Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hating It For A While: D&D and the Follies of Youth

When I was 14, I hated D&D. Classes were constraining, levels artificial, the whole (3rd edition) shebang too precariously complex to tinker with. I much preferred GURPS. Nevermind that I'd never been able to run a decent game with GURPS -- it was systemized, flexible, realistic, everything D&D wasn't. So what if it took four hours to build a decent robot?* You couldn't build robots at all in D&D. There weren't any rules for it!

I got over it. Classes, I realized, were actually pretty neat. They gave you a quick way to define your character and make sure everyone in the group has something to do. Levels, too, make a pretty nifty character advancement package. It's more fun to get a couple of things all at once, but only occasionally, than to spend a point here and a point there every session or so. And so what if there are no "rules" for robots? That never stopped me in my first campaign. Just throw something together than feels right and go with it. (That last point, I'll admit, has taken me a little longer to get to.)

A couple years after the madness, and I'm talking to this who's just joined the RPG club at school. He's going on about how great Exalted is, and how much D&D sucks, and I'm thinking, "Man, that guy sure sounds like me back in the day." He was talking about social mechanics and starting out as a nobody and how boring fighters are, but still, same general idea. He'd come across this new, shiny, amazing game, and suddenly he realizes that, hey, D&D's not the only way to do things. And for some reason, what inevitably follows is "this new, shiny way is much better!"

But it's still missing the point. You start out as a nobody nothing in D&D (or at least, pre-4e versions thereof) so that you have to pick you battles, think carefully, and make getting to the next couple levels really mean something. There are no social mechanics in D&D because you play that stuff out. Fighters are there for the people who really just don't want to wrestle with a bunch of mechanical doo-dads, whether because they're new to the game or just don't enjoy it.

A lot of people go through this phase. Some people stick in it, and spend their whole gaming career ranting about how D&D is killing their favorite game. Others move on, realizing that D&D just isn't for them but that other people aren't idiots for liking it. And some of us embrace it again, no longer victims of our youthful folly. There's something about D&D -- a mix of slightly archaic design and overwhelming popularity -- that makes it very hate-able. At least for a little while.

*To be fair, 4th edition is a lot better about that. You just throw on a couple of advantage packages and you're good to go. But I still can't excuse the absolute horror that was GURPS Robots, known in my group as "the reason we got into an argument about the volume of a human." And the worst part is, I thought this was fun. It was, I guess, but not as fun as playing the dang game.

(Written for this month's blog carnival, on Transitions & Transformations in RPGs.)


  1. Dude, I had the same reaction to D&D for a long, long time. I looked down my nose at the smelly D&D gamers at my local store, as I pushed past them with my arms full of games like Everway, Silver Age Sentinels and Little Fears. I was a snob -- but no more! I have re-discovered the D&D flame of my youth, and it is spreading fast!

  2. I followed pretty much the same path, including the brief infatuation with GURPS...it didn't last very long for me because I had The Fantasy Trip to compare it to, so it was easy to notice how much less fun the heavier rules were. Now I'd be happy to GM D&D again, but my players...not so much...which is why we're doing Savage Worlds. Not that they're close substitutes, but they share some of the same "let's just get on with it and play the game" ethos that steers you far away from arguments about what the volume of a human is or what triggers an attack of opportunity.

  3. The thing is that yes, D&D is stupid. Every edition has been and will be stupid.

    But just because it's stupid doesn't mean it's not fun.

  4. PatrickWR: Rock on! Not that Everway and Co. aren't awesome themselves, but D&D!

    jamused: What is it, I wonder, about GURPS? I know a bunch of people who were seduced by it siren song over the years, but only a handful who have had any real success playing it.

    Kiashu It's fun because it's stupid.