Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is D&D: Indiana Jones v. Superman

Professor Jones or Clark Kent?

I have been thinking about this basic question quite a bit, which brings me back to the opening question of the series, “What is D&D?” Are players heroes or just explorers looking for lost treasure? When designing adventures, this is really a fundamental question. Without a doubt, players often become unlikely heroes, in that over the course of an adventure they disrupt the BBEG, but is the focus of the game really about heroic actions? Recent adventure design would seem to indicate that the latter is where the game is headed, but is that really the right direction? Is there a right direction?

To go back to my opening question and compare and contrast Superman to Indiana Jones, there are some subtle differences that are interesting in this debate. Superman is a hero by definition. He has answered a higher calling, and has dedicated his life to being the hero. There is no question to which side of the fence he is on, regardless of what the writers plot out for him in any given episode or plot arc. He is the classic example of a traditional hero. There are no selfish motives on his part, and he always answers the call of the hero. He is not an accidental hero, but rather he is the shining example of the hero.

Professor Jones is a bit different. His past is a bit checkered, and he has not always acted out of an altruistic higher purpose. He is first and foremost a college professor of archaeology. When opportunities present themselves, he becomes something of a treasure hunter. Now I am going to assume that early in his career he was a more traditional archaeologist, but as time went by, he become more interested in more eclectic archaeology. The character is clearly a throwback to the old serial and pulp adventures of the early 20th century. While one can argue that he is heroic in nature, I would say that he is more of an accidently hero, rather than someone that is out to save the world as a full time gig.

I can remember the first game I played, which was using the Holmes rule set, and the dungeon that I went through was B1 In Search of the Unknown. I rolled up a fighter, and I can remember that his stats were nothing special, yet I ventured forth looking for the unknown, as I had no idea what to expect. The first monster I encountered was a fire beetle, which I was able to defeat easily. It was shortly there afterwards, I was attacked by several bandits, and that was the end of my first character. In the creation process and as I was going through, I had no thoughts of saving the world or defeating some BBEG, but rather I was an explorer in search of treasure and the unknown.

Fast forward some twenty five years later, give or take a couple of years, I ran a bunch of folks through my Ptolus campaign, and the concept of characters as heroes, factored strong in the design of the adventure. The characters were hired to confront chaos, and the underlying assumption of the campaign was that they were heroes. When I was running the campaign, I did not give much thought to the question of hero v. treasure hunter. It was only some time after the end that I started to give this some serious thought. In my next campaign, I am going back to the concept of players as treasure hunters in the vein of Indiana Jones.

One of the trends that I am seeing more of is the concept of adventuring guilds that are built into campaign worlds. This concept has a lot of appeal for me. In Monte’s Ptolus, he built in the Delver’s Guild as a place for characters to start their career. In Paizo’s Golarion, they have the Pathfinder Society, in which their members are described as, “.. part archeologist, part historian, and part foolhardy adrenaline addict.” There is a pulp fiction feel to these adventurer guilds that resonates well with me, and I would like to work that into my next campaign, and I might even stick in both of them.

However, even though the stated theme for my next adventure is characters as adventurers, I still ponder a bit on the central question of the series, ‘What is D&D?” Is it save the world or is it exploration for the sake of exploration?

While I have not directly answered my opening question, I will continue to explore it more in my next blog entry.


The Badger King said...

I'm struggling with this idea in the campaign I'm building too. Originally, I had this idea for a massive story to run across the campaign, that required the characters to be heroes.... maybe weak heroes at first, but heroes in the end. Now, after several months of reading the various gaming blogs I've encountered, I'm shying away from that idea. Now, I'm building my campaign more so that overriding "heroquest" is still there, but it's not the motivating force any more. Now, I'm a little more content to just give the characters some rope, and see if they climb it, or hang themselves with it. 8)

Mr Baron said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree with you completely. After spending the past year reading blogs and such, I am thinking about a completely different approach. My next blog I am going to continue the discussion with adventure paths and sandboxes.

JimLotFP said...

"What is D&D?" needs an edition tag, as different versions encourage different sorts of play.

S'mon said...

My current D&D tabletop campaign is premised on the PCs as heroes; defending the Realm from Evil. Next time round I reckon I'll go for the treasure hunter/exploration/sandbox approach.

Mr Baron said...


You bring up a good point. I am generically asking the question, as I believe that there are some core requirements that are present in the game, regardless of which edition you play. I have an upcoming blog on mechanics that I am going to use to expand upon this idea.

Mr Baron said...


This entire discussion I did not give much thought about until recently, when I started to read the various blogs out there, and I was working on my next campaign. In essence, I am asking the question, as I consider it important for the design and conduct of my next campaign. What do I want to GM, and what do my players really want to play through? And then to take it back one step, what makes D&D special from other role playing games, and what makes it fun to play?

S'mon said...

I think part of what makes it special is the variety of possible approaches, plus the availability of the 'tentpole' - exploring dungeons, killing things and taking their stuff?

For the plot based GM unsure what to do next, he can always put the villain/McGuffin/damsel at the bottom of a dungeon, problem solved.

My current campaign works as follows:

Variable players (public club game).
All PCs are The Heroes of Willow Vale.
The King of Willow Vale sends them on missions - adventures
The adventures are site-based (mostly old Basic/Expert classics) and the PCs are free to roam around those sites, but with the ultimate mission in mind.

This format is working very well given the club setting.

The Gygaxian approach of variable PC groups delving into a mega-dungeon would also work I think, though maybe not with the 3e rules I'm using - it runs too slow to complete an expedition in 1 4-5 hour session.