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D&D 5E D&D is Not RAW: The Importance of Custom, Culture, and Mods in 5e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is a topic that I've been noodling about with for a while, and most recently I've been thinking about it because of a particular quote in another thread-
Other games do that. D&D doesn't. Could you houserule D&D to be like that? Sure. But it wouldn't be D&D anymore, so why? Just play that other game.

Weirdly, I've seen this exact sentiment from two different groups of people-
A. Those who are attempting to "defend" whatever they believe D&D to be from those that would alter or change it; and
B. Those who don't play D&D (5e), don't believe in "Big Tent" games (or think they are incoherent or something), and think you should just play some other game.

I've written a few posts, previously, that are related to this topic, and they might be helpful in understanding this essay. But it's not required reading, and ... well, it's not like you're going to follow the links. :)

Why 5e is Like the Cheesecake Factory- "Good Enough" Wins Out
D&D, and 5e, is Both a Ruleset and a Curated Hobby

The purpose of this essay is to really examine why 5e functions in a manner that is dissimilar to many other TTRPGs (hereafter, "RPGs"), and why the various mantras about RAW are not an applicable to 5e as they might be to other RPGs.


1. The single biggest problem in communication on the internet is the illusion that it has taken place.

The most fundamental advantage that 5e has over all other RPGs is its ubiquity combined with its history. D&D has always dominated the RPG sector; 5e is currently dominating the RPG sector; the dominance of 5e (and the audience for 5e) means that when people livestream on twitch, have videos on youtube, create 3PP, they will most likely be creating for the market leader- D&D. And when potential new players are hobnobbing around the internet, they are most likely to encounter 5e. Older DMs (and players) who played previous editions and want to start up again will most likely re-enter the hobby through 5e. And so on. All of these inherent advantages tend to build on each other.

This ubiquity comes with a major advantage for an RPG- learning how to play. D&D is not the most beginner-friendly game out there. But D&D does have, by far, the largest community. Once you have become steeped in "D&Disms," it is often difficult to remember just how weird they are to a new player. For that matter, unless you have watched a group of completely new players and a new DM struggle to have a game recently, you won't recall how unnatural some aspects of RPGs can be.

This came up in a conversation on another thread; one poster mentioned the inherent superiority of Cthulhu Dark, which is a lite, two-page rule system. It is certainly an elegant set of rules, but for it to work, it presupposes a number of things- that the table (the whole table) have a working knowledge of the Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos, that everyone at the table is familiar with RPGs and how they work, and that everyone at the table have a level of comfort with a specific type of narrative-oriented RPG. It's similar to the classic Mitchell & Webb Kitchen Nightmares skit (caution, NSFW language) - the reason the kitchen is failing is because the chef isn't Gordon Ramsay and doesn't have that knowledge.

5e has the inherent benefit- despite being occasionally clunky, and more complicated, and weird at times ... there are so many places and ways to learn how to play it (both in-person and on-line) that any difficulties are overwhelmed by scale.


2. We didn't stop playing D&D because we grew old; we grew old because we stopped playing D&D.

D&D has never been a static thing, or "RAW." Famously, OD&D is practically impossible to play "RAW." It required a hobbyist's sensibility, a background in the hobby, keeping up with The Strategic Review (and later Dragon Magazine) and a large amount of DIY. This trend continued on - here's the thing- if you ask five different grognards how AD&D was played, you will get seven different versions. If you haven't before, I recommend viewing the ADDICT (available here, among other places) by DMPrata, showing just how convoluted the rules were.

Arguably, 3e and 4e in different ways attempted to make the game more "RAW" friendly, but even there, the influence of the original game- of homebrewed settings, of new classes, of creation; it was always there. There has always been a culture of hobbyist playing D&D, of altering D&D, of extending D&D, of curtailing D&D, of adapting other rules into D&D, of bending D&D to different playstyles. Nothing was proscribed; from the beginning through today, there remain schisms in D&D on such fundamental playing issues such as "ToTM or Minis."

It's at this point that I think it's helpful to briefly address the most common argumentative digression people have when it comes to playing RAW (or not); on the one hand, "But Rule 0," on the other hand, "But Oberoni fallacy." To be blunt, these are both orthogonal to the point I am making- no one should be in favor of releasing obviously broken rules, instead I am saying (as I get into more fully in the next section) that D&D generally, and 5e specifically, invites a departure from RAW; more than any other RPG, it invites this type of rule experimentation.


3. I have learned from experience that no one ever learns anything from experience.

In certain high-falutin' circles, there is a conceptual difference between power control and conduct control. Power control is achieved those mandatory rules enforced by law, while conduct control is achieved by mandatory norms. Or, to make it more concrete- power control is a judge sentencing you to 30 days in the pokey for urinating in your neighbor's pool every night because you don't like the fact that he is blaring Bon Jovi during the day; conduct control is your friends shunning you because you think that personal hygiene is overrated.

Put into RPG terms, RAW is power control, while the norms that govern how a game operates that aren't written down are conduct control. In order to move this from the high-falutin' language, let's use the terms "Rules" and "Norms" instead.

There are a lot of norms when it comes to RPGs that we take for granted, that are unexamined. In order to discuss them, it's helpful to differentiate them into three categories:

A. Social norms. Social norms are the general norms that we have that govern how we interact as a group; they aren't specific to RPGs, but they are the social grease of any social situation. Since RPGs are inherently a social game, these always apply. This would be simple things like, "Don't commit to playing and not show up." Or, "Remember to wear pants."

B. RPG-specific norms. These are the norms that apply specifically to RPGs in general and are not codified into any ruleset. "Don't hog the spotlight" is a useful one, and there are certainly additional norms regarding when to speak etc. that are generally applicable in different RPGs.

C. Game-specific norms "GSN". The GSN are, arguably, the most interesting ones. Mostly because very few games have them.

And this is where we get to D&D. Imagine you are writing a brand-new game from scratch. One thing you would have to do is to make sure that you make the RAW define the game. You can depend on social and RPG-specific norms, but there won't be any GSN.

Meanwhile, a core aspect of D&D, a GSN, is that the game itself is hackable- it's DIY. But not just on the "lore" or "narrative" level. To be clear- there are a lot of very good games that invite table to create their own stories through excellent rules; but D&D is one of the few games that consistently invites tables to change the rules of the game.

I want to really underscore this last point- there are three core books in 5e- the PHB, the MM, and the DMG. If you read the DMG, it is basically a compendium of optional rules and ways to change the system. In addition, D&D has not only published consistent rules expansions (as are expected), but hosts a website for the publication of additional self-published rules ... in addition to all the homebrew that is out there.


And from this observation, I circle all the way back to the original quote:
Other games do that. D&D doesn't. Could you houserule D&D to be like that? Sure. But it wouldn't be D&D anymore, so why? Just play that other game.

The essential nature of D&D is that D&D is a game that is houseruled. There is nothing that is "more D&D" than a houseruled version. D&D doesn't just expect that you alter it- D&D DEMANDS IT.

In fact, I would say that the only game of D&D that isn't very D&D is a game that is entirely RAW.
 

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loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
Ah, I expected more funny jokes. You are getting older, Snarf.

It's at this point that I think it's helpful to briefly address the most common argumentative digression people have when it comes to playing RAW (or not); on the one hand, "But Rule 0," on the other hand, "But Oberoni fallacy." To be blunt, these are both orthogonal to the point I am making- no one should be in favor of releasing obviously broken rules, instead I am saying (as I get into more fully in the next section) that D&D generally, and 5e specifically, invites a departure from RAW; more than any other RPG, it invites this type of rule experimentation.
While I understand your point, I don't think I really agree.

D&D generally sure invites rule experimentation, mostly due to the fact that all TSR-era editions are convoluted messes that require some amount of tinkering to actually boot up, I don't think that 5e really invites rule experimentation. I mean, despite all that optional rules and stuff, in order to accomplish any actual design work, you need to decipher the designer's intention first, and then somehow figure out how to adapt the rules to your goal, and there's barely any clarifications on why certain decisions were made. Combine that with a lack of clear stated focus, and what you get is people blindly copying (when they decide to create a system from scratch) or blindly retaining (when they hack the living crap out of it) D&D stuff that they don't really need.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Ah, I expected more funny jokes. You are getting older, Snarf.

And not wiser.

At this point, the only thing I have to look forward to is the sweet release of death. Was that morbid? Sorry, the "sweet release of death" is actually what the kids are calling the senior's menu at Denny's.


While I understand your point, I don't think I really agree.

D&D generally sure invites rule experimentation, mostly due to the fact that all TSR-era editions are convoluted messes that require some amount of tinkering to actually boot up, I don't think that 5e really invites rule experimentation. I mean, despite all that optional rules and stuff, in order to accomplish any actual design work, you need to decipher the designer's intention first, and then somehow figure out how to adapt the rules to your goal, and there's barely any clarifications on why certain decisions were made. Combine that with a lack of clear stated focus, and what you get is people blindly copying (when they decide to create a system from scratch) or blindly retaining (when they hack the living crap out of it) D&D stuff that they don't really need.

I'm going to disagree with this. What you are saying is that, because the original designer's intention is hard to decipher, you would say that it is hard to design well for the system.

That's a very different statement than whether or not the system invites houserules and experimentation.


Your statement may (or may not!) be true, but it's orthogonal to whether or not 5e invites houserules and experimentation.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
D&D has always been a toolbox for me to share my love of fantasy with my friends.

While I've had bouts where I cared about the rules too much (cough*3E*cough), what is important to me is the fantastic nature of a world of monsters and magic. Hacking that system to make it easier to present the fiction I want to see is a no-brainer to me, and the rules are just a way to reign in the "I shot you", "Nuh-Uh", "Yeeah" aspect of the experience.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
I'm going to disagree with this. What you are saying is that, because the original designer's intention is hard to decipher, you would say that it is hard to design well for the system.

That's a very different statement than whether or not the system invites houserules and experimentation.


Your statement may (or may not!) be true, but it's orthogonal to whether or not 5e invites houserules and experimentation.
I don't know. Maybe I'm just that snobby know-it-all, but I don't really feel that "oh my God this game structure can really well work for emulating that superhero cartoon for kids I love for some reason" or "Cthulhu fhtagn! This game just begs to be hacked for lovecraftian horror!" when I look at big midschool ruleset without a clearly stated purpose, my first thought would be "ok, maybe I can use it to run a spaghetti western, I guess, if I figure out a way to put six-shooters in it..."

And judging by the perceived (and totally anecdotal) rules modification to setting/flavour modification ratio, I'm not entirely alone.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't know. Maybe I'm just that snobby know-it-all, but I don't really feel that "oh my God this game structure can really well work for emulating a superhero kid cartoon I love for some reason" or "Cthulhu fhtagn! This game just begs to be hacked for lovecraftian horror!" when I look at big midschool ruleset without a clearly stated purpose, my first thought would be "ok, maybe I can use it to run a spaghetti western, I guess, if I figure out a way to put six-shooters in it..."

And judging by the perceived (and totally anecdotal) rules modification to setting/flavour modification ratio, I'm not entirely alone.

I would note that judging by that actual quantity of rules modifications for 5e as compared to any other game ... then yes, 5e is quite distinctive in its invitation for rules modifications.

And the amount of published rules modifications is only the tip of the iceberg; I have yet to see a D&D campaign that does not have some rules modification, however minor, in play.

This is all in contrast to other RPGs that do not feature mods as a matter of course.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I am saying (as I get into more fully in the next section) that D&D generally, and 5e specifically, invites a departure from RAW; more than any other RPG, it invites this type of rule experimentation.
This is simply incorrect. It may be more so that some other RPGs, but any other RPG is patently wrong. I've only played a small subset of all pen and paper RPGs (D&D b/x, 2nd, 3.x, SAGA, archer, pathfinder 1e, a bit of 4e, 5e; warhammer frpg 2nd ed, Hero 5e, Exalted 2nd and 3e, Gurps, Traveler, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Troika!, the GLOG, others I forget probably) and even that very modest sampling has shown me games with way more rule experimentation than 5e.

Heck, when we were 12 and playing our first rpg ever (Advanced Fighting Fantasy), we were making houserules...
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
I would note that judging by that actual quantity of rules modifications for 5e as compared to any other game ... then yes, 5e is quite distinctive in its invitation for rules modifications.
I kinda have a feeling that there are at least the same amount of AW hacks as there are 5E hacks... But that's not really important.

And the amount of published rules modifications is only the tip of the iceberg; I have yet to see a D&D campaign that does not have some rules modification, however minor, in play.
Ok, I got you. With "however minor" clarification, I totally agree with your point. I would say, though, that (probably) the most common kind of rulings and rules modifications, "this rule doesn't make sense, so I'll change/ignore it" doesn't happen in fiction-first games at all, so there's that -- and in that regard, D&D is not that different from other old and midschool games, other than the size of its community. I've yet to see someone playing Dark Heresy or Savage Worlds RAW. The only rules-first game I've ever seen played without houserules is GURPS, and GURPS fans are crazy.

On the whole, I'd say that systems with a clear stated focus invite a different kind of modification. Midschool rules-first systems beg to be tinkered with, newschool artsy-pantsy focused games beg to be smashed to pieces and rebuilt a new.
 
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Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
And that is why now mostly buy RPGs that have a setting included and a specific style of play I want to try with my players. I'm tired of playing around with the D&D 5e toolbox or Fantasy AGE, which also invites a lot of "make your own modifications" to the system to fit your need. It's not only D&D.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
This is a topic that I've been noodling about with for a while, and most recently I've been thinking about it because of a particular quote in another thread-
Other games do that. D&D doesn't. Could you houserule D&D to be like that? Sure. But it wouldn't be D&D anymore, so why? Just play that other game.

Weirdly, I've seen this exact sentiment from two different groups of people-
A. Those who are attempting to "defend" whatever they believe D&D to be from those that would alter or change it; and
B. Those who don't play D&D (5e), don't believe in "Big Tent" games (or think they are incoherent or something), and think you should just play some other game.

C. Those who think the particular thing you are looking for is awkward in the D&D frame, and you'd actually have more fun if you did it in a different ruleset.

You can believe in a "Big Tent" while still realizing that the tent is large, but still a tent, and that the person's stated needs would be better filled by a room at the local B&B than the tent.
 

J.Quondam

90% grunts. 10% thews.
And that is why now mostly buy RPGs that have a setting included and a specific style of play I want to try with my players. I'm tired of playing around with the D&D 5e toolbox or Fantasy AGE, which also invites a lot of "make your own modifications" to the system to fit your need. It's not only D&D.
I used to be a staunch "system doesn't matter!" person, but I've evolved toward setting-specific systems, too.
The main thing lacking with those RPGs, though, is that they rarely if ever include interested players in the box. :cautious:
 

Imaro

Hero
This is simply incorrect. It may be more so that some other RPGs, but any other RPG is patently wrong. I've only played a small subset of all pen and paper RPGs (D&D b/x, 2nd, 3.x, SAGA, archer, pathfinder 1e, a bit of 4e, 5e; warhammer frpg 2nd ed, Hero 5e, Exalted 2nd and 3e, Gurps, Traveler, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Troika!, the GLOG, others I forget probably) and even that very modest sampling has shown me games with way more rule experimentation than 5e.

Heck, when we were 12 and playing our first rpg ever (Advanced Fighting Fantasy), we were making houserules...
Wouldn't the pure number of 5e D&D players/GM's make comparisons to other games kind of pointless? I mean your anecdotal evidence could be right but the number of those playing and running 5e currently would probably make it highly likely your evidence is wrong.
 


Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
I used to be a staunch "system doesn't matter!" person, but I've evolved toward setting-specific systems, too.
The main thing lacking with those RPGs, though, is that they rarely if ever include interested players in the box. :cautious:
I've had to problem too but now I have a group that is anything but D&D!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
C. Those who think the particular thing you are looking for is awkward in the D&D frame, and you'd actually have more fun if you did it in a different ruleset.

You can believe in a "Big Tent" while still realizing that the tent is large, but still a tent, and that the person's stated needs would be better filled by a room at the local B&B than the tent.

I think you missed the point of why I used that quote.

Instead of Snarf-splaining it to you again, and causing a cycle of Umbran-response, I will simply pull out the most relevant portion which was why I found it interesting, and why it is unrelated to what you responded.

But it wouldn't be D&D anymore
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think you missed the point of why I used that quote.
...
But it wouldn't be D&D anymore
[/QUOTE]

No, I got the point quite well, thank you. I am in no way, shape, or form a purist. It is not for sake of it "not being D&D anymore" that I'd make such a recommendation. I don't care if a ruleset is or is not D&D - that's gatekeeping nonsense, as far as I am concerned.

I care if a ruleset operates well and elegantly at whatever it is doing. That's what will have impact on the play experience. The question is not " is it still D&D". The question is "does it achieve the goal with a goodly level of mechanical aplomb".

To prove the point - historically, a lot of D&D doesn't operate well or elegantly, and these days I'd not recommend, say, 1e or 2e except as curiosities, though they are very much D&D, without question in my mind.
 


Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Wouldn't the pure number of 5e D&D players/GM's make comparisons to other games kind of pointless? I mean your anecdotal evidence could be right but the number of those playing and running 5e currently would probably make it highly likely your evidence is wrong.
oooof.

I think you really misunderstood here, or made an error in logic.

The OP said "5e, more than any other RPG". They are the one who brought up 5e vs other games. So if you think comparting 5e to other games is pointless, talk to the OP, not me!

Second, the high number of people playing 5e is not fundamentally linked to 5e being more, or less, hackable than other rule systems. It's like if I had said "Elephants are the biggest land mammal" and you answered "but there are way more rats than elephants on earth, therefore you are probably wrong". It's a non sequitur. Maybe I'm wrong about elephants being the biggest, but the number of rats is not a valid argument.

It doesn't matter if 5e has 1000 times the amount of players than the GLOG, the GLOG gaming culture is all about rule hacking.
 

The closest thing you will ever get to playing RAW 5E D&D is Adventurer's League, and even that has some official house rules.

And other concepts work well with 5E, just not with RAW 5E. 5E OGL games like Esper Genesis and Adventures in Middle-Earth prove that you can take RAW 5E, "house rule" it, and turn it into a new RAW set of rules. Another doing this, that I am very much looking forward to, is the 5E OGL version of the Victoriana setting and system.

So who knows, maybe that oddball idea someone has, and is told it is not D&D, may already exist out there in an OGL rules set.
 

Imaro

Hero
oooof.

I think you really misunderstood here, or made an error in logic.

The OP said "5e, more than any other RPG". They are the one who brought up 5e vs other games. So if you think comparting 5e to other games is pointless, talk to the OP, not me!

Second, the high number of people playing 5e is not fundamentally linked to 5e being more, or less, hackable than other rule systems. It's like if I had said "Elephants are the biggest land mammal" and you answered "but there are way more rats than elephants on earth, therefore you are probably wrong". It's a non sequitur. Maybe I'm wrong about elephants being the biggest, but the number of rats is not a valid argument.

It doesn't matter if 5e has 1000 times the amount of players than the GLOG, the GLOG gaming culture is all about rule hacking.

He didn't say it was more or less hackable he said it invites a departure from RAW more than any other game... I took that to mean it has more people departing from RAW than any other game (Whether it is more or less hackable than game X is irrelevant)... this means the more people playing a game the more departures from RAW it tends to have, and D&D has multitudes more playing (and hacking) it's rules than any other game.
 

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