"We don’t explore characters, we explore dungeons…"

“We don’t explore characters, we explore dungeons…”

The above quote (which is only approximate; I’m quoting from memory), is from one of the heroes of the ‘Megadungeon’ revival who was known as ‘Evreaux’ (sp?) on Dragonsfoot. I don’t know if he is still active on that discussion board (I used to enjoy that board a lot, then, either I changed or the general character of the board changed and now visits are painful. I usually end up leaving after getting hit in the eye by someone else’s dick AGAIN because most of the current crop of users are all wagging their dicks so forcefully in all directions… but, I digress…).
But it’s a good quote and one that (perhaps) sums up what I am missing when I talk about the allure of ‘old school’ versus the ‘new school’ of play in rpgs. After having expressed my love for OD&D and 1st edition AD&D, I’ve been told, more than once, that ‘new editions exist for a reason — because the old edition was flawed and they needed to fix it’ or something similar. And it is true that having picked up those tattered old books and reread them again as an adult, I have encountered a lot of “huh?” moments in reading these old rules that I either didn’t bother to read or didn’t absorb years ago. I can’t see myself using initiative in the way that Gygax fails to explain it in the AD&D Dungeone Master’s Guide. And unarmed combat? Huh?
At the same time, page long ‘character backgrounds’ and extensive character building sessions that usually use computer programs or spreadsheets seems to be the average for 3e, 3,5e, Pathfinder and similar ‘newschool’ games (I won’t talk about 4e because I don’t know anything about it). Players need to know a lot more about where they want their character to be at level 10 when they are picking their feats and skills at level 1. In terms of game mechanics, each character needs to be a ‘unique’ creation, with skills and feats selected from a baffling array of books and options. And somewhere along the way, most players that I know seem to have become attached to the idea that an in-depth ‘background’ story which includes notes on a troubled childhood, etc., are necessary. We no longer seem to sit down to create a character minutes before the game begins, roll the dice, see what we get and then say, “My dex is better than my wisdom; I guess I’ll be a thief,” or similar. Creating a character in the 3e and post 3e world feels more like a visit to the career counselor.
Back in those benighted 1e days when dwarfs couldn’t be wizards and paladins had to be humans, we didn’t see ourselves as deprived. We thought our handful of characters and classes was actually a lot to choose from. Little did we know. And, if memory serves, we did have characters that we tried to make unique. One of my favorites was a dual-class (if I remember right) Cleric/thief named ‘Odekin of the Purple Moon.’ He wore all purple and could both sneak around and cast cleric spells (he worshipped some sort of ‘purple moon god’ — I have no idea). He was mysterious and cryptic and liked to jump out of the shadows and stab enemies in the back and help himself to extra treasure when my fellow players were not looking. I really thought he was the shizzle. Nowadays, no one would look twice at poor Odekin. My friend Alan had the brilliant idea of deciding that his cleric would carry an ‘iron holysymbol’ in the shape of a mace(iron holy symbols are in the 1e price list; look it up)… so he could cast his ‘turn undead’ and whack people in the head without having to put one thing away and get another thing out. His was some god of great violence and head bashing I guess. And there were others.
I think one of the differences that I feel most keenly is that back in the old days, our characters might have ‘become’ special through play; they were not ‘designed’ to be unique. So your character might have been more of the sum of where he/she had been or what he/she had done rather than the result of character design. Which was fun. Because it felt like the choices made in the context of the game, even the small ones (do we turn left or right at the intersection?), were more important. These choices we made in game sometimes led to memorable events. I remember, as players, we defeated the giants in “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief” and actually decided to move in and make the steading our home. I enjoy imagining normal size humans and dwarves living in that massive place and needing stepladders to get into bed or up on the table.
So, as Evreaux (sp?) said, we were exploring dungeons, not characters. And it was good.

7 Comments on “"We don’t explore characters, we explore dungeons…"”

  1. ClawCarver says:

    This post is spot-on. After nearly three decades, I can still remember the different personalities of Murdoch, Quartz, Trag, Trag 2, and “Offal” McStookie, even though when each began his career he was described with one word: Halfling. And I'm sure the reason I remember so well is that those personalities grew out of play in actual adventures.

    “Creating a character in the 3e and post 3e world feels more like a visit to the career counselor.” I've had a crappy day, but this raised a smile. Cheers!

  2. DrBargle says:

    “And I'm sure the reason I remember so well is that those personalities grew out of play in actual adventures.”

    Oh yes, I agree with this.

  3. Dare says:

    Good post, but my comment is:

    Really it's about “exploring” two different concepts, and two different subsets.

    Exploring the :
    1. Character
    a. Narratively [background,RP, etc.]
    b. Mechanically [as a game element]

    2. Environment
    a. Narratively [Story-lines, NPC RP, etc.]
    b. Mechanically [as a game space, namely the Dungeon]

    My question is then: Do the two elements have to be mutually exclusive? Can you explore both main concepts (or even sub-concepts) at the same time?

    Why can't you explore a dungeon and interact with it in a fun and meaningful, while at the same time interact and “play” with your character using the same game?

    Does it hurt the appeal of “dungeon exploration” if you mechanically tie your character into the exploration of that dungeon? [The best example of this would be an Elves superior chance to detect secret doors, or in 3e/4e having a high Perception skill.]

  4. Blacksteel says:

    You mention newschool games with players fixated on backgrounds and you cite 3rd and 4th edition D&D? The versions with the most mechanically complex characters of any form of D&D? That in-depth background story stuff was all tied up with Vampire and other storytelling games way more than any version of D&D. My experience with 3 & 4E has been 100% the opposite of what you describe. I'm happy when players show up with a character that has a name and is from some place on the campaign map, which is about as much as I can expect.

    Players planning out the mechanical progression of their characters in advance, sure I see that to some degree but it's kind of the opposite of the other thing you describe. Plus it's usually two different types of players, the gearheads vs. the writer-wannabees, so I've rarely encountered one character with both situations.

  5. Dare says:

    Ultimately the appeal of exploring a dungeon ( I think) comes from the same spirit of climbing a mountain, sailing an ocean, or running a marathon…you do it because it's there, and you want to see IF you can do it.

    Some obstacle is in your way, but you want to see if you are good enough to overcome it. So you try. Throw in some monetary reward and you just have double incentive.

    Sure your buddy and you might learn a lot about yourselves and each other during the climb to the top of Mt.Everest…. but that's not why you are climbing it.

  6. David says:

    The character building and optimization of 3rd edition was something that really turned me off from the game. Not that my players were particularly good at it, but they always had such a preplanned idea of what they wanted their characters to become from 1st to 20th level. While I like tailoring my games to my players, I wanted to let things develop a little more organically, a holdover from my Rules Cyclopedia days I’m sure.

    I do think the quote is a little misleading however. It seemed that like you said, by exploring the dungeon you came to know the characters, even if that wasn’t the goal. The characters became special through play, not because the player had predetermined that his ranger would become a Dark Forest Hunter and Red Rose Initiate.

  7. @Mr. Chapell:

    Couldn't the mage use a variant of an arcane shield to make a bridge, or something similar (Assuming they have that, of course), thus negating the need to swim at all?


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