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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Self-Referential D&D

James Maliszewski recently covered a Dragon article about familiars that coincidentally touches on the self-referential nature of modern f/sf media and D&D in particular, something he complained about before (I swear he had another article that criticized self-referentialism in later D&D in much more detail, but I can't find it now.) Which reminds me that I meant to continue discussing some points I raised earlier in my post about the family gamer.

What I meant when I raised the specter that D&D might be too self-referential is this very concept of the game becoming its own inspiration, developing too much of a "canon" that players must invest in and learn before they can understand and enjoy D&D. There are a number of ways this occurs in post-original D&D.

  • Speciation (turning unique individual monsters first into a type, then into a common species, possibly with an entire economic system based around them.
  • The equivalent Genericization of other items (stores that specialize in spellbooks, mass-market potions and swords +1, etc.)
  • Industrialization of magic (lighting cities with thousands of Continual Light lamposts, for example.)
  • Over-Systemization (creating equivalents of every class, monster, spell, etc., for each alignment, terrain, element, ability score...)
  • Jargonization (turning system-level terms into "creative" elements and elaborating them into new classes, monsters, spells or other fictional elements.)

And so on. To a certain extent, combining or inverting ideas that already exist to come up with new ideas is a fine idea, but to then canonize these inventions, and their derivatives, and let them take over as the primary creative engine leads to overly-elaborate and rather bland game supplements. The article on familiars that James cites is a good example: the author looked at the list of special familiars in the Find Familiar spell, decided that there weren't enough familiars for every alignment (over-systemization,) and created very artificial stand-ins for the "missing" familiar types. Another example is the plethora of "buff spells". Once the general concept of adding a bonus to an ability was created, "designers" came up with equivalent "buffs" for everything in the game that could be expressed as numbers. The decision was made to "fill the void" left by stats that didn't have buff spells yet, instead of thinking about magical transformations that could indirectly improve various stats.

It's my feeling that players should be looking for ways to make their characters stronger, not looking for things that add a bonus to Strength.


  1. Good post. Spells become power-ups for the player and not things the character does. Mazirian the magician casts the charm of untiring nourishment--a spell he may have stolen from another wizard rather than a player using a buff he chose at 6th level that doubles his move for 6 turns.

    D&D began as a supplement to a strategy wargame, but it was inspired by literature, every item (most) every spell--even the very mechanic of spellcasting! Comes from a book.

    What novel are 'daily powers' inspired by? What work of great literature are such spells as +2 int and it's sister spells +2 wis, +2 dex, +2 con? Perhaps the charm of untiring nourishment raises all those stats by +2, but 3e went off the deep end with these "buff" spells.

  2. I think there are two issues here, really which are different sorts of problems--if they're problems at all.

    Over-systemization, jargonization, and some forms of speciation and genericization sort of remind folks that its a game and so break suspension of disbelief. They also can be lazy ways of coming up with something new strip the fantasy of the fantastic.

    Industrialization and some genericization and speciation need not be bad. There's nothing wrong intrinsically with exploration of a world that took D&D magic to its "realistic" conclusions--it just depends on what sort of game you want to play.

  3. what Trey said. I'm thinking that the next time I run DnD I'm going to take a few pledges: no boring, formulaic treasure, no gameworld objects that refer to the mechanics (eg sword +1), no speciation (in fact maybe no monster ecology of species at all - every monster is as unique as in Greek myth) or standardization.

    But reading your title I hoped for a post on deliberately self-referential DnD - a game I've toyed with before, which takes all the cliches and runs with them. So space is only divisible into 10' cubes, doorways convey AC bonuses, monsters never know you're coming, there are rest stops for wandering monsters, and nothing in the game ever learns from the PCs except kobolds and trapped chests.

  4. As for industrialization of magic, I always thought that was instead an under-developed concept for a high-magic setting that could easily become postapocalyptic. Just as we have 'wondrous' electricity and chemistry, we also have deadly nuclear waste and electrocutions. What if they Ancients were precisely an industrialized magic society with great cities lit by Light posts, but this very overuse and abuse of magic drew their doom upon them? Would explain the appearance of creatures like the rust monster and dweomer eaters.

    Otherwise, I agree with all the objections you raise.

  5. The rust monster and dweomer eater were clearly created to deal with problems of excess: once you can magic up as much steel as you want there's bound to be a steel landfill problem in short order.

    My absolute favourite spell in Nephilim is the one that summons little demons to eat and thereby utterly destroy one inanimate object (handy for clearing up crime scenes). Hardly a session goes by without those demons popping up.

  6. Self-referential rpg/fandom is almost incestuously masturbatory in it's skipping past the actually original and inspiring and re-investigating itself in the same way over and over again.

    "Greenies are people too " is part of the syndrome and it drives me nuts.

    Let's retell fairytales...pop culture is full of that lately. A little can be fun but done to death it's boring.

    Every octopus isn't Cthulhu and the Chesterfield doesn't have to roll for initiative.

  7. Much of what you describe is really about the uneasy relationship between modernity and the fantastic. The latter is supposed to give us a break from or an alternative to the former, or it becomes our way of mourning effectively dead ways of thinking (i.e., pre-scientific, pre-technological ones.) But the modern mode of thinking is somewhat irrepressible, and in our drive to make the fantastic "real," we make it resemble the modern.

    I think Tolkien was the first/worst offender. He took ideas that came from the history of the European anxiety of the unknown - elves, goblins, magic - and treated them like a linguist or anthropologist would. He applied contemporary methods of systematizing knowledge to the fantastic, so that every mysterious creature, every Grendel, becomes one of a type; every magic a form of spiritual technology, etc.

  8. @William: interesting point, and worth thinking about (the same goes for other comments above.) But I'd like to emphasize: what I'm getting at is the expansion of the creative content based on inspiration from system rules, or the application of those rules using uninspired modern-day guidelines. Starting with some assumptions about the way magic works and imagining how that could be developed into an almost modern-day magitech setting has a different feel, to me, than simply figuring out how to use the existing rules to create analogues of modern-day conveniences (and then either making these things canon or banning them/modifying the rules to prevent such things.)

    I'm really focusing on the way the standard rules and implied setting of D&D have been expanded and elaborated over the years to create a large body of "system" that a new player must invest in and become familiar with to play the game properly.