ZakS and his blog posts on Playing D&D With Porn Stars [sometimes NSFW] usually get me thinking about RPG adventures and scenarios. Occasionally, however, he does post on what I like to call gaming philosophy (because game theory is already an official mathematical term) and RPG theory is short to type but hard to say.
His recent post on Playing D&D With Porn Stars does bring up a lot of long unexamined thoughts on gaming philosophy in my head, but the most important thing that was triggered was an anecdote about someone else's anecdotal evidence that no one had fun playing D&D / AD&D. Please note that this is not the main point of his post, but one of the many bits of story, evidence, and arguments that sum up his thesis.
Anyway, it got me thinking about D&D and the things I found fun about it.
1. Building A Character
It would not surprise people who know my fondness for the Hero System that one of the things I enjoy about AD&D and RPGs in general is the process of building a character. Whether it's character generation (mostly random) or character creation (point-based or priority-driven) or character customization (pick a template, modify it a bit), it's always a fun experience having the physical appearance, mental persona, and personality quirks take shape in your head.
Character generation's randomness is often an exercise in gradually rationalizing good and bad rolls, and slowly building up a mental backstory on how the character came to be represented by these combined stats and these traits.
Character creation often requires that a general character concept is the starting point, often being refined as player runs out of points or resources to make the character as awesome as he/she/it is in the player's imagination.
Character customization, if the template selection is broad enough and the customization is easy but granular enough, can be the fastest route to a defined character. It's akin to being give a broad stroke characterization of the character to start with in fiction, and then being allowed to tweak and add surprises here and there.
The various editions of AD&D have afforded all of these options, and I must admit that I have my preferences per edition. Basic D&D and Advanced D&D is a character generation must for me -- there's no choice, though iron man AD&D may be a bit too much. I remember folks who rolled up hundreds of characters and just played the once with the best stats so things were 'fair'. 3rd Edition is both character creation and character generation for me as a matter of taste -- a lot of your time is already spent optimizing Feats and Skills, so having someone gripe about bad rolls for their character isn't really my thing.
2. Exploration: a journey into fear and wonder
The dungeon crawl is a big part of my enjoyment of the game. I enjoy being presented with scenes like closed doors, darkened hallways, cobweb-covered chambers, shadowy caverns, and twisting passageways. I enjoy trying stuff out -- kicking in doors, grabbing the rusty sword with strange runes, cautiously tapping every other tile to see if it triggers a trap. I enjoy wondering if that really interesting statue is going to be a boon or a bane.
It's nicer if there's some logic, some underlying rationale that you're meant to figure out. Especially if it adds to the wonder -- and the fear that there's something nasty that you have to fight.
3. Combat: killing things
Yeah, so combat gets a bum rap sometimes. Well, a lot of the time. Probably because a lot of the early games centered so much on it -- new monsters to kill, new spells to kill with, new places to kill things in.
But you can only Indiana Jones it for so long, with the traps and the strange artifacts, and dark underground corridors that you're desperately trying to map.
Sometimes you don't want to reason with something, you're just there to kill something -- and doing it by being the smartest, fastest, toughest, and luckiest sumbitch in the dungeon.
It's possible that if the first really popular RPG had been primarily centered around social challenges, political struggles, and mindgames, someone would have invented a combat-heavy "indie RPG" just to for a change of pace.
4. Looting: taking stuff
This gets a bum rap too. But it adds another layer to character progression beyond leveling up.
You get powerful stuff that can be useful in or out of combat. You get more tactical options. You get a free "I'm not going to die just now, thank you" card. You get something with a backstory that you can brag about to players who were there with you, and to players who are hearing it for the first time.
5. Being Awesome. Sometimes. Sorta.
The adolescent power fantasy gets a bit embarrassing, especially if the person enjoying it doesn't seem to appreciate the fact that this awesome hobby is both "really important" and "just a game", the same way that you can be really awesome at your job, but it's just a job.
And yet it's fun when they do appreciate that strange truth. AD&D lets you escape from the world that you live in, lets you become someone who can change the world (eventually), lets you do away with your preferred choice of morality in real life, lets you try out things that you'd never try and see what other players or GMs believe should happen to you.
You could be a thief who always, always steals from the party. You could be a ridiculously straight arrow paladin who imposes his beliefs on others, or a mysterious mage who taunts others with their lack of knowledge about the true nature of things. You could also get the girl, save the town, kill the Evil Overlord, or burn the Emperor's Palace to the ground (or die horribly trying). You say "screw this, I'm running away."
All the things that you don't get to do in real life because you can't, because others won't let you, or because you wont.
AD&D, D&D, and RPGs are awesome.