D&D General What I've learned as a game designer and an artist.

I've been doing amateur (and professional) game design for 8 years now. In those eight years, I've consumed a lot. Much of what I've consumed has been paradigms from many different parts of the community, from OSR to narrative to vanilla 5E and beyond, across many, many games. Many of these paradigms I've relied on for my game design...

...Until this year, when I realized these paradigms were holding me back.

It's always important to "know the rules" in any artform. Rules are created and agreed on for a reason — but no rule is ever iron clad, at least in the realm of the arts. And relying on rules for too long leads to truisms which minimizes innovation while promoting narrowminded thinking for designs.
This isn't to say relying on these truisms has only hindered me. The paradigms I've clung too for a long time gave me the structure I needed at the time to polish my skills and refine my eye. But now, I think, the time has come where I and a lot of other RPG creators maybe should consider pissing on this same structure and disentangling ourselves from the perceptions of the past.

Let me give some examples for clarity.

I believed for a long time that a D&D world or D&D-based game had to feel like D&D, and that if it doesn't feel like D&D then I should just make something else. Turns out, that's naughty word. D&D as an inherent concept does have its own associated schemas, this is true, but building around, modifying, or ignoring those schemas does not inherently mean you need a new ruleset — it means you need to innovate on YOUR schemas to better realize your vision.

People say things commonly like D&D is only good for combat, killing monsters, gathering loot, etc. But the tools we are given are only limited by the attitudes guiding us in their use. A game having a huge combat engine and a scant exploration engine does not inherently mean that game can't be used for fun exploration. Likewise, just because Blades in the Dark is meant to provide fast, exciting, low-prep heists doesn't mean a game like D&D also cannot be used to play a variant heist game.

The common arguments are things like, you need rules for this, there's no procedures for that, there's no guidance on how to execute a thing. And it's true that many times creating may fall towards you. But at the same time, the existence of rules doesn't always indicate how those rules can be used. Impromptu, I know I can run a heist game out of the box with vanilla D&D because the primary thing that separates TTRPGs from other game entertainment is the existence of diegetic resources.

The narrative world created in a TTRPG is not bound by the rules you use to abstract certain elements of it. A certain common sense floats in but gets ignored in conversations all the time. If a game lists out resources like rope, tacks, tents, bags, clothing, and so on, but provides no rules for those things, many people act as if those things shouldn't exist. They don't see an easy way to engage with them, and so, they just don't engage with them.

But my opinion is that this is a result of cultural inertia that should be thrown away. If a game tells me that my druid can wildshape two times per day, and that there are more druids in the world, then the human applications of that arcane technology are far greater than what any rules system could tell me. This applies to everything big and small, from rope to +3 magic swords to class features and beyond. With four druids in a party, you could run an insane heist game, avoiding all combat if you wanted, exploring the world with your wild shapes and your natural spells and experimenting with the uses and interactions with things around you.

This presents an immediate counterpoint: the GM now has the burden of thinking up these interactions, and without proper resources, might not be able to. But is that not the purpose of the game? To come up with creative interactions, to revise them since everything we're doing is impromptu anyway, to explore them and then choose new directions based on the desires and tastes of the table? In other words, the GM has to come up with what happens when you wildshape into a roach to crawl through a microscopic crack into the bank vault, but that's part of the fun. That's where the real adventure, or campaign, or story, or drama starts: when a character exploits something to achieve a want or desire while overcoming a limitation.

Through this lens, I feel free. While 5E is my chosen tool for game design-related expression, I realize that I have a whole world of mechanics in other RPGs that I can play with too, and use to create the experience at MY table or in MY books that I want to create. It doesn't need to feel like D&D, it doesn't have to be a combat simulator if I don't want it to be, and I am empowered, as the players who engage with my material are, to draw on not just the mechanical implications of the rules, but the diegetic implications deconstructed from the artifacts, images, and ideas presented in our shared narrative world.
To this, many will also speak on balance and so on. This is a fair and legitimate concern. However, to me, balance is achieved not through highly calculated math (which, again, is totally valid if you prefer that), but balance is achieved when everyone at the table feels they have had a significant input to the events of the game. Balance exists when a scene rolls around and everyone can find something to do instead of sitting back and just listening.

This isn't to speak to broken mechanics in games, or things that are so overpowered they can't be ignored. Those problems crop up, and it can be frustrating if they ruin what would have been a key experience. But learning from these "failures" allows us to see how to make changes outside mechanical paradigms. If a spell is too strong or a narrative feature too potent, manipulating it, exploring its exploitations, and factoring the existence of something so insane into the story can create situations that narratively nerfs the overpowered mechanic.

If the world is populated with 5th level wizards, fireball is scary. But systems will be in place by the world to minimize situations in which fireball can be used for sudden terrorism. These systems may not always be what you first expect. Maybe not guards or a task force; maybe those seeking revenge, maybe curses that come from those unjustly killed, maybe too much reputation that derails your goals and so forces you to make a hard choice about how you want to progress forward.

And nerfing the thing is ok too. I will never say it isn't. But all too often does the fear of something being broken in a white room become a chain that holds back otherwise engaging narrative. And this chain, just like many others (traps are always adversarial; defined spells don't feel like real magic ; combat has to be mathematically predictable) ceases to have a valid function for artists who progress beyond their amateur beginnings (which we all experience).

Also, a note on rules and the amateur artist and the artist who has found their voice.

It's important to have rules when you're an amateur artist. They give you structure to explore your own talents while polishing your skills. But rules hearkened to too closely become incorrect guidance once you've discovered your real voice. At the end of the day, all art is an attempt to communicate ideas, emotions, and information to other people in such a way that they are enriched by it.

To that end, anything, be it a story, a dance, a painting, has its quality dictated not by the rules firmly used to create it but by the quality of the artist's tastes and the precision of their vision. These two metrics are as subjective as they are objective. Tastes is more subjective than objective, precision the opposite. Once you have an eye for art, especially if you specialize that eye, you can pretty quickly tell if something was made with fresh tastes and precise vision or not. This doesn't mean you'll like the thing, it only means that you can respect it.

People often think that art is purely subjective, which is half-true. What you think is "good art" speaks to both your own tastes, experiences, and what you think is true about reality. However, objectively good art only needs the aforementioned criteria (fresh tastes, precise vision).

This levels the playing field between arts. A pulp novel vs a literary novel is not a comparison in quality (though, due to other factors, it often can be) but instead a comparison of what you're looking for out of art. In other words, not everything has to be a clean dive into the human condition; sometimes, that "pointless violence" you see can be deconstructed and indeed says something just as valid about the world, just indirectly.

So, voice. Once you have discovered your first voice (and it will change, morph, and evolve over time), you have entered into a stage of experimentation. You cannot know what your voice can truly create until you start pushing back against the rules you relied on for so long. Ideas like "show don't tell" and "always have a strong leading hook" and "you must have clear resolution at the story's end" are in fact walls that prevent true artistic innovation. That doesn't mean these ideas don't have a place, or are inherently wrong. However, art is a high-level form of abstract communication. When your tastes are fresh and your vision precise, you no longer need the crutches that are these rules to communicate something engaging to your audience.

Be it a book, a game, a painting, an installation, etc, the act of communication is all that you're doing. And even then, you can choose to communicate unclearly (ala old Modernist tendencies) and still that communicates something engaging to your audience.

If you're a fan of the arts or an artist yourself of any stripe (which all of us are here), I encourage you to ruminate on some of this. It's ok to keep rules for yourself, and it's ok to still use rules at any level of artistic creation, but realize that you have the freedom needed to do what you want, and to do it well regardless of what common wisdom says.

This has been a long rant that I'm not sure many will find interest in, but I hope it is encouraging to some of you and, at the very least, gives you some food for thought.
 

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