Dungeons & Dragons or why board games and RPGs are not in direct competition

My friends and pretty much all the people who know me are aware – and sometimes make fun – of the fact that I am the “mechanics guy”. I care a lot more about how the game plays and about the interactions between game pieces than about the theme of the game. I would often call a vegetable just “green”, the grains would become “yellow” and the workers in Agricola would simply be “my discs”. This used to be the rule until perhaps 3 years ago when my preferences shifted slowly from the almost theme-less German style games to a more diverse palette.

At the same time, I started appreciating a lot more the games which are in perfect balance, with their theme complementing the mechanisms and “explaining” them to make the game easier to grasp. Terra Mystica is such an example, a game in which the theme does not play a central role, simply helping to understand a brilliant, yet heavy board game.

The next step was playing and publishing Mistfall, an adventure game which “bleeds” theme, but with extremely strong and well defined game mechanisms. What stood out in Mistfall was the combo-making core which makes it so different from other adventure games. But it was also the theme which gave it a distinct RPG feel. And this made me think that perhaps Mistfall is a direct competitor for established RPGs.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th ed. (source: kotaku.com)

In my quest to fully chart the universe of board games for myself, I decided to go to the very edge and try… Dungeons & Dragons. I had read a lot about it in the past and when the opportunity presented itself, I joined a 6-player daylong session of D&D, using a ready built level 14 elf… and i was a delight to play. I must admit that despite my shift in gaming preferences, I was fairly sceptical about the possibility of fully enjoying a role playing game because the outcome and the fun factor depends overwhelmingly on the players rather than on the game itself.

When I stood up from the table, after 10 hours of playing, I had a completely different view on pen-and-paper RPGs and their place in the gaming world.

Board games and RPGs do not compete with each other. Most board game players I know would never even come close to a pen-and-paper role playing game, mostly because they are not willing to invest the time to learn a system so complex and immersive, but also because they – just like I did in the past – are looking mostly at game mechanisms, and not at the theme. And there’s more… those who are no longer casual gamers, but they have not been sucked in the hobby completely would rather try the newest board game titles, because it is easier to convince their gaming group to spend an hour listening to rules explanation, and then gain many hours of fun from a new board game, than to build characters and play an RPG. It’s mostly because those hours of fun are disconnected, they come in groups of 2 or 3 at a time, leaving enough time for daily chores. Board gaming is simply less addictive for “regular” people.

When we talk about heavy gamers (people who dedicate most of their free time to gaming), the situation is different. When you put a lot of passion, time and resources into the hobby, you notice that RPGs and board games are simply too different to fill the same need. I would choose a German-style game when I feel competitive, but I do not want to crush my opponents, I just want to outsmart them. I would choose Starcraft, Exodus: Proxima Centauri, Twilight Imperium or Eclipse when I want to build an empire and crush my opponents. I would choose Anomia when I want to laugh out loud for half an hour. I would choose D&D when I want to feel like an mighty warrior or an elf, when I want to be the guy defeating a demon or a mighty vampire. I would choose Mistfall or Descent when I just want to act like a hero and show the overlord that heroes are not to be messed with, that we can make mighty combos and kill powerful foes, but we only have a few hours to do that.

This is why role playing games and board games are not competing genres, but complementing each other and simply enhancing the offer for hobbyists worldwide.

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3 thoughts on “Dungeons & Dragons or why board games and RPGs are not in direct competition

  1. Great commentary, completely agree that RPGs and boardgames are in no way competitors – except for every players personal time and attention, if you’re into both.
    I’d like to add to the discussion the problem of group constancy: when I play RPGs, I prefer to play many sessions with the same characters to really see them grow, opposed to one long session and then be done with them. That has become increasingly difficult as me and the people I play with grew older. Between children, work trips and other commitments, it’s very difficult to schedule regular sessions with the same people. An RPG campaign with changing players makes very little sense.
    With boardgames, on the other hand, you take some people that know the game, explain it to the ones that don’t, and everyone will usually have a good time.
    At least for me, that’s why I switched from a mixed diet to pretty much boardgames only. It’s not about preference, or the two things competing, it’s about opportunity.

    1. I completely agree, time is the main constraint for playing RPGs. Board games, like you said, are much easier to fit in our free time and this probably why they’re nowadays more trendy than RPGs.

  2. You are of course correct in your analysis. Rpgs and board games are completely different animals. Though I will contend that some RPGs can have very intriguing mechanics as well. I still think AD&D had excellent mechanics as well as allowing the freeform type of play that makes RPGs so much fun. I still play RPGs and board games (as well as the ocaissional tabletop wargame). Yet they are for completely differing moods.
    Thanks for the commentary.

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