Sunday 27 May 2012

AD&D's Schematic World of Fiction

AD&D, as previously mentioned, is not designed as a soap-opera game where every day of the characters' lives are played out in detail, in fact the game assumes that quite large chunks of time will be skipped over between adventures. Time is not the only aspect of the game world to be treated this way, and in some ways AD&D can be seen as providing a framework of literary shorthands in which the players and DM can hang the story created by play.

Broadly speaking, AD&D divides people into three categories:
  1. The Key Players - Player characters, major NPCs. In a story these are the people the story would be about - the protagonists and antagonists. They are generated in a way which should produce unusually high average ability scores (4d6 drop lowest, two 15's, etc).
  2. Minor characters - Generated with a full 3-18 range and perhaps also with classes of their own, these are potentially ongoing characters of some note, sidekicks, retired characters who are consulted but do not take part in adventures, patrons or perhaps even rulers who assign missions to the party but likewise do not actively take part, love interests etc.
  3. Extras - The people the main characters buy things off, witnesses that provide information, crowds who demand the characters be imprisoned/freed/executed/come to their aid etc. Level-0 (or less) and generated with averaging dice so only a very small number have any bonus or penalty. They are forgetable.
Read any pulp story or any classic western and you'll see this three-way division over and over again.

AD&D's world-view is likewise a three-layer scheme, measured by population density: there is the densely populated "civilized" world, the sparsely populated borderlands, and the vast tracts of "wilderness" where a party is totally on its own with little chance of finding a base of operations unless they forge one themselves.

This schematic view of the world - where whole chunks are simply sketched in -  is again one that is seen in a lot of fantasy fiction, whether Lord of the Rings, Lankhmar, or Glory Road; heroes have a safe base and adventures happen primarily either on the border between the safe zone and the wilderness or beyond it. In game terms this is most strongly seen in the requirement that treasure must "be turned into a transportable medium or stored in the player's stronghold to be counted for experience points."

Similarly, both the nature and the frequency of random encounters changes from inhabited to sparse to wilderness regions.

What these "schematic" approaches to time, space, and people do is alter the ratio of time passing between the real world and the game world; when travelling through settled lands time passes quickly, as it does when the characters are at home healing or researching spells and so on. In dangerous wilderness areas it slows down as more encounters are generated and while exploring the small scale it passes more slowly again until by the point that once combat is engaged the gameworld clock ticks more slowly than the real-world one.

"Help! Help! I'm being under-represented
by the game system!"
So the system has built-in ideas of what's important: Magic users and evil high priests are important; blacksmiths and peasants are not. The wilderness and distance is important; the details of the characters' houses are not, and neither are the villages they might pass through on the way to adventure. The exploration of a dungeon or lair is important; what your fighter does while training is not.

These areas of importance reflect well the areas which short-story writers of the sort found in Appendix N prioritise in their works. Gygax is often accused of hypocrisy or outright lying on the subject of Tolkien's influence on the game, but I think that the very structure of the game suggests a very deeply rooted desire to see play that recreates short-story fiction instead of epic fantasy. Tolkien certainly did impact the game (without Tolkien there would be no game) but I believe Gygax when he writes that he didn't particularly like Lord of the Rings and that The Hobbit (a much shorter book) was more important to him, and Howard moreso again.

Generally speaking, as one gets a campaign going the players and DM start to personalize this framework and often the first place to get more clock time is the PC's home city or town. But even here the DM should be aware that s/he has a limited "page count" (ie, hours of play) and spending it on one thing probably means not spending it on something else. Eventually, the things that make the clock run slowly will reflect the things that interest you and your players and those that get assigned to big schematic blocks of "this happens off-stage" will reflect the things that don't. There's no rule to say that you have to keep the default settings.


  1. Again, a good summary. I have definitely witnessed players deciding to spend more time exploring the day-to-day of their "safe zones" [e.g. towns and cities]. Whilst it is fun for regular players who want to be more immersed in the setting (and it is really much less trouble for the game master than designing adventures), new players will unsurprisingly find it boring. I know one guy who later confessed he was ready to walk away from the table after the third session the players decided to spend in town instead of adventuring (luckily, the next session was back to the main event). :D

  2. I think it's a natural progression to many people, but it can become self-indulgent and, as you imply, a barrier to gaining new players who are not entertained by relentless in-jokes and shopping.