These days when we talk about roleplaying games, most people will think immediately of Dungeons and Dragons, the godfather of them all. We all love D&D, and its enduring legacy shows that even with a few missteps (anyone remember 4th edition? I wish I didn’t), it’s still the most popular RPG – a gateway drug for most of the new wave of geeks. Among the plethora of games popping up everywhere, it’s the Marlon Brando to all these fancy new Johnny Depp types.
But our favourite hobby should not be above scrutiny. As always with the old guard, we tend to overlook some elements that really need discussing. If there’s one thing to take away from the next gen of tabletop RPGs it’s that the cornerstone of roleplaying games – the actual “role playing” – has been neglected far too long. Which is why I would argue that D&D at its core, is more of a skirmish wargame than a roleplaying game.
I think it’s worth looking into what that means, what the alternatives are and in what ways D&D can change. After all, it still has to live up to its historic title of daddy of all RPGs.
1) Mathematics Over Story
What is a roleplaying game? It’s a game where we play roles. Pack up, people, we’re done here. Or, well, to give it more detail, it’s a game – in this case we’ll be referring to the tabletop variety as opposed to video games – where a group of people (usually referred to as the “party”) play certain characters in a fictional universe. Often, it’s to fulfil an objective (or a “quest”), or a series thereof strung together into a “campaign”. Now if those inverted commas made you feel like you’re at the world’s most pedantic TED Talk, bear with me, we’ve got to get some definitions out of the way.
The basic premise of the roleplaying game has changed a lot over the years. Where once the “role” in question was simply one’s part in the overall squad dynamics (what youngsters these days call the “meta”), through the power of imagination it has taken a much greater significance and these days characters have grand backstories that fit a role in the greater fictional Universe. Party dynamics are about more than just synergy of abilities. These are people who live in our imagination, who have relationships, hopes and expectations – and a reason to exist in this world, something that drives them towards achieving their goals.
Conversely, a wargame can have a pretty broad definition, but at its core it is a simulation of conflict – usually some form of combat – that pits two or more opposing forces on a battlefield, whereupon they smack the relentless crap out of each other with the power of MATHS! It’s a numbers game.
Now tell me if this sounds familiar. “Ok, so Jenny is on the opposite side of the golem, so that means I’m flanking. So that’s 3d6 sneak attack damage, +1 from my dagger of Awesomeness, another 1 because constructs are my favoured enemy from multiclassing to plumber, so that’s a total of… let’s see, carry over the 1, and multiply the dice because critical, add another die for inspiration and… what do you mean it doesn’t have any discernible anatomy?!”
In its basic form, D&D is a numbers game. You can take away the names, the plot, and the setting; what you’re left with is a squad-based skirmish wargame not unlike Age of the Sigmarines – which also has its (ridiculously complicated) backstory with established characters and all that. If you watch popular D&D shows on Twitch like Critical Role, you’ll notice that there are three basic types of episode: role-play episodes where people talk a lot, shopping episodes (everyone’s favourites), and fight episodes where more than half the runtime is one or more (but usually just one) scenes of prolonged kerfuffle. It takes three hours to play out less than a minute of real-time fisticuffs.
And that’s 5th edition; can you imagine if this were Pathfinder? Speaking of which…
2) Over-Emphasis On Combat
Let’s face it. D&D is about fighting. If you look at the Player’s Handbook, most of it is dedicated to showing you how your character can bring the pain. And sweet mercy, can you deliver. While you get all these details on all your characters abilities, and feats and spells and equipment, you get all of 4 pages dedicated to personality and background. And that ends up being just another tool to help in fighting in most cases too.
And 5th edition isn’t as bad as previous versions of the formula, either. In fact, one of the things I liked the most about the latest incarnation of my favourite game was that it made your characters feel more like people, encouraging you to create actual believable persona, rather than just killing machines. I mean, they’re still XP-generating homicide homunculi, but it’s generally frowned upon these days if you only play a murder-hobo.
You do possess a set of skills that function outside of the smackdown arena, but they’re over-simplified to the point where most of the time it’s just a roll of the die, add some numbers… woop, I guess diplomacy has failed us this day. And then everyone draws their weapons.
While we’re on the topic, can we just talk about…
Crikey, remember the ones in 4th edition? I wish I didn’t.
If the hallmark of a wargame is that it needs tables to quantify and explain everything (looking at you, GW), then this should cement D&D’s reputation as a wargame. We're looking at a system where even one’s morality is relegated to one of nine options on a board.
Introducing Sigmund, Archmage of the Order of Freudian slips. He pays his taxes on time, so he’s Lawful Stupid. His nemesis is his former apprentice, the sorcerer Carl “Forever” Jung, who had a dream about a vision wrapped in an enigma, so he’s Chaotic Millennial and just wants to watch the world burn.
What does it all mean? I have no idea, but I just know I don’t want to have to fill in a form to tell me what I’m supposed to be. While I understand that it creates a framework to help some people inform their character decisions, I’d really rather be allowed to make decisions that fit my character without worrying if my GM wants to switch my alignment because I nicked a broom from a necromancer.
You might as well start every game with a Myers-Briggs test. Dibs on the INTP Warlock.
How does this help defeat the dragon in the titular dungeon? It doesn’t, because…
4) It’s All About That Base (Attack Bonus)
Congratulations! You’ve levelled up. You’ve shish-kebabbed enough kobolds to make a bridge over troubled waters, you’ve got so many goblin teeth stuck to your boot that Nike wants to have a word. You’ve gained some hitpoints and you feel better. And you are better... at killing things. Especially if you took one of the melee classes. Sharks gotta swim, bats gotta fly, fighters gonna fight forever till they die. The rogues get a little better at thievin’ but they mostly get better at stabbin’. Heck, even the bards get better combat spells as they progress.
D&D is about the power fantasy. And the easiest way to achieve that is to physically overpower your enemies in the tried and true test of combat. And the more the story progresses, the better you get at it. But there are other ways to drive a story, other stories to be told and other ways to do it.
The idea of progression in a roleplaying game is meant to drive the narrative forward. To progress with the plot. Uncover new characters, new villains, allies, new areas to explore, developments to unravel. Most games do this through interacting with the world and overcoming challenges. World of Darkness focuses on “story beats” where your character’s progression can be tied to them overcoming their own flaws, or fulfilling personal ambitions. FATE rewards story points for actively failing – if you indulge in your character’s shortcomings, or actually choose to fail an otherwise guaranteed success, your game master will reward you for making the game and story more interesting. It’s called failing forward, and it’s one tool that storytelling uses to drive the narrative.
Narrative in D&D is often driven by hacking and slashing your way through opposition, because…
5) At Its Heart, It’s A Dungeon Crawler
D&D has come a long way. But at its inception it was what we do today when we’re too tired of the social intrigue, the personal drama and the complicated plots. You get a crew, crawl through a dungeon, murder some monsters, kill the dragon and steal its shinies. It’s adventure capitalism at its finest. D&D came out of the wargaming scene. It had ridiculous tables and – my gods, do you people even remember ThAC0? (Yes, and we liked it, damned kids. Strength had percentages, AC dropped, and it was still called "Back-stab" and that was good enough for us! -VP Quinn) I wish I didn’t.
It still has a long way to go. And it has changed a lot already, in good ways too. 5th edition is a blessing. It’s a lot of fun and it is very inviting to new players. And we need those. Our geek culture is spreading and more and more people are joining us in our favourite hobby. But pretending it’s above reproach won’t help anyone. While it’s a good tool for experienced GMs to create absolutely amazing stories in fantastic settings (see the previously mentioned Critical Role, Maze Arcana in Eberron, and many more), in its bare-bones incarnation, what you’ve got is a manual for a wargaming experience. GMs often have to improvise and think outside the confines of the book to create the actual roleplaying. There’s supplements and hundreds of blogs to help house rule your way to a complete adventure, but often times a GM might struggle to accommodate their players’ desires – and ultimately that’s what drives the immersion that helps people really get in their characters’ shoes.
Even in combat – the activity deemed most important by the restrictive ruleset – often times a player will get an idea that sounds cinematic and cool and they’d love their character to be able to pull it off. But if it ain’t in the rules, it ain’t happenin’, ranger. When you have too many rules – and far too many feats (looking at you, Pathfinder) – what you get isn’t a roleplaying experience, but an invitation to a litigious session where rules lawyers fight over whose interpretation of the Magna Carta that is the handbook (and all its supplements) fits the scenario better. At this point, you’re not playing characters, you’re playing dress-up with stats.
At its best, D&D can accommodate all. You want to just slay the dragon and get the loot? Can do. You want an epic fantasy campaign with Game of Thrones level of deception and backstabbing? That’s possible too. In the end, it all depends on your DM. And I learned from my Dungeon Master, who learned from his Dungeon Master, in an unbroken line all the way to the Gygax that started it all. It’s safe to say that this renaissance we’re enjoying now might not have happened without the tabletop dungeon crawler. Hopefully, by shining a light on the things it still needs to improve and the mechanics we may or may not enjoy we can learn from the experience. If the backlash to 4th edition taught us anything it’s that people want more roleplaying and not just another mathematics-driven wargame. 5th was a step in the right direction. Let’s hope we see this game move in more nuanced and open directions in the future and keep pushing the boundaries of our tabletop experience so that we may all level up our gaming.
I’m off to play that INTP Warlock now.
Something of a modern day caveman, Ian fell down the rabbit hole of roleplaying games ages ago and has refused to emerge ever since. In his daily life, he wears many hats. When he’s not wearing the hat of the dungeon master, he studies cultural anthropology, writes short stories and occasionally posts on his own blog.
You can find more of his stuff at https://cavemanblues.wordpress.com/
Image reference: http://cardweb.info/20170616010436_tabletop-world-medieval/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.