elephants and rooms

Okay it’s time to talk about D&D.

Yesterday I wrote about what I want. In that essay I took a stab at a few mechanizable points by identifying who or what is best positioned in a (fairly trad) game to provide the sauce. The purpose of this, obviously perhaps, is to both start thinking about mechanism (here are starting points) and start thinking about alternatives (here are things we could subvert). I use this method a lot, where I identify norms in order to find things to question and subvert. I am certain that it’s pretty annoying in a lot of circumstances but I find it fruitful for myself.

So in terms of market share, if you round off at, say, three significant figures, there’s really only one role-playing game. D&D. Its dominance in the market is so thorough that it needs to be examined. However, most attempts to understand this take the obvious approach of wondering why this is the case. I think this has yielded little actionable result and is also pretty old hat — you’ve seen it before. You might have done it before.

So instead of wondering why D&D is so huge, let’s ignore that. It’s not actually interesting any more (partially because it’s old ground but partially because it’s not something you can reproduce even if you figure it out). Instead let’s look at the fact of it. D&D is huge. That’s just true. So given that fact, what opportunities does it present? What is true about it that you can subvert to make your own work at least distinctive, given that you can’t reliably produce a genuine competitor without becoming equally dull (a thesis I’ll explore another time but let’s just pretend you agree with that)? You can’t compete, so what else can you be?

The obvious thing to subvert, the thing you can change that D&D can’t, a simple axis of rotation that D&D is fixed on, is the genre. The Euro-fantasy melting pot that has become self-defining. Wizards and dragons, good and evil, fabricating motivation that is best solved by beating things dead and taking their possessions. Yes I know you can do different things with the game (of course you can — the act of play is so very close to the act of game design hinging mostly on what you choose to write down after a session) but there are selling points to the game that are fixed by the text and those are magic, moral disambiguation, and combat scenes. Those are knobs you can twirl that D&D can’t. Again, you can in your D&D game; please don’t come at me with “D&D can do everything” — that’s really just an assertion of your own free will and that’s a different discussion (hint: I largely disagree that we have any).

Knobs so far:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery

The social design of D&D is also very rigid: it cannot easily deviate from a strict ref/player boundary where the ref holds many secrets (sometimes even keeping the rules secret which is super weird the more you think about it). The “players” (that is, not the ref) are largely homogenous socially though the usual leader/support/asleep sub-categories inevitably arise. But the ref is saddled with the job of establishing the atmosphere, establishing (somehow; this is never clear but it’s usually just based on hope and not mechanism) character motivations, and preparing all of the supporting material to allow play. Maps, stat blocks, and so on. This is of course marketing genius since the ref’s job is so onerous that you can sell them support tools like adventure books. Lots and lots of them!

You can subvert these too. So far then:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space

Lots of great games subvert many or even all of these. That last in particular tends to generate a lot of pats on the back when it’s upended well because it’s really a frustrating thing to get stuck with: collaborative world building is one way to do it. Creating the map as part of the main phase of play is another. This knob is particularly fun to fiddle with. If D&D is missing a major gimmick that could vastly improve it, I think this is it.

Mechanically D&D has some basics that often go unquestioned. “Stats” that define innate ability. Some mechanism of defining trained ability (D&D is weirdly incoherent here having and connecting “skills” and “levels”). A measure of how dead you’re not (so death is on the table as a failure result: we can tinker with that too). Some moderately rich simulation tools to resolve combat (how fast you are, how hard you are to hit, how easy it is for you to hit others, a list of super powers). It also insists on a fairly finely granular simulation of money (counting actual coins) and it treats equipment as part of the way you improve your character (especially their ability to murder efficiently). An awful lot of games adopt these unquestioningly and I think they merit much more serious attention. Plenty of games do without or radically change some or all to great effect.

And of course we have the progression system which is maybe the most often unexamined component when people start to design new games. The idea of progression is very infrequently examined and toyed with. Progression is a very weird one for me because it very unsatisfying: when you peek through the curtain you notice that the environment is constantly scaling with your progression meaning the numbers all get higher but little fundamentally changes. The only disparity that stays constant is that your character constantly becomes more powerful with respect to commoners. I find that disparity as a goal somewhere between weird and deeply disturbing. That is, the biggest reward to levelling up is becoming even more powerful than the vast majority of the people in the world.

So let’s summarize again. Now we have:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space
  • separation of innate and trained capability
  • hit points
  • combat simulation tools (armor, speed, &c.)
  • lists of super powers
  • lists of equipment
  • shopping as a scene
  • literal money simulation system (you count your money and buy things with it)
  • equipment as progression
  • power progression
  • antagonists keep pace with power progression
  • common folk do not keep pace with power progression

These are all ways you can deviate (sometimes dramatically) from D&D. There are many more, but I’ve tried to find categories where I can rather than deep dive on details (I also think that encourages people to think that they have turned a knob from 4 to 11 by renaming “hit points” — we need categories to understand the possible scope of change). I will emphasize again that I think you should because competing meaningfully with D&D is a bullshit goal. I don’t think you can achieve it by aiming at it. The next big thing, if there ever is one, will be a big thing because of two things: a boatload of accidents no one controls and a significant deviation from the status quo. Focus on the thing you control. You might even accidentally create some art along the way.