You can’t take the system out of D&D
I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this thought to truly dawn on me: You can’t reproduce D&D if you take away the D&D system. Oh, you can make a fantasy roleplaying game or take your favorite character and port her to that other game, but it just won’t be D&D. Yes, it seems like an obvious DUH! thing to say. But gosh-darnit, I tried to do it anyway and no matter which way I spun it, it just didn’t work. You know what else? It’s entirely OK. I’m trying to come to grips with the fact that, try as I might, D&D just doesn’t scratch every roleplaying itch.
What’s the problem? OK, OK, I’ll come out and say it. D&D is not a good system for story-driven roleplaying. I used to believe that you can take any good story and slap any system on it and it’ll be good, but I recant. It’s just not true. D&D’s system does not lend to telling a story, it lends to rolling the dice and giving you a black and white, yes-no answer. It excels at group-based, tactical play — even when you’re not using mini’s and a map. This is its sweet spot, and it shines. I’ve seen tables of grown men & women leap to their feet with cries of pure delight at the mere site of a well-timed critical hit (that’s a nat 20 for you D&D n00bs). I’ve lost count of how many stories my group has that revolved around the result of a dice roll, whether it be a critical failure or success. That’s the problem, the dice take center stage and steal the show. Ergo, D&D is not a good system for telling a story.
Now, you can try and smear around those skill checks and sort of make it work. But, it’s hard, and frankly, just not very satisfying. It feels tacked on. Some of you are now saying things like “house-rules” and “modify the system” or “lies!”. But, I don’t want to modify my D&D system. I like it vanilla, and if I modify it … it’s not D&D anymore, it’s some other Franken-system. Plus, that just proves my point, it’s not a good system for telling stories if you have to change it when it comes to the portion where the combat ends and the story starts up again. I’ve never once sat a D&D convention and had my table say “More story, less stabby-stabby!” Never. One. Time. But, I repeat, that’s OK. I still love it for what it is.
So, I find myself realizing that I should just enjoy my D&D time when I get it and be satisfied because it is satisfying. But, like most things in life, there is no one answer that fits all questions. I’m normally a one system kind of guy, but alas, that has now changed and I’ve left some room on that nostalgic shelf of D&D books for another game to fill the story-lover in me.
(P.S. I currently play 5E, but these comments apply to every edition I’ve played. Yes, I’ve played every edition … even 3.0 ;p)