Category Archives: Absurdity

The Narrative Challenge of D&D

D&D has a long history of being rather absurd. Even looking past the physically impossible house-sized flying lizards and the robe-wearing geeks who turn bat guano into fire balls with a bit of mumbo-jumbo and finger-wiggling, there are quite a few face-slappers. For example, how can a child-sized warrior be even remotely competetive with a human warrior who weighs roughly eight times more?

How can high level PCs survive so much hit point loss from attacks that hit and various other damage sources? Yeah, I know, hit points are supposed to represent a combination of toughnesss, luck, divine favor, yada yada yada. But the fact that they’re called, ya know, hit points tends to undermine that idea. Plus the fact that Con is the only ability that adds to your hit points, and that sometimes any explanation of damage strains belief. Like being able to reliably and safely fall great distances.

TSR editions may have a leg up on the plausibility front, because so much is explicitly left up to the DM’s best judgment. But with DM judgment covering such a wide range of competence, that’s a double-edged sword. And arguably, what’s plausible isn’t always what’s most fun.

That’s a major reason 4e is my favored edition. While other editions make a pass at maintaining a semblance of plausibility, 4e says “To hell with that, I want a fun and balanced game!” 4e doesn’t even try to maintain plausibility — every martial character has limited-use powers, rather than only the occasional corner case like 3e’s Stunning Fist feat or the rogue’s Defensive Roll ability. In 4e, bards can sing people to death, oozes can be knocked prone and arrows can slide enemies sideways.

For those who want a serious (for D&D) experience, the usual solution is to creatively explain these seemingly implausible events. Which is okay by me; if other 4e fans want to say “The ooze isn’t knocked prone per se…,” I won’t tell them they’re wrong. Heck, if I want a cheap laugh I might say “Your song is so off-key that your enemy impales itself on your sword just to escape.”

But as a general rule, screw that micromanagement crap. D&D is a game of fantasy and magic, and it’s better (I think) to simply imagine that all PCs have some kind of magic working for them. It may be channeled through a sword rather than a wand, it may look like Li Mu Bai rather than Tim the Sorcerer and the class label may say ‘martial,’ but it’s magic all the same.

So bring on the magical absurdity!


Posted by on 21/04/2011 in Absurdity, Magic, Plausibility, Realism


Something that D&D Shares with the Bible

What makes D&D, well, D&D? Is it the d20? Is it elves, dwarves and halflings? Is it fireball-slinging wizards, curing clerics and vancian magic? Is it multi-hued dragons and the other bizarre monsters? Is it random 3-18 stats and stat prerequisites? Is it alignment? Is it dungeons filled with monster menageries and improbable death traps? Is it the Middle-Age-Greyhawk-esque milieu?

It’s impossible to say exactly what defines D&D. But I think that one of its traits not only helps define D&D, but makes it the best-selling rpg for the same reason that the Bible is the best-selling book in America:

It has something for everyone. D&D has human fighters for the farmboy-done-good experience, it has elven wizards for the mysterious outsider experience, it has hobgoblin blackguards for the fascist militant experience, it has centaurs for the some-old-wizard’s-experiment experience, it has war forged for the existential dilemma experience, it has lizard people for the just-plain-weird experience. The list goes on and on. And yes, it’s utterly absurd, but that’s the beauty of D&D.

Theoretically, D&D lets you play anything fantastical up to and including the kitchen sink. That’s not to say that cutting back on options is badwrongfun; I once ran a short Creation campaign, which is a human-only world. But cutting down on options is cutting back on, possibly, D&D’s greatest strength.