How can D&D social mechanics grow? and should they?

edited October 2017 in Story Games
I have ambivalent feelings about D&D. When I came back to roleplaying I played 5E for a bit and really liked it until I got into the indie space and was just blown away at how the form had grown. It didn't take long for me to sell my 5E books and swear off the game—I was tired of it; the setting, the races, the monsters, all of it...it was cheesy and tired and I was done with it. But every once in a while I get an itch and almost buy all of the books again, but something stops me, which is a miracle because all I do is buy RPGs. I just know I will regret buying them and would just resell them again. D&D just isn't about a deep, emotional, mature experience...maybe it can be, but it certainly isn't designed to be. And that's fine, but it's not what I'm looking for anymore. Not if I'm going to invest a lot of time into it, anyway. Still, there is something about D&D, something about rolling the D20 that is exciting and gives the game tension and stakes, something about so many options—spells, magic items, combat choices, classes, leveling—all working together in a complex but seamless tapestry, that is still, to some degree, elegant. It's been tested; it's reliable. I don't know, maybe it's just childhood nostalgia; you always remember your first love. But other games have given social and emotional roleplaying more depth and innovated in areas most mainstream designers never even thought to look. Does D&D need to change? I know the answer. I know what your going to say. "No. It does a couple of things well and that's what it is supposed to do. It's about dungeoneering, goddamnit!" Fine. But challenge that assumption—is there anything that D&D could do better? Is the lie-detector roll...opps, I mean the "insight" roll, the best we can do? Should D&D change, even a little? And if it should, how should it change? And if not, why?

Also, knowing how level headed everyone is when discussing D&D, I know I don't have to worry about anyone freaking out on me. Thank goodness for that!


What I mean is this: D&D doesn't have good mechanics for social situations—there's nothing like PbtA moves, Fate's skills or aspects, or even something basic, like Burning Wheels' Dual of Wits. You couldn't play a good Game of Trones campaign with D&D IMO, for example. Or at least, that's not what it is designed to do. Should D&D have better social mechanics? And if so, what should they be like? That is the question I'm really trying to ask. Oh, and I'm talking about D&D 5E here.

Comments

  • Are you familiar with the traditional era of post-D&D adventure gaming? I'm particularly thinking of the kinds of games produced through the '90s, with rich and detailed settings and all sorts of unique crunch. Earthdawn, Exalted, that sort of thing?

    I'm asking because D&D has been changing, and it's not really showing any signs of stopping. By my count we have quite a few fundamentally distinct variations of D&D already:
    * There's original old school wargame D&D from the '70s...
    * And then there's stripped-down dungeoneering Basic D&D, tuned for self-contained simplicity, suitable for all ages...
    * And middle-school AD&D, Dragonlance and forwards, with their elaborate plotted campaigns and detailed settings...
    * And meanwhile D&D variants ranging from Palladium to Rolemaster, with massive rules proliferation intent on detailed simulation...
    * And then, come the '00s, 3rd edition D&D...
    * And OSR D&D, largely a return to the basics...
    * Followed by 4th edition, the first true miniatures skirmish fighting game in the franchise...
    * And finally 5th edition, which is really sort of peculiar in that it's just a redressed 3rd edition as far as I can see.

    Looking at it like this, I'd rather expect D&D to continue evolving into different things. Just about the only things that all these flavours have in common are having a GM, rolling d20s and D&D fantasy paraphilia.

    This being the context, do you know if D&D might already have the emotional depth you're looking for? It could, maybe you just never looked into the right flavour of it. Or maybe you've looked into the alternatives and know that they don't satisfy. That's why I'm interested - what do you think of Earthdawn? Is it anything like the kind of D&D you'd like to see? (I'm taking it as granted here that Earthdawn is essentially D&D in terms of heritage, structure and mechanical approach.)
  • D&D is what every table makes it. Murder hobos, or an amazing story with rich characters. Or something in between those extremes.

    Elves and dwarves, usually, but not necessary. Monsters optional. At the point you don't want anything Tolkien then you've got d20 options.

    My personal complaints about D&D come down to mechanics and structure of game (GURPS really caught my attention 15 years ago). Tank-like characters. Too much of the "effective" gameplay tied to using a toolbox of limited skills.

    5e did some good things to go back to simpler roots.

    @Jeff_Slater maybe you can play the occasional game to enjoy the nostalgia factor. To you it's not haute cuisine, but a little comfort food now and then isn't a bad thing. Maybe Mouseguard tonight will "scratch that itch." Who knows?

  • Maybe this is what Euro was getting at, but I think that it's impossible to have a fruitful discussion about "D&D" as if it's one giant thing. You have to pick an edition and talk about that, or you'll talk past other people who mean a different edition. You might even need to go further and talk about how you played that edition--particularly, in olden times, because there was so much table drift.
  • edited October 2017
    I think I haven't formulated my question very well, or been specific enough. I think maybe I made the question broader than it should be. I'm aware of D&D's history—I grew up playing Mentzer and AD&D 2E mostly. What I mean is this: D&D doesn't have good mechanics for social situations—there's nothing like PbtA moves, Fate's skills or aspects, or even something basic, like Burning Wheels' Dual of Wits. You couldn't play a good Game of Trones campaign with D&D IMO, for example. Or at least, that's not what it is designed to do. Should D&D have better social mechanics? And if so, what should they be like? That is the question I'm really trying to ask. Oh, and I'm talking about D&D 5E specifically.
  • To answer Jeff's question, yes! I hope D&D continues to change and "grow."

    I think a lot of people feel they've "outgrown" D&D because they started there and want something different. Something that might feel "more mature." I think it's just that you played too much of it and want something new, in both form and function.

    It's like pop music. The reason people get down on it is because it can be really repetitive due to overplay and sometimes (but definitely not always) it's simpler than other forms of music.

    In what direction are you looking for D&D to grow? For me, I want more interpersonal stuff built into the game. I want social systems that include factions. And yes, I've tried other systems that offer these things, like One Roll Engine or Burning Wheel, but I always come back to D&D, which seems to have bottled lightning somehow.
  • edited October 2017
    I'm personally pretty comfy with task-based social mechanics in D&D. I do my own thing in this regard, but e.g. the aforementioned Earthdawn does a pretty good job laying out that sort of thing. It's not dissimilar to how say WFRGP or Apocalypse World handle the issue.

    The other common variety of social mechanics in D&D is the top-down conflict resolution system from the original game, the so-called "reaction check". It fits the old school game very well, too, and can do some quite powerful things when you push it.

    What do you think of these kinds of mechanical systems for social situations in D&D, Jeff? Not dominant enough?

    It occurs to me that one should perhaps distinguish between the two issues of what kind of mechanics to use and how much of a social focus the game should have. As I see it, D&D tends to have minor focus on social drama, and some editions consequently have incomplete systems for handling social situations. Other editions have more complete and potentially powerful systems, but it is still somewhat exceptional for a campaign to have a social focus.

    Would you say that D&D doesn't have enough rules for social situations, or would you say that the game's contents, what with the dungeons and all, are unsatisfying in featuring too few social situations?

  • @Jeff_Slater maybe you can play the occasional game to enjoy the nostalgia factor. To you it's not haute cuisine, but a little comfort food now and then isn't a bad thing. Maybe Mouseguard tonight will "scratch that itch." Who knows?
    I think so, and MG might do the job :smile:
  • For me, I want more interpersonal stuff built into the game. I want social systems that include factions.
    Agreeed.
  • edited October 2017

    Would you say that D&D doesn't have enough rules for social situations, or would you say that the game's contents, what with the dungeons and all, are unsatisfying in featuring too few social situations?
    Good questions, Eero. I guess I would say that I want D&D to get out of the dungeon, but I want it to work in the dungeon still. I want it to be good at Game of Thrones and dungeon delving. I want my cake and to eat it to. I think that it doesn't have enough rules for social situations. Many who play D&D think: "I don't want rules for social situations; I want to roleplaying them." I don't want rules that get in the way of "roleplaying" social situations, but I want rules that give them tension and stakes. Think of what you could do with a couple of changes: drop the "read-mind" version of the "insight" check, (which is the worst part of the "social-rules"), instead use it to catch a subtle change in someone’s attitude and/or to notice a very subtly change in someone's intent and as GM telegraph this subtly through characterization; keep "deception" and "persuasion;" add "provoke" and "rapport." Give advantage and disadvantage when someone gains or losses social ground or positioning; for example, maybe a PC knows an area in which an NPC is emotionally vulnerable and cuts to the core of the NPC with a bit of cutting, but "good-natured," wit with a successful a "provoke" roll; the GM then gives the PC advantage on a "deception" roll as the PC pretends to be the NPC friend and empathize with them in order to gain information from them in their insecure and vulnerable state; when the roll succeededs the NPC spills the beans and tells the PC some major information they really shouldn't have. These are just quick thoughts about rule changes, so don't take them to seriously. But you get the idea.
  • What do you think about this theory:

    When we want D&D to be all things to all people, such as by wanting it "be good at Game of Thrones and dungeon delving", the desire is essentially tribal in nature: we want there to exist an umbrella rubric called "Dungeons & Dragons", under which everybody can play the game they want without having to say that they are doing something different from what somebody else does. We do not, however, actually want a single game. It is easy to see this to be the case when you remember that the game is what you actually do in play: if one person is doing Game of Thrones and another is doing dungeon delving, how precisely are they playing the same game? Seems to me that the unity is skin-deep at best at that point.

    The way to achieve this wide umbrella concept of D&D-for-all-people, it seems to me, is to be more liberal about what you call D&D. If you're willing to call Birthright or Planescape or Earthdawn or Exalted or Blue Rose "Dungeons & Dragons", then you're actually already there: you have D&D games that are specifically set out of the dungeon, often with explicit emphasis on social adventures, which is reflected in complex ways in the specifics of their rules systems.

    In a word, I'm not convinced that the thing you're imagining - an unitary D&D that is everything to everybody - is actually a coherent thing that could exist in the real world. Meanwhile, the other interpretation where we're satisfied with having a multitude of variations on the theme, something to every taste - that already exists, even if some of the variations aren't explicitly called D&D on the market. They're still D&D in terms of game design, though. It may help to refer to the genre as "fantasy adventure games" instead of "D&D", but either way, they're the sort of game you discuss in your first post: lots of options, high stakes dice rolls and all.
  • edited October 2017
    Eero, I agree with what you are saying on a whole and it does change my mind about some things I proposed above, like having my cake and eating it too. But think of what Birthright would be like with the small mechanical changes I've made above (assuming you are incorporating Birthright into the 5E version of D&D), or something akin to them. I think even if you just keep the plan old 5E version to dungeon delving and going to town (and maybe occasionally to an eleven forest), that the small changes I made above would make the game play better socially and on a whole. This would be done without trying to unify the themes of the two versions of D&D, etc (i.e. not trying to have my cake and eat it too). The social mechanics, as they are currently in 5E could be improved a lot with very little effort and modification and wouldn't change the essentially nature of the game. That said, I can't speak to Earthdawn or Exalted because I haven't read or played them, but I am familiar with the other 3 you mentioned. Do Earthdawn and Exalted have the elegance and intuitive nostalgic nature of the d20 roll—or something akin—as a central aspect, which I mentioned in an above post, as well as produce the outcomes the type of social mechanic adjustments I made above would? Because, while Birthright goes in the direction I'm outlining, it doesn't quite have the interpersonal social mechanics which would give the game the personal social depth, the emotional investment, tension and stakes—character to (non-playing) character—that the rule tweaks I outlined above would. It would be easy for me and others to design a personal remedy; it's not like these specific type of adjustments in D&D 5E would be super difficult with adequate playtesting and a little imagination. The question is more whether these type of changes would be helpful in the game, even the dungeon delving-ish version of the game? JTBC, I'm not disagreeing with you; I'm just putting it out there as an open question. I agree that you certainly don't want to try to design a game for everyone, and want to design the game specifically for a given audiences' tastes and needs. But would my social mechanics above, or something akin to them, also improve the game as it is? That is, plain old 5E, no bells and whistles.

  • Would you say that D&D doesn't have enough rules for social situations, or would you say that the game's contents, what with the dungeons and all, are unsatisfying in featuring too few social situations?
    Good questions, Eero. I guess I would say that I want D&D to get out of the dungeon, but I want it to work in the dungeon still. I want it to be good at Game of Thrones and dungeon delving. I want my cake and to eat it to. I think that it doesn't have enough rules for social situations. Many who play D&D think: "I don't want rules for social situations; I want to roleplaying them." I don't want rules that get in the way of "roleplaying" social situations, but I want rules that give them tension and stakes. Think of what you could do with a couple of changes: drop the "read-mind" version of the "insight" check, (which is the worst part of the "social-rules"), instead use it to catch a subtle change in someone’s attitude and/or to notice a very subtly change in someone's intent and as GM telegraph this subtly through characterization; keep "deception" and "persuasion;" add "provoke" and "rapport." Give advantage and disadvantage when someone gains or losses social ground or positioning; for example, maybe a PC knows an area in which an NPC is emotionally vulnerable and cuts to the core of the NPC with a bit of cutting, but "good-natured," wit with a successful a "provoke" roll; the GM then gives the PC advantage on a "deception" roll as the PC pretends to be the NPC friend and empathize with them in order to gain information from them in their insecure and vulnerable state; when the roll succeededs the NPC spills the beans and tells the PC some major information they really shouldn't have. These are just quick thoughts about rule changes, so don't take them to seriously. But you get the idea.
    I think you just answered your own question.
  • I think you'd find Earthdawn interesting in this context, yes. Exalted is probably too deviant from D&D mechanically to really relate to straightforwardly, even if I personally consider it related in a wider sense.

    Personally I'm a bit skeptical about any minor fine-tuning achieving objective improvement of the game. I totally think that a bluntly honed one-size-fits-all game like D&D 5th edition is greatly improved by personalized tweaking, particularly as D&D's historical design chassis relies on precisely that; however, I think that this has less to do with making the game more perfect, and more to do with making it more suited to your specific needs.

    I mean, I play my own highly idiosyncratic version of D&D, but I don't think that it's somehow objectively mechanically superior to every other version out there. It just happens to address the issues I find pertinent. It fits better, but it's not better overall, just different.

    Considering the specific case of 5th edition D&D: my experience with the game and the cultural mainstream associated with it indicates that the game's mostly played either in adventure path format (that is, GM-created railroaded story plotlines reminiscent of middle school D&D), or as a charop skirmish combat exercise (essentially a string of GM-designed combat encounters, with great focus on encounter balance and fair dicing). In this context I do not think that more in-depth social rules would really improve the game for most people. Doesn't mean that it's not the right call for you, but I'm not seeing a wider need for it.

    Specifically, more mechanized social rules fuck up both of those playstyles in non-productive ways: for adventure path play you want the GM to be essentially in control of the plot, which largely means being in control of the social encounters. It's already enough challenge to "herd the players" when they're in control of how their own characters react; it would be much worse if the players had some genuine leverage in determining who likes whom and so forth. Similarly the charop playstyle familiar from 3rd edition has never been truly comfortable with diplomancy (the practice of avoiding combat by social hacking), because it sidesteps the entire core of the game; a player focusing their charop in social skills is essentially doing their best to avoid playing the game.

    Of course the two playstyles I consider above are not nearly the only ones you can use D&D for; fifth edition particularly is rather non-committal. They are, however, the kinds of game that all my 5th edition playing friends and acquaintances like to play. The ones who want more character drama and such rather gravitate towards games like Dungeon World or The Shadow of Yesterday - fantasy adventure games built from the ground up to be "D&D with dramatic social situations".
  • edited October 2017
    I think you just answered your own question.
    I'm not sure I did; however, I might not be understanding what you specifically mean by your response. I'm not asking is there is a way to for me to design a solution, or how to design a solution, in regards to the social-rules issues I'm raising. The question is whether others think that the social rules should be changed, how they are lacking and how others would like to see them changed, and whether it is a good idea to do so?

    A related question might be: would my social mechanics above, or something akin to them, improve the game as it is—that is, plain old 5E—no bells and whistles, while keeping its intrinsic nature intact?
  • edited October 2017

    Of course the two playstyles I consider above are not nearly the only ones you can use D&D for; fifth edition particularly is rather non-committal. They are, however, the kinds of game that all my 5th edition playing friends and acquaintances like to play. The ones who want more character drama and such rather gravitate towards games like Dungeon World or The Shadow of Yesterday - fantasy adventure games built from the ground up to be "D&D with dramatic social situations".
    I think you make very compelling points, Eero, on all fronts. I'm not sure that a GM couldn't fairly easily make adjustments and improvisations and incorporate most elements of a compartmentalized yet overarching plot, most of the time—you probably agree with that though. Perhaps, this view is off the mark for the majority though, and comes from me playing a lot of GMless improv-style, collaborative Story Games, so I'm accustomed to this style of play and have less recent experience with GMed games.

    You're right, making something objectively better is a high bar (made impossible because of the subjective nature of taste in art) and maybe the question would be instead whether the game would be improved, in terms of the overall preference of the majority of players and the nature and goals of the game, if the next edition took a step in this direction. For me at least, most of the changes that were made in 5E vastly improved the game; it is my favorite edition, and 3E through 3.75E (i.e. PF) are my least favorite—so obviously, the divide among edition preferences, points to the fact that one would never be able to please everyone with whatever changes were made to a new edition.

    I think that something like Duhngeon World might be an answer, until I finish my own GoT-ish RPG, which will take some time; I'm primarily working on my GMless collaborative Story Game (i.e. House of Spiders) that has a somewhat similar setting and themes but which plays completely differently and has radically different goals and approaches, so it will probably be years until I get to work more on my GMed game. BTW, does combat in Dungeon World have the tension and stakes that 5E has? I've only played it a couple times and I wasn't the MC. It seems to me that PbtA games often don't have the risk and potential lethality that 5E does—unless the MC gives extra harm because of the given narrative context (i.e. you position your character in such a way that the MC has a dragon step on you and awards extra harm accordingly-ish, in a subjective way)—that combat is more of a means to an end in PbtA games rather than a real threat or central aim. I've never played the Shadow of Yesterday, but I own it, so I'll be taking a look at it. Starting from the ground up, with your very own Soler System might be an even better option. I'm also incredibly interested and excited about The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power, and I'm anxiously awaiting its full release—I really hope others feel the same way because I think SCUP has the potential to do some novel and amazing things. Anyway, I've rambled enough. :smile:

    Who knows, maybe I'm not looking for D&D after all, maybe it's just the nostalgia and tight, objective rules of the system, and personal investment that resultes from being invested in your character and the risk and stakes involved, that seem appealing after playing so many slippery, narrativist, story-centered games for so long. I'm playing Mouseguard tonight so maybe that will scratch the itch. I hope somebody got something from this discussion; it seems to have turned into a discussion about a personal gaming issue rather than a larger more relevant one. :frowning: Anyhow...Here's to diversity in gaming!!! It's really awesome to have so many options and flavors, from the classics of the past to the Cambrian explosion that came out of the indie scene! Thanks for the feedback everyone! :smile:
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