I might be going a little off the beaten path today, away from my usual ramblings about books, so I thank you for sticking with a vent out of left-field. However, as someone who greatly enjoys pen and paper Roleplaying Games, I’m constantly faced with the dreaded phrase “RPGs? Oh, you mean Dungeons and Dragons?”
It’s hard to think of any creative medium so deeply entwined with a singular product. In a way, this does make sense. Roleplaying games, tabletop or otherwise, are in many ways designed as a toolkit to help build story and gameplay, more akin to a method of creativity rather than a finished creative product. At the same time, they flirt with being a creative endeavour all of their own, when you take into account world-building material and adventure modules. Still, no matter how you view RPGs, this tight relationship is impressive. Imagine, if when the term “movie” or “book” came up, everyone thought of the single, same example. “You read a book? Oh, you mean Harry Potter?”
While I have nothing against Dungeons and Dragons as a game, nor against (most) of the people who have it as their first and only choice of RPG, it is frustrating to have something you enjoy being constantly boiled down to a singular talking point. This is only more frustrating because I feel that Dungeons and Dragons and its close derivatives (you can assume Pathfinder fits here as well) are not particularly good at their job – or are, at least, being forced into roles that they were never meant for.
At the moment, this total control probably just comes down to excellent marketing on the part of Hasbro and the lucky coincidence that “nerd chic” became a fashion statement. Everyone is desperate to seem a little bit quirky to avoid accusations of being “normal”, and Dungeons and Dragons instantly leaps to mind as that perfect offbeat fashion accessory. Once live streams of carefully scripted games became popular, Dungeons and Dragons roared back to life and seems destined to hold its dominant position in the market.
I think the reason why this dominance rubs me the wrong way is that it feels so fundamentally backward to me. For those with less experience with RPGs, I’ll do my best to explain my thought process. An RPG is, generally, a toolkit for collaborative storytelling or gameplay. I often say that it’s like telling a story, but you manage to trick your friends (and the element of chance) into helping you with your storytelling. The players take the role of the main characters of the story, and the chance is provided normally by dice or some other method of randomization. With the addition of independent agents and the uncertainty of the dice, the exact outcome of the story is a mystery when it starts. Good gamemasters simply create a stage with a determined setting and non-player characters (NPCs), perhaps with some prepared events to keep things moving. Then it’s up to the players to navigate this world and set things in motion. The fun of the RPG often comes from not knowing how things are ever going to exactly pan out or develop.
However, not all players and gamemasters enjoy interacting with their created worlds in the same ways. RPGs tend to fall into a spectrum from narrative to “simulationist”. More narrative games put more emphasis on freely telling the story and on discussion. The dice are only brought out when there is a question over how successful an action might be, or two characters are competing against each other. Simulationist games tend to have some portion of their gameplay expanded into a more robust gaming system. Normally this is the combat, as these kinds of situations are often of high risk to characters and are a great place to introduce more “gamist” content, the tactics of which are appealing to many players. Some games go so heavily into the simulationist angle that they become closer to wargames, with players taking the role of soldiers or commanders in a complex campaign.
Sounds like a lot of moving parts, doesn’t it? And that is exactly why there isn’t just one RPG on the market. For a good gamemaster, all the RPGs that he knows how to play are like tools in a toolkit. He thinks of the sort of story that he wants to tell and then picks out the tool closest to the kind of experience that he wants – the tool that will put more simulation on the parts of the game that will be focal points and less simulation on details that will be less necessary. If there is no specific tool appropriate, the gamemaster will instead look for a more flexible tool that he knows can be adapted for what he needs. Let’s say that our gamemaster has been watching a lot of old samurai films and thinks it would be fun to put his players in a similar situation – plenty of quick-draw swordfights and musings on duty and honour. He could then go to his set of RPG books and pick out, say, Legend of the Five Rings, a game that features rules specifically for simulating high-risk duels between samurai. The book also includes a lot of worldbuilding for a fictional faux-Japan setting, with useful information for gamemaster and player alike for gaming in such a world.
This gets to why Dungeons and Dragons is so strange to me, because so often people pick it up just to “play an RPG” and then try to make it do all kinds of things it was not designed for. If the gamemaster playing Legend of the Five Rings is analogous to a man who needs to turn a screw and pulls a screwdriver out of his toolkit, many Dungeons and Dragons players are like someone who takes a hammer out of their toolkit and then starts trying to think of things that might need hammering.
This is not to say that Dungeons and Dragons does not have its own role as a tool, although I do think that its purpose has become rather convoluted through age. Briefly, Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game focused around simulationist combat, in which characters eventually rise to superhuman levels of durability and skill – think fantasy, but with superhero characters. If those are the kinds of games you want, that’s great, but why limit yourself to just that one experience? A long-running joke among the online RPG community is the refrain of “Have you tried not playing Dungeons and Dragons?” – the response given to those expressing frustration over problems that develop when they try making the system do something it was not meant to handle. In other words, trying to use that hammer to screw in screws or saw planks of wood.
I’ll also go out a little further and argue that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t even particularly good at what it sets out to do. This is mainly because it tries to expand its core set of ideas (e.g. differing classes) over a wide set of in-house worlds. Throughout the editions, this has always led to major issues of balancing between players, issues that aren’t considered when just looking at fantasy as a genre. Look at it this way – if you were playing something like Lord of the Rings as a game, how do you make everyone who isn’t Gandalf not feel redundant? How can a high fantasy style wizard be balanced against low fantasy style warriors in the same system? When things became very unbalanced players tended to complain that certain classes were essentially obsolete. When things were more balanced, players complained that everything felt too “similar”. A better game would either allow fantastical magic for all players or deny it to all of them. But Dungeons and Dragons has been around for so long, and become so iconic, that many odd game design choices have become enshrined as sacred and inviolate. (Compare this to the modern set of Star Wars games, which have separated out the mystical, superhuman Jedi into their own game, as the experience is on such a different scale.)
I think another problem is that Dungeons and Dragons has been so preeminent for so long that it’s starting to eat its own tail when it comes to style and themes. Historically, as far as fantasy roleplaying games went, people would read a particular sort of fantasy work, get inspired, and try to recreate that through a roleplaying game. However, Dungeons and Dragons has been massively influential on pop culture, especially video games, early iterations of which copied a lot of the gameplay concepts. This, combined with increasingly visible pop culture appearances, catapulted Dungeons and Dragons into the mainstream. The result is that many new players want to play Dungeons and Dragons to recreate the experience of…. Dungeons and Dragons. The process has not only become backward but circular – a trap that is difficult for many to break out of and allow themselves to enjoy the genre from different perspectives or enjoy a differing genre altogether. And, most frustrating from my point of view, they never get to enjoy the other wonderful systems, worlds, and adventures created by the dedicated and imaginative RPG designer community outside of Dungeons and Dragons.
Of course, my goal isn’t to stop people from playing what they enjoy playing. I’ve heard a lot of people swear that the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has fixed many of the balance issues mentioned, and if it’s working for them – great! I simply wanted to point out that there is a wide and diverse array of amazing content that should also be appreciated, even if it doesn’t have a massive corporation backing its marketing and advertising.
So, to end on a more positive note, I want to give a shout-out to what is becoming a favoured system of mine – Reign, by Greg Stolze, a variant of the One Roll Engine (ORE) system. A fantasy game with a focus on more narrative play, and on wielding more political power than your standard “murderhobo” Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I’ve found the system very flexible for adaptation into what I need it to do. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a gamemaster who’s gotten some campaigns under their belt and wants a tool that they can modify and tinker with. It’s the most modern of the ORE systems as well, and the author has self-published a lot of fun additional content. If you are like me and enjoy games that are a bit heavier on politics and intrigue, I’d advise giving it a look.