Allied Rather Than Adversarial: How 5E Encourages a Different Style of Play

There will always be debates. No one is looking for or expecting perfection or a last word on any manner. Rather, we’re all looking for variation and build upon what came before. Prior to finally playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time just over a year ago, the expose I had to it was very superficial. The only real reference I had was a 2nd edition player handbook I read because I thought I might try to play back in middle school. That never happened, so I’m not bringing any baggage into playing 5th edition. This is both a positive and negative–the negative being I’m not as familiar as other more experienced players, but the positive is that I’m not set in my ways.


I think the appeal of 5th edition is it fully embraces the notion that players and Dungeon Masters are simply different sides of the same coin, allies not adversaries.

If we approach 5e from the perspective DMs and Players Characters are working cooperatively, then we can dismiss adversarial play. DMs thinking their purpose is to kill PCs, PCs thinking their job is to defeat the DM–this is adversarial play. Creating an enriching experience in 5e means DMs are architects and arbiters of the world while PCs are the actors generating meaning. Thus, an adversarial relation will inevitably dissolve the world into insignificance.


There are two qualities most directly expressing the adversarial nature of prior editions of D&D that are extraneous to 5th edition play: Power Gaming and Rules Lawyer-ing. 


Power Gaming

Everyone wants to have their character succeed. For many of us, success comes by being as gifted as possible. Previous editions of D&D encouraged power gaming or, less pejoratively, optimization. It’s trying to get the most into and out of your character. This makes sense when playing an adversarial game–you want to be as strong as possible to confront your opponent. However, when playing a cooperative or allied game, it almost immediately bleeds into exploitation and bullying. This is because the power gamer doesn’t care about being in the world or acting with others (PCs or NPCs) but rather wants to overcome the world and see others as means to do so. When a player sees gaming “as creative optimization problems” then the only, or at least, the primary way they have fun is by min-maxing or power gaming. Unlike previous editions, 5e centers on freedom of play. To ‘win’ the game, you have to work with others and actively seek to engage the world making optimization at best clumsy and at worst an obstacle.


Rule Lawyer-ing

Similarly, Rules Lawyer-ing is an outdated form of play not suited to 5e. When players “read every sentence from every source and maximize their loopholes” (emphasis mine) they are being a Rules Lawyer acting expressly to assert their authority over the DM and often by proxy other PCs. Again, when playing an adversarial game knowing rules backwards/forwards and exploiting is how a PC ‘wins’ putting an end play with them on top. An allied game still demands a serious knowledge of the rules but in the service of continuing to play not ending play. This is why the last portion of the above quote is the most important. We must know the rules so we have the ability to engage the world, to act within it. One can contend a rule works a certain way or ought to, but that is a discussion to be had outside of game requiring an individual to be open and immediately accepting of either the consensus decision or the DM’s.


An adversarial game can be very fun, but to play one as though it’s an allied game will likely frustrate and anger players and vice versa. In 5e, game play is allied. This makes the adversarial approach to gaming a hindrance. Two of the clearest expressions of adversarial gaming is power gaming and rules lawyering, which must be avoided and/or overcome. Ultimately, players (DMs and PCs) need to realize while previous experience is certainly useful, every edition is its own game. Thus, your style of play must adapt. 

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