Sunday, January 23, 2022

We Don't Need D&D™

This is a topic that came up when I was on Gonzo Up Your Ass this week, and is really amplified by Travis Miller's latest post over at Grumpy Wizard. And that is that the OSR no longer needs Dungeons & Dragons™.

See, Dungeons & Dragons is two things. It is both the name for an intellectual property, and it is not one, but at least 10 iterations of a game originally created by Earnest Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

The Game

The game has changed substantially, as it has been handed over to multiple teams with different ideas across multiple generations now.

The earlier editions, the ones derived from either Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or the Basic Dungeons & Dragons lines had  a mostly cohesive experience. There were some qualitative differences, for example characters in the basic line tended to be more fragile at first but could ascend to greater heights than characters in the Advanced line 

Ultimately, the game was a grab bag of Sword and Sorcery and Science Fiction ideas with a patina of Tolkinian Fantasy over top. It was a game where characters took great risks in deadly places in order to collect lost treasure. Often, but not always, they would encounter terrifying forces of evil along the way, and be forced to make the decision to do something heroic or to be cowards.

By the latter half of AD&D2e's tenure, Dungeons & Dragons expanded to cover a lot of different gaming experiences that were often embodied in setting books such as Birthright for courtly intrigue, Dark Sun for apocalyptic fantasy, Savage Coast for pulpy wilderness exploration, etc. Headed vastly expanded as a game, but lost some definition on what it was about and what made it unique.

When Wizards of the Coast took over ownership of the game in 1999, they made some substantive changes to how it played. Characters became more powerful, especially as the system evolved. The focus became much more strongly toward combat, and complex subsystems were in place for almost anything the players might conceive of doing.

The paradigm shift to that third edition represented didn't just change the way the game was played, it was in many ways a different sort of game, with different play loops, different play styles, and a radically different core experience.

The Intellectual Property

4th edition became a radical departure. It was The logical conclusion of all the innovations of third edition, and a far more honed system, but with its elaborate combat mechanics, radically different magic system, and highly formalized play roles, it didn't feel anything like the game that had come before. Dungeons & Dragons was a label being stuck on something different. It had become a brand that was attempting to denote several very different games.

It really is no wonder that the OSR cropped up when it did. 3.5 had suffered pretty extreme bloat in rules and significant creep in its play experience over its last few years. The 3.5 edition Complete series book and the Player's Handbook 2 in particular radically changed the nature of the game. 4th edition made it clear that Dungeons & Dragons™ was going somewhere different and courting larger audiences. 4th edition certainly did not offer a core experience that felt remotely like the experience offered from TSR-era D&D.

At first, Dungeons & Dragons 5e felt like a bit of a mea culpa: It was simpler, and looked and felt like the game did in the era of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The core play loop of heading into terrifying places and using your wits and skill to escape with the loot was (kind of) back... although it wasn't fully there unless you made use of a lot of the optional rules in the DMG. Lots of OSR players were really hopeful that D&D5e signaled a return of Dungeons & Dragons™ to its roots.

With the D&D craze partially brought on by Stranger Things and Critical Role. Wizards of the Coast was handed a gift of a massive audience that was hungry not just to by a game, but to buy the Dungeons & Dragons™ Experience and merch. They wanted to be seen with the books and to play the game...

...But they definitely did not want the experience that was too much like the original core gameplay. For the New School gamer D&D™ is an excuse to hang out, and play slice-of-life games, have impromptu group therapy sessions, play virtual dressup, and use their characters for self-exploration. In fact, the old core D&D play loop stands in the way of much of what the new audience wants.

There's nothing wrong with that, per se; but is not what I am looking for in a game. In fact, a lot of the material released recently just plain ruins the experience for me. And I am not alone.

At least in the short term, catering to this new audience has been a winning strategy for the Dungeons & Dragons™ brand. The new audience is bigger, more eager to spend, and consume products as much as a status signal as to play the game.

The Clash for D&D

Many old-school players have strong feelings about the change, not because they dislike change, but because the changes being made are stripping out the very things that made the game fun and challenging in the first place: danger, skill, intellectual challenge, a shelter from the status-obsessed mainstream culture. Those strong feelings come in part because Dungeons & Dragons™ is almost always something that had been a positive in the lives of the Old-School Gamers, often when the rest of life could be bleak or confusing. It was a safe harbor for misfits, an escape from the banality of media, and a place where intimate bonds could be formed. They have good reason to care about Dungeons & Dragons™.

Moreover, Dungeons & Dragons™ drives the entire TTRPG hobby, in some respects. What succeeds for D&D™ will tell the rest of the TTRPG market - which relies on D&D™ to act as a gateway to the hobby - what will sell. If D&D™ makes itself more about being a comfortable game than a challenging one, other TTRPGs will do the same. If D&D™ embraces a side in a cultural debate, so too will the rest of the TTRPG industry. If D&D™ decides to embrace its role as a therapeutic tool, then so to will a lot of the TTRPG industry. And this will pressure the whole hobby change to suit whatever audience Wizards of the Coast decides to pursue.

And, as corporations like Hasbro are averse to risk and controversy, so long as WotC is answerable to them, it will also leech much of the Artistry, Integrity, and Subversive ideas that once made the game great. To be replaced with the Puerile, Insipid, or safely Dull. Corporate market-consciousness is a lethal poison to the artistic and spiritual value of anything it touches.

A lot of TTRPG players feel like Dungeons & Dragons™ is the battlefield in which their childhood memories, their safe harbor, the hobby that helped them build up relationships, and the game that they have loved must be defended. It is where their hobby will be shaped.

But that isn't quite the case.

See, Dungeons & Dragons™ is just an IP. A Brand. A generic name for the TTRPG hobby to the outsider. It represents a gateway, sure, but so now do video games, YouTube channels, and school clubs.

We don't need it.

Separating the IP from the Game

We do not need Dungeons & Dragons™. That stack of glossy books is not the hobby. And it is not the game Dungeons & Dragons that you played as an 70s or 80s kid.

And for that matter. there isn't one single TTRPG hobby, either. TTRPG is a category that now includes many different playstyles and types of games. The OC+focused game that works well in Strixhaven is nothing like the challenging narrative-heavy game you played in Temple of Elemental Evil. Swords & Wizardy and Alone Among the Stars have virtually nothing in common despite both being called "TTRPGs."

If you care about the Dungeons & Dragons you played as a kid, and feel like you have to defend now, the OSR is likely where the game that you are fighting for still exists and is supported under about 100 different names. None of which are Dungeons & Dragons™. And they are more of your kind of D&D than Strixhaven or Into the Feywild will ever hope to be.

And more importantly this Old-School Gaming is vibrant, alive, and driven by an amazing independent spirit

The OSR has taken the raw clay of older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and other vintage TTRPGs and mixes in modern data science, a half century of the insights into design, a strong DIY culture, and a drive to share them with one another, and created a dizzying body of work. 

Because they are based on older, familiar systems, the games aren't just games, they are toolkits that can be used to make your own custom game that suits your group with very little effort.

And while they are highly varied the OSR games have some principles that are in common:

  • Emphasis on creative problem solving.
  • Preference for letting skillful player narration work around dice and mechanics.
  • Focus on providing risk and challenge.
  • Characters being fragile and combat being highly lethal; rewarding characters for clever strategy or evading combat.
  • Preference for treating worlds as virtual reality experience and immersion over dramatic storytelling.
  • Focus on simple and robust rules systems.

The playstyle that OSR games promote is designed to be intellectually stimulating, creative, and to be rewarding both in the short and long term.

It doesn't matter how much the play experience, target audience, or culture of the Dungeons & Dragons™ changes, we have our own evolutions of the best versions of Dungeons &Dragons for play, improved by a thousand passionate, creative hobbyists.

Why Fight Over the Wrapping When You Have the Present?

I  honestly believe walking away from the Dungeons & Dragons™ and focusing our energy on the amazing games we are making is the way to the future. The brand of D&D™ no longer represents the type of game most of us want to play, and Wizards of the Coast has made it pretty clear that they are no longer of directly serving the older players, and do not want them in the Dungeons & Dragons™ "Community" several times over the past three years.

ThAC0 the Clown reclaimed by the mighty Justin Pfeil. His comics rock! (©2022 Justin Pfeil)

Of course, they are happy to take our money through DrivethruRPG and DMs guild. About a year ago I suggested that Dungeons & Dragons ought to be forked into two parallel brands again; one for people who want adventures and challenges, and another for people who want complex plots and superheroic characters. Now I realize they have no incentive to do so as long as they control a marketplace that gets a cut from the sale of every indie product passing through.

WotC doesn't have competition, it has vendors. It doesn't need to fork D&D, it is already accruing money from a hundred forks 

There are plenty of people in the OSR who want to fight for Dungeons & Dragons™. They are, of you have a modicum of empathy, understandibly distressed by the way it is going, and want to put pressure on the company and the culture to move it back towards it's older style of play. And you can hardly blame them. After all, Dungeons & Dragons was often their sanctuary, or their passion. Seeing an upstart company take it over, and strip the soul away from it is painful. Under the stewardship of WotC, Dungeons & Dragons™ has become anodyne where it is not banal. If you try to play it in a traditional fashion, it is also unchallenging, and far less rewarding as a game. It has suffered the same way the music industry did with the mass marketing of rock, punk, and heavy metal.

The more we fight over control of this drab simulacrum the less time we spend creating more of what we love, the more we have to deal with corporate ghouls and self-righteous ideologues. And the more we deal with imbeciles creating conflict for no good reason.

I have no doubt that the people who will enjoy our games will find us. In fact, the Dungeons & Dragons™ they are initially marketed will do a great job of funneling the ones who want a challenge to the OSR. Especially if we spend out energy building each other up, rather than engaging with the nitwittery that the ghouls keep responding to.

Just look at Aaron the Pedantic, who went from 5e Newbie to OSR superfan to respected creator in just a couple of years.

Keep in mind as well that a lot of the worst actors have learned that they can play Old-School Gamers by saying something absurd and antagonistic about D&D, getting pushback that they can spin as an "attack" to gain kneejerk support from their community's white knights, thus creating instant traffic and revenue. The best way to deal with this trend is to starve these flames of oxygen.

Formulated as a Personal Choice...

Let me break it down how I personally approach it.

Personally, I have no ill will towards 5th edition as a game. 5e itself can be tweaked to make for a good Dungeons & Dragons experience. It just takes a lot  more work than Low Fantasy Gaming or DCC RPG do to get it. I left D&D 5e because it wasn't fast enough or challenging enough a system for me.

And I definitely have no use for the thing that Dungeons & Dragons™ is becoming post 'Tasha's Hideous Cauldron." I could join a lot of my fellow gamers in despair over how vapid and jejeune it is becoming, or I can be elated by the sheer brilliance of something like What Ho, Frog Demons! or Hot Springs Island instead.

Who needs the negativity? It won't make you want to read my blog.

And for those who get satisfaction out of magma mephit-infested coffee makers, magical proms, and 30+ playable races that are all the same as humans, more power to them. They can keep Dungeons & Dragons™. It is not the experience I want.

I'll be with the rest of the cool GenX slackers playing Labyrinth Lord, and dying gloriously.


  1. Preach it, brother!

    For myself, I think a magma-mephit powered coffee pot would be a cool minor detail in a necromancer's lair. (After coffee, it has to warm up the hot tub and then do the dishes.) Or something mass-summoned by Dwarves to power their steamships and locomotives. Or possibly a character in a Studio Ghibli film.

    1. I have used sealed salamanders to power furnaces and golem pedal-powered paddlewheel on boats.

      But the encounter in "No Tears Over Spilled Coffee"... A mix of lame and stupidly lethal that makes me marvel.

  2. I deleted my previous comment because of a typo that was kind of important. This version is corrected.

    During the time 3E and 4E was in print, the OSR didn't engage with WotC other than to criticize what they were doing with the current version of the game and why it sucked. There was almost no crossover. You had Goodman, Necromancer and few others making stuff for 3.5/Pathfinder. I didn't see many OSR bloggers writing about how they were running 4E games as well as a Labyrinth Lord game.

    When 5e came out, many people tried it with the intent of hoping to be reintegrated back into the network of D&D hobbyists. It seemed like that might happen. It seemed that WotC wanted us to join in and that there was room for everybody. I remember reading some blog posts from that period about the big tent. Some were skeptical and with good reason. Here we are now and it is clear that WotC is back to the position of not wanting the old school style players. Ok. Trick me once. Shame on you. Trick me twice. Shame on me. Never coming back.

  3. "a shelter from the status-obsessed mainstream culture."

    You know, I hadn't actually considered this angle *as such* until I saw it written out like this. But yes, something about the culture of D&D in the reign of 5E has been grating on me something terrible, in a way that it didn't even in the combined 3E/4E era. Back then, I just didn't care for WotC's takes on the rules. This is different, though, much more viscerally distasteful somehow, and I really do think it's the manufactured showbiz of it all, the focus on being known and seen not just to to play some form of D&D, but to play this glitzy Critical Role version of it.

    In other words, good piece.

    1. That's very close to my take as well.

      I didn't mind the 3e rules. I thought that... Until they bloated with an endless supply of feats and prestige classes that did things that those features weren't supposed to do.

      But that was the rub. WotC is not selling a game. They are selling BOOKS. Expensive ones. They started early departing from the principles of the game and it's integral culture the moment they saw profit in it.

      They lost me as a regular book-buyer after the Races of... Just seemed to exist to sell new D&D race options with no history or context. (Dragonborn, Goliaths, ugh...)

      What clinched it for me was when they flat out told everyone that the PHB II, Book of the Nine Swords, and Complete series had been designed to help them playtest and get feedback for the already in-development 4e; that they had put those books out (barely tested), teasing more than they had planned, and then watched the feedback to adjust a different edition.

      Now that D&D is cool with a new and bigger audience, they will change anything to expand and hold that audience.