... now with 35% more arrogance!

Friday, September 21, 2012

D&D Can't Do Fantasy

Or so Greywulf says in his lair. "You know what I would like to see? A fantasy role-playing game. In thirty-odd years of gaming, I still haven’t seen one." Meaning a game that can handle absolutely any kind of fantasy, not just (say) swords & sorcery.

And he calls out D&D in particular, and says it can't handle Middle Earth or A Game of Thrones very well. You have to make stuff up! I hate to pick on Greywulf, since he's always seemed like a pretty cool guy, but isn't the whole idea of RPGs that you make stuff up?

He maybe, sorta has a point, if you read the rest of his post very closely. The stuff he complains about needing to make up is "customizing Classes, creating new Feats, Monsters, Prestige Classes, Backgrounds and the like". And he mentions D&D Next, which further emphasizes that he's talking about modern D&D with all its baggage, which is kind of funny, given that he created Microlite 20.

Look, the problem with D&D is that people are too stuck on the baggage. Given that Greywulf cites Risus as possibly the closest to his ideal, I'm not sure why he doesn't think in terms of the very simple core of the original rules and apply Risus ideas to that.

  • You have some ability scores that help define your limits. There's six in OD&D, but if you leave abilities open-ended and just add a new one for any broad ability, much like you'd add a cliché in Risus, you have a very flexible basic structure.
  • You have the idea of rolling to see if something changes, often expressed as d6 probabilities in OD&D. If you want something simpler and more uniform, you can use my expression of it as a situation roll: "If  a player wants to change a critical situation, or the GM rules a situation could change for the worse, roll 1d6 and add or subtract modifiers that seem appropriate; on 5+, the situation changes." Think of each situation as being a cliché that adds +1 to a roll if it seems like an advantage, or -1 to a roll if it seems like a disadvantage. Having a high or low ability score that seems to apply to the situation also counts.
  • You have the idea of character types (classes.) Forget all the nonsense about class as profession or even class as archetype; it's just a way of saying "some characters are good in certain situations." Again, you could handle this much like Risus clichés: +1 in a broad kind of situation.
  • You have the idea of the attack roll, which is just a special form of situation roll, usually a d20 roll over a target, and the connected ideas of hit dice, hit points, and defense bonus (armor.) So simple, the nuts and bolts show up in almost every RPG, regardless of intended play style.
  • You have the idea of a last-minute save, another elaboration of the situation roll. Never mind the specific save categories that vary by class; you could just use one target and have ad-hoc modifiers for specific character types facing certain situations. Define them in a freeform manner.
  • You have the idea of levels, both for classes and for other things, like spells. Doesn't matter how you gain experience: you can tailor that for your specific needs. Use random advancement, if you want. Also doesn't matter how magic works, or if you have a complete spell list, or how much details; just jot down some notes on what effects are possible at what levels and judge new spells accordingly. Think of spells as (you guessed it) clichés.
  • You also have the reaction roll, which is 2d6 in OD&D but could be done other ways. The dice aren't important, just the idea that there are three or more reactions assoiciated with number ranges, and some situations will modify the roll. And, as you've seen in my blog, this can be adapted in all sorts of crazy ways.

It's not really that complicated. Greywulf does think of generic systems like GURPS, Savage Worlds, or Hero System as being more useful than D&D because, although you have to make up stuff, you have tools to make up stuff, as opposed to having to make up stuff without any guidelines. I suppose that's kind of the way Liber Zero plus the companion system Liber Blanc are drifting: stripping the original rules down and then providing tools to easily construct custom classes or abilities. It's why Alternative V, a completely different kind of setting and play style, will practically be the same game with just a few add-on bits for atomic age horror. So maybe what Greywulf wants is Liber Zero + Liber Blanc. But really, I don't even see why he has to wait for me to build the tools; it seems so obvious how to do it.

But then, I've always been puzzled by people saying D&D isn't a good fit for Middle Earth, or Star Trek, or superheros. I guess I'm used to looking past the baggage.


  1. I like your take on this and agree. Especially your insight about classes as flexible: "Forget all the nonsense about class as profession or even class as archetype; it's just a way of saying 'some characters are good in certain situations.'" Agreed! that's how I handle people who come to my public Labyrinth Lord game who want to play "advanced" or weird classes anyway: slot them into one of the basic LL classes then add some bonuses / special abilities as needed. Simple!

  2. I've never understood the view that D&D is restrictive. Right from its roots it's been about providing a base toolkit for the gamer to build whatever he wants. It seems to me those who complain about D&D's supposed lack are the mentally and creatively lazy.

    1. I wouldn't say they were lazy. After all, Greywulf has paid his creative dues, and says he'd use Risus for most other kinds of fantasy. Risus isn't exactly a game for the mentally lazy.

      I think it's more the feeling that every component in a game must specifically reference the kinds of things that appear in the target setting. "Oh no! A Game of Thrones has intrigue and not much dungeon-crawling! What are we going to do?" How about "reward successful intrigue"? (More on that tomorrow.)

    2. You're right of course, Greywulf is anything but creatively lazy. I guess the problem is more to do with people's conception of rules.

      I suspect a lot of people unconsciously get caught in the trap of thinking RPG rules are in the same category as the rules of other sorts of games, such as wargames or boardgames, where you risk "breaking" the game by making changes to the officially published rules. This kind of thinking applied to RPGs has resulted in decades of misunderstanding and disappointment for some, which is a great pity.

  3. The problem with D&D and variant settings isn't really the rules, it's the expectations of the players. In D&D the player characters are murderous looters as encoded by the rules a DM has to reward players in some other manner so as to not enforce the benefits of being a more successful murderous looter.

  4. Isn't intrigue rewarded by, you know, baronies and not getting killed, rather than experience points? A lot of the reward in D&D is not chanelled through xp - hell, a lot of it is intrinsic to play - and it's a mistake to think otherwise.

  5. Unimaginative DM + unimaginative players = dull game, regardless of rules used...