What You Do and How You Do It Are Two Different Things in RPGs

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Over the holiday break I received a very exciting email from Free League Publishing. Backers of their recent Kickstarter got a great surprise with an Alpha PDF of the Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying core rulebook. Notwithstanding my Dungeons & Dragons advocacy the evocative art drew me into this game, something Free League accomplished for me already with Tales from the Loop. Those two Free League games share another similarity. Both games clearly define what you do when you play them. D&D will always be my favorite game, and folding elements from different genres into the swords and sorcery setting is as much a part of the D&D tradition as armor class and hit points. But the way stories are told through different game systems with tighter frameworks is fertile ground for exploration. A couple of cliches come to mind when the ubiquitous nature of D&D intersects other tabletop roleplaying games, so I thought it might be useful to consider them and maybe broaden the horizon for both camps.

RPG game system what do you do
Does your D&D campaign setting look like a 4 player game of Smash Up? If it works, it works. But there might be another game system perfect to help your group tell the stories they way they want.

If D&D is a hammer is every genre a nail?

This is my comfort zone if I’m honest. I’ve been playing D&D over 30 years, almost three quarters of my life so I’m cozy with the trappings of the game. D&D always included elements from lots of genres despite an origin in grounded medieval warfare tactical combat. The game took knights and crusading priests and asked what if. What if these four soldiers encountered a ghost? What if they discovered a relic sword? What if magic were real?

Storytelling in D&D incorporates genre tropes all the time so this is well tread ground. James Haeck wrote a fantastic article about Adapting Other Genres to D&D over at D&D Beyond perfectly articulating an important distinction. Whether you draw on science fiction, westerns, mythology, modern day living or whatever, the D&D game — what you do when you’re playing — remains rooted in the trappings of the game.

“The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more.” — D&D website, What is D&D?

A group can turn the dials up or down on any number of variables. Combat, exploration and social encounters, crunch and fluff, emotional investment, immersive storytelling and so on provide endless permutations. But at the end of the day no matter what D&D stories you tell, the characters will “battle monsters, explore terrain and roll the dice to decide outcomes,” according to a Washington Post article about How Dungeons & Dragons somehow became more popular than ever.

The other side of this gold piece begs the question what do other games aim to do, or more precisely what do the players do in the game? Creative human Adam Koebel has a playlist on his YouTube channel called RPG First Looks where he explores games in his inimitable way. One of the things I appreciate the most is when Adam identifies the mission statement of a game — what the game is about — and how the mechanisms and reward structure of the game support the premise.

I looked through all the RPGs I have at the moment, about two dozen distinct games, to find their expectations for game play. A significant number of them present a murky front, and of those most were high profile games. More than a few games provide no explanation at all, diving right into the rules. Others bury the lead several pages or even chapters into the rulebook behind voluminous fiction and flowery language.

From my small collection the smallest games often contain the clearest view of themselves. Look at Honey Heist, it’s one page long with two very clear parameters:

  1. You have a complex plan that requires precise timing.
  2. You are a GODDAMN BEAR.

This kind of clarity drew me into both Vaesen and Tales from the Loop mentioned earlier. The Kickstarter page for both games has a section called What Do You Do In This Game. So right off the bat, pretty clear!

“Embarking on journeys to remote villages in the wilderness, you will uncover the secrets of the Mythic North. Armed with nothing but your courage, conviction, and ability to see the supernatural, you will face the creatures of the forest. Neither bullets nor blades can stop them. To drive them off, you must understand them. Find their weakness.” — from the Vaesen Kickstarter page

There’s a temptation to read that and think “I could tell stories of the Mythic North with D&D” and you absolutely could. Traveling to remote villages, uncovering secrets and facing supernatural creatures sounds familiar to any D&D player. But there’s nothing about battling creatures, exploring wilderness or finding treasure. You can tune the dials of D&D all you like, and believe me I have, but there is a distinct difference when the mechanisms of the game are built around a clear premise.

Could you play a party of bears in D&D and undertake the greatest heist the world has ever seen at HoneyCon? Of course, and I’m certain the storytelling would be fun and memorable. But at the end of the day you still played D&D whether the potions of healing are reskinned as honey pots and eldritch blast reflavored as a mighty roar. There is an expectation of conflict, exploration and discovery. The game experience would be much different than playing Honey Heist.

When it comes to genre for your RPG experiences, you’re options are as broad as your selection of game systems. Building on James’ article you can apply the same principle to the game system you prefer. If you like the notion of battling monsters and finding treasure in forgotten places but Fifth Edition is too noodly for you, flip the script and go on adventures using the alacrity, chutzpah, ferociousness and rotundity of a Crash Panda reflavored with swords and sorcery trappings. Or tell tales of the supernatural in Victorian times as kids on velocipedes.

What you do and how you do it are two different things in RPGs. Once you and your game group know what kind of stories you want to tell, it’s worthwhile to find a game system everyone enjoys using to support telling those kinds of stories. However, there’s something to be said for building on what you know and love, too. Blades in the Dark is designed around telling stories of a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city. Players who want to create these scenarios in D&D are often pointed towards Blades in the Dark. But the game itself is spun from the Powered by the Apocalypse system, in turn offering the Forged in the Dark system reference document. Is it that unusual to want to play a different kind of D&D, even if you have to create new rules for your group to do it?

How do I play Star Wars in D&D?

Replace Star Wars with any work of fiction or historical era and you’ll find someone bringing up the idea of incorporating it into D&D. In many cases there’s already a game out there designed for the property. Fair warning though, because a publisher or creator has license to create products doesn’t necessarily mean they property is served flawlessly by the game system. Nevertheless the common refrain to the question is “just play the game made for it.” Why overhaul D&D to represent the Star Wars universe publishers from West End to Fantasy Flight Games have been making Star Wars RPGs since 1987?

The easiest answer is because you enjoy the system. Reflavoring elements of D&D to suit your needs varies in complexity but for something like Star Wars a lot of it is simply imagining the visual elements differently. There’s certainly monsters in the Star Wars universe. Dianoga, space slugs, wampa and rancor are only a handful of scary creatures. Treasure doesn’t play a huge role in Star Wars stories, but travel and epic conflicts against the forces of evil do so is D&D really that far off?

Here’s a little list of a variety of RPGs along with the basic premise of the game. These or any games can certainly feature elements you’ll find in D&D, but I keep circling back around to the game’s mission statement about guiding your heroes through quests for treasure and battles with deadly foes. The official design team, tremendous player base and creative community including the entire Nerdarchy team build on this core concept and take D&D in many different directions but how characters reach their goals — what they do in the game — stems primarily from this foundation.

  • Cat: A Little Game About Little Heroes is a game for telling stories about cats protecting people from Things they can’t see, both in the real world and in the Kingdom of Dreams.
  • In the Mutants & Masterminds RPG, you take on the role of a costumed superhero safeguarding the world from threats ranging from scheming super-criminals to alien invasions, hulking monsters, natural disasters, and would-be conquerors.
  • Maze Rats is a fantasy adventure game of exploration, problem solving and survival.
  • Dogs in Pugmire strive to learn about Man (also called the Old Ones), deifying humanity as examples all the peoples in the world should strive to emulate and adventuring to explore lost ruins in search of relics, knowledge, and danger.
  • In Stars Without Number you play the role of an interstellar adventurer who dares the currents of space for the sake of riches and glory.
  • In The Way Home players take the role of The Lost, people displaced in time and space and trapped in a vast and impossible Wilderness populated by the folklore and imagery of classic Americana. They must make their way back to their real lives by overcoming their own personal faults.
  • In Kids on Bikes you take the role of everyday people grappling with strange, terrifying and very powerful forces you cannot defeat, control or understand.
  • In Force and Destiny you create sprawling adventures filled with drama, suspense, humor and combat in your hero’s journey to bring peace to the galaxy and discover a deeper understanding of the Force. Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion offer a similar premise of action, stormtroopers, suspense, stormtroopers and space battles. And stormtroopers. They mention stormtroopers a lot.

You might notice only one of these touches on combat (the Star Wars trio of games). See what I mean about being in a similar lane to D&D? I’m not saying any of the others don’t include combat, but it is not given in a nutshell along with what the game is about. Approaching a new game with existing expectations might become a drawback for your enjoyment in some ways.

If you start a Tales from the Loop game with a D&D mentality, the only Mystery you’ll be solving is how quickly the campaign will end. In the game you play teenagers in the late 1880s solving Mysteries connected to the world’s largest particle accelerator. In The Mummy in the Mist mystery the kids solve the problem more like a protagonist from a John Bellairs book than Rick O’Connell from The Mummy films. That is to say, they ain’t fighting evil monsters to the death on the regular. Like Vaesen, the characters find a way to resolve situations through investigation and understanding rather than fighting. Incidentally it’s not unheard of for a D&D adventure to feature nonviolent paths to resolution.

“Everyday Life is full of nagging parents, never-ending homework and classmates bullying and being bullied. The Mysteries let the characters encounter the strange machines and weird creatures that have come to haunt the countryside after the Loop was built. The kids get to escape their everyday problems and be part of something meaningful and magical – but also dangerous.” — from the Tales from the Loop Kickstarter page

Is D&D a round peg for your square hole game?

It’s up to you and your group to decide what kinds of stories to tell and games to play when you gather at the gaming table. All the time I’ve spent enjoying D&D often backs me into several corners I mentioned throughout like approaching a new game with a D&D mentality. Another is an expectation a new campaign could potentially continue forever. Even a published campaign like Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus assumes a healthy investment of time to complete, right? And with the culture and product releases, official or otherwise, you might start to feel like you can’t keep up.

One observation I’d like to share is how many games include robust adventures along with everything else needed to play inside a single book. To me this creates a cool opportunity to take a step back and delve into a new game without the feeling of heavy investment.

Consider this: you want to try an RPG for the first time with your friends and decide to play Tomb of Annihilation. One of all of the group probably owns a Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide and the adventure itself. Completing the adventure playing weekly sessions might take six months. You can go on to create new heroes and play different adventures, but if you only played the one adventure, essentially if you only played D&D one time, that’s an enormous investment of time and money. Your three core rulebooks get more mileage and maybe there’s some unique stuff in the adventure you played that you’ll reuse in another campaign. You’re deeply invested already, might as well keep playing D&D since you had so much fun right?

If your group wanted to try Tales from the Loop you could invest in the book (about $45) which comes with everything you need to play including a pretty big Mystery. If you played through this and never touched the book again, you still got a solid experience for less than the price of going to the movies once for five people — much, much less especially considering you’ll play let’s say 16 hours total.

My point is with so many fantastic RPGs out there, it’s easy to fall into a comfortable space with the one that brought you to the dance. You can certainly tell countless stories with any game system, and even explore different genres with the same set of rules. Heck, you could pick up the Weave game and tell stories in wildly different genres with unique characters in about 15 minutes. The kinds of stories you tell, and how you tell them, are two different things and it’s worthwhile to sample all sorts of games. Even if you always come back to your favorite system, I bet you’ll return with fresh ideas and new ways to work within the rules you enjoy. Or maybe you’ll create something wholly new spun from your experiences with other games.

Next time you’re considering a new game, or browsing through your existing collection, see if you can find the game’s mission statement. Does the rulebook make it clear what characters in the game are supposed to do? How do the rules support the claim? Reading through Vaesen really made me think about this dichotomy and thanks to things like James’ article and Adam’s insights I have a new appreciation of both my deep affection for D&D and also exploring other RPGs. But before I play them I’m always going to look for the section where the game designer explains what are we supposed to do when we play?

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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