Box Full of Knives: Why Dungeons & Dragons needs to step away from its wargaming roots

by Connor Eddles

Box Full of Knives: Why Dungeons & Dragons needs to step away from its wargaming roots
September 28, 2019 Parallel Worlds

Every tabletop roleplaying game is a system, composed of mechanics, designed around a certain story that the system wants to emulate. They’re toolboxes. And, as Adam Koebel states in this twitter thread, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the original roleplaying game, is a box full of knives. The mechanics tell you how to fight things and take their stuff in great detail, and everything else is left in broad strokes and not supported by the mechanics. 

This article may look like yet another hit-piece on the fifth edition of D&D (often referred to as ‘5e’) but that accusation would only be half correct. A proper critique of the system as a whole requires us to go way back and look at where it all began. Some of you reading this might have been there. 

I was born in 1997; I was absolutely not there. I’ve grown up during what could be called the ‘golden age’ of roleplaying games; the internet connects and facilitates games in a way previous generations didn’t think possible, and the number of games that step away from D&D and become their own toolboxes continues to expand. 

I’d comfortably put the number of tabletop roleplaying gamers who’ve only ever played D&D at around 70% of all players. This is in part due to the brand popularity — some people call all roleplaying games ‘D&D’, it’s that recognisable. But there’s a problem with this. Rather than being a gateway to the hobby and encouraging people to branch out and explore new systems, every edition of D&D since the third has been a sort of cul-de-sac that people sit in, never content to venture out and try something new. 

Now, of course, this is just a game we’re talking about here. Most of the time people just want to sit around at a table, hit some monsters, make some dumb jokes, and switch off their brains. D&D provides that in spades, especially 5e

But that’s just it: it’s a game. Not a story, and not an adventure. And I have more than enough video games to scratch that itch. When I sit down to run or play a tabletop roleplaying game, I want a damn adventure. I want to feel like a story is unfolding around me as I explore fantastic worlds. I don’t want to win a +1 sword or experience points, but experience the simple joy of seeing what’s around the next corner. Maybe it’ll be an intrigue game, and my character will scheme their way to the top of the pile. Maybe we’ll be robbing dungeons like banks, in and out as fast as possible, no witnesses. A story. Not a game.

This is the part of the conversation where someone is likely to say: “But the system doesn’t matter if your Game Master and group are on the same page,” or: “you can just hack and homebrew the system to do what you want.”

Sure, you can do that. Some of the best storytelling and roleplaying experiences can come from a game where both the GM and the group dip into the books for what they need and work out the rest for themselves, but in a commercial environment where there are many choices of different RPGs, why would a group use a system that doesn’t accommodate their play style?

For those who really want detail, there are games like Pathfinder or Rolemaster, which offer a detailed simulationist approach. You absolutely know that’s what you’re getting with these systems. 5e seems to be trying to be in the middle ground, between story and game, but there’s a danger in being there, as it can be frustrating for storytellers, gamers and simulationists alike.  

There’s no denying that 5e is incredibly popular; it’s one of the industry’s biggest success stories of modern times. However, people seem absolutely petrified to step outside 5e’s cul-de-sac and spend a bit of time learning. There are a wealth of systems with fewer rules than 5e, but more tools to create amazing stories and adventures. Apart from the aforementioned Pathfinder and Rolemaster, games like Basic Fantasy, available online for free from basicfantasy.org is an amazing resource. GURPs (Generic Universal Roleplaying System) from Steve Jackson Games is still going, with a light rules system and tons of optional resources for players and Games Masters.

Less rules, more tools. 

One of the best ‘rules light’ offerings around at the moment is Into The Odd (ItO) by Chris McDowall. ItO, like 5e, is about killing things and taking their gold. ItO lays out the tools for this in about three pages. It’s slick and exciting and rather weird. Characters often die, but those who survive feel an incredible sense of triumph. And as the permanent GM of many playing groups, having a light toolbox of a system that I can add bits to on the fly is just perfect. It becomes more my own the more I play around with it.

Could 5e give me a great adventure or story? Sure, with the right GM and players and plot line and and and… If you want to feel like you’re on an actual adventure, you have to work around 5e, because you get nothing but knives. Spellcasters can take cantrips that do stupid amounts of damage, and every spell is tailored to solve a huge number of problems, but most of these are combat based. Also, the legacy of the level system is still a problem that won’t go away. Beyond level 10 your average party can trivialise most threats and encounters, dominate non-player characters to do what they want, and rain hellfire upon the land. They’re not underdogs, and the story isn’t compelling. With previous editions, the game balanced this by making you really weak and inexperienced at the start, but players didn’t want to do the hard yards to get to the sweet spot (levels 5-9), so the starting characters were powered up a bit as the game went on. What’s left is a bit like a summer blockbuster with a massive budget and cool special effects. It’s fun enough in small doses, but can’t we have something a bit more nuanced and thrilling? 

Of course, going too far in the opposite direction won’t help either. Ars Magica is a game where you can play a wizard, spend several years in a tower working on a spell, then get eaten by a wolf when your servants fail to protect you on a routine excursion. It might not sound it, but that game was pretty damn fun — and all randomly assigned, too. Which brings me to my next point. 

Renowned old-school roleplaying blog The Alexandrian refers to random tables as ‘low-tech procedural content generators’, which is absolutely true. The best games I’ve played haven’t been strings of narratives tied to big combat setpieces that take hours to resolve. They’ve been glorious weird sandboxes where player agency rules the day, and the GM’s sacred duty is to facilitate the players while they make the plot happen. Not the other way round. 

And it’s really, really hard to build and facilitate if your toolbox is full of nothing but lots of different knives. Perhaps there’s an excuse for this in video games or other platforms where the method of play is hardwired and expectations are advertised in the screenshots, but an RPG, where imagination is supposed to be at the heart of the experience? We need more forks, or even a paintbrush or two. Rules that help players interact with the world in different ways are essential.  

5e also has a problem commonly referred to as the ‘long rest economy’. The players can take a ‘long rest’ to heal up completely and be ready to fight. Common sense dictates this should be something done between adventures, as a form of downtime. Unfortunately, the rules of 5e don’t mandate that, and I’ve seen many GMs have the threat and challenge sucked right out of their session when the players take a long rest in a dungeon. 

But surely they can apply common sense? The system doesn’t need to tell them, right? 

I run into this argument a lot, and it holds some merit. But 5e is the first tabletop roleplaying game system a lot of people play, and they often take the book as complete gospel that shouldn’t be changed, because change is scary and rules are rules. Many players arrive at roleplaying from board games and the like which don’t tell you that you can chuck out a rule or two in the interests of fun. And the mechanics of 5e are woven together in ways that make it really hard to tinker and change things. The notion of balance, which in my mind runs counter to any form of adventure, stymies innovation. 

Balance belongs in games. Roleplaying games are indeed games, as the name suggests. But the stories they aim to create are not just games and not just stories. They’re adventures. And adventures are never balanced because it would render them terribly boring. The heroes should start as underdogs, trying to claw their way to some kind of power so they can earn the right to be big damn heroes. Bilbo Baggins didn’t start out as a hero or slayer of monsters. In fact, he didn’t go home as one either. He feels like more of a person than any Tiefling warlock or Genasi cleric because he’s always the underdog, getting by on his wits and the aid of his friends, which is what any adventure should focus on.

A final thought: if you’re completely new to roleplaying games, 5e will guarantee you have people to play with. You’ll have fun. But when you start to look deeper and seek different tabletop experiences, put down the box of knives and find something with tools that suit you. Because at their hearts, tabletop roleplaying games are the most personal experience you can have while still playing a game.