WHY D&D IS FLAWED (From a 30 year veteran DM)
Okay, a lot of you reading that title are going to immediately start typing out a rebuttal or at the very least question its placement here. Before I address that, let me explain where I come from.
I’ve been in role-playing games since Patriation (Google it), and Dungeons & Dragons occupied the majority of that time. I got into designing my own games in the mid-90s and pushed into being a professional game writer in 2008. I have written for all editions of D&D since 3.0 as well as Pathfinder and other D&D offshoots like 13th Age. I wrote Ultramodern5, which is considered by many to be the seminal work for non-fantasy D&D in this generation. With that out of the way, as an evidenced authority, I can safely say that Dungeons & Dragons is a hodgepodge of broken ideas and band-aid solutions that have held together a fragile system that mostly depends on local dungeon masters to improve the overall quality of the game.
Let’s swivel around to talk about board games. One element of this industry I have a lot of respect for is their desire to evolve. It hadn’t for decades, but in just in the past twenty years, we’ve seen unprecedented strides. Once a game is released introducing a variant to a rule or an entirely new mechanic, others jump onboard to imitate, expand, and advance that idea. This has given way to issues regarding plagiarism, but overall, the industry pushes forward, ever-changing in a progressive adaptive environment. This is why we no longer employ roll-to-move or excessive luck. Fans of board games denigrate obsolete embarrassments like Chutes & Ladders, Candy Land, Trouble and Monopoly despite their iconic placement in our youths. Board games are remarkably open-minded. Even within multiple iterations of the same game, like Pandemic, there can be found amazing growth as new rules are added and others are taken away. Even tabletop wargames like Warhammer have altered how their games are played in radical ways over the decades.
But Dungeons & Dragons rarely budges. The original red box and initial Advanced titles are adulated nearly 50 years later with people still refusing to move beyond these core books. I don’t know anyone embracing 1st edition Warhammer. Many of the rules are ironclad despite their obsolete implementation, and fans insist that they remain so.
The 3-18 Ability Score range is a bizarre artifact, which itself is barely implemented in the game anymore. The Strength score is used to calculate your carrying capacity and how much you can lift; that’s it. The other ones are not used at all outside of being referenced to generate an entirely different number, your ability modifier. Throughout a player character’s existence, said abilities combine with combat bonuses to generate a bonus between +3 and +7 and when compared to a 1-20 range determined by the rolling of a d20, you quickly realize a situation where luck plays more a role in your success of a task or the defeating of a boss than actual skill, and with 5th Edition, this problem is amplified with attack bonuses being regulated at higher level.
Unlike board games, a character in D&D can enter combat, get hit with a single attack and then drop dead instantly. And in D&D, death is often permanent, forcing the tearing of sheets and the discarding of invested time.
And at this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well, my game isn’t like that.” Of course, it’s not…because you probably have a dungeon master capable of interpreting the rules dynamically and only employing them when the narrative dictates it. When you watch Critical Role or Harmonquest, you are not watching a faithful recreation of Dungeons & Dragons. You’re watching a theatrical presentation referencing the rules only when necessary. If a DM is completely mechanically adherent to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, even with this current 5th Edition, the game is overly long and exceedingly boring. In a five player group, a single battle can take two hours with each character maybe getting a few rolls in. For every character that felt powerful in a battle, there was one that felt useless. Character effectiveness is entirely based on the skillset of the player constructing said character and not on the robust and balanced nature of the rules, which is why a character designed out of flair and personality will be easily killed by the character employing the rules to their maximum effect.
And fans would have it no other way. They are so fundamental, so established in their ideas, that they refuse to advance the game beyond these rusted anchors. Wizards of the Coast tried to change things. The 4th Edition ruleset released in 2008 was met with nearly worldwide condemnation, spawning the rise of the outmoded Pathfinder and eventually, the traditionally constructed 5th Edition. And yet, there are still thousands of people that still claim to stick with 3rd edition, or worse, the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Don’t get me wrong, I love writing for the system, and as a canvas on which to paint a narrative work, it is fantastically liberating, which is why I have been a GM for 27 of the 30 years I’ve been gaming. But as a player controlling a character, I am still shocked at how utterly boring and unfair the game can be when played to the letter of the rules. This is why that, as a player, I much prefer cooperative dungeon tabletop games like Gloomhaven and why I absolutely love the app driven experiences like Mansions of Madness and Journeys in Middle Earth. They are fair, balanced, and do not require an outside intelligence actively altering the universe to ensure everyone is being entertained.
D&D will never change its core foundation, and as a game writer, I find that relieving as it means I don’t have to learn too many new skills when writing content for it. But when removed from its iconic reputation, from its deification within the geek landscape, it still remains a deeply flawed system.