Pop-Dev | D&D – What’s It to You?

So, I have been running a Dungeons & Dragons game for the better part of three years now. This is coming up on the longest running game I’ve ever maintained, and this one is happening entirely digitally, through the mystical magics of Roll 20; by my measure, among the finest free virtual tabletop (VTT) systems available. I’ve had a number of conversations with my players various and sundry about what makes our game fun, what they want more of, that sort of thing, and I’ll get to all of that. But being years into the process of running a 5th Edition D&D game, I have a few observations, and the more I think about it and try to articulate it, the more it becomes obvious that they jump the shark a little bit from a single blog post. So I’m going to spend a few weeks, maybe months, posting a series of thoughts – kind of in an “article” format – under the general purview of Dungeons & Dragons. To that end, here’s a quick primer:

With the 5th Edition of D&D, the system itself is the most inclusive it has ever been. It’s not just from the fact that they specifically call out the malleability of constructs like gender or “race” in the sense that we use it in the mundane world (“races” in D&D are actually better named “species”, but that carries a kind of unfortunate Darwinian implication); this version of D&D goes for speed and simplicity in all things. It does its best job to obliterate the barriers to entry. The two core books are chock-a-block full of general guidelines to keep your game fun and up-tempo, and they go to great pains to point out that, as we sometimes say in the software business, Your Mileage May Vary. Every game and group of D&D and its players are so radically different that the elegance of the system is in how easily it supports such a broad array of understandings.

I think this owes to the incredibly profundity for talent they have over there at Wizards, folks productions folks Mike Mearls to Dungeon Master to the Stars Chris Perkins to newly adorned and enshrined in forever fandom as baby-wizard-no-more Kate Welchhhhh (note to editor: check how many h’s she uses?); their cadre of colorful characters have convened unto us a truly commendable game. And I think it deserves noting.

That said!

I do find that there are some of the crunchy bits that I could sink my teeth into better; several of the classes have some awkward progression, some of them lack what I would call substantive definitions of character, but these are all things you can fix pretty easily – the system has installed amazing levers for homebrewing and is really clear and cogent with respect to how that’s done. I think there are a few key concepts in 4th Edition that are kind of missing from 5th edition. I’ll probably talk about both of these things at some point in the future. I don’t know, there’s something about finding the parts I like of both that is intriguing to me.

There’s also something to be said about the Encounter design element and the overall feel of different encounters in the game system. I’ll probably talk about that as well.

But I guess, it’s best for me to start with my concept of what Dungeons & Dragons really is, or functions as. For me,  the core concept of Dungeons & Dragons is that a group of friends sit around and build a shared, cooperative narrative experience with each other. The goal of the game is to have fun and tell a cool story. What that means for one group is totally different to another group, and that’s one of the things that makes it great. The rules of the game’s system are basically there to help you simulate an alternate reality – an entire universe, really, a paracosm – where high fantastical adventure is not only possible but the norm. The rules then, build systems out of core assumptions about what you’ll be doing while experiencing high fantastical adventure, and they seek to provide a framework for adjudicating and resolving conflicts (which I think of as “plot.”). Some players in the group take on the role of adventurers – heroes or people at any rate called to adventure and discover more about themselves and the world around them. Typically, at least one player in the group takes on the role of Dungeon Master or DM. The job of the DM is different in every group, which I’ll talk about a lot, probably. For me, I see the players as the Ensemble Cast of leading actors playing various parts in a script that’s semi-improvised. My job, as the DM, is to provide a voice and thought process to all the supporting cast, even if I didn’t write the support cast of characters, including the villains and allies, plus provide the set pieces to play in. Last, I see the role of the DM as something like a stage manager/editor/director. They don’t necessarily control where the stories of the individual characters are going, but they do have a general sense of what scene is next and when the lights dim, whether a given moment matters for the long arc of the story, etc.

What your specific game is depends entirely on what your group wants, and I think of this as the social contract created at what lots of folks call “Session 0.” In such a session, you discover the level of interest players have in different story paths and the questions that they’re trying to explore in their characters’ stories. That sounds highfalutin, like everyone has to have this deeply erudite story that they’re telling, but a person who simply wants to make the most amazing meals in the world and become the best chef of all time can still be called to adventure. Or you can have some other much more ridiculous premise for a character; I don’t care. But at the core of every character called to adventure are questions that need answering.

I am also of the opinion that this should be iterated upon. For me, in irregular intervals, I make it a point to check in with my players to learn what they like, what they don’t like, what they’d like to do more of, what they’re excited about, what they’re dreading. That’s because I very much see the role of the Dungeon Master not just as the director or editor or producer of the story, but I see them as the fundamental designers of the game.

Wait a damn minute, Boyce, you say with indignant anger, you just talked all about a bunch of nerds you admire who are the designers of this game, and now you’re telling me that you’re a designer of this game too? So you’re impressed with yourself, narcissist?

Kind of! But, no. What I mean is that, in my view, they built an amazing game system, and then they have released several game modules to use with that system which are also incredible. Plus, they gave me all the tools so that my players and I make my our own game. 

That’s D&D to me. It’s what you make of it, but I love finding the spots in the system where they imply and cajole and infer. I like pushing the levers up and down and seeing what breaks. I like understanding the choices that they made when they built this system and understanding what breaking with those choices means not just for me as a Dungeon Master but for my players as Adventurers.

What’s it to you? Maybe for you, D&D is just a long, fun, comedic improv session where you all say goofy things while rolling dice. Maybe for you, D&D is a deeply mechanical game of stat tracking and dice rolling (mine is still very much that). The actual game that I’m playing is figuring out how to tease stories out of my players. The game that the players are playing is one I have meticulously designed using the system and the rules. The end goal is that we create an amazing, shared narrative in a cooperative space.

But I guess I generally think that, if you’re having a good time with a group of friends, you’re “winning.” But no one else plays my specific game of D&D and I don’t play anyone else’s; and that’s what makes it really amazing. There are very few games that are so well thought out as to make that grand ambition a statement of fact.

In the coming weeks (months?), I’ll talk more about my specific game. Maybe you’ll like some of it; maybe you’ll hate it. However you feel about it, it’s absolutely your right to, and I sincerely welcome constructive criticism.

First up is probably how I think of Adventures and Encounters. Then we’ll talk about homebrewing, mixing in elements of past editions (specifically the much-maligned 4th Edition), and I’ll probably start posting campaign diaries, and entrances in my old “In Exmplar” series, except specifically highlighting the interesting differences that exist across the spectrum of “real play” D&D stories/podcasts/comics/shows.

Buckle up, nerds.