It’s wildly common on Reddit: A thread complaining about the popularity of D&D, or a thread complaining about 5e being hacked into things it doesn’t work well for (I am guilty of that second one). Half the commenters will agree that yes, there are so many other games out there, and people should broaden their horizons! The other half will say that if people are having fun with D&D, why must you rain on their parade! And the fights continue, eventually, like they do in all discourse, repeating themselves. But you out there, venty thread creators and venty thread agree-ers, I see you. I know the real reason you’re creating these threads. You, personally, don’t want to play D&D, and either you can’t find a group to play something else with, or, more likely, your home table has you outvoted. Or, if you’re in a slightly better position, maybe you see these threads online and simply can’t imagine going back to playing only D&D (and you like fighting on the internet).
No matter the reason, I know the pain of playing a game you’re not really interested in because you still want to hang out with your friends and roll dice. There are ways to diversify your gaming experiences and be a happier gamer in general. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t involve complaining on the internet. It also doesn’t involve slagging on D&D.
“Your Favorite Game Sucks” and Other Bad Arguments
This is the mistake I see most people make, either online or in their home groups. Clearly, the problems a person has with D&D must mean that D&D is bad, or at least that other games are better. These criticisms must be compelling! Both of these conclusions are wrong. First, as we know from psychology, direct criticism of an opinion that a person holds tends to make them defend and believe it more, not less, strongly. This is even more true for opinions that a person considers central to their sense of self. Because of this, D&D’s branding is rather ingenious; most gamers see “D&D player” as an identity equally or more strongly than “role-player”. By criticizing D&D, no matter how well-considered those criticisms are, you are perceived to be criticizing the people who play the game. If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have seen that even the most helpful suggestions of how to make D&D more inclusive are met with, well, death threats. Such is the power of the parasocial brand relationship.
Beyond the psychology of criticizing someone’s favorite hobby, you’re going to find there isn’t much solid discursive ground to stand on when it comes to criticizing D&D in a vacuum. Is D&D the best RPG? Nowhere near. But its core gameplay does what people want it to do well enough that even valid criticisms and comparisons are going to be really hard to support when directed at an audience that hasn’t played the games that enabled you to make the comparison. Most importantly, these criticisms are borne out of preference, not objective truth. I have played my fair share of D&D, and it’s my play experiences that put D&D far down my personal list of games to suggest when the next campaign rolls around. If my players have the same preference, though (some of them do, some of them don’t), they came to that on their own.
“Ah ha,” you say. “You’re describing a Catch 22. People need to arrive at their preferences through experience, but without experience they won’t listen to me about other games!” This is the core of the problem, yes. But there are solutions.
Towards More Eclectic Gaming
There’s one criticism of D&D that you can make, because it attacks a myth: D&D is not easy to learn, relatively speaking. In terms of rules complexity it is somewhere in the middle, leaning more complex, and in terms of ease of use it lags behind large swathes of the hobby. It’s clearly not hard enough to keep people from learning how to play, but there’s a huge number of games, even with the same level of complexity as D&D, that are much easier to learn. Now, for the reasons above, just disagreeing every time someone repeats this myth won’t help. You will need to get them to play a different game, at least once.
If you’re the group’s GM, this is easy: run a one-shot. Don’t frame it as ‘this is better’, don’t you dare frame it as ‘I want to switch to this game’. Simply say: “I wanted a break so for this week I prepped something different. Here are some pre-gens, I based them on the kind of character you like to play in our main campaign.” Yeah, you need to do that last part, because you’re trying to make the barrier to entry as low as possible. Now, unless you’ve decided to run GURPS (which, in case you couldn’t guess, maybe don’t), explaining that new character sheet should take 10-15 minutes, tops. Most games are one die roll to do things and then a more different die roll for a few magnitudes, like damage. Once the basics are down, just run into the adventure, explaining things along the way. If I can use this method to teach the basics of D&D in under half an hour, it’ll work for most games you’ll bring to the table.
It should go without saying, but this one-shot should be fun for your group! For this method to work you need to provide a good gaming experience, and it should be the sort of fun your group already likes. It might also be worth it to go for something novel and different, both to be more memorable and to make it clear that ‘one-shot day’ isn’t some form of indoctrination (which, based on some of the comments I’ve read on Reddit, is a real risk). Try Dread, and let your group white-knuckle a Jenga tower. Try Fiasco and make the game more light-hearted, or try Paranoia and lampshade some tropes. I shouldn’t need to say this, but it needs to be enjoyable. If you aren’t enjoying yourselves at game day, why even have it?
If you’re a player in a D&D group, you won’t have the leverage to take a week off and run a one-shot. You can volunteer to run a one-shot for a session, and follow as above, but your group may say no, and that’s their right. If you find yourself in a situation, either as a player or as a GM, where your group is not interested in playing anything you’re interested in, it’s time to think more about how to get the gaming you actually want.
The Gaming You Want
At a certain point, you need to ask yourself if you’re getting the gaming experience you actually want. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go quit your group, but if you haven’t taken the time to explore what the broader gaming community has to offer, now is a great time; with COVID being like it is, you probably have much less of a social life to get in the way of gaming an extra night a week if that’s what you want to do. Go hang out in gamer spaces online, and find people willing to play games you’re interested in. Maybe check out spaces like The Gauntlet, or online sessions run by companies like Magpie Games. You’re going to (hopefully) see that there are many opportunities to play the games you want to so long as you look for them. You’re also going to more fully understand where the gaming you do with your friends sits in the continuum of the gaming you want. For some people, this will be a wake-up call and they’ll quit the old D&D group. For many others, though, it’s an additional perspective that helps with understanding the value of gaming with friends, preferred ruleset or not.
This perspective is going to illustrate the very real point that many (if not most) people are playing RPGs with friends because of the ‘with friends’ aspect. Quitting a group of your friends is hard, especially if there’s no other way to see them (which, in COVID times, is really real). Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but talk with your friends! There are plenty of ways to keep the gaming part fresh; maybe instead of trying to switch the whole campaign over you make ‘one-shot day’ a regular occurrence, or talk about ways to switch up the playstyle without changing up the rules. You could also do what I do and keep gaming on the side. My main group doesn’t even play D&D and I still find it really nice to play different games with a different group of people; it helps a whole lot with the “grass is greener” issue that comes from constantly reading new RPGs. Playing a couple of games, especially with different groups, can help you appreciate what a new set of rules (and a new group of players for that matter) will and won’t solve. Rules alone don’t make up the RPG experience, but sometimes the only way to remind ourselves of that is by trying something new.
Finally, I have a few words for the D&D players out there, the ones who all have ‘that friend’ who it seems is constantly trying to get you to try something new. At the end of the day, everyone wants to enjoy themselves at the gaming table and yes, there’s a lot of people who don’t particularly enjoy D&D, or have issues with it for other reasons. Whether you want to learn a new system or not, listen to everyone at your table, and listen to those who want to try something different or new. It’s no fun to feel like you’re always just going along with the rest of the group, and often if someone’s insistent about trying something different it’s because they aren’t having fun. All of you should be talking about what’s going to work best for the whole group, and there are a lot of options out there (both under the D&D umbrella and not) for any playstyle you can imagine. That doesn’t mean you have to dump your campaign, but have empathy if someone feels like they’re just going along to get along.
While there are plenty of valid criticisms of D&D, they don’t really matter at the game table. The effects of cultural and economic monopoly will not be solved by any one gaming group, and even I know it’s not a bad thing if that gaming group came together because of D&D. But when I say there’s a wide world of games out there, I’m saying it for the people who already know, the people who feel like it’s a wide world of games they’ll never get to try. As frustrating as that can be, know that everyone is at the table to have fun. If you honestly think a new game will help your group have fun, then put in some work to introduce them to a positive new experience (without being negative about the existing one). If your fun doesn’t mesh with the rest of the group’s fun, it’s OK to have your fun elsewhere. It is a wide world of games out there, and everyone should be playing the one they want. And that does include everyone playing D&D.
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