healing to give characters more healing overall.”

“Hits are usually recovered at a rate of 1 to 2 per day for lower level creatures, and more for those with more hits to lose.  The amount is up to the Referee, but it should not be easy to recover from near-death blows.”  Beyond This Point Be Dragons


Professor P said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the compilation.

Anonymous said...

Dan, looks like you hit another one out of the park. You say you don't have enough time to read the playtest rules, yet you have time to research quotes? Too funny! :-D

DHBoggs said...

Heh, yeah. Thing was that I'm so familiar with Arneson's stuff at this point that I'd be reading along Mearls answers and immediately think of "hey, that sounds a lot like..." didn't take much time to cut and paste. :)

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