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If You’re “Playing Dungeons & Dragons”, You’re Missing The Point

Don’t let the title confuse you: I’m a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons. While it’s not my favorite tabletop system to run, its latest edition is probably one of the most balanced tabletop games out there, and easily the most recognizable name. The rules are fair and pretty simple, and the advantage / disadvantage system, in particular, is a fantastic addition to the gameplay that I believe many other systems could benefit from adopting.

I’ve been “Playing D&D” for about three years now, and it wasn’t until last year when I tried running a game that I realized what I’d been doing wrong. If you went to play a tabletop game right after reading the Dungeons & Dragons manual, you’d invariably come to the same conclusion that befell my players and I in my early years of playing: You’d think that you and your friends were playing Dungeons & Dragons.

But Dungeons & Dragons is not a game, and the worst possible way to play it is to treat it like one.

When you and your friends gather round the circle table for some good ‘ol tabletop fun, you are engaging in a Game of group storytelling. One (or sometimes multiple) of you will serve as the storyteller, and the rest will act as characters in the story. Whatever setting or world your story takes place in is ultimately up to you.

Dungeons & Dragons, or Numenera, or Pathfinder, Starfinder, GURPS, Call of Cthulu, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Mutants & Masterminds, or whatever other rules system your party uses is a tool that allows you to explain events without them feeling arbitrary or random. It’s that thing that helps the storyteller know what to do when a player says “I want to hit that goblin with my sword”. The system uses dice and rulings to tell the player whether their attack succeeds, and how much it hurts the goblin. If not for the system, it would be up to the storyteller to arbitrarily determine whether the attack lands or fails, which takes some of the “punch” out of the game world. Having a ruleset improves the experience by taking some power away from the storyteller, and by making the game bigger than the storyteller. The world gains a set of real and grounded means that the characters can use to measure the likelihood of success. It becomes more immersive. More physical. More real.

These systems also come packed with a host of sample scenarios and settings that mesh well with the rules they provide. But just because you’re playing in the world of Dungeons & Dragons does not mean that you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons. Just because you’re playing paintball in a forest doesn’t mean you’re playing “forest”.

I used to be very meticulous about creating my characters, looking up the benefits of each spell or ability to make sure I was picking the most useful options. I wasn’t alone: Three of my four party members, myself included, would look up online guides and create optimized characters. After all, why wouldn’t you? This is the smartest, the correct way to play the game, right? People use the best characters in fighting games to give them the best chance of winning, choose the best cards in trading card games to create the most effective strategies, and use drivers for their opening shots in golf because they want the ball to travel as far as possible. If the game has some options that are more effective than others, it shows your inherent skill as a player to select those options and use them to maximum effect. Your goal in D&D is to complete quests and survive, and the most effective way to do that is to maximize your combat effectiveness.

None of the views in the above paragraph are wrong. Creating characters that are the toughest to kill, do the most damage, or have the best utility is the way to play Dungeons & Dragons that shows the most skill.

But you and your group of friends are not playing Dungeons & Dragons. You’re using Dungeons & Dragons. You’re playing a game of group storytelling. To win at group storytelling is to play a character that feels interesting, real, and human. Optimized characters don’t tend to do that. It’s too dangerous.

I’ve been told by many a Game Master in the past that I need to focus more on the roleplaying side of Dungeons & Dragons. But why would I? Roleplaying doesn’t make me do more damage. It encourages my character to make risky, emotional decisions, which could put me at risk of death. It hurts my performance in the game. It wasn’t until I began to look at roleplaying as the game that I began to get better at it. Because in the end, that’s what will make your experiences with tabletop gaming the most memorable.

Captain America is nowhere near as powerful as Thor. Yet he’s still just as lovable as a character because he has flaws and weaknesses: He has trouble trusting governments and organizations and will avoid making sacrifices for the “greater good” if it comes at the cost of a few innocent lives. He’s a reliable character with consistent motivations. Thor did more work in the New York battle of Avengers I, but before his character was revised in Thor: Ragnarok, many argued that Thor wasn’t too interesting. When Ragnarok saw the destruction of Thor’s hammer, the weakness made him more interesting. It made him a better character.

To close, I offer a challenge to anyone who currently plays a tabletop game: Give your character a significant weakness in a fairly relevant area. If you’re playing a sneaky thief, make them good at pre-planned actions but likely to crack under pressure. Maybe your monk is a master in the battlefield but a social clutz who doesn’t believe in bathing. Maybe your wild mage has a bad case of Tourette’s Syndrome, which makes them bad at social situations, stealth, and helps explain why their magic goes wild as they accidentally blurt a curse word in the middle of a spell incantation. Maybe your Druid grew up with a family of squirrels, has no knowledge of human history and is completely illiterate.

Weaknesses make encounters more difficult, but no one remembers the easy encounters. And roleplaying with believable characters is how you “win” at group storytelling. And you and your friends are playing group storytelling. You’re not playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Featured Image Via Flickr / Benjamin Esham

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Maya Asregadoo

    July 24, 2018 at 11:44 pm

    I agree! The goal of D&D is storytelling, and it’s boring when all of the characters in a story are too perfect.

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