Monday, November 17, 2014

The D20 Effect

When I read Dungeon World in the winter of 2012, it blew my mind. Here was a roleplaying game that was speaking exactly my mind when it came to running games. This little gem of an RPG had put, in writing, ideas about roleplaying games I had been doing instinctively for years, stuff like being a fan of the players, keeping the action focused on them, and building the world off of their actions rather than having anything set in stone. Dungeon World was a game that was written and designed to be played the way I'd been playing Dungeons & Dragons for over 20 years. I was in love. I thought I'd found the only RPG I'd ever want to play, ever again.

Then, something weird happened. As I began hosting sessions and running games, I found myself craving more. I wanted to have ideas I could fall back on, rather than making everything up in the spur of the moment. I wanted a framework, a structure for games to be built on, a launching pad for my players' imaginations. I wanted to give my players options and ideas they hadn't thought of before. 

In other words, I wanted the very things Dungeon World eschewed. I already had the things Dungeon World brought to the table; I wanted the things it specifically went out of its way to avoid bringing to the table.

When I started to talk to the community about this, the responses ranged from "you're doing it wrong" to "you don't really need that stuff," to "there's nothing stopping you from doing that in DW," to...well, more antagonistic responses. The very idea that I'd find DW lacking in any way seemed to verge on blasphemy within its community. 

What I find odd about this is it seems like every other post regarding Dungeon World appears to be some suggestions or ideas on hacks. More classes. Custom rules. Even whole adventures, a concept DW seems to be completely against, were appearing out there for the masses. Gamers wanted to make DW more complicated. Yet when I suggested to simply play a more complex game, the response was shock, if not flat-out disgust.

Personally, I blame something I'll call the D20 Effect. The D20 Effect is this phenomenon I've observed both online and in person where gamers feel constrained and powerless to influence the rules of a game. As if there really was a Rules Police that would kick in the door if they didn't use all the flanking rules in combat. 

I attribute this effect to the D20 System because that's when I think it really became a thing. When that game came out, it had rules for everything. As the new books came out and more and more rules came forward, the idea of "winging it" or (gasp!) playing your game without those books seemed wrong. The books themselves certainly didn't advocate their unnecessariness. It became the unwritten rule, this notion that you had to follow every rule in d20. The little DM section where it's written "if you don't like it, don't use it" had been buried under an avalanche of splatbooks, sourcebooks, and campaign settings with their own custom rules. That advice somehow ended up in the "fluff" section, skipped over as DM's were looking for the difficulty classes on various kinds of traps. So to gamers who's first experience with RPGs was the D20 system, I feel for them. I think any RPG gamer who cut their teeth on the 3rd, 3.5, or even 4th edition games probably feel like it's not okay to ignore rules because that will somehow break the game. So for those gamers to discover a game like Dungeon World, that purposefully and intentionally keeps the rules to a minimum, I understand how that must be a revelation to them.

It also doesn't surprise me that there are so many of the old guard who don't get it. Those folks, who had cut their teeth on older editions of D&D, were used to doing the things described by Dungeon World. 1st and 2nd edition did not have rules to cover everything; hell, even the rules they did have were oftentimes inconsistent and counter-intuitive. Those gamers didn't really have many other choices, so they just gutted the games they did have in order to play the one they really wanted to play. 

But even those older gamers aren't necessarily immune to the D20 Effect. Many of those older gamers got crushed under the weight of that system's meticulousness, as well. And now they think they're "too old" to enjoy heavier RPGs. They're not. They just forgot the most important rule: the rules only matter if you want them to. Many older gamers have forgotten this, while many younger gamers were never taught it. I was one of the former, till Dungeon World reminded me.


  1. Nice introduction to the issue or problem but what about a solution? Should there be a system / rule book that incorporates both? How does one get the best of both worlds?

  2. That's a great question, thanks for posting it! I actually did pose a solution that ended up getting cut for space (I like to keep these entries punchy and to the point). Basically, I believe Dungeon World can be used as a great book of advice for running D&D (or any other game, for that matter). Just the idea of a GM organizing his thoughts toward agenda/principle fulfillment alone has had a pretty profound effect on my gaming experience. I daresay the most value I've gotten out of Dungeon World has been on its influence in the rest of my GMing, rather than in running the game itself.


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