Relics of the Past, Things that Gaming No Longer Needs

Posted on August 19, 2012 by


When Dungeons and Dragons was first conceived, it played a lot like a tabletop video game, and in many ways it still is.  Our characters have stats, we carry pouches of random number generators, and we have fun things like hit points to tell us whether we’re winning or losing.

However, in much the same way that video games have evolved from high score generators into a new (and increasingly respected) medium of storytelling, tabletop gaming is also finding its horizons expanded as it becomes something more than the sum of its parts or a part of its sums.  Nowadays, for some groups, a good game of Dungeons and Dragons is closer a weekly TV show than it is to a good playthrough of Super Mario World.

As gaming gives way to storytelling, we are left with certain antique concepts, relics from a time when a game of Dungeons and Dragons meant little more than a dungeon with a dragon in it.

Today I will share with you the top three relics that I believe tabletop gaming no longer needs.

Relic Number One – Experience Points

Let’s start with the relic that I think people will be the least happy about, experience points.  “Holy crap, how will we level up?” they cry, “Have our gods forsaken us?”  No my good gamers, fear not, your progression is safe.

I don’t remember the last time I played with a Dungeon Master who awarded experience points based on the number and type of enemies killed.  Sure, I’ve occasionally played with a DM that gave us an arbitrary amount of experience after each game, but it usually added up to about 1/3 of what we needed to hit the next level, more if they wanted us advancing faster.

Let’s face it, most storytellers know when they want you to level up, and no amount of point counting is going to change that.  Most players are more than happy to have a DM say “you’ll hit 14 after next week’s game,” or even “great job, you guys are all 18 now!”  Players should be rewarded for completing pieces of the story, not because they can kill a trio of manticores worth 3000 experience each.

In fact, the only real argument I can see being made for experience is in the favor of metagaming.  “We should really go out and get that last 1400 xp before we go to Fort Blackwatch and confront The Baron” says the table’s munchkin right before the DM backhands him across the table.  D&D is not a video game, and only the most disrespectful of players will be treating it as though it was.

Of course, if you’re playing anything in the Unisystem, GURPS, Mutants and Masterminds, White Wolf, Warhammer 40k, or any other point buy systems that require you to spend experience, it’s a but different.  Still, awarding xp based on anything other than you want the players to level is an invitation to invite trouble.

Relic Number Two – Random Encounters

“Okay guys, I guess we need to travel about a thousand miles on foot to reach the next kingdom and HOLY CRAP, DRAGON!”

The random encounter is another relic left over from video games, and this one can be especially frustrating when left in the hands of a careless Dungeon Master.  I once had a friend roll on a random encounter chart for each day of a seven day journey, it took us two gaming sessions just to get back to the game’s story.

And that’s really my problem with the random encounter.  Does it add to the “alive” feeling of your game world?  Yes.  Will it force your players to more carefully consider their travel routes and supplies?  Absolutely.  In a game like Dungeons and Dragons, however, where combat is so time consuming, one or two random encounters can set your entire campaign off-schedule, and a DM’s number one job is making sure that their story gets told, and random fights that you never even had time to plan only distract from that.

Of course, if you want to plan a travel encounter that takes place ahead of time, more power to you.

Now the logical question is; “what if my players keep trying to rest in dungeons?  Should I just let them do it?”  Hell no, that’s just stupid.  Screw your five-minute workday, get back to the adventure.  Any party that tries to rest in MY dungeon for anything other than excellent reasons is going to have one encounter after another until they get the point.

Find better players.

Relic Number Three – Alignment

Let’s face it, the alignment system has always seemed overly restrictive at worst and a shameless attempt to pigeonhole the complexity of human nature at best.  Unless you’re playing in a setting where good and evil are absolutes (ooh, add that to my list of future games) the alignment systems that you’ll find in most games will have little bearing on the way that real people behave.

Both Dungeon Masters and players should allow characters to grow naturally, behaving in ways that seem a lot more, well, human.

And yes, everyone loves a good reverse alignment spell, but in the end, I just don’t think it’s worth a whole system that arbitrarily attempts to shove a whole universe of people into nine (or less, thanks 4th Edition) different mailboxes (and True Neutral barely even counts).

What it means to be a D&D player is changing every day, and some things get left behind as we move from one edition to the next.  I can only hope that a few of these things are among the relics that we leave in our wake.

Posted in: Game Talk