Tobold's Blog
Sunday, June 24, 2012
What is D&D about?

There is a rather interesting forum thread on the Dungeons & Dragons Next forums, discussing what D&D is about.
Quote: Mike Mearls: "I agree that 4e had very clear goals, and that was a strength if those goals matched what you wanted. What we've learned is that people play D&D for a staggering variety of reasons."

For me, 4e's very clear goal was to make a game about fantasy combat. Mearls seems to have recognised that thousands of people play D&D for a staggering variety of reasons beyond 'fantasy combat'.

What is D&D about, for you?
This describes very well why I like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It has clear goals, which were about making great tactical fantasy combat, it succeeded very well with these goals, and they were exactly what I wanted. Having said that, of course Dungeons & Dragons is not only about tactical combat for me. There is roleplaying, story-telling, problem-solving, and just hanging out with friends and having fun together. But that is "D&D - The Experience", which should not be confused with "D&D - The Product".

Imagine a pen & paper adventure which is all about story-telling, roleplaying, political intrigue, and the like. What kind of rule system would you need to buy to play it? Once you think about that question, you will realize that you don't need any rule system to play this. If there is no combat, you don't need combat rules, and then most of the rest of the rule system isn't needed either, as there is no use for experience points and levels in an adventure that is just about roleplaying. You could play that adventure with various rule systems having rules for social skills or for spells that would help in roleplaying situations. But frankly, that sort of rules is more likely to detract from the fun than add to it. If you have a murder mystery, you don't really want a spell that allows you to see what happened, or a social skill that tells you unerringly whether somebody is saying the truth or not.

Thus when I buy a rule system as a product in a shop, I don't worry about the roleplaying aspects. Those simply aren't in the rules, they are in the people you play with. When I buy the product, the most important aspect of it is the combat rules. Everything else depends on the combat rules. Even character classes are mostly defined by what they do in combat. Yes, I can imagine playing a game without combat, just like it is possible to play World of Warcraft without combat. But it is safe to say that combat is an essential part of fantasy roleplaying games for most people, which is why the combat rules are so important.

I do think that 4E could have used a bit more work on the out-of-combat part. For example the "backgrounds" of D&D Next are a clear improvement over the skills and feats of 4th edition in providing a reason why a certain character would have certain skills. The 4E rulebooks and adventures could have stressed roleplaying a bit more in the explanation on how to play. But in the end the roleplaying is what I need to add to any rule system. So I'd rather start with a rule system which got the fundamentals right, has good tactical combat, and balanced character classes. And 4th edition is doing that just fine.

The rules indicate the kind of game you are going to play. Roleplaying in a way that is not well suited by the mechanics of the game reduce the enjoyability of the experience.

Character classes should not depend on what they do on combat, unless the only way to play the game is through combat. Character classes should depend on what they can accomplish in a challenge. That challenge can be combat, can be political handling, or can be thievery. If I play a game, I don't want the rogue to be an knife specialist combatant with agility, that is still an specialized fighter. I want a guy (or gal) that can hide in shadows, enter in the palace and get away with the artifact that was held there. And there has to be no combat rules to handle that.

Focusing in combat rules is only a way to create a system. Certainly I will not play "Call of Cthulhu" because of combat, i will not enjoy a system of rules for CoC that focuses in combat. That can be applied to other games.

Granted, D&D as always been more focused on combat than investigation, or political maneuvering.

But saying that there is no need for rules on the other possible paths that are not combat, does, indeed reduce games to the indian-cowboys children play metaphor if you want to know if your flick of hands to con the opposing card player works or not.

Furthermore, if I can't connect two good sentences together and have an inch of charisma, I need a way to show that my ultra-suave casanova character is, in fact, capable of doing it. That is, through rules. Otherwise you are left to roleplay yourself. And I get to that all my life.
Wizards have the perennial problem that the D&D ruleset as a game of the imagination is hard to sell. Once you have the rules you can keep playing forever, there's no in-built limit to the adventures you can make and run.

I'm happy with 3rd edition so haven't moved on since 3.5. Why would 5th edition be of any interest to me at all? Well if it does bring compatability between editions back then that could mean I would start using the Eberron materials they release in future - the 4th edition ones require too much effort to back-translate to 3rd. I prefer writing my own adventures but have little free time so I'm willing to buy modules if I can use them without bascially rewriting all the statblocks and encounter details.

That's a potential big market I suspect Wizards are gunning for now. Rulesets are not so easy to sell to existing customers, world sourcebooks and adventures are useful to a wider audience perhaps?
This comment has been removed by the author.
What is World of Warcraft?
What is Everquest?
What is Diablo?
What is Dungeons and Dragons?
What is Chainmail?

What is Truth?

Exetential questions like this have been addressed already.

Read René Descartes for guidance.

I play therefore I am.

Carpe ludum
There has been a lot of talk about the theory of role playing / story telling games (mainly of the non-computer type) happening in the last 10 or so years.

One of the earlier things that came out of that was "system does matter", :
Depending on the type of story you want to tell or game you want to play, some systems (games) are better suited than others. Google games like Fiasco, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, The Mountain Witch, or (for a more D&D like experience) Dungeon World to discover a bunch of games which still are clearly recognizable as pen-and-paper role playing games, but just as clearly are not focused on the same things as D&D.
>Thus when I buy a rule system s a product in a shop, I don't worry about the roleplaying aspects.

I don't think this is a good idea.

When you look for a system, you have to bear in mind the core experience you'd like to have, and look for systems with mechanics supporting your intended experience.

For now I'm playing chandelier-swinging adventures, so I look for games with combat which is unwinnable without constantly swinging from chandeliers, as well as strong mechanics supporting various forms of chandelier-swinging actions.

If I just look for solid combat system and find something power-based, with rigidly defined abilities and with no built-in means to improvise, then nobody gets to swing from chandeliers. Ditto for abstract combat systems with no maps and relative positions and no means to show advantages of combatants. So I have to actively look for mechanics that at least don't actively contradict my expectations (and at best support them).

The same goes for any other game aspect in existence. First, you imagine the experience you want. Second, you look for the rules to make it happen. If they don't match - more work for the GM.
I think 4e is a fine system for veterans who already know how to roleplay having learned it from books in the 80s that put game mechanics second to expression.

But where are new players going to learn this? If a new player's experience of 4e is "Put your points in this," "Roll d20," and "add 4 to 14 and tell me how much damage you do," then what are they doing that couldn't be done better on a computer, on even a pocket calculator?
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