How D&D is Like Doctor Who

One of the truisms about Doctor Who is that your favorite Doctor is almost always the first one you ever saw on a regular basis. So, in my case, I happen to think Tom Baker completely embodies the character, and it’s no coincidence that growing up in the 1980’s, his was the only version of Doctor Who I was exposed to for years on television (PBS here in the New York City area, followed eventually by Peter Davidson and Collin Baker, but not until the stamp had left its mark). I think the same thing can be said, to some extent, with D&D.

In my own case, I first dipped my toe into D&D during the White Box days, but really glommed on to it as AD&D. I played 2nd edition, but 1st was always my true love, RPG-wise. That hasn’t changed.

What occasioned this observation was the latest episode of the Dreadcast podcast, “Momanatrixs Old School Woes”, which describes the reaction of someone who was first exposed to D&D through 4th edition (gads… it’s even hard for me to accept that there are people playing who’ve only picked up the game in the last 4 years) after playing a couple of sessions of 1E/OSRIC. Some of her pithy observations (do listen to the whole thing; it’s only 15 minutes and a valuable insight into what is clearly a generational rift D&D-wise):

“I don’t know where I am without a map. Why is there no map?

“These guys are around here somewhere, you’re somewhere over
here, so what do you want to do? I’m like, I don’t know, how, how far or how
close? I don’t know.”

“Like, I play a druid, and I don’t really have, like, that
many… I have barely any… like, spells that I can do in combat. They’re mostly
out-of-combat spells. … And that, I’m fine with that, for the most part, that’s
okay. But, like, I have this long list of spells, and I don’t have, like, there’s
no, like, cards that I have. I have no idea what they do, I have to, like, just
look through the book every time? Or am I just supposed to memorize this, like,
long list of spells that I have?”

“Yeah, because I like to… what I like to do is I like to pay
attention to everything that’s going on, and then when my turn comes around, I’ll
be, like, oh! Well, since I’m right here, and this is right here, and I have
this spell that can do this to this many people, in this area, of this
distance, then I can plan it all out. But now in this game, it comes to my
turn, and I’m like, I don’t know what’s going on. And I have to ask, like, five
questions before I can even decide what I’m going to do, and I… it makes me
feel, it makes me feel dumb.”

At the end of the podcast, they invite commentary, so I’m going to provide some. First off, I would point out that the use of miniatures and battle mats is not limited to 4th edition. It is entirely possible to do so with 1st, or 0E, or 2E, or 3.x. However, running an RPG without recourse to visual aids such as miniatures is a skill unto itself, and it is entirely possible that the DM in question was a little overly vague in his descriptions, or capricious in his adjudication of combat. Obviously I have no way of knowing, but the lack of minis and a battle mat isn’t a design flaw of 1E. Heck, we’re told that 4E doesn’t have to be played with miniatures (good luck with that, though).
As for the spells, well, you need to look up spell descriptions in 4E, too. I don’t really see the issue with having to look up the spell description in a book, but as was mentioned in the podcast itself, the descriptions of specific spells could be put onto 3×5 cards if that’s easier for you (and I think such a thing was actually done for 1E way back when). But those cards aren’t standard 4E issue, either; you need to look up the descriptions in a book either way. Plus, I’m not an expert on 4E spell descriptions, but I don’t remember them being any more explicit in terms of effects than the descriptions in 1E.
As for druids not having so many combat-oriented spells, I might disagree. Looking at the 1E spell list for druids, I see all sorts of spells that can be used in combat. But then again, I don’t define “used in combat” as “deals out lots of damage to enemies”. And that begins to pry open something of the disconnect, I think.
If you listen to the podcast, it becomes clear that it’s the ambiguity of older school games that flummoxes the player. She wants everything laid out, “cut and dried”. The problem, of course, is that doing so doesn’t just cut down on DM caprice; it also limits creativity on the part of the players. So for every time the DM can’t say “it’s a cloudless day, so you can’t use your call lightning spell”, there’s going to be a time when you can’t use stone shape to cause a piece of wall to fall down into the pool of acid, splashing it on the ogre shaman while your thief swings over on the flower stems that were made bigger thanks to a plant growth spell. As a confirmed old school player, I prefer ambiguity that allows for more creativity, rather than certainty that requires conformity.
Having every possibility spelled out in the rules limits creativity in the game by definition, because it takes away from the ability of the DM to either create or respond to situations that the designers of the game never anticipated. Or, taken to the opposite extreme, it forces the rules to become so bloated in their attempt to cover every possible contingency that the game becomes unplayable. 
I find it very interesting that someone whose first introduction to D&D was 4E finds it so difficult to adapt to the tropes and expectations of 1E. Specifically that her objections stem from the fact that not everything is laid out with definitive rules covering it. I’ve said that I think 4E is much less a role-playing game than it is a skirmish miniatures game, and I predict that Angela would find a game like Malifaux or Heroclix exceedingly to her liking, much more so than a game that encourages extra-rules activities on the part of the DM and players such as 1E.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

14 thoughts on “How D&D is Like Doctor Who

  1. Like, oh gods, they use like, like, a ton. Like.

    Also, IN THE SECOND MINUTE they're saying that they spent hours "working out characters to the last fucking gold piece". Right, because it's hard.

    It's going to sound horribly grumpy and biased and divisive of me, but sometimes I can't help but feel some (usually 4e) players should never have been allowed to emerge from the primordial soup of video gaming to smear their pale, greasy bodies across anything resembling Dungeons & Dragons.

  2. 4E does make power spell/power cards to print out in the character builder.

    I do think printing spells out on cards is a good idea, especially for new players.

    I don't think that particular player is all that indicative of the average player though. I've never really had trouble teaching people new systems, whichever their game of origin is.

    (I currently play 4E, Pathfinder, and Call of Cthulhu. My next game is likely to be Dragon Age.)

  3. I'll disagree with your observations Joseph. (But not about the Doctor Who analogy!)

    That podcast just sounds like another crappy DM, who wasn't interested in developing players, and a couple of players who *know* their DM was crap.

    "It makes me feel incredibly stupid."

    Fail. Right there.
    Regardless of game or edition.

    Angela was not looking for a new game.

    Throwing someone into a game that has no analog in the 'rules-as-a-guide' versus the 'rules-as-a-limit' the way AD&D and 4e do, isn't going help foster any good feelings towards the 'new' game. no matter which way you approach it.

    She is familiar with one rule set.

    We've experienced some of the other editions.

    Angela hasn't.

    We know what style we prefer because we've played other styles to suit other editions.

    I wouldn't want to play 4e without minis either, but it sounds like there was only one copy of the OSRIC rulebook at the table.

    That is rather important.

    I know I wouldn't have enjoyed playing AD&D without a players' manual, and certainly not in the role of a spell-caster.

    That would be too ambiguous, and only make me feel stupid…

  4. I started DW with Tom Baker's1st episode Robot. And while I certainly liked him at the time McCoy became my favorite Doctor. Although it might have been that Ace was my favorite Companion. Tennant is probably number two, and I have to admit Smith has inexplicably grown on me too, as ridiculous as the casting choice seemed to be at the time.

    As for D&D, I had Holmes, but started playing with AD&D. I might have played Moldvay Basic once. Until a couple of years ago, when I got into an online B/X campaign.
    I've played Pathfinder, enjoyed it, but it seemed to have too much system to it. i.e. I figured we could have had much the same experience with say Castles & Crusades. I haven't even been able to create a character with 4e, I guess you do need the DDI subscription.

    But my favorite? IDK. I have every version (and nearly every retro-clone as well), except for 2E. I guess my favorite would be whichever of them I can get into a game.

    Strangely, when I used to play miniature wargames, I was the guy who wanted exact, written rules that covered as many possibilites as could be forseen. I was a rules lawyer. Not in the exploit loopholes manner, but the, this is how it is meant to be played way. But not for RPGs. I believe it is because the GM is supposed to be a part of the rulebook. Otherwise, what is she for then?

  5. @biopunk: So you're saying that "The game was run very poorly, therefore the game must be a bad game." makes complete sense?

    Later on, she's asked if there's anything she'd bring from older to newer game. But, because she had a bad GM, and apparently no understanding of how to use creativity or ask any questions as a player, she's happy to immediately condemn the older edition as completely without merit compared to 4e. At that point she had apparently already decided that the game was bad. That's just plain willful ignorance right there.

  6. "I find it very interesting that someone whose first introduction to D&D was 4E finds it so difficult to adapt to the tropes and expectations of 1E. Specifically that her objections stem from the fact that not everything is laid out with definitive rules covering it. I've said that I think 4E is much less a role-playing game than it is a skirmish miniatures game, and I predict that Angela would find a game like Malifaux or Heroclix exceedingly to her liking, much more so than a game that encourages extra-rules activities on the part of the DM and players such as 1E"

    Ironic considering the "rules-for-everything" that 1E was. Basically this article is a biased fail, and I personnally love Tom Baker and 1E, but, c'mon, really…

  7. Yeah, Tom was my first doctor. It’s hard for me to say he’s unequivocally my favorite, though. Close to it.

    My first edition of D&D is (currently) my favorite. (It wasn’t always.)

    But that doesn’t hold for everyone in my group. While we each started with a different TSR edition, I’m the only one whose favorite is a TSR edition. They prefer Wizards’ 3e. (And while there have been some looks at Pathfinder, 3.5e still seems to be the favorite.)

    (Currently, though, we have 4 new players who haven’t played enough of the various editions to have a strong opinion yet. Especially considering that D&D isn’t the only RPG we play.)

    It all comes down to this, though: Wizards’ 3e was different enough from all the TSR editions that it should’ve had a new name. That’s even more true for 4e. I don’t get how anyone can say that 4e is bringing new players into the hobby. 4e is introducing people to whatever kind of game 4e is, but it is a vastly different game than all other role-playing games. If you’re going to have them play a traditional RPG, you need to set expectations that this is a different sort of game than 4e.

  8. Also, from my brief experience with 4e, I’d say that the spells are all similar enough that you don’t need to look up the descriptions. Copy a few stats onto your character sheet, and you’re good to go.

  9. @Northy: I'm not saying that at all.

    Work on your comprehension.

    Her creativity isn't in question here; the *rules* are.

    If she doesn't know if, or, how she can or can't do something, how is she supposed to role-play it?

    Are they playing AD&D? OSRIC? Home-brew?

    I don't know what game you play, but having to repeatedly ask a DM questions of "how" to do something, isn't role-playing.

    It's just asking questions.

    The DM in didn't seem to be answering those questions sufficiently to allow her to relax and play a fucking game.

    Angela/Momanatrix is not 'willfully ignorant' if she doesn't know the rules to begin with: she is simply doesn't have knowledge of the rules.

    There's nothing "willful" about it.

    You, however, really do need to work on your adverb usage, and again, on your comprehension… 😛

  10. I had a few different comments I worked on. They varied from reasonable and calming to deserved and scathing. But they all boiled down to one easy message;
    Don't be a dick.

  11. Wait a minute… are you implying that Tom Baker is *not* the absolute all-time best-ever doctor the show ever had, and that I only like him out of familiarity?!? Sacrilege!!!

    Perhaps. But Tom Baker will always embody Doctor Who for me just as 1e will always embody D&D.

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