Thursday, August 25, 2005

Pre-Review Geeky Nit-Pickyness

Sometime next week, barring procrastination, I plan on doing a book review (similar to my Paul Feig review) of Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad is Good for You.

But before I can do that, I have to point out how annoyed I am with his opening chapter. In this chapter, Johnson gives us a curriculum vitae of his geek credentials and begins the basis of his argument. You see, Johnson played APBA and D&D as a kid and wants to display how arcane these two pop-cultural entertainments are. In other words, he wants to show how thoughtful and complex these "simple games" are. I actually have no problem with the argument he is making, but I was irked at the "content."

from page 5 of Everything Bad is Good for You

Here's the Player's Handbook describing the process by which a sample character is made:
Monte wants to create a new character. He rolls four six-sided dice (4d6) and gets 5,4,4, and 1. Ignoring the lowest die, he records the result on scratch paper, 13. He does this five more times and gets these six scores: 13, 10, 15, 12, 8, and 14. Monte decides to play a strong, tough Dwarven fighter. Now he assigns his rolls to abilities. Strength gets the highest score, 15. His character has a +2 Strength bonus that will serve him well in combat. Constitution gets the next highest score, 14. The Dwarf's +2 Constitution racial ability adjustment [see Table 2-1: Racial Ability Adjustments, pg. 12] improves his Constitution score to 16, for a +3 bonus...Monte hs two bonus-range scores left (13 and 12) plus and average score (10). Dexterity gets the 13 (+1 bonus).


...Whis gets to the ultimate question of why a ten-year-old found any of this fun


Given that the above text comes from page 10 of the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook published in 2000, or page 10 of the Player's Handbook v. 3.5 published in 2003, it is unsurprising that this 10 year old who now lives in New York with his wife and two sons would write this piece. Because if it was the same ten-year old, he would be 15 now. Being an editor for Wired, married, with 2 kids by 15 is pretty remarkable.

Joking aside, here is what irritates me. Johnson is trying to share his ten-year old experience with us, but instead uses a modern reference. This is the equivelent of talking about how Star Wars influenced your life as a child (meaning the Original release) and then quoting from the re-released Special Edition and only those scenes which were added. It doesn't provide a true example of the phenomenon as encountered by Steven Johnson the ten-year old. More likely the Player's Handbook published in 1978. That's if it was a Player's Handbook at all and not a Basic Set or Original White Box.

That 1978 Player's Handbook describes character creation in the following way on page 8:
Creating the Player Character
Each participant in the campaign created by the referee must create one or more game personas. The game persona of each participant is called the player character in order to differentiate it from personas created by the referee, called non-player characters. The Dungeon Master is advices to limit player characters to one participent at commencement of the campaign, though as play progresses, additional player characters may be added in a judicious manner. Each player develops the abilities of his or her character through random number generation (by means of dice rolling) to determine the basic characteristics of the persona, the abilities. The payer then decides what race the character is, what the characters' class is, the alignment of the character, and what the character's name is to be...

Each and every character has six principal characteristics, the character's abilities. These abilities are strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. (See also APPENDIX I, Psionic Ability). The range of these abilities is between 3 and 18. The premise of the game is that each player character is above average -- at least in some respects -- and has superior potential. Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating of 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics. Each ability score is determined by random number generation. The referee has several methods of how this random number generation should be accomplished suggested to him or her in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The Dungeon Master will inform you as to which method you may use to determine your character's abilities.


As you can see the text young Johnson read was even more arcane than the newer text, requiring some sort of hermetic discipline to decipher. The new text is complicated, to be sure, but it is "glossier" and more excessible due to years of refinement and need for explanation. It has been "translated" for a broader audience, if you will. True, it is still fairly unaccessible, but not as unaccessible as the old Player's Handbook. Does this mean that Johnson's thesis that modern Popular Culture is more complex than it was in the past has no merit? No. First, let me state for the record that the Player's Handbook though enjoyed by Johnson as a ten-year old was the Advanced version of the game. The aforementioned Basic Set was very similar to the text in the new Handbook and both are designed for the beginning player.

Sorry, but something had to be said.
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