Dungeons & Dragons’ Legacy

The D&D system will always hold a fondness for me. It was my introduction to roll-playing and then (as I became more sophisticated) role-playing. It allowed me to play in worlds that were inspired by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard (among many others). While I owe a great debt to the game system for all that it has influenced my own life, the system was never a perfect fit for me.

dnd-logoAll RPG systems, if left unchecked, can easily lend itself to Monty Haul and becoming a combat-fest with very light role-playing and story opportunities. D&D tends to make some of that easy though. To survive combat encounters at higher level, the PCs need to have gear that boosts their capabilities to handle them. If you aren’t careful the characters become known more for the items they have and how they use them, instead of people who have tools to make them work. This demands that a certain amount of treasure gets handed out to keep the game system in balance. If you give out too little treasure, the group struggles to deal with encounters that they should be able to handle. If you give out too much treasure, the characters end up being significantly harder to challenge. This balancing act even gets reflected in RPGs that have been made for computer games. It is very present in games like Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Torchlight and others.

This directly lends itself to magic items becoming a commodity market all unto its own. D&D never makes any bones about this — the system supports a level of fantasy that magic weapons and armor are common enough that there is a base market for them. There are numerous posts out there on the web about trying to make magic items seem more than just another +1 longsword or +2 mithral chain shirt. The trick to that is to give every item a history and have the players learn them as they get to know their items. There is a downside to that though … the GM has to prep all those histories in addition to normal game prep. If you are pressed for time, like I perpetual seem to be, that is one of the first things that gets pitched when getting ready for a session.

In 3rd edition, item history took another body blow in the form of detailed instructions on what it takes to create magic items. Now the players have easy access to what is necessary for creating a magic item. Rather than searching for a particular item, a character (with the proper build) can construct the item with enough effort. Of course the party needs to have enough downtime to actually accomplish this. This creates the peculiar problem in that one character is consumed for days or weeks doing something while the rest of the party has to come up with what were they doing during their impromptu vacation from adventuring. If they are like Fitz’s character DC from one of my previous campaigns, they are likely getting into all sorts of trouble that actually should be role-played … but that would leave out one or more characters in the group.

One of the solutions that I’ve been toying with is to do away with a whole class of items in D&D. With the treasure that the characters acquire, the characters eventually go from mundane weapons to +1 weapons. After a time, they progress to +2 weapons, etc. Why not just make that growth part of the leveling up process? At level X, your melee and ranged weapon attacks gain +1 to hit and damage. At another level, your armor improves by 1 (or 2 if you factor in what were once rings (or cloaks) of protection). Having a character grow more powerful as they level up happens anyway, but doing this would reduce the amount of extraneous magic items that are out there. Instead you can focus on items of significance for treasure. For example, the bow the characters just found is the one used by an infamous woodland bandit that preyed on the rich and was never caught by the guard. It might be worth more to a certain type of collector of artifacts, but it is just a well used bow all the same.

For me, D&D’s legacy was it exposed me to the joy of role-playing and telling fictional stories with friends (and family). The downside of the legacy is that it also demonstrated you can spend a lot of time trying to work around a systems limitations to make the system work the way you envision it. What’s its legacy to you?

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