Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set – A Much Needed Fresh Start?

Seeing as a number of people have asked me for my first impressions of the new D&D Starter Set, I thought it might be fun to write up my thoughts in a little more detail than Twitter allows. In short, the Starter Set is both a brilliant introduction to a new set of rules and a fantastic opportunity to re-launch Dungeons & Dragons both as a brand and a hobby. However, while the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a breath of fresh air, it is nowhere near enough to fill the lungs of someone who is already half-drowned.

 

The Weight of History

I first started playing tabletop RPGs not long after the release of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D2 was really nothing more than the original 1977 D&D rules with a load of extra sub-systems bolted onto them. An excellent example of the design philosophy underpinning D&D at the time was the way that different editions handled skills:

  • D&D featured no skills beyond fighting, spellcasting and a few abilities with their own discrete sets of mechanics like picking locks or noticing the gradient of a slope.
  • AD&D1 kept all of these discrete mechanics and introduced the concept of secondary skills but provided little in the way of mechanical support for those additional skills.
  • AD&D2 kept the discrete mechanics and introduced new rules that served to flesh out the secondary skill system. Despite presenting the rule changes as a more integrated system that encompassed languages, weapons and non-combat skills, the proficiencies were really nothing more than a tidy way of allowing players to choose and then keep track of their areas of expertise and the ever-expanding network of sub-systems that governed them.

If the name and design principles underpinning AD&D2 make it sound cluttered to the point of complete inaccessibility, then you would be completely right. It was nearly 25 years before someone thought to take D&D back to first principles and one can only assume that this reluctance to mess with the rules was derived from an unspoken assumption that the audience for D&D was the same as it had always been. If you assume that the only people buying AD&D2 are the people who already own AD&D1 then it doesn’t really matter that rules changes mean additional sub-systems… it’s not as though anyone has to learn all the rules from scratch! Similarly, if you assume that the only people interested in playing D&D are the people already playing it then every rule change runs the risk of alienating the people who have been playing the same campaign for 20 years. Do these designers not realise how difficult it is to port a 75th level Paladin Demigod from one edition to another?

The collapse of TSR and purchase of D&D by Wizards of the Coast inspired a long-overdue re-examination of the rules but while the game’s third edition replaced AD&D2’s warren of sub-systems with the integrated d20-based mechanics, the iteration of the d20 rules that became 3E was still an incredibly insular piece of game design. The reason for this creative introversion is that 3E was developed during a time when D&D was under intense pressure from games that tried to put RPGs on a slightly different footing.

The original D&D rules are a model of simplicity; After presenting its readers with the revolutionary notion that they could play a game entirely in their own heads, the box set provided just enough mechanical support to make those imaginary worlds seem concrete. However, because the rules were originally drawn up as the basis for a war game that focused upon individual characters rather than units and because the game wound up being marketed at boys, D&D came to be seen as a game primarily concerned with tactical combat, a myth that the publishers of D&D were only too happy to support through an endless barrage of publications pandering to the tactician’s need for more monsters, more traps, more encounters and more magical bling. As this ‘canonical’ vision of how to play D&D slowly emerged, gamers interested in other aspects of roleplaying such as playing roles and solving mysteries began to drift away towards games that emphasised their vision of what gaming was all about. As is so often the case in small sub-cultures, the desire for legitimacy and visibility inspired hyperbole that in turn provoked social schisms.

The more some gamers sought to distance themselves from traditional D&D, the more people interested in tactical play came to revel in a form of tactical fundamentalism in which non-tactical aspects of play received little or no support in published materials. It was during the years spanning the move from ADD2 to 3E that White Wolf Games reached out to fresh audiences with the promise that their games would not be about killing things. Despite this injection of new blood into the hobby and the manifest truth that hundreds of gamers had moved away from D&D, the game’s publishers listened to the tactical fundamentalists and turned their back on people less interested in tactical play.

 

DD1

Despite being built around a core mechanic that could support almost any form of tabletop play, 3E featured a set of combat and movement rules that encouraged the use of miniatures as part of a highly tactical playing style. The tactical nature of in-game combat exerted a pressure on every aspect of the game as the need to make the right tactical decisions in combat encouraged players to think more strategically about their character design, which in turn created a huge market for gaming materials aimed more at players than at the Dungeon Masters who had traditionally been responsible for buying most of the books.

Nowadays, people frequently refer to the d20/3E years as something of a gold rush in which the market for RPG books expanded massively and unpredictably heralding the rise of new companies and the collapse of older ones. However, as many books as 3E managed to shift, the gold rush was not fuelled by the arrival of new players but by the more effective exploitation of existing markets. 3E saw existing players spending more and lapsed players returning to the fold either by ‘getting the band back together’ or by engaging in a weird kind of vicarious RPG experience in which they would hang out on RPG forums and buy lots of RPG materials without ever actually sitting down to play. 3E made a lot of companies a lot of money but it did almost nothing to grow a hobby that was already showing serious signs of institutional neglect.

Unlike most geeky hobbies, tabletop gaming expects you to spend time in the same room as other people. In fact, in order to get the most out of an RPG campaign, you regularly need to spend long periods of time in the same room as the same group of people who are all doing exactly the same thing as you… and who has time for that in this day and age? Nowhere is the toxic nature of capitalism more evident than in the changing face of work: A generation ago, a family could support itself with only one person working a regular 9-5 job but the waves of economic collapse that have swept around the world since the 1970s mean that everyone now works increasingly long hours with increasingly unpredictable schedules. Ever happy to exploit, the companies that helped to shatter the traditional work/life balance now peddle their wares as rewards and escapes from the demands of the unreasonable workplace that they themselves created. The upshot of this capitalist push-me-pull-you is that people now regularly return home in a state of physical and spiritual exhaustion that lends itself more readily to medicinal applications of booze and shit TV than to arguing with your friends and doing maths. Some of the main beneficiaries of our increasingly horrid work/life balances are massively multiplayer online RPGs such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a game inspired by tabletop RPGs that removes the need to prepare adventures, do maths or meet up with people in real life. Given how successful MMORPGs have become, it is hardly surprising that the next iteration of D&D would use MMORPGs as a point of aesthetic departure.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition remains the most radical reworking of the rules to date. While the designers drew inspiration from the 3E rules and retained a lot of the iconography of previous editions, the game is best understood as an attempt to create a board game based upon principles of MMORPG design. Unlike 3E, which provided a flexible skill system that wound up focussing on tactical engagements, 4E was built with nothing but tactical engagements in mind resulting in characters almost entirely defined by lists of powers. Despite making some gratifying inroads into the MMORPG market thanks to the widely publicised (and presumably expensive) support of Penny Arcade, interest in D&D4 plateaued when people suddenly realised that it was nothing more than a regular MMORPG with added maths and travel times.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been paralysed by the weight of its own history. Early editions simply assumed that anyone wishing to play was already playing and when that toxic attitude finally receded it was replaced by the equally problematic assumption that anyone wanting to play D&D would want to play it in the exact same manner as the brand’s core audience. This weird cultural ego-centrism will be instantly familiar to anyone who expressed an interest in science fiction only to have Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo thrust into their disappointed paws. Sure… the Heinlein juveniles served as a gateway drug for a lot of young readers but should we really assume that young readers today will respond to the same things as young readers in the 1940s? This is not the 1970s and not everyone is a socially inept teenaged boy, why do the owners of D&D continue to ignore thousands of potential customers? Simple: Cowardice and short sightedness.

 

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