(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)
It’s been awhile since we’ve been in touch, and I feel bad that I just sort of left our relationship hanging. We’ve had pretty strong feelings over the years, and to simply leave that to peter out with no closure is just wrong. I owe it to you to be honest about where we stand with each other.
Also, I want to assure you that the rumors you’ve been hearing about me bad-mouthing you are untrue. You’re an intense person, and you tend to attract intense friends. Those people are good friends to you, but people with strong feelings often interpret things uncharitably to fit their world-view. I never meant anything I’ve said about you to be a slight on your character, and I wanted to set that record straight as well.
The truth is, we were never meant to be together. And that has more to do with me than with you. I wanted you to be – believed that you were – something that you’re not, something you’ll never be. That’s okay. You don’t need to change to suit me, because a relationship based on a lie just doesn’t work in the long run. But I needed to come to terms with that, and it isn’t until now that I fully understood the divide between us.
And the last reason I wanted to write this is because you have a history of having the sort of relationship that we did. I think a lot of the people you’ve dated in the past have been projecting some kind of perfect image onto you, each different from the last. I know how good it feels in the moment, but it isn’t healthy. You deserve to be loved for who you are, not for who someone wishes you were.
So I’m going to spend some time talking about us. I’m going to talk about our relationship over the years, what went wrong, and what I’ve learned since then. To understand who we are, we need to look at who we were. And hopefully through all this, we can finally move on to healthier relationships.
So. Let’s start at the beginning…
Where I Come From
If I’m honest, a good part of my own roleplaying journey has been spent chasing a dragon of my own. In 2006 I started playing World of Warcraft. Up until then, I hadn’t been super interested in MMORPGs, but this one was different: it had roleplaying servers. To someone like me, who had spent many hours writing collaborative stories with people on forums, and even experimented with a roleplaying-enforced MUD called Aalynor’s Nexus, this was the next great rabbit hole.
I leapt right in and started roleplaying from level one. I had a backstory, an accent, and a story I wanted to tell. And somehow, I was the beneficiary of a perfect confluence of events and people surrounding my character that made the story just work. I most remember the interplay with another character she met that first whirlwind night, and their relationship that would grow to become complex, nuanced, and genuinely heart-warming (Here’s to you, Elarken Swiftwind – thirteen years later, I’ll still raise a glass to you).
It wasn’t until he suddenly quit the game that I realized just how much of that experience rode on him. After he left, things just weren’t the same. I couldn’t seem to reignite that spark, that momentum that we had. I would spend the next eight years trying to recapture the magic, trying to understand how it had worked, and how to do it again.
I’d dabbled in a few short-lived D&D outings up until then, but it wasn’t until after my WoW story dried up that I took a firm and committed step into the realm of tabletop. But I brought along some expectations and a high bar. I wanted to do things similarly to how I’d done them in the MMO. There were times when it was clear that my DM and I had different ideas on how this game was to be played. Don’t get me wrong: he was a fine DM, and he certainly had an influence on how I would run the game later in life. But his style just didn’t feel congruous with how I understood roleplaying to work. I had every reason to believe that my MMO experience had been valuable if only I could create it for the people I played with in D&D.
After all, the two formats seemed similar enough. Dump a fantasy character into a fantasy world and start being that character. Talk how they would talk, do what they would do. Superficially there was no difference. Why couldn’t it work in D&D? Already I was internalizing the notion that many people learn from mainstream RPGs, online and off: roleplaying is a self-paced affair. It’s external to the game itself, and never the twain shall meet. Of all the game systems I played at the time, that was the common thread. I had never seen a game that expressly governed – or, as my DM regarded it, interfered with – the roleplaying aspect of the game. Roleplaying was something wild and free, and no system ought dare constrain it. It would take me years to unlearn that lie.
There was, however, one difference between D&D and MMO roleplaying that I came to identify: an MMO has no DM. One theory held that the game itself was the DM, but I quickly discarded that idea. It seemed ludicrous that you should roleplay at a bunch of cardboard cutout standees, that you would live out the same exact story and quests as every other person in parallel. That definitely wasn’t what made my original experience so memorable. It had been the interactions between players that had me so rapt.
So with no DM to narrate what is happening, that job falls to the players of the MMO. Each one has equal narrative power to any other, and the story goes where they push collectively. Surely that was the key! Even as I had been telling my own story that first time, the ways that story interacted with others had given me an uncertainty about where the story would finally end. It was like being both a DM and a player together, and that felt exciting. I made this the foundation for my next great attempt to chase my dragon.
When it was finally my time to run a game of D&D, I did everything I could to set myself up for success. I picked my players with care, and I told them up front what kind of game this would be. They were players, but they were also to be DMs – all of them, simultaneously. They would be given narrative leeway to tell their own stories without my intervention or control. I would be the Loremaster – a concept I borrowed from the last MMO roleplaying guild I ever joined. My job would be to know all of the character’s secrets and manage their continuity so the story didn’t go haywire.
Experimental as it was, the early days were rough. I found that while players were certainly willing to roleplay, they struggled to find things to actually do. They had vague ideas for where they wanted their stories to go, but they seemed reluctant to take that first concrete step forward. I chalked it up to first-time jitters and did the only thing that seemed to make sense: I took control. As long as I drove the plot, they were willing to come along for the ride. And, to my dismay, it stuck.
Don’t get me wrong – the players were having fun, and they enjoyed what I cooked up. But they weren’t driving the story. They navigated it, but they weren’t creating it. Even players who ran their own games outside of this one wouldn’t take the initiative to step up and confidently narrate. The call of expectation was strong, it seemed: you’ve got your DM, and you’ve got your players – that’s just how roleplaying games work. And it wasn’t just my players – I was just as guilty of perpetuating this familiar paradigm. My control of the secrets didn’t help matters – as each one found its way into my narrative, I found myself hijacking their stories away from them, narrating over the top of what few plans they had. They still enjoyed the story into which I eventually wove them, but it wasn’t their story.
What was going wrong? Why couldn’t players carry the narrative? In the memory of my MMO experience, people didn’t seem to have any trouble pushing their own narratives. In fact if they didn’t, nothing ever happened, no stories were told, and the world was a pretty boring place. All players had to narrate independently if any story were to happen at all. Why wasn’t that working here? Determined, we tried again. We started a new story, hopefully having learned from the first. The entire time, we kept open lines of communication and bounced ideas off each other, trying to make it work.
Still we struggled. Even as players experimented with narrative control, I found myself pulling back and asserting narrative power over them. But this time I started to understand why I was doing it. It seemed to me that the players, when given the chance, tended to narrate neat resolutions to all their problems. It seemed that any time I saw a situation with potential for interesting conflict and meaningful consequence, the players tried to pave over it before it could develop into anything. In that way, I started to see my interventionism as necessary to maintain conflict in the story.
And why wouldn’t they shy away from conflict anyway? The game system we were using has things like “hit points” and “death saving throws.” The consequences for failure are dire and can happen suddenly. The players learned that from our first story, when a character unexpectedly went from “slightly hurt” to “dead” in the space of a single action on her own turn – no intervention possible. No, it’s best that players avoid risky things if they want to accomplish something with their character arc. Who knows when something might cut it abruptly short?
As I struggled to balance giving narrative power to the players versus maintaining conflict in the story, I started to become aware of alternative RPG systems. These weren’t like the mainstream RPGs I already knew – games like GURPS, Exalted, or World of Darkness – that were little more than D&D reskins. Rather, these alternative RPGs dramatically altered the way players interact with the narrative and each other. Our group agreed that D&D had never really done anything valuable for us, and in some ways had distracted us with its gratuitous combat and relentless dedication to simulation. We would look into a system to play once this story concluded. In the meantime, we took a bold step: we abandoned D&D entirely and finished the story with no game system whatsoever.
I wish I could say it improved things. The dynamic of concentrated narrative power and the tendency toward conflict avoidance remained intact. The truth of the matter is that even though D&D was gone, its shadow still loomed. We no longer had hit points or made death saving throws, but the DM/player structure was alive and well. The game had trained us well, and breaking with that convention proved more difficult than I ever imagined. It was striking, really: so very little changed about the vast majority of our time playing. “Combat” had already been such a rare occurrence that switching to no-rules narration hardly impacted us at all. It really drove home the fact that outside of combat, D&D really is a big heap of nothing with a DM to adjudicate it.
The Neutrality Myth
We finished that story as we did the first: with an emotional, cathartic climax that solidified my reputation for ending our stories with tears. Afterward we went on what would become a permanent hiatus. So I had plenty of time to think on the years we’d spent on the project and what I had set out to create. Everyone had a good time and enjoyed the stories. Even if we never reached a perfect parity of narrative power, our game was a success by most people’s standards. What more did I want?
But as I turned over the reasons we’d never achieved our original goal, I also started to think about why we’d ever played D&D at all. Fighting and looting hadn’t been important to us – it was narrative agency that had been our highest value. Why, then, had we spent so much time with a game system whose design was practically the opposite of our aims?
It was then that I finally finished assembling the big picture in my head. We’d started playing D&D because of our assumptions about what it meant to roleplay. Back then, all of us – every D&D player I knew, in fact – had it in their head that D&D was like a blank sheet of paper. You pulled it out, and you started writing whatever you wanted onto it. We all assumed that D&D was this neutral system, the default state of roleplaying. The rules represented a blank world, capable of any style of narrative – you just needed to pile up all the little tweaks and house rules necessary to get it to do what you wanted.
But D&D is not a neutral system. There’s no such thing. Every single game that has ever been made has the values of its designer baked into the rules. Every mechanical stroke was put there to serve some purpose, with some particular play experience in mind. All you need to do is listen to the game, put yourself in the designer’s shoes, and then ask yourself why they would’ve done this or made that. After all, the designer is doing the same thing in reverse: they imagine people playing their game a certain way, and design accordingly to make that happen.
Tabletop RPGs may seem above all that, with the way they allow players to narrate freely. They have a way of making players believe that they’re in control of the experience, not the designer. But tabletop RPGs are no different at all. They have rules like any other game, and they were made by a designer who had a vision of play. You can still look to the parts of play where it makes sense to leverage the rules, indeed to the very format of the game, and you can see the designer having their say, informing the play experience.
So when you see a system where the purpose of a Strength score is to bend bars and force doors as well as carry a lot of things, you can infer that the value is on breaking, entering, and looting. When you see that the same system requires a secretive, all-powerful DM, you can infer that an important part of that role is to put things to loot behind all those doors. It’s simple – all you need to do is stop focusing on your intended experience and what rules you do and do not use. When you let the system speak uninterrupted, it will tell you plain as day what it’s all about, if only you’ll listen.
Rules for sharing narrative control are nowhere to be found. Telling a non-combat-oriented story is pretty challenging when it’s required out of the gate that all characters be combatants, and players’ most reliable form of narrative control is fighting. Given the goals we’d set for Project Loremaster, D&D should never have been our system of choice. It was a severe clash of values, and it had shown every step of the way. It didn’t matter how many tweaks and house rules we laid over the top – the core of the game was fundamentally opposed to us. It was not neutral.
Only by ignoring the system had we gotten anywhere with our storytelling goals. That’s why it had seemed like D&D was a blank slate: the vast majority of our storytelling had been about things so beyond the purview of the rules that you couldn’t really say we were truly playing the game. It was just hours and hours of us doing stuff D&D doesn’t care about. The subject material of the game lay outside D&D’s ability to adjudicate, and that had been the part that seemed like the blank slate. The structure of the game, however – the DM/player relationship that kept us bound to its preferred style of play – that part of the system never really went away.
With this new realization, I further realized that a roleplaying blank slate isn’t really even desirable. We’d come into the experience under the assumption that one had to be a “good roleplayer.” Using a blank slate meant relying on our own ability to tell stories. And when we were good at it, we sometimes got a good story out of it. But when we weren’t, we flopped hard. When I stopped patting myself on the back for the times I’d succeeded, I could see I was far from a perfect storyteller. The highs had been so high that they tended to overshadow the parts of my work I look back on and cringe, or the parts that were pretty empty as I flailed about, trying to figure out what to do next. The same had been true, I bitterly noted, even of that formative MMO experience that had inspired Project Loremaster in the first place.
When I got over my pride, my undue value on self-reliant storytelling, I could see the times I definitely could have used some guidance. In fact, all of the players could have. A large part of why narration seemed to fall to me so much of the time was simply because I had the most ideas. My most successful ones were those I tied to the characters and their values, engaging them on visceral and emotional levels. What could’ve happened with a system that helped the other players to generate ideas at the same rate? A system that connected those ideas together and tied everyone’s emotional investment up in one big ball?
Seeking that help, I started diving deeply into those alternative RPGs to see what I’d been missing. I read books for Fiasco, Annalise, Dread, Primetime Adventures, and others. These were radically different from any RPG book I’d ever read. But my revised understanding of roleplaying, my disinvestment with the idea of the blank slate, had finally prepared me to really understand what each RPG was getting at. As I read, I listened to each design and how it expressed its storytelling values. I found that many of them jived with my own understanding of good stories, a sense I’d honed through many discussions with my mate, a Master of Arts in creative writing.
I even discovered systems that overlapped with the story trajectories that Project Loremaster had taken. I realized that these games could’ve pointed us directly at those stories and what was most important about them. They could’ve helped us to cut the chaff and make those stories more intense. They could’ve cured the players of their timidity, and steered them to take greater narrative agency and character expression, if only we’d been playing them at the time.
If only we hadn’t insisted on a blank slate.
With my new understanding of roleplaying systems, I was prepared to finally return to that blank slate where it all began: roleplaying in World of Warcraft. If there was any magic left here I hadn’t yet considered, if there was some invisible hand that made for emotionally moving stories, I would find it. This time I skipped the official servers and joined one of the private roleplaying servers I wrote about, the ones where everyone has admin powers and can maintain their own private world phase. I wanted to see what people were accomplishing with unlimited freedom to do as they will. I wanted to give it the best possible chance.
One particular group caught my attention. They had a unifying theme, an established story, and an application process. They had an organized community, a world phase they were constructing, and a strong direction. But what really drew my notice was the fact that one of the members had written a roleplaying system from the ground up that members were expected to use. This group had structure, and I was curious to see where it led.
When I got to actually reading the roleplay system, it was all too familiar. I read about explicit fighting abilities. I read about hit points and initiative. It had a table for making death saving throws. You acted by making individual attacks, each rolled with a d20. It made distinctions between player and DM. It was unmistakable – we were going to be playing someone’s homebrew D&D-clone. Yet another person who’d bought into the neutrality myth. But the system was clearly a labor of love, and I didn’t want to simply dismiss it. All the same, it was aggravating that no matter where I went, I couldn’t get away from hit points and death saving throws.
I exchanged a lot of words with the designer, at first offering him feedback and observations on where his system was confusing or unclear. But it was apparent that such feedback could only do so much. The system’s fundamental aims were untouched. Prompted by them, the players defined themselves by their weapons and outfits, as informed by “character class.” Character creation focused on the isolated individual, leaving them very insular despite the common connection that the unifying theme supposedly gave them. One of them wouldn’t stop posting offensive memes and seemed to be roleplaying a joke character. There was none of the old magic here.
I grew bolder with my suggestions. I told the designer that if he wanted the group to engage with the stated theme of the story, D&D with different dice rolls wasn’t going to cut it. What he needed was a system that pointed his players straight at the main theme and their common bond. He seemed to take offense, partially at my insinuation that his system wasn’t working, but also at the notion that his system was unoriginal and derivative. It was more than just D&D with different dice – why couldn’t I see that? It was striking to me that he could look at a system whose core mechanism is “d20 roll-to-hit” and think of it as a departure from D&D.
I understood where he was coming from, though. Had I not come from the same place myself? The place where the only RPGs that exist in your world are all combat simulators with a DM? Where you eschew rules for roleplaying entirely, opting instead for the “unlimited freedom” of the blank slate? Where all you need to do is adjust the specific odds of your physics engine? It was hard for him, and had been for me, to see just how identical all those systems truly are. If that’s all you know, if combat rules and a referee is just what an RPG is, then your box is very small. You tend to exaggerate the differences between one game and another. You don’t realize that in the expansive universe of the RPG design-space, all the games you know are crowded around one microscopic spot. It isn’t until you explore the rest of the space that you realize just how tiny your scale of RPGs really is.
I let the issue rest for the time being, but the situation did not improve. The designer had trouble maintaining players’ interest in the group. Since all the system governed was combat, nobody was very clear on what to do beyond that. The fact that the story seemed to be tightly controlled by specially appointed DM-players meant that nobody felt able to advance any stories without their presence. This was an especially frustrating dynamic for MMO roleplaying to have, where the expectation is having the independence to push your own individual narrative.
It wasn’t until the group imploded almost entirely that I said to myself, “Enough. These people need help.” As the system designer rallied what few people we had left and called for a reboot to the story, I made them an offer: I would bone up on some alternative roleplaying systems, ask some crucial questions of the players to learn their expectations for the group and the story, and then I would write a brand new roleplaying system to try to push everyone in the desired direction. The designer seemed reluctant to give up all his work (what designer wouldn’t be?), but the broader consensus was clear: they were willing to give it a shot.
I went to work under a time crunch. I couldn’t afford to hold up a small community whose interest was already at risk of drying up completely. The system had to be ready as soon as possible. But it also needed to be carefully crafted so as to drive good habits and good stories or else what was the point? I considered everything I’d learned from my own experiences, and thought about how I could use that to help this current group. I needed the system to not only help the players develop real and memorable characters, but also to help them communicate those characters to each other. It should define character arcs and help players connect those arcs together. That was the key: getting players to interact with each other’s stories instead of being alone together.
I started with a definition for character. The primary aspect of each character would be their “Need.” This was explicitly codified as a social need, some flavor of relatedness to the group, an explicit statement of what the character sought from relationships. This was accompanied by a score that the player could modify, which not only announced what the player wanted from the character’s social interactions, but also gave feedback for how well they felt the other characters were addressing the Need. This became the character arc, and movement upon it was the central focus of the whole system.
I complemented the Need with both strong and weak points for the character. Notably, I referred to the strong point as an “Ego,” and I delineated consequences that tended to alienate players using it to support themselves, but also encouraged them to use it to help others. In the same vein, I encouraged players to expose their weak point when in bad situations by only allowing others to assist their conflicts when they did so. The overall thrust of the system was to drive people together by demonstrating how and why they all needed each other as defined by the individual players.
After a week of intensive work, I presented my system to the group. They politely accepted it and started work on their characters. I was nervous – it was unlikely that any of them had played a system like this before, one that expressly governed narrative elements rather than physical ones. I knew I would have to contend with their expectations, so I resolved to patiently explain my system as many times as I had to. The manual wasn’t long – ten pages, including play examples – but it was long enough to lose people’s interest if they didn’t understand it right away.
Then the character sheets started to emerge, and I was totally blown away.
This was largely the exact same cast as from before the reboot. But the characters were transformed. They had vivid and evocative traits. Each had a narrative trajectory. And everyone started talking about them right away. They began to see the directions their fellow players were trying to go, and connected their own characters. The system was working!
The most dramatic transformation happened with, of all people, the meme spammer. His character, which had previously seemed a joke in poor taste, took an unexpected turn. Now he was describing an arc where the character’s antics represented a neurosis, brought on by the trauma of losing his friends and family. In response, the character clung to his faith, but in an unhealthy way, resulting in an alarming fanaticism. His narrative arc, the player decided, would be the question of whether he could overcome his emotional distress and rediscover a healthy relationship with his faith, or if he would succumb to the madness and be lost forever. I was astounded. Had this character been there all along? Had his character only been a joke because nobody had been listening to him?
Such was the case with many characters. The places my system pointed the players in character creation had brought out the best parts of their characters. Many of these were things that had already been there, but until now the players had struggled to express them. Now they were there for all to see. And the connections that players were forming, the arcs they were poised to traverse, had not only loaded the story’s gun, but built anticipation to pull the trigger.
Why I Write
Why tell you about any of this? Why indulge in this odd autobiography? Because I need you to know that I gave D&D a good, long, honest try. I did all the things that roleplaying proponents told me to do, thought the things they think. I did the narrative heavy-lifting because conventional wisdom said that’s just what you have to do. And when I found out that wasn’t true, I was as skeptical as anyone.
I love roleplaying games, but it’s taken me a long time to understand them. This little story is a big part of how I got there. It’s why I’m writing this series in the first place. It’s why I’m so sure of everything I’ve written here. I’ve seen in action the stark difference between a system that helps you tell stories and one that doesn’t. It happened right in front of me.
I write all this because I want to help. I think there’s a good number of people on their way through a similar journey. More and more people, it seems, are playing RPGs as a means to storytelling, but everywhere they look all they see are dungeons, dragons, and derivatives. It’s easy to internalize that a neutral simulator with a DM is all an RPG needs to be. I’m trying to break through this dysfunctional way of thinking, this idea that D&D is somehow the default state of roleplaying. I’m trying to get past the paradigm that the thing that gives an RPG its theme and flavor is pages and pages of lore in a campaign book. Rather, it’s the play dynamic of the baseline rules that has the greatest impact on play.
I’d like to see more people discover that. I’d like to see them find tools more suitable for the story experience they’re searching for. And I definitely want to see people shake off their fear of trying them out. Many of these games ask us to make dramatic changes in our roleplaying method, and it can be hard – even scary! – to break with comfortable, old habits. “What do you mean this book is going to tell me how to run my story? I know what I’m doing, I don’t need help.” Giving up control is often the hardest part, especially for a DM. It feels like so much is at stake, that if you don’t know what there is to gain, why risk it? I hope my series gives those people a taste of what’s possible with these games, and compelling reasons to make that leap of faith.
One thing I definitely did not set out to do is tell people what games they can and can’t play. I’ve been very hard on Dungeons & Dragons in this series. But that’s only because I’ve been evaluating it as a game specifically about storytelling, which is wrong. It never tried to be any of this, not in the beginning. It’s clearly designed as a Conan simulator, a micro-wargame on a global scale. If that sort of thing appeals to you, if you like moving around on a map and puzzling out the logistical challenge of a dungeon crawl, by all means play D&D. Its magic spells are designed to be loosely interpretable, making them wildly open-ended and fun to play with. There are old, forgotten rules from previous editions that I think could stand to come back, things like meta-roles and player map-making. I even have a weird idea I want to try with it inspired by classical roguelikes.
But if you find yourself playing the game some other way, one that leaves the books largely unopened and unused, maybe you only think you want to play D&D. Maybe it’s the fear factor, whether it be fear of change or fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s just that you’re stuck in your ways, the feeling that just winging the story works well enough already. Maybe it’s nothing more than the source books’ paradoxical tenet that ignoring everything written in them is somehow a normal way to play the game. I can relate to all of these feelings, having been there myself. I know what it’s like to say “I’m a D&D player,” but only mean that insofar as “D&D” is just a generic synonym for “roleplaying games.”
And I also know what it’s like to think that there are good and bad roleplayers. I understand why an article like 11 Ways To Be A Better Roleplayer seems important and necessary. But too often, people don’t ask why these articles are necessary. People don’t consider that sometimes it’s the very game they’re playing that gives rise to the behaviors they don’t like. You can tell someone what they need to do a hundred times, but if the system is subliminally telling them the opposite the entire time, you can’t get anywhere until you address that.
In that regard, I’ll never forget that meme spammer. He was my system’s greatest success story. He proved that you can’t simply write people off as hopeless or toxic, and boot them from the group when they don’t play your way. With just a little redirection, you’d be amazed at what comes out. Every roleplayer has a creative spark, a part of themselves they’re trying to express. Often they need a little bit of help to explore it in a productive way. So before you give up on someone as a bad apple, consider they might just be a product of their environment. Change the environment, change the system they inhabit, and you can change who comes out the other side.
That’s why it pains me to no end when I hear people insist that no game system can help with roleplaying or storytelling. It’s yet another dysfunctional attitude I’m trying to uproot, perhaps the very root of it all. It narrowly defines “roleplaying” as “the stuff I’m doing when no dice are being rolled.” It places the entire burden of the whole hobby solely on the player. It discourages people from even seeking, let alone trying, games that could help. And the whole reason the attitude exists is because of the severe mismatch between the people who think it and the game they play. They put D&D books on their laps, try to play something outside of its jurisdiction, and when the game doesn’t help them, they assume that’s normal for RPGs, call it “roleplaying,” and continue like nothing is wrong. It’s a closed loop of thought that’s incredibly difficult to escape.
More than anything, I’m trying to dispel the notion that there’s “more” to a game than just what’s in the rules. I’m fighting the idea that people who play D&D specifically for the dungeons and the dragons are only playing half the game. It’s a great untruth, invented by people who are perhaps uncomfortable with playing the game for the sake of itself. They keep trying to reshape D&D with new house rules, new campaign ideas, new roleplaying tips or DM’s workshops, all of which amount to yet more declarations of “Here’s how you should actually play it!” We need to stop with this obnoxious moralizing about the true way to play the game.
The only way you can tell if you’re playing the true game is by how often the rules come into play. If you find yourself not invoking the rules or glossing over them, you’re not really playing D&D, and probably don’t want to. We need to be comfortable enough to say “That’s fine.” Yes, D&D is huge. I know we all want to be part of the phenomenon. We all want to feel included. But there are other games, far more than you might even imagine. And people do play them. Maybe you could even get your friends to play them.
Just remember that none of these games are “more” than their rules. They don’t need to be. There’s nothing lesser about them just because there are things they don’t do. It’s what they can do all by themselves that gives each one its identity. Resist the urge to paste your own values over the top of it. Resist the urge to do the equivalent of roleplaying Monopoly because you think it’ll turn it into more than “just” a board game. Find a game that will work with you, one that will act as a partner to help you along the way. Take time to figure out what you truly want from roleplaying, what your voice brings to the story. Chances are there’s a game out there waiting for you.
…I’ve done a lot of growing up since then, enough to finally acknowledge that you aren’t who I need. I don’t hate you for it, and I hope we can still be friends. You’re a total riot at parties, and people try all kinds of crazy stunts when you’re around. Someday I’d like to team up with you on a neat project if you’re up for it.
But I can’t invest in you emotionally anymore. That’s just not who you are, and it wasn’t good for me to lay so much at your feet. It’s time for me to move on and find someone who can give me what I’m looking for, someone who I can build a future with. I hope you understand that. And I hope your future relationships are more honest than ours was. I hope someday, you can just be you, and that will be enough.
Beyond Dungeons & Dragons (Geeknights) – A PAX panel outlining the limitations of D&D and gives more examples of alternative systems and how they work
Imagining Ourselves: Queer Mechanics and Queer Games (Avery Alder) – A Proud and Nerdy panel discussing new perspectives to explore stories and relationships in RPGs
Chess is Not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance (John Wick) – A reevaluation of what it means to be a roleplaying game that you can successfully play without roleplaying
How is DitV different from more “traditional” RPGs? – A Stack Exchange thread that outlines the dramatic shift in player mentality required to play Dogs in the Vineyard
Thank you so much for this! This series of articles have helped me crystallize a lot of my thoughts and feelings regarding DnD for years! You’ve given me a lot to think and consider. Thank you so SO much for this.
Thanks to you for posting a comment here that has created an alert mail. This made me read this article again after 3 years… Enjoyed it a lot, once more !
Make me wonder if we could read about Sam’s system with “Need” and “Ego” that he’s talking about, if it’s available somewhere. And also: we did not have the end of the story, if this system was as successful for him and his group when playing with it as it was during the character creation.
What happened after the events I recounted in this essay is a whole other story I’m not at liberty to tell in public. However if people are interested in playtesting the system I spoke of here, please contact me via DM on Twitter, and we can discuss it.
Thank you both for reading!
I really enjoyed this article series! Thanks for putting it together. 🙂
Thank you for your articles, they were really great. There’s a lot of discussions that could spawn from them.
What game would you recommend that actually delivers on the fantasy people have of D&D. The players that watched Critical Role and want a fantasy game to play interesting story arcs and drama in them ?
What do you think of FATE, a game that is generic but have rules that focus not on simulation but on characters aspects and how it translate to action. Asking because you’re making the point that a good designed game should focus on a specific proposition (and it’s a generic game).
Acknowledging D&D for what it is, don’t you think we could still attach to it new protocols (not rules, protocols) to make it more story-friendly ?
So you’re not modifying the mechanical rules of D&D, but you could maybe insert new phases in the game that are about the “who” and the “why”. I am talking about changing the structure, not the engine.
Maybe every session begin with a flashback of someone, or the GM can ask a series of questions to the players that could make the dynamic of the party evolve, or every session ends with a down-time to ask players how their character are feeling.
It’s not about changing the purpose of D&D, it’s still about fighting and dungeons, the focus is the same. But it could add an extra layer that give players the space to explain why they are doing it, and how doing it might change them ? So you benefit of the balance and tactics of the game, with some space for character development on top of it ?
I have some difficulty explaining myself for the last one, sorry. My brain is tired and french.
One thing to bear in mind is that the “theme” or “genre” of a TTRPG isn’t necessarily its lore tradition or setting. Theme is often more akin to a storytelling process. People often get confused by this when referring to the “fantasy” genre in particular since often that means nothing more than “swords and magic.” A lot of people think that “genre” refers to the nouns that the story contains, when really it’s “the way the story is told.”
In that way, something like FATE isn’t exactly “generic” – it has its own values of what good stories and characters are, and many of these are voiced in the text. You could slot different settings into a FATE story, but that’s true of many systems. Even a vampire TTRPG like Annalise has an example story with superheroes in it! That doesn’t change the way that the story is told – just the aesthetics of the setting. This also means that a lot of these “single-purpose” TTRPGs are more versatile than one might otherwise give them credit for!
I haven’t read all of FATE (much less played it), but from what I read of it, it seems promising. Its primary focus seems to be on letting players control the narrative more than they might otherwise be allowed in D&D-likes. Another game that might appeal to the would-be D&D player is The Burning Wheel. Characters in that game might still fight things with fantasy-nouns, but if they do, the mechanical focus is on why they fight. Regardless of what they’re doing, it’s in pursuit of a goal of the player’s own making, It helps to give each character a narrative trajectory while still leaving that trajectory in the hands of the players. It also has a way of protecting a player’s intent when they do something. Any given test requires that the player describe exactly what they want out of a conflict, and success means they get it as described. There’s no weasel room for the DM to withhold it – they just get it.
Try watching this video that describes how it works mechanically, and see if it would fit. When choosing a TTRPG, one has to have the clarity of mind to ask themselves very specifically what they want out of the experience. What did the Critical Role story mean to any given player? You’d have to ask them. But I highly doubt that the audience came back week after week to see if the cast would run out of HP. And if that’s not what was important to people about the story, it’s time to ask what actually was.
Thanks for reading!
Burning Wheel is reputed very crunchy, and the fact that it can take so much session to “get it” is not good for me, playing one-shot at a club with new players most time.
BUT, I’m reading Mouseguard (similar system) because I thought it was going to be more friendly (and cute!) and I’m liking it so far 🙂
Have you tried Wushu open reloaded system ?
(first link found, but you could find plenty: http://silverpath.pbworks.com/f/open_reloaded_basic.pdf)
I have adapted it for every RPG world I play in, and my players and I could not even consider to return to more simulationist system since.
Also, players new to RPG tends to understand it and adapt to it very quickly.
You can have an example of how it works here: http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?97425-Wushu-Example-of-Play
Awesome series of articles ! You have put words on many of my issues with “traditional” roleplaying systems (D&D, Pathfinder and many other old, established one), on the visceral fear I feel when I see rules system that have thing like range modifiers…
It’s refreshing to clearly understand that a system SHOULD help you to roleplay, or at least that we should expect it to help us to do so. And not putting this behind an arrogant wall of separating inexperienced from veteran players.
My own history with role playing games has lead me to use some custom rule system called “Wushu”. Which encourages all players to participate and take narrative power over the story.
I try to use it to every world and RPG I use for my players to play on.
We have also, my wife and me, tried the 2nd edition of 7th sea, which is also pleasingly sliding on what I call the “narrative side” of role playing games. (Which sadly seems not to the taste of many players of the 1st edition…)
That’s said I appreciate from time to time to play some hack&slash games, with detailed combat rules.
The fun that comes with boardgames like Descent or Warhammer Quest is sometimes appealing, and seems easy to setup.
But each time I want to play a session of those, I inevitably think that it should be funnier to just do a roleplaying session of dungeon exploration with some rules system like Pathfinder. This shows well enough, for me, that those systems are more meant to play “improved” table top games, than to tell stories (and this is totally fine).
Anyway, even with system that are encouraging people to take narrative power, I have found it hard to really make my players fully do so. They seems to need this DM/Player distinction, and I am yet to find a way to totally avoid to have a DM at the table and still succeed in making great and entertaining story…
Maybe we could take turn into creating a plot with some secrets in it and play it for 2 or 3 sessions before giving the “Player-DM” role to another player. But then what about big campaign ?
Do you think that having a DM keeping secret for the sake of surprising the players is necessarily a bad thing in a roleplaying game that would not be just a series of combats & loots ?
Perhaps the biggest barrier to players taking narrative control is expectation. We’ve been playing D&D-likes for a really long time, and it’s easy to fall into the comfortable patterns of their structure. I encourage TTRPG players to look closely at the games that they regularly play and really question just how different they really are from D&D. 7th Sea may seem more narrative oriented when compared with D&D, but it was still originally made by someone who’s been DMing D&D since he was 12. There’s a lot of fiddly rules that tend toward simulation, and there’s an underlying attitude that the GM is supposed to be already good at storytelling for the game to work.
Which is another significant barrier for player narration: “What if I’m not good enough?” Some people gravitate toward the role because they like telling stories (let’s forget about the controlling DMs for now), and others are content to be passive players. But this doesn’t mean that those people don’t like being a narrator! All that means is that they don’t like the DM role as it is traditionally done in TTRPGs where you have one guy who controls the scenario and is expected to be a primary entertainer. There’s an awful lot of assumptions that TTRPG players make that the DM/player relationship is the best (or even the only!) paradigm for a TTRPG. Even stronger is the assumption that the DM must have free reign to tell the story any way they want with no guidance from the game. The game is their toybox, and they set up the figures in whatever way makes sense to them.
But what if the game provides a story structure that points the way for narration? What if it’s not 100% on the players to invent the story out of nothing? I think a lot of players who wouldn’t normally sit down in that DM’s chair are a lot more comfortable with the idea that they’ll be given a process for making what story they do. Traditional DMs may balk at being “restrained” by such a thing, but who’s to say they’re perfect storytellers either? What’s wrong with a little storytelling guidance to keep the story moving or accentuate the conflict? Many DM’s guides tell you that these are things you should do. But a true storytelling game shows you. And when it comes to players we normally think of as “non-DM” type players, maybe showing them how is all they ever needed.
On the topic of DM secret keeping, this is a concept I’ve spent a lot of brain cycles working out. I love, love, LOVE secrets as a storyteller, probably way too much. And the reason I love them is because the reveal is really satisfying. But it needs to be done right, or else it ends up as indulgent wankery on the part of the storyteller. This has a lot of overlap with the “Rules for Mystery Stories” that I linked in Part Three – there needs to be a strong enough possibility that the audience be able to reason out the secret before its reveal. That’s what gives a reveal its psychological power: it ties together the threads of the story that now makes a closed, logical sense. A secret that defies you to know anything about it cuts the audience out of the story – an especially heinous crime in a TTRPG!
My own strongest interest in TTRPGs right now lies in systems that help facilitate secrets in productive ways that encourage player investment, help further a narrative, and provide that thrilling payoff of the reveal. I think we need to fundamentally rethink how it’s normally done. For example, Annalise has a pretty wild reversal of our thinking when it comes to secrets. Remember from Part Two that each character has an officially documented Secret on their character sheet. What you might not know about the game, however, is that there is no permanent GM – instead, players volunteer for the role on each other player’s turn for their scene.
This means that it’s not the GM who keeps secrets from players – it’s players who keep secrets from the GM.
I won’t duplicate what I’ve already written in Part Two about the Secret, but know that those dynamics have a way of poking at the Secret, and the system gives the player a structure to provide meaningful hints to the other players. Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that while players do author the Secrets, they might not author their own. Each player writes two Secrets, and these are put in a pile from which each player draws one. You might get your own Secret, but likely you’ll get one from someone else. Since each person wrote two, they won’t know which (if any!) of their Secrets are in play. But they’re definitely on the lookout for them in the other players, and if they sense that another player has a Secret they wrote, they can volunteer as GM for that player in order to engineer situations that prod that Secret into the open. They’re simultaneously testing the waters to solve a mystery as well as helping that player to contextualize the Secret, leading to a more satisfying reveal later on.
Annalise is a highly sophisticated system that bucks a lot of TTRPG trends and conventional wisdom. It also provides a strong example of what it means to truly systematize a story structure rather than just leave story to the players as a “Do whatever you want.” See, it’s not about whether your system is “rules heavy” or “rules light.” Annalise says right in its introductory chapter that it’s not “rules light.” It’s a question of what the rules actually govern, and what they push players to do at the table. Sometimes achieving the desired effect and encouraging the right sort of behavior requires the rules to be highly specific. But nothing in the rules governs anything even remotely like “simulation.” The rules are an intricate system of narrative bidding and internal growth or regression for the characters. It’s the story that’s of the highest ludic value, not the simulation.
Also, let it not be said that secrets are required for a good story! In fact, often times the drama of a story is because we the audience know things that the characters do not. The traditional way of thinking about this in TTRPGs is that you shouldn’t “meta-game” – that is, act in-character on things that you know out-of-character. But the only reason we think that way is because of the adversarial DM/player relationship, where players want to eke out any advantage they can get or else they’ll die. But in a completely different play dynamic, everything changes.
Check out the link to the Stack Exchange thread on Dogs in the Vineyard at the end of this article. Note that the rules specifically tell DMs NOT to keep any secrets from players, even if the players’ characters would have no way of knowing the information. From the thread:
“Don’t keep secrets. Seriously, don’t! As GM be an open book. It is not only acceptable but required to say stuff like “She shakes her head and denies any knowledge of the theft. And she’s totally lying” or “Youpass by, and as soon as you are out of sight all three brothers spit in the tracks you left with contempt”. No secrets!”
We have a lot of long-standing assumptions of how TTRPGs “have” to work, and we’re constantly seeing them proven wrong by a new game that turns the table over. But we need to actually read, play, and understand these games in order to break through those assumptions. A natural reaction to some of these assumptions being broken is disbelief or “That doesn’t sound very fun.” But remember, you’re probably thinking of it in the context of how you’re used to TTRPGs working, and these games often have a system that creates a completely different context.
Break out. Challenge everything. We have barely begun to explore the TTRPG design space, and there’s a staggeringly huge amount of untread ground. We’re living in the TTRPG renaissance, if only we care to look.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks a lot for your detailed answer.
I have to think and “digest” what you have said.
I have still difficulty to imagine how a campaign without a DM keeping some secrets on the grand scheme of her/his vilains could be. But your article and answer has definitely encouraged me to try some new approach.