My Problem With Dungeons & Dragons (Only?)


I was pinning pics on my Pinterest boards and came across this image above, from a D&D 4th Edition sourcebook. It looks awesome but it made me think of what my problem with D&D is.

I see that image on the cover of a book–I see similar images on many D&D book covers–and I think to myself, I wanna be that guy in the game. I wanna be the warrior wielding a flaming sword, attacking a displacer beast, as we both free-fall, in a no-holds-barred fight! Yeah!

The problem is, when we play, this doesn’t happen.

Between level issues, magic item limits and restrictions, monster challenge complexities, and rules upon rules upon rules, the awesome fight-as-we-fall scenario turns into a dice-rolling exercise that bears no resemblance except for the fact that there might be a displacer beast which I battle along with my party. The visual fiction sold by the game, and the system fiction yielded by it bear little to no relation one to the other. And that’s why I stopped playing D&D, because of the cognitive dissonance between inspiration imagery and game rules (and for me this happened with 4th edition, but I know others for whom it happened before, so it’s not solely an issue of which edition is out).

To be fair, this isn’t solely a D&D problem in the RPG world, I admit that, which is why I included the parenthetical in the title. But to me it is most obvious with D&D. I go back to what Daniel Solis said in an episode of Master Plan, “A cover is a promise.”

All that said, it is an awesome image, indeed. I just enjoy it better divorced from any association with D&D and more as general fantasy inspiration.


  1. Honestly I think it REALLLY is an edition problem. Any edition before 3rd really (and all of the retro clones) will let you do this no problem. The main thing is that 3rd and 4th (more so 4th) stick you to a board and do their best to replicate real life physics and present rules for all of that stuff that everybody will call out as to not be left behind.

    you need to play AD&D 1 or 2 or some of the retro clones like Castles & Crusades. They are all rules light enough to where pretty much anything goes.


  2. I’ll admit that which edition we talk about does affect the issue. I’ve been playing since the Red Box and it is a problem that has become more pronounced as editions have come out. But in a way it’s always been there to some extent. Basic Red Box is the last time I remember being able to say, “This!” when pointing at a cover and gotten it (Isle of Dread comes immediately to mind). Part of it is the game, part of it is the DM, but if the rules don’t support the ideas you might as well be playing something else entirely. Which is what I’ve done, switching to Dragon Age RPG/AGE System and now trying out Dungeon World. I think a lot of people have encountered the same issue, and consciously or not, they have designed games that address the issue more and more.


  3. @Daniel M. Perez
    I’m with Ozreth on this one, I think, though I think you touch on a good point: part of it is the DM you’re playing with (and I think, to an equal extent) the other players in your group. What struck me in particular was “if the rules don’t support the ideas you might as well be playing something else entirely.” While I think that *may* be true, the implication is that there’s a system that will always support you in all ways in all situations. So you hop from one system to another looking for it; but I think the easier answer is “if the rules don’t support your play, ignore or change them so they do.” Ignore the rules that get in the way of the free-fall battle you want to have — lots of them don’t make any sense anyways (if you’re falling, what kind of sense does a battle grid make?). Some rules sets may get in your way less than others, and that’s kind of a matter of preference, but you should always be willing to play the game you want to play, despite the rules.


  4. @Jack
    I’m a big believer in the System Matters mantra (not to get into a discussion about game theory, really). I play a specific game because I want to be bound by those specifications because in return I get a specific type of game experience. That’s why I’m fine that there are so many games in the same genre; in general, each supports a specific vision of that genre. My problem is when the specific vision isn’t supported by the rules. So yeah, I could ignore the rules, but why am I playing *that* game in the first place, then? I might as well be free-forming it without the need for any game at all.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: Hey, game, you enticed me to get you with these visuals that promise the kind of badassery I’ll be able to do if I play you. So why are you not letting me be that badass when I follow the rules you give me?


  5. I understand your gripe because it’s been my gripe ever since I played D&D for the first time. Too many rules & minutia, too few opportunities to be epic warriors doing the awesome things either on the cover or the inside illustrations.

    That’s why I was such a fan of “free-forming” my version where everything other than combat is either an ability check, a saving throw, a combination of both, or my favorite: match or exceed or roll under the number I just rolled (or pulled out of my ass). The custom critical & fumble lists added the needed randomness for flavor or comedic effect.

    Under that system, if I recall correctly, RVorloi used to jump monsters (sans flames on his sword) all the time, specially t-rexes. But like you write, if you are going to ignore or free-form the rules why play that game in the first place.

    Now you know why I never went beyond 2nd edition, even when I have access to all the books ever published. I simply did not like the game itself. I like the stories, the settings and the inspiration gleamed from the stats or descriptions in the books, but not the game itself.


  6. Of all the past experiences I have had with game systems I fall more on the DM being more of an issue than the system. To simplify vs A falling fight, ranged attacks into combat have gone two ways in particular.

    I fire my bow in to combat, receive a penalty and chance to hit friend

    I fire my bow into combat where my target is fighting with reach? What should happen?

    Forget rules lawyer players. If you as a DM can find a way to give players the experience they want without falling on to the rules, then it is not the system that has failed but the DM.

    It is a shame that you did not get that “Falling Fight” situation. Personally I do not need to mine my players for such things. They literally vomit great info while play at the table. I hust make some notes and wait for later use.


  7. When I played Basic, AD&D, or 2E I never did anything like that picture. I’ve done that sort of scene countless times in 3E and 4E, from home campaigns to organized play sessions. I don’t think it has anything to do with editions. It has to do with the DM and the players having the experience to know when the rules are an aid, a crutch, and an impediment and working appropriately to keep the game vivid, imaginative, and wicked awesome.


  8. Daniel, I’m sure you already know Dungeon World. It has solved this kind of problem for me.

    For the others, one day left to back the project.


  9. Last night in one of our epic tier campaigns my dragonborn warlord jumped off the back of an ancient silver dragon to do a falling jump-charge on a red dragon being ridden by a githyanki. We used a grid, but kept track of the vertical distances involved.

    I’m anxiously waiting for Dungeon World (the Kickstarter campaign ends today, by the way) too. I imagine a Defy Danger move to carry 1 forward into a Hack and Slash would also produce an image of that human jumping to deliver a mid-air burning swing on the basilisk.


  10. I think you can get there in almost any system as long as you’re willing to put aside the bureaucracy of the rules (manifested as the battle grid in D&D 3.x/4.x, but backed up by oh so many pages of rules) but some games make it easier than others, and others actively encourage it.

    Savage Worlds is one — when the dice explode a half-dozen times you can’t help but work that into the story as something awesome. Dragon Age does; the Dragon Die and the stunts they fuel really encourage players to take risks and try new combinations (at least in my limited experience). And Cortex’s plot points (Serenity, Battlestar, Marvel) are all about enabling this sort of thing.

    A good GM can work with the system to enable this sort of thing — we’ve done it with the various Hero Point-style mechanics in d20 games as well as skill challenges in D&D 4E and Star Wars — but that will only work if you’ve got buy in from the players too. Rules-bound players who aren’t willing to bend can be just as much an impediment to this sort of thing as an uncompromising GM.

    The thing I like about what I’ve read in D&D Next so far is that they’re trying to open things up again; fewer specific rules, more generalizations, more lee way all around. We’ll see if that holds up as additional rules and complexity are added in.


  11. I feel that I’ve had much more epic fights in modern games than older games. I’ve had any number of cases where I’ve had book-cover moments. There have been a lot of one-on one fights and plenty of improvisation.

    Heck, one of my current 4e epic games is entirely airborne. We’re challenging one of the floating cities that surrounds our plant to guard against incursions of entities from beyond the stars.


  12. Let me reiterate something:

    This isn’t about which edition of D&D is under scrutiny, but about what some D&D books have promised and failed to deliver to me.

    Take an illustration like this one:
    Also D&D, but a lot more in line with what the game rules deliver: a party of heroes fighting a bigass monster, a dragon in this case.

    The image on this post? Not so much: it’s a solitary character, clearly of some prowess, doing badass things that the rules of the game hyper-manage.

    If D&D made its covers more like the image I linked here instead of the one on this post, the promise of the game would match closer to the realities of the game and I’d be happier.


  13. While I do respect your point. I still have to agree with alphastreams comments. The desired actions a player or DM wants to accomplish with in the game world. Also to what Ken talks about. The “yes and…..” DM is the most likely type to work with players to do such things.


  14. can you do that in burning wheel? every time i am at the verge of starting a new campaign i get this itch to try to out BW. so can you slay displacer beast while falling down the chasm :p


    • Actually, yeah, I can see how this could be done with Burning Wheel. Cause in BW, though yeah, you’d have stats for the beast and all, the crux of the game wouldn’t be about the power level of the character with a displacer beast, but about the beliefs said character has that are being tested by him jumping off into a chasm while riding a displacer beast.


  15. Question: have you ever started a D&D game at higher level than 1st? Because it seems you didn’t.

    Even in the relatively low 4th level game of 4th edition I had, I was doing perhaps more spectacular things than those in the illustrations.

    And with no grid at all. I never played with a grid in all my D&D experience. Sometimes with 4e a bit of grid drawing (never miniatures), but only to know relative distances when they mattered.

    DM has a role in this, but what also has a big role is player narration. It’s the way I narrate what happens that changes the experience. The roll might be just one, the power might be saying just a few things, but all the action is then narrated, and it can be as epic as you (and your group) like.

    Personally, I repeat, I’ve been in more spectacular situations in my 4e D&D games than even the most incredible illustrations show.

    I recently looked in detail into Dungeon World, and while I found many compelling aspects about it (mainly the big differences among classes and all the hooks for role-playing), I find nothing in the system that could support epic combat more than D&D. Actually, it will simply rely even more on narration, considering there are no truly epic moves, while there ARE truly epic (figuratively speaking) martial and non-martial powers in 4e, even at Heroic level.

    All in all, I think the problem you find is just that you feel overwhelmed by rules quantity and/or complexity. But as somebody pointed out, D&D is a game in which the very manuals tell you to improvise in certain situations, suggest the DM to roll a number and telling another in still other different situations and so on.
    If, however, you don’t like having to do this, then by all means you need a system with just less rules or simpler. For example, monsters stats in Dungeon World are so “misty”, that nothing prevents you from making up epic situations with them. But then again it will be all up to the DM.
    My DM in 4th edition couldn’t do much about it when I surprised a Displacer Beast which was trying to surprise my camped party, while I was camouflaged in a jungle growing on top of colossal tree branches in FULL PLATE armor (with a character built to do that and being a Blackguard at it), and killed it in just two rounds using shadowy powers, the strength infused into me by a magic item that made me “considered Bloodied” to trigger before time my “Vice of Fury”, which triggered the second turn as well because by then it was the monster that was bloodied, and finishing it up with an opportunity attack when it tried to escape and then also a reaction daily attack when it tried to hit back BECAUSE the DM was using an improved version of the monster. with a boar-like final death strike, which I dodged thanks to the same reaction power, because it knocked prone the enemy as an interrupt, making the roll against my high AC insufficient.. He couldn’t do anything to prevent the epicness of that scene, which I narrated much better than this too, and remember to this day as something exciting and memorable. πŸ™‚


    • Yes, I’ve played starting above 1st level. I’ve been playing for about 25 years now (I know this comes across as haughty, but it isn’t meant that way). I’ve done all types of campaigns by now. There was a time when the minutiae of D&D was fine by me. Shit, I used to know 2e and 3e by heart. But I’ve changed and that’s not of interest to me now. Which is precisely why I don’t care for 4e. So yeah, I accept that you’ve had some neat experiences with 4e and epicness and I 100% believe you because I have close friends who vouch for that. But it doesn’t work for me. Hence the post.

      I’m also talking about why system matters, but that’s more implied in the post as I didn’t want to get into a theory discussion.


  16. As soon as you apply game mechanics to such a situation they all become the same, system trumps imagery. The system tries to emulate the imagery but in the end system takes the forefront over the image. This will happen no matter what system you use. Unless you are using a 100% narrative system that is in reality nothing but telling a story together with no mechanics at all.


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