What’s Cool About D&D?

I’ve been running a D&D game for a couple of sessions now. About half of the players requested D&D, but honestly I think that D&D is too much damn work to teach and prepare for when dealing with relatively new players. I pictured session after session of pawing through the books and looking at power cards (if I dropped the cash to buy them that is, or printed them or whatever) and for a game that’ll only span a half-dozen sessions, that was an apalling thought.

So what I did is I tried to boil D&D down to what I like about it, a simple enough system to teach quickly and easily, mixing what I liked about 3.x and 4e with some of my own additions. Frankly, I think this game might ruin some of the players on D&D forever, because in a session we get through a lot more play than is usual in D&D – and we don’t need to use a battle mat or miniatures.

I want to talk about what I’ve been doing for this game, in case anyone else wants most of the coolness of D&D with about 30% of the work. To begin, I want to think about what is cool about D&D, at least to me, that I had in mind when I designed my hack/drift. When thinking about this coolness, I have in mind my own experiences playing D&D, AD&D, D&D 3e, D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, and any number of computer RPGs based on D&D since VGA graphics were cutting-edge.

What’s cool about the Races?

I don’t think much has to be said here. We all have, firmly implanted in our minds by any number of “high fantasy” games and books and movies out there, what the stereotypical races are like. The alcoholic Dwarf; the aloof Elf; the semi-trickster Halfling. And so on.

What’s cool about the Classes?

I think 4e had a number of chances to get this right, and they did sporadically. I’m going to stick to the ‘classic’ 3.5 classes for this, though, looking at what I like. I also mention pitfalls I’ve seen over and over again associated with each class – what players do with them that, frankly, sucks.

What’s cool about the Barbarian is being an angry heavy-hitter, crashing your way through foes, almost impossible to bring down even though you’re peppered with arrows. Its also fun to be the primal character from the wilds, scowling at the comforts of civilization.

Barbarian pitfall: Some players take the “Rage” ability as their sole roleplaying hint, and that can get pretty damn tedious.

The Bard is cool, when the Bard is cool, for being a support class. The Bard makes others more powerful. The Bard has always been the most versatile class – some spell abilities from divine and some from arcane casters, some musical abilities, a few Rogue skills thrown in. Lastly, on the rare occasional when social skills matter, the Bard is king (or queen).

Bard pitfall: Players who sing everything and act like douches. Also, with the Bard, its hard not to end up as the guy who does everything, but doesn’t do anything better than the other PCs.

The Cleric has always been cool for the powergamer. Clerics have always been overpowered, and every group needs one. Clerics lay the smackdown on undead and are basically impossible to kill.

Cleric pitfall: Like I said, the Cleric has always been overpowered. 4e tried to solve this by making the Cleric uninteresting, and this was not quite a win I’m afraid. Its also sort of hard to justify the highest experssion of a religion being plate armor and a blood-stained mace.

A Druid is cool by being the caster version of the Barbarian – the interloper from the wilds, but this time with more teeth. The Druid is a ferocious act of nature, and very versatile with shapechanging, spellcasting, and their animal companion.

Druid pitfall: The Druid has a similar pitfall to the Cleric, though some restrictions on their armor and weaponry help. Druid players also often end up having their characters never set foot in a city, meaning they are pouting whenever the party goes to the city to do the usual tavern-wenching-and-buying-stuff.

Ok, the Fighter’s claim to cool is easy. The Fighter is the indomidable force on the battlefield. It is cool to play a fighter, to have an opponent throw everything he has at you, and when the smoke clears, you’re still standing.

Fighter pitfall: the Fighter is often the new player’s starter character, named Fi-tor or something (with thanks to Fear the Boot), who sulks in the corner until there’s a fight, then stomps around and makes basic attacks.

If you can’t see how the Monk is cool, you’re a lost cause. If Jet Li and Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh are cool, then the Monk is cool. It is cool to leap across the room and plant your foot in someone’s face. It is cool to slip unarmored and untouched through the battlefield.

Monk pitfall: often, monks haven’t kicked enough ass. I’ve played plenty of Monks who just didn’t stand up in combat. They have other cool skills, but also tend to have low hit points, since they need Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom to get by. We’ll see if 4e fixes this.

Ah, holy Paladin. The Paladin is cool for kicking the asses of evil critters everywhere. It matches with ides of the mounted chivalric hero. But there’s a big pitfall to go with that.

Paladin pitfall: a lot of players play Paladins as complete self-righteous douchebags. I think we have “classic” D&D to blame for this, with the Lawful Good restriction, but honestly, I think that the Paladin just attracts dick players. Just my experience.

The Ranger is cool on the trail of his quarry, hunting something down and filling it with arrows, then finishing it off with some two-weapon work. For some reason, I think of Last of the Mohicans when I think of the Ranger.

Ranger pitfall: I’m not sure there is one. The Ranger is what it is.

In many ways, the Rogue exudes cool. Slick, invisible, agile, and deadly. Good times.

Rogue pitfall: there’s something about the Rogue that encourages players to steal from other player-characters. That is aggravating as fuck. Stop it.

Sorcerers are cool as an alternative to Wizards for people who don’t want quite as much book-keeping but who still want the fun of the arcane-casting powerhouse.

Sorcerer pitfall: again, not sure there is one here. Most Sorcerer-types I’ve seen played are pretty cool.

Wizards are cool – they got game like Gandalf. I think that, generally speaking, D&D’s magic system has always been apallingly bad, but given that, the Wizard is the geek of high fantasy.

Wizard pitfall: page-leafing. The book-keeping for a Wizard player is astronomical, and you really need to be the kind of person who likes that. To me, t hat’s what makes the Sorcerer so key.

What’s cool about the Magic?

If you can shut down your frontal cortex and accept D&D magic overall, the only real cool thing about it is that it is like a toolbox. It doesn’t require much creativity or invention at all – you look at the spell lists like a menu and pick what looks cool to you.

In my experience, this means that 90% of the spell lists in even the basic PHB are never touched. 4e has addressed this to some degree…by cutting 90% of the spells and then expanding iterations of the ones that were left.

What’s cool about the System?

The best the system does is when you treat it like a miniatures wargame. If you like sliding around a checkered map, D&D is obviously the game for you. If you want to do anything else, you need to drift the rules – in 3e drift a little, in 4e drift a lot. You can check out my other posts on this topic to get more of my views.

For a roleplaying game, you will probably spend the most time in D&D doing things you don’t want to do, or checking out because it isn’t your turnin combat. My last session, there were three conversations going on and two players were playing with a dog during the big combat finale. This is not changed at all in 4e – at last not in the first half-dozen sessions or so.

What I like about the rules is the places where it attempts to simulate, in detail, combat situations. It does so, and has always done so, inelegantly and with dizzying complexity of jargon and rules, but I respect the attempt.

So, that’s that. What do you think is cool about D&D?

Next up, what I did to change it, and why.

One thought on “What’s Cool About D&D?

  1. I definitely agree there, the problem being that you can (obviously) do what you described with a lot of different systems. What I was trying to get at was a particular D&D-ness that I enjoyed, something basic to the system (though dungeon-crawling has always been a big part of the Rules As Written)


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