today I want to rant about something. This something is Dungeons&Dragons 5E.
There are two things I want to rant about:
- DnD isn't good as a TTRPG-System for everything (even though it's used for everything … knowingly or not, that's another thing)
- DnD isn't good as a first TTRPG-System to learn
So, something about me to start:
When I play TTRPGs I want to portray stories of the characters I play, either as the GM, or a Player.
MinMaxing, optimizing your character, placing miniatures, doing tactical battle on a battlemap can be all fun and joy (there's even boardgames that do solely that – like Descent), but I don't care about it. Neither do the friends I play TTRPGs with.
Even WotC's official campaigns focus on the story element. You (… I do, at least) buy a campaign because you are going to save the world from an evil dragon goddess, or to escape from the realm of a vampire, not to fight all kinds of cultists in strange dungeons, or to get strong over 20 hours of game play to eventually be able to fight a vampire (pitching a campaign as "We're going to level up over the course of 20 hours, using some items as McGuffins, to eventually fight a vampire" is guaranteed to get your near 0 players).
So, in order to play out this story we've signed up for, we're going to use system based upon … fighting, yes! What?
Continuing on the topic of DnD5E not being a good system (unless you have a very specific play style, which you probably don't):
DnD5E is about character creation (160 pages, thus half of the PHB), using magic (90 pages, a quarter of the PHB), and fighting all sorts of monsters (there's a whole book of monsters). You need to put a considerable amount of time into creating a viable character, it can't be denied.
In DnD5E you'll also have to place miniatures around on a battle map. Yes, I hear some of you saying: "You can do all of this in your mind, too!", even though the rules say so, it falls short very quickly. Many rules work on specific ranges: 50ft radius, 30ft movement, 60ft dark-vision. If DnD5E were designed to work better without a battlemap it would say things like: Close radius, Reach Weapons, etc.
You want to move to the goblin at the other end of the room? Well, it's 40ft away from you, so you're one square short, sorry. – No DM ever.
If you're playing a game built with a scale in mind (in DnD5E this is 1 inch to 5 feet (= 1 square)) without using the scale you're quickly hand-waving stuff, and thus breaking rules. Have you ever seen people play Warhammer 40K in their mind, like playing chess in your mind? No? Me neither, because you'd break rules all the time.
If you want to level somewhat quickly on the later levels you have to include a ridiculous amount of fighting, too. If you're not including the amount of fighting recommended character advancement will be slow: My party took 8 sessions to go from Level 4 to Level 5.
But DnD5E isn't just fighting! There is downtime, and role-playing, yes … The system supports this very well! Irony
Say you want to perceive something:
You roll a d20 aaaaand you rolled a 4. So the GM tells you, you don't notice anything.
Another player does the same thing. He also rolls a d20 and he rolls a 19. He notices everything there is to notice.
Or, say you persuade someone:
You roll a d20 aaaaand you rolled a 3. So the GM tells you, you don't persuade them.
Another player does the same thing. He also rolls a d20 and he rolls a 21. He successfully persuades them.
Or, say you want to recall your knowledge:
You roll a d20 aaaaand you rolled a 6. So the GM tells you, you don't know anything about it.
Another player does the same thing. He also rolls a d20 and he rolls a 20. He knows everything there is to know about it.
On a low roll nothing happens, no consequences either; on a high roll everything happens. DnD Not-Fighting mechanics in a sentence. You roll a d20, there's not much more to it.
"But there have to be consequences" I hear you say. Yes! Where does the book tell you about this? Nowhere, indeed. The book tells you to roll a d20, add an attribute, and that's it. It works well in fighting, since enemies, due to initiative also get their go, but out of initiative it's totally weighted towards the players success.
If you actually make something up, like "If the player fails a perception check, he can't try again, until the situation changes" or "… he can try again, but something bad will happen off-screen" or something alike, you're hacking DnD. You're not playing by the rules anymore. The books should include something about this, if they were to be used for anything other than a fighting-simulator.
"Play it out without rolling" I hear some other people say. Something like:
So you want to persuade the queen to let you pass into the deserts? No, don't roll your dice! Persuade me, as a person!
Now you're not playing DnD anymore, since you're not using its mechanics. We're playing "talking". You can play talking in Pathfinder, too … or Shadowrun … or Dark Heresy … no one would notice.
Additionally a story focus in a fighting system like DnD is stupid, too. Characters either (if they are low level) die in ridiculous situations, totally unrelated to the plot (I saw this happen often …) OR death is (if they are higher level) a minor speed bump, not adding anything to the dramatic tension. A character died? Yeah, just spend 1000gp, and an hour of meditation. Now they're as good as new (high level players ignoring death is often frowned upon, too, so GMs home-rule that resurrection spells don't work this simply, or don't work at all – even the Tomb of Annihilation an official WotC campaign does this!! wtf?!).
Low level characters dying isn't helped by the somewhat defunct challenge rating system, btw. The system tells you happily that 4 characters of level X versus one young dragon is a medium encounter – ignoring, that the dragons breath weapon can instant-kill the weaker characters if rolled well!
In games like Dungeon World (focusing on the narration) things like "Oops, I killed you." would never happen! The GM can always cut back the damage, without doing fictionally inappropriate things like "The dragon has nearly killed you, so now … he's fleeing!" or fudging his dice rolls. Don't fudge your dice rolls – if you are, why are you rolling dice in the first place. If you don't want the rules to kill your players randomly use other rules!
Some other stupid stuff I see, thrown in for good measure:
- DnD focuses on solving every problem with magic. Sneak past a guard? Invisibility. Persuade someone? Friends. Figure out how to rescue someone falling out of the sky? Levitate.
- Thus non-magic characters get bored in non-fighting situations quickly. Why even bother, if the wizard has a trick up his sleeve for every goddamn thing …
- The GM can get annoyed by this, too. "I have an intriguing puzzle for them to solve, hahaha– oh they just solved it with a spell, shoot!"
- Celebrating a nat-20/Crying on a nat-1 is stupid. It's a 5% chance, it's nothing special. Every 20th roll will be a 20. Every 10th roll will be a 1, or a 20. Don't make the most absurd stuff possible, just because someone rolled a 20 on a 20 sided die.
- Even worse, rolling a 1. DnD5E says nothing about a 1 being particularly bad, however many GMs rule, that you attack your friends or fail spectacularly on a non-fighting test. With the attribute modifier this gets even more stupid:
- Fighter: "I want to attack!" rolls 1, with their modifier it's a 5
- GM: "Hahaha, you attack your friend, roll Damage".
- Wizard: "I want to attack with my quarterstaff." rolls 3, with their modifier it's a 4
- GM: "You just miss."
- So a 4, is better than a 5. What?!
And, the other thing I want to rant about: DnD5E as the first system being learned by everyone.
How would it be, to not learn DnD5E as your first system? I think it would be easier … Though, I can't say for certain. I only have my experience, which probably isn't different from others who learned DnD5E:
- Watch DnD online streams (Critical Role, very famous – personally I started with the Yogscast's High Rollers)
- Learn some of the rules by watching those people play for months
- The basic rules are freely available? Awesome, download them!
- Understand most of the written rules, by having seen them in action.
- Buy the (very expensive!) books.
- Gather some poor souls to torment with my first campaign, which inadvertently will be poop, but ssshhhh
I think people who like board-games with lots of rules (like Descent) would immediately have a blast with DnD5E. The dream here obviously being
Hey players, here are the rules, please read ~100 pages until next week, so we can have fun
In reality it's very different though … Either the players already know the system, because they are in the same situation as I am (watching online streams), or they aren't, and they won't read the system – I'm not reading 100 pages in order to have "fun", screw that! In my campaign, which ran for 18 months no one, except me, read more than 10 pages from the PHB.
The first thing you obviously do as a player is creating a character. I previously mentioned there being 160 pages of character stuff (excluding the spells). That's pretty heavy, especially as a first system! There's even video series out there on the internet explaining to you how to create a DnD5E character, spanning several hours!
There's way more easy systems out there, like Apocalypse world:
These 2 pages include everything you need to know, in order to create your character! … I lied, the stuff on the bottom right is the character creation stuff, the rest is to record the character you created.
- DnD: 30-60 pages to read, to create your character.
- Apocalypse World: Half a page to read, to create your character.
If you don't like loads of rules I have a clear recommendation.
Sure, the GM still has to explain game mechanics, and they often have to read more than the players, but if you're pitching the hobby to others, a simple character sheet is often better!
Furthermore: If DnD is the first TTRPG-System you come in contact with you will likely assume all other systems to be like it too. This can be in a positive or negative sense:
- If you don't like DnD5E: Congratulations! For the next 10 years you will never touch TTRPGs again. Thanks WotC!
- If you do like DnD5E and play it long enough you will accept the sub-optimal experience as the only experience you want. Either you're intimidated by reading a new blob of rules, or you're a loyalist, and if it doesn't say DnD5E on the cover, you don't want to play it. (Which probably is why we still have DnD after nearly 40 years)
- I was very reluctant to check out things other than DnD5E, too (even though I didn't like DnD very much). I played some one-shots of other systems (MAID, or Call of Cthulu 7E) but they obviously (irony) weren't meant for campaigns (MAID), or just too complicated for me to learn (Call of Cthulu 7E). It took me some effort to overcome myself and sign up for a Blades in the Dark campaign (which I instantly fell in love with).
But, alas, let's say two positive things about DnD5E:
- DnD has a place where it excels: If you want to play a game where miniatures have to be placed, so you can move exactly 6 squares, to then deal 1d8 damage against the monster, and afterwards use Ability A and Spell B to deal 2d6 extra damage, and when you're not in a fight you want roleplay using a mechanic totally weighted towards the players. CONGRATULATIONS! DnD5E is the game for you.
- DnD5E is social glue. Either you love DnD5E, or you're in a love-hate relationship with it. If you're in a group, and can't find a game to run: There's always DnD5E.
So, what's the gist of this? Check out other TTRPGs than DnD5E.
There are brilliant other systems out there, without the DnD© Wizards of the Coast™ Tag.
Post note: This was my first article about TTRPGs. Now, almost a year later, I would phrase some of these things a bit different, and especially stress, that if you're having fun: Nothing's wrong with that. However, the core of this rant still is the same.