Theory on the Downfall of Modern D&D

I know, I know, clickbait title and all that.

But as far as D&D is concerned, I suspect that there will be “crash” in the near future. Wizards of the Coast are trying to avert it, but releasing 5th Edition product slowly and not flooding the market with a brand-new splatbook every 30 days. However, Wizards of the Coast has made a fundamental error with 5th edition.

I know that previously, I have written some pro-5th Edition posts. I was (and still am) an idiot. I will keep them up as a tribute to my idiocy.

The error is this: WotC is trying to replicate the videogame experience at the table. When D&D became popular, videogame adaptions were inevitable. Some of them were genuinely good games and are a butt-ton of fun. But, videogames have a fundamental limitation, in that the player can only do what is programmed. You can cleverly use game mechanics, but you are forever limited to those game mechanics. At best, with mods, DLC, and patches, new mechanics can be introduced, but the game is still limited to those mechanics.

This is not to say that video games are bad, just that they are fundamentally different from the tabletop roleplaying experience. If you try to replicate the videogame experience at the table, you might succeed, but why?

Here is my suspicion as to why this happened. The videogame adaptions of D&D influenced the designers too much. Are the characters in Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age: Origins expendable the way that characters in B/X are? No. They all have complex backgrounds that create side-quests for the players to complete. This design philosophy has infected WotC ever since 3rd edition. Characters are harder to kill than ever and, in 5th edition, with the backgrounds mechanic, creating stories for your characters is built into the system. In a videogame where you are paying for the gameplay and the story that is told, this is okay. At the table, this goes south real quick. Most videogames have a “Skip Dialogue” feature, which is great when you read the subtitles faster than the characters speak. In real life, no such thing exists. There is a time and place for amateur hour story-telling. The D&D table is not that place.

Your character’s epic background? I do not give a flying fornication about it. I want epic gameplay at the table, not your story of being the seventh son of the seventh son of King Tlsdkjfbas the VII and his Queen O^*UTsfas’asgs. Oh, you are going to go over all of the names, ages, and the favorite color of the character’s siblings…

almost asleep

…and then the ogres burned down the village with everyone in it, but you got revenge by killing them all, despite being a 1st level nobody and that feat could not be replicated in gameplay, which, coincidentally, is why I came here…you know…gameplay…

sleep

I just want to play a game. Make our own epic adventure, not sit around and tell everyone about some cool ideas for your character’s past. If you want to write a fantasy novel, write a fantasy novel. Go with God! The D&D table is not a writer’s group. If I want to go to a writer’s group meeting, I will go to a writer’s group meeting!

This encouragement of too much background renders character death A BIG DEAL™, because death has to have meaning in the game, due to the high investment in the character’s background story. This, of course, can lead to GMs “fudging” rolls. No. No. NO!

Sometimes, characters due because of stupid decisions or bad die rolls. Deal with it like a gosh-darned adult. Just grab a fistful of d6s, a blank character sheet, and whip up a new character. Your motivation is getting rich with treasure plundered from deep, dark holes. There’s your new character idea. Heck, make your character the sibling of the dead one and you want revenge on the goblins for spearing your sibling. Everyone at the table understands this motivation, because they had investment in the previous character, due to their adventuring. No need to explain much else. The game can continue quickly.

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Story rant over

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At the table, your imagination (and fair judgments from the GM) are the only limit. The GM is free to adjust mechanics, remove them entirely, or replace them with new mechanics. Be honest, how many people have played a hardcore game where you tracked food, water, and encumbrance strictly? Maybe you have once, but it probably is not the norm. Most GMs will either handwave it, or just say as long as you pay x treasure a day, you bought enough food for the day and as long as you do not try to carry 17 cows, encumbrance is not carefully watched. And that’s okay! On the Autarch website (creators of the Adventurer Conqueror King System, the following statement appears:

“Every campaign is a law until itself…”

That is truth. I am in two different B/X games right now. Each one is a little different despite using the same ruleset. One is stricter about the rules and the other, less so. But, both GMs are fair and the players are not jerks, so it works. That is all you need, a fair GM and non-jerk players.

These games are not videogames. I enjoy both tabletop gaming and videogames, but they are different. Turning D&D into “real-life videogames” is a bad idea. Videogames do videogames better than non-videogames. It takes very little effort to play videogames. With the internet, I can download and play a game whenever I want for as long as I want.

Tabletop gaming, even if done via Roll20, still requires scheduling (and if you use webcams, the games require putting on clothes). Tabletop games have to compete for entertainment time with videogames. A good game should focus on what tabletop games do better than videogames: inventiveness, wacky off-the-wall shenaigans, and evolution of gameplay based on events at the table. If you want to ally with the hobgoblins and destroy the Keep on the Borderlands, you can do that at the table. A good GM will make rulings on the fly to assist you with achieving your goals. In a videogame adaption, you would need to hope and pray that the option would be programmed in and, even if it is, you may have wanted to destroy the Keep in a different way.

This is what will cause the downfall of modern D&D. Eventually, people will either drift into the OSR or go into videogaming full time. Either way, their time / money will no longer go to WotC. Modern D&D is walking a tightrope and I do not think that they can keep their balance forever.

Older editions of D&D and modern OSR games are more flexible in this regard than modern D&D. The older-style games encourage improvisation and intelligent play over “I roll to X”, which plagues modern games.

Bear Lore
This is real. A modern D&D game designer was paid to figure out what a player needs to roll in order to know about bears, a person carefully laid out this information in a document, and it was printed. People actually bought this waste of time, ink, and paper. Generally, only rangers and druids would have points in the Nature skill. Let that sink in. Therefore, in a modern D&D system, a character of average intelligence / wisdom and no points in Nature would need to roll a “raw” d20. They would only have a 25% chance of success in knowing that bears defecate in the woods and a 1% chance to know that bears maul their prey. Unless your character is from Atlantis or something, this should be common freaking knowledge!

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Rant over

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Here are some suggestions of games to play instead of more modern roleplaying games. I can vouch for the quality of each one.

 

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8 thoughts on “Theory on the Downfall of Modern D&D

  1. Dave

    Bizarre that this is an issue. Have been playing a long time and while people grow attached to their characters, backgrounds in 5e are more ‘I want this skill or that sounds cool’ but don’t have a major impact on anything. Maybe because we’re older we come up with less grandiose backgrounds. Characters come to life through what you do with them in game, not some background no one else really cares about.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. In tabletop game the only limit to the story is the collective imagination of the participants; and that is the draw of the medium. Creating mechanics that limit the value of that draw is WotC shooting themselves in the foot – with a goblin cannon – that fires incendiary rounds – that backfires – and rolling a natural “1.”

    Liked by 2 people

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  5. I suppose you might find a similar example of Bear Lore in 5th edition, though I am not sure where that would be – The Bear Lore you cite is from 4th edition…an edition that I think this article speaks too more than the current one. While 5th ed. has a lot of material I like to think of as guides (backgrounds, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws…etc.) I think of them as instructions for players new to the concept of roleplay because as you have accurately pointed out, so many of the new D&D player are from the video game world. Thats a world where all that crap is already worked out or non-existent. I know videogamers that think a game is a RPG if it requires you to pick a hair color, eye and nose shape and a name.
    As a seasoned player I simply pass over those instructions. I already have an idea what those are without coaching or will figure them out as a play my character.
    As for the game now? Well, they have given agency back to the DM – something 3rd ed all but killed. With 5th ed. they got back to the concept of a framework to build on. They have to consider the new clientele coming to the game for the first time. But show me in the rules where WoTC says you have to play a certain way. They pretty much say the opposite. And a video game experience? 4th ed, yes. But not now. Those things you see in the books about backstory, bonds, flaws, ideals…etc…those aren’t for you and me. And with any luck the after a few months playing the new players will figure that our too.
    I have my concerns about the future of D&D, Tomb of Annihilation exemplifies some of that fear, but that’s another conversation. Good read. Thanks!

    Like

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  7. I like ye-olde games since that is the whole point to me. If I want a video or movie, I’ll watch that. If I want to hang out with gamer folks around a table, eating snacks and vying for supremacy and cooperation, I’d go for a game system that allows and encourages that.

    Liked by 1 person

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