The joke on the above image is a funny joke that makes a point, “Look at this extreme from which we are marching.” They don’t condone this attitude and I laughed.
But let’s do look at that extreme. I’d like to consider it because this statement pretty much sums up everything that irks me about a game a generally enjoy.
Here’s the thing: D&D has a story problem, in that, for a roleplaying game, D&D is not very helpful at telling stories. That isn’t to say you can’t tell stories with D&D, you can tell very enjoyable stories…but D&D does not help you with that very much.
Before we move on, I’d like to point out that, I’m not discouraging people from playing D&D or invalidating anyone’s fun. I’m sure there are people who enjoy this about D&D. But I’m trying to provide some criticism here, while I recognize that this can and does make some people happy, I find it less than ideal, though I know there’s been improvement. But D&D still has a long way to go. I’m gonna talk about that now, ok?
Before I start whining, let’s have a history lesson. I love history, but I know not everyone does, so to keep it short, let’s focus on this: Dungeons and Dragons developed out of miniature war gaming, a pastime centered on simulating war so as to celebrate tactics. In order to do this, miniature war games defined interaction in terms of units, their abilities, actions, and quantifiable capabilities, using statistical data and dice to recreate the various ways different units could be superior or inferior to one another as well as the element of chance.
Of course, if you already know how to craft game systems that simulate battle fields, you can expand them a bit so that they simulate worlds. Dungeons and Dragons developed from this, characters as units with important statistical data. It may be fair to say (though, if not accurate, please email me) that D&D was foundational in the Roleplaying Game trend to express a character’s most basic attributes (Abilities.. you know what I mean) in terms of numbers. This trend proliferates itself throughout D&D and all systems who share intellectual descendants from D&D. Different abilities, whether integral to all characters or specific to some, have relative quantitative values. This allows the player agency through different avenues by which they can access the resolution mechanic, by which I mean the die roles that represent the element of chance. D&D and all such games put systemic weight on actions that can be carried out through the die roll, these actions have quantifiable success and thus “matter”. I have often heard the phrase “if you don’t roll for it, you didn’t do it”, which is a great way to keep players from taking the story out of everyone else’s hands.
But I also find it stifling, because there really is no narrative motivation in this philosophy at all. To be clear, I’m saying that, just as a system that codifies social combat gives gameplay weight to interpersonal interaction, and a game with no combat mechanics fails to support depictions of physical struggle, a game that does not accentuate mechanics that motivate storytelling does not accentuate storytelling. Individual groups can focus on storytelling while playing that game, but that is a gameplay aspect they are adding to the game.
As the existence of players with the attitude mocked by the image above proves, you really don’t need a story at all to play Dungeons and Dragons. Sure, most would find that boring, but the fact is that you can play D&D with a solely gamerist (the enjoyment of playing the mechanics of a game) attitude. If the rest of the table is of the same mind, there are no narrative -pushing rules (save for optional rules printed in supplements) that I know of from D&D 3.5th edition or earlier that would get in the way of purely gamerist play. Even the morality designations only need to be used as prerequisites for groups of abilities and a narratively prescriptive inferior/superior relationship stats spread amongst those groups who are meant to be in moral conflict.
Narrative proscription is something, sure. But it doesn’t facilitate storytelling, it facilitates story-following. I find storytelling, in the context of a game, to be interactive collaborative and creative. A player listening to the GM narrate or having their character act generous because the book says if they don’t, their character will lose their paladin abilities is not storytelling gameplay. It’s just gameplay. It’s the difference between playing Mario, which has a story and the actions you take in the game are inspired by and must make sense within that story, and playing Mass Effect, whose role playing elements allow you to develop and diminish relationships, and discover and mold your character’s personality through decisions. These non-combat decisions have weight in how the story develops for you both within and without combat.
And multiple tabletop roleplaying games have explored that continuum, leaving those games that hold to the D&D based philosophies from which they were birthed behind. If you heard the assumed value judgment in my language, then we are on the same page.
And from my position, Dungeons and Dragons could do a lot more to support story.
How? Well, let’s look at gameplay that isn’t so much narrative prescriptive as narrative rewarding. Gameplay that rewards narrative participation doesn’t stop at allowing players to make certain storytelling choices; it rewards and offers delicious complications to players for making that storytelling choice. Such mechanics encourage players’ active participation in the story, even if only through the actions of their character. It’s important, I think, when considering gameplay that rewards narrative participation to highlight the need for a love for complications. D&D, born of wargames whose object is to win, whose gameplay lends the most interaction to quantifiable measurements than qualifiable narrative, does not foster a love of complications. Complications get between you and the treasure, complications are good only for their loot and XP. It takes a player with a kernel of love for shooting themselves in the foot and weighing themselves down with adversity to seek complications out of D&D gameplay. If it seems like I’m using “Complications” to substitute for “enemies”, complications in D&D are most codified in the form of physical combatants. An entire book of the three most famous Dungeons and Dragons core books deals only with combatants. It’s called the Monsters manual, not “The Elements of Conflict Manual”. Not even “The NPC manual”, more specifically the Monster Manual. Sure, it’s a punchier name, and sure there are NPC’s in it…but most of those NPC’s stats, the details meant to define them, only become relevant in combat.
Dungeons and Dragons may be a game where you fight Monsters, but the only thing you get out of perusing that conflict is Experience Points, which are mostly used to make you a more competent combatant. You could use them to gain less martial rewards, but those are optional rules. Perusing complications in Dungeons and Dragons is not built to help you become a more interesting character, unless you find “more godlike in agency” to equal “more interesting.” I don’t.
Narrative rewarding gameplay accentuates the narrative sides of conflict, not that you fought, but why you fought. Not how much you lost, but how your loss develops the story, and loss very much can. Loss is a very important part of narrative, without loss there is no risk, but without failure, there is no evolution. A Dungeon raiding party that continues to succeed is a rising star, a car sliding down the rails of the story or, alternatively, toward the player’s shared motivations in a more open world, halted only by failure. But what if failure didn’t halt the story, didn’t pause or “stopgap” the resolution?
Think of what could be. In more narrative supportive games, failure rewards players within the system, allowing the system to encourage more diverse stories. A more narrative supportive game might allow players more chances to develop the statistics or integral elements of their characters. In a more narrative supportive game, multiple types of conflicts can be simulated. Not just a physical struggle between two characters, a narrative supportive game can provide systems for characters to struggle with nature (as D&D soon did), to struggle with society, to struggling with the self (as the Storytelling system and later games attempt). And a struggle with the self need not reflect the dungeon-raiding party’s railcar progress toward success (or fall from grace, such as with a Sanity meter). A struggle with the self can produce narrative and quantifiable complications, not just quantifiable ones. And when you are finished with these conflicts, what if your reward was not so much currency with which to equip your character with greater ability, but connections through which you bind your character to the world, to their companions, and to the elements of themselves.
I’m not saying D&D has to be like these so-called ‘Dirty Hippy Games”, but I am trying to point out that there is a continuum, and D&D lists to the side marked “Gamerist” prety hard. No….more than that: remember when I said that Dungeons and Dragons was built from attempts to simulate worlds? I’m saying that, what I dislike about D&D, a game I genuinely enjoy, is that it traditionally provides little simulation of narrative. It’s optimized to tell the story of the heroes who went into a place, took a bunch of stuff, killed the inhabitants, and improved their own prowess and wealth. But even the story that inspired Dungeons and Dragons, The Hobbit, is a hell of a lot more narratively complicated than that limp thing.
Again, I want to reiterate: I don’t hate Dungeons and Dragons, I enjoy the game, and I don’t begrudge gamerist players who don’t feel any need for any of the added elements on which I waxed philosophical. D&D doesn’t “need” these things, I’m just using these elements to point out that D&D has a long way to go before it really supports narrative to my discernment. I’m absolutely not saying that it is impossible to play a highly narrative game of D&D. With the right group, anything is possible. I’m saying that such narrative gets little to no help from the system and any systems that try to accommodate more narrative rewarding gameplay would have to be added after the game, perhaps as part of a supplement or as homebrew system.
Finally, I also want to point out that I recognize that the creators of Dungeons and Dragons are becoming increasingly more aware of how their systems and gameplay interact with story and have made some measures. I was immensely impressed with Fourth Edition, which slimmed down and streamlined physical combat mechanics as well as did away with numerous prescriptive narrative elements that would get in the way of stories not based on their assumptions. I especially appreciated the physical combat engine’s evolution to encompass the importance of less physical things, such as the narratively open nature of the hit point, the use a variety of non physical factors to determine the protective AC, and accentuation on the choice between narratively meaningful but non-prescriptive character builds. Unfortunately these changes and many more were very unpopular amongst traditional D&D players, which inspired the creation of a divergent game and company that served to enshrine the traditional elements which those fans wished to keep pure. Fourth Edition payed heavy attention to how combat worked and could be made more enjoyable and for this it was mislabeled a “combat simulator”.
Yet, as someone who seeks narrative simulation over physical simulation, all iterations of Dungeons and Dragons are more like a combat simulator than not.
It is another history lesson to remark that, in an attempt to regain the good will of their traditional player Base, Wizards of the Coast created Fifth Edition as a return to the elements that those players missed, with compromises between 4th and 5th that allowed for a greater tent to be pitched amongst both fandoms. Time will tell if they are successful, though I feel that that they have improved on the narrative narrative supporting elements in their game and not by returning to old ways, but by innovating. Should D&D continue to progress like this, it may be quite a story supportive game. But as I indicated before, it has a long way to go.