I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons (again)

This week I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign that I’ve been running almost weekly over nearly five months for a total of 19 games. This has not only been the longest campaign I’ve been involved with, but also the first one that actually reached its conclusion. I think it’s also the best one I’ve ever run by a considerable margin. My experiences from running campaigns on and of over the many years since the 3rd edition was first released, but also the many theories about gamemastering that I’ve learned about in the seven years since I started this site finally came together in a way that made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing, and that things turned out more or less as I had intended. And in the process, I think I learned even more from this campaign than any other I’ve ran in the past.

So all taken together, this really was a huge success.

But one important thing I realized in the final third or so of the campaign is that D&D really is not the game for me. I feel like I am done with Dungeons & Dragons, but also with dungeons, as well as dragons.

One of the reasons is the particular style of fantasy that D&D is both build upon and it perpetuates through the mechanics of its rules. D&D fantasy is fantasy that does its primary worldbuilding through establishing mechanics and standards for how things work and how beings behave. It’s a form of fantasy that is structural and rational, with clear rules that everyone can understand, leading to expectations that players automatically bring to the game. It is the opposite of being magical, wondrous, and elusive, which to me defeats the overall purpose of fantsy. Everything becomes systemised, quantified, stiff, and bland. I do have some fond memories of The North of the Forgotten Realms, and think there’s some really cool sounding ideas about the less popular lands in the distant east. Dark Sun looks really cool with really great concepts, and there’s something unique and compelling about Planescape. But when you play campaigns in these settings, you’ll always be playing D&D, and players looking at everything through the D&D lense, trying to analyze their situation and formulate their plans by D&D logic.

While I think that the D&D mindset is not my cup of tea and that other styles of fantasy are much better, this is something that I could live with and accept as something that comes with entertaining the players. As a GM, my job is not to get the players to play the ideal fantasy campaign that I would want to play, but to give them the opportunity to play the way they want to play. (There is only darkness and despair down the path of telling the players how to play the campaign right.)

The bigger problem, and I think ultimately the dealbreaker, is that D&D is build around certain structures that I simply don’t find compatible with where my strength in the preparation and running of adventures lie. I just don’t get dungeons.

And it’s not like D&D needs dungeons because they are in the title of the game and players would be disappointed if they don’t get them. The whole game is based around dungeons on the most fundamental level. The game needs dungeons, not just as locations within the story but as a structure in gameplay. D&D is a game of attrition. If the party is facing just one villain, even one surrounded by guards and minions, the fight will either be very short, or very lethal for the PC. Single fights are not meant to be difficuly, they are meant to gnaw away on the endurance of the party. To play the game as it is designed to work, you need environments where the players will be facing six, eight, or ten fights in a row. And that is just not something that works in the kind of stories that I can create. For situations that make sense to me and that I feel will be rewarding for players, it almost never makes sense to have more than two or perhaps three encounters before leaving the place to regroup for the next outing on another day. When I make larger dungeons, they always end up as huge piles of guard creatures that serve little narrative function. Classical dungeons also regularly have puzzles, but I almost never find situations in which the presence of a puzzle would make sense and wouldn’t be nonsensical. You also can have nonhostile NPCs and creatures, and I often include those, but they don’t contribute to the attrition that games like D&D need. I often feel like I do rationally understand how dungeons are supposed to work, how they are structured, filled with content, and the purpose they have in a game. I just find them somewhat dull and completely out of place in the kind of adventures that I know how to make compelling and fun.

So what then about simply forgetting about all that attrition stuff and embracing the unlimited freedom to make the way whatever I want it to be. Yes, that certainly is an option. But what would really be the point of that? The main thing that broke the camel’s back for me with 3rd edition was the abundance of new class features and special abilities that characters get at almost all levels. And that’s something that is still present in 5th editon. Not quite as heavily as in 3rd, but still very much. Way too much, I think.

D&D is ultimately a game about pursuing experience to get access to new abilities. At least in the editions of the last 20 years, but it’s been like that for spellcasters since the very beginning. D&D is a game about getting new special abilities. It’s a main element of what drives players forward, and the prospect of new abilities is what makes players pick their character concepts. The group I had for my last campaign was amazing. They all went all in, head first, with all the narrative freeform nonsense I presented to them. But even these players were constantly talking about the new abilities they were looking forward to after and between games, and they were always proud to tell each other what cool new tricks they just got when they reached a new level. This is something that is baked into the game. This is what the game is about. And I feel that when you run adventures for the group in which most situations don’t result in fighting, then what is the point of running D&D? I am feeling very confident that I am certainly able to run cool and fun adventures. But when I run D&D, I have to provide plenty of opportunities for the players to use their wide and always increasing range of cool special abilities, and I simply don’t see how to do that in adventures that are cool and fun.

Dungeons & Dragons is not for me. If a group of players I like to play with invites me to a game of D&D, I probably wouldn’t say no. As long as I don’t have to come up with adventures that provide something to be entertaining for the players, I have no problem with it, even when I think other games would be even more fun. But running D&D sets requirements and limitations for the GM that don’t work with my abilities as a GM and what I consider enjoyable about gamemastering. Perhaps if the planets happen to align and some unexpected circumstances arise, I might possibly run a B/X campaign or something of a similar type. They are nowhere near as burdened by special abilities, but in the end they are still games about large dungeons filled with monsters and puzzles. I much more see my future with heroic fantasy games looking like Barbarians of Lemuria. Or perhaps some Apocalypse World. But for now it’s Star Wars all the way. And not the Star Wars with the D&D class features, or the Star Wars with the funky dice. The original Star Wars d6 game, where all the dice you need are d6s, and all your character’s abilities are the basic skill rolls. Rules light rules at their best.

9 thoughts on “I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons (again)”

  1. The six-to-eight encounters (i.e. fights) *per day* model was one of the things that put me off 5th edition, coupled with the focus on combat and combat abilities, and the frequency of level-ups. But surely all this is much less of an issue with earlier editions of the game? My current B/X game has been running for over 30 sessions, and the PCs have only gone from level 0 to level 4, so acquiring new cool powers has hardly been a focus: most of it is just spent exploring new places and talking to the weird people who live there. There’s been an average of one fight per two sessions, and I don’t think we’ve *ever* had more than two connected action scenes without the PCs getting a chance to withdraw and regroup, and the game has run just fine.

    If D&D5 is non-negotiable, isn’t there a variant rule that changes ‘short rests’ to 8 hours, and ‘long rests’ to a full week’s R&R? That way PCs could be adventuring for months without ever getting a chance for a ‘long rest’, making it much more plausible for them to have 6-8 encounters between full recoveries…

    1. Lot’s of people use that approach, but I think it only patches up one leak among many. And I think one of the minor ones. You still have your players who are anticipating opportunities to actually get to use all the cool sounding new abilities that they got. And that’s not something that you can fix with adjusting your gamemastering style or modifying rules and procedures.
      I’ve heard of numerous people who have tried various things to make the game work better for more narrative campaigns. But having played it myself for some 60 hours now, I feel it’s not worth the effort. You might be able to force the game to kind of do what you would like, but if you still have to fight it along the entire way, I just don’t see any joy in it.
      I think it would not have been too difficult to have expanded and continue this campaign. From what was happening so far, there certainly would have been room for many fun sounding ideas. But for the last couple of weeks I just wanted to get done with it. It was only the conclusion to the great adventure was already in sight that made me carry on for the players sake. If it had been a campaign with no ongoing storyline, I probably would have jumped ship some weeks ago.

  2. I’m pretty much over D&D as well, at least 5th edition. I agree, if people I know are playing it, I’d probably join in, but I wouldn’t want to run it anymore. And your mention of Barbarians of Lemuria…I absolutely love that game. At first you think it is too simplistic to be fun for long but in reality the rules get out of the way and imagination and story telling happen.

  3. long time lurking follower of your blog here, “since 2014” this is the first time i have bothered replying to your blog. I apologize for shilling a game but
    have you considered giving mythras another shot? by both me and the testament of several others it can be great at gritty yet heroic swords and sorcery
    several sections of the book have been tidied up and improved moderately from RQ6 specifically with combat and animism which is more legible and comprehensible compared with its RQ6 counterpart
    the community discord is also greatly excellent and surprisingly comfy, and it seems relatively easy to get both games and great players, I’ve Found it an all round laudable place

    1. Mythras is the off-brand RuneQuest edition, right?

      I think I browsed through it once or twice (though that might actually have been some RQ version) and I remember not feeling hooked by it. It’s a skill based system, but somehow I still got the impression that it’s overly complex, particularly with the magic. Might not be a totally accurate impression, but with Barbarians of Lemuria I immediately understood what I had with it and it seems a great match for my needs.

  4. Been lurking on and off for a while; just thought I’d jump in with a comment on this thread….

    As you will be aware, Mythras is just one of the D100/BRP game versions. There are simpler ones such as Basic Roleplaying, OpenQuest, Cthulhu Invictus (if Cthulhu is your thing) and so on. These look to me to be simpler than Mythras or Runequest. Whilst these are all skill-based (which can impact the style of play IMO), they don’t seem as infested with all the ‘kewel powerz’ of 3rd to 5th era d&d games. They don’t strike me as so attrition-based either, but rather are grittier because combat can go south for the PCs very easily and quickly, so is best avoided.

    That said, I’ve been sticking with OSR versions of D&D because they don’t seem to suffer as much with the problem of powers (at least low-mid level), and the mechanics of the powers there are seem less intrusive on gameplay. (My personal ‘go to’ game being Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.)

    1. Mechanically speaking, I do find B/X to be fairly inoffensive once you flip over the armor class system to be the right side up. It doesn’t really do much to get in the way. But it still brings with it some baggage of the D&D type fantasy, like orcs, goblins, and beholders, and the D&D magic system. Of course you can replace them and switch to an XP system that isn’t reliant on treasure, but what are you really left with at that point? Fighter and thieves and attack rolls and saving throws. If it is the game you know how to run well and you want to play something other than Gnolls & Goblins, it’s certainly a sensible way to go. But I feel that this is a really good opportunity to get practice with other systems.
      When I first read Star Wars d6, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Apocalypse world, each made me think that these are so much better ways to play than D&D, even including B/X.

      1. I’ve not played D6 Star Wars in many years. If I’m not mistaken, the system was expanded to be multi-genre – Open D6. One can get the various books on DriveThru (Nocturnal Media/ West End Games) and elsewhere. So, if you like the system, there’s plenty of other places and times aside from the Empire or Old Republic that one can visit!

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