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Old Screeds

Sex at the Core [1 June 05] Core stories in D&D.

Mike Mearls has sparked a very lively discussion on Core Stories over on his blog. A Core Story, says Mearls, is "the stereotypical game experience contained within an RPG." Here are some sample Core Stories from Mearls' discussion to illustrate the idea:

For Dungeons and Dragons: A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again.

For Dark Sun: "The heroes are the oppressed people of Athas who rise against the forces that would enslave them, battle against the minions of the wizard kings, and push back the yolk of tyranny"

For a Western movie: "The in-group (usually townsfolk) is threatened by an out-group (usually outlaws). A hero with the values of the in-group and the skills of the out-group arrives to save the day. After succeeding, the hero must leave because his skills do not fit with the values of the in-group he's just saved."

The discussion at Mearls' blog has revolved around what the Core Stories are for different games, and how well they work for their games. Can games or campaign settings that lack a Core Story (like Eberron) succeed? The idea of Core Story is new, or newly defined, for many posters, and they are having fun batting it around. The meme has spread, spawning discussions at EN World, at The 20' By 20' Room, and, I think I heard, at WotC's boards, but I could not find a link. Lots of good reading.

But what really hit me in the stomach was the idea that a successful game has elements -- roleplay hooks, rules, mechanics -- that reinforce the Core Story. Let me quote from a poster named Dan Harms.

"The roots do lie in mechanics, but I might place the crucial point at the "rewards" system in the game. Even if a game's combat system is awful, if the system rewards combat, the players are likely to seek combat. D&D's core story is supported by these mechanics, both in terms of what the characters achieve (gold, magic items, experience, and levels) and in the challenges they face (a generally scaling system that requires those rewards to work). A game in which you fought nothing but ordinary goblins would grow old, as would one in which no reward was gained for increased danger."
Which brings me to sex.

I started reviewing the Book of Erotic Fantasy last week. One of the things I've been struggling with since then is just what to make of the book on a fundamental level. I mean, why do we need rules for stamina during intercourse, or for crafting dildos, or for dwarf gestation? Well, thanks to Mearls, I have an answer.

If you want to tell the traditional Core Story of Dungeons and Dragons, the answer is that you do not need rules for those things. But if you want to tell a different Core Story within the d20 system, then the BoEF gives you the mechanics to tell stories like these:

The heroes are sybarites who seek increasing physical pleasure, sexual power, and a certain reputation.

In a libertine society, the heroes, refugees from a sexually repressed culture, struggle to find new lives while staying true to themselves.

For these kinds of stories, you need mechanics that help you resolve plots appropriate to them. And, per Dan Harms, you need a system that rewards sexual role play rather than combat. You still need magic items, but a Circlet of Persuasion becomes much more valuable than a +2 Bow. You still need levels and experience, but experience point awards do not come from defeating monsters and finding treasure, because monsters and treasures are appropriate to the old Core Story. Instead, the DM of an erotic-focus game would need to devise challenges and rewards that are appropriate to a new Core Story.

The idea of creating a game with a completely new Core Story that is still D&D is an interesting one (note to self -- write a screed on the Venturer some time soon). The BoEF offers the rules and mechanics you would need to run a game that has a sexually oriented Core Story. But the BoEF could use a section with a broad view of "What is an Erotic Campaign, How is it Different from Traditional D&D, and How do you Sustain an Erotic Campaign over Many Episodes?"

But to do the book justice, sex in D&D is not an all or nothing thing, as the authors take pains to point out repeatedly. You can stick to the traditional Core Story and still add erotic elements to the game. Use a little or a lot, as best fits your (and your players') tastes and comfort level.

But if you want to get the most bang (so to speak) out of your BoEF buck (or 40 bucks), then using all the rules in the work will take you to a new Core Story. Understand that you have a new Core Story in mind as your destination, and your adventures will be easier to create and more fun for your players. Assuming they are pretty open minded, adult, and have a taste for sex in their role play, that is!

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