I've been playing or running (more the latter than former) Tabletop RPGs for twenty years now, and I've developed a lot of opinions. As I was discussing these opinions recently, I realized I was, in many ways, effectively writing blog posts. So I decided to start sharing them here. Please comment and critique as you like since I do like discussing ideas.
#1: The Problem at the heart of simulationist gaming
(Context: Discussing the problem of how D&D is an ‘Action-Oriented’ game where players decide what mechanical course they take and then make the fiction fit it, vs. other games where the fiction can be first and the player/GM activates the mechanic in response)
Let’s look at this through the lens of a session. In that session, the party has a known objective, that requires multiple steps to succeed at, and they have multiple ways to attempt those steps. We can also consider this from the perspective of multiple systems but I am using D&D. Let’s start with the objective.
The party is seeking the location of an artifact. The person they *know* has the location is the owner of an inn and tavern with connections to the underworld. They need to find some way to have the owner divulge that information. They need to do that or find some other method to get the information. This brings a few obvious, broad ways to do this: 1) The party could look over their resources, make a plan, and attempt to make it happen. 2) The party could set up the pieces of a plan, then attempt to pull it off. 3) The party could kick in the door and roll with the punches, trying to be nimble on their feet (This is not specifically violence, just lack of planning).
Let’s start with the lens of D&D, specifically 5e but not only (the problem in this paragraph is far worse back in 3.5). In the first idea, the party looks at their resources- They look at their spells, their abilities, their items, their good skills; the obvious place to look for ways to resolve the problem. They discuss various ways to combine these actions, of which many of them have dozens potentially (all proficient skills, potentially relevant items, abilities, and spells), and usually don’t think much beyond using them in obvious, or laterally proficient ways (Using an endless decanter of water in a variety of ways that involve *lots of water* are all potentially creative, lateral solutions, but they are about using the endless decant of water as a thing that produces lots of water). They come to these ideas either before the attempt, or at an unexpected problem. No matter how they go about it, they start from the solution (I can cast charm person, I have goggles of darkvision, I have x) on the piece of paper, and then work backwards to make it a thing their character does. This feels like a flexible adventure game or a puzzle game to me. In Fate, the party consults about 10 things per player- their top 3 skills, their 3 middle skills, their 3-5 stunts if they choose to do that. With a much smaller range of abilities, players often lean instead into their character and go ‘how would Bob go about this’ in a way many D&D players don’t get the chance to really think about, or under-consider. In PbtA, you can’t really do this long-form planning well, because the nature of the game is *incredibly* fluid.
Second go- they attempt to put stuff into play. D&D isn’t super great at this (most of the abilities are pointed at solutions for right now- Banishment gets rid of a bad guy for a minute, sure charm person lasts up to an hour at least, but then fly lasts 10 minutes- none of this is setting up the Han Solo Prison Bust from Star Wars so to speak). Players may, after consulting a dozen or more abilities per sheet, drop this idea and go to the first or last idea. If they instead pursue this idea, *my experience in D&D but not necessarily the norm* is that the following problems can crop up:
1. The GM may be inflexible to allow a lateral approach to the *entire* obstacle course because it will invalidate a lot of prep and may in fact require completely winging it or redoing said prep mid-session (or ending session earlier to go do that prep before next).
2. The GM may intentionally or unintentionally punish this attempt by treating failed rolls for unexpected actions to say, charm guards or discover information with closing off all unintended paths/ramping up the difficulty of the final encounter. Since D&D is a resource management sim, taking risky maneuvers to essentially roll a wheel of fortune weighted against you feels *really bad*.
3. Every time you try to creatively solve a problem outside of the now, it’s a discussion/debate/argument/disagreement with the DM(and/or party) because D&D doesn’t have mechanics tech like Fate (aspects) to store long-term narrative information (you flipped this guards and can use them in x way) nor does it embrace fiction first of PbtA where the game doesn’t care really and the GM can just roll with the punch and have the guards or anything) do whatever makes sense to the table with like, 0-6 words that have rules baggage and 0-6 words of flavor.
4. D&D functions a lot like law (due to its open world and simulationist nature) such that while everyone is working from the same set of laws (the DMG/PHB), and there are ‘constitutional scholars’ (@SageAdvice), each judge has absolute authority in their jurisdiction. So when the judge makes precedent, it has wide repercussions, and the hardest place to make lasting, good judgements in things that linger vs the now. This is very different from Fate or PbtA, where the mechanical undergirding create a very specific, robust skeleton of how narrative and mechanics interact then leaves all the fiction in the hands of the players or GM respectively.
Third, we **kick down that damn door and let the dice lie how they lie.** In D&D, this often leads to combat not because of the players but because of the system- the most robust tools for dealing with a problem lie in the very defined, very rich combat area. A Fighter has 4 proficient skills (and strong mechanical reasons to not have good stats in any of the best stats for skill use) and often not 1 ability (or spell, or item) that address non-combat action. If they want to do anything based off who their character is *in system,* it’s got to go to combat. On the other end, the biggest promise of the caster is to ‘have a spell for that.’ Drop a grease or a web or a charm person or a banishment and instantly solve the problem of now. So when they go room by room, the group is often encouraged to fall back on the specific actions they have, and use them, which is often combat and often the menu on their sheet. This is especially true when the results of the actions are poorly or confusingly defined.
Looking back at that fighter, no matter how much the player wanted that fighter to be particularly charming, even if they put a +3 in CHA and proficiency in Persuasion, the fighter has the following issues:
1. They don’t stand out from other people who care as much as them or more about Persuasion. Whereas their choice to be a fighter makes them stand out in combat noticeably.
2. Their commitment to this idea has narrow results- the fighter now is almost or as good as other players in rolling the persuasion skill, the use of which is defined broadly in the PHB/DMG as ‘talking to someone and getting them to like you/agree with you/do what you want.’ You can’t change how persuasion works, what it works on, what it grants you mechanically, in any way in DnD, especially as not a skill monkey.
3. Persuasion is good is a very narrow space to have all possible mechanical definition of ‘Friendly person people tend to trust.’ (or any other kind of charmer)
4. The fighter has no way to know what rolling persuasion at a specific npc is going to look like. In other systems, the dimensions of the roll are far clearer.
If you just go through the door and figure things out as you go in other systems, you have flashbacks in Blades, you have aspects, negotiations, etc. in Fate, and you have ‘see what happens while being a fan’ in PbtA to guide the players through doing whatever they really *want* to do in that room. In D&D, you often fail the persuasion check and then roll initiative. The entire lens of the game is through how to use all the toys on the piece of paper to deal with what is in front of you now. The absence of the massive number of narrow, usually combat toys and the well-defined flexibility of what toys do exist allow far more space to focus on the narrative and be the character- when you get to a spot to roll dice, you’ll negotiate the dice and stakes and then do it in PbtA, Fate, Blades, etc.
This difference between staring down the barrel of a very obvious menu system (D&D) and looking at a very limited set of choices (Fate, PbtA) is where the significant difference in Action vs. Check comes to me, for these systems.