I love D&D and have played it pretty much non-stop since 3rd edition. It’ll always be my go-to RPG whenever I’m tasked with introducing someone to the hobby, and I’ll never get bored of creating homebrew worlds and campaigns for the system. However, I do think there are far too many people out there for whom D&D is the only RPG they’re interested in playing and that makes me sad.
I’ve been in a lot of RPG groups over the years, almost always as the GM, and there’s something that all of the most successful ones had in common — we cycled between systems. There’s a number of reasons why this was key to our success, and I’ll outline them here.
It staves off burnout
Any GM will tell you that constantly planning new material for their campaign is tiring and leaves them susceptible to burnout, but what isn’t discussed very often is the fact that players can get burnt out too. I’ve seen a number of enthusiastic dice-rollers get tired of their character, bored of the system, or lose interest in the setting. This almost never has anything to do with any inherent faults on the part of the GM or the story, or the system itself, it’s simply a part of human nature.
We crave progression, it’s at the very heart of the RPGs we love. Just like how you’d get frustrated if your character never levelled up and learned new spells, it’s easy to find the very vanilla-flavoured mechanics of D&D tiresome after a while. Taking a little holiday in Call of Cthulhu or Shadowrun is often just what you need to remind you of how much fun you’re having in your regular campaign.
You’ll have a better game
One of my groups is currently playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and we’re nearing the end of our campaign. I asked the guys what they felt like playing next and one of them said the sweetest words a GM can ever hear — “we’re happy to play anything that you’re enthusiastic about running”. Not only did that make me feel like some sort of badass games guru, but it reminded me of why I love this group so much. There’s an understanding between us that if I’m having fun, they’ll inevitably get a much better game than if I was just going through the motions.
A lot has been written about why GMs prefer to run the game, but I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that it’s an academic process for us. We enjoy experimenting, understanding and conquering a system. When you provide your GM with the space to do that, magical things can happen. Quite literally!
If you’ve got five players and one GM, statistically speaking, at least a couple of you are going to prefer another system to D&D. You might not even know this, perhaps you’ve only ever played D&D, but by trying out new stuff you’ll give those players, who perhaps aren’t engaging a great deal with your jaunt around the Forgotten Realms, the opportunity to flex their muscles in a system that is better suited to them.
I have a friend who is an absolute RPG nut, but for the longest time he believed that RPGs weren’t his jam because he’d only ever played D&D and he just couldn’t vibe with it. D&D is, after all, a very combat-oriented system. It might not seem like it, but most rulebooks don’t have half the number of combat mechanics as D&D. Perhaps that guy who gets bored easily and never pays attention during the fights just needs to play a more story-driven game, like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. By giving them the opportunity to do that, you’ll inevitably help them figure out how to recreate that vibe in D&D when the time comes to go back to it. That leads me nicely into my next point, which is...
Your D&D will improve
Nobody ever got better at something by strictly limiting the scope of their knowledge. D&D is the absolute definition of default fantasy and that’s great, because it’s versatile. However, by playing other systems, you’ll find yourself discovering just how to make the most of D&D’s modifiable design.
Campaigns for older editions of D&D did a lot of modding that 5th edition seems to have left behind. Spelljammer introduced sci-fi concepts, Dark Sun did away with the Gods, severely altering how magic and religion functioned, and classic Ravenloft introduced sanity mechanics that were effectively lifted from Call of Cthulhu. By experimenting with other systems, even if you find they’re not for you, you’ll see your games of D&D improve through the innovations that you start to make.
But you don’t have to
Having said all of the above, don’t feel obliged to fix what isn’t broken. Some groups can play D&D, week after week, year after year, and never feel the urge to mix things up, and that’s fine too. Ultimately, we’re all here to have fun. But if the cracks do start to show, if a couple of your players aren’t feeling it, or if you’re beginning to dread the prep work, perhaps it’s time to put the Player’s Handbook away and mix it up a little. There’s some awesome stuff out there and I’d hate for any of you to miss out.