[Theory] Flavors of D&D II: Finding the Right Tools for the Jobs

#1
Late last year, I posted some ramblings on the various flavors that D&D has evolved into over the past forty years. It seemed to be received fairly well, and I've been thinking about a next step--and now seems to be the right time.

We are currently suffering from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to D&D. By the end of 2013, almost every official version of the rules will be available in print or PDF format. WotC has reversed their stand on PDFs and is steadily putting out a wide array of older material. And when you add in Pathfinder, the OGL, the GSL and the OSR . . . it's a good time to be a D&D fan.

But it can also be a frustrating time. Pace Mike Mearls and the WotC marketing team, the game has not always remained the same. And the game hasn't always understood what it's about--indeed, a case could be made that no edition of D&D since AD&D 1st Edition has really presented itself in a fashion that matches the playstyle that emerges naturally from the rules. It can be a challenge to identify what baseline and supplemental materials would be best suited to the kind of play a given player or group wants from the game.

There's a lot to be said for just taking a certain game and going with it--this appears to be a large portion of the OSR's success. But for those who've identified what kind of D&D they want, I thought it might be a good idea to identify what systems, settings, adventures, and options best support each flavor of D&D.

Thus, this topic arises from the grave like a hungry ghoul or desperate Hollywood sequel. :) I'm starting it off with a list of the various styles we generally identified last winter and the tropes that each involves which can be best served by mechanics. I make use of WotC's "combat/exploration/interaction" triangle structure to help define them, as well as other notes. I've also included my own initial thoughts on what core systems generally support each style the best. I'm hoping other gamers will help me expand that with corrections and references to other variants on D&D, as well as settings, adventures, and rules options that best reinforce each flavor and can help get a campaign in each style up and running.

Please note that this is a theoretical work, and a work in progress. We had a bunch of positive discussion and refinement on the original thread, and I'd like to keep that same spirit going forward. (Like trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. Here's to hoping I don't get struck.) Correction, refinement and disagreement are welcomed, although accusations that I'm trying to insidiously undermine the OSR/Pathfinder/WotC/the True Way of D&D have been found to be hurtful.

If you're not familiar with the original thread, you can find a link in my signature. Most of the styles haven't changed that much, but a new one's been added (a link to the post defining it is included below), one (G&G) has been slightly renamed, and one has been radically renamed ("Warlords & Warlocks" is now "Misfits and Mayhem") and refined.

Here we go again.

Knaves & Kobolds
Tropes: Treasure is the primary focus and reward. Life is cheap, and fighting’s usually for suckers; a fair fight, doubly so. Exploration is central, with a focus on logistics and resources. Interaction is also important and focused primarily on allies (PC and NPCs) and encounters within the dungeon. Party unity is less of a thing than in other styles, and the endgame of acquiring a stronghold and political power is more emphasized. Worldbuilding can be done, but is less important than the in-play experience—there’s a strong streak of parody and satire, at least in the original forms of this style.
System Thoughts: OD&D appears to have been built around/built up this style, and Holmes Basic, B/X and BECMI are close enough to apparently do it well. AD&D contains enough roots of it to be a reasonably good fit for it. 3E and 4E lose the endgame and strongly de-emphasize the ‘avoid combat’ and ‘collect treasure’ elements of this style, and have numerous other issues with it.

Gamma Rays & Godslayers (aka Galactic Dragons & Godwars)
Tropes: This style revolves heavily around ‘muchness’—use all that cool stuff put out by TSR/WotC, other companies, and even other media sources. (“Gamma Rays” in the new title highlights the overlap with sci-fi, comic books, and the beloved GAMMA WORLD game.  ) Thus, PCs will tend to have vast resources and confront major threats. The combat and magic systems will therefore need to account for broad varieties of power and effects; exploration will likewise be broader in scope. Realism generally takes a backseat to ‘rule of cool’ or flights of pure imagination. This strikes me as one of the two flavors that’s most likely to emerge as the evolution of a campaign instead of being present at the start—but it also seems to be one of the two that’s most likely to take us outside the realms of D&D system-wise.
System Thoughts: OD&D is loose enough to handle it; B/X probably caps too early, but BECMI can really engage it once things get high-enough level, especially if one adds in all 36 Immortal levels. AD&D has the vast arrays of magic, monsters and gods to help this style, as does 3E, although the latter requires some work to keep the non-casters competitive. 4E fits elements of this style into Epic, but in a more contained way, and Epic support is one of the things that edition lost out on.

Dungeoncrawling & Demons
Tropes: This is the ‘stereotypical’ D&D style (although the original apparently hews more closely to K&K). Combat becomes more central, but can be anything from quick and dirty to elaborate tactical setpieces. (Given the tendency to fit a lot of encounters into a ‘crawl’, though, faster and simpler combat systems appear to be preferred.) Exploration remains a key element, but shifts away from logistical challenges to engaging with traps, hazards and the like. Interaction tends to take place outside the dungeon more than inside it. This is a style I really don’t have much of a feel for, so I welcome revision and expansion.
System Thoughts: AD&D and its adventures (especially the tourneys) and style really define this flavor, it seems. WotC is bound and determined that this flavor is D&D, but the systems designed under their aegis fit better with other styles.

Castles & Cronies (thanks to Daztur for pointing out this one)
Tropes: I’m going to go with a selection from Daztur’s original post here:
It grows out from the fact that a lot of TSR-D&D modules were crazy generous with loot and if adopt that as standard for your own adventures and play in a way in which player death is very rare then the players will eventually accumulate big gobs of cash and magic items. Just like the accumulate lots of magic items the players get more and more allies (often more like a cross between DM PCs and spare PCs than Old Geezer's henchmen and hirelings, the henchmen rules usually aren't used here) almost always including intelligent flying mounts. This play style is often reinforce with how saves work in TSR-D&D (it's very hard to kill high level characters with instant death attacks).

When you have that much treasure and that many allies a lot of play becomes the Sims: Fantasy Billionaire Edition. The players build or take over a base and make out complicated floor with descriptions of what's where and suites for different PCs and important allies with notations about where things like who gets to hang the tapestry made out of goddess hair in their bedroom and where the solid gold throne of the dwarven kings gets put in relation to the dinner table. Also with no real magic item economy the players track which ally gets their cast off magic items and whatnot. A lot of play involve wrangling the PCs' allies and helping them in various ways.

Despite having a big damn castle there's no real domain management or political intrigue, even if some of the PCs are rulers, aside from "the kingdom is in danger, let's go save it!" These games tend to be long running with low player turnover so they can end up creating a lot of interesting settling detail over the years.
System Thoughts: As Daztur points out, this seems to fit into the later era of TSR D&D, when PCs are more resilient. It’s sort of the grounded cousin to G&G, and like that style, is usually an evolution of an earlier campaign (although Birthright for 2E starts out in this style or a close cousin to it). Domain management rules and the like are helpful, but apparently not essential. 3E and 4E handicap it by making the party more self-reliant and the economy more magic-item centric.

Paladins & Princesses
Tropes: PCs are generally virtuous and altruistic heroes; even those with a mercenary streak tend to be more like Han Solo than Boba Fett or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Combat tends to be dramatic but low on PC lethality. Exploration is about heroic quests, the thrill of discovery and interaction than logistics and resources. Interaction is a central element of this style, and tends to the melodramatic. Worldbuilding is also key, but focused on story and dramatics rather than ‘realism’ or the elaboration of premises.
System Thoughts: 2E wanted to be this flavor, but was running on a DC&D engine. I’d like to say BECMI can do it if you tweak a few things, but that might be a mix of presentation and wishful thinking. 4E fits it very nicely, with quest rewards and the like, so long as you can deal with some of the darker-edged PC options in the core.

Simulation & Spellcasting
Tropes: This is the style that follows the perceived AD&D tradition of codifying everything. Rules don’t necessarily have to be minutely detailed, but they do need to be comprehensive and capable of handling the interactions and implications of setting elements. There’s a strong push towards “real-world physics + magic” in this style, and magic itself tends to be very rational, reliable, and almost scientific. Worldbuilding is heavy here, but in a ‘hard fantasy’ mode as opposed to a dramatic one.
System Thoughts: You can find the roots of this style in AD&D, with monster ecologies, planar physics and elaborate details on how spells work in various situations. 3E took this element and ran with it once it got out to the players.

Misfits & Mayhem (fka Warlocks & Warlords. Thanks to neonchameleon for the title, and to a bunch of posters for helping refine this one)
Tropes: The scruffier and somewhat more cynical cousin of P&P, with PCs who are generally well-meaning but often don’t fit into ‘typical’ fantasy molds, either as social outcasts, non-traditional races or classes, or other molds. They don’t have to be outcasts within their own societies—4E really ran with the ‘fantastic world’ at points—but they certainly don’t feel like they belong in the humanocentric milieu of earlier D&D. Adventures tend to be somewhere between P&P and DC&D, with the emphasis on action and multiple elements, often shifting mid-encounter to create a feeling of complication and ‘how do we get out of this?’
System Thoughts: All versions of D&D that run long enough have evolved towards elements of this style, if you have the right supplements. 1E could do it with enough issues of DRAGON; BECMI with the Creature Crucible books; 2E with the right setting supplements (Planescape and Dark Sun especially) and Complete Handbooks, and 3E with Savage Species. 4E baked it more into the core than any other edition.
 

Thanos6

Registered User
Validated User
#2
...as does 3E, although the latter requires some work to keep the non-casters competitive.
Well, you could always look at it as the other side of the coin that is K&K in regards to the Linear/Quadratic problem. Especially if you're going for an all wizards campaign to begin with (personally, I'd never consider playing in a GR&G if I wasn't some kind of magic user, but that's just me). "No more hiding behind the strong guys while they stab the goblins, time for me to warp some reality!"

In other words, it only needs work if you want that balance to begin with. :)
 

Extrakun

Tinker of Games
Validated User
#3
If you play 13th Age with an emphasis of the PCs helping out the Icons, it tends to be Paladins & Princesses, as the game encourages you to only have positive relationships with the heroic and ambiguous icons. Dramatic heroics are encouraged in the player's advices too.
 

Ratman_tf

W.A.R.P.
Validated User
#4
Paladins & Princesses
Tropes: PCs are generally virtuous and altruistic heroes; even those with a mercenary streak tend to be more like Han Solo than Boba Fett or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Combat tends to be dramatic but low on PC lethality. Exploration is about heroic quests, the thrill of discovery and interaction than logistics and resources. Interaction is a central element of this style, and tends to the melodramatic. Worldbuilding is also key, but focused on story and dramatics rather than ‘realism’ or the elaboration of premises.
System Thoughts: 2E wanted to be this flavor, but was running on a DC&D engine. I’d like to say BECMI can do it if you tweak a few things, but that might be a mix of presentation and wishful thinking. 4E fits it very nicely, with quest rewards and the like, so long as you can deal with some of the darker-edged PC options in the core.
P&P and 2nd Edition have been on my mind lately. (Partly thanks to your original thread on flavors. :)) I think with a handful of house rules, 2nd ed can do P&P well, and the attempt to use 2nd for P&P was a big factor in how some people played it. That's how it affected my group and my DMing, anyway.
 

JoshR

Registered User
Validated User
#5
P&P and 2nd Edition have been on my mind lately. (Partly thanks to your original thread on flavors. :)) I think with a handful of house rules, 2nd ed can do P&P well, and the attempt to use 2nd for P&P was a big factor in how some people played it. That's how it affected my group and my DMing, anyway.
2nd Edition and BXCMI can do P&P fine, once you get to higher levels. It's getting over that hump of low-level lethality that makes it difficult.
 

Thanos6

Registered User
Validated User
#6
It's funny: Although my family isn't particularly religious, my mom got suckered hard by the satanic panic back in the day, so I was never allowed to play (I don't think my dad cared one way or the other). When I started college around the turn of the millennium and played in my first (and, sadly, so far only) D&D campaign, even then she was visibly disapproving.

But despite that, when I was able to sneak a peak at the 2e core three in the bookstore, my furtive peeks convinced me that P&P was exactly what it was. That my mom had it exactly backwards. I didn't realize you could even HAVE other styles of games, just the great heroes out to save the town/kingdom/world.

My mom was worried I'd turn to Satan or something, but I was convinced the proper end to a D&D campaign would be invading Hell and beating him. :) And that's why I always want there to be at least some measure of P&P in any D&D game I want to play. Because as a kid, that's what I wanted and wished I could play.
 

Ratman_tf

W.A.R.P.
Validated User
#7
2nd Edition and BXCMI can do P&P fine, once you get to higher levels. It's getting over that hump of low-level lethality that makes it difficult.
Yup. For example, our house rule was max hp at first level, and -Con gives a nice buffer for healing attempts before dying. Though lately I'm of the mind to just say PCs don't die unless "dramatically appropriate". That kind of rule fits P&P, I think.
 
#8
I think that you can set up several different axis upon which the various versions of D&D can be placed. Different flavors of D&D are going to care about different axis and some are going to work better with games one end or the other. For example, one axis might be simple verses complex character creation. On this Access B/X would be placed near the simple end while 3.5 or 4e would go on the complex side (just to place a few systems). Knaves and Kobolds probably cares a lot about character creation speed. Its a pretty lethal play-style and (in my opinion at least) needs fast character creation so dead characters can be replaced easily. On the other hand, Misfits and Mahem would prefer a more complex character creation because it needs to allow for elaborate and strange custom characters. Paladins and princess, however, probably doesn't care about character creation complexity. Some groups may have a preference for one way or the other, but as long as you can make heroic characters the flavor works.

Some other axis might be lethal: verses non-lethal; rules light verses rules-heavy; low magic verses high magic; simple verses complex combat; and so on.
 

Catharsis Cat

Live Action Anime Girl
Validated User
#9
So I thought I would respond to this by hightlighting the elements from the different styles that I like:

Knaves & Kobolds
Tropes:. . .Exploration is central, with a focus on logistics and resources. Interaction is also important and focused primarily on allies (PC and NPCs) and encounters within the dungeon. . .there’s a strong streak of parody and satire, at least in the original forms of this style.

Gamma Rays & Godslayers (aka Galactic Dragons & Godwars)
Tropes:. . .use all that cool stuff put out by TSR/WotC, other companies, and even other media sources.[/B] (“Gamma Rays” in the new title highlights the overlap with sci-fi, comic books, and the beloved GAMMA WORLD game.  ) . . . flights of pure imagination.

Dungeoncrawling & Demons
Tropes: . . .Exploration remains a key element, but shifts away from logistical challenges to engaging with traps, hazards and the like. . .


Castles & Cronies (thanks to Daztur for pointing out this one)
Tropes:. . .When you have that much treasure and that many allies a lot of play becomes the Sims: Fantasy Billionaire Edition. The players build or take over a base and make out complicated floor with descriptions of what's where and suites for different PCs and important allies with notations about where things like who gets to hang the tapestry made out of goddess hair in their bedroom and where the solid gold throne of the dwarven kings gets put in relation to the dinner table. . .

Paladins & Princesses
Tropes: . . .the thrill of discovery and interaction. . . Interaction is a central element of this style. . .

Misfits & Mayhem (fka Warlocks & Warlords. Thanks to neonchameleon for the title, and to a bunch of posters for helping refine this one)
Tropes:. . . with PCs who are generally well-meaning but often don’t fit into don’t fit into ‘typical’ fantasy molds, either as social outcasts, non-traditional races or classes, or other molds. . . . with the emphasis on action and multiple elements, often shifting mid-encounter to create a feeling of complication and ‘how do we get out of this?’
Yeah, I'm not sure what to make of this. It certainly seems that I enjoy getting caught up in the little details, but beyond that I seem to want too wide of a variety. It's probably why I have yet to be able to find the right tool for the job or preferred version of D&D/fantasy RPG.
 
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#10
2nd Edition and BXCMI can do P&P fine, once you get to higher levels. It's getting over that hump of low-level lethality that makes it difficult.
The two solutions (not mutually exclusive) I'd be inclined to apply to this:

1. Start PCs at 4th level. This gives the characters a considerable buffer of HP, and the spellcasters more than one (or no!) spell per day. Part of the reason this appeals to me is sentimental--the very first D&D book I ever read was a copy of Mentzer Expert.

2. Adopt the "Chrono Trigger" approach to combat. PCs reduced to 0 HP or below are Knocked Out, and revive after the battle with 1 HP. Only TPKs or Dramatic Moments call for permanent death, and even those aren't guaranteed. (That said, if you're facing down with Tiamat/Asmodeus/Orcus/Venger or the like in the final battle of the campaign, don't expect to be taken captive or left for dead. :) )
 
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