D&D and its derivates – two games in one

No matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to Pathfinder 2e. Before I discovered the virtues of that game, the first edition had my interests captured for years and years. To some degree, it is unsurprising – I played D&D 3.5 before I really knew of any other systems. However, poring over feats, racial traits, and spells, endlessly debating the nuances of natural language vs. system language and which one was at play at a particular point, obsessively optimising until my character was perfectly expressed within the system, these are as much roleplaying to me as the actual play. Building a character in a highly complex (or crunchy) system is one of my favourite art forms and though I will take playing the character over building it any time, I do miss it when I am engaging with a system where there is a dearth of choices to make within the rules.

I do struggle to reconcile it with having played and loved games like Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures, and Ten Candles, however. There are no feats, no racial traits, no spells – in fact, even levels are nowhere to be seen. I think the answer lies in the fact that most D&D-like games are not one game, but two. One game is what we at Adept Play recognises as actual play, though admittedly with a very high concentration of authority with the GM. The control of the non-GM players ends at their characters, which is perfectly acceptable. Usually, players are allowed to contribute some backstory but only with the idea that the GM is allowed to use this backstory however they want. Your kindly mentor might secretly be a lich, your consort-to-be may have been wed to another, or your parents’ crusade might have been flawed and ultimately destructive. Or maybe the GM prefers to not focus on that and will try to lead the players elsewhere. The bounce here usually comes from player choices and dice rolls, though the dice rolls are relatively simple.

However, the other game inherent in D&D is a boardgame where you build your own character and then use it in combat, with a small part of your power budget assigned to out of combat choices. The game above, however, means that you are far more invested in the board game than you might otherwise be. The idea that a bad roll could also mean the end of your play with that character also loops back and affects the actual roleplaying game above. It will lead you to make different choices. In addition, the character creation process provides a lot of fuel for the creation of the actual character. Even if you optimise and only pick the strongest options, there is still the question of how the character arrived there. Why would they wield this rare weapon, who taught them that martial style, why the affinity for lightning spells? They provide excellent avenues for play because you know so much more about your character – without ever demanding that you play a character a certain way. Out of these, I believe that Pathfinder 1e provides the most customisation. You can really build whatever you want within that system. Pathfinder 2e, however, is the better boardgame. There are very few dead choices and all characters, as long as they are reasonably well built, are able to contribute in at least one way.

These systems that are 90% combat are usually maligned for that focus, and not without cause. A lot of the inherent assumptions of D&D-like games is, quite frankly, absurd. With that said, these assumptions do not need to be diegetic – being aware that one essentially plays two different games makes everything so much simpler. Heck, even the games themselves are starting to do this, with Pathfinder 2e having NPCs that have combat levels and social levels. It is entirely possible that I am a little too enamoured with the idea of setting my blade aflame and charging in, but I also think that there is play to be had within these systems. At least the ones that have been properly designed!

2 responses to “D&D and its derivates – two games in one”

  1. I played a ton of 3e, 3.5e and 4e in the 00s and spent many enjoyable hours coaxing out yet another tiny advantage from neat combinations of powers, feats and items — an endeavour not unlike assembling a deck for Magic: the Gathering, I suspect.

    Seeing one’s efforts feed into the game – e.g. by a combo working as intended, shutting down enemies and making the GM throw up his hands in despair – was glorious. In the role of GM, I and others reacted by buffing the next round of monsters or skipping entire sections of an adventure path, so the PCs would be several levels below the official recommendations — which felt great as we were rocking the system.

    Like you, I also enjoyed the game-before-the-game, which for me consisted of sitting down with a dozen books, creating spreadsheets and cutting out and laminating color-coded power cards (for 4e).

    Regarding your observations that “the other game inherent in D&D is a boardgame”, I’m not sure it has to be.


    It was, in my group’s case, though:

    I remember a battle where most of the terrain was covered in thin ice, mandating a save (or some other roll) when entering each square. Failure meant you fell down and your current movement action ended. I wanted my PC to make a running start on safe terrain, then hop onto the ice and slide towards an attractive target. I did not care about falling down or triggering opportunity attacks. However, the GM ruled that my movement would still end on the first failed save, physical momentum or not.


    But there are excellent threads around here on how things can be different (i.e. 4e not being a boardgame as in my example). Here’s one I remember:

    “Dynamic movement and tactical dept in post-D&D4 design”



    I’ve moved away from 3e/4e and character optimization/ miniatures’ chess, but I just wanted to say that I understand the appeal, nay, still feel it in my bones.

    • I think that ultimately, it’s a good thing that it is a boardgame. The stakes still matter, you still get to play your character when they interact with the role-playing part of the game even in combat, but the fighting usually doesn’t say that much about the characters themselves. Their build does – if a character is built to attack from the shadows, that says something about their personality, but bad luck doesn’t need to be explained away with an off day and arguments with one of your adventuring companions can usually take a backseat to tactical considerations. That’s not to say that you cannot get epic moments of play, but given that the subsystem of combat is so different in these games, play also bring radically different is natural. And I think that’s a good thing.

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