Does Dungeons and Dragons still matter?
This is not a question many people in the gaming hobby would consider asking, but the hobby has never seen this level of exposure before. Every week there are new Kickstarters going up with fascinating fantasy settings and games from big names in the industry. Privateer Press and Fantasy Flight Games have both released fantasy adventure RPG lines to compliment the existing Warmachine and Warhammer miniatures lines. Dungeon World has been proliferated across the internet in a rules-light, fun-heavy game embracing Creative Commons licensing and online distribution.
The number of fantasy roleplaying games themselves have become only one part of a market which now embrace horror, steampunk, and science fiction with equal fanfare. Personally, I have not run a D&D game in nearly two years, and have only recently begun playing in one again. With a gaming environment that seemingly doesn’t need Dungeons and Dragons, nor even strongly want it, the question should then be asked: does Dungeons and Dragons still matter to roleplaying games?
My argument is that it does, although not for many of the more popular reasons that could be thought of. With Dungeons and Dragons just releasing its latest edition, I have gone through the new version of the game with a fine-toothed comb and come to an honest evaluation of it. To be able to actually discuss D&D’s continued importance to the hobby, however, one needs to understand its impact thus far.
Time For A Lore Check
Dungeons and Dragons is the oldest roleplaying game on the market. It emerged from combining miniature war gaming with a consistent fantasy adventure storytelling, and it was first released in 1974. It became codified into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in 1977, led to the foundation of TSR Inc. as a gaming company, and began the hobby in earnest. In its four decades hence, D&D has gone through five full editions, hundreds of published supplements, and more than enough controversy and exposure. For good or ill, D&D was the game by which the entire hobby was judged. If an RPG would be shown in a movie, talked about in the news, or criticized by activist groups, it was Dungeons and Dragons.
Over its forty years of publication, however, the core concept has changed very little. Dungeons and Dragons is, and yet remains, a game for telling stories about a group of adventurers in a fantasy world.
The first step to a game of D&D is determining one player to be the Dungeon Master. The DM serves as the referee and storyteller, controlling the monsters and creating the dungeons and scenarios for the other players to overcome. Then the other players create their characters, forming a team of skilled adventure seekers in a hostile fantasy world. Once the setup is finished, the players sit down, describe their actions, roll some dice, receive the outcome from the DM, and begin a story. In this manner, Dungeons and Dragons has not changed, and shares its base gameplay with many other games. This process is the default form of a tabletop RPG, a form that must be addressed if only to be refuted through games without dice, Game Masters, or even personal characters.
The Stalwart Veteran
The reason Dungeons and Dragons still matters to the hobby is not its history. After all, there are other games with decades-spanning histories on the market, and even as much as nostalgia is fueling many Kickstarter campaigns, it is not history that makes something still important to us in the present.
If anything, D&D’s history holds it back in several cases. With each new edition, Dungeons and Dragons challenged its player base to adapt with them to a new iteration of the game. Not every player was interested in that challenge, however, and they simply continued playing the version they already knew and enjoyed.
The strongest break in D&D came in the split between its Third and Fourth Editions. Anyone in the hobby will remember the days of the Edition Wars with a mix of rueful amusement and some genuine bitterness. By embracing a wholly overhauled system, D&D angered enough of their fanbase that they gave rise to their own chief competitor in the form of Paizo’s Pathfinder. Using an updated version of the same ThirdEdition engine that Dungeons and Dragons had away from, Pathfinder began to dominate the fantasy tabletop niche to the point that it even eclipsed D&D itself as the brand name with the most market share.
In this sense, the history angle actually worked against keeping D&D relevant.
Moreover, despite Dungeons and Dragons creating the interplay between the GM and a group of players, it is not that core exchange which keeps D&D relevant either. As gaming has evolved – drastically even in the last few years – the door has been opened for more experimental forms of roleplaying games. Many excellent independent RPGs, such as Polaris or Fiasco, have done away with the concept of a GM entirely, opting instead to include all players as equal parts participants and referee. Tim Koppang’s excellent Mars Colony is a game explicitly for two players only, with one being the protagonist and the other being everything else.
Many independent games are also moving towards systems with a more simplified manner of resolution, such as those based on negotiation and key words than rolling dice. With each player serving as a part of a troupe, and no single player being the sole referee and judge, there is a much lower chance of the DM Screen Dictator standing in the way of having fun. As a hobby, roleplaying games are leaving behind the old DM and Players model more and more.
Lastly, while Dungeons and Dragons is the premiere fantasy adventure game, it is not the fantasy genre that keeps the game connected to the hobby. I have stated multiple times that science fiction is as central to adventure stories as fantasy. Additionally, science fiction has been seeing a strong come back in other forms of media. Sure, while Game of Thrones is omnipresent in our media, it resonates not for its fantasy elements but for its fantasy realism. Fantasy realism is not something that D&D does well, nor is it well suited for adaptation outside the model of Explore, Interact, and Fight adventure stories.
Fate Core is a far more flexible system for fantasy in its various forms, as well as science fiction, fantasy realism, and superhero adventuring. Dungeons and Dragons has always required a fairly heavy overhaul to move it away from the tradition of sword and sorcery that it embodies, with only moderate success. D20 Modern, Mutants and Masterminds, and Spycraft stand out as the exceptional exports of the d20 system that originated in D&D, but DD& they are not. Dungeons and Dragons is designed to only truly do one thing – even if it does that one thing well.
Branding, Branding, Branding
Despite these three drawbacks, Dungeons and Dragons remains a prominent roleplaying game even as its market share has shrunk. The most prevalent reason is, quite simply, brand recognition. Dungeons and Dragons has transcended from simply being a game and has become the ubiquitous word to describe all RPGs. When trying to explain roleplaying games to non-gamers, there is a serious divide in language and understanding that can be bridged by saying “It’s D&D with X”. Legend of the Five Rings can be understood as D&D with Samurai, Vampire: the Requiem could be sold as D&D with Vampires, and Pathfinder itself is accurately described as old D&D done right.
Dungeons and Dragons is the one and only roleplaying game to exist outside the hobby itself. Beyond even tabletop gaming, the Dungeons and Dragons name is attached to at least three films, a cartoon series, and dozens of video games. While Community can have an episode dedicated to D&D and succeed, it would not be able to have one about even Pathfinder without confusing its audience.
It’s Hard To Kill A Dragon
Brand recognition is not the sole reason D&D manages to remain pertinent, however. More importantly is that Dungeons and Dragons is accessible – more so now than it has ever been in the past. With the release of its Fifth Edition rules online (for free,) Dungeons and Dragons has stepped fully into the future of gaming. This simple act alone has ensured its survival through the next generation of gamers. The rules themselves reveal a D&D that is extremely streamlined; this is the most elegant version of D&D yet. It combines all the best parts of the last three editions into a solid, easily learned game more concerned with encouraging players to talk with each other about what is going on around them than whether a particular power is relevant, or if they have the right combination of spells and experience to overcome an encounter.
Dungeons and Dragons has not been this narratively-driven since Second Edition, but it has not abandoned its Fourth Edition ability to be learned in ten minutes either. This version of Dungeons and Dragons is truly for everyone, a game for all ages and all comfort levels, both with crunch and fluff. So long as it stays free and available, it will remain the go-to game for teaching people how to play an RPG.
Perhaps most fittingly, the final reason D&D remains worthwhile is exactly that. Dungeons and Dragons is, and will remain, the Gateway Game we use to introduce people to tabletop gaming. It is not the casual game of Fiasco, nor is it the in depth challenge of Exalted. Dungeons and Dragons is a game we teach to our children, who will teach it to their friends. Wizards of the Coast has even continued its D&D Encounters in-store play program, now D&D Expeditions, bringing together people for pickup games of D&D on Wednesday nights throughout Fourth Edition’s tenure.
With the latest edition, they have expanded an organized play network as well, providing support for regular groups outside the weekly Expeditions meetups via local gaming stores. Wizards of the Coast is putting its money into bringing players into stores and sitting them down with their friends for a few hours to play a game chock full of free content and rewards that can transfer from tabletop to tabletop within the organized play network. While the RPGA has existed since the 1980’s, Wizards of the Coast designed the most recent edition of D&D with it in mind from the ground up. Backed by the money of Hasbro, Dungeons and Dragons will stay the tabletop RPG played in the first place gamers go to game: the local gaming store.
The world of tabletop roleplaying games is changing rapidly around us. Kickstarter has created an interesting market impact for the independent game designer, and it’s forcing the major names in the industry to revamp their products to stay fresh. For Wizards of the Coast, that means the release of the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The latest edition still plays like D&D, perhaps even more so than Fourth Edition – or even Third Edition – truly did, and it is geared towards being recognizable and accessible. Wizards of the Coast has created a Gateway Game for tabletop roleplayers, and like all other Gateway Games, Dungeons and Dragons will continue to serve a large role in growing and defining the hobby.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can discuss this article and more on our social media!