Monday, April 16, 2012

Having a Party: when D&D works best

As you might have gathered, I've played Dungeons and Dragons for years and years now. My friends have been forced to play Dungeons and Dragons right along with me. Oh, sure, we've had some Call of Cthulhu, 7th Sea, Paranoia, Aftermath, Harn, Deadlands, Alternity, and other such morsels on our plates before. We've sampled and picked our way through the vast feast of roleplaying opportunities. Roleplaying gourmands, we've tasted White Wolf, delighted in Mongoose, and supped upon the offerings of Wizards (though we much preferred when they were prepared by Tactical Studies).

For me, and not necessarily for the rest of my friends, but for me it has always returned to D&D. It was like a mentor to me, and from the arms of Tolkien and Gygax I went on to study medieval history. What was it about D&D that always made me want to come back to it? Well, for one, I have always been a fantasy buff over sci-fi, and for another the style of AD&D was foundational in my understanding of fantasy. But today I want to talk about another reason that D&D has remained a perennial favorite of mine, and that is: the Party.

Other games, to greater or lesser degrees of success, have attempted to imitate the Party, but it was D&D (the grandfather of them all) that really founded, articulated, and manifested the perfect setting in which the Adventuring Company works. It is invariably part of the milieu of D&D, built into the very worlds. This was something that Wizards forgot, I think, when designing new settings but that's a question for another day. There's something about the perfect party dynamic that catapults D&D from a game about stabbing orcs and goblins and looting their lairs into something truly magical.

I've been playing small-scale D&D lately, due to the inability to get more than 3 people in any one channel on any one day who are ready to play at any given time. This has restricted my games to anemic parties that have little or no dynamic. Worse, IRC is an easy haven for the mute player who says nothing but acts when the time comes for action. While those types of players are fine, and I have nothing against them, they do not actively add their personality to the accretion that is required to establish the Party Dynamic.

This elusive, ephemeral, ambiguous goal struck me again recently, and it reminded me that it was the living and beating heart of Dungeons and Dragons. No matter how much postmodern theory, how much philosophy of magic, or how realistic a historical model I create, it is secondary (perhaps tertiary) to a good party dynamic.

What happens when the party is in harmony? There is tension, because any real party will include multiple strong opinions on how to do things. But that tension is good; it provides the grist for an endless mill of interactions between party members, and not necessarily detrimental ones. In a party that's functioning, everyone has a part in the roleplay: everyone talks during the "talking sections," particularly since AD&D isn't necessarily a combat-intensive game and can include long bouts at the inn, plumbing people for info, or even attempting to solve a murder in a small town. When members of the party shut off to these sections of the game, everyone else begins to feel like they're carrying someone. It's like dragging an unwilling child through a museum.

Sometimes parties don't gel instantly, and that is generally a function of several influences. Firstly, characters who are too complex (their backgrounds are colored histories that stretch into their own books, for example) have a hard time meeting new characters and integrating with them. Secondly, characters who are not complex enough (the player has no real idea what to do or where to go with the character) will also lead to a delay in party-gelling.

But when you throw four people together in an inn and let them form a party and it works... well, that's where the magic is.

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