With all of the discourse around trying to pick a system – D&D or otherwise – to tell a particular story, I’ll take a story I’ve worked on refining for the last three years. The story of Of Hand and Heart (OHAH).
I’ve chronicled different things about the story and the journey it’s been here, but for the sake of this exercise, we’ll ignore that. Instead we’ll talk about the concept.
The Story Concept
I’ve actually tried writing this adventure in a formalized document, so I’ll just copy and paste this section from the adventure background section.
The lunar year approaches and, as the year is that of an even number, the distance between the mystic world closes for a brief moment, awakening the next generation of those who would keep the balance of the five elements. Among those called are the players, who must understand the nature of this balance and their calling within it lest this world be thrown into chaos as evil powers from beyond the veil seek to tip the balance of the world’s elements and seize power.
Previously, a band of adventurers were called forth, but of those called, only the Snake Hermit would seek to understand his power and wield it for the good of the world. One by one, as both the journey to Shangri-la and their own powers tested them, all save the Snake Hermit and his friend, the Fire Rat were found wanting. The Snake Hermit, seeking what power he could to forestall what would be the end of all things stole the seeds of destiny from his friends. He and the Fire Rat used their powers to reset their timeline and send themselves to a point in which new adventurers would be bestowed their mystic powers and perhaps carry out what he could not.
Part of this came from the first iteration of this adventure and seeing how it ended, but that’s a story for another time. What we want to focus on here is trying to move away from this in D&D to anything else.
Let’s try it out.
Moving Away a Bit
So when I wrote this story at first, I knew nothing of any system. Thanks to the help of a few folks, I tried implementing this in the D&D system. Spiffy. What happened was having to homebrew a lot of things in order for the key concepts to shine through and be used to solve problems and explore the world. Here’s a few of them I’ve run into while I attempt to deconstruct stuff.
- Each character represents an element and an animal from the zodiac.
- Each of those affects how their powers express themselves.
- Powers can be used to offensively, defensively, or in a utilitarian manner.
- There are a set of past lives everyone has access to and can access for guidance.
- There is a spot from which all points in time can be seen.
- Each character starts with access to a demiplane that then merges with everyone else’s. This becomes a collective demiplane.
This is just what I’ve taken so far; that deconstruction work is still underway.
It wasn’t more than 10 sessions into the first iteration where I was informed, “Hey, you should try looking into another system to explore this story. Perhaps Mage the Ascension would help here.” I took a look into this, but there are challenges with trying to learn a new system.
The Challenge Proper
So in order to move away from things like this, you need a certain level of not just “systems thinking” but also “design thinking”. Let’s break that down what this means for me.
When you’re looking at a game, you have the understanding of what the game does with the rules proper and the informal knowledge of where the system bends and breaks which allows you to homebrew and maintain balance.
Note: this homebrewing thing can become an issue because forces us as DMs to do the work of creating things that don’t exist and trying to force them into the rulesets of D&D rather than explore our curiosity by seeking solutions that exist natively in other systems.
It blunts our imagination on a collective level and that, for the whole genre is good for some people, but is bad overall for everyone. Back to our exercise here.
A layer of abstraction from systems thinking is design thinking and it is this ability to take the parts of a game, break them down and/or contextualize them that makes for good… well, everything.
The idea here is: “These mechanics are here and while I can do anything I want with these, I can also see what they are designed to do.”
What does the game build rules around? What things are heavily described? What things are abstracted? What things are left entirely to the DMs or players to arbitrate?
From there, we get into more lateral thinking about other systems and rulesets that may exist. That thinking could look like this:
Which rpg ruleset do I use to accomplish what I want to use and what trade-offs am I making relative to the rpg rulesets I already know? Who do I reach out to in order to contextualize that information once I absorb it?
We got the concept. We got the challenge. Now for a solution.
Learning a New System
I started with looking up Mage the Ascension and landed on MASKS and, by extension, the concept of games that are based on the “Powered by the Apocalype” (PbtA) system.
Thankfully, I have the informal channels to support and supplement my learning, but here’s the tea: it took me three years to find it.
If you see people talking about their various experiences with things they were trying to do in D&D that are racking their brain, pull up with the “Hey, have you tried doing that in [system]? I’m happy to talk to you about it if you want! Hit me up.” or some variant of that.
Point people to your podcasts. Bring awareness to your forums that help them get more nuanced answers to questions. Volunteer your time. Repeat: volunteer your time.
I’ve said this before, but if we are going to expand our knowledge on these systems, we have to make those channels available and known in the same breath we are using to rightly critique other systems and their varied implementations of… well… a lot.