What I really think about D&D (and Dishonoured 2)

When Dirk the Dice asked me for my First, Last and Everything on episode 43 of the Grognard Files I had no idea it was going to be about D&D. D&D isn’t my First, Last, or Everything but I nonetheless expressed opinions about it, one of which is

I don’t think any game treats starting characters with as much contempt as D&D

by which I mean it normalises low level characters being weak and dying frequently (so normalised that Dungeon Crawl Classics parodies this with the Funnel).

The advocates of “zero to hero” tend to fall into two camps:

  1. Those who think that characters should always be weak, and dungeoneering should be frightening and fraught with danger
  2. Those who think high levels should be earned, not granted.

OSR style play is often portrayed as the first example (although that’s an argument in itself). I’m fine with this in principle, I just wonder if you are going to play a game with such fragile characters, why even bother including levels? (I think James Raggi planned to revise the LotFP system to exclude levels in both PCs and spells, which is a fine idea; obviously it hasn’t emerged yet).

This ethos was adopted in Sage Latorra’s 1 HP game jam and you can listen about that on the Another Question podcast.

As for the second… this is more of an impression I get from reading Dragon magazine in the 80s. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it from a real person (outside hyperbolic flame wars on the worst RPG forums)1.

Hyperbole or not, this position still makes the argument that levels are there to be suffered, not enjoyed. No-one actually likes levels. Levelling up, sure; but no-one likes to be reminded in such an artificial way that your PC is weak, that you’re part of a hierarchy whose upper eschelons you’re unlikely to see. We play RPGs to get away from that.

And as I said in the podcast the problem with levels is they make characters who are supposed to be risk-takers and heroes into conservative bean-counters, focusing on the future and not on the now2. More to the point, WotC knows the low level lethality is at odds with the aspirational nature of videogame-like mainstream D&D. This is why generation after generation of this game has made lower levels more survivable.

OK, what does this have to do with Dishonoured, you may ask?

So… the franchise has DNA in the original Thief and sequel3, probably my all-time favourite games. The first Dishonoured game didn’t have a no-powers option, but Dishonoured 2 has the option to refuse the mark of the Outsider entirely and play without powers. This is far and away the most satisfying way I’ve found of playing the game; it harks back to those original Thief games with the same kind of sandboxed levels and exploration in three dimensions rather than just teleporting around the city hunting the objective markers.

To make this work the designers had to make the maps almost completely accessible to a character with no powers. Playing this way feels a lot like you’re back playing Garrett mantling his way around the City’s rooftops. It also means you don’t need powers to complete the game (OK, there is still a bit of levelling up as you upgrade equipment with coin, but levelling powers with runes is gone). Emily is no less competent for her lack of supernatural ability; in fact you might argue that since she’s rejected the help of the Outsider and chosen to resolve things her own way, she has more agency and is more interesting.

In this situation powers are an aesthetic choice. They offer new ways to complete the game (including some spectacular ways to kill people) but they don’t define the character in the way that D&D’s class/levelling does (in particular 3e4).

Although to be clear I’m not against exotic powers — and if you want to make your PC’s powers the one special thing that defines them, go for it. But I think Dishonoured 2 has a useful lesson: build your character independent of the supernatural and they will be more interesting. This has sort of been my credo for StormHack; character is independent of demon. Character’s don’t level up, demons do. Of course that game does have levels after a fashion; but ascending levels isn’t a boon, it’s a trade off.

Of course any sensible play group will treat the characters equally, and levels and powers will be irrelevant to spotlight time. But that implied hierarchy is there, deep down in the lizard brain. Better to engineer out those biases entirely. Take the example of my “everything” game from the grogpod. Everway has no levelling up, no experience mechanism. You are the characters you start as. What you get instead are boons which come directly from the adventure and are therefore truly experiential (as opposed to artificial experience tiers).

Incidentally that’s why 1st edition Vampire was such a revelation. People point to the personal horror and the edgy gothic-ness but the thing that struck me the most was the complete de-emphasis of anything resembling levels and classes. Probably not remarkable to most people given how much choice we have today with better, lighter game designs, but it was pretty cool at the time, before they ruined it with the second edition.

  1. martial arts on the other hand… but that’s another story 

  2. I’m not knocking people who want to plan a trajectory for their PC and then see it through over months or years. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Diablo II myself 

  3. pre Deadly Shadows. And don’t even start me on the 2014 reboot 

  4. to be fair, I played 3e once, and I enjoyed it for what it was. Well, I say enjoyed it, I tolerated it. Well, I say I tolerated it, I stayed awake between rounds by grasping my lower lip and pulling it over the top of my head. Then I smeared my body with chilli jam and bovril before skiing through a cactus forest into a pit of starved honey badgers. Whilst listening to the unabridged audiobook of Fifty Shades of Grey read by Nigel Farage. That said, the gelatinous cube encounter was quite emotional.