The One True D&D
Dungeons and Dragons has been around a long time. I’ve been playing it pretty close to 30 years myself, and in that time the game has changed a lot. So have I, as it happens.
Recently I got into something of a Twitter argument with a few people who started throwing around comments that implied that they believed that there was one, “true” Dungeons and Dragons – the D&D of their youth, unsurprisingly enough – and that more (ahem) modern adherents to the game were some kind of fallen, degenerate subspecies. The word “pretentious” was bandied about, I was accused of being a genius (presumably as an insult somehow) and my players accused of being “method actors.” One of my favorite comments was that anyone who engages in a “Session 0” (i.e. a session wherein everyone makes characters and discusses how the game is going to run) doesn’t actually want to play D&D.
Now, I didn’t really “argue” with these people, as very few of them were engaging in good faith discussion anyway. I did exchange comments with those that seemed interested in sharing their experiences, and most of these centered around a “session 0” as a concept. The precise nature of their specific critiques is not really the point of this post, though. What I mostly took away from the “conversation” at large is that these people have a vested interest in defining and controlling who gets to play D&D and how. Bereft of this control (and, indeed, feeling abandoned by the designers of the game itself), they play gatekeeper with all the toxic enthusiasm of a dude at ComicCon challenging every woman they see on the minutiae of their cosplay. Not a good look.
But okay, let’s play the game they set out. Let’s define what Dungeons and Dragons ought to be – in other words, what a game like this really does best and what uses the rules and design of the game to its fullest potential. Now, before we begin, I hasten to point out that one of the things this game does better than almost any other is the fact that it can be just about anything you want it to – play it your way, and hang the critics – but if you insist on sneering at people who do it differently than you do, well…
The game, as it was originally designed by Gygax, was intended to be a kind of tactical, resource management exercise. This it has in common with a lot of hyper-complicated wargames of the era (the 1970s) and, as this, it is pretty close to unplayably dense and non-user friendly. There wasn’t a lot of player agency in a lot of areas of the game, the gameplay was wildly (almost improbably) unbalanced, and the whole thing was an organizational mess.
There was something there, though. Not the tactics or the gameplay – those were generally pretty awful, palatable only to those willing to hack and slash their way through Gygax’s dense rulebooks – but the idea of players inhabiting characters set loose in a fanciful world. That idea, more than anything else, had legs. It is, I would argue, the entire reason D&D didn’t vanish in a puff of obscurity, but found a small audience (ones willing to sweat the ceaseless fiddly details of the game system) that kept it alive.
It wasn’t the dice (lots of games used dice), it wasn’t the tactics (lots of games did that, too, and often better). It was character.
AD&D, 2nd Edition
I entered the gaming scene at the tail-end of 1st edition’s tenure. I owned a copy of 2nd Ed’s first printing (still do, in fact – it’s on a shelf behind me as I write this) and was running games as early as 7th grade (1990, for those of you keeping score). I loved 2nd Ed with all my heart back then. I owned every rulebook, every expansion. I could quote those pages to you by heart and can still calculate THAC0 in my head to this day.
But guys, this game – as a game – sucked.
The rules, while more streamlined, were still impenetrable and pointlessly detailed. For example, the Strength attribute, for no reason whatsoever other than the terrible balance of the game as a whole, did not just have the regular range of 3-18 for PCs, but a whole other sub-range of 18s, based on a percentile system, accessible only to fighting classes. So, you didn’t just have an 18 Strength, no, you had an 18/63! Yes, this is exactly as stupid as this sounds.
Crap like that was everywhere in the game; d100 tables were a dime a dozen in that book, the classes were wildly unbalanced still, 1st level characters were impotent dweebs, whereas a 7th level mage (thanks to a little spell called Stoneskin) became virtually unkillable by anything that couldn’t hit them a hundred times before they ran out of spell slots.
So, yeah, the game part of this RPG was still a garbage dump. However, this edition of the game was much, much more successful than its predecessor. What made it so?
This was the edition where we got all the glorious settings that still fire the imagination today. We had Greyhawk’s From the Ashes setting, which is one of the best ever. There was Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Spelljammer (medieval combat in SPACE!), Planescape, and on and on. Every one of them was jam-packed full of story leads, adventure plots, characters, and wild setting concepts (the Sea of Silt, anyone? Wildspace?). There were tie-in novels that fleshed out the universe and made kids want to live in them. There was some seriously, seriously badass art from guys like Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore that sucked you right in.
And again, like the editions before, kids like me put up with the bad rules to play in the places with the cool storylines, where we could embody the characters of our dreams and do cool, cool stuff. And yeah, it often fell short of our imagination, but so what? We kept trying – we (a lot of us anyway) saw something beyond what the game was offering and we tried to make it real.
D&D, 3rd Edition
3rd Ed represented a massive leap forward in gameplay. The rules, for once, made a kind of unified sense. A lot of the silly tables and sub-tables and sub-sub-tables went away. The classes remained pretty terribly unbalanced, but a conscientious effort was made to take out the silly stuff and replace it with normal, usable rules.
The game was also terrifically boring.
See, the other thing they lost by stripping out the loose wiring in 2nd Ed was all the quirkiness that made it interesting. Chief among those things was a lot of the story. All those cool settings I mentioned? They almost entirely disappeared. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk kept cooking, but the novel tie-ins vanished even from those (not that there ever were too many Greyhawk novels). They made the game generic for the sake of streamlining which, by itself, wasn’t really enough to keep D&D solvent.
This is so much the case that TSR actually went belly-up in this edition. They weren’t the only RPG on the shelves these days, and competition from games with more evocative settings and more story-friendly rule-sets gradually killed them in a shrinking market. See, if all you wanted out of a game was a tactical resource management enterprise, video games could do that for you by the 1990s and often way better than D&D could. Most hack-and-slashers drifted away from the game, drawn by the shiny vistas of Everquest of a romp through Neverwinter Nights.
What kept D&D going through these years was that it remained (and indeed was) incredibly flexible and could be molded to work with almost any setting or story. Then, as before, the real magic wasn’t in how the dice were rolled or the stats on the sheet, but how those tools could be leveraged to telling cool stories and imagining fantastic adventures.
D&D, 4th Edition
Wizards of the Coast, riding a wave made by the success of their collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (itself a superior tactical experience to anything D&D has ever done), bought the rights to D&D in 1997 and spent some time designing their own take on the game. They released a kind of “patch” to 3rd (3.5) designed to inject some vibrancy and renewed balance to the game which, to some extent, worked. Spellcasters, long at the bottom of the heap, got better. Things worked pretty well. It was still dull, though.
So WoTC released 4th Edition in 2008. It had the distinction of being the most balanced and most tactically interesting version of D&D ever. It involved a grid-map and miniatures and clear and easy-to-understand rules that were also tactically complex. The game had depth as a sort of small-party wargame.
It was also a complete flop.
It just wasn’t that popular. It didn’t catch on. And why?
The game was completely linear in design. It was almost impossible to make it work in the same loose framework of “theater of mind meets dice” that it had used since its inception. You just couldn’t tell the kind of stories you wanted to and, what’s more, the rigid nature of the combat system made encounters difficult to improvise – if not impossibly so! Players, simply put, didn’t want that.
WoTC, cognizant of this, didn’t support 4th very much and very quickly got to developing the latest edition:
D&D 5th Edition
5th Edition takes what 2nd Ed did right (intense setting details, story-focused gameplay) and replaced a better, even more accessible version of 3rd Edition’s mechanics. It has better balance than any other edition since 4th, but it has none of that editions board-game sensibilities. The game is the first one actively designed to encourage storytelling and emotional engagement with characters. It does so in simple, basic ways that are easy to grasp and play with. 5th, while not perfect of course, is the closest the game has ever gotten to the game we all thought it could be when we were teenagers. How do I know this?
Well, it is now explosively popular. Barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The rules are vastly easier to grasp and the general de-emphasis on unforgiving tactical play has made the game much more accessible to people who don’t really want to study a rule manual all the time, but very much would like to pretend to be a dwarf and slay goblins for a few hours every week or so. It’s fun!
Even for those who sneer at it, 5th also makes it fairly easy to modify (the DMG is pretty much a book full of nothing but that) and it certainly can simulate the soulless 10-hour dungeoneering sessions of your youth where a half dozen of you die and everyone goes home happy having never engaged in anything resembling a plot.
For the majority of the rest of us, though, we are having so much damned fun talking about our character relationships and casting Prestidigitation just for giggles that we honestly don’t miss the days where the rules were awkward and our characters prepared to die at any fickle swing of chance. If we wanted that, we’d be playing Gloomhaven, which for my money is vastly, vastly superior to D&D for that kind of gameplay and it doesn’t even require a GM and zero (zero) time required to make characters.
What I’m ultimately saying here is this: D&D is for anyone who wants to play, however they want to play it. If you want to run around saying there’s one true D&D, though, it’s the storytellers who win that contest. I would contend that those who insist the dungeon crawls of 1st Edition were the “true” D&D basically missed the room for the wallpaper – it could and was always supposed to be so much more than that. The success and failure of every edition since then has shown that to be true.
To crow and bleat about how much you hate “pretentious” “storygamers” is like being the guy who goes into a steakhouse and complains his chicken is dry. “This used to be a chicken place!” he yells, banging his fists on the table. Meanwhile the rest of us are eating ribeyes and wondering what the hell that guy’s problem is.