I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The individualism of modern D&D

I wrote a post about the origins of alignment a long time ago. It is one of my favorite posts in this blog. I thought I'd make it into a series, discussing alignment through all editions, etc., but nothing really occurred to me.

Now that D&D is trying to get rid of alignment (in the most recent books), I'd like to briefly go back to the topic. This post is not only about alignment, but it plays an important part.

In that post, I've mentioned that the move of alignments from "factions" to "individual behavior/philosophy" is part of a natural process as D&D moved from wargame (focused on armies) to RPG (focused on individual characters). 

Well, the move is nearly complete. Now even monsters aren't good or evil; tigers and demons must be judged on an individual basis.

But alignment is not the only change. If you compared early D&D to modern D&D, you'll see the "social" aspects were more important. You had hirelings, morale (i.e., if your team runs, you run), reaction rolls, and so on. Now, it is all about the single character. He might have a pet or sidekick, but he is always the star of the show (or ONE of they stars, like in the Avengers movies; although "solo play" becomes incresingly popular, and big tables more rare).

You can see it in monster statblocks too; in AD&D 2e, for example, you had information on diet, habitats, social organization; the number of monsters you'd find in an encounter or lair were also important. Now that is lost. The number encountered will be randomly determined, maybe level appropriate.

The "exploration" side of the game is also a bit weakened. Instead of, for example, finding a magic weapon by chance and carrying it around, you are specialized in certain weapons, so your character traits defines what weapons you'll carry.

Character complexity has grown exponentially. PCs now have feats, bonds, flaws; they are carefully built instead of randomly rolled. Deliberate character creation and development became an important part of the game.

Now we have have races, subraces, custom lineages, etc. (in addition to classes, subclasses, multiclasses). In some of the earlier versions, non-human PCs had level limits, since humans were the majority and they were the exception. Now, humans are only one - and maybe the most homogenous, since there is no "custom human" IIRC - of many different lineages.

(A recent example: Drizzt Do'Urden was once an outcast, a good-alingned rebel from an evil culture of "Dökkálfar", and now apparently part of a majority of good drow).

And, of course, the nonhumans become stranger and stranger - now you can play as a snake-man, undead, cyborg, and so on. The old limitations make no sense now - a dwarf can be a wizard, an elf can be a cleric, and so on.

 Like in 13th Age, each PC is unique.

It is not about humans exploring a strange world anymore - is about a group of strange people exploring, well... themselves? Or, most likely, they are exploring a world that has more internal coherence than the party. [For example, when playing Curse of Strahd, I've noticed that the PCs were some of the strangest being  around; the rest of the setting is what you'd expected from a "gothic horror valley".]

The importance of the party is also downplayed. To mention some games I enjoy, modern D&D is more like Skyrim or Dark Souls than Darkest Dungeon. While in DD only the fate of the party matters, in the other games you have to build a single character and try again and again until you succeed.

In the wargame period, characters would take one "hit" and they'd be dead, unless they were heroes or superheroes. I think it was Arneson who noticed people would get attached to their characters, and then hit point were made. I'm thinking that the next step is simply making PCs immortal - you can change your character when you get tired of it, and he/she only dies with the player's permission.

Well, is this good or bad?

The answer, obviously, is neither. It boils down to a matter of taste. You do not have to choose one way or another; you can play with these things. For example:
If you find alignment too restrictive, we could go the opposite way - adopt one or multiple "mien" from Troika* (e.g., Hungry, Confused,  Protective, Greedy, Conniving), one or multiple goals from Teratogenicon, or let behavior be described by any appropriate expression (chaotic, lawful, greedy, hungry, indifferent, territorial, aggressive, shy, etc.). Of course, each individual creature might be different - but having some way to start the process is useful.
The same goes for hit points and lethality. Do you want unique, carefully built PCs? Maybe you they shouldn't die in the first session. Do you prefer high lethality? Maybe players should be able to create new PCs quickly.

It is not about black and white, either. There are shades of gray. The extremes (for example, "nobody ever dies" and "at least one PC dies every session") are less popular than moderate versions.

I've played Ravnica campaigns in which I wanted the PCs to be strange; we had a great time. I certainly enjoy the weird creatures of Dark Sun and Tékumel. In Curse of Strahd, the strange PCs felt out of place, but I've found some alternatives). 

Now I'm starting a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign (the sale is still on!). The game is fairly lethal, so I'm happy that character creation is really quick and starting PCs are really simple. I really like character customization to happen gradually, and Shadow of the Demon Lord is great at that (it has way more customization than some old school games, for example, but not as much in the beggining of the game like 5e).

Just try some different play-styles and see what suits you best!

*These are affiliate links - by using them, you're helping to support this blog!


  1. I heard an interview with Lew Pulsipher where he stated that he felt from 3E onward, teamwork was downplayed or perhaps even discouraged. I got to thinking about it and I think he is correct. I think the concept that players build their characters rather than generate them does encourage this behavior. The character optimization game that occurs before the character ever goes on an adventure also contributes.

    1. That absolutely does not follow.
      4E was all about having every player fill a party role.
      If you didn't have all roles filled, you'd pay for it pretty quickly in my experience.

      I don't think 5E is nearly as demanding as this, but to say "3E onward" is definitely not correct.

    2. That's probably true if you think of D&D strictly in combat terms.

      Pre-WotC versions, the characters weren't primarily specialized in combat roles. They had specialities which made them valuable outside of combat. Many classes (particularly the ranger, thief, druid, illusionist) had abilities that no other class had and you couldn't just take a a couple levels of rogue to get those skills. You either had a thief in the party or you didn't. You could replicate or replace those skills with magic but then that would mean you wouldn't have those spell slots, potions or scrolls for other uses later on.

    3. I forgot to add that those combat specialties were important in 4E because 4E was primarily a game about fighting. Notice those roles you mention: "Leader-Defender-Controller-Striker" All combat roles.

      Previous editions, when an adventure was well written had challenges across the various stages of an adventure. You had to have characters who could sneak, unlock doors, track monsters, talk to NPC's, detect magic, negotiate obstacles and traps, avoid or overcome tricks and puzzles.

  2. I'm of the controversial opinion there is nothing wrong with the weirder races/class but the issue lie in the 'cosmopolitan fantasy' conception of fantasy settings which has crept up in the modern era, often mocked as Fantasy Vancouver or Fantasy Portland. The idea that being a half-demon thingy or a dragon-man is as interchangeable as your nationality or religion or sexual orientation in 21st century urban centers.

    In my opinion its been somewhat of a problem that people in this day and age focus too much on their surface level details and competing too much to be unique, which has reflected itself on D&D and, when combined with min maxing, results in a character that is just a string of a weird race+class+quirk combo.

    My personal tastes on the matter is that, should I be stuck running 5e because a hypothetical group doesn't want to play an OSR or adjacent game, I would still lower the amount of option to players. If somebody doesn't pick a race or class at chargen, it may not even exist in the setting. Alternatively, I'd lower the option of race and class/subclass to a few ones thematic to the intended style and tone of the setting. Should a character die, the choices made at chargen mean everyone now has to live with the consequences of the early game choices.

    I don't think the weird stuff is inherently bad, unlike some grogs I just think that in most campaigns people make the mistake of assuming EVERY OPTION EXIST and always has/always will. This invariably dillute the fantasy nature of things.

    1. I completely agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with weirder species, but it depends on the setting... I like the idea of letting your players choose what options are available, wrote about that here:

    2. On one hand, I agree that the cosmopolitan nature of some D&D campaigns is a bit much, especially if people do not think through the consequences of some interactions.

      However, I at least find charm in having the potential for your campaign to look like a Masters of the Universe poster.

      However at least some thought should be put into it instead of something just handwaved unless you are mostly running one offs.

    3. This sort of cosmopolitan conception of the campaign has been around since the beginning of the hobby. I don't think things get much weirder than a party built out of say the Arduin books. And if you want to see a truly weird city where everyone is living cheek by jowl you only have to look as far as the Citystate of the Invincible Overlord. Also from what I can tell in modern D&D players are constantly talking about their characters role in a party - tank,striker, etc - more than in earlier editions.

    4. MOTU or Thundarr-styled fantasy is fine, but its distinct from Fantasy Vancouver.

  3. No need to go past the Blake quote. From my introduction in '77 to a possible alternative system to D&D with micro game melee, I began stealing good ideas, and using them to cook up my own rules. It is nice not ever have to worry just how many Chaotic Neutral Tieflings can dance on the head of a pin.

  4. In the early 1980s, my Cynosure campaign (inspired by the city in the Grimjack comicbook) had the Arduin options as just part of the Mos Eisley Cantina cornucopia.

    I’m not sure _what_ NPC The Spud Who Would Not Die was, but somehow his convenience store had a stairway to what might have been the Elemental Plane of Fire or might have been a Hell.

    The “anything goes” — more typical of the costumed superhero genre — didn’t last long as a D&D campaign.

    After that, I didn’t much care for the fad of Orks in … Space! …Napoleonic Wars! … Wild West! … etc.. Just as D&D doesn’t need to be everything at once, everything doesn’t need to be turned into D&D.