Movie Reviews

Death Stranding Is Just Old School D&D With Extra Steps

At first glance there might not seem like much that connects Hideo Kojima’s surreal 2019 video game Death Stranding with the oldest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but Death Stranding is remarkably close to old-school DnD with some embellishments added. Unlike Kojima’s prior work on the Metal Gear franchise, Death Stranding emphasizes travel itself over stealth or combat. The game’s singular focus on cargo and carrying capacity might remind veteran DnD fans of campaigns focused on transporting gear and loot. The rarity of combat, along with the incentive to flee from battle, also make Death Stranding feel like original DnD, or an Old School Renaissance tabletop RPG.

The solo adventure presented in Death Stranding is different from a typical DnD game, though Death Stranding 2 could add a party system to build on the original. The game featured Sam Porter Bridges acting as a courier, delivering goods between the remaining bastions of human civilization in a devastated post-apocalyptic America. Like any real human, Sam can only carry so much at a time, and the limits of his strength and endurance are key to the gameplay. Players decide which deliveries to make, and which weapons and restorative items warrant eating into Sam’s limited carrying capacity. An archetypal old-school DnD game has a similar focus.

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Where later editions of DnD are defined largely by increasingly complex and intricate battle systems, Basic DnD had much leaner mechanics for resolving combat. As groups that play early editions of DnD, or OSR-style games like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Adventurer Conqueror King can attest, old school campaigns are not actually simpler than later editions, they simply have a shift in focus. The 4th Edition DnD rules have a complicated reputation, as they focused on tactical battles above all else. Old-school games tend to have speedier battles, but more time is spent calculating carrying capacity, overland travel speeds, and other Death Stranding-style activities.

Where a 4e DnD player spends time picking the best magic items and combat powers to prepare for epic, set-piece battles, old school games often focus on “sandbox adventures,” where mundane gear and resources are pivotal. Gathering food and water is often a trivial matter in recent editions of DnD, where hunting and foraging is a central focus in an old school campaign. In Death Stranding, players often need food and shelter more than grenades, and increased carrying capacity is worth more than a superior gun. Old school “hex crawl” DnD, where the group explores a hex-based map with minimal direction, is a lot like traversing Death Stranding’s blighted America.

There are old-school DnD campaigns that deserve 5e versions, which include Beyond the Crystal Cave, an adventure the players can complete without ever engaging in combat, if they so choose. Where recent editions of DnD rely on “Encounter Ratings” to help the Dungeon Master planned balanced and challenging battles, the old-school mentality leans towards an organic approach. Some areas might contain monsters that are of negligible difficulty, while others might be nigh-impossible for characters of the heroes’ level to survive against. Old School Renaissance games veer away from the notion of pre-planned bespoke encounters and knowing when to flee or avoid battles is integral to success in such games.

In Death Stranding, whether the threat comes from monstrous Beached Things or the crazed MULEs, Sam is better off avoiding combat. The BTs require specific weapons derived from Sam’s bodily fluids, akin to old-school DnD monsters that cannot be harmed by non-magical weapons. Some would prefer Death Stranding 2 removes the human enemies, as the MULE encounters should generally be bypassed by stealth, or simply running the long way around the deranged couriers. Tactical players in a traditional DnD game might apply the same logic to avoiding bandit encampments. Any battle could prove lethal, and looting foes eats into valuable carrying capacity.

A Belt of Giant Strength offers added melee damage, but increased carrying capacity is often more significant in OSR, just as Sam’s enhanced exoskeletons are not designed for battle. The surreal and thought-provoking narrative of Death Stranding is laden with symbolism and weighty themes, separating it from the generally simple fantasy stories of early DnD adventures. Still, in terms of the actual gameplay, Death Stranding comes closer to feeling like an Old School Renaissance tabletop RPG than nearly any other recent video game. Death Stranding is an old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons hex-crawl by way of a disturbing fever dream.

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Source: Kojima Productions/YouTube

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