Lessons Learned Hitherto: Dread and DnD 5E

I have found that the role of the Game Master is a challenging but rewarding one. It can be a stressful job which requires forethought preceding – and an agile mind during a game. However the joy of developing this skillset can be felt every time I play. The smiles, laughter, and expressions of disgust or horror on the faces of my friends are good – but I could not tell you if that outweighed the satisfaction and excitement I feel when I finish exploring a new roleplaying game.

As a budding Game Master of a meagre 100 hours I want to catalogue my reflections of each RPG I ran for any significant amount of time – which is anything excluding a single one-shot. So far I have found that the many techniques or tools that I have spent countless hours reading about take on a new light once I see them expressed in some form during one of my games.

For the sake of posterity and brevity this post will be in two parts and briefly reflect on my experiences with Dread, Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Blades in the Dark, and Mutant: Year Zero.

Dread

Dread was the first system that I ran a game for and it only had two players while a third person sat in the room and pretended to be better than us. In spite of this odd atmosphere and my inexperience, the game had players pacing around with worried expressions on their face minutes into the game and we all had a great time.

This was by no means a feat of mine. I have since learned that I made countless novice mistakes while running this game such as forcing my hand as a GM to ensure players experience a particular scene how I felt it should be. Embarrassing. Instead, I owe this good experience to my friends with a penchant for wild imaginations being supportive people and the system itself.

Dread is a game that has the players pulling blocks from a Jenga tower to determine success in a stressful or unknown situation. If the tower falls, their character is removed from the game in some way which could be anything from death to having mad diarrhoea. Whatever works for the narrative. Pulling from a Jenga tower is already suspenseful and then Dread pairs this with horror narratives resulting in a feeling of dread for the players.

If people feel a certain way then they may act in accordance to these feelings. Dread leverages this to support the telling of scary story. As a Game Master, I barely had to do any work other than describe the scene and then tell the players to pull a block. By providing room for the players to breathe and find their characters while being able to know the stakes (by looking at how unstable the tower is), Dread works without requiring mechanically diverse player characters or a massive book of rules.

Dungeons and Dragons 5E

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Core Rules Gift Set

If anyone asked me if I regret anything I wouldn’t say it was that time a friend of mine tricked me into picking up a snot-covered piece of bark in kindergarten or even those many times I thought I would be okay if I had just one more slice of pizza. No, they’re not good examples. Instead I might tell them about the pit that is DnD 5e.

From what I have seen many people find great enjoyment in playing this game but I did not and I did not realise that until much later. I would argue that DnD 5e is not a very good game for people new to the RPG scene and at best, is mediocre for experienced players and GMs. This is because it is a bloated incomplete toolkit system that is misrepresented by each person with the book($).

Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Player’s Handbook, page 5

A toolkit system is a type of game that has distinct and modular sub-systems that do not necessarily interconnect. Such as Combat and Downtime in DnD 5e. Toolkit systems can work really well as a GM and the players only need to focus on the subsystems that they are interested in, however DnD 5e does not supply all of the tools required in the base game yet it promises them on page 5, “Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…” The Player’s Handbook (PHB) does not include rules for exploring a dark dungeon or anything for that matter, instead players are given pages describing things like how high they can jump or how long it takes for them to suffocate. No procedure exists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide either and if it did then it should be in the PHB because the players need to make decisions too. DnD 5e is repeated offender of empty promises like the one described above.

Everyone runs DnD 5e in their own way but not always for the same good reason people do with other systems – to adjust for tone or familiarity. No, people try to fix DnD 5e because the subsystems provided are clunky, the classes are imbalanced, it’s missing pieces, etc. At my table, this lead to a culture of people not taking the time to learn the rules and to adopt the rules that they were told by others. At first it is not a bad thing but when someone tries to run a game with people that are not familiar with these homebrew rules then that becomes a problem because suddenly people are not playing the same game. I could rant about DnD 5e for a long time but I’ll end it with this: It reminded me that I could say no. If I am not having fun, if a game is just causing tension and confusion, then I can just not play and that’s okay.

Closing Thoughts

There is a reason why there are so many different systems available to play. That is because people want money to tell different types of stories. A system can have a great impact on the tone and genre of the collaborative narrative being spun by the Game Master and the players.

Interested in reading more?