Check for Traps
The New Oral Tradition

Greg Tito | 1 Jun 2010 17:00
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Roleplaying games exist as an oral tradition. While many roleplaying books are in print, most of these provide new rules and systems for use in play. You can look up the spell, feat or ability that your character's class or race might use. One can argue that these descriptions are the whole game, and the only thing that needs to be provided by the game's designers. But that essentially ensures that all books written about roleplaying games are merely rules manuals. And if you've ever read the instruction manual to a new board game, you know that these rules don't always provide an accurate picture of exactly what the experience around the table is like and how to play it better. Therefore, the only way that the roleplaying experience is communicated is through play, handed down from generation to generation.

Wizards of the Coast is trying to change that.

In previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, there was a section at the beginning of the Player's Handbook that re-produced a short portion of a roleplaying session. Presented in script format, the players and the dungeon master spoke as if they were exploring a dungeon. The jokes were hokey and the conversation was overly simple, but, before I played regularly, it was my favorite part of the book. This was how the game was played! In many ways, the 2 page script illustrated how the esoteric components in the other 300 pages should work.

The problem was that the script was too simple and assumed too much of the first time reader. Since it was in the Player's Handbook, the script was player-focused and did little to instruct the dungeon master. It didn't cover complex situations like inter-party quibbling or the dungeon master unknowingly (or knowingly) railroading the action. Even future players could be potentially confused. Why were the characters in that dungeon to begin with? What if I don't want to play a dungeon crawl? And who the fuck is Lidda?

Explaining how a roleplaying game works to a non-gamer is not an easy task. "It's a game, but no one wins. You say that you do stuff, and then roll some dice to see if it works. You play a character, but it's not acting. Why am I an elf? I don't know, you kind of just have to be there." A simple script was the best way to show a typical session, and to give an overview that might answer some of those questions. But there is so much more to role-playing than what can be explained with that method. Older editions depended on the oral tradition to really pass on the game to others.

The Dungeon Master's Guide for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons approaches the problem a little differently than just providing a short script. The first 30 pages frankly discuss how roleplaying works, without ever throwing mechanics out there to complicate things. Granted, it's skewed more towards the dungeon master, but an accurate description of the various types of players and how to engage them is a wealth of information even if you never want to step behind the DM screen. What motivates you to play D&D? Are you an explorer, who enjoys investigating the history and game world? Are you an instigator, always pushing the action forward? Or are you just a watcher, perfectly content to observe the game with little interaction on your part? After reading that section in the DMG, I realized that, when I roleplay, I display elements of each of the above types. Knowing that about myself has allowed me to enjoy the game more.

The best part was that much of this knowledge was applicable to all roleplaying games, not just D&D.

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