Saturday, April 26, 2008

And The Winner Is...

When talking about D&D to family members who have never played, invariably this topic at hand comes up. Usually it’s quite innocently, a simple question normally along the lines of “Oh…I see. So, who WON?”

“Well,” says I, “no one actually *wins* in D&D…”, then their eyes either glaze over as they feign interest, or they might ask actual probing questions if such an unconventional concept has piqued their curiosity. At that point I normally make a storybook analogy, explaining that the Dungeon Master* is similar to an author, and the players are like characters in that story, a story that unfolds as the players make decisions and decide their own fate. Why play a game with no winner? Everyone who plays D&D and has fun is the winner! The game play itself is reward enough.

* - Dungeon Master is a term I should probably stop using when explaining the D&D concept, the original term ‘referee’ is just easier to grasp.

D&D, as far as I am aware, and the genre it spawned, is the only game with no terms of victory.

Perhaps it’s a concept which has always hindered D&D, and I would say that this notion of getting together, playing a game and simply having fun is becoming, more and more in our culture, nonsensical. The fun of gaming for many is in the actual competition. Beating your opponent, claiming victory, lording your expertise over him. It’s everywhere in gaming, from sports to cards to darts to war games to board games…you get the idea.

What D&D spawned in role playing is certainly a game, one meant to be a fun way to enjoy some dice rolling, imagination, and actual decision making. The goals in D&D can vary from group to group, from session to session, and from referee to referee. Ultimately, though, the goal is simply to enjoy a social hobby which exercises the imagination. In that way it transcends traditional games. It’s a hobby that just happens to have game elements in the way of rules and dice rolling.

There really is no place in this hobby for players who approach the game with definite goals or a winner take all mentality. These types of players perhaps have a hard time accepting the concept of this hobby, and thus we end up with power gaming munchkins, rules lawyers, min-maxers, and numbers crunchers. I encourage the social aspect of D&D. For my players to succeed, and actually progress within the campaign, they need to work together as a team to more easily overcome the various obstacles I have created, making sound decisions and using logic, imagination, and a little luck. It’s not about winning.

One of D&D’s own descendants, Magic the Gathering is the antithesis of this spirit. I’m sure Mr. Garfield didn’t have this in mind when he set out to create a card based D&D inspired game, so perhaps this isn’t a fair statement. Let me rephrase that and say Magic the Gathering as we know it today is the antithesis of D&D.

Another one of the direct descendants of D&D is the computer role playing game. I’ve enjoyed more than my own share of computer role playing games, but none of them can claim to have D&D’s open ended play style. If anything, these D&D descendants have promoted the aspects of gaming that D&D took us away from in the first place.

Computer games, and MMO’s in particular, reward power gaming munchkins, rules lawyers, min-maxers, and numbers crunchers. And the players of these games seem perfectly content with this fact. In MMO’s in particular, there is a definite spirit of competition, of ‘showing off’. The very nature of such competition is what the industry depends upon to retain it’s player base. Certainly teamwork has become an important aspect of MMO’s, but even then everything is systematic, rigid, and repetitive.

The fact is, no other form of gaming assumes this truly open ended approach, with no terms of victory, and no end to the game, not even it’s own descendants. It’s a game that emphasizes decision making, logic, creativity and luck. Pretty cool stuff when you stop and think about it.

No winners though, imagine that.

~Sham, Delinquent DM


Robert Fisher said...

There have been some very open-ended computer games.

Some have suggested that many of Maxis’ games should be called “toys” rather than “games”.

Which brings to mind the question: Are role-playing games really games at all?

Sham said...

That's a very good question. They have the 'trappings' of games in that they come with tables and rules, and most use dice to determine success or failure.

D&D was so revolutionary, it's almost as if the role-playing genre is outside of the normal scope of 'games'.

Games is a very broad category, though. It also encompasses things like Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Puzzles, I Spy, etc.

Plenty of games or genres of games are unique in some different aspect, and I suspect there certainly are some video games, now that I consider it, that have no terms of victory.

As you mentioned, though, many of these feel more like a toy than an actual game, since it sounds like they involve 'play' but not 'gaming'.

Anonymous said...

Bear in mind also that there are some boardgames out there which are purely (or mostly) cooperative. In which the players work together for mutual victory.
For examples, Pandemic is pure cooperation. Shadows Over Camelot can be, depending on whether (randow determination, depending on size of the game) there's a traitor in the group.

Sham aka Dave said...

I've not heard of Pandemic. Shadows over Camelot sounds like it might be right up my alley.

The post title might be somewhat misleading. D&D is more or less a pursuit or hobby. It's most definitely not a "toy". Players don't marvel at it.

The fact the it never ends is of note, but that's simply because there is no victory condition (except for scenarios designed to have one).

D&D and the RPG genre it spawned is certainly it's own animal for numerous reasons.