The right tool for the job

In May, I got to go to WisCon again. (Recovering took a while, thus not getting around to posting last month.) There was a lot of great gaming programming, including some very fun and mind-expanding conversations. One thing that kept coming up, though: A whole lot of people invest way too much energy and money into trying to fix D&D.

Image: A well-worn sledgehammer, resting on a ledge.D&D is a very particular game, with very particular assumptions. It works great for a certain slice of play styles, I think. But I get the impression that a lot of people are constantly having to fight the system to get it to work for the play styles they want — play styles that lie nowhere within D&D’s fortes. Can you use D&D to run a system-light, non-violent game that isn’t focused on acquiring things and defeating objectively evil baddies and progressively getting better at fighting bigger, eviler baddies? Yep, for sure! I am firmly of the belief that you can run any game with any system. But that doesn’t mean that it will be easy to do so. You can use D&D for a system-light, non-violent, etc. game, but doing so is like using a sledgehammer to drive a staple. It’s entirely possible to find a way — but why bother, when there are these things called ‘staplers’ out there? And why (to further extend the metaphor) keep spending money to accessorize your sledgehammer for the job?

The main reason, of course, is that a lot of people have never had experience with anything but D&D. But even that isn’t a satisfying answer. The amount of effort a lot of people invest in carefully hand-crafting their sledgehammers into devices capable of driving staples, when they could spend that same amount of energy — or considerably less — finding and learning to use a stapler… it continues to amaze me.

A lot of people also just play D&D because of that closely-related reason, critical mass. Everyone plays D&D because everyone plays D&D. (This way lies a metaphor about social networks, and how D&D is basically the Facebook of RPGs. But enough with hackneyed metaphors.) And there isn’t really a good argument against that, other than “But you could be having so much more fun if you just played a game designed to do what you want to do!”

I found it both fascinating and frustrating that this issue came up so many times at WisCon. One panel I went to, and at least one I couldn’t go to, directly addressed this issue. But all the panels I saw still seemed to come to the default assumption at the end that, yeah, everyone is just going to play D&D anyway. Like I said, fascinating and frustrating.


The right tool for the job — 2 Comments

  1. I think it’s a lot easier to find players for games using a bigger system (like D&D) which is a huge reason that people keep trying to reinvent the wheel by houseruling D&D to do things it isn’t good at.

    It’s also a big investment of time and money to learn a new system, and after a few sessions where the group responds unfavorably, I’ve seen people give up and go back to whatever system the rest of the group prefers.

    I think another point that might irk some in the industry is that a lot of people like the core gameplay loop of D&D. They want to walk into a tavern, get a quest from the barkeep, kill some goblins, loot every corpse, and then move to the next town. They might want a duel of wits with a noble at some point or a one-off adventure where they eat dungeon mushrooms and spend the session trying to talk their way back across Styx, but they only want to do that for a session. The rest of the time, they want to murderhobo their way across a facsimile of Middle Earth. I think the people that truly want a long term experience with something that isn’t really part of what D&D does well will eventually get tired of running into the game’s limitations and find a game that does what they want.

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