The Half-Baked Guide to Better D&D, Part 1

The title of this series probably needs work, but I did give it more than two-seconds’ thought; I gave it ten-seconds’ thought. All guides to “better D&D” are going to be half-baked, because there are so many variables to consider: the unique skills and preferences of the players, the time and other resources you have, and the kind of tone you want to shoot for. Still, I’m being a little ironic and will try to do more baking than is usually done. I don’t think there’s a perfect recipe for better D&D, but I’ll strive for one anyway.

I’ve waded through a lot of advice on this topic, some of it very good, but I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve found. Like they say, if you can’t find the particular book you’d really like to read, then write it yourself. If you follow this series and find that other people have taken a similar approach and done it well, or if you think I’m wrong, please post and explain. This is a labor of love — an amateur undertaking, if you will. Consider me your collaborator and willing student.

Let me define the problem and my interest here, which goes beyond D&D: I haven’t found a practical, step-by-step guide to iteratively improve roleplaying-game storytelling. Why is that? If you can point to one, maybe I’ll turn this series into a dialog with it. Until then, I’ll have to set out on my own.

Different D&D groups get wildly different results and mostly those results could be improved upon. What’s my criteria for improvement? More emotional investment, more excitement, more intellectual challenge, and a deeper insight into your fellow players, leading to deeper friendships. Better D&D.

For background on the problem space and where my head is, you might check out my essay over at Baen. The essay could use an editing pass and if I’d had more time, I would have made it shorter, but there’s some good stuff in it, supplied by experts in the field.

Okay, having read that, or gotten the gist, or decided you don’t care, maybe you’re ready to move on.

I’ll try to keep this and future installments short and punchy.

First, nagging questions:

1. If D&D is an improvisational art — and I think it can be — shouldn’t there be a process for critiquing the performance and improving it? After a D&D session, or maybe at the start of the next one, shouldn’t it be common practice to revisit what happened and what worked and what didn’t? But if you did this, wouldn’t it raise the stakes too much and make the game less, and not more, casual and fun?

2. Assuming there really is something to D&D as a storytelling exercise, how do we address the problem of point of view? My teacher and friend author Suzy Charnas said to me that D&D struck her as the literary equivalent of sticking your head into a bikini-model or strong-man painting to supply its face. She didn’t elaborate, but I do see an issue here. If the DM tells you what you see, you really aren’t a character in a story, because characters in stories have their own viewpoint; they direct their own gaze and they see things through the filter of their own emotions. If the DM controls your viewpoint, you’re just along for the ride. And even if you could somehow control the viewpoint, you’re hopefully just playing around and not experiencing the danger, so this is really just a childish play activity and not art, right?

Obviously if I were daunted by these questions and the objections they imply, I wouldn’t have started this series. Give them some thought, and I’ll start tackling them in another post. In any case, feel free to comment.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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