Post-D&D Rehabilitation

Like many others, I’ve started my roleplaying career with D&D. It was, without a doubt, a formative experience, shaping my gaming attitudes and habits. Not always for the best. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say me and my fellow players marked by D&D require rehabilitation. Why? Because we think D&D has taught us how to play RPGs, while in reality it has taught us how to play D&D. Which is quite a trick, considering D&D doesn’t exist.

And because it doesn’t exist, not all of these issues will apply to you. It is quite likely you have successfully circumvented some of these pitfalls, and they will seem entirely basic to you. In fact, most of the advice I have to offer here applies to D&D games just as well. What’s more, disregarding this whole post and doing things “the D&D way” (a D&D way?) is perfectly valid, too. It’s a way to play these games, just not the only one. Finally, it may seem like I’m bashing D&D. Far from it. I love it and will keep playing it (or games inspired by it). I’d love it a lot more if it were honest with itself. Until that happens, lets be honest with each other: we have a problem.

Motivation

This is the most important thing. Players, repeat after me: adventurer is not a motivation, alignment is not a motivation, XP is not a motivation, gold is barely a motivation. All of those are used by D&D to quickly get your characters into the game, i.e. into dungeon. This is one of many implicit assumptions of D&D: PCs are Good adventurers who crave XP.  And because it is an unstated assumption, it is not something most players or GMs ever really consider, instead accepting it as the way of things. And it works! Until dissatisfaction starts to grow, with no way of understanding why perfectly legitimate characters no longer excite. A character that actually wants something is an utterly alien concept to many D&D players – something I myself have struggled with.

GMs, repeat after me: quest giver is not a motivation, lore provider is not a motivation, shopkeeper is not a motivation, villain is not a motivation. These are, again, shortcuts to get the game going. They may very well be the roles particular NPCs have to start with. And naturally, not every bum on the street whom PCs question or shopkeeper to whom PCs offload excess loot needs to ever return or matter. But they may, as the game goes on, if they have motivation. They can’t if they don’t.

Story

Why do we care about motivation? Because story is not just something that happens to PCs. Doesn’t have to be, anyway. If PCs have motivations, they can drive the story. Not always directly, either – their desires will tell the GM what they want to do, and how they want to do it. Remember one of the basic questions of storytelling: what does a character want, and why can’t they have it? Same goes for NPCs. While they shouldn’t take over the spotlight, if they have motivations they can react to whatever it is the PCs try to do, as well as advance their own plots in the background.

Party

Since the plot doesn’t necessarily get shoveled at PCs like manure, the PCs don’t have to try so hard to resemble a fan. Did that metaphor get away from me? Regardless: you need neither the core four of fighter-thief-cleric-magic user, nor the holy trinity of tank-control-dps. This is another one of implicit assumptions of D&D, and circular logic at that: those roles could come in handy in a dungeon, so every party should have them, so dungeons should have things to challenge them, so every party should have them. Again: this works for D&D because it’s a game about going into dungeons.

And this assumption often gets carried over to games that have nothing to do with dungeoneering. It’s still useful to cover your bases. It opens up different opportunities. But in such games absence of a thief in the party simply means there wasn’t anyone particularly interested in fulfilling that role, and so there probably won’t be many chances for the nonexistent thief to shine: no traps the GM expects the party to overcome. There may still be traps there, just serving a different purpose. Instead of something for the thief to be awesome at, they probably should be things the party goes to some lengths to avoid entirely. The lesson should never be “Bob oughta rolled a thief”.

Group effort

It’s not players vs GM. But you know this, of course. It’s a necessary condition to make sense of all the previous bits: adventures being shaped by and to characters. This statement, however, is not strong enough. Everyone at the table has to work together. To tell the story, to roll the dice, to socialize – whatever it is you’re after. And to accomplish that, you’ll have to do something D&D is allergic to: compromise. D&D deals in absolutes. You succeed or you fail. You are Good or Evil or Neutral. “My character wouldn’t do it, he’s …” How many times have you uttered those words? How many times have they ruined your game? D&D thrives on this simplistic model  of the world, because, yet again, it gets the game going. It’s ok to kill orcs, they’re Evil. It is full of incompatible archetypes thrown together, and players who embrace the absolute natures of Lawful Paladin and Chaotic Rogue will have no choice but to kill each other.

This is yet another peculiarity of D&D: every class is a thing in and of itself, and players often bring to the game characters they made up entirely on their own. While there are occasional discussions on how these characters may perceive each other in the rulebooks, many players don’t get that far. They get absorbed in their own fiction, and pay no heed to the fiction of others. They don’t compromise.

And the result is all too often a dysfunctional party that has nothing in common, and nonetheless acts like a homogeneous blob rolling down the railroad of plot they don’t care about. That is what so many D&D games I’ve seen (and run!) looked like. That is what D&D has taught us. Which, for the last time, is a good method of jump-starting the game. But is that what you’re after?

This is, by no means, a complete list. Just like everyone has their own D&D, everyone has their own roleplaying baggage. What about you, gentle reader? What misconceptions has your D&D inflicted upon you?

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7 thoughts on “Post-D&D Rehabilitation

  1. It’s not particularly the system’s fault for players not doing the due diligence of creating actual flesh for the bare bones of their character sheet. But in my experience a round table character creation session can get everyone on the same page from the start. Sprinkle in some DM/GM questions about motivation to the players and things gel much better IME.

    • I think it’s the system’s fault, because if you learn to roleplay with a system that doesn’t teach you these very things you can only learn by trying and failing – a really slow and not always effective way. Several other roleplay games make character creation a part of the gaming experience, sometimes forcing players to do it togheter by asking them to add relationships between each other or by making otherwise impossible to create the character without the round table character creation phase.

  2. True a number of systems have stipulations for character creation and bonding a party together. It can however prove to be a limiting factor when it comes to creativity. When a system begins telling you what to make-believe it I think it oversteps its boundaries.

    “The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.” < The first page of D&D Basic from 1980. System rules are a framework to provide a consistent adjudication of actions and resolutions of conflict. They are no more and no less, ideas for motivation and characterization fall to the DM/GM and players respectively. They are after all responsible for providing the story bits.

    Food for thought anyways. There's a reason they say there's no right way to play.

  3. Chiming in I cant help but think that if the game or the proto-world imposes constraints then that gives a good foundation for all the creativity to form. Imposing limitations or requirements can fuel more interesting thinking, how is it that both of us have a history with the Orc Queen?

    Creating and binding the characters together should be a critical (and fun) part of the start of any game. The growth and interplay of this small band of ‘heroes’ is the experience we are setting up, the larger plot elements are the context for that exploration…

  4. I think (as we discussed in RPG SE chat) that D&D’s particular set of baggage is so hard to get rid of is because it’s not really *just* D&D’s baggage anymore. Many if not most other tabletop RPGs, numerous video games, and lots of works of popular media (pretty much anything with “fantasy” in the description) all carry and propagate bits of D&D’s roleplaying baggage.

    Modern-day gamers sitting down to play D&D for the first time are likely to have already experienced loot and levels many times in video games. Likewise they likely have a sense of what a D&D story is supposed to be from D&D-inspired fiction. A total newbie can come to the table already armed with “D&D baggage” (which I suppose helps a bit, even, if you’re actually trying to play D&D and follow its conventions anyway).

    D&D influences other works and feeds itself is what makes its particular patterns so sticky that they become “roleplaying baggage” in the first place. Most other games I’ve played don’t have this problem (granted, I’ve played them less than D&D, also). But, like, I don’t have Riddle of Steel baggage or 3:16 baggage or Reign baggage — at best, I have an insight or two that I carry with me into my future play. If I wanted to sit down and play any of those games, I’d actually have to go and relearn their patterns, because they’ve been forgotten. D&D baggage I’m just kinda stuck with, and I have to fight against it actively if I don’t want it expressed at the table.

    — Alex

  5. Aspects from Fate, I find they propagate in to how interact with fiction – just like rpg terms failing a perception check or making your save, but this is at a deeper level inspires analysis of characters in broad ways.

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