Strahd vs. Nyarlathotep

This is a reprint of my column from Unwinnable Monthly #78. If you like it, try a subscription.

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A strange thing happened when we sat down to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E two weekends ago.

Our regular game, using the Basic and Expert rules from the mid-80s, had collapsed under the weight of busy schedules and a crummy module, so I had at a month of D&D-free living. Meanwhile, I’ve aggressively scheduled my Call of Cthulhu game. We ramped up from every other week to weekly, even if that meant playing shorter session on work nights. It is a brisk pace.

We’re five sessions into the famed Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, after six sessions of unconnected scenarios. It took a while to get used to the rules, but when we did, the quality of roleplaying was high. The characters are all quirky and interesting; the players are engaged with the mystery. Much of a session is given over to conversation, both within the party and with NPCs. There hasn’t been a serious combat in four games. I think last week we rolled dice maybe half a dozen times. If that.

I’ve been in roleplaying focused groups before, but this is something different. In those older games, the plot was central to play in. Here, the plot (though engaging) feels secondary. These folks seem to actually want to just sit around and chat about things in-character. That is essentially what they did in our last session. And they loved it.

I don’t want to call that weird, because it is fun and weird seems to denote a sort of negativity, but it is kind of weird in the uncharted territory sense.

Anyway. Fifth Edition D&D.


Hambone is running the Curse of Strahd for us. The idea is that we’re starting at level one, as kids. Like Monster Squad. To that end, my druid is a weird orphan living on the outskirts of town who enjoys collecting worms in jars. We’ve got a paladin, who is kind of a jock, a gnome barbarian, who is kind of a bully, and we have a bard who…I guess is the D&D equivalent of a band nerd.

It is a funny shtick and while we were just farting around town, it wasn’t too different from the Call of Cthulhu game. We made it up as we went, improvising our way through the school day in our spooky little town. When the game slipped into combat, however, it was D&D like any other edition. Everyone took their turn, dice were rolled and encounters were resolved in an orderly fashion. Math happened. Rules were consulted.

It all felt…constrictive.

Which is not to say bad. It was still fun, but having been out of the D&D world for a brief time, playing another system, I realized for the first time just how rigid and orderly the game is. No wonder chaotic evil always seemed like the worst of the worst – this is a game that fetishizes charts and rules indexes. Perhaps most importantly, there is no other way the game can be – the meat of the rules concern tactical combat and the vast majority of your character’s statistics concern combat. They are literally defined by battle. Characters fight in a D&D game because there is nothing else for them to do. Their other skills aren’t defined and so those facets of the world are left murky and unexplored.

In contrast, the characters in Call of Cthulhu are normal people in a recognizable world (currently New York of the 1920s). Because they are frail (most have less than 15 hit points) and combat often results in serious injury and death, violence is avoided. The result is a very fluid, improvisational open world game that uses rules only when necessary.

I am not saying one or the other is better. I have great love for both. Rather, I can’t help but wonder how other games work. I don’t have strong memories of how GURPs, Pendragon, Paranoia, Star Wars, Stormbringer, Tales from the Floating Vagabond and other games we played in the past felt; how the gears of their systems fit together with their narratives. I want to revisit all of them. And play more besides. What are the multi-dimensional worlds of Rifts and Torg like? Why do people always rave about RuneQuest and Thieves’ World? Is Vampire: The Masquerade as silly as I always assumed?

I often fret about how many books I will be able to read before I die.

Now I have to worry about how many roleplaying games I will be able to play.

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