Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Can You Picture That?

I noticed an interesting dynamic recently while playing in a Dungeons and Dragons 5E game being run by a good friend of mine. 

Yes, you read that right. Me. Dungeons and Dragons. The madness of 2020 knows no end.

I was thinking about the fact that combat in D&D, specifically in the game I am participating in, is both a key aspect of the game and my least favorite part of an RPG I am generally not a fan of to begin with. Thankfully I was able to pinpoint the main reason for this and I spoke to the DM about it so we can try to remedy the situation. 

What it boils down to is this:

In most of the games we've (myself and my groups) been playing lately, the narrative comes first, followed by the mechanics to resolve the narrative, and finally the effects of the roll, often involving more narrative.

As an example:

Star Trek Adventures

GM: "OK, what would you like to do Lieutenant?"

Player: "Hmm. I scan the planet to see if those volcanos are erupting in a pattern."

GM: "Interesting. OK, roll versus Reason plus Science."

Player: "Cool. Can I use my Focus 'Sensor Analysis'?" Looking at the other players. "Analyzing these sorts of situations is one of my specialties."

The team agrees. The GM nods yes. 

Player rolls two Successes. 

GM: "Well done. They are indeed in a pattern and it repeats. Definitely no natural example of volcanology."

Now in D&D 5E, we've been playing in a very different way. Here we seem to put the mechanics first, resolve the mechanics, then resolve the situation further if needed (damage, saving throws, etc.), and finally we describe the narrative of the situation. 

By example: (Paraphrasing and I apologize for not knowing all the terminology)

Dungeons and Dragons

GM: "OK, what would you like to do Druid?"

Player: "Hmm. I use a minor action to cast 'Misty Step' to get to the Fighter. Then I use my full action to cast a Healing Spell."

GM: "OK, you heal 1D8 points plus your modifier. That modify is based on...Wisdom for your character?"

Player: "Yes. So, plus 3. I roll a 5 for a total of 8 points."

GM: "OK, what does that look like?"

Player: "Yes, OK, a field of mist appears before me, I step into it and a similar one appears near the Fighter and I step out of it. I then put my hand on the Fighter's shoulder and say, 'You look like you could use some help'."

Can you see what I am getting at?

What happens to me, the way my head works, is that I am not really sure what is going on until that last line is spoken. I can't quite picture what events are transpiring if the only thing defining those events is a bunch of rules. 

After a bunch of that from multiple players I lose interest in what is happening. To me it becomes a meaningless deluge of numbers and games terms and I can't really envision the scene. 

On the other hand, if you open by describing the action you're taking and end by painting a picture of the result, the visual and narrative sense of the situation stays with you. 

If you start with minor actions, hit modifiers, saving throws, and other discussions of rules and die rolls, and don't really discuss the scene itself until the end, you can assume I've already tuned out. 

I've noticed that when playing Star Trek Adventures, the ALIEN RPG (for our Red Dwarf/Yellow Sun campaign), Champions, and several other games, we definitely play in the aforementioned style. 

The D&D approach is noticeably different because its not one I've encountered very often. 

I've seen it with Marvel Heroic sadly. It always starts with, "Well I may be alone (D8), and just some Wisecracker (D8), but I can still use my Super Strength and Webs (a D10 and a D8)...", and always ends up with players just listing the dice in their pool. "I've got a D8, another D8, a D10, and one more D8", and you really don't know what it is they're doing. 

In conclusion, the GM agreed that this was definitely something that was going on. He suggested we mention it to the rest of the group and try to describe our actions before we take to the mechanics. 

Have any of you encountered something like this? What has your experience been? 

Interested to know and discuss. 

Until next time,

Barking Alien


  1. Hey, BA:

    There's been (or rather, there was) a whole lot of discussion about things like procedural order regarding narrative and rules interactions (not to mention narrative responsibility between player and GM) back in the early 2000s during the rise of the indie-RPG movement. Many of the games designed and developed during those times tinkered with these mechanics, experimenting with different methods.

    Original D&D (from which 5E descends) is a strange beast because it comes from a regular "game mentality" and then *adds* narrative considerations as an afterthought, and it is unclear if the fictional story engendered was even viewed as *desirable* originally. Consider a game of Monopoly...if you roll a 3 on the 2d6 do you describe your car breaking down? If you land on an opponent's hotel do you justify this as being the only way to tryst with your mistress? When you land in jail for rolling doubles three times, do the players tell a story of what you've been charged with?

    No, the dice rolls are the dice rolls, and original D&D was much the same. "I try to hit the orc." Roll a D20; if successful, roll how much damage is done. All the extra "story" ladened on top is just gloss.

    But in the early 90s we started seeing a lot of (RP) games that were very, very bored with combat, and wanted to pay more attention to the non-crunchy bits of the game (the "story" that was happening between battles and firefights). Lots of explanations for that. And some designers started writing games with MORE narrative mixed with the crunch.

    The game I'm most familiar with pre-indie revolution was Christian Aldridge's Maelstrom (precursor to the Story Engine system) in 1997, and though Over the Edge (Jonathan Tweet, Robin Laws) came out the same year, I think the idea of putting narrative FIRST (and then rolling dice) probably reached its pinnacle in Story Engine.

    [I've heard Chaosium's Prince Valiant in 1989 may have been the first RPG to spur this thinking, but it's not a game I've played or read, so I can't speak to that]

    This concept of RPGs being designed to "tell stories" has permeated the industry over the years, and continues to influence design choices (and thus show up in the rules) though sometimes this is...um..."less elegant" than it could be. And that may be what you're feeling in the 5E game. I have rather a LOT to say over whether this development is a "good" or "bad" thing...but I won't go into that here. Suffice is to say, D&D...as currently shepherded...continues to struggle with its desire to stick to its origins (appeasing long-time fans) while trying to meet assumptions of the "modern" RPG theory. Having their cake and eating it, too, I guess. And they tend to be a bit fumble-handed with the whole lot.

    Which is one of the (many) reasons I don't play 5E.
    ; )

  2. This absolutely happens and it gets worse over time, spilling to other games.

    There isn't much to add to JB's excellent answer. D&D has a lot of baggage that doesn't always make a lot of sense in its current form.