Friday, January 20, 2012

Why not D&D?

So you want to run a fantasy roleplaying game?  Good for you!  It's a lot of fun; it's in fact, one of my main hobbies.  So, that means D&D, right?  What?  Why not?

Yeah, that's right.  My game is not D&D.  Even if I use the houseruled D&D rules variant (one of three acceptable variants for me!) I don't consider it to be D&D.  Too many changes, and the ones that matter the most, in my opinion, aren't the ones to the rules anyway.  For a lot of folks, D&D and fantasy roleplaying games are practically synonymous, and playing a fantasy RPG that's not D&D seems to be really quite a strange idea.  So, why is it something that I want to do?

Although not as much an issue for me currently, it has been in the past and could be for other folks (and could be for me in the future at some point too)--there's a lot of cool non-D&D fantasy RPGs out there already.  Some of them have been so-called "fantasy heartbreakers"--these are games that are pretty much the same as D&D except with a handful of often shallow topical features changed to "fix" them according to their creators.  To a greater or lesser extent, these are collections of houserules to D&D.  But the good ones are just plain good games in their own right.  Many--maybe most--of them come with a setting implicit to the game, and in many cases, that's their main attraction.  The various roleplaying games set in Middle-earth, for example (I.C.E.'s MERP or Decipher's Lord of the Rings game) are primarily focused around using the setting, and the rules are a lesser consideration--although that's not to say that they aren't optimized for the setting as it's envisioned by the authors.  The Black Company or Thieves' World games by Green Ronin are also games of this nature--heck; they primarily use modified D&D rules via the OGL!  Song of Ice and Fire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Dragon Age, the upcoming Iron Kingdoms game and more are all--really--more about the setting than about the rules.

Other games have their fans, though, for the system.  There's a fair bit that can be done in fantasy with systems like Savage Worlds, GURPS, BRP, True20, Unisystem, or FUDGE or any other number of systems, many of which have at least some measure of support for fantasy gaming.  If you go back a bit, of course, there used to be many other systems, and some of them still have their fans even if they're out of print (one friend of mine is a big fan of Rolemaster, for example.)

For me personally, what turned me off from D&D wasn't so much the rules (although I've certainly got some issues with them) except where the rules informed the implicit setting of the game.  D&D just didn't represent what fantasy was to me.  There was little in D&D that looked familiar to me as a fan of the fantasy genre, once you scratched the surface and got past the shallow, superficial similarities.  I didn't like the races, which unless you're doing a Tolkien rip-off or a D&D novel, are not common in the fantasy genre really.  I didn't like the way magic worked, which stood apart from anything magical I'd ever seen before.  I didn't like the migration in D&D to really best supporting a high fantasy environment, wITH black & white good and evil, and an assumption of heroism on the part of the protagonists.  I didn't like the "zero to hero" aspect of leveling, where the game literally changed genres as your character advanced from low level to high level.  And most of all, I didn't like the very concept of dungeons, or having anything to do with them.  In other words, regardless of the rules--which I was more or less OK with except for some exceptions which were easy to deal with--it was the basic D&D experience that I wanted to change.  What the whole game was about.  The rules changes were just about supporting that change in implicit setting and implicit activities, not changes that I was so much making for their own sake.

Traditional fantasy... at its most traditional
It was really those implicit setting elements that most turned me off.  And you probably know what I mean; the implicit details of the setting are strong enough that they overwhelm a lot of what you otherwise might try to do to differentiate.  It's been said before by a lot of different people--Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms are really pretty much the same.  Yeah, a few names are different, but who really cares?  I'd add to that that even most other settings are basically the same too.  Eberron actively tries to be different, but only manages baby-steps away from the same paradigm.  Same for Iron Kingdoms too, until it abandoned D&D and went its own way (arguably, that's got a long way to go to break away from D&D too, but it's probably better to judge that after the new game comes out.  The existing D&D setting is still very much a variation on the same D&D theme.)  And the more the implicit setting changes, the more that forces some houserules to make the mechanics match the implicit setting, until you reach a point--somewhere--where you're not playing D&D anymore from either a mechanics standpoint or a play paradigm standpoint.

But the D&D rules aren't all bad, and there's a lot of benefits from using them as much as possible.  One of them is the enormous amount of source material you can draw on if you do.  Another is the familiarity with the system that your players are likely to have, making mechanics a fairly seamless issue in game.  To me, those reasons were pretty huge--and I've got a lot of d20 material out there that I really wanted to use.  So, to me, turning to Savage Worlds or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying or whatever wasn't really an option.  I wanted a game that was compatible enough with Third Edition D&D that I could use all the monster books, character options, magic and whatnot--all the rules elements that I have--just imported into a different playstyle.  I started by gradually adding houserules.  Eventually, I added a d20 Modern variant.  I've gone back and forth between these two variants in terms of what I prefer repeatedly over the years.  Currently, I'm leaning towards the d20 Modern again, and have for a long time.  But the key issue is that d20 Modern is, for the most part, completely compatible and interchangeable with D&D for a lot of rules elements.

Part of the reason for that is that despite the rules similarities, the playstyle assumptions for d20 Modern already differ from that of D&D.  I'm finding that mentally it's easier to get folks on the same page as me if the title of the game is a little different.  Also, I'm finding that houseruling d20 Modern is a much less extensive affair than houseruling D&D.  While in a few ways, the houseruled D&D might be closer to what I actually want, the cumbersomeness of the endeavor makes it much less optimal regardless.

As this series of articles progresses, I'll talk more and more about how I like to run the game, and how I like my settings to look and my play experience, and what I've done to faciliate them.

No comments: