Saturday, 26 July 2008

Points of Light: Rant #654

Blimey, I've been a bit ranty recently, haven't I? Race, women, rpg fiction, barbarians, the hobby itself... Well, when you're on a roll, why stop?

Today's rant will be about something called 'Points of Light'. I expect most people who read this blog will be familiar with the phrase, but for those who aren't, it's a supposed design-philosophy thing the D&D 4th edition designers have dreamt up, which is meant to take the game in a new direction. Essentially it can be summed up like this:

The world is populated by a variety of intelligent races, strange monsters lurk on other planes, ancient empires have left ruins across the face of the world, and so on. But one of the new key conceits about the D&D world is simply this: Civilized folk live in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world.

Okay, you're thinking. So far so good. D&D, and in fact most fantasy in general, has always been about that, right?

Exactly. D&D, and in fact most fantasy in general, has always revolved around "points of light" settings. It is absolutely not a new key conceit about the D&D world which has just come along for 4th edition; it is in fact The Oldest Trope In The Book. You're telling me the Conan stories, Ill Met At Lankhmar, the Chronicles of Amber, heck, even Viriconium can't be classified as "
civilized folk [living] in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world"? What about Middle Earth? You don't get much more "points of light" than that. How long were Aragorn and the hobbits travelling between Bree and Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring without seeing a single other person? It was weeks, I think. In fact, I would go so far as to say that thinking of a non-points of light fantasy setting in fiction is actually pretty challenging. Possibly those terrible David Eddings books... That's all I can think of offhand.

This is doubly true when you set aside fantasy fiction and just think about D&D settings, especially homebrew ones. Rich Baker goes on to expand on the brave new 'Points of light' world:

Most of the world is monster-haunted wilderness. The centers of civilization are few and far between, and the world isn’t carved up between nation-states that jealously enforce their borders. A few difficult and dangerous roads tenuously link neighboring cities together, but if you stray from them you quickly find yourself immersed in goblin-infested forests, haunted barrowfields, desolate hills and marshes, and monster-hunted badlands. Anything could be waiting down that old overgrown dwarf-built road: a den of ogre marauders, a forgotten tower where a lamia awaits careless travelers, a troll’s cave, a lonely human village under the sway of a demonic cult, or a black wood where shadows and ghosts thirst for the blood of the living.

This sounds like every D&D setting, homebrew or otherwise, which I have ever played in. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the above description pretty much sums up a D&D campaign. When were we not playing 'points of light' games?

It makes me a little angry sometimes. What do they take us for? And yet the majority of D&D fandom seems to have lapped up the phrase as if it actually is something innovative and unusual. Do none of them actually read fantasy fiction? Or remember the campaigns they played five or ten years ago? Or is it just really easy to pull the wool over their eyes? I've said it before: worrying times in D&D land. Worrying times.


  1. In general, most young people do not read much nowadays, whether it be a novel, a newspaper, magazine, or nonfiction [unless you count poorly written web-pages, Facebook, MySpace, etc.]. And those who do read rarely read the classics.

    I think 4E is trying to appeal to 2 main groups:

    1/ new players converted from the World of Warcraft MMORPGs, who are the most likely people to not read much at all.

    2/ gullible people who lack a level of media literacy to stave off the persuasive power of PR, advertising, and marketing.

    If one could carefully gather information from online criticism of the PoL model, I think it would overwhelmingly be from those who are older and those who have played around-the-table RPGs; essentially, as you said, the people who already know the history.

    It's much easier to sell something recognizable by just wrapping it up in shinier packaging. This is why every 5-10 years you'll notice food packaging will change slightly.

  2. the_myth: The thing is, I don't even mind the "Points of Light" model. It's the model most of us have been playing all our D&D lives. It's the cynicism of the designers and marketers in pretending that this is new, that gets me. It's is almost like creating a monster called "Giant Flying Fire Breathing Lizards" and pretending it isn't really a dragon, but something innovative and new.

    It amazes me that people fall for it, though. As you say, I suppose it's a problem with not knowing the history and being easily duped by PR types.

  3. Sadly, I think the_myth is spot-on in his observations.

  4. Actually, like you noisms, when I first heard about Points of Light [TM], I thought:

    Oh look! WotC's finally going back to their D&D roots!

    And then the griping started [I mostly followed in on ENWorld], mostly from the crowd who didn't recognize it because of the fancy new packaging.

    As a concept, it's brilliant. And now that I've read the 3LBB take of Wilderness exploration, it makes even *more* sense for D&D. You have a town. It's in the middle of the wilderness. Go explore the countryside!

    But, unlike many lay-people, I understand the infinite hubris of marketing/PR/advertising people [I taught writing in an undergraduate advertising program for a year before quitting my PhD program in Communication]. Many of them really do think they're brilliant by utilizing some very basic tools, images, and ideas they just re-hash over and over again.

    And when encountering some of the stunning anti-intellectualism of the American public, I'm not even entirely sure they aren't smarter than average.

  5. "Points of Light" are exibith A but there are more. Take adventure flowcharts and minions for example.

    Yes, it's normal for informed people to get irked at WotC attitude of passing up old tropes as something entirely new and of their creation.

  6. Personally, I think that the Points of light philosophy is such a moronically obvious idea that I don't know why they do it. I however have always played it a little differently. I usually, rather than playing in the remains of a fallen empire, like to set my campaigns in a thriving one, with my players either being defenders of the realm or freedom fighters. Just 'cause a setting's got an infrastructure doesn't mean it can't fit into a Points of light campaign. I mean, an Empire is a big place, right? Not every inch of that can be constantly safe, but there are enough well-maintained walls and roads that one can usually get from place to place without danger at every single turn. I think back to Middle-Earth again. Even if no single government controlled the entire continent, it was still relatively safe to walk from Bree to Rivendell, or (Before Saruman's fall) Isengard to Minas Tirith without too much danger as long as you weren't being pursued.

  7. My first thought when I saw the Points of Light fluff was "Wilderlands of High Fantasy" ... as far as I know, the VERY FIRST published wilderness setting. So yeah, I don't think assuming an attitude of cynicism about WotC will lead one into a lifetime of shocked gasps.

    (My second thought was this livejournal post, still one of my favorite descriptions of the OD&D aesthetic:

  8. Really nice rant - I completely agree with your points.

    It is, exactly as you've stated, The Oldest Trope In The Book.

  9. Part of the problem, I think, is how fantasy campaign settings are presented. Pull out the map of just about any fantasy RPG world, including Conan's "Hyboria" and you will see lots of kingdoms behaving just like nation states, all snuggled up together like puppies in a basket. It was once understood that these lines only marked the territory claimed but not necessarily controlled by these different powers. But since Eddings, fantasy fiction pretty much assumes that the king's law stretches to the borders of his kingdom. The nations of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books patrol their borders and levy import taxes and the like without much difficulty, unless a mob nasty evil dark things moves into the neighboring woods or hills. The kingdom of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series is only points-of-light because the nation has been plunged into a civil war; the assumption appears to be that while a virgin with a sack of gold might not be able to walk from one end to the other in complete safety, the king's law prevails with little interruption from one end of the nation to the other.

    So if you are, in fact, reading lots of current fantasy fiction, but nothing older than, say, two decades old, points-of-light might look pretty new and exciting to you. "Post-apocalyptic fantasy? Mad Max meets Eragon? Sign me up!"

    - Brian

  10. Rachel: I suppose you could look at somewhere like the USSR. A big, powerful, at one stage thrivng empire...and yet still with plenty of wild and dangerous bits here and there to adventure in.

    Scott: Yeah, I mean it's just so obvious. What's worse is that we know guys like Mike Mearls love OD&D. So you would have thought they'd know better.

    Dane of War: Like I said, it's a bit like saying "We've come up with this amazing new race of flying, fire breathing, giant lizards!"

    Trollsmyth: You're probably right. I actually only read the first book and a half of the Wheel of Time, but I suppose its popularity must have had a big effect on fantasy fans and thus D&D players. A Song of Ice and Fire too.

    Then again there are equally popular series that are Points of Light-y. The Terry Goodkind ones, for instance.

  11. And yet....

    The two largest and best known official settings for (A)D&D (Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk) are NOT "points of light" settings.

    They are over-civilized, crowded worlds where nation butts up against nation, and are better described as points of darkness amid a world of lightness.

    Sure - You, I and a shrinking minority of DMs may have created settings based upon worlds that fit the "points of light" concept. But for the thousands of DMs whose experience is limited to adventures published for those official campaigns, this IS a huge departure.

    And, imho, it is also a vast improvement and one that is long overdue.


  12. Syrsuro: Oh, I don't think 'points of light' is a bad thing. It's a great concept. But what it isn't is a new concept. The only thing I find objectionable is the cynicism of pretending that it is.

  13. But what it isn't is a new concept. The only thing I find objectionable is the cynicism of pretending that it is.

    I generally assume that marketers are cynical weasels and the buying public is made up almost entirely of ignorant morons. I can count on the fingers of one hand (probably on the fingers of one finger) the number of times my monocle has dropped into my drink because of my surprise at being proven wrong.

    Mearls is a smart guy ... he knows his history, but he also knows his marching orders, and no one's paying him for the former.

  14. "In general, most young people do not read much nowadays, whether it be a novel, a newspaper, magazine, or nonfiction [unless you count poorly written web-pages, Facebook, MySpace, etc.]. And those who do read rarely read the classics."

    It's this reason that I think that this rant is, in this case, a small overreaction. I think of Points of Light as just one more of many fantasy cliches that can come and go like tides. WoTC buffing it up and passing it off as shiny new is just typical advertising.

    OTOH, I do think it is still important for those who are knowledgable about gaming history to point out the facts, if just to shed extra light on the subject for those who could stand to learn a bit about it.

  15. I suppose you could look at somewhere like the USSR. A big, powerful, at one stage thrivng empire...and yet still with plenty of wild and dangerous bits here and there to adventure in.
    Yes. exactly the sort of thing I mean. Except I tend to have fewer Stalins and such.

    Perhaps it's just excessive idealism on my part, but most of my rulers and nobles are good people doing what they can to look after the common folk under their charge. Sure, there's the odd sadistic baron, or the highborn mafioso, or the insane Cosmic Horror-Worshipping generals of the King of Darkness or some such not-super-creative thing, but they tend to be more the exception, because the ruling class knows that plenty of people with lots of even more meaningful power (like magic, or extreme martial prowess) come from the peasant classes. Heck, that's how a few noble families got started themselves.

  16. Previously in D&D, we had editions that did not specifically say anything about the settings, and, in fact, provided a lot of elements that were contrary to a POL setting. It seems to me worlds like Forgotten Realms were very much not "monster haunted wilderness" but rather were largely about people in well-defended large nations. I know that many have read pulp fantasy and always played their D&D games this way. The designers of 4E also know that. The difference with 4E is that it was a guiding principle of design, not just a concept it was assumed the player somehow was familiar with. In other words, your rant is way of base here. You have an "if it doesn't apply to me, it's wrong" sort of attitude. Trust me, there are people who NEED to be told this about D&D. And it's high time someone did, officially, to make it easier to deal with those people.

  17. And if I may add, POL is being marketed as "new" because the more recent D&D editions were not so specific about the setting. It may be true that AD&D oozes a "points of light" feel, as do classic modules like "Keep on the Borderlands", but for someone who started with 3E, or maybe even 2E, this very well could be a new concept. Don't blame WotC for trying to educate them on how to handle the setting so the game will function properly, blame companies since the 90's who gave pulp fantasy setting short shrift. Or blame the young people who don't care to explore the roots of fantasy fiction.

  18. Anonymous: I think you're misunderstanding me. As I wrote in other comments on this entry, I don't see anything wrong with WotC using the 'points of light' idea, and it's good that they're bringing the idea to players who might not have considered it before.

    But it isn't good that they're pretending it's an innovation. That's cynical marketing bullshit, and that's what I don't like.

    If it had been presented as a "return to the roots of the game" (which is what it is) I wouldn*t have minded one little bit.

  19. Zweihander: Well, I was in ranting mood, so yeah, overreaction is par for the course! ;)

  20. Young people may not read, but young people who game do, as a general rule. Remember, we're the weird mutants who, contrary to the inclinations of our peers, aren't completely satisfied by MMOs and other digital experiences.

  21. "Zweihander: Well, I was in ranting mood, so yeah, overreaction is par for the course! ;)"

    Hey, it really isn't grognardism without a little grumbling, is it?

    And again, I do think it is important that folks at least get exposed to the fantasy cliches that shaped early gaming. I didn't really understand Sword & Sorcery until a few years ago when I actually started to read (and like) some of it. And I have a lot of gratitude for places like Grognardia, and many others that shine a bright light on those connections.
    I originally thought of old-school gaming in terms of game design and play. Now I'm also learning to think of old-school gaming in genre terms as well. It's done quite a bit to broaden my gaming horizons.