Maybe…Don’t Play D&D?

Earlier this year Dungeons and Dragons, and, as a result, the role-playing game as a formal, published form, turned 45. It is one of the youngest mediums in entertainment; as a point of comparison the first video game patent was issued in 1948, making that medium over 70. And like video games did with arcades and Atari, role-playing games are beginning to enjoy mainstream recognition, several decades after their genesis. There’s another similarity between video games, consoles specifically, and role-playing games: the first mainstream video game console outsold every competitor it had more than ten to one, just like the first mainstream role-playing game. In video games that was the Atari 2600, and in role-playing games that’s Dungeons and Dragons.

Thankfully, the story diverges there. D&D has innovated, evolved, and adapted, while Atari’s failure to do so doomed the company as well as its console ambitions (the story of TSR itself maybe didn’t diverge as much). The Fifth Edition of D&D is tightly designed and accessible, and the quality of its design is reflected in its sales growth and its role as a centerpiece in the growing Actual Play/Streaming movement. It’s also shorthand, the Kleenex of role-playing games. You see it in broader geek circles all over: the d20 as a symbol, memes and jokes around Constitution scores and “Charisma as a Dump Stat”, and of course the character classes being used like Zodiac symbols for the knowing nerd. There’s nothing wrong with this: D&D is popular, after all. None of those things have a single thing to do with role-playing games, though, and gamers are short-changed when we pretend that they do.

This is, in all likelihood, a tired canard. But as we’re sitting here in 2019, it has become clear to me that more of the hobby, either by virtue of being newcomers or by forgetting, is not aware that we’ve been doing the dominant form thing for a while and the outcomes are rarely positive. Let me briefly discuss two significant events in role-playing game history; one event was the source of one of its largest booms, and the other was the source of one of its largest busts.

The Third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published in 2000, and along with it came the Open Gaming License. Wizards of the Coast had recently acquired TSR and the D&D property, and wanted to take a different approach to fan adaptations and derivative works than TSR had in the past. The OGL made most D&D mechanics and many terms of art “Open Gaming Content”, allowing everyone, their brother, and their aunt to make a game from the so-called d20 System. Those who were gamers at this time may fondly remember some interesting games built on this backbone like Spycraft and Star Wars d20, but the vast majority of games and supplements sold under the OGL were terrible. This was the Atari shovelware era of D&D, and by the time D&D 3.5 was released in 2003 (which, not coincidentally, made a lot of the crap on the market out of date) the entire industry had been pulled down. Shadowrun, for example, waited until 2005 to release their Fourth Edition, the longest edition gap in that game’s history. There was another game line that waited until after the release of 3.5 to start back up again, this one being the progenitor of the other significant event I’d like to discuss.

Vampire: the Masquerade was released in 1991. It was not the first horror role-playing game, nor was it the first game to emphasize story over mechanics. It did, however, ride a cultural wave and prove to be, in an ironic way, the perfect game with which to bounce back from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Vampire not only innovated with its mechanics, but also with its publishing strategy. If you have any reaction to the word ‘metaplot’ you have Vampire to thank, as it was White Wolf that pioneered the use of a shared timeline which was advanced through supplement releases. The World of Darkness metaplot is also (in)famous for ending; White Wolf released supplements that revealed the end of the world in 2004, which was not entirely coincidentally during the nadir of the d20 bust.

So what’s the point of this history lesson? The pithy version is that diversity is strength and homogeneity is weakness. Whenever Dungeons and Dragons has towered over the rest of the hobby, it has been knocked down and it has brought the hobby with it. The d20 bust is one example, and the Satanic Panic is arguably another; if the hobby were known by something more than a game of swords and sorcery, it’s quite possible that the conservative reactionaries wouldn’t have had so much ammo. When we have options, though, when the hobby looks diverse, then we have innovators, we have growth, and we have new blood. I can’t speak much for the sales environment of the 1990s, but with White Wolf ascendant and TSR coasting, there were many games which had the chance to get out there and bloom. The 90s gave us Over the Edge, Feng Shui, and Unknown Armies, which weren’t like any games out there. When the dominant form limped and/or shared the spotlight, the entire market fragmented and it was beautiful.

I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t games besides D&D before the 90s, nor do I mean to imply we aren’t seeing innovation now. That said, it was a pivot point. In the 90s there was significantly more exploration of what an RPG could be, and then in the 2000s we started talking about it online. Now, at the end of the 2010s, we’re seeing consolidation again. D&D 5e is winning mind-share thanks to Actual Plays, and doing so at a higher rate than other games. DrivethruRPG is consolidating the sales and distribution space, meaning that curating games is left to hobbyists like myself instead of game store owners who are able to do it for a living. We have more and more avenues to play and discover games…but 75% of the games on Roll20 are D&D and the next biggest system, Call of Cthulhu (also over 30 years old) rings in with a resounding 2.6%. The player counts are better, but D&D is still winning mindshare over pretty much every other RPG by at least 7:1.

So here is my request to my readers, people who both know that Cannibal Halfling Gaming is a nod to the D&D Dark Sun setting and also are here to read our reviews of the latest Star Wars splat, the latest edition of a 90s classic, and a whole lot of PbtA stuff. Our readers know what’s out there besides D&D…so maybe don’t play D&D, at least for a while? Maybe choose something else to bring beginners into the hobby? Maybe find a different system for your podcast or Actual Play series? With Fifth Edition, D&D is the best it’s ever been; it’s not a bad game by any means. But it’s not driving innovation, and D&D probably never will again. We do a disservice to the hobby by letting D&D be its only face. We do a disservice by acting like 95% of the OSR is something other than houseruling old D&D editions. And finally, we do a disservice by pretending that the existence of Pathfinder does anything creatively for the medium.

D&D is a genre, not a single game. Gygax and Arneson presented a very specific vision crafted from a very specific set of experiences borne out of a very specific subgenre of fantasy. There are games out there whose genre is also D&D, like Dungeon World, Torchbearer, and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. But you could also play a completely different fantasy game. Go play Zweihander or the newest edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. They are nothing like D&D. Go play Mythras or Runequest Glorantha. They are nothing like D&D. These are traditional RPGs in the same exact genre and they do not play like D&D. And you should see where I’m going from here. If there are fantasy games that offer a completely different experience, imagine what happens when you go outside of that genre. Imagine how vast the possibilities are. And that’s why, for your next game, maybe you shouldn’t play D&D. Role-playing is too big to stay in that little box.

24 thoughts on “Maybe…Don’t Play D&D?”

  1. I cannot agree more. I was saying this from 1991 when I purchased V:TM. But noticed that it was harder and harder to put groups together to play SR or CP2020. Everyone wanted the fantasy element. I guess it is easier to imagine than a cybered out troll.

    Thank you for this piece. I suspect we will see a growth of other genres…or at least the cyberpunk genre once CP2077 releases. I know it has helped drive sales for many similar games as younger audiences find that this new Video Game has 30 years of tabletop history behind it…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t feel any shame plugging this since it’s directly topical to the article. If you are a fan of Brandon Sanderson and looking for an actual play podcast outside of D&D check out the Lost Legends of Scadrial Mistborn Adventure Game podcast. I couldn’t agree more that there isn’t enough diversity in our shared role-playing experiences, and so we created LLOS as a way to help bridge that gap. We’re still a young podcast, releasing our seventh episode tomorrow, but we’ve got a lot of love to give and are excited for what the future can bring. Come check us out on iTunes or any other podcast vendor, and on YouTube.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! One of my groups will actually be starting a Stormlight Archive campaign using Genesys, so Mistborn is more relevant than you may have known.

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  3. Can’t say I agree. Citing one example of why D&D is bad for the hobby is very narrow-minded. A rising tide lifts all vessels. D&D’s fifth edition *has* been innovative in how the publishers reached out and included the audience. That’s at least half the reason for its incomparable success.

    Yes, play lots of different RPGs. Introduce your friends to them. But actively avoiding D&D is not going to suddenly make those other games into cultural touchstones that draw and excite new players in the hobby.

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  4. You imply the D20 era was a bust. It was not. 3.0 and 3.5 were great games, and are still widely played today. Pathfinder is essentially 3.75 and very popular. 3.5 books still sell on the secondary market and were reprinted for years.

    5th edition benefits from the 3.5 era and the rise of gaming stores with areas to play. It benefits from a greater acceptance of gamer and nerd culture thanks to video games and Magic The Gathering. It is not a better game than 3.5, just a luckier game.

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    1. It’s actually a very weird claim. D&D fell in popularity with 4th edition, the exact same time it scorned the OGL. Arguably there are other reasons, but 5th ed also has an OGL, and is also generating new games like carbon. Star wars d20 is one of the most popular games outside of d&d. Pathfinder rose not out of 3.5’s failures, but out of love for the ruleset.

      The reason I would argue to avoid d&d, is that it doesn’t know what it is any more. Is it a cinematic game? Storytelling? Simulationist? It seems these days more like it’s based on streamlined wargaming, and there are far less popular games that run a combat system with either more believability or more heroism. There are games that are rich, but extremely accessible. Right now, I can’t give any reason for the success of 5th ed, other than legacy cultural value and that it’s simple and not 4th ed. It’s a bundle of compromises that suit only newbie players, and those newbie players are going to get bored. Quick,

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  5. Interesting opinion. I’m definitely going to look into some of the other games suggested here but probably won’t try them anytime soon as my family and friends and I are all super into D&D currently.

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  6. Great article!

    The weird thing these days is that the gaming industry is both bigger and smaller than it used to be. There are more games covering more genres than ever before … but at the same time, it can be really hard to FIND those games. Just browsing the shelves of a bookstore or a comic shop, it’s hard to find stuff that isn’t D&D or Pathfinder, or maybe the Star Wars RPG.

    The Kickstarter model is good for getting games published that wouldn’t happen otherwise … but at the same time, how many of those kickstarters grow past their initial offering? It seems the most successful ones are already building on past properties: V20, Feng Shui 2, and so on– then again, I could be wrong.

    The other big game-changer these days is the fact that D&D is owned by Hasbro, and thus gets all the backing of a huge corporation, as opposed to TSR, or even Wizards of the Coast. I don’t see it going away anytime soon, or even taking another hit along the lines of the Satanic Panic or the d20 bust.

    Then again, I’m an optimist, and I really dig 5e a lot better than 4e, but that’s another post entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I completely agree that diversity is strength, but I also feel that one of the strengths of 5th edition D&D is that it’s eminently accessible to tabletop RP beginners. I’m currently running a campaign for several complete beginner work friends who are massively enthusiastic and enthralled by the world and system that D&D presents. And that’s honestly wonderful to see. Ideally I would like to lead them into other systems once the campaign is done and they’ve got the hang of things, but at the end of the day, it’s what the players want.

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  8. While this is a good sentiment in general I can’t help but feel there’s a bit of hyperbole going on here. Especially with the bust of D&D 3rd edition and the completely underserved slap at Paizo and Pathfinder.

    As much as that I have yet to actually play a single session of 5th edition (which has left me thoroughly unimpressed and uninterested as a system), I like that it’s been making my hobby more socially acceptable to talk about.

    Yes, people should try more systems outside of 5th edition but I feel this is just a bit too harsh.

    Highlighting the strengths of other systems to actually get people interested in them would be a far more constructive way to solve this problem rather than this almost chastising tone.
    Sing praises of the alternatives, don’t demonise the one leading the pack.

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    1. Que the knee jerk reaction by the cool kids once something they loved becomes popular. Just like the indie band being accused of selling out for the crime of actually have a hit single.

      The success of 5e is bringing new players into the hobby. These players will eventually tire of 5e and start looking at other games as alternatives. The initial success of AD & D grew the hobby and created the opportunity for other games to be successful. If your a fan like me of sci-fi RPGs like me you should cheer the 5e a couple years from now all those players will decide they want to try something other than a fantasy setting.

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  9. Preach! I love 5e, but I’ve been desperately suggesting other systems and it had mostly fallen to the tide of “But Critical Role is so cool!” It’s even to the point of homebrewing 5e rules into a d20 replica of a different system. I appreciate what it’s doing for the world of roleplaying, but it’s a bit depressing. I’d love to see more content for things like Ryuutama and Blue Rose and Domina Magica!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your piece makes it sound like having D&D being so successful is a bad thing. You want a dominant player in any space because they are the ones with name recognition, which leads to cognitive bias (arguably the strongest behavioral force behind the will to survive).

    People new to anything are typically introduced to that thing because they have heard of the dominant player. Cognitive bias says “Oh, I’ve heard of X, therefore it must be good”. If you haven’t heard of it, our lizard brains tell us it’s new and scary and therefore should be avoided (subconsciously).

    The more exposure D&D has, the more new players, which, will help grow the competitive rpg products as the user base grows and explores. It’s the same principal that malls are built on; get a few big names to attract people, and then fill the rest of the space with smaller shops that subsist on the foot traffic because they came for the big name store.

    And for anyone about to say “malls are failing, so you’re wrong”, that is just an example of the principal. See Amazon and it’s network of sellers for a more current example.

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  11. “Whenever Dungeons and Dragons has towered over the rest of the hobby, it has been knocked down and it has brought the hobby with it.”
    That’s because the others haven’t been successful or put as much work or money into developing their games and fan base.

    I’m all for trying out new systems (Yes! Absolutely, yes!), but I don’t think you can knock D&D for what they have done.

    I would also say that many narrow minded RAW D&D players or D&D gatekeepers and worshippers could really benefit from playing other RPGs. Fantasy TTRPGs is the genre, not D&D.

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