Post-D&D Rehabilitation

Like many others, I’ve started my roleplaying career with D&D. It was, without a doubt, a formative experience, shaping my gaming attitudes and habits. Not always for the best. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say me and my fellow players marked by D&D require rehabilitation. Why? Because we think D&D has taught us how to play RPGs, while in reality it has taught us how to play D&D. Which is quite a trick, considering D&D doesn’t exist.

And because it doesn’t exist, not all of these issues will apply to you. It is quite likely you have successfully circumvented some of these pitfalls, and they will seem entirely basic to you. In fact, most of the advice I have to offer here applies to D&D games just as well. What’s more, disregarding this whole post and doing things “the D&D way” (a D&D way?) is perfectly valid, too. It’s a way to play these games, just not the only one. Finally, it may seem like I’m bashing D&D. Far from it. I love it and will keep playing it (or games inspired by it). I’d love it a lot more if it were honest with itself. Until that happens, lets be honest with each other: we have a problem. Continue reading

No such thing as D&D

This was meant to be a different post. I was going to talk about rehabilitating post-D&D GMs and players. That particular fuse will have to wait for its match. As I worked on the intro, meant solely to prevent readers from declaring me a heretic, it kept growing larger. And larger. Until it became its own, quite distinct thought. And now it is its own post. Rehabilitation post-D&D will have to wait. For now lets question its existence.

What is D&D? Depends on whom you ask. It’s a game of dungeons and dragons where dungeons are passe and dragons are to be avoided. Of heroes going on epic quests where said heroes may have to save-or-die at any point. Of sacrifice and raise dead. Of mystery and stat blocks of gods. Of imagination and dozens of rulebooks. Of tables for every occasion and “GM knows best”. Of Tordeks and Pun-Puns. Of Tolkien and Conan. Of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale.

It is all those things and more. It’s everything and therefore nothing. This is its legacy and its tragedy. D&D doesn’t exist. A mass hallucination, an alluring mirage, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. It is not a game. It is a cultural artifact. Everyone has their own D&D. Every gaming group, every online forum, every game designer. They all play their own D&Ds, they all discuss their own D&Ds, they all make their own D&Ds.

This uncomfortable truth is at the core of some of the fiercest misunderstandings of the hobby. It goes deeper than “optimizers” versus “true roleplayers”. Saying you play D&D conveys minimum useful information beyond “fantasy” and “class-based”. It is impossible to have a conversation about D&D without laboriously establishing common ground first, and not many people realize the need for that. Or, rather, not many people realize that “D&D” is not common ground. Instead, we put forward our opinions based on our versions of D&D against different opinions based on different D&Ds and are amazed that others have come to different conclusions.

Of course, all roleplaying games are by definition unique to the group playing them. They are a process, an ephemera, an experience. However,  a focused game system produces similar experiences, while a generic system can be used to play different games. But that’s just it – D&D is not a generic system. Instead, it is THE system. The first such game that existed, the first game most roleplayers tried. And thus it is the tool that all too often gets used for any job, regardless of its fitness.

D&D’s development history reflects that of many successful software projects. It’s early history is a classic example of feature creep. As the hobby was being developed, as it stretched its metaphoric muscles for the first time, players tried to achieve things that core game didn’t offer, by bolting new sub-systems onto it. D&D’s middle history is all about legacy content. It had all these “classic” features that made it up, and it tried to streamline them and make them more useable. And while mechanics got smarter, the inherent incongruences were made all the more obvious. D&D’s modern history was a departure from tradition. Yes, 4e. The designers actually tried to make the game focus on something. And the game was better for it! Of course, focusing on one part of D&D made it not the D&D that half of the community played. And the edition wars raged on. And, finally, the future: Next edition.

On the one hand, designers of Next recognize the immaterial nature of D&D: they promise us rules modules to build the game that most resembles D&D of our own. On the other, everything they’ve shown so far I’ve hated, because it wasn’t my D&D. It’s already full of assumptions about the core game that I’m not interested in. And if their best attempt at producing most bare bones basic core D&D that everyone will accept fails, is there any hope for the final game?

Which makes me wonder: do we really need a new D&D at all? Can’t we accept D&D as the origin point from which the hobby has sprung, to be remembered fondly? Can’t we be content with Dungeon World and 13th Age and Cortex Fantasy Roleplaying and others? All less than D&D. All more than D&D.

Whatever Next will be, it won’t be D&D, because D&D only exists in our imagination. Reality can’t compete with it.

Goblin Dice

Dice do many different things in our RPGs. They are a crucial element of the Game part of it. They model the un-modelable, all the little things that combine to determine what happens. They offer the illusion of challenge – we know the PCs will win. They take the story in unexpected directions. But do the same dice do it all?

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important. Continue reading

Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 2

Having examined lessons learned from running a lengthy 4e campaign in the previous post, today I will take a look back at this very blog. Over the years I’ve used it to consider the problems raised and ideas inspired by my game, and try and find solutions for them. That, and lots of theoretical blathering. So as the previous post was a guide to 4e, this post is a guide to this blog, or at least its 4e-related bits. Continue reading

Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 1

Having completed my 140-session D&D 4e campaign (I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this last time; I’m still proud, shut up), what have I learned? While I’m done with the system, perhaps you aren’t. So let me be your guide. We’ll take a look at 4e itself in this post, and then at the ideas in this blog pertaining to it in the followup. In no particular order… Continue reading

Odds & Ends

I’ve done it. I’ve finished my long-running 4e campaign. 140 or so gaming sessions, 3.5 years. I feel I’ve squeezed every last drop out of the system, done everything I could have with it. I won’t be GMing it anymore, which means I won’t be writing about it anymore. That is, after I make a couple more final posts about everything I’ve learned. But worry not, my 10 or so regular readers, I have plans for this blog.

Now, then. Several small ideas, not worthy of a blog post on their own, presented to you in bulk. Continue reading

Psychodrama on the battlemat

Reviewing DramaSystem and analyzing how it handles inner character conflict got me thinking of how I’ve handled this in my 4e campaign. The fact of the matter is, 4e and D&D in general offer little to no support for creating drama. They provide rules for actions, but how character motivations inform those actions, and how in turn completion of those actions affects motivations is left entirely to the players. So, given an abundance of action rules, in particular combat rules, is there a way to express motivations and dramatic conflict through them? Of course there is. This is in many ways a corollary to the post I wrote on providing encounters with purpose: once you decide you want to use a combat encounter to highlight some dramatic moment, you can use these techniques. Continue reading