We Yawners haven’t been around all that long but one thing has become very, very clear. It is a hell of lot harder to get eyeballs on articles that are not D&D related. Our D&D pieces get a lot of attention, a lot of views and considerable response. When we write on other games, we simply can’t attract the same attention. The difference is almost exponential.
And, sure, that isn’t shocking or surprising. Dungeons and Dragons has been around since the 70’s and has in that time pretty much always been the most popular thing going, often by a wide margin. Right now it’s particularly strong. Which is great. However, because of its ubiquity and strength, many simply do not give other games a chance. And the fact is that sometimes D&D just isn’t the answer.
Nope, you’re dead now
I mostly play Pathfinder which is, if you’re unfamiliar, basically a continuation and revision of D&D 3.5. So for the purposes of this piece, I will count it as D&D. Keep your tempers and forgive me, fellow Pathfinder players – there will be no system or edition war here.
Whatever version of D&D you play, it pretty much always has the same framework even if the rules change quite drastically every so often. It’s a medieval-ish, high fantasy game game with somewhat elastic boundaries but they do not have unlimited stretch. D&D always works best in a fairly simple, black and white fantasy world, where the players can choose from basic classes and, more importantly, basic races.
D&D is often sold as the RPG system where you can do whatever you want. That’s simply not true. In fact, there really isn’t all that much you can do in D&D – or should. It is really is best as the old fashioned party o’ heroes adventuring around, battling evil monsters, collecting glorious loot and heading back home for tea and crumpets.
Now, before y’all start taking this as some post makin’ ol’ D&D out to be a simpleton or villain, that’s absolutely not the case. There are reasons for its success and it’s not just marketing. 19 out 20 times (at least) that I play, it’s D&D or its derivatives. And you can do an awful lot within its framework. And, as far what’s to come, neither is this one of those posts pitting the modern player against the old fashioned DM sort. I have always tried to be open to any idea from players, sometimes too open, and that’s how I’ve learned the hard way where limits are.
Because the next time I see someone ask, for the 15,943,177,669.3 time in my life, if they can play a vampire I am going to lose it.
I presume that’s a magical shotgun?
A few days ago, I saw a young woman ask around for help and suggestions from experienced DM’s since she had a big task ahead. I am always eager to help the youngins and asked what she needed. The answer was, honestly, stunning. She wanted help, tips and suggestions on how to rework all the classes and most of the rules of D&D 5e for a modern post-apocalyptic world during a zombie plague with guns and no magic. My first question was simply “Why are you doing this in D&D?” and the answer disappointed me greatly. The reason was that this is what excited the group and I applaud that, go for what excites you every time, but the players didn’t want to learn new rules. She was the DM, she had the stuff and so on her shoulders the work should go. That’s just not cool.
Doing this really would go beyond the limits of what D&D can handle, not to mention the insane workload. Elements of this might work, but once you start adding up it becomes obvious that this is doomed to fail – if you stick with D&D. On the other hand, there are several other systems that could handle this task easily, such as Degenesis or Mutant Year Zero. Even Coriolis comes far closer. But if anything was tailor-made for this, it’s Fantasy Flight’s Zombie Apocalypse from the End of the World line.
If you want to try something that is, at best, a tough fit with the game you play, you can and even should still try. You might discover what works and what doesn’t, at least to a point. But do not plan or worse start a new campaign set in that way. Make it a one-shot or side quest adventure. Simply put, unless you’re willing to brave some Herculean work to drastically change D&D, you just can’t stretch those walls too far.
A Giant, a Vampire, a Half-Dragon and a Gnome…
Players always have and always will want to try more and more exciting and exotic things to play, at least in the beginning. If I say one truly old farty thing in this piece, it’s this – this is something that tends to go away with age. But it’s still true. The most common things are requests for player races and seemingly everybody wants to be a vampire. There are quite a few problems with that. First is simple – just how the hell would that work? Is the entire group willing to become nocturnal and willing to conceal your nature, ’cause them suckers aren’t welcome just anywhere. Another issue is game balance. Vampires in D&D are exceedingly powerful (not to mention effectively immortal) and therefore would have to be several levels below the rest of the party and thus more fragile and less powerful. In this cases, this kind of character almost always overshadows the other characters.
Another solution is to create or dig up a watered down race that is thematically similar but will not destroy the balance. Pathfinder has for instance the dhampir, which appeals to me in the same way as a pizza with an old tire on it. It’s interesting to see and I will be curious but I’d rather have just the pizza, thank you. And here the problem is precisely that this is watered down. Most players who want to be a vampire want to be a vampire with all them purdy vampire powers, not a character that has slightly better than usual resistance to negative energy and can see in the dark but otherwise is basically not that different from an elf.
This only works in a D&D context if all the group is in on it, including the DM. If all the characters have the same power levels and the game is set with those parameters in mind, then sure. Why not? But that really isn’t what D&D is best at. And besides, they already made a pretty damn good game about playing a group of vampires that holds up fine.
Same goes for when a group of players want to be kids, which I hear quite often. D&D can’t really handle that for an entire group. But there was quite a bit of ballyhoo made about some other game recently that can easily handle that. Also, one of my fellow Yawners found a very elegant way to handle this.
The same thing applies to a vast number of creatures that players have requested to play throughout the years. I’ve long since lost count of the creatures (young) players have requested to play. And these days, I’m quick on the no. But it’s important to explain why, don’t just flatly deny. Don’t discourage someone who wants to try something. It’s a delicate balance, but you learn where the line is.
Pfft, I got a 17
One weakness of D&D is that despite the roleplaying possibilities, an awfully large part of the game requires or depends on dice rolls. And that can take away from the tension or atmosphere. One of the worst cases of this is horror. D&D really isn’t a particularly good horror system, at least its mechanics are not. A memorable example is from when a group I was DM’ing was exploring a ruined keep, wherein there was a monster that fed on fear and could implant ideas and visions into the minds of the PC’s. One of them had some months before tried to rescue his mother from monsters but was too late and came upon her half-eaten remains. Now the monster in the keep made him relive that, except his half-eaten mother woke up and attempted to terrorise him. Unfortunately, this scene was completely ruined by a saving throw and became very anti-climactic. I am not cursing that he made the saving throw, but the mechanic itself. In many more dedicated horror systems, this scene would have been much more effective as it would have influenced the characters pool of sanity points for example or drained willpower or several other things, instead of being rendered toothless. The saving throw mechanic, which generally boils down to suffering no ill effects, half the effects or limited effects from whatever you rolled against simply doesn’t work for what I had in mind.
There are buckets, and I mean loads of systems that handle horror far better than D&D. Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are the obvious examples, but there are many more. Aside from that, D&D’s realm is classic, high fantasy. Other things just don’t fit that well.
There are no limits
We haven’t been shy with our excitement on the many new and different RPG’s that are new on the market or on their way, especially from our Scandinavian neighbours. We urge you to look at some of the things we’ve been checking out. Perhaps you’ll find exactly what you’ve been hoping for.
Finally, let’s not forget that there are quite a few systems out there that can handle anything. GURPS and Savage Worlds are generic systems, where you set the parameters, instead of having to conform to the game.
“Think of what you can do with that there is”
D&D is the alpha wolf. It is according to the numbers as big as it has ever been and looks like it will continue getting bigger. But it isn’t alone in the pack by any means. For all it does good, and that is a lot, there are limitations and areas where other things work a lot better. Because of the sheer size of D&D these days, it can be really hard to get people to try other things. We’ve been down this road before though… Those of us who were playing in the early 90’s remember the period when D&D became, in a way, too big. At that point we started experimenting like crazy. All kinds of systems flourished where D&D could not and there were very highly active groups playing World of Darkness, GURPS, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Call of Cthulhu and many, many more all over the place. This lasted for a few years, until D&D almost entirely took over again. Somehow, I get the feeling we’re not that far from all those new players of today wanting to spread their wings.
And it will be glorious.
What's your thoughts on this?
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