Friday, 5 April 2013

Contrarian Knobend Dungeons & Dragons

Reading my friend talk about random character generation andoptimisation got me thinking about what happens in our minds when we create a person from a row of random numbers.

Like, which numbers are the best? And can you do the opposite of optimisation and would it be a good thing.

I thought of three ways there can be good numbers.

First When you look at a list of numbers and some are wildly divergent, then they are better than the average array. They make better people. Like this:-

STR-4 DEX-12 CON-15 CHA-7 WIS-17 INT-8

Is better than this

STR-9 DEX-13 CON-10 CHA-11 WIS-8 INT-10

The first person is more interesting. They are weak, tough, slightly unpleasant to be around and very aware. That is already a person I want to know more about. Who is the second person? Who cares?

When you look at divergent stats, your mind does a different kind of work than when you look at a steady range. It’s impossible to look at the first array without asking questions. It doesn’t make sense so you have to read it. It’s impossible to hold those numbers in your head as a description of a potential person without your mind waking up and interrogating them as an embodied human being. This is a particular person. Not a type. They have a particular body and a particular history. Why are they so weak and so tough? A disease? Age? Why are they so charmless and so aware of themselves. What kind of personality does this make? Are they embittered? Cruel? Not thoughtless anyway.

You may argue that you can do exactly the same thing for the second person. You can give them a history and a character and everything. Yes. You can, but you don’t have to. They slot neatly into place. The numbers float through your mind without triggering any dissonance. The first person is a problem to be solved and when you look at them your mind will try to solve the problem whether you want it to or not. You already told your brain its meant to be a person and it can’t allow people to be atomised or inconsistent. It sees people very day. They have to make sense, somehow. Not the usual kind of sense perhaps but they must be a meaningful whole.

Second When you assign this person a class you are deciding a big chunk of their history, some of their nature and everything about their future. You also choose much of how they will interact with the game world.

We don’t want our guy to die so we can’t make him a fighter. A cleric might be ok, or a wizard..

But what if we decided to not give a fuck about that? What if we added another kind of dissonance on a different scale. What is the least appropriate class for this person? Lets make them a fighter. What happens inside our heads now?

The first choice took effect over seconds. The second choice will take hours to play out. What happens when we try to play a character against type?

The answer is that we think and we think furiously. We obsess, we embody. Our weak fighter won’t survive in a swordfight, they have to fight at range. How will they do this? What tactics will they use? What kind of person does this, why do they fight?

The only way for us to deal with this is to harry the game world. We become obsessive investigators of the fictional environment. We cannot sit and wait for the tools and situations the DM gives us. That will kill us. We must search, observe, intuit, strive and decide. Yes you can with a normal character. But with our broken fighter you must. They cannot be played with just the stuff on the sheet and in the book. They will only survive as the product of an active mind.

Third On another level we must do this as a very particular person. The product of a very particular history. No normal person with these qualities would choose to fight. There must be something different about them, personality or history or both. You can’t ignore this. Unless you solve it the character doesn’t work. And you will be solving it continuously as you play.

Because you made this person, you will see the world through them. You didn’t make them when you rolled the dice. You did it without realising when you looked at the stats. And then again with ten or twenty micro-choices in the first hour of play. Ones you didn’t even see yourself making. You didn’t design this person but you made them nonetheless. They are a product of the patterns of your thought.

So you see things from their point of view, because it grew invisibly from your point of view.

So now you have to solve three exciting problems on three levels simultaneously and continuously. The conflict between stats, the conflict between stats and class in problem solving, and the problem of seeing the world through a very particular personality.

I call this ‘Contrarian Knobend Dungeons & Dragons’ or CKD&D, because you are being a pretentious fancy bastard and making a big point of making things difficult for yourself because you are a bit special.


  1. That's a great argument.

    "The only way for us to deal with this is to harry the game world. We become obsessive investigators of the fictional environment. We cannot sit and wait for the tools and situations the DM gives us. That will kill us. We must search, observe, intuit, strive and decide."

    Yes, I feel this. I like the players at the table with me to be there. When I'm GM I want the players showing me the world.