Sunday, October 7, 2012

The role of Verisimilitude in D&D - part 1

One of the things that I strive for in my game design is verisimilitude (or believability if you prefer).  I find that one of the biggest problems with the D&D game is that each iteration is less and less plausible than the one before it.

A lot of this is due to the nature of the game.  The creators took every myth, legend, and fantastical creature, and all of the fantasy novels and stories that had come along in the last few hundred years, and threw it all together into a big sloppy mess.

So a lot of the items in the DM's toolbox don't really work well together from the start.  The average D&D campaign is a crazy, mixed-up, nonsensical world where nothing really makes sense, and there's no rhyme or reason to how it's put together.

But while that works passably well for a casual game, it can undermine the believability of the game world.  Even worse, that aesthetic has crept into the fantasy literature of the past 30 years, which has in turn, continued to influence the game itself.  Thus the ever-escalating silliness of subsequent editions.

The problem with this is that when everything is special, nothing is special.  When every character is a super-badass, misunderstood, emo, dark-elf ninja dual-wielding twin vorpal katanas,with a full set of Ioun stones, elven chainmail, a portable hole, and a zillion gold pieces worth of loot it's harder to care about the game.  Gamers end up getting and jaded and the game becomes a never-ending pursuit for MORE POWER!!!

In the meantime, George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (and the Game of Thrones TV show) has been an incredible success, despite the fact that there is little that's actually fantastical about it.  Yes, there's some magic, but there's not much of it.  There are dragons, but they haven't done much yet.  And yes, there are undead, but they also haven't done much yet either.

Hell, you could take all of the fantastical elements out and still have a great story, because it is the characters and their relationships that drive the narrative.

While Martin does use fantastical elements successfully, they are also used sparingly.  These elements influence the story, but they don't dominate it. They serve to spice things up, but they're not the whole show, in the same way that a good chef uses a few spices to change a boring meal to an extraordinary meal.

I believe that ASoIaF/Game of Thrones has been a success largely because people are tired of the hyper-fantasy fiction that is so prevalent these days.  It stands out in the crowd because it is so believable.  We can relate to those characters.  We can see our real world reflected back at us when we read those stories.

In comparison, RA Salvatore's Icewind Dale Trilogy feels hackneyed, amateurish, and cartoony. Salvatore continues to crank out Drizzt books, but it all feels tired and stale at this point.  Much like the D&D game that inspired it.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Continued in Part 2

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