Normally, the dissection of nerd culture is Evan’s territory. Comic books, super-hero movies, the ins-and-outs of sci-fi flicks- really anything you could or would want to know about geekdom, Evan has covered.
Except, perhaps, for Dungeons & Dragons.
For that, you’d come to me.
Now I’m not going to tout myself as a D&D expert by any means. While I’ve been running some sort of table-top role-playing game since college, I only started to play the official game about half a year ago, and I’ve just finished my first campaign as a DM (that’s a “Dungeon Master,” the person responsible for running the game). Still, the nature of D&D is such that you either learn fast or you drown, so with my combined experience I feel pretty comfortable launching off into the subject of today’s post:
What’s wrong with D&D and how to fix it.
I’m hoping people who know nothing of the game will be able to follow along, but be forewarned, we’re going to get a bit technical up in here.
I. Bring Back Choice
Now granted, the D&D session I help run is (to the best of my understanding) put on by the company to help create awareness of the product and generate new customers. D&D “Encounters,” which I help out with, is probably going to be very different from playing the game with a close group of friends in someone’s garage or basement. Even so, the worldwide D&D sessions that occur pretty much every Wednesday are used by the company as a sort of beta-testing for their products. Right now the latest edition of D&D is being tested out, and really there’s not a whole lot of change to it other than the combat. Again, while I’m no expert, having spoken with a lot of veteran players it seems to be universally true that the game has pretty much devolved into a linear series of fights with a storyline loosely uniting everything. You make what decisions you can- whose lives to spare, how to divvy up the loot, who to interrogate- but for the most part, you’re just railroaded from one battle to the next.
And that right there is the biggest problem the game has.
Let’s be honest here, people. Nobody plays D&D for the fights. If you want to see shields splinter or heads explode like watermelons at a Gallagher show, you’d be playing a video game. Heck, D&D’s actual combat was probably outstripped the moment the first video game RPGs came out sometime in the early 90s.
No, you play D&D for the truly limitless options.
Only in a table-top RPG do you really have freedom. Where to go in the great, wide world; what faction to join; who to back-stab. You want to fight your way into a castle? Fine. You want to try to use diplomacy? Cool. You want to Trojan Horse it?Awesome.
Self-determination is what makes D&D special. Taking away from this aspect is hurting the most important part of the game. I certainly don’t think battle-by-battle mini-campaigns are going to sell new people on the game anywhere as much as if we could demonstrate the true essence of the game.
II. No More Fancy Names
I think one of the reasons D&D and Fantasy in general suffers is because of the sheer effort it takes to be immersed in it. We’re already being asked to suspend disbelief in imagining this whole new world, with magic, with elves (and about five variations of elves).
Struggling on top of all that to converse with the High Lord Upnathxyzika of Iloilaulonomia, chief city of Zkanthropia- as small of a detail as it seems- is the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back for many players.
You’re probably thinking “really? That’s going to be the line?”.
Okay, no, it probably won’t play out just like that, but this is all about making the game more accessible to new people (more on that in a second). You’re going to want to clear out every unneeded hurdle to gameplay- names you can actually pronounce without having your tongue pulled out through your nose is just one of the more obvious obstacles.Unless you’re going so over the top that it becomes a funny self-parody, the melodrama of it all is more cheesy than charming.
It’s pretty simple people- if it’s not helping, then it’s hurting.
III. Break Down the Mythos
It can’t be denied that the game stagnates from a lack of fresh blood and fresh perspective. What the people in charge are doing is good, but there are many occasions in which I’ve been playing the game and been confronted with trivia and backstories that make absolutely no sense to me. Really, a lot of the stuff in the game wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t read volumes of lore (those volumes are for sale, of course, by the makers of D&D).
It starts off a vicious circle of nerdiness; players have to build off their own stories when new players don’t come in with fresh perspective, and new players and fresh perspectives can’t come in because there’s already so much mythology and history built up. I remember a time when my party and I were investigating a ruined temple. The ghost of a dead god (that right there is a theological conundrum probably too complex for a table-top game) gives us the opportunity to benefit from it- only I have no idea if this is an evil deity whose gifts are somehow going to come back to hurt me in the long run. Of course, two veteran players begin rattling off in some debate about whether or not this is the current god of justice, or if he’s been replaced by someone else- yeah, not even they knew.
The point is, the insanely complex histories, the pantheons and their pantheons- it’s all too much. I’d crack some joke about just how many gods there are in the D&D universe, but I’m just going to link you to the Wikipedia list instead– nothing I say is going to capture how bloated it all is.
Less is more, people, less is more.
IV. I Swear to Lolth, If I Have To Fight One More ****ing Cult…
Readers, I’ve been playing six months now, and without exaggeration, every enemy I’ve ever fought (or, as DM, controlled) has been part of some twisted, evil cult with aspirations of world domination.
But why does it always have to be some doomsday cult? Why does the fate of the universe always hang in the balance? There’s so much else out there. Constantly battling for the fate of the universe just strips the gravity away from, well, everything. The time I and my party were investigating an organized crime cell in this little town was infinitely more fun than gathering together all the lost relics of Hommel.
Give us something mundane– make us fight in a war (the more pointless, the better), or race for a treasure or bounty- even some Hatfield/McCoy feud would be more real than taking on the avatar of the Shadraphan of the 14th level of the Underdark.
V. Get Rid Of Fights Entirely
Ok, not entirely– but we do need to get that people don’t play D&D for the action.
As much as hacking and slashing is a major part of the game, at the end of the day, it’s little more than cosmetic. In all honesty, even the most die-hard math fans are going to find the equations and sets and lists involved in D&D combat a little more than tedious.
While obviously there are few feelings better than rolling a natural 20 and landing a epic deathblow to an end boss, as has been covered above nothing but fights really drags the game away from what makes it great in the first place. Planning some ingenious prison-break or sneak attack on a goblin camp is, in my experience, just as much fun as actually doing it. Arguing with your fellow players over what to do with an Orc prisoner is way more immersive than even the most graphic description of a successful hit. I think the game should adjust itself to be more conducive to all that- let’s at least try a 50-50 ratio of combat to non-combat game time.
And that’s really it, people. In sum total, let’s drop the melodrama and the grotesquely complicated history in favor a simpler world where the players are afforded both more freedom and time to make decisions. We’re not going to be competing with other games, so why bother trying? Let’s get back to the roots of the good old game that was for years denounced by extreme Christian conservatives.
It’s not a good game until it’s been publicly denounced by Pat Robertson.