|"The road (to adventure)|
goes ever on and on ..."
(illustration by Theodor Kittelson)
The crux of the matter as laid out by the player seems to revolve around whether D&D** is a game or a collaborative story.
No one can answer that question definitively. It's both, of course, but we play it for different reasons at different times and with different people.
When I first picked up D&D, the only thing I cared about was the adventure. I came to D&D from wargaming, and D&D was an extension of that. We approached quests like military missions. That doesn't mean we were all about fighting. Everyone who's played early versions of D&D knows how quickly a fight can turn against you. If we could beat an enemy without fighting or rig the odds in our favor, those were plan A and plan B. When we were forced to use plan C--a fair fight--then we knew that casualties were almost inevitable, and the best we could do was minimize them. If you were smart and charismatic, you'd bring along sime hired muscle and let them take the brunt of the enemy's wrath. If you were dead but wealthy and high-level, you might get raised. But, as von Clausewitz stated, "blood is the price of victory."***
As more tactically rich RPGs came along, we experimented with them furiously: Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, Swordbearer, Rolemaster. Each of them brought something to the table that D&D lacked, for tactically minded players like us.
Eventually we always came back to D&D. Chiefly that was because when the group needed new players, D&D was the easiest draw; every person had a different first choice, but everyone could agree on D&D as their second choice.
Through all of this, we identified with our characters primarily as extensions of ourselves. It wasn't Moleslayer the Gnome prowling those dungeon corridors; it was Steven Moleslayer in the guise of a gnome. Steve and Moleslayer were folded together in varying proportions, but there was never any doubt whose personality was in charge.
As the '80s progressed, roleplaying evolved. Questing for gold was out of fashion; storytelling was in. Character development was the new hack'n'slash.
I evolved along with it. Our game sessions moved away from precision raids to subtle character interaction, mood, and long, continuing plots influenced by events from the characters' lives that happened before the first adventure began. No more was it Steven Moleslayer stealing into the drow enclave to seize the Ruby of Endless Red because it would make him rich, along the way cleverly avoiding many dangers and slaying many enemies lest he be slain by them. Now it was Moleslayer the Gnome stealing into the drow enclave to seize the Ruby of Endless Red because it had once belonged to his grandfather, who died beneath the blades of drow marauders rather than submit to slavery, and Moleslayer had inherited a fierce drive for payback from that giant among gnomes. Along the way he would encounter many fascinating characters with equally fascinating backstories. He would kill some, befriend others, perform favors, and be granted favors on the road to (almost inevitably) completing his life's epic quest.
Both of those are valid modes for playing D&D. Only a fool would tell a person who likes one to the exclusion of the other that they're doing D&D wrong.
But since--oh, let's say the turn of the century--I've been slowly drifting back toward where I began, until I now find myself nestled comfortably somewhere in the middle. D&D is about storytelling, but it's also a game, and I enjoy the gamey parts: solving puzzles, figuring odds, taking calculated risks, having done everything I can think of to minimize those risks but still knowing that failure is a possibility.
Finally, I like creating my character's story via the choices he makes, the victories he wins, and the defeats he suffers during play, rather than letting events from the past steer the future. Partly that's because I'm gorged up to my esophagus on the unending diet of by-the-recipe characters with tortured pasts that we've been fed by modern fantasy novelists and Hollywood. More importantly, it's because D&D is a game and games need uncertainty. I don't know where The Moleslayer will wind up. Perhaps he'll pick up an epic quest along the road to adventure; perhaps not. If he does, it will be a high-risk venture with an uncertain outcome (or, as Gimli put it, "Certainty of death, small chance of success ... What are we waiting for?"). Either way, it will be a choice that he makes actively in light of current events and future expectations, not because of factors that were set in motion before his feet touched the road.
Assuming you agree that D&D sits on a scale with "It's a game--let the chips fall where they may" on one end and "It's an epic story--the characters have a destiny to fulfill" on the other, where do you set the balance point? Or do you reject the premise?
* I shudder a little every time I use the term "old school," because the more it gets used, the less it seems to mean. My friends and I played all sorts of games in every imaginable mode in the 1970s. The "old school" days were a time of wild experimentation with this new entertainment form called roleplaying. Even then, no one could agree on the one true definition for roleplaying game.
** Normally I try to broaden these discussions to RPGs as a whole, but D&D is so much the focus of the OSR that I'm sticking with it here.
*** It's a great quote, despite being somewhat wrongheaded--a fact that von Clausewitz seems to have picked up on unfortunately late in life. There I go with wargaming again.