Dec. 8, 2021

D&D "Tips" are Bad

Before we begin, I'm aware of the hypocrisy, and the irony is most certainly not lost on me! But there is a trend on social media of short form #dnd tips and, rather worryingly, almost all of them are worthless. Allow me to explain.

We're all aware of the adage "every table is different" which, while certainly true, is rather reductive. It hides the real, and extremely obvious foundation: every human is different. What I mean by this is there's nothing special about TTRPGs when it comes to a social experience. We often apply a preciousness to what we hold dear, which is a lovely part of human nature, but it can make criticism and critical thinking difficult. At their core, TTRPGs are about real people, and every interaction both at and away from the table must be acutely aware of that.

I continuously get frustrated at the volume of issues found on RPG stack exchange, Facebook groups, and Reddit which are in no way related to TTRPGs. Seriously, just search "problem players" on any of the above and you'll find the same template problems ad infinitum. The answer to all of these is "speak to the player as a human being." You do not need any specialist knowledge to answer these questions.

Someone is cheating and that's not OK?
Speak to them as a human being.

Someone is abusive or offensive?
Speak to them as a human being.

Someone doesn't understand their character abilities and it's frustrating others?
Speak to them as a human being.

The DM's husband is a player and they pander to him and never let him die?
Speak to them as a human being.

Some of you may accuse me of over simplification, and while my above examples are somewhat facetious and lacking context, my point still stands. I could bring in my mother who doesn't even know what D&D stands for, explain to her the problem ("two people dispute the nature of this activity") and she would be able to resolve the issue. This is a woman who can't rotate her smart phone screen and thinks "TTRPG" "must be an internet thing."

Which brings me finally to the nexus of the post; as with almost everything, D&D skills are split down the middle between "hard" and "soft" skills. Hard skills are technical, mechanical, and most importantly, easily teachable. Soft skills on the other hand, are creative, abstract, and extremely difficult to impart. Most #dnd tips are soft skills.

I searched "#dnd tip" on Twitter and here the first results:

Which is, in essence: "Be creative."

"Be inspired."

*Reference to something repeated several times in the core books.*

Tips which are soft-skill based are the platitudes of the TTRPG space. They are the "live, laugh, love", the "live your life by a compass, not a clock." Great to have framed on your wall, but not so great when trying to get help with your game. You cannot teach someone to be more creative, or to be more inspired. An equivalent for software programming would be "use more algorithms", or for podcasting, "have guests on the show". The above examples also suffer from the "every table is different" motto - what if your table doesn't care for history or lore, or you only ever run published modules? These tips are now irrelevant, and maybe even harmful.

Which is the root problem: they flood the space with ineffective and potentially damaging vapourware, suffocating actionable advice.

As mentioned, tips which are hard-skill based are often mechanical and technical in nature. That is to say, they can be "SMART": specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound. The same cannot be said for something like "use more magic items in your game" (how many is "more"? What's considered a "magic item"? When and how should they be introduced?). The SMART, hard skills will objectively improve the quality of games, and therefore hold the most value. Furthermore, they will often be more widely applicable - every game deals with running encounters (combat or otherwise), so advice on the mechanical minutia or design intent of these is vastly more valuable.

The beauty of this, is that many current tips can be refocused into actionable learning events even within the constraints of a short form character limit:

"Use environmental effects in your encounters" becomes "be aware how environmental effects impact encounter difficulty, here's a rough equation..."

"Inspiration is everywhere" becomes "the following sources have excellent examples of X, Y, and Z".

"Enemies come in all shapes and sizes" becomes "use mixed creature-type in encounters by doing X to increase flexibility, variance, and interest."

I want everyone's games to be better, and I'm not ashamed to say it. My golden rule is "just because everyone is having fun, doesn't mean they can't be having more fun." More fun is objectively A Good Thing™. The purpose of this post is to encourage a move away from low-effort D&D platitudes towards actionable and effective advice. The next time you see a #dnd tip, take a second to think about what value it's actually adding to any given game, and how you would improve it.