It’s hard to be in the tabletop RPG hobby without hearing about Dungeons and Dragons. As the most popular game for pen and paper roleplaying, it is the title which has had the strongest impact on the pop culture around fantasy roleplay. As a kid, I would see it referenced in cartoons like Dexter’s Laboratory or Spongebob Squarepants. In more modern times, references to the game on Stranger Things as well as the popularity of online RPG shows – Critical Role most of all – has brought the game to the forefront of nerd culture in a big way. But despite the game’s popularity, it has taken me until The Year of Our Dungeon Master 2020 to actually wrap up the first ever D&D 5th edition campaign I have ever participated in.
Coming to D&D as a new player, particularly as a new player with an extensive background in other roleplaying games, has presented some challenges. These challenges ultimately led our group to decide to say goodbye to this campaign prematurely, a decision which opens up a lot of questions about what we might have done differently. My hope is that by sharing our D&D story, we can help other newcomers to the game to avoid some of the same pitfalls. With me here today to help me unpack our experience with Dungeons and Dragons is my friend and dungeon master, a previous guest author here on Adventure Rules: Kaleb! Kaleb, do you mind to tell our readers a little bit about your background with RPGs and what drew you to Dungeons and Dragons specifically?
Kaleb: Well for starters, I started to play RPGs early in college and have played basically at least 1 tabletop rpg a year since then, which would be about 9 years now. I’ve played a few different systems, including Powered by the Apocalypse (PBtA) and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition. As for Dungeons and Dragons on a specific note, I did play once in the 3.5 system when it was much more popular and ended up having an “okay” experience. However with the release of the 5th edition, and the rising popularity of shows like “Critical Role” and as well as a few of my personal online friends enjoying the updated system; I’ve been hoping to get my hands on the game and see the improvements from the older system. Now that I’ve played the game from behind the Dungeon Master screen, as well as playing a once monthly game separately, I think I’ve had a good set of experiences to draw upon.
Ian: That I think has been the most interesting thing about our tabletop journey (which has essentially been parallel except for maybe one or two campaigns). We both started with systems other than D&D and so by the time we got around to it, we already had some preconceived notions from other games. Where I think you and I differ is the degree to which those other games impacted our philosophy, but we can dig into that as we go. I figure the best place to get started would be the beginning of our campaign.
As a player, my attitude going in was one of tentative excitement. We played in the same game of 3.5 and I came away with a pretty bad taste in my mouth, but I’d seen some of the ways in which 5E had been streamlined and that had me hopeful that the experience could be enjoyable for me. And like with pretty much every game, character creation was an exciting time for me as I looked at the various ways my rogue could grow more powerful over the course of the game. As for the campaign itself, would you like to describe for our readers the premise of the game and what parts you were most excited for?
Kaleb: Of course! So I took the approved “Magic:The Gathering” card game expansion to D&D “Guild Master’s Guide to Ravnica”, which is based in a separate world from the base Handbooks. The world that me and you know because of our love the card game and that series expansion specifically, is one full of guilds and their struggle to gain power over the others. The story itself was based on the current “Guildpact”, Jace Beleren, asked the guilds to send one member to represent them in a group that would act under his direct leadership to assist when fights and such broke out between the guilds.
Kaleb: For me, when creating this story I was familiar with the guilds already so seeing the interactions between the characters of varying guilds meant that early game interactions between them would drive early roleplay and could help setting up interpersonal arcs within the group. Plus when planning a longer campaign, which this one was THE LONGEST I think I ever ran, I expected a lot more of guild fighting to the point of war, and how each character felt affected by the fights or how they may act towards certain guild fights.
Ian: It’s a great concept, and one I particularly was excited about because the Ravnica cards were my favorites when I played Magic regularly. I remember struggling with whether I wanted to design a character based on which guild I wanted to be in or which D&D class I wanted to be. I ended up going with the latter because, as a min-maxer, I couldn’t bring myself to make a mechanically sub-optimal choice. And I think that brings us to one of the first conflicts that our group started having with Dungeons and Dragons, which is the expectation baked into the game’s rules that the players will make mechanically optimized decisions.
Different roleplaying games approach balance from a different angle. A lot of the ones we’ve played before this really don’t care so much about players making the “best” choices because of the greater focus on narrative over mechanics. But Dungeons and Dragons is very carefully balanced and those balancing rules make some core assumptions about what capabilities will exist within the party. I think it assumes, for example, that there will be a support character in the party to give stat buffs or special protections, and it also assumes that someone in the party will be capable of dealing significant magical damage. One example from our experience was an encounter with a banshee.
Our party consists of a paladin, a rogue, and a sorcerer. It’s important to note that our paladin approaches combat more like a fighter or barbarian, and our sorcerer is a pacifist with no damage spells. So when this banshee shows up we essentially just went in swinging with mundane weapons, and quickly learned that we hadn’t prepared to the degree that we needed to. One wail from the banshee put myself (the rogue) and our paladin at zero HP because we had no defenses in place against it. We lucked out that our sorcerer had a temporary HP spell that could put us on our feet again or we would have had a total party kill on our hands. I think we as the players left that encounter a little discouraged or salty, but ultimately D&D’s philosophy about that encounter would be “well you should have played the game right.” Kaleb, as the dungeon master, did you get the feeling that D&D assumes a certain degree of competence from the players? And what was it like for you to try and build encounters for players who did not bring that competence to the table?
Kaleb: Well, I think there’s a combination of factors that go into what D&D assumes and helps with the game structure. One is that party size of the group is larger than our 3. The average group is suggested between 4-6 for balance, with less not being balanced for terms of healing or damage, and 7 just being more difficult to handle on the DM side. So that already put the group at the disadvantage on certain aspects with a non-obvious healer, and the buffs for the team were usually individual skills than “mass team buffs”, like the Rogue’s “Assassinate” ability, or the Sorceror’s ability to reroll bad saves at their leisure. This assumption there will be a larger group of players able to fill more roles to cover the roles that a balanced team need can be shown in how the encounters can be set up.
As for my building of encounters, for me personally, while at work or at home, I would think about a creature(s) that would not only be fun to play as the DM but also fit with the story the characters are in. The banshee came from the Rogue’s character lashing out in frustration in the roleplay of the game, literally killing an old woman in anger. What other great way to show that actions have consequences than having to fight her vengeful spirit?
And even while building these encounters, I would make sure that I thought they would be balanced yet challenging. D&D does have a good system for making sure you can keep things sort of balanced by offering XP levels or Challenge Ratings (CR) to see at a glance the level of the encounter. Having multiple creatures at lower CR could still be a challenge to the group because their numbers increase the difficulty in the same way if not moreso than just one larger creature. The banshee according to the balancing table was well within the “challenging but not killer” level; but with some bad rolls that was quickly the wrong case. And thankfully I was able to look at the character sheets for the players and was able to pull abilities they could use that not only saved the group, but allowed basically a 2hit KO from the Rogue and Paladin; the Paladin’s smiting ability and bonuses against undead dealing over ⅔’s of the creature damage in one attack.
There have been multiple times of building encounters that would have been an interesting encounter, but that the creatures abilities would make the group almost completely inept against it. Part of that is certainly on me by not giving the players the items or quests to get to the levels necessary to have those fights; but if it takes you months of once a week sessions to get to those abilities, it’s a bit unbalanced.
Ian: And I think the fact that the game ultimately places the responsibility of balance squarely on your shoulders if you don’t have an optimal player group made the experience more challenging for all of us. I remember multiple moments where you would have to point out that there was a specific ability one of us could use to address a given situation because we didn’t realize we had the perfect solution buried halfway down our character sheet. It’s a tough situation because for the newer players at the table, this was the first game they ever played that didn’t have a move sheet for them to quickly reference their abilities while also being the most complicated game they have played from a rules standpoint. So finding the balance between just giving us the answers every combat and telling everyone to go read a 300 page rulebook cover to cover was a challenge.
Rule complexity is another area where we faced some difficulty, because I think there were multiple moments when players would want to do something and then discover that D&D either didn’t allow for it, or it made the process more complicated than they wanted it to be. Our first combat, for example, we had to get used to having a rigid turn order with the initiative system. It was also weird for our newer players that instead of actively defending with a die roll against enemy attacks, they had to stand by and basically were powerless to stop it as the enemy rolled attack and then rolled damage, which maybe felt a bit unfair when coming from a different system. From the DM side of the table, were there any situations where you felt like you were in conflict with the rules rather than the rules supporting the things you wanted to do? Or is that something you felt was more unique to the player experience?
Kaleb: There have been definitely multiple times where it’s felt like I’ve run the players against a cheese grater to conform to the rules of D&D instead of “hacking it” mid game. This was one challenge I had in wanting to me the game enjoyable but also keep it a “D&D” game. The rules can be a bit rigid but that can help a DM in that if the character wants to do something that might be a bit outlandish, he can either say “That’s not a thing you can do” or he can fit the actions into multiple moves that may be include more difficult tasks.
You made a good point about the defending aspect of the game that I want to make specific mention of. In D&D the character’s defense is called armor class or AC for short. This represents the armor, shields, scales, or speed combined together to keep the player safe. There are things that can increase or decrease this such as potions, status effects via spells, and even base moves such as the defend and evade actions that can make it harder to hit you.
Kaleb: But the moves I just mention come with a trade off: you gain those bonuses to defense, but you no longer can attack until your next move. So that can make it easier for you to survive, but that means you can’t deal damage against that same monster; and in a combat heavy game like D&D, that can be just as annoying as not being able to hit the creature on a normal attack.
Now I will also say the idea of just “standing waiting to get hit” may sound like that’s what happening, but that’s where the storytelling of the DM can change that ideal. A paladin in heavy armor still getting hit may not because the creature just bashed them willy nilly, but the paladin instead raised the shield to defend against the creature biting down on them, but as they defended from being bitten, that showed a weak spot and the creature swiped at them with claws that hit that open spot instead. And that can make it feel much less like you got hit, but instead you tried your best and just got a lucky shot on you.
There are certain aspects that can be attributed to personal playstyle and preferences, but that’s when you get the differences of mechanics that keep the game systems separate and different. And then at that point, from my own point of view, do you change the game and make it the mashing of two different games and no longer cal it “D&D” or do you keep it true to the system despite the more rigid system. That’s up to the DM and in this particular game I decided to keep it closer to the core because I wanted that more “authentic D&D experience” for our newer players.
Ian: That’s a fantastic point, and your description of how you can add context to the armor class after the dice are rolled touched on what I think our core struggle with the game was: fiction-first versus game-first. In most of the other games we played up to this point, the philosophy of the game is fiction-first. You describe what you want to do and when that description triggers a rule, you play according to that rule. Dungeons and Dragons is a game before it is a story. You engage the rules of that game, and then use the story to add color and flair. It’s a huge difference in approach and if you try to play D&D fiction-first, the rules will fight you every step of the way.
You brought up hacking as a potential solution to some of the barriers we faced, and how that wasn’t something you wanted to do because you wanted us to get an authentic D&D experience. I definitely think that’s a fair approach and it is probably what I would have done in the same situation. But of course if you’re not going to hack the game to make it more like what the players expect, you’re left with either changing the game you are playing or changing the expectations of the players. In our case, I think we’ve pretty well decided that we’re going to be playing something else sooner rather than later. But I am curious what you’re taking away from this experience for future campaigns. Do you think this D&D 5E game changed your approach for future games? If you were to introduce D&D to a new group of players in the future, is there anything you would do differently based on how this experience turned out?
Kaleb: I think this was a certain testament that some styles of game don’t work for certain types of players. I certainly still like D&D as a system, but I know for many of the people we play with, the system is just a bit too rigid for them. I think for me setting a harder stance on self-learning what your player can do special would be one thing, as much as I want to teach a new game, I still can’t remember every single move that’s out there, and I want the people to immerse themselves into the character for a better game experience.
One thing that D&D suffers from that might be a bit unique is that D&D doesn’t seem to transfer well for new players in an online game. Having to click through multiple windows to see your stats and moves when you haven’t learned what you can do can be overwhelming to a new player as opposed to someone that may already know their moves, or if the game is in person you can literally look down at your character sheet. Yes I know certain systems work well, and a more fantasy driven and “rules lite” games work better since you don’t have to constantly look for your moves. In the future, if I start teaching a new group of players, I’d much rather do it in person.
Ian: That’s a great point – how much the designer had online play in mind when they created the materials makes a difference, and the virtual tabletop Roll20 has better support for some systems than for others. The D&D tools that we used were very weak and didn’t even have all of the level one racial abilities in its compendium, let alone the unique moves for each class and subclass. That made it more difficult for our players to learn their own moves. And as you said, discussing expectations up front so that players know how much you want them to know about the game going in definitely helps matters.
I think that’s my biggest takeaway as well, honestly. This game really demonstrated how important it is for the players and the GM to talk about what they want from the game before any dice hit the table. I think if we talked about how different D&D would be before we played, acknowledged any concerns about that, and pitched what the system does well in order to accentuate the positives, we could have potentially had a different outcome.
Kaleb, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about the game! I think a deconstruction session like this can be really helpful for any group as they wrap up a roleplaying game, and for those reading if you haven’t tried this before, I fully recommend giving it a try. Being able to see the game from both the player and GM perspective was helpful in softening my frustrations as well as making it clearer what we could do better in the future to have a more positive experience with a game-first system. Typically when someone makes a guest appearance here on Adventure Rules I’ll invite them to plug their website – do you have anything to plug, or will you disappear into the ether when this is all said and done?
Kaleb: At this point, I’m already fading into the mist till I am summoned once more!
Ian: Always a pleasure to have you on the blog, sir! As for you, adventurers, thank you for reading and I hope that this has been helpful for you in understanding some of the challenges that Dungeons and Dragons can bring to a group of new players, and how clear discussion about expectations can help you to navigate those pitfalls. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this article be sure to follow Adventure Rules for more on tabletop roleplaying.