My friend Lore (whose site badgods is back up, go see) was musing about D&D on Twitter, which made me consider how D&D works as a game. It’s not pretty.

Overall: Gamers will recognize the usual mechanics of the RPG: character creation, stats, hit points, armor, loot, leveling up. But the UI is terrible– everything requires flipping through pages and pages of rules and tables– and everything has been run through some kind of tediumizer. Combat rules are arcane (try to get someone to explain “attacks of opportunity”) yet damage is generic (no headshots). There’s no aiming or skill involved; everything is based on dice rolls. Combat is turn-based rather than real-time, and there’s no option to automate attacks. It can take hours of play to advance a single level.

Character creation: Unlimited cosmetic appearance options, but classes and “races” (species) are limited and subject to bizarre restrictions. There are literally hundreds of monster types available, but only a small subset are available for PCs. Characters can be female, but there are limit caps on their strength attribute.

Weapons: There’s a promising range– you can wield things like a fauchard, bec de corbin, glaive, ranseur, or voulge– but for the most part these are just names for different attack rolls and they don’t feel different. Most weapons can’t be upgraded, and finding better weapons is slow and capricious.

Magic: The magic system is complicated as fuck, but powerful… except that the number of spells you can cast is absurdly limited. There’s no mana regeneration or cooldowns– so you can run out of spells in the middle of a dungeon and, since you’re a squish, end up near-useless. Cross-classing is possible but subject to weird rules.

Graphics: If you don’t use miniatures, it’s basically a text adventure. If you do, the ‘graphics’ are really nothing more than a diagram of combat positions.

Conworlding: Amateur and incoherent. The procedure implied in the rules is basically this:

  • Open up Lord of the Rings, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Conan, H.P. Lovecraft, a mythology book, and your kid’s damn dinosaur book.
  • Use everything from all of them.

Story: Depends on your DM, but almost always derivative and poorly integrated with gameplay. It can be said that roleplaying actions have consequences; on the other hand, you rarely run into an NPC you care about.

Voice acting: Embarrassing.

Difficulty curve: Harsh. No saves. Near-absolute power is handed to one player, the DM, who determines difficulty. Unsurprisingly many DMs abuse this power and essentially make war against the other players. The general mechanic is permadeath— resurrection is sometimes possible, but may take literally hours. It’s all the more frustrating because most deaths aren’t cause by errors so much as bad luck, if not actual DM player-trolling.

Price: Can be significant.  At a minimum the DM will have to acquire several books, plus special dice.  There is an endless array of DLC, though none of it is necessary.  Miniatures can drive up the investment substantially. On the plus side, it’s never pay-to-win and you’ll never run into NPCs hawking extra paid content.

Multiplayer: The redeeming feature for all of this nonsense.  Although it’s all PvE, it’s fun to take on enemies as a team, there are genuine strategic decisions to make that emerge from the gameplay, and often the open-ended rules allow for some improvisational and memorable scenes.

(Pedantic note: molest me not with protestations that such-and-such edition fixes some of these problems. I had years of experience with AD&D 1.0, and that’s what most of this is based on.  Of course the details would differ if my experience was with another edition.)

To put it all more bluntly: about 90% of the fun of D&D is captured, and far better, by video games like Skyrim or Torchlight or Borderlands or Dragon Age or VTM:Bloodlines.  Tabletop D&D is generally too slow and too tedious to be a good goblin-death simulator.

Lore muses, “Maybe what I really want is to write collaborative, improvisational, non-published fanfic.”  And I think he’s on to something there. That 10% of D&D that isn’t captured by video games is the unpredictable, open-ended storytelling that sometimes emerges from a campaign.  I hosted an IRC campaign once, jettisoning almost all of the detailed rules, and including stuff like an excursion into space opera.  In a good D&D game the DM can surprise the players, and vice versa; you’re not going to get that in Skyrim.