Wall: Why D&D?

This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to a hot take, so here we go: D&D versus story games.

Origin Story

I didn’t play any sort of extended campaign until my mid-20s, and that first long experience was a two-year love story with D&D 4E and with my DM, who taught me everything I know about awful moral quandaries as framing devices and character motivators.

Alas, over 7 years later, my DM has moved on to story games. I can play Fiasco with him, and even Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, but he’ll never Master my Dungeon again. Still, I like to run ideas by him every now and then; his responses are gracious and helpful, but they often include something along the lines of, “You know, you could run this with [insert story game system.” And it’s true—I often could. So why don’t I?

Story games are beautiful little machines designed to create a certain type of story. Fiasco almost flawlessly creates a Coen-Brothers-style emotional noir. Apocalypse World creates tense moments of emotion in the face of oncoming adversity. Polaris carves out a chilling tale of aristocratic doom. Why not use these systems?

And let me say that I do play these games. I have tons of respect for them on a design level, on a play level—I’m so glad they exist, and I want more of them! Their powerful designs guarantee the sort of story they intend to make…

…and therein lies my problem with playing them a lot.

D&D A Picaresque Bildungsromantic Postmodern Neo-Cubist Fantasy Morality Play

When I say that most story games are made to create a certain kind of story, I mean that the rules in the game create strictures on a story level. Fiasco always has a certain number of acts. Apocalypse World has an intense and brilliant questioning structure that creates interdependence. And so on.

If players are unsure how to structure those acts and story beats—or even if they’re good and practiced at it but just don’t want to think about it—story games are the way to go.

But what if you don’t want a structure imposed from the outside? D&D and its imitators are, as far as I can tell, devoid of large-scale narrative rules. They have rules directed toward individual, small-scale beats—inspiration in 5E, daily powers in 4E, and so on—but that’s about as large as they go. What does this mean?

(Small interjection: I bet there’s a neat argument to be made that spells like geas and other curses could be used to drive large-scale stories in a mechanical fashion, but I’ve never actually seen a DM use stuff like that, so I can’t speak to it.)

Because of the lack of narrative rules, D&D can easily slip in and out of genres or eschew them entirely. And I’m speaking here of structural genres: picaresque romps like Don Quixote, postmodern ramblings like Ulysses, bloated serials like Lost, and more. Because of this lack of narrative impositions, D&D can feel much more like real life than a story game might; it can meander, it can quietly focus on relationships or internal striving, jump into intense action and leave back out, and meditate on unexpected change or death.

Which isn’t to say that a story game can’t do these things. In my experience, though, they haven’t really done all of them.

A procedurally generated image by John Pound, which is also somehow a metaphor for the discussion at hand.

Choice Paralysis on the Plains of Hell

It’s not that a lack of rules is always a good thing. I had planned for act two of my Wall campaign to see an increase in PC agency. They would no longer be newcomers, so they could enter the “domain” level of of D&D: making political alliances, choosing where to go, investing in a community, and so on.

And they hated it. It was the one time that they got together outside of the game to talk about the direction of the game. They made a clear and impassioned plea: we’re not sure what to do, and it makes the game feel like a difficult slog sometimes.

So I changed things around. I was happy to.

But maybe things would have been different if D&D had a special set of Act Two rules that helped players through the process. Or maybe I should have invented them. I bet I could adapt 5E’s carousing table so that every session started with a “what happened abroad” sort of thing.

The Purpose of Rules

I am in no way saying that any system or game is better than another. I always want more games—they all teach me to be a better gamer and help me create my own best game.

I do think it’s interesting, though, that I’ve never played a game of Fiasco without explicitly using the rules—handing out dice, passing the turn, rolling on the Tilt table—whereas I’ve seen a number of games of D&D where a rule is never considered—where people just talk and consider, even moving outside of the “rule” that players only play their characters.

So I wanted to say that the argument of “D&D only has rules for combat so it pushes people toward combat” is totally bogus.  D&D 4E let me internalize a few combat rules so that I could forget about  combat and instead focus on the best way to embody my paladin of the goddess of lies.

And the Arbiter of Rules

Of course, the DM has the power to act as a filter of how many rules get utilized in D&D, and typing that out, I fear I’m leaning toward a “benevolent dictator” theory of gaming. Story games naturally have to develop rules for narrative direction once they start decentralizing the power of narrative determination.

The Campaign podcast has players stepping in as one-off characters that often become recurring, and lately (as of episode 56 or so), has the player/GM dichotomy breaking down entirely, with a split party GMed by two people, each of which is a character in the other half of the party.

Blurring those distinctions is something I’d like to see more of.

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