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. 

Episode 69: Viriconium by M. John Harrison (cities series pt 1)

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Episode 69: Viriconium by M. John Harrison (cities series pt 1)
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Viriconium by M. John Harrison

Show Notes

Synopsis 03:47 // Act 1 (Viriconium Knights, The Pastel City, Lords of Misrule) 04:13 // Act 2 (Strange Great Sins, A Storm Of Wings, The Dancer and the Dance, The Luck in the Head, The Lamia and Lord Cromis) 09:47 // Act 3 (In Viriconium, A Young Man’s Journey To Viriconium) 19:19 // Themes 26:54 // Artists 26:55 // Symbols and foreshadowing 29:25 // Time and “mutant future” 31:48 // The City (Glory, Thief: Dark Project) 34:49 // Roleplaying 40:24 // OSR and Appendix N (Sorcerer and Sword, DCC, Plot Points podcast, etc.) 40:25 // City building tools (Corpathium, City Accelerated) 56:07

Links

Links to resources I mentioned in this episode:

Music Credits

Music is by Chris Zabriskie: chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Samples: “Is that you or are you you?” from Reappear // “Fly inverted past a Jenny” from Stunt Island // “Another version of you” from Thoughtless

Episode 61: King in Yellow coda

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Episode 61: King in Yellow coda
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This is a companion to and additional content that didn’t make into Episode 60.

The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Show Notes

Plot and Setting 01:56 // Themes and Images 07:10 (False Documents, vectors, Tommy Westphall, Dollhouse, Snow Crash, Marvel Boy, The Invisibles, Kult, Hellraiser) // The RPG bit 19:23 (Freeform Games, Carcosan Bingo)

Music Credits

Music is by Chris Zabriskie: chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Samples: “Is That You Or Are You You?” from Reappear // “Cylinder One”, “Cylinder Six” and “Cylinder Eight” from Cylinders // “Another Version Of You” from Thoughtless

Episode 211: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

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Episode 211: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
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Special guest Tom McGrenery joins Mo and Ralph to discuss Ruritanian Romance, fictional places and the fine art of bullshitting in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Show Notes

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Mo Holkar and special guest Tom McGrenery, with Ralph Lovegrove

The Ruritanian Romance 01:00 // Synopsis 02:10 // Linear vs Nonsequential reading, and other comments 08:10 // The RPG Bit — Mo 12:20 // Microscope, Kaliedoscope, Endoscope 13:00 // Tom’s Bit 18:15 // Historical RPGs (and the fear of getting them wrong) 19:30 // Ruritania in Delta Green 19:45 // Imaginary Places 20:30 // The Shab Al-Hiri Roach 23:40 // Ralph’s Bit 24:55 // When the Dark is Gone (trauma from imaginary places) 25:35 // Planetary 9: Planet Fiction 26:15 // It Follows 27:05 // Ralph’s spy game (Pale Assassins) 28:35 // Last words 31:00

Music credits

“Is That You Or Are You You?” from Reappear by Chris Zabriskie

“But Enough About Me, Bill Paxton” from Direct To Video by Chris Zabriskie

chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Episode 203: The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

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Episode 203: The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
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Ralph and special guest Mathew Downward discuss consensus reality in Angela Carter’s The Inferal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

Show Notes

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter.

Synopsis 01:05 // Comments begin 13:05 // Mage: The Ascension 18:30 // Psychosis RPG 26:35 // Social Contracts 29:55 // Everway 30:50 // RuneQuest III 39:05 // Crypts and Things 40:00 // Black Dog Derive (for the Stalker RPG) 43:25 // PbtA moaning 48:10 // What we like about OSR (Sine Nomine, LotFP) 50:20

Extra!

We recorded the podcast last year but it so happens that just yesterday, the 25th anniversary of Carter’s death, Mathew released Infernal Desire Machines, the hack of the Psychosis RPG mentioned around halfway into the episode. Read it, absorb it, play!

Music credits

“Is That You Or Are You You?” from Reappear by Chris Zabriskie

“But Enough About Me, Bill Paxton” from Direct To Video by Chris Zabriskie

chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Episode 13pt2: The Prisoner of Zenda

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Episode 13pt2: The Prisoner of Zenda
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The second part of our season finale looks at the fictional Ruritania of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, the Ruritanian Romance, and fictional or liminal countries such as Interzone and Annexia in Cronenburg’s The Naked Lunch and the Upside Down of Stranger Things.

(this recording was recorded in three bits which is why the later section sounds a bit different. That tinkling noise you can hear towards the end is the sound of gin being sipped over ice)

Show Notes

The Prizoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Elizabeth and Ralph Lovegrove

Synopsis 00:22 // Gender Swapped Prisoner of Zenda 03:27 // The Evidence for Ruritania 04:10 // Ruritanian Romance 04:42 // Naked Lunch 05:52 // RPG Bit starts: uncertain customs 08:47 // Lace and Steel 13:37 // Stranger Things 15:27 // Course of the Heart 18:02 // Mage the Ascension 18:27 // Inferno 24:37

Music credits

“Is That You Or Are You You?” from Reappear by Chris Zabriskie

“But Enough About Me, Bill Paxton” from Direct To Video by Chris Zabriskie

chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Episode 13pt1: The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

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Episode 13pt1: The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
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We’ve split our “season finale” into two separate episodes, the first of which is a bit of an experiment — it’s quite short and a solo recording which I did a while ago. But, it’s thematically linked to the next episode, which will follow shortly.

Ralph muses over the liminal fantasy genre and M. John Harrison’s The Course Of The Heart.

“Liminal Fantasy” 00:35 // Synopsis 00:45 // RPG bit 04:05 // Changelings 04:50 // Tarot Tales and The Horse Of Iron 07:55

Music credits

“Cylinder Four“ from Cylinders by Chris Zabriskie

chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive

Episode 11: The Matter of Seggri and Coppola’s Dracula

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Episode 11: The Matter of Seggri and Coppola's Dracula
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This episode Liz and Ralph recommend short stories to each other: The Matter of Seggri by Ursula Le Guin, and Coppola’s Dracula by Kim Newman.

Show Notes

The Matter of Seggri from The Birthday of the World by Ursula Le Guin

Coppola’s Dracula by Kim Newman which you can read online here.

Elizabeth Lovegrove and Ralph Lovegrove

The Matter of Seggri 00:45 // Game ideas 08:40 // Coppola’s Dracula 12:30 // Game ideas 19:05 // The Quiet Year 24:55 // Dream Park 25:40

Music credits

“Is That You Or Are You You?” from Reappear by Chris Zabriskie

“But Enough About Me, Bill Paxton” from Direct To Video by Chris Zabriskie

chriszabriskie.com // bandcamp // free music archive