Computer games are not roleplaying games. A computer game circumscribes the possible interactions between the players and the environment, including the monsters. As you get better at being a DM, you act less like a computer. As you get better at being a player, you collaborate with the DM. There is no end to the betterment.
D&D is a process. The rules and stats and compendia of beasties, spells, and magic items are scaffolding. They’re not the game. Committing every rule to rote memory can actually wreck your game.
In my Baen essay, I describe how I and other players learned D&D. Because not only the rules but the core concept of the game was still being negotiated at the time, we had to define the game for ourselves with hints from the larger community. Just as my characters gained levels, I gained storytelling experience and awareness of new possibilities. Learning the game mirrored dungeon exploration itself: conquering strange new territory that presented greater and more rewarding challenges.
In his blog The Busybody, Loren Rossen explains the difference between sandbox and storypath rpgs. In short, storypath is not so good. It’s literalist D&D. Back in the early eighties, in order to give players a uniform, predictable experience — that is, in order to better commodify D&D for a mass audience — TSR began cranking out adventures that put the DM in a mechanical role, ushering players through a pre-scripted drama. Earlier D&D adventures like “The Village of Hommlett,” “Vault of the Drow,” and “Tomb of Horrors” were sandbox adventures, meaning that the players set their own goals and the DM had scope to oversee any number of possible outcomes.
So there are really two different kinds of D&D, superficially related. The term “storypath” is a misnomer. You can wander off a path, you can speed up or slow down, you can talk to the big, bad wolf. The proper term would be “story railroad,” and the railroad coincided with the rise of computer roleplaying games for a reason: true performance art is hard. D&D is not a game so much as a practice and hobby. I like to fish, so I’ll use a fish metaphor. D&D that is too rules-and-stats-focused is like fishing in a barrel, where there’s a guy in the barrel who attaches paper fish to your line and now and then gives a tug to simulate vitality. D&D as practice and art is like real fishing in a river for trout.
If you could really figure out how to play D&D, the mystery would be gone and the game, dead. At every level, D&D is a negotiation with the players where the group constantly makes new discoveries and moves from one level of mastery to the next, not so much in an accumulation of pretend powers and treasures but in the development of a richer story and greater storytelling skills.
In the following essays, I’ll give narrative examples of this process. But for now, I’ll make some observations that I’ll later revisit.
1. D&D is a collaboration between players and DM. The DM must listen to the players and make adjustments based on details they key into. The DM must supply a rich setting with lots of in-game props and NPCs for the players to manipulate to their own ends, and the DM should be able to make up new ones on the fly as the players give him or her inspiration.
2. Character point of view is a problem in running a D&D game. There are things the characters wouldn’t be able to perceive that the players must know about. Omniscient viewpoint takes players out of the game, so you need to delineate when it’s necessary and try to cut it down. Also the players need to direct the gaze of their own characters and be encouraged to make contributions to the game by what they choose to look at (qv, point 1). The best sandbox games for newbie DMs, therefore, tend to involve a DM with only one or two players. Being able to run a satisfying game for a large group is an advanced skill.
3. Developing NPCs and giving them personal motivations and their own networks of enemies and allies can be key to a good game. Your world like the real one should seethe with the personal fears, lusts, and hatreds of all the NPCs, creating dramatic potential with every encounter.
4. Combat is not always conflict! Combat is a facile stand-in for conflict. It characterizes the game because it can be reduced to a simple die-rolling process. It’s the first resort of the inexperienced.
5. Players should be able to set ultimate goals and perceive intermediary goals but a straight line between goals renders an adventure pointless. Consider The Hobbit. The shortest line to Smaug’s Lair was not the geographically straight line. It was the line the plot actually took, with a detour to defeat trolls and pick up magic swords, another detour through the mountains to get a handy ring of invisibility, and a detour through Mirkwood and the dungeons of the wood elves that really wasn’t a detour at all because, unbeknownst to the party, the other route was a hive of massing orcs where paths were blocked by floods. This circuitous “shortest path” ideally emerges from gameplay and isn’t fully mapped out ahead of time.
6. Granted this is my preference, but I think the characters should be constantly out of their depth, surrounded by mysterious forces and invited constantly to revisit their assumptions about magic, morality, and cosmology. Where does magic come from? What are the long-term costs of its use. Is a spellbook always a book, or could it be a scroll, or an elaborate, body-spanning tattoo? Is the party really winning through the dungeon on their own power, or are they being toyed with by some mysterious entity?
7. The game should become more mysterious and intriguing and personally relevant to its players, not less. It starts out as a compromise with rules and stats to bring the players together in a shared activity, but getting better at the rules is not necessarily getting better at the game. On the other hand, getting better at recognizing dramatic possibility is always a form of winning.
8. Advancing in levels and gaining more powers should translate into more agency in the game, that is, more ways for a player to express him or herself and more interesting challenges to undertake. I’m not sure this path toward agency can be mapped out; it is rather an effect of playing the game and seeing more possibilities. Being able to kill tougher monsters is not the same as having more agency, unless the monsters are really more mentally challenging to defeat.
9. When you finish a game session or maybe, more practically, when you begin the next one, ask yourself the following questions:
a. Did you feel immersed? What took you out of character, or your party out of character if you’re the DM?
b. When and why did you feel downright bored?
c. Are you glad you spent the time playing? If not, what did you hope to get that you didn’t? More insight into your fellow players? A better escape from reality? A sense of purpose and progress?
In the next installments, I’ll look at ways to remedy negative answers to these questions.