As I wrote back in July, I was feeling the old RPG bug gnawing at my brain. I was interested in getting a group back together again for some hack-and-slash dungeon crashing. I did a few internet searches and discovered that the new edition of D&D was about to be released. This piqued my interest, despite the fact I hadn't played D&D for about 30 years.
I've now run several sessions of the new D&D rules, and have a regular 6-person group meeting every couple of weeks. We've put enough time in to allow for some considered observations about this set of rules and the play sessions it helps create.
This blog post is just some rambling thoughts on the new system, role-playing and, perhaps, what we should be getting out of our hobby time.
So, to put my comments in context, I'll run through a quick personal history: my experiences with RPGs.
I started back around 1978 with this set of Basic D&D rules.
If you were around at that time, and are familiar with the late '70s gaming scene, you know this box contained some pretty powerful and magical stuff for imaginative teenagers. Looking back, it was all crap, but really...at the time, it was amazing. In high school, we quickly got sucked into this game, and played...and played...and played.
Soon after that, AD&D came out...which is what, I believe, is now referred to as 1st Edition. My high school group lived in this set of rules for a couple of very happy years. It was the last version of D&D I played.
Looking for a more complex and "realistic" game, I started playing Rolemaster, with the original Arms Law and Claw Law sets. This was heady material at the time. We loved the system and crits.
I spent some time from my last year of high school writing a sci-fi extension to the Rolemaster rules. That manuscript eventually got expanded in partnership with Terry Amthor and a full-blown project, called Space Master, was the resulting RPG. I worked for Iron Crown for several years after university and was involved in many RPG and miniatures releases. All fun stuff.
But dipping into many rule sets and genres during that time (e.g. Cthulhu, Runequest, Cyberpunk, 40K Rogue Trader, Champions, blah, blah, blah) made me realize that heroic fantasy is what turned my role-playing crank.
As the years went by, there were many games systems being released that were far superior, system-wise, to D&D. A few years back I latched onto my all-time favourite, 3rd Edition WFRP from Fantasy Flight. The non-binary success/failure task resolution mechanic led to a brilliant narrative dice system. This was great stuff. But the barrier to entry was a really expensive starter set. The game never really caught on. It's derivative, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, was more successful.
I ran WFRP in my favourite heroic fantasy world, Middle-earth. Now that was a lot of fun, and a great RPG experience.
But that brings us to this year, and the release of 5th Edition D&D.
If you've been reading the reviews for this game, or have played it yourself, I'm guessing you're familiar with what I have to say. The game is good; the system is pretty solid. It feels a LOT like playing D&D 30 years ago, but with far less complicated rules. But, still, it feels like a very old game. At its core, this feeling comes from the very binary pass/fail task resolution system.
Essentially, anything you do in the game (e.g. attack role, saving throw, skill check) has a target number. You roll a D20, add your modifier, and if you meet or exceed the target number, you succeed at the task. Roll lower, and you fail. Sure, this system works, but in practice, it can be very unsatisfying.
Why? Well, take the combat round for instance. You're playing with 6 people and there are a slew of monsters on the table. Everyone rolls initiative and the combat rounds start ticking by. It is very common for your character to get locked into melee with an opposing figure. When it comes your time to act in the round, you swing your sword against the target. You will hit and do some damage, or you will miss. And it's on those rounds that you miss...or heaven forbid, miss on several consecutive rounds, that D&D feels old.
As a player, you are spending 20 or 30...or 45 minutes in combat. Rounds are ticking by...players are taking actions, moving around, casting spells, etc., etc., and you're just rolling a D20. You are missing your target and then waiting for your next opportunity to swing.
Its a function of hit points, armour class, weapon damage and the round sequence. It's D&D. Players can get locked into a state where a lot of time passes, and they don't feel like they do very much. You can counter-argue that the player should be more inventive, or work with other players, or try to do other things...but the rules around opportunity attacks, character speed and so on really put players into the World of Warcraft state of standing in combat and hoping your target runs out of hit points before you do. Afterwards...heal and repeat.
This isn't necessarily bad...it's just D&D. And this new edition doesn't break that beat-stick/damage-sponge mould. What brings interest is the variety of characters in your party, the tactical situation, and the arsenal of spells or special abilities that come into play in any given encounter. But that variety is really just different condiments spread on the same hotdog.
As I've mentioned, other games are better at creating more action-oriented and cinematic conflict resolution that promotes a fast-flowing narrative. More like a movie sequence. But this post is about D&D, so we'll keep the conversation there.
Why does D&D work, despite its shortcomings? I think it's the same reason that any particular RPG works, regardless of how good or bad the rule system is. In the end, it comes down to the people you're playing with and the power of the story you're living through together.
Let's face it...role-playing groups don't fall apart because people agree that the rules suck. It's because they don't enjoy spending time with each other...or they don't like the way others in the game role-play. Or act. Or what they say. Or, honestly, smell.
Role-playing works when the players and GM are on the same wavelength. Meaning, when they enjoy the same things. Maybe that's an intricate plot, or complimentary character backstories, or combat synergy...or maybe the people involved just like each other.
I think RPG rules are like a campfire. People hang out around the campfire after dark, and they will stay there for a long time telling stories, or they'll sit for one beer and then go to bed. That decision (to stay for a long time, or leave quickly) isn't based on the quality of the campfire...it's based on the quality of people who are there.
So in the end, D&D 5th edition makes for a nice, warm campfire. I'm playing it right now, and enjoying it, but I think that's mostly because there are good people sitting around the table.