The D&D community has a slew of insults for players who play the game incorrectly. Optimizers, min-maxers, metagamers, quarterbacks, murder hobos, and the list goes on. But isn’t D&D whatever you want to make of it? How can you play it wrong if it’s just a framework for cooperative play? The rulebook says again and again to change the rules as you see fit. So why do players argue at all?
Well, what if I said D&D players weren’t at fault here, but it was the game that was misleading them. D&D is failing to keep a promise it made to its players. And the craziest part is that they’re doing it on purpose.
But first, let’s start with some context.
Every game starts with promises, a commitment from the designer to their players about what the game will be like. Even if the designer never states their promises out loud, it’s still the heart of the game.
A game might promise competitive tactical experience with limitless room to grow better, like Chess, or it might promise a way to manufacture funny situations with your friends, like most party games. A game can have implicit promises too, like if there is a dragon on the game’s box, there should be a dragon in the game.
But sometimes, a game makes promises that conflict with each other. And sometimes, a pair of core promises can’t truly be reconciled, no matter what the designer does. These are called “cursed problems.” This term was coined by Alex Jaffe in his GDC talk in 2019. It’s a really excellent talk if you’re interested in game design. It’s easier to explain a cursed problem if I start with an example.
In the game Pandemic, the game promises a fully cooperative experience, where everyone contributes, discusses and makes decisions together. But as a strategy game, it also promises that players should play to win. It turns out, letting the player who is best at pandemic make every decision for every player is the best way to win Pandemic. But that violates the idea of the game being cooperative, since centralized decision making means some players won’t get to contribute. So either the players must give up on the idea that they are playing in a fully cooperative manner and just take orders from the quarterback, or they must concede that playing a sub-optimal strategy on purpose is more fun. Typically, it means the more-skilled player will need to put aside their competitive side, and make the decision to allow their teammates make bad choices. Of course, then it’s not being played competitively anymore. There is no middle ground here. Both promises will never be fully realized.
D&D has a pretty big cursed problem too.
D&D makes two big promises. The first one is that it’s a tactical miniatures game, and the second one is that it’s a storytelling game.
See, in order to be a tactical game, you must be able to make decisions to maximize your chances of winning. But in order to be a storytelling game, you must make decisions that fit in line with your character and the story. And therein lies the contradiction: Often, the most appropriate storytelling decision won’t be the best tactical decision, and the best tactical decision won’t create interesting story. So players are forced to choose and prioritize, and players will never get to fully enjoy both promises.
I think it’s best to explain why those promises conflict by starting with an example. When a party encounters a troll for the first time, they could attack it all day without getting anywhere because trolls have regenerative powers in D&D. If you want to stop a troll, you have to use fire.
But this is where the the problem begins: does your character in the game know about a troll’s weakness? If a player decides to immediately use fire against it, as any tactical player would, they might get accused of metagaming by their gaming group, that is, using what the player knows that their character doesn’t, to defeat the troll.
This disconnect creates a weird subgame, where the game asks the players to make bad choices, in service of keeping the game immersive. How long until that player is allowed to use fire?
Frankly, this situation is unfair to players who took the game’s promise to be tactical to heart, because it punishes players for being knowledgeable about the game, when every other tactical game rewards players for their knowledge.
Imagine if a tactical game, like chess, forced you to ask yourself “would a 6th century Indian emperor be aware of the importance of controlling the middle of the board?” It’s an absurd question, and if someone didn’t sign up to play chess expecting to explore that question, it’s totally unfair to expect them to.
How can you enjoy the tactical aspects of that fight when you’re intentionally making bad choices to sidestep a narrative issue?
The first edition of D&D had rules for 4 different combat systems, with ideas from at least 3 other war games. But it also included rules for roleplaying, and how the game could be used for storytelling. From its very inception, the game was a mess of ideas jammed together. And that’s the heart of this cursed problem.
But, D&D’s original designers didn’t fully understand that their game had a contradiction in it. Because they viewed it as a war game. There were rules for gaining followers and building your own armies, because of course that’s what you’d want to do in the game.
They had rules for roleplaying too, but in their minds, these rules were little more than flavor text, a reaction to how players got attached to their characters in playtesting.
They had no idea how important those rules would be to the game. And they had no idea that they had created this cursed problem.
As a direct result of this cursed problem, it naturally seperates players into two groups: the tactical minded players, and the story minded players. Because cursed problems can’t be solved, the only way around it is to choose which promise is more important to you.
Sometimes, D&D attempts to satisfy both kinds of players, by making mechanics-oriented parts of the game very flavorful, or by giving combat rewards for roleplaying. One way they do this is by throwing in super flavorful powers in with the mostly combat/mechanics centered abilities.
When a monk reaches level 15 in 5th edition, they get an ability that says they no longer age, and that they no longer need to eat or drink. Well, that ability would be awesome, except age doesn’t do anything mechanically in 5th edition. Your stats won’t get lower as you age like in previous editions. Age means absolutely nothing mechanically in 5th edition.
And finding or making food is comically easy for high level characters, if you’re even playing in a game where the dungeon master cares to make you find food at all.
Oh, and even though level 15 monks don’t age, they still die when they get old, but you’ll look young when you do. So what should a player make of this ability, if the core of their engagement is the tactical half of the game? They see it as a weakness of the class: an ability that doesn’t do anything to make them more powerful. And they’ll rightly be frusterated that “they get nothing level 15.”
Of course, a story centric player will love an ability like this, since it’s such an interesting roleplaying hook. But the storycentric player don’t get many, if any, class abiliites that provide roleplaying hooks like the Monks do.
The mechanics can be frusterating for story-oriented players too.
Battle in D&D can often turn into “I swing my sword” every single turn. However, if you wanted to fight more creatively, the game often punishes that.
For example, it is a fantasy troupe to cut chandiliers so they fall on enemies. The chandelier falls onto an enemy, dealing damage in an exciting and creative way. But in D&D, the mechanics of the game discourages this. A 100lb object falling 15ft does no damage at all, according to the the most recently published falling object rules. If the chandelier weighed 200lbs, it would only deal 1d6, far less than your average attack would deal, even at first level. But the DM might also decide the chandelier weighs 10lbs, and your attack does nothing.
Another common example is trying to stab someone’s eyes out. A DM might rule that since some attacks do actually give the blind condition, but not the attack the player is doing, you can’t blind using that attack. And thus, every attack is limited to doing precisely what the mechanics say. Otherwise, you risk trivializing the combat.
And the DM who doesn’t allow this is right, it can trivialize combat if balanced combat encounters matter to you. But it also kills any chance imagination had to squeeze its way into fights too.
But in fiction, a balanced fight isn’t the point. It’s not even typical. Storytelling loves underdog stories, but D&D’s system is almost incapable of letting an underdog win a fight. Since combat encounters are balanced to the players’ level, they are almost always evenly matched. By the time players are strong enough to take down the big bad who has godlike strength, the players also have godlike strength. It forces the DM to skip the dramatic tension of an underdog story, in favor of grinding on side quests and winding plots.
And that in itself is not a bad thing, but underdog stories are a core part of the fantasy genre D&D emulates, so it is unfortunate that there isn’t really much room to tell those stories for tactical game blanace.
So far, I’ve only discussed the way this cursed problem interferes with player characters, but there are pretty big ways that it fights with the dungeon master too.
Because encounters are balanced against a player level, prewritten adventures will assume players are a certain level at any given point in the story. And of course, in order for a fight to be worthwhile, it should be appropriately leveled against the players. Too weak, and it’s just a waste of time. Too strong, and it probably kills the party. Because of that, dungeon masters are heavily incentivized to play through the encounters in order that they appear in the prewritten adventure, so they don’t have to rebalance the encounters themself. But that makes the story far more linear, because in order for those encounters to happen in the same order, the story must unfold in the same order. So no matter what players choose, the dungeon master ends up forcing the story in one direction, railroading every player decision to the same outcome to keep the encounters balanced.
And that downplays a pretty big advantage of tabletop storytelling, the ability to let stories unfold less linearly than any other kind of storytelling.
Of course, a dungeon master can change the encounters to match the level of the players if they don’t want to railroad them, but if they do that, you will be loosing out on well-balanced and play-tested encounters, what tactical players want, for story concerns. So either way, one kind of player looses out.
I want to briefly return to the idea of cursed problems. In our earlier Pandemic example, the quarterbacking problem is cursed, but it doesn’t mean there is no way to create a good cooperative game. For example, you could limit what information each player has access to, essentially weakening the collaborative part of the promise, but in doing so, eliminating the tendency that leads to quarterbacking.
And that’s the heart of solving cursed problems, one of the contradictory promises must be weakened until it no longer contradicts.
And if you look closely at D&D, you can see the remnants of a solution.
See, there are two types of roleplaying games.
There is mechanics first, where a player will state what they are doing in terms of game mechanics. They might state they want to do a stealth check, or cast a spell targeting whichever enemy. Then after that, they may or may not roleplay to justify those actions, or act out their result.
The second way is fiction first, where you do the opposite. You start with what you want to do, how you want to do it, you act it out, and then the Game master will decide if you need to roll dice, or engage in any game mechanics, and then tell you the aftermath.
D&D, as written in 5th edition, uses both systems. It has a mechanics first combat system. You start your turn by stating which action you’re using, from a list of possible combat actions. But for skill checks, D&D is fiction first. It tells players to describe what they are doing, to roleplay it out, then let the dungeon master decide which mechanics they have to engage in.
And I think this divide illustrates Wizards of the Coast’s stance on this cursed problem perfectly. They want combat to be tactical, and separate from the role playing half of the game.
And typically, when players compromise, it ends up being “D&D is a storytelling game, except when it’s a tactical game during combat,” or maybe “D&D is a tactical mini game with a little story to direct you from fight to fight.”
But for many players, they don’t want to compromise in the same way that the rest of their group wants to. And that’s a problem with the game, because both groups of players are just responding to what’s promised by the game. No one is in the wrong, despite what all the insults might suggest.
D&D could create a framework that doesn’t have this contradiction.
Actually, D&D has actually tried to solve this cursed problem already. In fourth edition, they clearly delineated combat from non combat. They boiled spells down to mechanics, and made it obvious when the game was tactical, and when the game was about story. Character options were all mechanical, and the game was more balanced than ever. D&D choose to weaken the storytelling promise, so players would be free to play a tactical game during combat, leaving the roleplaying to the rest of the game. Instead of being a game that was always about storytelling, it was only sometimes about storytelling.
And it was a great game. It wasn’t without its flaws, but I would go as far as to say it was my favorite edition. But there was backlash: many players knew what promises D&D had made in the past, and how they wanted to play it, and they were unwilling to compromise to this new vision of the game.
The story-centric players were outraged: they wanted more flavor, they wanted more roleplaying hooks present in every part of the game.
When Wizards of the Coast released 5th edition only a few years later, they admitted that this vision of the game was a mistake.
Ultimately, D&D probably will never try to fix this problem again. D&D is a game about tradition and nostalgia, and this cursed problem has been present in the game from it’s very inception.
When fifth edition came out, it replaced the concise game language used by fourth edition with with long, flavorful ability text. Just comparing the sleep spell from fourth edition and fifth edition is pretty striking how radically they changed their approach. It seems like the designers realized that everything in the game, even the wording of the ability text, had to find a way to cater to both kinds of players. Because ultimately, D&D wants to be everything for everyone, even if that results in cursed gameplay.
At the end of the day, D&D isn’t trying to be the best game it can be, it’s trying to be the most profitable game it can be. And if that means creating conflict between tactical players, and story-centric players who are both playing how the game tells them to play, then so be it. Players will argue and blame each other for playing wrong, but they will keep playing.
For many players, maybe the nostalgia driven by this cursed problem is the point. Maybe it wouldn’t have caught on if the cursed parts didn’t drive up engagement.
But this is a problem they could solve, they just don’t want to.
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