|Yeehaw! All 7 feet of it!|
The other thing that didn't match my gaming esthetic was the lightness of the piece. Not in terms of humor - humor can be dark, too. Rather, what I mean these are clearly a bunch of characters, blessed with 4d6-drop-lowest stats and maximum hit points at creation, who have just ganked what can only be a hatchling green dragon*. For this mighty feat the DM has seen fit to award a shoebox-sized treasure hoard. This piece conveys the exact opposite of "dangerous." The exact opposite of squaring off against a 30 foot high efreeti. The only sign that the party has faced danger are three little claw marks on the trouser leg of the hulking chainmailed fighter.
Call one axis, then, "light/dark". It's defined by danger - in a game system's mechanics and in the game's art. But what's the other axis? Going back to the first gripe, it's the fantastic versus prosaic. This is a hard distinction to define, especially in a genre where everything technically counts as fantastic. Let me throw out some examples that do it for me. In a prosaic fantasy world:
- The plot is motivated by material concerns, like trade routes or dynastic politics.
- Full encumbrance rules are in effect.
- Magic may be rare or common, but it is normalized and understood, more like a science than an art.
- Character classes have "mundane" skills to go alongside their outstanding abilities.
- The equipment list is long and comprehensive. It illustrates the importance of using and managing material resources.
- The game system works like a textbook, with rules for every conceivable situation no matter how mundane. Halfway to this is the "almanac" apprach taken by first edition AD&D, where various micro-systems are sprinkled throughout as examples for DMs to improvise other material (and the first 10 years of Dragon magazine are packed with just this kind of improvised material).
The full esthetic alignment grid appears below; with "Tough" being in between light and dark (an environment that is difficult and dangerous, but ultimately surmountable through sheer force of will) and "Worlds Collide" being a commonly seen situation where prosaic characters are thrust into a fantastic universe. On it I've distributed a number of game systems and settings according to my overall sense of where they fall.
1. It's easy now to see why 2nd edition D&D was the way it was. TSR's mass-marketing of D&D, especially the kiddie market, required a diagonal flight from the Weird; a renunciation of the devils (and demons) and all their works. First to go were the BIG RED DEVILS on the core rulebook covers, then the comfy esthetic of 2nd edition followed suit in a big way. An important thing to realize is they didn't actually succeed in making D&D more attractive to kids, who always have reveled in stories, films, and comics full of blood, gore and evil. But they made it more attractive to parents. This is why I liked 2nd edition AD&D when it came out in my early twenties. I was trying hard to be a Grown-Up; the Light Prosaic, with its sober rules and materialistic detail, fit the bill.
2. I can't for the life of me fit 4th edition in here. There may be some kind of disconnection between its visual esthetics and its actual gameplay, though.
3. My current game is in the "Tough/Worlds Collide" sector, edging to Dark. What's your favored mode?
* Yeah, I know, a hatchling green dragon by the Monstrous Compendium has 7 Hit Dice despite being at most 5' long in the body. But that doesn't look like a 7HD monster.