# What I Don't Like About D&D I've been thinking a lot about RPG systems lately, partly because I'm GMing for the first time in years, partly in response to [this](http://susd.pretend-money.com/blog/2013/6/27/monster-hearts/). I've enjoyed D&D - its flaws can be mitigated, and good friends can hame a good time doing almost any activity. But of all the systems I've played (and some systemless games), I've probably enjoyed D&D the least. I do not say this lightly. * Unless you're very lucky, your party will be unbalanced Your character's abilities are dominated by your stats, the first six dice rolls you make during creation. Roll well and you can claim the spotlight by force, roll badly and you are forever mechanically weaker than the rest of the party Playing a weaker character can be fun as a roleplaying choice. But having it forced upon you is not, at least for me. Yes, you can mitigate against it by being clever in your actions, by having interesting character quirks, by - when all else fails - minmaxing like hell. But *players who rolled higher stats can do all these things too*. Yes, the group should balance spotlight between characters - but when one character is much better than another at most tasks, it's not really practical (you could tailor challenges to the weaker characters' strong points - but that would, quite rightly, draw complaints from everyone else). Yes, the rules say that the very worst stats can be mulliganed, but that only shifts the line for where the worst rolls are. The fundamental problem - that there's a randomly imposed power imbalance in the party which is substantial and *permanent*, remains. I've put this one at the top not because its effects are worse than the other things on this page, but because the only way to avoid it is to turn your game into something that's *not D&D*. * The rules encourage a lot of tedious bookkeeping Perhaps this is personal preference, but many of the things D&D encourages you to keep track of are simply not interesting. I'll admit that occasionally it's nice to be able to anticipate buying a particular awesome item and gradually save up the loot for it. But does anyone actually enjoy calculating their encumberance? Worse, a lot of the time people treat the equipment list as a way for the GM to "gotcha" a player who forgot to write down something - and that's no fun for anyone. My preferred approach is to assume everyone's taken a reasonable set of gear for whatever they're doing, and if it becomes important whether or not a character has a certain thing, ask their player. If they *want* to say their character always has the Bat-Shark-repellent or whatever item would get them out of this encounter, fine - it's their own fun they're spoiling. But in my experience if you treat players as collaborators in your story they respond in kind, and won't mind taking a dive from time to time to keep things interesting. Explicitly calculating experience from each encounter makes sense in a computer game, where the machine can do it for you, but the cost/benefit is too poor to do it by hand. It's even worse if you keep track of individual characters separately, as you end up with a vicious circle: some characters are better at combat (perhaps because they rolled higher stats ), so they're able to fight more and take part in more encounters, so they get more experience, widening the gap between them and weaker characters. In my games, the party levels up together if at all, and I tell them to do so when it seems narratively appropriate rather than when the entries we've added up in a table somewhere say so. Fortunately, you can do all this in D&D too - just drop the encumberance rools, stop writing down loot/experience, tell your players to be sensible about what they're carrying and when to level up. It doesn't change the "feel" of the game, doesn't make it "not D&D" - it just removes a few of the boring bits and lets you spend more time on the fun stuff. * The rules focus on combat, so the game focuses on combat Even with the heavy simplification many groups do, the complexity of D&D's combat ruleset still dwarfs what it offers for anything elsee. Which means that even if it makes up a small proportion of your game time, most real time will be spent making combat rolls. I remember one particular campaign which was a fascinating story of political intrigue in a pseudo-Venetian setting, with various factions vying for control of the court, the merchants trying to increase their own power, the ruler barely more than a figurehead but with his own vision for what the city-state should do... it really was amazing. But most sessions we'd spend an hour or so exploring this wonderful stuff, and then someone's guards would rush in or we'd spot a thief in the street, and suddenly everything ground to a halt for twenty minutes as we trudged through the combat rolls - and after that it was always a bit harder to get back into the mindset we'd started with. This one's relatively easy to fix, and my experience is many groups already have their ways of dealing with it: once it's clear how a combat's going to go, there's no need to roll out every single action the way the leter of the rules say. Feel free to cut it down to a smaller number of rolls, or - for minor encounters that are intended for flavour rather than to pose a challenge to the PCs - do away with the rolling altogether. * The flat probability curve doesn't have any extreme results The only point of having randomness in a game is so that you can occasionally be surprised. I tend to have a pretty low rate of dice rolling in my games - it's not unusual to go half an hour without rolling any, and most conflicts are resolved in one or two throws - but when I ask for one there should be a chance of something that I didn't expect. Otherwise what's the point? With D&D every outcome has a 5% chance. Which is reasonably unlikely, but not *that* unlikely, particularly if you're rolling at the frequencies that are typical in a D&D game. There's a mythology built up around the natural 20, but it's something you can expect to happen every so often. You don't get the "epic" rolls that you still talk about months later, like the time I rolled 350 in HARP and sliced through four pig-men with one blow, or the hextruple-fumble in Promethean where I not only shot off my own leg, but that of the PC next to me as well. If you do play with a large number of rolls per combat (as in the vanilla rules) then extreme results become more available - one natural 20 isn't so strange, but two in a row is - but it's very hard to translate these into interesting story events when combat is done round-by-round. Losing to some goblins because you triple-fumbled and landed on your own sword is fun, or at least funny - it can even become a moment of high drama if it happens with the right group at the right time. Losing to some goblins because you regular-fumbled at D&D's 5% chance for three successive rounds is much harder to make anything of. Put it another way: as GM, in D&D I can set a success probability of 5%, 10%, .... Contrast with e.g. GURPS, where there are fewer numbers you might roll (16 rather than 20). But the probabilities I can set are 0.46%, 1.9%, 4.6%.... Of course, this doesn't come for free; around the middle values the distribution is more spread out, so e.g. I can't choose anything between 38% and 50%. But for narrative purposes that's the right tradeoff; the difference between 0.5% and 2% is much more interesting than the difference between 35% and 40%. This one can't be fixed without making the game not-D&D, but can be ignored to a certain extent. As a GM my recommendation is to run D&D the way you would run a diceless game; give the PCs choices to make rather than situations where they need to apply their mechanical skills. When you need a bit of randomness for inspiration, do it on the GM side of the table where you can use whatever dice you like. When you're doing combat, it's only really worth rolling if failure will mean something interesting; the last point actually helps with this a lot, because if you've reduced your combats to one or two rolls then you're much more justified in presenting an interesting failure scenario if these rolls go badly, compared to standard D&D combat where winning and losing can be more easily blamed on how the GM statted the monsters. (Incidentally, if you have players who prefer standard D&D combat, do feel free to mess with your monsters' stats and fudge your dice rolls where necessary. It's not your job to provide an accurate simulation or a fair fight for the players - D&D's rules are not amenable to either - it's your job to help them tell an interesting story, to give them opponents that feel challenging but who will ultimately be overcome. Railroading is bad when it negates the players' agency - players who come up with something clever should be rewarded, players who do something stupid should suffer the consequences, even if that messes up the plans you had for the story. But negating the dice's agency is fine) * Characters start weak and undifferentiated The only reason this isn't higher on the list is that all the groups I've played with know better than to start from level 1. Before I start complaining I will say that on the plus-side, combat is swingier (i.e. more affected by luck) and therefore, with typical GMing, much more lethal in the early levels, which can actually help the game out in the long run. If you're the kind of player who works out a character bit by bit in play, then starting with a few deaths makes the game seem very lethal and more intense - but once your character develops and firms up an identity and you become more attached to them the game is secretly becoming much safer, which is good because it's much less pleasant to lose a character once you've got to that stage. Unfortunately I reach that stage almost immediately (and I understand a nontrivial proportion of roleplayers are like me in this respect). I build up a backstory as part of character creation, fleshing it out at the same time as my stats; my character's concept is complete before I've made my first dice roll. Losing such a character at random is, if anything, even more unpleasant than a more fully formed one, as I feel like all the effort on the concept was wasted. (Side note: this entire paragraph is in direct opposition to a post I wrote in my early roleplaying days at university. I guess creating a character becomes less dependent on mechanics as you gain more experience roleplaying) Worst of all, some concepts simply can't be represented at level 1. If you want to be a fighter/wizard, you can't do that until level 2; for now you'll have to pick one or the other. The really frustrating thing is there's a better system lurking there, in the racial rules: if a dragonkin or whatever costs 4 levels, even D&D realises that it would be stupid to have you play the first three levels as a human and then upgrade. So you start with all the dragonkin abilities on advance, as it were, and spend your first three levels paying them back. In isolation, this works brilliantly. But if only some of the party does it then you have a serious balance issue - so either you find a bunch of different but more or less equal races for everyone to play, and spin a ridiculous story for how they got together, or 3/4 of the party spends the first few levels hiding behind the one character who's three times as tough as them, because the power curve in D&D is very steep[1]. Neither option is particularly fun. Fortunately, the solution to this one is easy and already widespread: start at a level where you can make interesting characters, say level 5. Require anyone picking a nonhuman race to choose one whose level adjustment is <= this level, so that everyone's starting in the same place. * The system only really works for fantasy settings It's easier for sci-fi settings to emulate fantasy than the other way around, because the difference between the two genres is that science fiction expects a consistent explanation behind everything, while fantasy is more or less indifferent to this. So you could easily adapt something like *Eclipse Phase* (which is a deeply sci-fi game, more firmly embedded in the genre than most) to a fantasy setting - the TITANS were, well, Titans, that escaped the magical control they were under. Storing memories in stones and passing them between bodies is easy, and it's always been like that. Mechanical golem bodies are worn only by the poor, the rich always use human (or magically enhanced human, or human-animal magical crossbreed) bodies, and there's a healthy black market in supplying fresh, uninhabited bodies, even if you have to evict the current occupant first. All that works perfectly well in fantasy. But going in the other direction and adapting a fantasy setting you can only ever reach very light, space-operaey sci-fi. You can't just declare a Minkowsky Particle and explain all the magic in terms of it, because fantasy magic systems haven't been designed with this in mind. But even with a new setting, D&D's system is too closely wedded to a fantasy world. Combat relies on STR, DEX and CON in a way that is awkward to adapt to firearms. The magic and religion systems are an integral part of class balance, but don't fit well into other genres. (related but distinct thought: If a system is to have stats then they should be balanced. As the complexity of the system increases this becomes ever more important, because the system will be taking up an increasing proportion of player time - D&D certainly falls into this category. But to do this means ensuring the six stats are used equally, which is quite simply *too hard*. So each group ends up with its own specific "balance" - e.g. CHA is used more or less than average, which in turn means sorcerors are more or less powerful. As with my first point, that can make for an interesting game when done deliberately, but is no fun to force onto players.) Why is this a problem? Great characters should transcend genre. I've just finished *Marvel 1602* and started *Fate/Kaelid Liner*, which are the kind of thing I love: Thor and Nick Fury and Daredevil are the same characters even if you put them in a medieval world with medieval rules. Rin is still Rin even in a genre with very different conventions. Abilities may change - a soldier in a fantasy setting does quite different things to a soldier in a modern world, and one in a sci-fi or horror world is different again. But the archetypes of a soldier or a craftsman or a mystic are the same in each setting, and those are what truly define a character - not whether they can use a pike or pray to a particular god. So I prefer my character sheets to be more about personality traits and general character role than a detailed list of specific skills. Of course with enough effort, non-fantasy D&D can be made to work - I've played some great D20 Babylon 5. But even there the system was obviously straining, and I feel that game succeeded in spite of the system rather than because of it. By all means use D&D for fantasy (well, don't, but for the other reasons I've given), but as and when you want to expand to other genres (and you should certainly try a variety of genres - otherwise how would you know which you like best?), try a system more appropriate to them. * Aside: small-scale minatures wargames I've sometimes heard that the D&D rules were originally written for a small-scale wargame, with minatures, one squad per player - something like *Necromuda*. Certainly the feel is similar, so whether the story is actually true is almost irrelevant. The funny thing is, I like *Necromuda*. (And ironically its biggest problem is similar: its rules are an adaptation of those for a larger-scale wargame, and don't always work for small squads. I'd be interested to hear recommendations on a better game at this kind of scale). So I feel obliged to explain why D&D doesn't succeed on the same level. One side is that D&D is personal. In most RPGs one is encouraged to identify as one's character, to speak with the character's voice. In something like Necromuda I can maintain detachment - the unit is mine, but the unit transcends its individual members, so I can face a few deaths with equanimity. In an RPG, character death is a Big Deal, and so a high-lethality ruleset like D&D - one in which it's easy for characters to die meaninglessly, not because they sacrificed themselves for something greater but because they walked into a pack of goblins and got unlucky - is inappropriate. The other is that Necromuda is equal and competitive in a way that a traditional-DM RPG can never be. Both of you go all-out, and the better or luckier player wins. Whereas with a DM who has to be both opponent and referee, it's impossible to have this kind of competition. And a third, more subjective reason: I find a lot more fun in moving the minatures around the terrain, in *seeing* the combat happen. So if you do happen to like this style of D&D play, I highly recommend using minatures if you're not doing so already. I'd meant to end on a positive note by talking about what I *do* enjoy, but this has already gone on too long and I don't want to give certain quarters any more attention. Enjoy your roleplaying, and don't be afraid to adapt your system to your group - and if you've only played D&D and felt it was missing something, try a different system. There's a whole world out there, and assuming every RPG is like D&D is as foolish as assuming every board game is like Monopoly, or every video game is like CoD, or every TV show is like *Eastenders*. [1] Something you may not have realised if you primarily play D&D or D&D-like systems is that most RPGs put far less emphasis on mechanical progression. You might get slightly better at your specializations, but the fundamentals of your character tend to stay the same rather than starting generic and branching out as D&D does. A character five levels ahead of you is a threat in any game, but in many systems you could overcome that kind of gap with cunning and numbers, whereas in D&D you can end up with characters having near-godlike domination over other characters who are only a handful of levels lower. I'm not saying this is good or bad (personally I'm actually quite fond of it), just something to be aware of. (I *do* think there's a problem with many of the standard D&D settings where the level 10 NPCs can make a starting party feel totally emasculated, but this post is already far too long). I'm aware of groups who consider the "sweet spot" of D&D to be levels 5-10, and there's a ruleset on the internet for playing this style (basically once you go past level 10 you gain additional feats rather than further levels) if that's your thing. [Home](/) <div id="disqus_thread"></div> comments powered by Disqus