So Mike Shea wrote a blog post over at SlyFlourish talking about the shifting of Dungeons % Dragons 5th edition to a more story focus. Go ahead and take a read; it is absolutely worth it even if I may not agree with all of the points Mike made. Actually disagree is likely too strong a term. It is more that I am a bit perplexed by some of the conclusions. Regardless, as I said it is worth the read.
I admit to being a big uncomfortable at two blogs in a row with me casting what might be seen as criticisms at D&D or those who created it and play it. Note that I love 5th edition and am using the 5E SRD to build several games. I also have a product on the DM's Guild with more to come. I do not hate D&D. Far from it.
That said, I want to talk about what I think is some incoherent points in the general D&D narrative, especially with the launch of 5th edition. I honestly wonder if people are confused by the kind of game 5th edition is supposed to be. I also want to discuss the difference between mechanics, approach, style, and the one place where 5th edition fails at what it tries to do. In fact, let's start with that last point first.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition wants you to focus on story. I think this is pretty well documented and the article offers evidence to that point. However, how exactly does D&D focus on story? Do the character classes have story powers? No, they do not (spoilers). Yes backgrounds and some of the paths offer flavor that a player can take and play off of. At least Backgrounds give you something mechanical (skill or language or tools) that ties it in a thematic way to the player's choice. A paladin who has the criminal background? Hell yes, sign me up. But that really is not much more than some minor narrative fluff. It is there IF the player uses it and IF the DM chooses to us it. Typically, a player might even offer up a back story of some kind but there is no guarantee that it will tie in with the chosen background and class. Again, this is player driven, NOT system driven.
There is of course the Between Adventures section of the PHB. All paragraph and a page of it. Compared to the rest of the rules, that seems a rather small amount of story encouragement for what is supposed to be the new focus of the game. So it comes down to what it has always come down to: the DM making their game focused on "story" (see below) and narrative. That is to say, a focus on role playing as opposed to just roll playing. Now how can we draw the conclusion from 5th edition that it supposed to be more story focused aside from what the designers are telling us? If I were to put a PHB down in front of a complete new DM and set of players and told them to "run a game". I suspect, aside from running they game they want to run, they would run a game where people kill the fuck out of the bad guys. To be fair, I do not think 5th edition discourages story and narrative, but it can hardly be said to encourage it mechanically and that is what matters.
Anecdotally, because I cannot find the relevant quotes, some "old timers" are complaining that 5th edition is too rules heavy and destroying narrative. I find this to be untrue and also a bit ironic. It is practically rules light by comparison to any of the previous AD&D or D&D games. In fact 5th edition is on par with the venerable B/X and BECMI sets.
Conflation Is Alive and Well
I think I may officially be tired of the term "story" at least as it concerns a style of running role playing games, D&D in particular. "I run a story driven game that focuses on the characters..." UGH! So you run a character-driven campaign? Great, then just say that. A story or more properly termed plot driven campaign is different, because while the characters are always the most important part of the game, one style focuses on the characters as the motivators and the other as the word around them. Or more properly some plot within the greater world. I would suggest it is even more nuanced than that, but you can define those terms as you wish. Story is just such a nebulous term, especially in regards to rpgs, that it is practically meaningless.
D&D and RPGs did not start with 3rd Edition
I know I am old. I mean, damn I know. I remember a day when... lol well of course I remember plenty of the old days (they were not all good). It seems to me that we are measuring games from about 2000 or so. Third Edition, the OGL and the rise of the Indie rpg scene certainly were a bit of a water shed in the industry. Self publishing has really pushed it even further and the OSR gives the industry some momentum. There are a lot of moving parts to be sure. But the games, D&D included that existed before 1999 are absolutely relevant beyond mere nostalgia. Many of the questions we ask today, have been asked for decades. These discussions are not new, which is not to say they are not still relevant. They absolutely are relevant, but do not think we weren't talking about this stuff thirty years ago. Trust me.
As always, love to hear your comments
Sean AKA The Dragon has been gaming or thinking about gaming for over thirty years. Game design is one of his greatest passions. He has ideas and is not afraid to talk about them.