This post is part analysis/part history/part scathing indictment of Dungeons & Dragons. Despite all of the golden idols I seek to melt down into slag, D&D has been a massively important part of my life. I met my wife at a D&D game. I’ve had some friends for over half of my life that first bonded with me over D&D. And nothing can take that away. I also believe that we have an obligation to try and make the things we love better, so that those who follow in out steps do not have to deal with the same garbage we did. So, enjoy the ride.
Back in the late 1960s there were some white guys in the area of Minnesconsin who played tabletop miniature war-games. These had been around for a while, with recreations of battles like Waterloo being extremely popular. These were unit scale battles. The person controlling an army didn’t really take a “role”, although some groups would craft missives to the Baron of Whatever, or the Duke of That-one-place-upon-Avon, whilst wearing silly hats. Ultimately, this side “role playing” would not affect the rules of the battle such as when reinforcements from the 15th Fusiliers would arrive at the table. Everything was very formalized, not unlike history depicts those battles, with their neat rectangular battle groups, and how all members of a unit would just rout at the same time. The rules to these games would be printed in little folios, and distributed to members of the groups. Miniatures were expected to be painted in strict adherence to historical accuracy. Any sort of magical creatures were strictly forbidden, as that was just frivolity not to be engaged in by grown men playing with painted lead soldiers. Also, no watery tarts distributing scimitars.
Some of the younger crew of white men playing with miniatures decided that they didn’t like the stodgy historical recreation camp. They liked Tolkien, Leiber, and that newcomer to the scene Moorcock. Another little cluster just wanted to play single unit miniature games, where if your unit, or “character”, survived, they got certain benefits in future games. There were also those who really enjoyed sitting around a table wearing silly hats. This was a relatively small community in a fairly close geographic area, and they started exchanging ideas by mail and the occasional gathering. Eventually these ideas would result in the original Dungeons & Dragons produced in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (who would later get the ole Jack Kirby treatment) for the label Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR for short). D&D itself originally referenced another creation that predated it by Gygax called Chainmail, that was designed to be a tabletop fantasy combat simulator.
Here’s where we get to combat systems in what is widely considered the 1st TTRPG. That original D&D was basically ALL combat rules. There were plenty of charts and tables describing what you could and could not do in combat (and there were plenty of contradictory rules). But because of the growing interest in fantasy and tabletop gaming, combined with Gygax’s own willingness to market the product, it became the standard.
That was what early D&D was: Combat. Bulky, clanging, fireball tossing combat. And once you learned to navigate the charts (and make your own house-rules when the charts were practically opaque on an issue), those combat systems could actually flow fairly easily. Combat was how you earned Experience Points necessary to improve your character. There really was no other means given. The enemies were simply evil or chaotic because they were enemies. You didn’t need a backstory for why the enemies were a certain alignment, they simply were. The only reason to interact with them was to avoid combat with them or engage in combat with them. Alignment in these earlier versions did not really indicate much in the way of morality, but was more useful as an indicator in how enemies would act during battle.
According to some, this was because Arneson was fond of the Good versus Evil concept, while Gygax was a fan of Moorcock’s Law versus Chaos dichotomy. So they just used both. In the context of a combat game, this made sense. While Player Characters (PCs) were under direct control, the referee (the original preferred term for what would later be known as Dungeon Master or DM) was responsible for hordes of enemies. Assigning them rather basic tactical guidelines sped up decision making for the referee. For instance, Chaotic enemies would basically just mob their enemies, not picking any particular target, while Lawful enemies were more interested in precision and following set patterns. A group of Lawful enemies could target spell-casters and other “soft” targets. Good enemies would be willing to parley and would act to protect their fallen allies. Evil enemies would think nothing of sacrificing their own and using tactics like stealth assassins and poisons.
But then something weird happened…at least as far as Gygax was concerned, based upon all of his articles and newsletters where he openly opined on this subject:
People started using the game to tell stories. The combat of the game would become connective tissue between the more important elements to those gamers. Gygax, while not understanding these gamers, was also a shrewd business person, and would on-board some new blood to help develop his system beyond just a combat engine. The different iterations of D&D after that original set would see more and more elements involved with non-combat situations added in. The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (AD&D 1e) released in 1977 would not only be Gygax’s attempt to oust Arneson from the profit-margin (Arneson was not involved in the development of AD&D, even though it used a lot of rules and concepts he pioneered), but would also broaden the approach to the game outside of combat.
Towards the end of the run of AD&D 1e, Gygax would release Unearthed Arcana (UA, 1985) and OA (1985). (I use the short-hand term “OA” as the full title is inherently offensive to people of Asian origin/descent. I also believe the bulk of the content is offensive as well, based upon what many people from the Asian community have stated, repeatedly, since 1985. It is not my place to declare whether it is offensive or not, but to listen to those whose lives it directly impacts.) UA and OA would concurrently introduce “Nonweapon Proficiencies” (how they were labeled in the books, so I am not responsible for grammatical errors). Additional supplements to follow, The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (DSG, Douglas Niles, 1986) and The Wilderness Survival Guide (WSG, Kim Mohan, 1986) would expand out exploration methods and provide a whole new set of challenges for adventuring parties to face. Up until this point, most of the environmental hazards were in the form of enemy combatants and the occasional trap (better have a thief in your party, otherwise you were getting vaporized). More importantly, these two books would introduce groups to an expanded set of “Nonweapon Proficiencies”.
What we were seeing at the end of AD&D 1e was a significant shift away from what Gygax and Arneson had created around a decade earlier, and was in response to other TTRPGs entering the market not singularly focused on combat. The Palladium Role-Playing Game (Kevin Siembieda, et.al., 1983), Rolemaster (Charlton, Curtis, Fenlon, Marvin, 1980), Traveller (Marc Miller, et.al., 1977), and others had non-combat skills built in from the start.
Even with the additions, at its heart, D&D remained a combat engine designed for Gygaxian hack and slash play. And it shows.
Every edition of D&D whether “basic” or “advanced” while in the hands of TSR would maintain a very familiar combat system, relying on THAC0 tables to determine if you hit, Saving Throw tables to determine if certain things affect you/partially affect you/do not affect you, and a variety of other familiar tables to those who played those iterations under TSR. What you don’t see in D&D during that era is any real development on non-combat skills and proficiencies until Gygax is on his way out at TSR, when the company went corporate at the tail end of the run of AD&D 1e. AD&D 2nd Edition (AD&D 2e, David “Zeb” Cook, et.al., 1989) would pick up where 1st Edition’s last printed books left off, including weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. The problem was, the core books of 2nd Edition never really clearly explained how they worked. You just had them. Or maybe you didn’t. Like I said, they were never clearly defined other than you got to start with some…except when you didn’t. Later rules supplements would introduce new proficiencies and expand upon how you used them, but it was never good. It was an optional set of rules just bolted on as an afterthought to what was still predominantly a combat game. To be perfectly honest, I just now learned how the 2e non-weapon proficiency system was supposed to work, thanks to a wiki page. Only took 31 years for someone to compile the rules with the associated tables in a way that actually made sense.
And while my friends and I played AD&D 2E more than the other earlier versions, the stories we were able to tell were almost in spite of the system itself. When necessary, we would create new rules and features to handle out of combat scenarios. Quite honestly, we even found a lot of the combat system to be too bogged down, and would just scrap or rewrite significant portions of the rules. We weren’t alone in this. Outside of tournament games operating under the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA) at conventions, hardly anyone was trying to play the game with rules as written (RAW). For instance, fighters having to keep track of things like 3 attacks every 2 rounds; or spell casting times, with some spells taking multiple combat rounds to cast, and if the caster got hit, the spell would fizzle. We just house-ruled all that stuff.
On top of all this was 1980s renaissance of other TTRPGs. Some of them got way more specific when it came to combat mechanics, while others went more “realistic”. R. Talsorian Games Cyberpunk 2013 (Mike Pondsmith, 1988) and its Friday Night Firefight rules made gunfights quick and deadly. It was an era when new systems were popping up every time you went to your local gaming outlet (I had to rely upon what my local Waldenbooks was keeping in stock), and there were a lot of alternatives to choose from besides D&D. TSR would even have a host of other TTRPGs, some good, some bad, like Top Secret (Merle M. Rasmussen, 1980), Star Frontiers (Steve Winter, ed., 1982), Gamma World (Ward and Jaquet, 1978), and Boot Hill (Blume and Gygax 1975). Even TSR’s flagship magazine Dragon would feature ads, reviews, and articles about other TTRPGs. If you were in the U.K. (and a few select stores in the U.S.) you may have also been able to pick up White Dwarf magazine, which although it would later be dedicated to Games Workshop’s Warhammer setting, from 1977 to the mid-80s it would focus on AD&D, Runequest, and Traveller.
Despite all my talk playing up this era as a kind of “golden age” of TTRPGs, it wasn’t. During this period, there were hardly any writers, artists, editors, or designers who were not white men. For instance, OA, released in 1985 had zero writers or designers of Asian origin/descent. A book based upon Asian cultures had NO actual human Asian presence in its development. Based upon looking at its cursed contents again, probably one of the guys owned a “katana” and a “kimono” and had read James Clavell’s Shōgun (1975, also made into a TV miniseries released on NBC in 1980). And it shows. OA is not alone in this, nor was Dungeons & Dragons (although TSR draws the most ire, because it was the big dog) the only offender. Plenty of other games from the 80s and 90s just casually wrote about other cultures, almost as if their only exposure was from Hollywood, travel brochures, and Encyclopædia Britannica entries last updated in 1957. A lot of people like to hand wave that away today because, “they didn’t have the Internet back then,” or, “they just didn’t know any people from [insert “exotic” foreign land X].” I grew up in small, predominantly white, Missouri towns, and you could still find people of various ethnic and national origins if you wanted to, especially if you were willing to drive up to St. Louis, Kansas City, or *gasp* Chicago.
For white kids like me, these sourcebooks would be my first reference about cultures other than my own. Keep in mind, growing up as a kid in the 80s and early 90s, I wouldn’t even have a world history class until the 10th grade. Even then, most of it was, “Here is what was going on in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Then here is the Roman Empire. Then the Southern European Renaissance. Then World War I. Also, there were people in other places, but we neither have the time nor inclination to talk about them.” Did I mention I was the kid who would actually try and find books about these other cultures and civilizations in my local library, but would frequently turn up short? I can’t remember what grade I was in (was probably in junior high), but I remember doing a paper about Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro González, and how both were brutal murderers for a “social studies” class. This was before the release of the Maztica Campaign Set (Douglas Niles, 1991), because I had learned enough on my own to realize how terribly awful that set was when I picked it up. Seriously, it depicted the Helm worshiping conquistadors as the “good” guys. How is it, that a 12 year-old kid in Southern Missouri appeared to know more about the atrocities committed by conquistadors than an adult man did? (For the record, the first Maztica novel by Douglas Niles would come out in 1989.)
To a degree, all of this makes sense. We aren’t talking about a massive world-wide phenomenon at this point. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (HQ location of TSR) back in the 1980s had a population of around 7,000. Basically, if you were like Douglas Niles, a high school teacher from about half-an-hour away from Lake Geneva, you didn’t really need talent to get hired. You just needed to know someone and be persistent enough with trying to get a job there, and eventually you would get to write a Central/South American inspired setting expansion for Forgotten Realms where the conquistadors were the good guys.
And no, I’m not going to stop harping on that one anytime soon.
Fortunately for me, I had a voracious appetite for knowledge. While D&D settings were a gateway for me to first start even thinking about cultures not my own, my supplemental reading showed me how totally off base the writing staff at TSR (and some other TTRPG publishers) really were. And the treatment of real world cultures in Forgotten Realms in particular was all over the board. Some were REALLY bad (Kara-Tur and Maztica) while others are still generally well received (Al-Qadim/Zakhara).
While other TTRPG companies evolved to have combat systems light, complex, deadly, realistic, or non-existent, D&D languished. The system was laughable at how clunky it was. Fighting a mob of goblins with your party of 10th level PCs could still wind up taking hours, even though the outcome was apparent. Design teams at TSR were more focused on coming up with new boxed set setting content than on making the rules make any real sense. Instead of focusing on their core game mechanics, TSR took the position of just bolting on more rules to an already bogged down framework. Which would have been fine had the system been modular and designed for that. The Generic Universal RolePlaying System, aka GURPS, by Steve Jackson of the eponymous Steve Jackson Games is an example of “universal” setting agnostic rules system, that then had modular components that could be added to adapt it to any setting or genre. While GURPS may have its critics, the system was designed to be modular. That was a design feature. D&D, not so much. The expanded AD&D 2e optional rules never quite clicked without significant retooling of the core mechanic. They never were balanced, and thanks to poor writing, often caused disputes rather than resolving them. This is important to point out: these early editions of D&D did not have the design philosophy of “make the game your own”. You were supposed to play with the RAW, unless that rule was clearly labeled “optional”.
Eventually, AD&D 2e would become so bogged down with optional/alternate rule books (also known as splat books), that it became practically impossible to play. At the start of any new campaign, multiple sessions would be spent determining which optional rules would be incorporated from which books. Discussions would be had on who had what books, and who could borrow those books. I mean, clearly we were allowing character class kits, but any of the kits? Do we allow the Elven Bladesinger, because Alex might not agree to play if we don’t allow that, even though we know it is horribly overpowered (OP)?
And then we would just stop playing AD&D 2e. We would move on to the White Wolf Storyteller system. At one point, we even ran a Dragonlance chronicles game using the Storyteller system rather than go back to the mess that was AD&D 2e. The combat system existed, but held equal status with non-combat actions, and we wanted to be able to tell a story!
Then in 1997 Wizards of the Coast (WotC) would buy out the crumbling TSR, that had spread itself too thin over the years on failed side projects and a bloated AD&D 2e. WotC was a relative newcomer to the gaming world, created in 1990. The Seattle based TTRPG company would initially start out just publishing a few games, and even got into a legal battle with Palladium Books early on. Three years down the road in 1993 everything would change with the release of the collectible card game (CCG) called Magic: the Gathering. The gaming world would never be the same, and WotC would go from being another obscure little publisher to an industry powerhouse. Upon the acquisition of TSR, WotC would immediately announce plans to create AD&D 3rd Edition (later renamed Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition or D&D 3e for short). WotC would quickly be acquired by Hasbro in 1998, the purchase of TSR having made it a much more attractive investment with the stable D&D line. You have to realize, in 1998 there were still many people who were waiting for the Magic bubble to burst. How long could it keep up that kind of momentum? In 2000, 3e would be released to much fanfare, and to grumblings of reluctant groups of gamers who were either still dedicated to AD&D 2e or earlier versions, or with groups like mine that had been burned out by the game that was a barely functional combat engine at its core.
What we got was an amazing new system that introduced a huge amount of non-combat rules (that were at times difficult to understand, especially when it came to knowing the difference between some of the skills, that may have been a bit too hyper-specialized at times). It kept the core concept of classes and leveling, and unfortunately also kept concepts like alignment and race. However, it ditched a lot of the bioessentialism found in earlier editions. None of the core classes were restricted by race, so you could finally have a dwarven wizard, for example (there were some Prestige Classes that were restricted, but the DM always had the option to waive those restrictions). Combat was still a big part of the game, but it flowed fast, with a very basic mechanic. I once dedicated a session to a large scale battle between armies, with the PCs acting as free roaming units. It went surprisingly quickly, and we wound up having plenty of time for some solid after battle role-play that session.
In 2003, WotC would release D&D 3.5e, updating and streamlining the rules from 3e, and my group made the transition with little issue.
For me, 3/3.5 was the pinnacle of the history of D&D for what I wanted from a game: a solid rules set designed for both non-combat skill rolls, and a quick and easy to grasp combat mechanic. The number of books was daunting to most newcomers, but I could usually calm those concerns by sitting down and helping build a starting character, and asking the player what concept they had in mind, and suggesting Prestige Classes for them to work towards. And I allowed players to rebuild characters or reallocate skill points if they realized that where they started wanting to go didn’t fit with where their character wound up going in their story.
Then, just five years into the 3rd Edition of the game, WotC announced development of a new edition, which would be released three years later in 2008. The 4th Edition of D&D (D&D 4e) would almost end my connection to a game I had been playing since childhood. Completely gone were the customization options of the previous two editions (by the time 2e went out of print, there was a huge amount of customization options, alternate class builds, etc.). Non-combat rules were non-existent. WotC claimed that this was based upon player feedback of 3e, which led a lot of the community of players to ask, “Who was asking for a streamlined miniature combat system?” The answer seemed to be no one except the higher ups at Hasbro wanting to make the game more accessible to younger entry-level players more familiar with fast-paced easy to pick-up video games. To an extent, it worked. I still meet younger gamers whose first experience with D&D was 4e, and they still love it.
For me, the difference between 3e and 4e could be compared to certain automobile enthusiasts. There are those who will take apart and reassemble engines and transmissions, making tweaks and alterations here and there. They can recite occult lore regarding parts IDs and what type of motor oil works best for exact temperatures. Then there are the people who just want to have to make the decision between what color Camaro they want. The first group tends to make fun of the second group, but that’s not fair. Not everyone wants to get under the hood. Some just want to drive the car and make some cosmetic choices.
3e was “crunch” (consisting of a lot of complex rules and details for customization that could make mechanical differences). 4e was a game you could just pick up and go.
While 4e pulled in some new players, it alienated some of the older players. Many of my old crew tried picking up 4e to give it a shot. Some of us only played a handful of sessions, while others played a few campaigns. I heard some initial praise as it was really easy to make a character and get going at 1st level. By 10th level, all I heard were grumbles. Every new set of powers was basically a reskin of everyone else’s powers, just with slightly different flavor-text.
Ultimately, 4e would be the shortest lived iteration of what could be known as the AD&D line of editions, running six years from 2008 until 2014. A lot of people point to the dramatic shift in game play as the downfall of 4e. I’m not so sure that was the case. I do think a lesson was learned: Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.
[Edit: I have actually gained a lot of respect for 4e as a system over the years. From a design perspective, it was a very solid and fast-paced system, in part because it did not shy away from what it was, which was a miniature tactical combat system. I really think it would have flourished as a system were it not tied to the D&D franchise.]
For reference on editions/versions of Dungeons & Dragons:
- 1974 Gygax Original Dungeons & Dragons – OD&D
- 1977 “Holmes” Edition Basic D&D – Holmes D&D
- 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – AD&D 1e
- 1981 “Moldvay” Edition Basic and Expert D&D – D&D B/X
- 1983 Dungeons & Dragons – D&D BECMI
- 1989 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition – AD&D 2e
- 1991 Rules Cyclopedia – This was a compilation of D&D BECMI (w/o the I)
- 2000 Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition – D&D 3e
- 2003 Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 – D&D 3.5e
- 2008 Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – D&D 4e
- 2014 Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition – D&D 5e
And what we have seen under WotC/Hasbro ownership is new editions at shorter intervals. AD&D 1e would run twelve years. AD&D 2e would run eleven years. D&D BECMI would be on the market in one iteration or another for around fifteen years. None of the post TSR versions have crossed the decade threshold, and all indicators are that the current edition is probably heading to the bin within the next couple of years considering the current community backlash.
But why the massive change between editions? When 3e was released, WotC also released a detailed guide on how to transfer 2e characters to 3e. It wasn’t complete by any means (some kits in 2e didn’t have 3e equivalents, for instance), but the versatility of 3e with skills, prestige classes, and feats, allowed many players to transfer their PCs without significant issue. 3.5e was just an updated version of 3e, so you basically just had to restat your PC, which while it required some math, was not horribly difficult if you had a notepad and a calculator. 3.5e to 4e just didn’t work. You effectively had to rebuild your character from the ground up with a completely different tool set than you had before. Other than the core 6 stats, the game was radically different. And then the hop from 4e to 5e was equally as impractical. It is actually easier to transfer a 3.5e character to 5e than to transfer a 4e to 5e.
Which leads to the current iteration. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition would hit shelves in August of 2014 with the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual releasing in September of 2014, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide releasing in December of 2014, mirroring the pattern of release of the “Core 3” books starting with AD&D 1e.
5e would feel like a welcome return to the game that those prior to 4e were familiar with. Like 4e, it would remain centered on combat, but would bring back non-combat skill proficiencies similar to 3e, but without as many options or math required for point expenditure. It would retain the d20 skill check system, with rolls either being opposed or the player needing to hit a target difficulty challenge (DC). For long-time players like me, it was a return to what was good about prior editions.
Oddly enough, though, some of the steps forward in prior editions regarding intelligent “monster” races would be ditched, and 5e would slide back to some of the old Gygaxian bioessentialist issues. Alignment would be back as a core element, but no classes would have alignment restrictions. Many “monsters” would have a default alignment, even though that raised a lot of questions for intelligent sapient entities. The issue of racial stat modifiers would become an even more nasty bit in the game, that now limited ability scores for Player Characters (PCs) to max at 20. It pushed players to min/max when running written adventures, or run the risk of an early and grisly death if the entire party was not optimized. Where 3e and 4e had introduced online character build programs at a free or fairly low cost for players, WotC would license out the online presence of 5e to Dungeons & Dragons Beyond, where in order to access full character creation tools you or your Dungeon Master (DM) would need to setup an account and purchase digital copies of books for around the same price as the print editions, resulting in groups repurchasing effectively the same content in different format. While the rest of the industry was starting to offer free online apps for character creation and GM tools, and even free PDF codes with purchase of a hard-copy of a book, WotC was hiding all that functionality behind a pay-wall.
Quite possibly the most brilliant (and insidious) marketing move by WotC with 5e was the return of a variant of the 3e Open Gaming License (OGL). The 3e OGL let anyone develop, print, and sell 3rd party adventures and supplements for D&D, royalty free to WotC. You kept the full rights to what you wrote, along with the money. The only real provision is that you were not allowed to reprint any of the core rules, or use certain copyrighted and trademarked monsters (the Beholder and the Mind Flayer are two examples of creatures wholly owned by WotC). WotC actually tried to lay the blame of the “failure” of 3e on the 3rd party publishers, complaining that they diluted the property too much. By 5e, the legal and marketing teams had figured out how to bring back a version of the OGL that would equal massive profits for WotC. Enter the DM’s Guild. An online virtual bookstore, and the suggested selling spot for any and all 3rd party supplements for 5e. The problem is, the fine-print of the new OGL allows WotC to take any content printed under that license and reprint it as their own without even crediting the 3rd party that created it. WotC and the host of the DM’s Guild, OneBookShelf, also take a cut of every digital sale. How much of a cut? Good luck finding out, because the explanation of how much creators get in royalties on sales is not at all transparent.
The DM’s Guild not only feeds money into the WotC coffers without them paying anything out, it also creates a source of concept material that they can reap without additional royalties to those designers. Basically, anyone who writes material and posts it up on the DM’s Guild has acted as very much the part of the “free” in “freelancer”.
From a business stand-point, it is genius. Just let your fans and those trying to get noticed in the industry do the work for you. Not only do you get to take a big chunk of whatever they are earning for their work, but you also get to pillage whatever you like because you now effectively own what they’ve posted on DM’s Guild.
I’ve looked at the term’s and conditions, and they are NOT creator friendly.
[Edit: further research on this issue has revealed that releasing 5e product on other hosting sites other than DM’s Guild mean that you get to keep copyright on your product without automatically surrendering it to WotC. I will keep researching that, and reviewing the current OGL.]
Not only that, but now the central model for developing new products produced “in-house” by WotC is largely reliant on book-by-book contract “freelancers”, who part of their contract is a strict Non-Disclosure Agreement, basically saying while working on a project they can’t say anything about that project or even that they are working for WotC until they are explicitly allowed to do so. Even then, stories that have come out from freelancers who have worked say that the pay winds up being extremely low, they receive no royalties, no creative claim to the work, are told what to post on social media to promote the materials, and are basically treated horribly while the full-time team at WotC reaps the rewards.
This is not even delving into increasing evidence that various “top dogs” at WotC have been enabling and covering up abusive behavior by certain associates.
And now, the cherry on top of the miasma that is WotC D&D, the design team is claiming that the flaws in the game are in fact somehow strengths, because a gaming group can always just change what they don’t like!
The difference now is that I never had any illusions that TSR “cared” about me. They made a product. A game. That game was broken as all get-out. But my friends and I were on epic quests. We didn’t need anyone at TSR to tell us, “Hey, you can change what you don’t like!” Of course we could change it. We weren’t bound by their rules. But that wasn’t a feature of the game. It was a flaw. It is still a flaw! If they wanted to create a modular game where the group could use system 1, 4, 6, and 10, but drop the rest, that would be a feature of the game.
For instance, in 5e feats are listed very clearly as “optional”. You know what isn’t listed as “optional”? Alignment. The entire section on alignment is packed with some problematic issues that players have been talking about for decades. The response from key design team members? “Don’t like alignment? Don’t use it! Your DM can get rid of it.” This is a bad take. It is a relic of older editions where the magic user could simply cast Detect Evil to identify which NPCs could be killed without issue. It is like playing a video game where “enemies” have a red indicator and “non-enemies” have a green indicator. Alignment should have been stripped from the game years ago, or at least flagged as “optional”. It still lingers, even though it no longer has any mechanical relevance.
Another response to the fan base (in a now deleted tweet) is that the people who are the “loudest” about the issues with the game clearly have not read the PHB and the DMG. *slow clap* “BUT WE PROVIDED YOU WITH A TOOL KIT! IT’S A TOOL KIT! WITH TOOLS!” Yes, it is a tool kit, in the same way that the old work-bench in my old garage was a tool kit. I couldn’t find anything, because nothing was ever clearly labeled or sorted. It is how I wound up with multiple pairs of vice grips, because I could never find that set I had purchased, so I went out and purchased another. Unless you are doing some serious wood-working, no one needs that many vice grips! And I’m just going to come right out and say it: the 5e Dungeon Masters Guide is a mess. None of them have been top-notch. I’ve been using the 3.5e DMG for fifteen or so years now, and I still have problems locating all the treasure tables (which should literally have been one after the other in the book, but they aren’t). Keep in mind that the 5e DMG dedicates a third of its content to treasure. At least this time around, they put it all in roughly the same spot, even if the entries lack the breadth of prior DMGs. So, that’s great. At least I know which drawer all my nails, screws, and bolts are, but why they are sorted by size, and not type, I couldn’t tell you.
The reality is, that as it has always been, the people complaining the loudest are the people who want to see the game be better than it is. The desire to have all things balanced out is the influence of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, and was really what made 4e the bland mess of a system that it was. While I have no desire to return to the different experience markers of 1e and 2e, there wasn’t a major issue with certain classes being sturdier at lower levels, but others continuing to scale more and more powerful, especially if you are using the game primarily as a combat simulator. In its desire to pander to balanced play, WotC has stripped certain elements out. These are not offered up in “optional” rules, and you wind up with an entire class that no one wants to play. (If you don’t know, that class in Ranger. The Ranger is a largely worthless class in 5e because no one knew how to really make it special. Instead you wind up with a powered down fighter who gets some nature-based spells and an animal companion that you really want to keep away from combat because IT WILL GET KILLED! Effectively, they gave the Fighter a dog and some tangle-foot bags.)
So what you get with 5e is a system more reminiscent of 2e, but without any of the originality and flair. Most of the adventure books are just rehashed old modules (some quite literally using the same maps, with minor modifications) from 1e or 2e. Seriously, how many times do we have to run through the same basic adventure in Barovia? And most of those times if you are not running an optimized party specifically designed for that adventure book, you’re going to get squelched in the first handful of encounters playing RAW. The Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms has become the default setting, even if the design leads keep shouting that it isn’t. (Seriously, by my count around twelve of the 5e books are set in the Sword Coast or adjacent to that area. That’s roughly half of the books released at this point.) We are finally getting some new setting sourcebooks for Ravnica (about time they used some M:tG settings), Eberron, Wildemount, and Theros within the past couple of years.
All in all, 5e has proven to be…underwhelming. Relying on nostalgia of the broken systems of my youth to convince me that D&D is back to its roots. The problem is, the roots were bad.
What I have come to realize most is that D&D under the ownership of WotC and Hasbro Interactive has become dull. Maybe I would feel differently if I was into Critical Role, but I’ve always preferred playing games over watching other people play them. Not a value judgment, just a statement of fact (this is the same reason I get no pleasure from watching sports).
To end all this mess of a rant, I’m going back to Afion. The setting that was created with the people who welcomed me into their homes…their lives. Some of those people are gone now, but I will always find ways to ensure their memories live on in our shared world. And I’m not ready to throw that away.