Thursday, December 7, 2017

How D&D Became Boring


I've noticed a trend lately. One that was so slow it snuck up on me. Yet its a problem that persists at many game tables around the country: Dungeons & Dragons has become boring!

Low Effort Players

Many players these days, young and old, have adopted a video game mentality when approaching challenges in D&D. It's no longer about trying to solve a complex puzzle, negotiating your way out of a tense situation, or describing in detail how your character disarms a trap. Nowadays its "I made a knowledge roll", or "I want to make a perception check". Boring! How about we all get off our cellphones (I've been guilty of this myself), and pay attention?

Solution: Ask the players to write a two page biography about their characters, so that they know who they're playing, at a more than "sheet-deep" superficial level. Next, ask the players to put away their character record sheets, and truly role-play using nothing but the descriptions from the GM and their own wits.

Hand Waving Away the Minutiae

This is an epidemic everywhere. Encumbrance? Gone. Components for spells? Dead. Meticulous research of magic spells, scribing in spell books, and quests to find all-important focal items? Slashed and burned. When was the last time you tracked time? Or a torch burning out? When has your character began to starve, or develop major blisters on their feet for somehow hiking 20 miles cross-country with overburdening packs and no pony or wagon?

Nowadays, players & GMs alike have the wrong attitude. They think all of this "stuff" that makes the game is a chore, so they simply ignore it away, then wonder why the balance is out of wack.

Solution: Read the rules, follow the rules, as the author intended.

No True Challenge

In modern times, Game Masters have lost sight of the adventure because all they focus on is the campaign. Gone are the days of true excitement when you and your buddies had all Friday night, all Saturday, and some of Sunday, to overthrow the Lich Council that is pouring forth thousands of undead wizards. When the GM would pump you and your friends up with visceral descriptions of how epically awesome the weekend was going to be. Everyone ordered pizza, brought snacks, and drank entirely too much soda. No sleep was had because you and your forces marshed against a true evil that, in all likelyhood, was probably going to take over the world. You only had 24 real-world hours to save the day!

Instead, this fast burn has been replaced with a gradual warming. Your character is supposed to grow from level 1 to 20, which will take years, so slow down there partner. Don't get too excited. You've gotta grind some rats, kobolds, and street thugs down by the docks. The party pinballs from one sorta-important quest to another, with no lasting consequences whether they're successful or not.

Worse yet, the Game Master holds your hand the whole way through; dropping obvious directional markers for the players, fudging poor rolls, and padding the adventure with low-level grunts and plenty of rest time. And since resource management is gone (see above), everything has devolved into a mindless slog that makes no difference if you miss a week's session or not.

And ever since 3.X to 5E, dying isn't really a thing anymore (unless a monster gets a massive one-shot hit), thanks to plenty of potions, healing & reviving spells, healing rests, tons of HP, and several rounds of rolling dice when your down (designed to give the party time to get to the downed adventurer and save them).

Game Masters even give out XP when certain "milestones" are reached, rather than making the party earn their XP from monsters slain, hordes hauled, or secrets revealed. The players just have to show up and they get rewarded (whether or not they make any effort at the table).

Solution: If the players aren't in a dark, weird, and truly dangerous world; you're doing it wrong. Make the party fight tooth and nail, stack the deck against them, and truly try to kill them all off. The players will complain at first, but quickly understand the terms: band together and survive, or perish and let evil prevail.

Build real suspense and make lasting memories from a session that truly matters, and isn't just phoned in. Every character's strengths should be needed, and every weakness exploited.

Conclusion

Did I miss anything that, in your opinion, has made D&D a dull thrill, compared to yesteryears? Let me know in the comments below.

9 comments:

  1. Well, I agree with some points, but the momento you said that in 5th edition dying isn´t really a thing anymore, I had to say something xD

    Honestly, playing the Basic Box adventure I did like 3 tpk's and between that and other games I might have my record of charachters killed per session! I remember one particularly dreadful dungeon of level 1, where I killed maybe 10 characters only on the first level. Against zombies, shadows, skeletons and such, no fancy stuff. The players finally decided it was too much and abandoned the quest.

    I don't find the biography completly necessary either, I enjoy discovering who I'm playing with during the game, and I know that some players don't have the passion for writing to do somthing like that. They prefer action. I agree with the rest of that part.

    In general I get, and share, your idea, but I think one can reach the style that you defend in this article through very different methods. Dungeon World is a good example.

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  2. I can't say D&D has become "boring" for everyone...clearly there are people still buying and playing the latest edition of D&D.

    However, recent editions have focused on specific aspects of the game, evolving it into something that loses sight of the things that make it great. What you're left with is a game that provides a very banal play experience, despite the input and effort of the (presumably) creative writers/designers.

    Minutia is only a means to an end. Challenges are only a means to an end. The end is delivering an experience to players that cannot be met with other forms of entertainment.

    Sometimes minutia helps with immersion...sometimes it's a detriment (when excessive fiddly bits detracts from the play experience). Escapism is the point, and striking a proper balance can be difficult.

    However (and this, I feel, is the root of the problem) there is precious little TEACHING going on within the latest editions of D&D. Very little explanation of how to run a game session or a campaign...and much of what HAS been written is buried in pages and pages of padded word count. Even the original Dungeon Masters Guide, perhaps the last truly good DM resource published for the D&D game is lacking in fundamental discussion on how to run a good session (though its advice on running a campaign is excellent). We've moved further and further away from practical advice since its publication.

    The instructions for the game (the rules) don't offer a true manual of instruction. Instead, the designers are telling people to "figure it out" while simultaneously providing them with adventure lines (or whatever they're called), making them reliant on the corporation's products, and stunting their development.

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  3. Ultimately, following the rules exactly as written, using Encumbrance, extensive resource management, or meticulous time-tracking are more likely to encourage sheet level play. It is no accident that the retro-clones have streamlined rules for encumbrance, XP and other minutiae. A different sort of fiddliness found its way into d20, further fueling my dislike. Nowadays I'm a rules-lite advocate, so things like blisters, spell components and running out of arrows become narrative devices, heightening dramatic tension and serving the story.

    To me, it's lazy to rely on TPKs to get the point across that the world is dangerous. If the death of main characters were a necessary plot device, most books, movies and TV shows would have fewer episodes, smaller page counts, and much shorter running times. Just last night, my party and I pulled it out of our backsides to beat the boss monster, and almost didn't. We even relied on unconventional solutions to do so, as it was a unique creature not found in D&D. This is not unusual at our table. Obviously, I don't speak for every player, and YMMV.

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  4. I think this depends enormously on the Gamemaster. But I think also that we have as a society fallen into the temptation to want quick fixes, and instant gratification. We all feel in a big rush to 'get it over with' so that we can ... what? Not so sure about that part. But the incessant rushing forward as a result of the glowing Instant Gratification Machine we hold ever close at hand has lead us down a path of dopamine addiction. We need the next buzz, every minute, and if we don't get it, we get up and pace around and feel anxious for it. And so as a result, things that used to be enjoyable in their own right now feel like we're "wasting time". Read a good book lately? Did you do a nice piece of art? Have you written an intricate poem in Iambic Pentameter lately? If you have done any of these things, or anything like them, then congratulations. I want you to GM my next game. Because I know you will take your time, and create a fascinating world that I'll enjoy exploring and being amazed by.

    I think we all need to slow down, take deep breaths, and enjoy this little blip we call life without constantly striving to "get there". If we do that, maybe we'll find we're already there, and were all along, but somehow forgot that secret fact. And if we can manage that, then I think our RPG sessions will be the better for it. :)

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  5. The post itself is at fault. It generalizes far too much, from the point of view of one person, who has prejudices against a certain kind of publicly accepted style. It has no evidence to support that this is the sort of game played among hundreds of thousands of participants who do not play at Cons or the public game shop where the author visits, nor with the online community that supposes itself to be the final word on anything.

    There are many, many of us who simply ignore this supposed version of how "everyone" plays. And what does it matter? If everyone else in the world stops, I will still be playing the exciting, tense, intellectual immersive game that I'm running today. Nothing and no one can stop me from doing that, short of death.

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  6. I stopped reading after "two page biography."

    1986 called - it wants its refereeing advice back.

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    1. I dunno, back in 1986 there wasn't a 2 page biography. I thought that was more a modern day ism. My group never made a biography/history until the characters were 6-7th level if ever. More than likely we made it up as we played.

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    2. Same here,I think the biography thing is a more modern convention to increase role-playing.

      @topic: I think it really depends on the group's style. If you think it's fun to spend half your time calculating weight (every time new coins are picked up and you shot an arrow or stone), if you like meticulously tracking your rations and time, then by all means, do that.
      Many groups take the freedom to not do that and just play and role-play their characters. We never tracked encumbrance by the book, not when starting with AD&D and not now. Common sense goes a long way and I've never been disappointed by a player claiming his character could haul around 10 swords and 5 plate-mail suits.
      My advice: Trust your players. Sometimes they may forget they already carry a big piece of loot, then remind them and they'll agree and laugh.

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  7. Try Torchbearer from Burning Wheel HQ. It focuses on light, item management, and you have to 'describe to live'. Which is a rule to just describe what your character is doing, then the GM assigns a roll to it.
    Characters get Conditions (not HP) which whittle away at them giving minus dice and such the longer they stay underground without rest (called the Grind).
    Combat is the same system used for everything from fighting, running, convincing, riddling or even surviving a storm (or whatever you can think of).

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