Dungeons and Dragons, aka D&D: “the first commercially available role-playing game.” I started RPGing with the Blue Box edition Basic Set sometime around 1980. For decades, when I said “I play D&D,” I got blank stares. A few people knew “Mazes and Monsters,” the movie where Tom Hanks played a gamer-gone-bonkers who murders a friend while wandering around the sewers of his home town lost in a delusion that he really is a wizard in an underground fantasy labyrinthe.
Nowadays, when I mention D&D, most people have at least heard the name. It has brand recognition, though it’s still two or three tiers down from Xerox or Kleenex. People usually don’t know how the game is actually played. They certainly don’t know about the Pathfinder Schism, the hatred for 4th Edition (4E), Edition Wars, the Old School Renaissance or that there is a new edition that was released last year that seeks to reclaim the former majesty – and market share – of earlier versions of the game.
If you’re reading this – unless you came by hoping for a Flames of War after-action report – you probably know all that. You probably have your own opinions about the Edition Wars and which edition is the best, or for that matter, even “playable.” I certainly do. Up until 4E was released in 2007 I was still playing 2nd edition (published in 1989), albeit with a plethora of add-ons and house rules that I’d adopted over almost 20 years of playing the same rule set. I’d missed 3E entirely. I looked at 3.5 and Pathfinder and dismissed them as “too crunchy.” My gaming group picked up 4E to be up-to-date with current product offerings but I hated it from the get-go for the same basic reasons others did, primarily because it was, IMO, more a table top miniatures version of a video game than proper “role-playing.”
I am actually grateful to D&D 4E for being something I couldn’t stand. If I had liked 4E I probably would have maintained brand loyalty and played the @#$%&^ out of it. Instead, I went looking for alternatives and discovered that a whole new world of amazing role-playing games had emerged while I was still playing 2E.
I discovered Narrativism – a philosophy of RPGing in which story matters above all.
I discovered Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game that is in a class by itself. DCC combines Old School feel with some great, modern mechanics. DCC embraces a “gonzo” narrative form and is dedicated, context-wise, to the entire body of Appendix N literature not just its works of High Fantasy. (Appendix N is where Gary Gygax, one of the inventors of D&D, cites his influences in literature. It includes a small number of authors, such as JRR Tolkien, who are widely known and many more greats who are either “genre-niche” authors – like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock – or obscure even for sci fi/fantasy, such as Manley Wade Wellman.)
I discovered games like Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and The Pool/The Questing Beast by James V. West that turn the paradigm of “Game Master as god” on its head, giving world-building and story direction over to the players while providing the GM with a host of tools to use to keep up with the narrative and put his or her own mark on it.
And, recently, I discovered 5th Edition D&D. I learned this edition of the game while writing encounter submissions for D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast’s open call for new professional writers. Everyone I had talked to who’d checked out 5E had good things to say about it. No one said they loved it, but no one had anything bad to say about it, either. After thoroughly examining the game in order to be able to write for it, I have this to say: it feels like older editions (a good thing in my book), it feels like a role-playing game instead of an analog video game (another good thing in my book), it has lots of options to customize the feel of the game play (a VERY good thing in my book) and there’s nothing to dislike about it, because (and this is probably the biggest disappointment) none of it feels new, innovative or exceptional.
So with nothing in it that hasn’t been done before in role-playing games, will it revolutionize the game like the original did? Probably not. (Though it seems to be grabbing industry awards in the RPG world this year.) But there are other reasons to love D&D 5E besides the rules mechanics.
Here’s what I think they are:
Magic so common that it’s… magical – Some recent games, among them DCC, have gone in the direction of making magic something dangerous and unpredictable in an effort to make it more exciting and mystical. I have no beef with this approach and I think the DCC magic system, which takes this approach, is @#$%&^ brilliant. But for lovers of high fantasy this approach loses something. The Harry Potter books captured the imaginations of billions of readers by transporting them into a world where magic was everywhere (despite mediocre writing and predictable plots and themes.) That ubiquity, instead of making magic seem mundane, made the world feel immersively magical. That’s what D&D’s magic system can do.
Heroism – When the RPG community fell into the Edition Wars, the infighting seemed to translate into a cynicism that got inculcated into the RPG fiction itself. There weren’t any heroes anymore. The idea of player characters (PCs) as classic heroes – bulwarks against evil whose belief that good will always triump serves as a kind of protective charm that helps them live to fight another day – seemed to be regarded as naiive and narratively unappealing in new RPGs. Anti-heroes, moral grey areas and mercenary sensibilities toward survival and the accumulation of XP, treasure and power became the order of the day. The departure of classic heroism in recent RPGs seems palpable, whether it is DCC’s Appendix N-esque adventurer-cutpurse protagonists a la Leiber and Howard or Apocalypse World’s violent ethos of “every man for himself after the fall of Man” [sic] or Call of Cthulhu’s indifferent, alien, Lovecraftian gods or even Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ 18th century “Alice in Wonderland meets Clockwork Orange” flavor.
D&D has asserted an ethos of PCs-as-forces-for-good since the 1980s, when it had to divorce itself from devils, demons and intrinsically evil character classes like the Assassin and the Anti-Paladin to protect its brand from criticism by the Moral Majority. D&D continues to embrace the PC-as-Hero in 5E and in this day and age I think we could all use some heroes we can believe in, even if they’re made up.
Rich, Detailed Fictional Settings with Real History – If you’re a long-time D&D player, there are characters and locales from published settings that have tremendous gravitas: Elminster, Greyhawk, Vecna. Iuz, Drizz’t Do’Urden, White Plume Mountain, Waterdeep. This weight and resonance is not simply the product of good imagining. Imbuing fictional characters and settings with this much weight only comes from them having been developed in tremendous detail in publishing arcs that span decades.
I recently had a small, independent RPG publisher claim he could capture that same feeling of deep history in his OSR products with a technique that JJ Abrams discussed in his Mystery Box TED talk: intentional withholding of information. This publisher quoted a line from JJ Abrams’ talk: “I’ve learned in my career that there are three things you DON’T want to do and #2 is ‘don’t hurt Tom’s (Cruise) nose.” The publisher believed that Abrams was, at that very moment in the talk, demonstrating this principle from the Mystery Box. The publisher believed that there was no #1 and #3, but rather that Abrams was drawing the audience into believing that they existed via what I might call a “step-over” or “move past” omission.
This publisher went on to say that he believed that this same Mystery Box technique is what Ed Greenwood did in his Pages From the Mages series of articles to make his fictional Forgotten Realms setting so believable without actually creating all the details. By presenting “pages,” snippets of lore from the Forgotten Realms, rather than a comprehensive account, this publisher is convinced that Greenwood drew his readers into his world and allowed them to fill in the blanks to make it believable. Apparently this publisher is not the only one who believes that this was Greenwood’s approach.
While I wouldn’t say that this element of Abrams’ Mystery Box technique can’t be a valuable narrative tool, I do not believe that it is a shortcut to exceptional world-building and I doubt that this is how Greenwood made the Forgotten Realms such an amazing, immersive, rich experience. I do not know for a fact, but I would put serious money down on a bet that says Greenwood had generated hundreds of thousands of words worth of details on the Forgotten Realms from which he pulled his source material for Dragon Magazine articles. The original D&D writers and creators and their 1000s of amateur DM-fans were world-builders extraordinaire, creating cultures and monsters and ecologies and collections of myths to rival Tolkien himself. I suspect that Greenwood didn’t present bits of lore that implied other details that he never bothered to create; instead I strongly suspect that he wrote reams of lore that never saw publication and was forced by the realities of publisher page counts to limit himself to the choicest excerpts.
D&D 5E is the heir-apparent to tomes of history both real and fictional. Its world settings are popular media properties in their own right with printed game supplements, comic books, video games and scores of novels in which incredibly detailed worlds are explored. The names of these fictional worlds are etched into geek legend: Oerth, Faerun, The Demonweb Pits, Ravenloft, Mystara, Athas.
If you want to role-play a product line with almost literally as much lore about its fictional worlds as the fantasy worlds are themselves supposed to possess, then D&D 5E is your game.
And if you happen to be passing through Hommlet, be sure to stop in at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. You’ll usually find me there and I promise I’ll buy you a few rounds of the excellent local mead. I’ve got more than a few extra electrum pieces from my recent expedition to the Caves of Chaos.