I have been playing roleplaying games for most of my life. It’s been my passion and my inspiration since I was ten years old, dreaming of dragons and the deeps of space. Unsurprisingly, I have played a LOT of Dungeons & Dragons in that time. It was my first TTRPG, for a while my only TTRPG. It has sat in the tabletop space, its gravitational force at times waning but never absent. I have at times loved the game and hated the game, and sometimes those times were the same session of D&D. I’ve played it, I’ve DMed it, I’ve organized game days and cons around it. I’ve used it to draw folks into the hobby and I’ve seen it become the vehicle which drove some people out.
“It’s Complicated” doesn’t begin to touch how I feel about Dungeons & Dragons.
One thing that has come up in discussions around D&D’s unsquared corners and oddly built steps, though, is the common refrain from many of the game’s stalwarts whenever someone brings up an issue with the game rules.
“Well, if you don’t like it you can house rule it!”
Now, I’m not opposed to house ruling in principle. In fact it’s been part of the hobby since there was a hobby. I don’t even think I was six months into playing Basic D&D before I was suggesting ways we could do what I considered cool new things in the game. Of course, back then we house ruled not so much to change rules as add to them; the environment was not as supplement rich as it is these days, so we often had to build out aspects of the games we were playing ahead of any “official” expansions, if they ever came. So we love a good house rule around these parts.
I do think there is a discussion worth having about whether I should have to house rule a game for which I paid fifty dollars a book, but that lies outside the scope of this post. Consider a pin firmly stuck in it, we will return in a future article.
So no, I don’t oppose the idea of house ruling per se. But I was giving this a good think the other day and it niggled at me that so much of the house ruling going on is piecemeal in nature. And I mean, of course it would be. It’s happening at individual tables, as differing mixes of player and DM come up with their personal blend called “D&D”. I’ve even done it myself, both at the table and in one-off articles on bits and pieces I would change in the rules.
So all of this is to say, I got to thinking what if. What if someone (spoilers, dear reader, that someone will be me) treated D&D 5e like a broken down classic car. You haul it into your garage and look it over. All the parts are there and more or less functional, and in its current state it is certainly fun to drive. But what if someone…okay, fine, I…took it and instead of fixing a tire here or and a door there, I overhauled it from top to bottom? Just dove in, pulled it all apart, and rebuilt it from the ground up. What would that look like?
“But Brent,” I hear you say, “Why wouldn’t you just write your own fantasy TTRPG? Then you could make it however you want.” And you’re not wrong. But in my heart I know this about myself. I am maybe a second tier writer, and on really good days I have flashes of first tier writing. But I am a first rate editor. There is nothing I love more than digging into a big old pile of words and figuring out how to make them better than they were before. Basically I want to take the D&D books, starting with the PHB, and treat them as something I have been asked to developmentally edit.
Because lets face it, there are so many parts of D&D 5e that exist solely as artifacts to keep older players happy with the game. Let’s take an example I talked about in an article on The Rat Hole years ago: Ability Scores. As I opined then, they serve no purpose in and of themselves. You generate them when making your character, the ability score tells you the bonus you get in that ability, and then you never use the ability score you generated ever again. Sure, the game tells you to raise your ability scores at certain levels, magic items can raise them, etc. So then you blow the dust off this unused bit of crockery, quickly calculate your new bonus (ie, the thing you actually use during play), and toss the ability score back in the cupboard until you need it again.
So why have them in the game? Because so many old gamers would get grumpy if you took them away, it “wouldn’t be D&D anymore!”
I’m proposing to go ahead with this little project under the belief that: a) keeping old gamers from getting grumpy should never be part of a healthy design philosophy, and b) it not being D&D anymore might not be the worst thing.
Keeping the classic car analogy going, this is something I’m going to tinker with in my spare time. Of course I’m going to talk about it here and likely over at The Rat Hole as well. And when I have something in a readable form, I’ll post up a design doc so folks can watch as I add, remove, and flat out redesign all the parts to this classic.
I know other folks have looked at D&D and made their version of a “fantasy heartbreaker” inspired or in spite of it. Maybe this will come to nothing in the end. But from where I’m sitting now it looks and sounds like fun, so I’m going to give it a go. Stick around to see how it all works out.