I've been working on OneShot for a while, a project which has been enormously fruitful. I've participated in or set up no fewer than five campaigns/settings in the system, each of which has been a resounding success. I'm still working on coalescing the various documents I've generated into a single concrete "first edition" rulebook, complete with a campaign setting called OneShot: PSICOM. The purpose of this entry, however, is not to toot my own horn.
I've done a significant amount of research on RPG theory, mainly via the efforts of Ron Edwards and Vince Baker at The Forge, a progressive forum for independent tabletop RPG design. The site began, it appeared, as a dual-purpose device, hosting both the forums proper, and a series of articles published by Edwards and others. The one thing that I admired the most was the (apparently outdated) GNS Theory. Those letters stand for Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism. There's an impressive level of detail on each of those terms within the Forge articles on each, but I'll attempt to sum up each one here for the purposes of this discussion:
- Gamism: The concept of "playing a game" comes first -- that is, being principally concerned with figuring out the variables and optimizing both actions and character setup in order to win or lose.
- Narrativism: The story comes first. The purpose of roleplaying is to tell a story; game mechanics and character sheets are a means to that end.
- Simulationism: A main focus on simulating a world, whether real or invented. Rules exist for exactly how a laser beam interacts with a blast door, or how your sword damages a character protected by different types of armor in different locations.
Nowhere in any of the articles does Edwards present any of these design foci as wrong, though he expresses a fondness for Narrativism above others -- this can be seen in both his and Vince Baker's works.
So, let's get back to the title of this entry -- why does D&D suck? Depends on who you ask. A common misconception among RPG players is that games, and people, who don't cater to their style are either bad or are missing the point. Simulationists decry Vampire: The Masquerade (or, honestly, any White Wolf product) as too vague. Gamists can't understand why "winning" conflicts in Dogs in the Vineyard might still kill you or do you more harm than good. Narrativists don't appreciate the obsession in D&D 4th edition on the concept of "builds" and "cooldowns".
Ah, I got sneaky; I mentioned D&D a little early. Well, the problem is that D&D simultaneously caters to and frustrates each type of gamer. That's why D&D "sucks"; not because it doesn't work for players of various ilks, but because it doesn't do any of them particularly well.
Let me digress for a moment -- there's a concept in software development (my principal occupation) called "breaking changes". When a new version of a program is released, any change significant enough to cause documents, saved games, or code generated with an earlier version incorrect or incompatible is a "breaking change". For example, when a game releases version 1.2, and tells you that saved games from 1.1 don't work anymore. In general, breaking changes are a bad idea, because it causes users a significant amount of strife in dealing with modifying, converting, or simply recreating their work.
D&D got its origins from a game called "Chainmail"; it was a tabletop wargame, dealing with maneuvering armies in battles. One of its scenarios involved moving through a dungeon to access a castle from underground; the setting was so well liked that it was expanded, bringing the focus from masses of units to individual heroes, and adding the conceit of hit points so that beloved warriors didn't die on a single failed roll. As the game expanded upwards from its wargame roots, into a first, second, third, and eventually fourth edition, it carried with it a lot of baggage. You couldn't leave "Armor Class", or Vecna, or "Magic Missile" behind and still call the game Dungeons & Dragons. Just the same, you couldn't leave behind the exhaustive rules for unarmed combat and grappling, nor the immense realism in certain spots, nor the narrative aspects. They're all expected. (Well, that's not entirely the case in D&D 4th edition; I've heard it best described as "D&D: The Boardgame"; but that's neither here nor there.) The bottom line is, since D&D has been around since the very origins of tabletop roleplaying (and is arguably the forefather of roleplaying in general), the fact that it carries so much baggage is almost expected.
That's simultaneously the charm and the curse of D&D, sadly. Everyone sits down at the table to play their version of the game, and no one gets what they want.
My friends and I lean narrativist, generally. We like to tell stories, and D&D is a fine vehicle for it. That said, there are a good thousand pages of rules, not to mention rule supplements, to digest before you really understand how the game works; if you don't have a character concept, race, or whatever that's present in the system, it's a herculean feat to try to create it. And then, even if you do, you're stuck with a huge quandry with respect to game balance.
Simulationists kind of like D&D, because spells, materials, and items all have statistics that allow them to interact with each other. You'll know exactly how a sword or axe will break down a wooden door. But you'll be disappointed if you try to figure out how explosives work, or how fireballs affect grass or other items; the rules for the fireball seem to contradict each other, as the damage comes from an explosive burst which is gone in an instant, and doesn't set characters on fire, but does fire damage, not concussive, and sets flammable objects on fire. What?
Gamists love D&D because there are a laundry list of options. That list expands tenfold (at least!) if your unwitting DM allows races, classes, and spells from external supplements, not all of which are official. There's simply so much material out for version 3/3.5 that a sufficiently wily player will, given time, find a game-breaking combination that makes him win every encounter.
Here's where things get difficult -- all of these players have reasons to love D&D, but if you put members of each group in the same party, bad things happen. So, Gamist sits down at the table with his buddies, Narrativist and Simulationist. The GM starts to tell a fantastic tale, when we encounter the party at the local tavern. Suddenly, a squad of goblins busts down the door, axes at the ready; who'll save them but the local party of adventurers? Narrativist describes in exacting detail the process of slamming his drink down, pulling out his rapier and lute, and the soulful yet aggressive tones that fill the air with magic. The Simulationist wonders aloud whether the tanglefoot bag he's carrying can create a web across the door to clothesline the goblins as they pass through the doorway. But who cares? The gamist took Cleave and Great Cleave, Two-weapon Fighting, and is dual-wielding Greatswords using Monkey Grip. Oh, and he's a half-ogre so he has reach. They're all dead before they get a turn. The other plans are wasted; they're clever and may work, but they're suboptimal, and don't kill the most punks per second. They're shunted to the sidelines. Simultaneously, the gamist complains that his allies aren't putting their best foot forward, while the narrativist laments his well-crafted description gone to waste, and the simulationist wonders aloud how this jerk can kill six enemies in two seconds using weapons that can't feasibly function in a room that small. For that matter, how'd the ogre fit through the tavern door?