I chuckled a bit as I sat in C219, a spacious room with wheeled rectangular tables easily rearranged for myriad purposes. I laughed because I was eavesdropping on a few noobs (and I used the term with much endearment) attempting to create characters for a D&D game. They had a copy of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, but as far as I could tell, none of them (including the DM) had actually read it at all.
It was another typical meeting of the Delaware Technical Community College Game Club, of which I am the faculty advisor. I sat at a computer, getting work done, occasionally chatting with students or taking a break to play something quick and easy. They arranged the room to their liking and played anything from Magic to Monopoly (Actually, they’ve been playing the new card game version of Monopoly, which strikes me as infinitely superior to the original for one simple reason: IT DOESN’T TAKE TEN FRIGGIN’ HOURS TO PLAY!!! ).
And today, a small pocket of students who had been murmuring for weeks about wanting to start up a D&D game was finally doing something about it.
I chuckled once more as one of them shuffled over to me with another question about the rules. “No,” I responded, “Your hit die isn’t used when you try to hit things.”
Eventually, they figured it all out. Well, at least one of them did, because he came over to tell me all about the sorcerer he had created (Remember back when you were young and naive and thought everyone wanted to know about your character?).
This gentleman was very excited to discover in particular that his cantrips could be used at-will (a nice feature of 5e, I might add). And, he made sure to tell me his reasoning for every single spell choice he had agonized over. Mending in case an ally’s weapon was broken, Prestidigitation to put out enemy fires, Firebolt to light enemies on fire, and Ray of Frost to shoot at a foe’s feet and make them slip.
I thought that last one was pretty cool, actually. It showed some creative thinking and an interest in something other than just dishing out damage. But, I didn’t want to break this budding sorcerer’s heart by pointing out to him that “Well, in fact, the spell description indicates that Ray of Frost does 1d8 damage and slows the target by 10 feet. It doesn’t have the ability to knock targets prone.”
That was the moment when I realized that D&D probably isn’t a good first time RPG for new gamers.
Don’t get me wrong, I love D&D (Except perhaps, for the black spot in its history known as 4th edition). I grew up with Dungeons & Dragons and have many fond memories gathered around my giant green plywood table involving a bit of teenage angst, a ton of dice, and way too much Dr. Pepper. But, as fun as D&D is, I don’t think it’s particularly well-built to tell stories.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t tell a good story with D&D. I’ve told plenty as both a GM and a player. What I’m saying is that the game has inherent design features that make telling a good story more difficult. The rules get in the way of the story.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of example, that those determined noobs eventually finished creating their characters and sat down to play some D&D. Perhaps our intrepid sorcerer finds himself in a situation with a crazed orc charging at him down a flight of stairs.
The sorcerer, who planned just for this moment, tells the GM “I cast Ray of Frost at the steps in front of the orc to get him to slip down the stairs.” The GM flips through the only copy of the PHB at the table, looks up the spell description, and explains to the sorcerer why he can’t do that. So, the crestfallen mageling just rolls his 1d8 damage and hopes the 10 feet of reduced movement is enough to save him from that looming great axe.
An epic, clever, story-driven moment dissolves into a boring exchange of damage because of the rules.
Now, certainly, one might argue that any decent GM would reward the player’s cleverness with a bit of slack on the rules. However, the game master shouldn’t have to “cheat” the system in order to make the game fun. Doing so places an unfair burden on the GM to remember every ad hoc ruling he’s ever made so that he can be fair towards all players and run a consistent game.
My heart went out to that young, foolhardy student and his brave frost bringer as I reflected on all of this in a matter of seconds, and I fell a little more in love with Open Legend as a result.
I was originally brought onto the Open Legend team as an editor. My job was to transform the rules that had been engineered and playtested into inviting, digestible text. I had only ever played a game or two of it in years passed, but obviously the process of wordsmithing the rules forced me to get to know them pretty well too. And each night that I hammered away at Open Legend on my keyboard, I began to see the hidden potential in the system.
This moment at the Game Club finally made it clear why I loved this RPG so much. In Open Legend, the sorcerer could use his Ray of Frost to trip his foe—because there are no rays of frost in Open Legend.
Instead of having defined spells or powers or class abilities, Open Legend has a menu of banes and boons that any character can choose from when they make an attack. The rules define the effect of the bane, but not the flavor. So, a sorcerer who wants to trip his foe with a blast of ice can make an attack using his Energy attribute in order to apply the Knockdown bane. And what if he wanted to trip up a whole squad of orcs? He could choose to make the spell affect an area instead. A barbarian, too, can invoke the Knockdown bane, though he would probably use his Might attribute instead.
Open Legend is not about using the rules to tell a story. It’s about telling a story first and watching the rules react.