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In Defense of Heroism

Larry D. Hols April 25, 2000

Many of the criticisms levelled at the xD&D rules are of a variety that can be referred to, somewhat rudely, as "No, duh!" types of criticisms. That categorization is not meant to belittle the person making the charges, but to highlight that the criticism is misplaced from the outset. In effect, a "No, duh!" criticism bemoans the fact that an apple is, indeed, not an orange.

A game designer sets out to build a game around a set of precepts that he (or she) believes will best serve the specific genre, style, and setting (or range of settings) he has in mind for play. The entire approach to the game is based on this set of precepts. The game that results will be, for metaphorical purposes, an apple or orange or pear or mango--that is, it supports those precepts and not others. To criticize a game for not supporting different precepts than what it was intended is a misplaced criticism, akin to cursing the apple for not being a citrus fruit.

An examination of a couple of types of these criticisms will help explain the contention. A look to some common criticisms of character generation in the game will show that the game does a solid job at what it purports to do, and not what it was never intended to do. Many charges of a lack of realism can be seen to be levelled at heroic elements of the game--elements that were never intended to be realistic. Both of these common types of criticism stem from personal preferences (on part of the critics) that don't match up with the heroism inherent in the design of the game.

Heroic Characters

One can often hear players complain that xD&D doesn't allow them to build the types of characters that they wish to play, and that this makes xD&D a bad game. The former contention is true--not all types of characters can be generated for play--but the latter contention--that the game is bad because of this--is not. The game was never intended to support the creation of a scrawny, wrinkled, herb-growing, pot-boiling, hedge witch who wouldn't budge from her cave for a rousing good action-oriented quest for any number of rare, altuican eels--to use, perhaps, an extreme example.

To say the game is bad because it doesn't support crones of her ilk begs the "No, duh!" response simply because the game was never intended to support that sort of crone and _never purported to support that type of character, either._ As one doesn't criticize McDonald's on the basis of it not serving filet mignon, one can't reasonably criticize a game for not offering something it wasn't intended to offer.

The character types that the game does support are those tropes of heroic fantasy and specific related types of person. The game uses archetypical figures that appear in myth, legend, and fiction as the basis of the types of characters expected to appear in play. The game doesn't set out to support the creation of each and every character that appeared in a tale, nor to allow the creation of any sort of character that could appear in such a tale. It only seeks to create characters of the sort that fit within the grand archetypes identified within the game structures.

It also works to provide these character types with heroic stature through game play. A character in the game isn't meant to be merely a typical resident in a fantasy world, but a hero of some stature--or villain of some renown, if one prefers. The characters stand head and shoulders above the average folk in some very specific regards, and to complain that those regards make for a bad game is a matter of preference only.

Heroic Actions

Another common complaint is that the system just allows for all sorts of unrealistic events. "A character," it is said, "can fall off a 50-foot cliff and live through it if he has enough hit points. Or take numerous hits from a sword-or-arrow-or-other-pointy-thing and not slow down." Or any number of similar complaints. If the game were at all "realistic," it is said, this would be allowed.

A close examination of the charges show that they are misplaced in much the same fashion as the critiques of supported character types above. An examination of how "realistic" falling damage and weapon damage and the like are should be gauged using a typical inhabitant as posited in the game; in the case of xD&D, that typical person is a 0-level NPC. Any such claims of unrealistic outcomes should be examined with this in mind.

--A 0-level NPC falling from a 50-foot cliff can expect to die. That makes the result of falling from heights deadly and reasonable.

--A 0-level NPC may last through two successful rounds of attack from an opponent wielding a sword, and that dagger can prove deadly in but a single round of attack. That makes weapon damage deadly and reasonable.

If one wishes to place a PC with some experience in the same situations, then the results will change. A 5th-level or 10th-level PC can expect different outcomes in each of those scenarios than the 0-level NPC. Does this mean the game isn't realistic?


It means the game supports the notion of heroic characters doing heroic deeds--exactly what it intends to do. When the characters are closest to being "normal" folks (i.e., 1st-level characters) then the characters have to worry much more about the same things that typical folks do. It is only after the PCs have risen above the masses, in terms of heroic ability, that they gain the ability to survive in heroic fashion. The typical, "realistic" people in the game have to worry about "realistic" threats in a manner different than heroic people.

And that is what the game is about, entirely. Every version of the D&D engine is designed to support the play of heroic characters that are larger-than-life and capable of feats of which normal people are not capable. Realistic dangers await those characters with realistic capabilities. Heroic characters, however, can transcend those dangers in large degree and worry more about...well...heroic dangers.

Pick Your Fruit

This is not to say that there aren't legitimate complaints about the xD&D rules engine. It simply means that a complaint should be closely examined for validity. If one wants a game that supports old crones, one shouldn't state any game that doesn't support old crones is bad, but look for games that allow for old crones and realize that it is a matter of simple preference.

As a matter of record--I like pears.


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