An Argument For Playing Other RPGs

Recently I saw some discussion on Twitter regarding mechanics and house rules for D&D that would allow for players who are having a rough go of where the dice fall to still have fun. A way to make sure they still feel effective after experiencing a series of bad rolls. Listen, I realize that D&D is a versatile game and system, and when I think about house rules I’m never at a shortage for ideas. There’s lots of things I’d like to experiment with and mechanics I’d like to extrapolate on (looking at you inspiration), but passing out consolation prizes for poor die rolls has never been a thought that’s crossed my mind.

Sometimes die rolls are bad and you don’t get to do “cool stuff” for a bit, but it’s part of the game. If a player (or GM) can’t handle a potential streak of bad rolls, they should consider a pastime that doesn’t center around randomly generated numbers. Being guaranteed some sort of reward no matter what the actual outcome feels as if it stabs at the heart of the very purpose of rolling dice to begin with. Do I let certain players accomplish the cool thing they want to do regardless of die rolls occasionally? Of course. Setting up another structure within an already structured game to somehow mechanically solve this “problem”? No. Would I rather just play a different game that handles these situations better? Absolutely.

All Show Is No Show

I’m a firm believer in variety being the spice of life. In the same way 4th edition homogenized so many of the game’s classes, I also dislike the idea of D&D itself being a one size fits all game, diluting the elements that make it shine. You could argue that one of those very elements is the game’s malleability, and I wouldn’t disagree, but that holds true for the tabletop genre as a whole. So for argument’s sake, we’ll leave that one at the door and just be thankful for the things D&D specializes in. If everyone can do everything, and every game system can do everything, then essentially they’re all doing nothing.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with specialization, strengths and weaknesses should be celebrated. The same way a rogue is a master of subterfuge and sleight of hand within a game is akin to the actual Call of Cthulhu system itself being a testament to “no one gets out of this alive (or sane)”. We talk about variety and spotlighting all of the time when we discuss building our games, letting each character shine at different times and for different reasons, the same should go for the games themselves. There are tons of games out there that mechanically differ from D&D, and I don’t think that necessarily makes them better or worse, just different.

Modiphius's Excellent Conan RPGFundamentals

A great example of a mechanic to compensate for bad luck is the 2d20 System developed by Modiphius (Conan, Star Trek, more) with its momentum and threat mechanics. Players and GM’s alike have a pool of resources to draw from when they aren’t doing too well, or when they really need things to tip in their favor. These mechanics are baked into the core system of the game though.

Don’t get me wrong I love house rules and borrowing from other games, but I think there has to be a line drawn somewhere. I believe that the threat of death and failure is something that’s been baked into D&D from the very earliest of days. I know that Tomb of Horrors and adventures like it ruined some’s childhood, but for the rest of us with manageably-sized egos we might argue that it’s iconic of D&D for a reason – there was high risk and high reward. Whether the game’s lethality is a flaw or not is infinitely debatable, but it’s most definitely a foundational pillar of the game itself.

The Value of Variety

The bottom line here is obviously that D&D is a game and if a game isn’t fun, then why play it? I’m not trying to tell anyone they’re doing it wrong or how to play. What I am arguing for though, are two things:

  1. Persevering through failure just makes success all the sweeter, if you see someone struggling with this try and remind them of all the other cool stuff their character can do that doesn’t rely on die rolls.
  2. I actively encourage you and your group to be open to trying other systems rather than just trying to piecemeal other “fun bits” into D&D.

Take the time to learn other gaming systems, even if it’s only reading the rules, and appreciate their nuances. Learning from other game systems can help you realize what you truly want out of a role playing system. As time goes on after trying many systems, you may find that D&D isn’t your top choice for certain groups. By all means, accommodate your players regardless of what game you’re playing, but also do some research over the months and years of your gaming career to find out what truly fits your group like a well oiled gauntlet.

7 Comments

  1. Love it and spot on. I hate the “here’s your trophy” for participating. I hit the casinos a lot and when I walk in with $100 and walk out with NOTHING, the best they give me is… see ya next time. Maybe I score a free basket of wings. Which if players want to whine about bad dice, I’ll point to the $40+ in free food I lay out bi-weekly. Here kid, have a dorrito, on the house.

  2. I find it silly when players complain that a game doesn’t reflect the exact thing they want. You can’t please all the people all the time. D&D is a certain game. If someone wants it to be slightly different, they can house rule, everyone can, that’s one of the great things about it.

    D&D does _not_ need a mechanic in the core rules to mitigate failure any more than it does already. If one makes the argument that it should at its core do “x” where “x is a thing it has not normally done, then we will her “well, I’d like it to do Y”, etc.

    Besides, 5e already has a means of mitigating failure; Inspiration. It’s not WotC’s (or 5e core rules’) fault if the players and DMs are not using it, or forgetting about it. It’s there, and it’s a perfectly good way to try to balance out failure. Players are not limited to only one Inspiration per game session, if they use it, they can then do something to earn another, as many times as they want. Players can also give their inspiration to other players if necessary. There is no reason not to use it to avoid catastrophe!

    • While I agree D&D doesn’t really need additional failure mitigation mechanics, Inspiration actually isn’t a means of mitigating failure at all. (it could be as a house rule though, which as you point out is perfectly valid way to play the game at any table). RAW, you spend Inspiration before you roll, so if you have a catastrophically bad roll it’s already too late to use Inspiration to fix it.

      I’ve also seen players assume that they can give their Inspiration to another player to help them fix a bad roll but again, that isn’t actually how the mechanic works.

      “When another player character does something that really contributes to the story in a fun and interesting way, you can give up your inspiration to give that character inspiration.”

      Eg. you need a reason to give the Inspiration, and you give it after whatever that reason is happens. Once again, if a character has attempted something and rolled badly, it’s already too late. You can definitely give them Inspiration if whatever they attempted was awesome (and failing CAN be just as awesome as succeeding), but it won’t help them on that roll. Maybe the next one!

  3. Very good article. I think it’s well worth anyone’s time to expose themselves to as many RPGs as possible.

    The other benefit of doing so is that if you do still see a need to hack your group’s preferred system, you have a broad well of inspiration to draw on from the other games you’ve played. My group keep returning to D&D, but we accept that the system has its flaws, things that one or more of us don’t really enjoy. So we experiment with houserules, informed by our other play experiences.

  4. Man, bad luck is a baked-in part of the game. I agree that gamers should learn as many systems as possible. There are so many great systems out there, there’s surely something for everyone.

  5. I love reading other system’s core books. From random mechanics I can steal, to monsters I can hijack, to well, stories I can purloin. I admit my perusal of the other books isn’t exactly Lawful. 😛

    Probably the best thing I take from my fascination with other books is that there is more than one way of doing things. Heck, sometimes, I come across things that D&D doesn’t even have because the concept doesn’t fit this game’s idiom.

    I try to find 3 things to steal from each system I read. For example, the Dr. Who RPG has fascinating Initiative, great chases, and their version of inspiration do some pretty cool stuff (Probably because it is more of a storytelling/Horror game than an survival/adventure game)

    Heck, even older editions of D&D have useful things, whether it is monster lore or some weird class that would make for a really cool villain battle.

    So yeah, I heartily agree that other systems are worth checking out. (And I’ve added the conan’s to my long, long list of books to check out!)

  6. I agree that bad luck is a part of D&D, but players don’t like to feel useless and a string of poor attack rolls can leave players looking for something else to do. Traditionally, the luck mitigation mechanic was to describe how your character was trying something cool so the DM would give you a bonus that would stack (luck, circumstance, etc.). 5E sort of codified that into inspiration, which somewhat decreases the usefulness of the strategy by making it just one more way to get advantage.

    Getting your group to switch systems can be a struggle. Depending on the group, you may be more likely to splinter the group than successfully transition. If you’re mid-campaign, and have players frustrated with strings of bad rolls, there are some things you can do.
    1) Make your encounter have multiple objectives. Encounters that are just “kill all the enemies” don’t provide much for low rollers to do. Add in things like flip-the-switch, assemble-the-contraption, or roll-the-runeboulder to your encounters. Even actions that require rolls are fine, as skill checks are flexible and can allow players to succeed with consequences, in a way that attack rolls can’t.

    2) Use more low-defense monsters. Glass cannons are fun to for everyone.

    3) Encourage unlucky players that are needing to make new characters to choose a class which doesn’t have to make as many attack rolls. In my experience having a group of enemies all save against your spell doesn’t feel quite as bad a missing over and over again as a fighter. Though mechanically similar, the change in agency lessens the emotional effect.

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