I go way back with Dungeons and Dragons. I started on the black box, DMed 2nd Edition AD&D long ago, have dreamt of running Ravenloft for nearly as long, upgraded to 3rd edition in high school, joined some friends in college for D20 Modern (hey, it was the Aughts. A game is a game, right?), and ended up in a 3.5 game for a while after college. I skipped 4th, and played 5 or 6 levels of a 5th Edition campaign on Roll20 a couple years ago (a great campaign and a character I miss). I have played or run most versions of D&D in the last 25ish years, and it all comes down to this: I’m not very good at it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the optimization community and their efforts to tweak, fix, or break the various editions of the game. I love the technical twists and turns of an inventive build as much as the next guy (honestly, probably a lot more than the next guy), and deeply appreciate the far end of it: the PunPuns and Peasant Railguns and Elven artificers who use a feedback loop of suffering to understand all things. It’s inventive and crazy and I am not the guy for it. I don’t play that way, and never played with a group that deemed it important enough for us all to rise to the occasion. As a result, the one player who rides that train does so alone and stands head and shoulders past the rest of us scrub rookies. I went down a different path a while ago.
My heart lies with story and character and surprise reveals and tipping point moments. D&D does those things. I am not saying that it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t support that kind of play in any meaningful way. You can do it, but it’s like table-talk in-character for Clue. Yeah, it’s fun, but there’s not a lot in the book to back you up on it.
But I’m not here to rag on D&D. It’s billed as the world’s greatest role playing game for a reason. It’s the Google or Kleenex of RPGs and defines a couple generations’ relationship to the idea of games where you play a character. There’s power there and I’m interested in how that comes about. The mechanics support a particular series of events (you travel to a place as a group, overcome its obstacles, kill the things that fight back, and get rewards which include cash, prizes, and additional powers) which are almost precisely the plot of The Hobbit (even ending with a boss fight against the Big Bad, a literal dragon). But I think some of its popularity comes directly from the fact that there’s so much “game” there, still. There are rules! Three books of rules! The most recent edition has slimmed things down so that all the subsystems speak the same language, which great. Fewer charts of modifiers, more decisions to make during play. It’s a solid game. But it still rewards playing it like a game, with reliance on the meta-currency of being good at the game. The killing things part is supported so specifically by the bulk of the rules that it is the clear focus of most classes and therefore the majority of characters (and adventures).
Can you play it for tense negotiation and diplomatic solutions? Yes. But you have to skip a lot of what the engine is there for. To borrow from one of my favorite analogies, playing D&D for the social dynamics is like buying a car just for the air conditioning. Yes, it will do that. But the rest of the machine is just sitting there, doing none of what it is designed to do. I’m not breaking ground in this assessment, but it is valuable to note that there are elements of all this, simplified as it is, that the game leaves to play style.
Folks are inspired by the relationship between Frodo and Samwise in Lord of the Rings. Similarly, Merry and Pippin’s bond is integral to understanding those characters. Few games embrace a mechanic to address that. Apocalypse World has it built in with their Hx (Character hist0ry) stat, Fate can depending on how you write your aspects (and is more explicit about needing that in some builds, like Spirit of the Century), and Protocol is about relationships. Fiasco, even, has a whole system devoted to how your characters know each other and are rooted to their community and no method to address physical conflict or gauge how good your character is at it. I’m working on a game where your character doesn’t level up, but your relationship to your party does.
Okay, so there are ways to look at the question of character and community, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to fight D&D for what it isn’t. Does it tell stories of thrilling adventure set in a magical land where heroes do amazing things? Yes. Is it the fastest or most elegant system to do so? I would argue no, since so much of the DM’s work is tied up in paperwork to prep for the session and the combats seem to drag out. A lot of that is player familiarity with the mechanics. I had a fairly new group with a mix of experience and fights with eight or so combatants took a while. They’d take longer if I had more enemy spellcasters or more unusual abilities. And spells and abilities is what makes it fun! You want to use all the toys, and 6th level characters have a lot of toys. But unless you print out even more stuff (or do it all by hand if you’re a glutton for punishment like me) then you either have a couple books open during combat to reference spell effects and monster stats or you wing it, which robs D&D of some of its mojo. My laptop died during the final battle and I just made the rest up as I went. It worked, but who knows how faithful it was to the intent of the folks who wrote those critters and effects and whatnot.
And to those who will say “You need to get better at the game,” sure, there’s a system mastery component to everything except the card game War. Getting there will take weeks of research and practice that my one-shots groups simply don’t have. And to those who say “Rule Zero, my man. If it doesn’t work, just change it,” I will answer this: If I changed everything about D&D that doesn’t work for me personally, I’m going to end up with a Frankenstein’s creature of ad hoc rulings and other game’s mechanics. My players won’t have any idea what to expect and D&D provides little way to address that uncertainty from a character or player perspective. If I nerf sneak attack, my swashbuckler is out of the game. If I ignore short rests, Warlocks are boned. The system was designed and works as a whole, and that means I and my players have to try to do the whole thing. Otherwise, what we’re doing isn’t really D&D as the creators intended.
For my money, I will still play D&D. I may even keep writing for it. But my future as a DM is limited. Were I better versed in the game and able to make more consistent rulings on the fly, I think I could make it work. I’m just not the player they need me to be to keep the game moving, fun, and recognizably Dungeons-and-Dragonian. And that’s okay! There are a lot of talented DMs who are putting in the time and know their thing. I am more than happy to let them keep doing it.