As what may come as a shock to absolutely no one, in addition to being a programmer nerd, I also play Dungeons & Dragons - and this is about that.
Me and a couple of the people I play with regularly have been discussing D&D 5th Edition’s rules and what kind of gameplay they encourage. My argument is basically that it’s a game system - a rule set - built for combat, and the rest is tacked on.
The core role books contains pages, and pages on how to do combat. There’s a dedicated chapter on what to do on your turn in combat and a wholly separate chapter just on spell casting in combat. That’s not including other mentions of combat mechanics elsewhere in the book, such as in the class descriptions.
You’ll hear around the web that there are great opportunities for role play and non-combat interactions. That’s true, but not because of the rule set - or at least not directly. There’s nothing in the rules preventing you from solving problems without doing combat, but that’s mostly because there are barely any rules for not doing combat.
I tried to argue this by questioning the lack of rules and systems for social interactions. Where’s the system for bartering, for instance?
How do you negotiate a better price when purchasing wares from a vendor? How do account for the vendor’s attitude towards the group, her attitude towards individuals in the group (how does she feel about dragonborn for instance), what type of haggling tactics work on this vendor, what kind of rolls (plural!) do you have to make to successfully “win” the encounter?
Combat have a complex system for simulating and managing multiple combatants acting simultaneously, applying effects and damage to each other. Social interactions are basically some dialog and maybe a charisma check or two.
I think however, a better argument is to make a thought experiment of how combat would be resolved by using rules akin to the rules for social interactions:
DM: “You encounter a group of 5 goblins.”
Fighter: “I run up to hit the one in front!”
DM: “How do you attack?”
Fighter: “I draw my sword while running up to the group, start a swing and time it just right to hit the goblin just as it’s within reach.”
DM: “Roll an athletics check to see whether you hit.”
DM: “You hit and kill the lead goblin. The other four fan out and start to flank you…”
Fighter: “I immediately start moving to the leftmost one, to prevent being flanked, and to attack it.”
Warlock: “I cast Eldritch Blast on the rightmost one.”
DM: “Roll an arcana check to see if you hit.”
DM: “You hit and kill the goblin. Fighter, as you approach the leftmost goblin, one of the other goblins shoot an arrow at you. The arrow hits. You’re hurt but still standing. You reach the leftmost goblin, how do you attack?”
Fighter: “I swing my sword, once again timing it to hit the goblin just as it’s within reach.”
DM: “Because of the arrow hit and your wounds you miss the goblin, leaving yourself open to attack. The goblin seizes the opportunity and stabs you with it’s short sword. You go down, and pass out.”
Wizard: “I cast fireball!”
DM: “Where are you aiming?”
Wizard: “It’s going to hit the three remaining goblins, but not the unconscious form of Fighter.”
DM: “Roll an arcana check to see whether you manage to only hit the goblins, and not Fighter.”
DM: “You hit and kill the three goblins, while managing to avoid hitting Fighter.”
This feels very different. There’s no initiative order, no rounds, no turns. Characters act when they feel like it. In this example Fighter is able to take multiple “turns” before Wizard even joins the combat. Attacks hit or miss based on single rolls, or might even be determined based solely on the DM’s discretion, such as when Fighter tries to hit the leftmost goblin.
Now try to apply the regular combat system to a social interaction. A conversation where speaking is determined by initiative order and turns, etc.
Does that mean that you can’t have social interactions in 5th Edition? No! You’re very clearly able to have that too, just look at any episode of Critical Role. What I’m arguing is that the game rules don’t accommodate for social interactions in any meaningful way and that the game wants you to fight monsters.
It looks like this is changing however. In a recent Twitter thread by Robert G Reeve, he explains how the two most recent adventures published by Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of D&D) introduce new ways of playing the game. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and The Wild Beyond the Witchlight apparently presents alternatives to combat to resolve conflicts.
The seed for my idea to show how combat could work using the same rules as for social encounters, was inspired by a comment in one of Matt Coleville’s recent videos, where he talks about “narrative dice” and what’s now known as the Genesys Roleplaying System. Matt mentions that you (may) resolve combat by rolling a pool of dice once, and that’s the whole fight. Go watch that video to see how a system quite unlike the D20 system works.
As a final thought: don’t let my rambling dissuade you from playing Dungeons & Dragons your way or make you feel like you’re doing D&D wrong. Kill all the monsters, negotiate piece instead, do it your way. The ultimate goal of playing, is to have fun.