Monday, 26 June 2017

4th edition's implied setting is Old School as f*ck

4th edition really turned me off D&D, at least as far as keeping up with its current state goes. At the time, I was already souring on 3.5's existential crisis with wanting to be GURPS in a class and level based system with abstracted combat. GURPS I felt simply did that better and I was coming to realise older versions of the game did the D&D parts with class, levels and abstracted combat, better.

When 4e then came out, I read all the reviews and play examples to get a feel for the game and see if I wanted to tag along. Nothing new under the sun from me there - I was instantly turned off by the extremely gamist nature of it - A roleplaying game so standardised by rules, it had abandoned all pretence of players playing out the scene and using rules as an aid - Players were playing out the rules with the scene as a background prop. Combats taking forever. 9 page character sheets. Characters defined primarily by boardgamey tactical roles. The hours spent on the mini-game of charop taking almost as long as actual gaming sessions. As with all things, I am sure it's possible to use 4e differently than this, but I've seen nothing since to suggest 4e does not at heart encourage this style of gaming. The players I know who play 4e in fact play 4e not because these criticisms aren't true, but because they like this style of play (in addition to liking other styles of roleplaying as well). But I didn't - at all - So 4e got a pass from me as the edition where corporatist D&D finally went off the deep end and shed its legacy and connection with former editions to go off and be its own thing in the 21st century.

The flavour parts of the game didn't seem much better at first glance either. Dragonborn and Tieflings are core classes now? And what's an Eladrin? Ugrh. For me, D&D has always been about mundane heroes journeying into the wilds to encounter the Weird and fantastical. And through this touch of Chaos, become greater than they were, gradually breaching the gap between the world of men (or even risk becoming alienated from it) and the world of myth on the other side of the fence.

4th edition at a glance seemed to totally break down this dichotomy and bring the fantastical right into the hearths of the mundane households, letting fey rub elbows with demonic offspring and dragonchildren in your regular tavern. When there is no Otherness to the fantastical, no sense of the Unknown,  the sense of wonder evaporates. The fantastical becomes mundane. 4e looked to have jumped the shark on its fluff to me at first glance. To be expected from such a gamist edition I figured and went on my way.

It was only around the time of the D&D Next playtest that I, thanks peeking at the flamewars that were inevitably sparked by the changes of a new edition, was inspired to look a bit deeper. Not for the rules, mind you. I still would rather play just about any other version of D&D. But the fluff. The fluff was just downright.... inspired!

Set that one critique about mundane vs the weird to the side for now though (we'll revisit later), and the implied setting of 4th edition reveals itself to be imaginative, bold, absolutely dripping with adventure potential and above all - Old school as fuck.

4th edition's implied setting feels far more mythic than any of its predecessors. This often translates into "gaming disconnect" (Tolkien, Glorantha, Dragonlance) as it setting becomes more pre-occupied with its own stories and mythology than its gaming potential - For Nentir Vale though, making it more mythic actually makes it more gameable. Gone are the tolkienesque angelic-racist elves of 2e & 3rd edition. The eladrin realms of the feywild have that dreamy otherworldly "journey into faerie" feel that traces its legacy back to the folkloric tales of the middle ages.

This happened in 4e. I wasn't around to witness it, but it did.
4th edition may have ditched alignments - Yet they crafted a mythology that is absolutely about the eternal conflict between Law & Chaos - Giving us a setting with all the principles of Keep on the Borderlands knitted straight into the fabric of the setting (moreso, I would argue, than any D&D setting before it) . The only thing they didn't do was explicitly call out that this dichotomy was their guiding principle (because officially - no alignments.

I mean, their cosmology is basically like this: The Astral sea was boring, so now it's Spelljammer with planes instead of planets (fuck yeah). The astral dominions are basically where the entities of Law took residence - They are all platonic embodiments of various concepts.

The Elemental Chaos is the other side of the cosmos - And far more visceral and, well... "elemental".  The font of creation - Basically Limbo, always in flux, but with elements of various kinds floating around in pockets and realms. Still, you can take your spelljammer ship and ride the elemental waves here as well (unlike the para-elemental plane of Ooze that we fucked off with the rest of the great wheel).

And below that, the nasty side of Chaos - Entropy leading into oblivion. The Abyss sitting between existence and nothingness.

Oh, and just to be even more mythic on y'all, our Law/Chaos struggle mirrors the Olympians/Aesir vs Titans/Jotuns struggle.  So you can instinctively grog this because this story is already in your cultural consciousness. And giants sided with the titans primordials.  Giant losers are therefore cosmically inimical to Law, gods and mankind. Ergo, go fight the good fight, adventurers.

And the underdark? Back in the mythic time when gods and primordials fought over law and chaos openly, one god was cursed and thrown underground for eternal torture. All these caves and passages is him dragging his tortured corpse around underground, creating open spaces as he boroughs through.

And we get mirror planes, basically reflections of life/nature and death/shadow - Because not all world-walking is about cosmic power and opening portals to new realities. Sometimes, the farmer just stumbles into faerie by accident. So your low and mid-level characters can walk into the realms of myth as well. Remember my criticism about the barriers between the mundane and the Weird? Turns out they cranked it up once you look past the player races. 4e's implied setting hardcodes this dichotomy into the setting (and blends law/chaos into the division on top) (too metal, man) and then turns up the volume on the fantastical once you go into the Weird. It's like they drank from Odin's mead of poetry Gygax's mountain dew of Appendix N when creating the setting for 4e.

It's easy to grog and get into, thick in mythic flavour and basically IS D&D embodied and distilled into setting form.

And yet, for all the flavour, it doesn't get self-absorbed in its own history or style. There is something accessible and basic, almost saturday morning cartoon style, in the way it grabs you. "These are our memes and archetypes. You have met them elsewhere, even if you don't know it. So just plug and play."

Part of the reason it is so accessible is that it is intentionally sparse. There is tonnes of stuff simply left out, or barely hinted at. Because it was designed to be nothing more than the most basic of frameworks for DMs to fill in the blanks on and make their own worlds out of. I know, right? Old School as fuck.

In fact, the publication history of its implied setting is like some sort of tragic homage to another very old school setting. We get the bare bone outlines in the DMG - 24 pages of teasers (mostly about stuff like "what is a town", "fantasy worlds tend to have religions", "here are rules for weather") that open with "the world of D&D doesn't have a map - until you make one" (so fucking metal) and then talks about the higher level assumptions of the D&D world. Things like:

  • Civilization is scattered points of light amidst a vast wilderness full of monsters in which ancient and mysterious wonders are nestled
  • gods are distant
  • It's your world
and another 15 pages on Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale, a pocket sandbox area+home base in a forgotten corner of the implied setting. That's it.  Old. School. man.

This is Fallcrest, the homebase. Shadowdale can fuck off back to Tolkien's Shire.

From here, the rest of the implied setting is revealed in scraps and pieces in various modules and articles in dragon magazine. You know which setting I am talking about now, when I said it was a homage, right? Yeah, this is basically World of Greyhawk all over again. Only, this one is dripping with flavour already and has the law vs chaos angle built right into its mythology with direct access for adventuring potential.

Except for one, tragic, difference. Greyhawk got its boxed set to set the word on what the world is like, even if it is an open-ended, loose framework, word. 4e's implied setting, Nentir Vale, never got that far before they killed the line. The setting book was on display on amazon and all. But then D&D Next happened and what was probably D&D's most D&D-like setting ever fell off a cliff.

That setting book could have been its last old school hurrah. "here's your setting book. It leaves out most things for you to create, but now at least you finally have your setting map. You will never see another supplement for this setting again though. Create the rest yourself." But we never got even that.

There is no "canon", no well defined history (myths in fact are far more prevalent than history) or even list of countries. It will remain forever an individualistic hodge podge of scant notes in the DMG cobbled together with hints and tidbits from supplements and adventures, some scholarly attempts at making sense of it all from fans online and the vast majority of it left for DMs to fill out with their own imagination. Old School. as. fuck.

If I were to run a non-homebrew setting these days, I'd probably pick 4e's or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. I'd have to find a way to make those dragonborn and tieflings palatable to my sensibilities somehow, but that ain't hard. Other than that, it's just straight up D&D.