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.