A Strategy Guide For D&D

I recently picked up a copy of the D&D Player’s Strategy Guide from a local used bookstore. I wouldn’t have bought it normally, but it was relatively cheap and I had some leftover store credit that I’d been hanging on to for the better part of a year.

Unsurprisingly, some people have balked at the very idea of a “strategy guide” for an RPG. I had figured I wouldn’t need it much myself because I have so much experience with the game already. I was right–two years of playing a game will do that–but there’s an awful lot of stuff in the book I wish someone had spelled out for me from the get-go. 4E is a sufficiently complex system that it has a distinct learning curve, and this is a book that can help smooth that out for new players by explaining all kinds of stuff that the rulebooks either leave out (and that most RPG rulebooks would leave out) or only mention in passing. It’s common sense to focus fire and eliminate individual enemies as quickly as possible[1], but the Strategy Guide goes to the trouble of illustrating how big of a difference it can make with diagrams and everything.

The book covers a whole range of topics, including character building, party composition, tactics, role-playing, and some of the social stuff (including a section titled simply “Don’t Be A Jerk”). It’s all grounded in a very solid understanding of how the game works and what it can do, so that players can skip over some of the trial and error (emphasis on the “error” part) that we went through in the first year or so of playing 4E. If we’d had a better idea how to play defenders, or just how much it would cost us not to have a leader in the party, we might’ve done things very differently, and altogether better.

The thing about D&D in particular is that while it draws on various kinds of fantasy literature, it was always its own thing. In some ways this was a limitation of the designers’ understanding of this new “role-playing game” insanity they’d devised, and in other ways it was likely deliberate. Certainly when fans asked questions about why the game wouldn’t allow for a given element from Lord of the Rings or some other beloved fantasy title[2], Gygax’s usual answer was that it was a game first and foremost. While D&D started off culling ideas from fiction, it gradually became more and more about itself, I think in part because that’s all that its rules could really effectively provide.

I think that explains why works of fiction based off of D&D are at their best when they reflect what goes on at a typical gaming table. Typical D&D novels come off as stilted, and struggle to find the happy medium between slavish adherence to what the rules can do and getting into stuff the game inherently can’t do justice. That’s where the new D&D comics from IDW and even stuff like The Gamers really shine. The fun of D&D is less in Aragorn reclaiming the throne of Gondor, and more in the silly bickering and strange accidents that happen along the way (which makes movie Gimli the most D&D-like character in the whole of Middle Earth).

What I like most about the Player’s Strategy Guide is that it’s unabashedly situated in the same realm as D&D actual play rather than wishful thinking about such. It has lots of pragmatic advice about how to get what you really want out of the game, both from a social perspective and in terms of working the rules and building characters, and it’s written in a friendly tone, with cute little cartoons that lighten the mood and call to mind the ones in the AD&D1e Dungeon Master’s Guide.

[1]That’s a tactical thing so basic you can pick it up from the original 8-bit Final Fantasy.

[2]Dragon Magazine once published stats for Conan. Very few of his ability scores were below 20. You know that guy in the books you love so much that inspired you to play this game? Your guy will never, ever be as bad-ass as him.

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7 thoughts on “A Strategy Guide For D&D

  1. “It’s all grounded in a very solid understanding of how the game works and what it can do, so that players can skip over some of the trial and error (emphasis on the “error” part) that we went through in the first year or so of playing 4E. If we’d had a better idea how to play defenders, or just how much it would cost us not to have a leader in the party, we might’ve done things very differently, and altogether better.”

    Right, because your way, the player’s personal way, of running a defender may not be the ‘best’ way. This one of the reasons I don’t like 4E.

    You would done things differently why exactly? To laugh more? To have more fun? Or is it to be more effective in combat? Because frankly, I couldn’t give a rat’s butt how effective some of my characters are in combat. They aren’t all combat characters.

    I played Meikyu Kingdom the other day and all I can say is we, as American gamers, have been robbed. We were given 4E when someone could have spent that time and money making or translating this awesome piece of brilliance. OK, not literally perhaps but still…it’s not secret I’m not a D&D fan but 4E just feels like the opposite direction I want to go in these days.

    1. Right, because your way, the player’s personal way, of running a defender may not be the ‘best’ way. This one of the reasons I don’t like 4E.

      Well, it’s rather like the game handed me a screwdriver and I was trying to use it to put in nails. I don’t resent the tools for being made the way they are, I just wish the instructions had been a little clearer so that I could have avoided trying to use a defender as a striker.

      You would done things differently why exactly? To laugh more? To have more fun? Or is it to be more effective in combat? Because frankly, I couldn’t give a rat’s butt how effective some of my characters are in combat. They aren’t all combat characters.

      That’s very much your tastes and your prerogative, but yes, we do in fact *enjoy* making characters that are effective in combat and pitting them against the encounters the DM provides. We still role-play about as much as before, only with less railroading (separate issue from the rules we’re using) and everyone involved generally being happier overall.

      Which isn’t to say that that’s all I like in an RPG, and I’m very glad to have alternatives (and even a second gaming group that mainly does indie RPG weirdness). My second favorite game of late has been Fiasco, after all, and that’s more like an improv theater game with some dice getting involved here and there.

      I’m rather reminded of how when people talked about whether Babylon 5 or Deep Space 9 was the better sci fi show on a space station, I just thought it was awesome that we had both.

  2. I don’t disagree at all with where you’re coming from. I like to see both role playing and epic battles. I just wish, given the opportunity and the evolution of gaming over the years, that more role playing elements had gone into the rules of D&D 4E. A story or character driven ability or mystery/clue obtaining encounter power…I don’t know, something.

    1. I disagree entirely. Having the roleplaying removed from the combat actually wound up freeing up more characters to roleplay as. No more baked in RP fluff as a Bard, no more having to adhere to the idea that all Paladins are Lawful Good. This was exactly the problem with the last versions of D&D. You had to have the stats and character skills to backup your RP or else it meant nothing. Now, you’re free to do what you please, because you have no arbitrary constraints.

    2. Well, I would like to see some more mechanical support for non-combat stuff too. Skill Challenges are like a rough draft of what could become a really awesome mechanic in a few iterations. OTOH as Suichiro points out, it’s removed a lot of the arbitrary weirdness of older editions, and gives players a bit more freedom to establish their characters’ fluff themselves.

      I don’t know what WotC is planning–I’ve heard rumors of skill challenges being replaced with something more sophisticated–but this kind of thing is part of what has me so motivated to get Slime Quest up and running. And Meikyuu Kingdom, along with D&D4E and Mouse Guard, is high up on the list of Slime Quest’s inspirations, as you’ll see.

      1. I hate to bother you with this and you can certainly send an email directly to me if this is too off topic or inappropriate for here but weren’t you or someone else working on a Meikyuu Kingdom translation? After playing it I am dying to run it but a) don’t have a copy and can’t seem to get one and b) don’t read japanese. lol

      2. I seem to remember something about a fan translation of Meikyuu Kingdom, but I don’t know if it ever materialized. It is on my list of possible games to translate and publish, but not quite at the top. In either case if I find out something I’ll contact you privately.

        Unfortunately it’s very difficult to get a hold of it you’re not in Japan–I really have no idea why–and it’s just gotten harder because (owing to the U.S. government losing its mind over terrorism) the Japanese postal service has had to cease sending packages over 1 pound to the U.S. via air mail.

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