Tuesday 28 September 2021

D&D is an imposter in the RPG world

It occurs to me that despite originating the tabletop roleplaying hobby, D&D sits outside of most design conventions that have come after it. 5th edition does at least. When you look at most games, they're designed to emulate or do something quite specific, whether that's pulp steampunk Victoriana adventure or creeping dread in an uncaring cosmos. D&D 5th edition, though, seems to be an emulation of D&D, but not any sort of D&D. Rather, it's an imagined D&D plucked from the halcyon days of the hobby and harvested from the more story-driven editions of the 00s onwards. This isn't a value statement on the game, but it's intriguing that the most popular RPG in the hobby is a weird jumble of identities yet one that doesn't quite retain one of its own. 

If you go back to OD&D and the basic rules that followed it, the design told players what the game was about. Namely, delving into deadly dungeons, avoiding getting slaughtered and escaping with level-boosting loot. There were processes and procedures to it. Random encounters and hexcrawls were baked into the design. It was a picaresque game emulating the pulps, a smorgasbord of ideas including everything from Leigh Brackett and ERB to Vance and Moorcock. The designers weren't completely explicit in what they were trying to achieve, but it's all there. 

If that were still the case now, I believe D&D would be the dungeon crawl game. But the game evolved to become iterations of itself - a mirror image spell cast on its own form where each reflection wasn't quite like that last. 4e put its card on the table (literally) as far as design intent went: this is superpowers heroic fantasy where you go from defending minor mortal locations to zipping through the ether in impossible sailboats, whacking tendrilly psychics. 

Then came the ridiculously popular 5e, whose success could never have been predicted by the dollar-flipping big bods at Hasbro, whose designers creating a veritable pick n mix of old and new. But what is D&D now? A game like Alien is designed around tension as you try to survive insurmountable odds, and the Yellow King is reality horror that has players play through multiple eras and realities. D&D on the other hand eludes me. Of course, it's a fantasy game about heroes (but also maybe not heroes) going on adventures. The core rules allude to the Forgotten Realms being the default setting but we don't learn a whole lot about it (maybe it should be termed 'low setting'). Its mechanics don't give much away. We know there are dangerous places full of dangerous things, maybe if you want and we know characters get more powerful as they grow, but what IS the game? I'm sorry if I seem obtuse and I might not be explaining this properly, but I can only surmise that D&D is a D&D game. It seeks to emulate some form of D&D, but not like the old editions. Just an amorphous idea of D&D. 

This doesn't mean it's not a fun game (it wouldn't be popular if it weren't) but it seems to me that it sits outside of the rest of the tabletop sphere. Its amorphous nature is also likely one of the reasons why some players try to bend it to fit new design goals: a cosy exploratory game, a cyberpunk game. Truthfully I don't think this makes sense at all - it's like using 40k rules for Napoleonics. Technically you could do it, but the experience won't be half as good and there would be a lot of effort involved to crowbar it into shape. Sure, I could gank D&D to play in Age of Sigmar, but Soulbound is leagues better for doing that. 

It's also one of the reasons I find D&D infinitely interesting. Yesterday Wizards announced a refresh of the rules in 2024, or a new edition or something. That will have been a decade since 5e launched, bringing it close to the lifespan of AD&D 2e. No doubt this will end up running for another five years before 6e rears its head. Personally the only D&D I enjoy is BX and Basic, and the games based on those, along with 4e. All different iterations but all with their own distinct flavour. 

In the 2024 update or the new edition it would be good to see Wizards designing around the three pillar elements that they retrofitted into the game. Interesting mechanisms for exploration and social situations, rules that underpin the D&Dness of the world. A better understanding of its own identity. Personally I'd like some more weirdness which was prevalent in early editions if I were ever to be interested in the game again. 

The appeal of D&D 5e is that it's open to interpretation, and not in a way that a generic system like Genesys is. While each game of Call of Cthulhu is certainly a cosmic horror session with the tropes you expect, players fill the void of identity that 5e lacks. A silly comedy about a band of bards, a serious sword and sorcery against frost giants, a science fantasy intrigue in Ravnica. It's a generic system without being truly generic - doing enough to servicably run all these different types of games but not doing any one thing really well. 

So will Wizards eventually relook at the design and decide what they want the game to do, like in 4e? No chance. They've got the alchemy now to print money, so D&D is set to sit in its own bubble eternally. 

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