A to Z: A is for Assumptions

The latest bandwagon has started to roll and I just managed to scramble aboard! The (unfortunately named*) ‘Tossing it out’ blog announced “The A to Z” challenge in which bloggers try to do one post per day in April for each letter of the alphabet. Never to be one to refuse to ride someone else’s coat tails to fame and glory, I’m scrambling aboard at the last minue before that wagon rolls. (I just signed up — I am blog # 1062 to join).

So this is day 1 and our letter is for today is ‘A.’ I thought about doing ‘Arduin’ but I don’t own (and can’t afford) the Arduin books so everything I know about it would be second hand. And Grubb Street already handled A is for Arduin. I was also thinking about ‘Albinos’ and ‘Apes’ (or albino apes) but didn’t get very far with that. Then I decided to do “assumptions,” as in, “what are the basic assumptions when you and your group sit down to play?” More accurately, this might be called ‘melieu’ or ‘campaign flavor’ or even ‘rules.’ And I don’t think that there is any ‘right’ answer to what you assumptions should be — I just want to mull it over.

I would start with ‘default D&D’ as my first shared assumption of what players are getting into when they sit down to play a fantasy game. And if you are reading this blog, you probably know what your own conception of ‘default assumption D&D’ is. Open the rulebook and read the rules. If it says that player characters can be humans, dwarves, elves, etc., and can perform as fighters, magic users, thieves, etc., then that is a big part of the ‘assumption’ of default D&D.

The advantages of ‘default D&D’ are probably obvious. New players can come into the game, and, if they are even passing familiar with the edition you are using, they can take part and interact with the environment without having to ask a lot of questions. And I like ‘default’ D&D even though a lot of my fellow players seem to think that it is ‘boring’ or ‘predictable.’ Part of what I like is that the ‘imagination’ part of the game can be manifest in what you do with those stock elements. In addition, if players know a good deal about the world in terms of the ‘default’ assumptions, they are empowered to make more decisions and act upon the world. And, as a player, I sometimes find 100% reliance upon the DM for all information to be frustrating, especially when I end up feeling that my actions are being directed or forced by the DM when I start asking questions that cause the DM to start erecting narritive fences and railroad tracks. If the assumptions are simple and agreed upon from the start (even things as simple as the AD&D default where dwarves can’t be wizards, etc.), it doesn’t mean that exceptions to the rules can’t occur; it just means that such exceptions are accepted as exceptions.

Settings, games and rules which violate default D&D are harder to quantify. I am an enthusiastic reader of The Metal Earth (Aos’ blog of his house-ruled campaign), Planet Algol (another pulpy ‘sword and planet’ inspired blog) and others. To the usual mix of dragons, warriors and wizards, these ‘homebrews’ toss in new rules for everything and may let players create mutants, robots, ninjas and pirates as player characters. All of the ‘base assumptions’ of default D&D are up to debate or subject to revision and these campaigns seem to enjoy genre mixing and customization. “Assumption violating” campaigns seem very exciting to me; the act of creation seems like it could be almost as much fun (or more fun) as playing. And my own ‘Aldeboran’ (which feels like a somewhat stillborn creation that I occassionally dig out of the closet, revive and tinker with only to later shove it back intot he closet again) feels like it is closer in spirit to the ‘assumption violating’ campaign than the ‘default’ campaign. Although, since I don’t run any games in that world, the point is somewhat moot. Arduin, mentioned earlier on Grubstreet, is perhaps one of the precedents in publishing of the ‘assumption violating’ campaign.

Many campaigns seem to ‘blur the line’ between the two. I’ve never managed (either through laziness or stupidity) to run a 100% “by the book” game — a fact which used to make me feel somewhat inadequate whenever I would read one of Gary Gygax’s more strident editorials on the subject of house rules or ‘Dungeons and Beavers” (as he derisively called the campaigns of DMs who deviated from the rules as written for a time). And the idea of running any game by the book bores me. But at the same time, I think it helps player’s personal investment if they feel that some baseline assumptions within the campaign are shared and immutable. To create an extreme example, it would be very frustration to play in a game where everything that effected the actions of the characters was constantly in flux at the whim of the DM and the players didn’t know from session to session whether or not water would continue to be wet, fire would continue to be hot and ice would still be cold, etc. One of the fun things (at least for me) about a role playing game is that the world described by the referee and inhabited by the players has reference back to our world… so, imaginatively, we can wrap our heads around it and share information. Thus, although there are plenty of things we never encounter in the real world (dragons, unicorns, leprechauns, etc.), we still understand the basic physics of the world and the relationship between creatures and situations we might meet. So, although I’ve never actually BEEN in the fantasy world, I would understand that ships would sail on water, milk might come from cows (or other mammals), etc. I wouldn’t need to have it explained to me that gold might be worth more than iron since I already KNEW that before I ever played D&D. There is plenty of ‘real world’ knowledge that I can use while navigating the fantasy world and that means I can envision it more easily when we are trying to share the experience of navigating the fantasy world as a group.

I see advantages in both and am still sitting on the fence as to where I would go if I were to run a game again. Since I don’t forsee that happening, I suppose I can afford to continue sitting on the fence.

* I am relatively certain that “tossing it out” is NOT a masturbation reference, but, given the eccentric nature of people in general, one can never be 100% sure.

One Comment on “A to Z: A is for Assumptions”

  1. Heh, I jumped on the bandwagon right behind you (I'm 1064).

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