I’ve been keeping track of the D&D5E playtest stuff, liking some of what they’re doing, but also taking a hard look at why D&D, for me, never really goes as smoothly or nicely as I’d like. It mostly comes down to what I want out of fantasy, and how efficient other games are at hitting that, in a way D&D isn’t.
Generating Interesting Stuff in Play
There’s basically two methods that end up being the default ways in which D&D gets run.
First, the dungeon (equally, the sandbox world), where the action is mostly contingent on the players choosing to travel and explore. The thing about this is that going too fast can get your characters killed, going too slow is boring. It’s definitely a tradeoff but definitely punishes either end and makes for a high learning curve. A lot of the action that happens in these often turns out to be when things go wrong – whether that’s a simple plan gone to crap or a series of unlucky rolls. Note that rogue-like videogames pretty much fulfill this same gameplay space.
Second, the branching path story. This is exactly identical to what most videogame rpgs are right now, except they have an advantage in that (well designed) games never leave players poking around not know what to do for long periods of time – there’s characters who give you quests, submenus that help you remember what you needed to do, etc. All the sort of fussing around that happens in a tabletop game (“Is this character really important or not? Will they betray us? Are they telling the truth?” “Look, he’s the waiter, he doesn’t matter, ok?”).
What I want instead
Mostly what I end up interested in is exploring a world in terms of flavor if not endless almanacs of details, and seeing (and playing) different characters with interesting goals and motivations and personality – with fun action fights.
When you’re digging through an area trying not to die, the details take precendence over flavor, and when most of what you encounter is trying to eat you, there’s not a lot of room for interesting motivations or personality.
Likewise, branching path games don’t give you a lot of room to have your characters’ motivations or personality make much of a difference.
In a lot of ways, what I end up wanting from D&D is better supplied by other games. I’m thinking the next time I run D&D I will have to have a hack to basically establish scene framing and skip this whole dungeon or prepped encounters things altogether.