How to stop D&D feeling like a video game

I’ve been a bit missing in action over the last few weeks. An explanation: I have started work on a new project! And the first chapter is almost ready for you to see . . .

Paths of the Nexus will, I hope, be a multi-level megadungeon taking adventurers from 1st to 20th level. Yes, I’m aware that this is very, very ambitious, but it is also something I’m not going to rush. It might take years. A fun side project to aim for!

My main inspiration is Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but I’m throwing in a few twists. Like Mad Mage, it will be, in essence, an anthology, with each level featuring its own theme. I want to continue the ‘fun house’ tradition of Undermountain where anything can appear and probably will. Also, as with Adventures in Hawk’s Rest, I want to pay homage to classic D&D monsters and include a balance of social, combat, and exploration encounters using core 5e rules. And as for the story: suffice to say that my recent (ish) post on science-fantasy was what got me thinking about this!   

Anyway. Onto the post . . .

Do you ever feeling like you’re playing a video game when you’re playing D&D?

I suppose this could mean a number of different things:

  • A lack of roleplaying and immersion
  • Repetitive, procedural, highly structured gameplay
  • Railroading: a linear storyline with limited player agency
  • Unimaginative, clichéd, or shallow characters
  • Story and creativity take a backseat for ruled and mechanics
  • A game where everything revolves around rewards and XP

There’s a kind of irony in all this, as DaddyRolleda1 pointed out on Twitter. In the early days, video games were influenced by tabletop RPGs like D&D; now, tabletop RPGs can increasingly feel like video games!

The first observation here is that this isn’t necessarily the ‘wrong’ way to play D&D. Maybe it’s what you like! One of the most popular articles on my site is an article about how to make D&D feel more like Diablo, and I’ve also written about Tomb Raider and Far Cry. If this is your jam, you do you.

For a lot of people, though, playing an RPG is about immersion, imagination, unpredictability, and collaboration – and if it’s not, it can feel like you are being dragged through someone else’s novel. So in this article, I’m going to suggest some ways of breaking free from the video game paradigm and embracing what makes RPGs special.  

Play in person

Obviously, not everyone can do this. But as a starting point, if you can play in person, play in person. It’s not always easy to connect with someone over a webcam, and it makes roleplaying and collaboration a little bit harder. (I have some advice for playing RPGs online here.)

Slight caveat to this: it’s perfectly possible to roleplay badly in person and well online! And maybe I’m just more conscious of video-game behaviour when I’m sitting at a PC, because I’m looking at a screen. But in my experience, in-person play is less likely to become ‘video gamey’ than online play.

Don’t prep plots

A classic RPG essay now, but a really important read if you are trying to avoid railroading. Generally speaking, video games tend to feel more restrictive than tabletop RPGs, sometimes to the point where you can feel like you’re interacting with ‘invisible walls’ and limited to a certain course. Game like The Last of Us and the modern Tomb Raider series are particularly bad for this (much as I love them). Conversely, games like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim are celebrated for their massive open worlds, but they are arguably the exception that proves the rule. So don’t prep plots: prep situations, and let the game unfold from there.

Power up your description

Sly Flourish often talks about how your imagination is a special FX budget with an infinite budget. He’s right. The right description can make your game more immersive and more imaginative, and moves the focus from the mechanics to the story. I have some tips on how to power up your description here.

Run easier combats

Another tip from Justin Alexander and Sly Flourish. If you continually run difficult combats, you will a) spend more time on combat, b) encourage more resting between encounters, and c) create a more adversarial dynamic between you and the players. In essence, you are signposting to the players that this is what the game is mostly about, ‘so get good’.

Alternatively, run more encounters that are easy or even trivial. They will play faster and give your players a chance to feel badass. You will also probably see less rules-lawyering and less of a focus on mechanics generally.

Lose the grid

Anathema to many players, but honestly, is there anything that makes your game feel more like a video game than a 5ft grid? Yes, theatre of the mind can be confusing, and yes, a map can be a great way of immersing your players in the world of the game – it’s why I’m so grateful for Dungeon Baker’s awesome maps in Hawk’s Rest. But you don’t need a map for every encounter.

Keep magic items magical

Some RPGs are much better at this than D&D. Forbidden Lands, for example. If magic items have no history to them, no description, they won’t feel special. It’s hard to get excited about a +1 longsword. If you want inspiration, there are some solid tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (Chapter 7) which can help make magic items unique. (Also, don’t give out too many magic items! Rare = special, and you run the risk of breaking the game if you give you out too many.)

Milestones or XP

I have a bit of a paradox about XP. On the one hand it feels very video gamey; on the other, it promotes player agency, which is at the heart of what makes RPGs so fun. Milestone levelling can feel a bit more narrative, but it also gives players less control over the direction of the game. (‘We won’t level up unless we do what Madam Eva told us to do.’) Whichever route you go down, try to ensure that players are rewarded for more than just combat. If killing things is the only way to level up, you are going to see a much more video gamey approach at your table.

Use pause for a minute

Ultimately, if you feel like your sessions are feeling more and more like a video game – and I’ve been there – raise it with your players. To some extent, it might be your fault as the DM. Maybe you’re railroading, or your combats are taking too long, or you’re skipping some of the description that makes your world immersive. But if your players are the problem, talk it over with them, because they genuinely might not realize it’s bothering you.

Is this a problem you have experienced in your own games? How did you manage it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Never miss an article

Unsubscribe at any time.

2 thoughts on “How to stop D&D feeling like a video game

  1. This is all great advice, well MOSTLY good advice.

    There are a couple of things in here I would be wary of:

    Use of a grid- using a grid for many combats but not all, signals players that the encounter may be trivial. In the 15-40% of encounters don’t use a grid, when the battle grid doesn’t come out the players may not take it seriously. This causes a couple of meta problems. A bit of bad luck combined with players not taking it seriously can easily cause an easy-ish to moderate encounter to take a sudden turn and result in serious consequences.
    Alternatively, it can cause players to correctly disregard the encounter, which prevents it actually building any tension and they conserve their resources.
    I would opt for either 0-10% theatre of the mind, where the battlemap not coming out really does mean it’s trivial, or only bringing out the battlemap in serious and deadly fights 60-80% theater of the mind. It is far safer to use the battlemap to signal “Danger” than safety.

    Secondly, handing out few magic items. D&D 5e in has a martial-caster gap, and one of the best ways of handling that is to have increase the number of magical items it the game. They tend to favor martial characters in general, and reducing their dependence on casters for magical solutions really helps address this issue. 5e has the attunement system in place to prevent magic items bloat getting out of hand (yes, the distinction of when an item should require attunement is not handled perfectly).

    That difficult choice that a player has when they gain their forth magic items might be “gamey” but it does represent real choice, whereas the magic items handed out by the GM, adventure or luck of the dice do not.

    1. Fair comments! Re the combat grid, yes, I would generally use the battlemap to signal ‘danger’ than safety. If an encounter is trivial, I would rather lean into the description and make it more cinematic with theatre of the mind. Ditto encounters with lots and lots of combatants.

      Quite true about the martials/casters gap. I think my main point about magic items is as much about flavour as mechanics. In order to keep magic items FEELING magical, you (as a DM) need to keep them special. Give them a history, a colourful description, a name . . . just don’t let the sword become a “+1 longsword”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *