Category Archives: Opinion Pieces

8 Reasons Why D&D Is Better Than Video Games

Dont You Just Hate ThisDumb people think D&D is an outdated game. That it served us well as the midwife of video games. But, now that video games are here, it’s stupid to go back and play something so much less advanced.

Ironically, this view seems to be most common among people who actually play tabletop RPGs. Specifically, the folks who emphasize the thespian aspect of role playing, to the exclusion of all else. They seem to think anyone who didn’t get rejected from Shakespeare in the park is a pleb, who would be much happier playing video games, rather than sullying the good name of their noble and artistic hobby. 

My frustration with this pervasive idea led me to start collecting these reasons that it’s wrong. So if you’ve got any to add to my eight, I’d love to have a few more.

1. Tactical Infinity

In any given situation, there are only so many actions you can attempt in a video game. If it’s a game about punching, you’ll have a punch button, and most problems will be solvable by punching. There may be other options (kicks, jumps, headbutts), but the list is necessarily finite. This is not a bad thing. Video games work best when they focus on doing a small number of things really well.

Adventure games, like Zork, probably have the greatest number of possible actions you’ll ever find in a video game. But even still, the player is limited to whatever actions the game designer was able to predict they might attempt. If the player is clever enough to come up with something the designer never expected, rather than being rewarded for their cleverness, they’ll be slapped down with some variation of “You can’t do that.”

When you play D&D, the game designer is sitting right there with you, creating the game moment to moment as you play. So when you decide that the best way to defeat the Cult of Filth is to buy a pig and convince them it is the avatar of filth on earth, the game can accommodate that. Maybe you will fail spectacularly, but at least you were able to try.

Rube Goldberg2. Having a Real Impact on the Game World

The other side of tactical infinity. You could call it infinite reaction.

In a really good video game, the player will see the world change in big and small ways as a result of their successes and failures.  If you save the farmer’s son, then when you go to the farm she won’t be crying anymore. Instead, she’ll be happily going about her farming, with the help of her son. This is good. When the player sees the impact of their actions, it will make those actions (and by extension, the game world they happened in) feel true.

But the game’s reactions are limited. It’s not even proper to call them reactions in the first place, since they’re scripted in advance. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Complex enough that it’s fun to follow along from point A to B to C, but the end result is already there, waiting for you to reach it. Even if the player does make a choice, it’s always between two, or three, or ten different pre-scripted results. And, once you see them, the message is usually pretty clear: you’ve reached the end of this road. Go do something else.

3. Infinite Play

By now, a pattern is emerging that a lot of what is good about tabletop RPGs is the various ways in which they are infinite. This one, infinite play, is what prompted me to go from being casually interested in D&D, to being in love with the medium.

One of the worst things about falling in love with any fictional world is that someday, you’ll need to leave it. I can go back and play my favorite video games over and over again, but there will never be any new areas to explore, or enemies to defeat.

With tabletop games, all you need is one set of rules, and one set of dice, and you’re set to play for the rest of your life. You may choose to stop playing a specific campaign, move on to a different game system or a different group, but the possibility that you could go back for more will always exist.

4. Complex Lateral Thinking Puzzles

Some video games do a great job of creating good complex lateral thinking puzzles. But, because they lack tactical infinity, the solutions to those puzzles must always be intentional. The designer must go to great effort to carefully inform the players of the tools they have for solving the puzzle, and must ensure themselves that those tools are sufficient for solving it.

In a tabletop game, the referee is often not even aware that they’ve created a complex lateral thinking puzzle. But they put the locked treasure vault next to the anti-gravity room, which is itself only two stories down from where the troll is sleeping. And the players have a paperclip, a spool of dental floss, and an iguana in their inventory. And somehow, putting all those things together, they figure out how to get into the treasure vault without trekking across the world to find the key.

That’s beautiful to me.

Women playing D&D5. D&D is a Party

D&D is an inherently social activity. Sometimes this is is a boon, sometimes a bane, but one way or another it’s always going to be true.

“But wait” I write, anticipating a likely objection so I can preemptively respond to it. “Many video games are multiplayer, and ergo social activities. This is hardly unique to D&D.” And of course, that is true. I myself have spent an immense amount of time bonding with friends in World of Warcraft. D&D is just better at it.

Even in the most social of social video games, everyone is looking at the game. The focus of their discussion will usually be on overcoming the challenges created for them by a person they will never meet. In D&D, everyone is looking at each other, talking about their own ideas.

Maybe that seems like a trite, or shallow difference. But, to me, it is important.

6. Investing Your Character with True Personality

When you disagree with 95% of what a person says, it’s easy for that 5% of overlap between your views to get lost in the rhetoric. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink explaining why I find a thespian approach to games boring. But my distaste for prewritten backstories, and anyone who uses the word “spotlight” doesn’t mean I hate role playing. I just view it as a nice sauce, rather than the whole meal.

Vidya attempts to approximate this in different ways. Sometimes the protagonist is silent, so players can project their own thoughts and emotions on to them. Other games create dialogue trees, and multiple paths which give the player some character-driven choice about how they approach a problem. But in the end, unless the player wants to skip out on game content, they’ve always gotta do what the game wants them to do.

In a tabletop game, I can make a firm decision about who my character is, and stick to it. If I decide to be a good guy, then the game can never force me into a situation where my only choice is to go against my character, or skip part of the game.

Character Death7. Failure is Actually Meaningful

When you lose at a video game, the only thing to do is go back and try again. You play through the same bits over and over until you succeed. Maybe the game is randomized so the bit you replay is never quite the same. Maybe there are failures states which allow the game to continue, such as losing a party member. But, one way or another, the ultimate failure state always requires you to play through some part of the game over again.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s no such thing as starting the same game over again. When you die, a new character comes into the world, and must deal with the consequences of the previous character’s actions. All their successes and failures.

8. Zero Barriers to Entry for Designing Games

Obviously, there will always be a difference between a good game designer and a bad one. (I’ll make no claims about which group I fall into). But all it takes to get started is to come up with an adventure, and run it at your table. Boom: you’re a game designer.

If you’ve got a cool idea for a video game, even if it’s something small, you need to develop skills with coding, and art, and music. If you don’t know how to do any of those things, you’ll need money to pay someone to do them for you, or you’ll need to find someone you’re comfortable sharing creative control with. You need all of those things before you can even begin to develop good game design skills.

The barrier for getting your stuff published is only slightly higher than the barrier for making it in the first place. So, of course, there’s a lot of childish garbage out there, but there’s also a lot of phenomenal stuff that may never have made it to production otherwise. Stuff like Stay Frosty, Crypts of Indormancy, Hex Kit, The Sleeping Place of Feathered Swine, or The Tower of the Weretoads. Just stay away from anything published by the Mongrel Banquet Club. They’re a disgusting little band of degenerate filthmongers.

Kids Playing Vidya

None of this is to say that video games are bad for their limitations. A book is not bad because it lacks a soundtrack. A painting is not bad because it lacks motion. Different mediums have different strengths, and that’s really what this is about.

Video games are not an improvement on RPGs. They are different beasts that share some DNA. It’s possible to compare and contrast them with each other, just like you can compare and contrast books and movies. But both are capable of doing things the other will never be able to achieve.

Thhhhbhbhbhbhhbhbht.

Your Dragons Suck

D&D Dragon Toy TiamaatBack in 2012, when I had only just started to immerse myself in the OSR, I was playing in Courtney Campbell‘s Numenalla. Because of timezone fuckery, the game started at the ungodly hour of 5am for me. On a Saturday. It was always a struggle to show up, and when I did I was groggy as all get-out. But, Courtney was one of my OSR heroes at the time, and it was worth it to rub elbows with him. Plus the game was pretty damn fun.

Usually the sessions were packed, but on this particular morning, none of the regulars showed up. Aside from Courtney and I, it was just some dude I barely recognized, and a woman I’d never met before. It was a small group, but enough for a quorum, so we delved into the halls looking for a bit of adventure.

Being groggy as I was, and playing a healer to boot, I had become accustomed to letting other players take the lead in our adventures. So this dude I barely knew wound up taking the reins of the party, and leading us around the dungeon. As it turns out, he was kind of a twat.

At one point, when presented with a hall full of doors, he kicked them all open. Not one at a time, just kick, kick, kick, kick, kick. Don’t bother telling him what’s inside the rooms he’s just revealed, that would slow down the process of moving to the next door and also kicking it open. Unsurprisingly, this strategy exposed us to some serious danger. Namely, a dragon.

As soon as I heard that, I wanted to run. Most of my experience up to that point was with D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder. My context for dragons was that they were these immense creatures of unfathomable destructive ability. A challenge meant for a full group of 15th level characters. But the twat wasn’t in any mood to slow down, so he attacked. And, being the loyal dumbass that I am, I refused to leave a party member alone to die.

Then a funny thing happened: we killed it. We slew the dragon.

Not without cost, mind you. The twat got himself killed, and the rest of us were pretty banged up. But the dragon was dead, and for the most part we were alive. That’s how I was introduced to oldschool dragons, and it has stuck with me ever since. The idea of dragon designed to be fearsome and terrible, but also to be conceivably so. A creature that can be an ever-lurking threat, without being a guaranteed TPK.

In other words, a dragon that looks like this:

Rather than like this:

“But wait!” I imagine you saying, because I’m a hack writer who relies on cliches. “Most editions of D&D have a whole range of dragon sizes, some of which are small enough to challenge a low level party without being a guaranteed TPK.

And you are correct, imaginary strawman. But what do they call those dragons? Wyrmlings, Very Young, Young, Juveniles. They’ve got these diminutive fuckin’ names that make them feel like a joke when you encounter them. Nobody tells stories about the cool time they killed a Very Young Dragon at level 3. And anyway, this is about much more than the number of hit dice a creature has. It’s about keeping the game on a relatable scale.

That one encounter in he Halls of Numenhalla changed my whole perspective. Truth be told, I’d long hated dragons at this point. I thought they were a goofy cliche. Something that might have been cool once, but which had been overplayed so often in fantasy games that it was cringe-inducing to see them used. Plus, they never really made any sense to me. They’re these friggin’ apocalypse machines that desire nothing so much as wealth and adoration–both of which they could easily take for themselves. But they don’t go out and get them because they’re…lazy.

If they wanted to, a modern fantasy dragon could rule any world it exists in. But most people don’t want their campaign setting to be ruled by the iron-scaled fist of a draconic dictator. So, instead, dragons spend most of their time sleeping on piles of wealth. It’s bourgeois, yeah, but it’s hardly an act worthy of the pride-of-place dragons hold in the annals of fantasy villainy.

Once the scale is dramatically reduced, though, all that nonsense falls away. Dragons want wealth, and they’re powerful enough to take a lot of wealth, but not all of it. They can’t just knock over castle walls with a sweep of their claws. Indeed, if they cause too much of a ruckus, knights will be sent out to kill them. And since they aren’t towering behemoths capable of squishing knights into paste, that’s a serious threat they need to worry about.

It also helps if you assume all dragons are just walking bundles of mental disorder. Traditionally they’re already portrayed as narcissists. Build on that. Narcissism doesn’t just mean that a person likes praise; it means that a person is incapable of understanding that some things are not all about them. They believe that everything good is somehow a result of their desires, and that everything bad exists only to make them suffer. If dragons are not the god kings of all monsters, then they can be pathetic.

Dragons are also noted for their hoards of treasure. They sleep upon mountains of items they’ve collected and cherish, despite having no use for those items. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that hoarding is symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Dragons should have rituals and rules which completely govern their lives and the way they interact with others. They should be carefully avoiding the cracks in the dungeon floor, or closing every door they pass through 7 times before moving on. They don’t breathe fire every 3rd round because their breath needs time to recharge, they’re doing it because they have a mental illness.

The best monsters have always been more defined by their flaws than by their strengths. This conception of dragons, as deeply flawed and broken creatures who none the less wield immense power, has transformed them into one of my favorite monsters. It’s why I include dragons on every single encounter table I use.

Which is appropriate, right? They’re literally half of the game’s name. Yet in my experience, I see way fewer dragons than I do dungeons, and that’s a shame.

No More Overzealous Paladins

Eddard Stark is a God Damned Paladin

Life isn’t straightforward. It isn’t black and white. The stories of vile villains and righteous crusades that we were weaned on are fairy tales. But heroes? Heroes are very real. They’re not perfect, and there’s no army of them, but they exist. They are the naive idealists without any grasp of how the world works. They are the battle hard cynics who fight on to keep the darkness from encroaching for another day. They are the unknown soldiers who die alone in the dark, with nothing to comfort them other than the knowledge that they have done what is right. Heroes fight losing battles, they are manipulated, and too often receive nothing–not even success–for their trouble. Yet heroes fight on, because some battles need to be fought.

These are the incorruptible, the charitable, the fearless. These are the paladins.

-Anonymous /tg/ contributor

I am tired of seeing paladins consistently portrayed in an un-paladin like manner. In recent years, I don’t think I have seen a single paladin–either in a game or in some other media–who didn’t suffer from a painful overzealousness. Paladins are played as assholes who object to the very concept of tolerance. They look down on anyone who doesn’t adhere to their strict (often arbitrary) moral codes. And even a slight suggestion that laws are being broken or evil acts committed will cause such a paladin to react with force. A sizable portion of the time, the paladin is so over zealous that he or she serves as an antagonist to good characters. In other cases, paladins grow so overzealous as to be actively evil according to any rational definition of the alignment.

It’s not that I don’t get it. We’ve all dealt with this kind of paladin in real life. The door to door religion salespeople, the condescendingly self-righteous believers, the snarling fundamentalists demanding that one group or another be denied civil liberties on the basis of a religion. In the real world, people with an absolute sense of right and wrong based on their religious beliefs are often brutish and unkind. Those willing to go out into the world and ‘fight’ for their religion often choose to do so by trying to bring everyone who doesn’t agree with them down. I am an Atheist, I have no reason to defend religion whatsoever. But the needless association of in-game religion to real-world religion needs to stop.

Pathfinder and D&D are games of magic and monsters. Games where gods actually exist, and frequently interact with the material world in obvious ways. In real life, a woman who kills 10 people and claims god told her to do it is crazy. In Pathfinder, the authorites would find out which god the woman is talking about, find a cleric of that god, and have that cleric ask their god why those 10 people deserved to die. If the woman were, in fact, crazy, then the cleric could use the powers granted them by their god to simply raise the dead. Whether you are religious or not, I think we can all agree that religion in a fantasy world is fantastical. Not only does it grant magical powers, but the gods who head fantasy religions are beings which can be reached and spoken to with even low level clerical spells.

Paladins are Heroes. God damned heroes. Like the religions they serve, paladins are fantastical. With the rare exception of those who have fallen, paladins are paragons of virtue. They never walk past a person who is hungry without stopping to feed them, nor could they walk past a person who was cold without giving away their cloak. This is not a matter of duty–though a paladin might disagree. Paladins act always to help those in need because they want to soothe every iota of suffering possible. And when a paladin stands to fight, it is not simply to defend their honor or that of their god. Paladins do not fight for kings or queens, nor do they fight for money or prestige. When a paladin draws steel, it is because they believe they stand between innocents, and evil. It is because the only way to soothe suffering is to defeat that which causes it–be it man or beast.

I think the best way to demonstrate this point would be to relate a story of a paladin played correctly. This story has been floating around the 4chan sub forum /tg/ (for Traditional Games) for a number of years now. It is one among many such stories, though for the life of me I cannot find any others which I want to share. I’ve edited the story to work in a non-image board format. I believe it demonstrates the paladin archetype with actions better than I can demonstrate it with words.

My Warforged paladin was alone with the villain atop his tower. The villain had wings, and could fly away at any time, but since I was alone he chose to taunt me.
“Have you ever stopped to think about why you protect others?”
“On occasion, why?” I replied.
“It’s all programmed in, you know. You care about humans because you were built by humans and programmed to care about humans. You believe in everything you do because they chose for you to believe it. Look at yourself! They made you so that you like being helpful and protective, and it’s all a lie! Join me, and I can free you from it all. From the shackles they put on you. You can be a pure and perfect being, immortal and superior, with all the power you’ve ever wanted.”
“Yes, but isn’t that desire programmed in, as well? Even if none of my emotions are true, they feel true. Even if my cause isn’t really mine, it feels just. All you can do is exchange one lie for another. I’ll keep the one that makes everyone else, the ones with real emotions, happiest.”

With that, my character leaped forward and grappled the villain. I knocked him from the tower and rode him down to the rocks below, using my weight to prevent him from flying.

Just thought I’d share my characters last moments with you.

-Anonymous /tg/ contributor

Paladins are not self righteous. They are not over zealous. They are not eager to spill blood for their gods. They aren’t perfect, but nor do they suffer from the weaknesses which often characterize the “forcefully religious” in the real world.

What paladins are is goodly and just. They are heroes, and I would like to see them portrayed as such.

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