Ten Fantasy Elements You Don't See In D&D

Something you won’t see in D&D

Rescue the Princess

D&D heroes don’t save the Princess from the Dragon – they simply Kill the Dragon and take it’s stuff, no Princess needed.

Maybe it’s because Princesses aren’t fun, or in this “enlightened” age the Princess is likely to be able to take care of herself, or it’s the fear of being branded sexist. Whatever the reason, rescuing Princess is strictly off the menu for D&D gamers. That’s a shame, as rescuing the Princess opens doors. If your characters are mid- to high-level a grateful King could grant them a patent of nobility and a plot of land on which to build their castle as thanks for the safe return of his daughter – with hopes that the spoilt brat will marry one of them a few years down the line. At lower levels, a good Princess rescue means access to the castle training grounds and another place to explore for Fame and Profit. Especially Profit.

Zero to Hero

90% of all fantasy novels begin with the son or daughter of a farmer in some insignificant village being thrust into adventure by events beyond their control. In D&D terms, the starting character is a 1st (or 0th) level Commoner right at the start of a career which may take them to heroism, nobility and even kingship. That’s a pure Fantasy trope yet how many times would players choose to start with the Commoner class, really? Today’s D&D players are more likely to select an uber-Kewl class which starts with tons of abilities and gain yet more as they advance through the levels. It looks like 4th Edition is going to promote this arms-race even further, and I shudder to think that future Editions will bring.

By 6th Edition players will boast “My character is a first level Red Dragonkin Shatterspike Hellbound Warrior whose special ability is to summon the gods once per encounter”. That’s a far cry from Pug, Bilbo, Garion and the rest, and not a game I’d want to play.

The problem with the arms race is there’s no sense of achievement; a character which starts awesome and stays awesome is simply less fun than starting relatively weak, and earning all that wealth, fame and coolness.

Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t play the game like this – there’s even an excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics module from Goodman Games to get you started – but how many of us do, really?

The Tortured Soul

When was the last time your D&D character was tortured by inner demons? When did he feel guilt over the death of a loved one, or be tormented by images from a violent past? This is a role-playing rather than rules-based thing, but D&D games lack that extra layer; the alignment system codifies all of the characters’ beliefs into just 2 words, and many D&D players just leave it at that.

Next time you roll up a character, think about whether he sleeps at night, consider his fears and flaws; maybe he’s scared of heights, or sees the ghost of an ex-lover in the firelight. It’ll make for a richer gaming experience overall.

Mentor and Apprentice

In general, D&D characters are self taught and the only way for them to get better is to kill lots of stuff, with the occasional lesser reward for great role-playing (read: making the GM laugh). That’s all well and good, and entirely in keeping with the spirit of D&D, but at the same time it’s not exactly representative of what’s seen in Fantasy novels. There, an experienced warrior, mage or rogue takes the youngblood (usually the farmer’s boy) under his wing until they’re ready to face their nemesis, aided and abetted by a small group of like-minded souls.

That’s easy to implement in D&D of course – all that’s needed in a friendly high-level NPC in the background. It’s far trickier if both mentor and apprentice are player-characters though, which leads up neatly on to………..

Party level disparity

Here’s a quick challenge for you: estimate the level of all the Fellowship of the Ring at the start of their quest. Unless you think Gandalf was only a fifth level magic-user, you’re going to be looking at an adventuring party wih levels ranging from 1st-3rd (Frodo, Sam and Merry), to the very top of the tree with Gandalf, a freaking demi-god. I’ll come back to the whole Gandalf-is-5th-level thing shortly.

That’s an adventuring party with a level range covering the entire spectrum, right in the centre of the most iconic Fantasy books of all, and it’s entirely unplayable under D&D. Other systems make a better job of ignoring so-called game balance, all to the betterment of the game, with Ars Magica right at the top with characters encouraged to play multiple characters – one Mage and a handful of low-powered Grog cohorts – all at the same time. It’s a beautiful mechanism, and one that would work wonders in D&D. Four players running a high-level character plus one or two lesser characters ready to step into the breech and provide much needed backup support would be a great thing, and wipe out any issue with “balance” in one sweep.

Going back to Gandalf-as-fifth-level, I think it’s a great point; when 89% of people are 1st level Commoners a 5th level character is going to be legendary in comparison, with abilities far beyond the comprehension of your average folks. Think in those terms, and the game comes much, much closer to the levels found in classic Fantasy. Wizards, take note. We need fewer class levels, not more!

Armed only with a sword

The Greatest Fantasy heroes of all time used very few magic items. Conan cut his bloody swathe armed only with whatever lay around at the time, Elric had his sword and Robin Hood had nothing but a longbow, Unless you read Characters of Middle-Earth for MERP, you’d be forgiven for thinking Gandalf defeated the Balrog armed only with a staff, Elven sword and a grey dressing gown. The magic items are far down the list of what makes a character.

In contrast, in D&D equipment defines the character, and that’s so, so wrong. Your 20th level character’s abilities are defined as much by their gear as they are by their class levels, whereas the magic items should just be the icing on the cake. Under 3rd Edition it’s the wrong way round. I want my hero to be able to walk into a room armed only with any old sword and a cloth shirt and be able to wipe the floor with anything he finds. That’s heroic!

The Will and The Word

Magic in D&D doesn’t represent magic found in Fantasy novels unless they have been inspired by D&D in the first place. Neither Gandalf, Belgarion, Pug nor any other Fantasy mage from the books had to memorise spells in advance, work from a limited spell list, use spell components or hop on one leg to cast their magics. While every fantasy novelist brings their own particular take on how magic works, it’s usually a better, sleeker, more logical system than the one that’s been at the core of D&D for all this time; I won’t shed a tear if 4th Edition finally puts Vancian spell-casting out to pasture.

Mismatched Armour

In the name of all that’s holy, D&D has been around for 30 years and I still can’t generate a character wearing a chain shirt, leather breeches, a shoulder guard and a chain hauberk without hitting obscure sourcebooks. The less I say about that, the less annoyed I’ll get, so moving on…………

Political Machinations

On a more positive note, one of the better elements of 3.5 Edition D&D is it’s skill system which includes decent rules for social interractions at all levels. Our characters can Intimidate, Perform to a crowd and use Diplomacy with the best of them, and That Is Good. It’s just a shame that it’s so sadly under-used by GM and Player alike.

Fantasy novels are great at showing what’s going on behind the scenes, revealing the motivations of the Bad Guys at the same time they show what the Good Guys are up to, and it’s fun to read but darned difficult to achieve in role-playing. The best we can do is use those social skills more and play out the consequences of a failed roll. Make the players work the social network, play down the combat and be generous with your XP awards for social encounters. It’ll change the dynamic of the game for the better and make combat, when it does occur, all the more dramatic.

Only Evil Uses Magic

One option is to have the players run a zero or low-magic party. Let them play second tier spellcasters such as Druids and Rangers, have Clerics be NPC only and keep the Arcane spell-casters as Big Evil Dudes and you’re coming closer to the feel of Classic Fantasy. The players will need to return to civilization for healing (and stock up on all-important potions), and magic will be almost entirely in the hands of the GM. This means it becomes a Plot Device that can be used to confound or aide the characters as required.

In other words, magic becomes magical again.

Till next time!

3 Comments on “Ten Fantasy Elements You Don't See In D&D”

  1. Here Here! I am a game master & I run a custom game, many of these elements I do already (Such as peicemeil armor & Character levels) and I HEARTILY Agree on the rest. Especially on making Magic MAGIC again.
    Nice to see this Bravo.
    (Passing this link on to my 30+ players)

  2. I didn’t realize that others didn’t incorporate some of this stuff into their games until I joined the D&D forums at Wizards back when it was 3.5 edition. I run the Forgotten Realms with another GM and the events of his games effect mine and vice-versa. And one of the first games my partner ran was a rescue the damsel story. It eneded with a fellow of our group marrying the lady and we garnered enough wealth and power to take over an uncivilized patch of land in a far off place and build it up. And the dark and tortured past is such an adventure hook. In a game that I ran a character’s father left him and his mother when he was boy. Years later he finds that he’d joined an evil entity’s army as his general and was bent on world domination. Oh the fun things that these suggestions could bring to a game. Unless, of course, it is just a hack and slash.

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