Four Problems with Fantasy

Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy roleplaying games. After all, I do write a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. But I also believe that fantasy, and D&D in particular, is not without its problems, some of which can be fixed, or at least mitigated.

In this article, I plan to run through four issues I see with D&D and fantasy RPGs generally, and then offer some possible solutions to them.

1. Tired tropes and chronic clichés

Sidharth Chaturvedi on Twitter: "D&D: Yawning Portal Tavern. From 'Dungeon  of the Mad Mage.' AD: Kate Irwin. This was SO MUCH FUN to paint. Also one  of the few that I didn't

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has been around for nearly half a century, and there has been a huge amount of innovation in that time. But there are also some tired, tired tropes that have been done to death. Dwarves with Scottish accents. Everyone’s an orphan. ‘You all meet in a tavern.’

As TV Tropes explains, tropes are tools, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and even well used tropes can be subverted or deployed skilfully. But tropes can definitely be overused, becoming shallow, predictable, or unoriginal. And in a genre that revolves around magic and imagination, that’s a death blow.

To some extent, fantasy is an inherently conservative genre. It is nostalgic for the past. It draws on ancient myths and legends. It is almost pastoral: a land of beautiful landscapes and wild adventure, an escape from modern life. Roleplaying games like D&D emerged from historical war games, and for many gamers the association between fantasy and the medieval is pretty unbreakable. (Incidentally, D&D is not, and never has been, a particularly realistic simulation of the medieval world. Apart from being curiously resistant to the inclusion of gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century, D&D has Renaissance-level technology like telescopes and rapiers, completely ahistorical technology like studded leather and hand crossbows, and a wealth-based, free-market economy: no feudalism for adventurers, it would seem.)

Of course, not all fantasy need be like this, and there are numerous fantasy settings that reinvent traditional tropes in exciting ways. Final Fantasy VII, arguably a form of eco-fiction, uses an industrialized setting with an environmentally destructive megacorporation. Eberron takes inspiration from pulp serials and film noir. Planescape is grungy, gothic, neo-Victorian, and weird in the China Miéville sense of the word.

How to fix it: know your tropes and use them carefully (this applies as much to players as to DMs). Work with your players and try new genres: try gothic fantasy, or dying earth fantasy, or D&D in space. Resist the urge to fixate too much on historical accuracy: embrace the fantasy.

2. Prejudice and discrimination

Why Orcs Are Problematic in Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Buckle up: this one’s controversial.

D&D, and fantasy games in general, have been slow to adapt when it comes to inclusivity, representation, and diversity. To pick a few examples: the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook used male pronouns exclusively; Gary Gygax, a self-proclaimed ‘biological determinist’ on race and gender, believed that most ‘females’ do not play RPGs because of ‘a difference in brain function’; and in one of the first Dragon magazines, Len Lakofka argued that women should have ‘beauty’ instead of Charisma and have the ability to ‘seduce’ NPCs to make up for their lower Strength (because it goes without saying that women are physically weaker than men).

In some ways, D&D has come on leaps and bounds here. The portrait for ‘human’ in the 5th-edition Player’s Handbook is a black woman, for example, and the title page features a heroic, dark-skinned fighter. Chapter 4 explicitly declares that ‘you don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender’, adding ‘your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.’ Gone, too, are the chainmail bikinis and sexualized poses of earlier depictions of women in fantasy artwork.

But there are still battles to be fought. The Black Lives Matter protests led to a lively debate within the D&D community about the representation of so called ‘monstrous’ races and whether orcs were fundamentally racist. Disability consultant Sara Thompson faced a backlash for her awesome combat wheelchair rules, and the suggestion that D&D dungeons can, and should, be wheelchair accessible has been met with ridicule, with some users on social media even declaring that DMs should ‘target’ wheelchair users in-game because they are ‘easy targets’: textbook ableism. And while not technically a D&D incident, Adam Koebel, the co-author of Dungeon World, had to apologize after livestreaming a sexual assault scenario, seemingly for laughs. All of these things happened last year. Sexism, racism, and ableism are, sadly, alive and well within the D&D community, and while D&D is by no means unique in having toxic views within its fanbase, it is fair to say that the game has not always moved with the times.

How to fix it: support RPG creatives from a wide range of backgrounds, and read what they have to say about the game. Think about how many of your characters are straight, white, able-bodied, and male: we are all responsible for the fiction we co-create, even if you play in a group of able-bodied straight white men, so play your part. Get away from biological essentialism by using alternative approaches like Ancestry & Culture or the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Talk about lines and veils with your group. Introduce an X-card.

3. Combat fatigue

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition D&D claims to be built on three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Why, then, is combat such a huge focus within the game?

To some extent, this goes back to D&D’s roots in wargaming. It’s certainly part of the game’s tradition, and arguably requires a lot less effort for many players than compelling roleplay might. But it’s also what the game’s mechanics reward. There is so much of an incentive within the rules to be good at combat. What is your reward for exploration, for social interaction? Inspiration? Maybe a secret door with a magic item behind it? By default, killing things gives you XP, and XP levels you up. It’s not hard to see, then, why min-maxing is a thing.

Maybe fighting things is where you get your fun. If so, don’t let me stand in your way! But I’ve had a number of experiences with players new to D&D who have been surprised by the game’s focus on killing things. ‘Why do we have to kill the goblins? Can I pet the dire rat? Is fighting the only thing we do in this game?’

There are other game systems that do things differently. The Cypher System has a nice focus on exploration, for instance, and Fate promotes storytelling over all else – so much so that it is entirely possible to run a game without fighting at all.

How to fix it: Don’t only offer XP for killing things! Consider switching to milestone XP instead. Talk to your group and see what they enjoy. Try playing other game systems for mechanics you can steal: cyphers, for example, offer a really nice way of promoting exploration. Think about how you can make downtime interesting. If you are going to run combats, make them engaging, and try to have an interesting battlefield environment. Always try to make sure that combat makes sense within the story, and, if possible, an oppportunity to be avoided.

4. Characterization over character

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

Imagine you are writing a story, in a genre other than fantasy. You’re thinking about your main character. What do you think of first?

I bet it’s not ‘race’ and ‘class’. It’s probably not ability scores, either. Yet this is how most of us create a character in a fantasy RPG. Kind of odd, no?

I’ve written about this before (‘Creating Awesome Characters’), but I think it’s something D&D players in general are weirdly fixated on. (Myself included, at times – it’s a hard habit to break.) Being a dwarf or an elf doesn’t make your character interesting, and neither does being a warlock or a paladin. There’s also something more than a little icky about the idea that a character is so defined by their biology and ancestry. Do we really need this in our storytelling? Again, other systems do things differently. There is no need to pick a race in the Cypher System or Fate, and the game is no worse off for it.

How to fix it: Again, try alternatives to D&D. See what you like. Try using the new rules for customizing your origin in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Take time to think about your character’s values and personality: what makes them tick? Try to explain who they are without referring to their race or class.

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Fixing 4d6 drop lowest

How do you determine your character’s ability scores?

According to the Player’s Handbook (page 12), the default is to generate them randomly. You roll four six-sided dice and record the total of the highest three, six times (‘4d6 drop lowest’). Other options are point buy (technically a variant rule) and taking the array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.

My group used to be wary of rolling stats. Most rolls in D&D have a chance of failure, but it’s rarely a failure that haunts you for the rest of your adventuring career. A chromatic orb goes wide; you miss a secret door; you don’t pick the lock. Bad ability scores, on the other hand, can feel like a lasting punishment and make your character feel less badass, less fun to play. However: over time, we’ve come to appreciate the hidden benefits of rolling. It makes your character feel more individual, more unpredictable, more ‘spiky’.  

I’ve written before about what to do if you roll bad stats (and, conversely, the character options that open up if you roll exceptionally well). I also make the case for why ability scores don’t matter as much in 5th edition as they did in previous editions. However, in this previous article, I didn’t really examine the mechanics of dice rolling themselves. And here’s my take: 4d6 drop lowest is one way of rolling ability scores, but it has its flaws. I want to explore whether there are other methods that might work better.

Probabilities

Wizards of the Coast

Full disclosure: I am not a statistician. I am not even particularly good at maths. So, if I mess up somewhere, constructive criticism is welcome.

Fortunately, we have a great tool in the form of anydice.com, a probability calculator created by Jasper Flick. Jasper has already written an article comparing 4d6 drop lowest with the default array and the older method of rolling 3d6 six times. On average, 4d6 drop lowest gives you better ability scores than the standard array. I’m fine with this: if the default array were better than rolling, there would be little incentive to determine your ability scores randomly.

However: 4d6 drop lowest can give you some weird or even unplayable stats.

Rolling low

Let’s consider for a moment what a low roll means in the world of D&D. 19.73 percent of players will roll a 6 or lower on at least one of their stats. (Granted, your chance of getting a 6 or lower on two or more stats is pretty low – one in a hundred, roughly – but hey, it’s possible.) In 5e D&D, the most popular dump stat is probably Intelligence. A character with an Intelligence of 6 is no more intelligent than an ape or a dolphin, and a character with an Intelligence of 3 or 4 is about as intelligent as an elephant or an octopus.

Here’s what low stats are equivalent to for the other five ability scores:

  • A low Strength is comparable to the strength of a bird of prey: a medium-sized vulture (Strength 7), a small eagle (Strength 6), or a tiny hawk (Strength 5). A character of Strength 4 has the physical power of a badger or an octopus: a character of Strength 3 is as weak as a house cat.
  • There aren’t any beasts in the Monster Manual with a Dexterity of 6 or lower, but a character with this score is roughly as agile as a zombie, an ooze, or an awakened tree.
  • There is one creature in 5th edition with a Constitution of 6 or lower, and that’s a gas spore. Even tiny creatures like bats and weasels have a Con score of at least 8.
  • Interestingly, low Wisdom seems to correlate with low Dex. A character of Wisdom 6 is about as perceptive as a gelatinous cube. Lower than that, and you’re looking at the Wisdom of an animated object like a rug or a suit of armour.
  • Finally, if you dump Charisma (defined in the Player’s Handbook as ‘force of personality’), you will find numerous beasts to keep you company. Bear, wolves, and ponies have a Charisma of 6 or 7, boars, crocodiles, and camels have a Charisma of 4 or 5, and frogs, lizards, and snakes have a Charisma of 3.

Suddenly, those super-low rolls seem a bit ridiculous.

Wizards of the Coast

Rolling high

What about high stats? Nearly one in ten players will roll at least one 18 for their 1st-level character (9.73 percent, to be precise), and characters have the potential to get their scores as high as 20 without magical help, even at 1st level.

  • A character with Strength 18 can lift 540 lbs and still move 5 feet per turn. A Clydesdale has Strength 18. A character with Strength 20, meanwhile, can lift 600 lbs. They can wrestle grizzlies and polar bears (Strength 19 and 20, respectively).
  • Forget cat’s grace: characters with Dexterities of 18 or higher are almost supernaturally agile, comparable to sprites and vampires. A character with a Dexterity of 20 is as agile as a planetar (angel) or a marilith (demon).
  • What’s a tough as a character with Constitution 18? King Kong, that’s what. And for Constitution 20, you’re talking trolls, golems, and stone giants.
  • Creatures of Intelligence 18 include aboleths and ancient dragons. Mind flayers have an Intelligence of 19, and liches have an Intelligence of 20.
  • The sphinxes have a Wisdom of 18, as do storm giants. In the Monster Manual, only devas and couatls have a Wisdom of 20.
  • Finally, a character with a Charisma of 18 has the same ‘force of personality’ as Count Strahd von Zarovich or Lord Soth (a death knight). A character with Charisma 20 is as charismatic as a succubus, a rakshasa, or a djinni.

The problem

Wizards of the Coast

To be clear, there isn’t necessarily a huge issue with 1st-level characters having stats as low as 3 or as high as 20. Adventurers don’t all look the same and can come from any background. On average, rolling 4d6 drop lowest will produced a balanced array, with some high scores, some average scores, and one or two low scores.

My issue with rolling is that the super high scores and the super low scores turn up more often than I feel they should. Statistically, if you have five characters in a party, it is highly likely that at least one of them will have a score of 6 or lower somewhere. This means that in most D&D parties there is at least one character with chimp-level Intelligence, or zombie-level agility, or the Wisdom of a gelatinous cube. Aren’t these people supposed to be semi-competent adventurers? Similarly, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that one of your characters will be as wise as a sphinx, as tough as King Kong, or as smart as an ancient dragon . . . but at 1st level, when your heroes are just starting out?

For you and your table, this might not be an issue: it’s all part of the fun. But for me, it just feels a bit odd. So, how can we get around it?

Solutions

Wizards of the Coast

Of course, the simplest and least controversial solution is to not roll stats at all. Point buy and the default array limit players to scores between 8 and 15, what we might call ‘the heroic average’. You lose the ‘spikiness’ and unpredictability of rolling, but you also don’t run the risk of playing a character with the Charisma of a frog.

The second option is to introduce some kind of ‘floor’. In 3rd edition, for example, you could reroll your scores if your highest score was 13 or lower or if your total modifier was +0 or lower. While this protects against crashing out with multiple bad scores, the 18s appear just as frequently, and you can end up with some truly weird arrays like 18, 18, 12, 10, 4, 3. Unlikely, but still possible.

The final option is use a different method of rolling. There is arguably a precedent for this already: 4d6 drop lowest was probably a revision of the original ‘3d6 down the line’. The 3rd-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide also offered a variant for ‘high-powered characters’ which was essentially 5d6 drop two. While this protects better against super-low scores, it also leads to super-high scores more frequently, with nearly twice as many 18s as the default method.

Here’s my method:

  • Roll 3d6 seven times.
  • Reroll any 1s.
  • Take the best six of the seven scores.

That’s it!

With this system, you can’t roll lower than a 6. In fact, your chance of rolling lower than an 8 is very low: just 2.15 percent. Your chance of rolling an 18 is also lower, however: 5.6 percent. The average array is 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10: statistically, these stats are better than taking the default, so there’s still an incentive to roll, but there’s more of a cushion at the bottom. The super-high scores are still possible, but they are more exceptional, and, therefore, more special.

This method is easy to explain and continues to rely on d6s, the dice most likely to be in abundance. You will probably end up rolling about the same number of dice as you would do if you went with the 4d6 drop lowest method, and you’re also less likely to generate unplayable scores that need to be completely rerolled.

Here are five arrays I rolled, to give you a sense of what to expect:

  • 15, 14 13, 10, 9, 9
  • 16, 13, 13, 12, 12, 12
  • 16, 16, 15, 12, 10, 10
  • 13, 13, 12, 12, 12, 11
  • 17, 16, 13, 12, 11, 11

The biggest downside to this method is that, on average (56.53 percent of the time, to be exact), you won’t have any scores lower than 10. If that bothers you, a possible fix is to only reroll 1s once. This keeps open the possibility of rolling a 3, 4, or 5, but shouldn’t affect your chances of rolling playable stats in the main. (Think of it this way: if you roll 3d6 seven times, you will probably only roll three or four 1s, and if you reroll these ones once then you are unlikely to have more than one 1 left in the entire spread. Given that you drop lowest score anyway, it doesn’t make a big difference.)

What do you think? Would you use this method? Will you stick with 4d6 drop lowest? Or are you more of a point buy person, anyway? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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