So Mike Shea wrote a blog post over at SlyFlourish talking about the shifting of Dungeons % Dragons 5th edition to a more story focus. Go ahead and take a read; it is absolutely worth it even if I may not agree with all of the points Mike made. Actually disagree is likely too strong a term. It is more that I am a bit perplexed by some of the conclusions. Regardless, as I said it is worth the read.
I admit to being a big uncomfortable at two blogs in a row with me casting what might be seen as criticisms at D&D or those who created it and play it. Note that I love 5th edition and am using the 5E SRD to build several games. I also have a product on the DM's Guild with more to come. I do not hate D&D. Far from it.
That said, I want to talk about what I think is some incoherent points in the general D&D narrative, especially with the launch of 5th edition. I honestly wonder if people are confused by the kind of game 5th edition is supposed to be. I also want to discuss the difference between mechanics, approach, style, and the one place where 5th edition fails at what it tries to do. In fact, let's start with that last point first.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition wants you to focus on story. I think this is pretty well documented and the article offers evidence to that point. However, how exactly does D&D focus on story? Do the character classes have story powers? No, they do not (spoilers). Yes backgrounds and some of the paths offer flavor that a player can take and play off of. At least Backgrounds give you something mechanical (skill or language or tools) that ties it in a thematic way to the player's choice. A paladin who has the criminal background? Hell yes, sign me up. But that really is not much more than some minor narrative fluff. It is there IF the player uses it and IF the DM chooses to us it. Typically, a player might even offer up a back story of some kind but there is no guarantee that it will tie in with the chosen background and class. Again, this is player driven, NOT system driven.
There is of course the Between Adventures section of the PHB. All paragraph and a page of it. Compared to the rest of the rules, that seems a rather small amount of story encouragement for what is supposed to be the new focus of the game. So it comes down to what it has always come down to: the DM making their game focused on "story" (see below) and narrative. That is to say, a focus on role playing as opposed to just roll playing. Now how can we draw the conclusion from 5th edition that it supposed to be more story focused aside from what the designers are telling us? If I were to put a PHB down in front of a complete new DM and set of players and told them to "run a game". I suspect, aside from running they game they want to run, they would run a game where people kill the fuck out of the bad guys. To be fair, I do not think 5th edition discourages story and narrative, but it can hardly be said to encourage it mechanically and that is what matters.
Anecdotally, because I cannot find the relevant quotes, some "old timers" are complaining that 5th edition is too rules heavy and destroying narrative. I find this to be untrue and also a bit ironic. It is practically rules light by comparison to any of the previous AD&D or D&D games. In fact 5th edition is on par with the venerable B/X and BECMI sets.
Conflation Is Alive and Well
I think I may officially be tired of the term "story" at least as it concerns a style of running role playing games, D&D in particular. "I run a story driven game that focuses on the characters..." UGH! So you run a character-driven campaign? Great, then just say that. A story or more properly termed plot driven campaign is different, because while the characters are always the most important part of the game, one style focuses on the characters as the motivators and the other as the word around them. Or more properly some plot within the greater world. I would suggest it is even more nuanced than that, but you can define those terms as you wish. Story is just such a nebulous term, especially in regards to rpgs, that it is practically meaningless.
D&D and RPGs did not start with 3rd Edition
I know I am old. I mean, damn I know. I remember a day when... lol well of course I remember plenty of the old days (they were not all good). It seems to me that we are measuring games from about 2000 or so. Third Edition, the OGL and the rise of the Indie rpg scene certainly were a bit of a water shed in the industry. Self publishing has really pushed it even further and the OSR gives the industry some momentum. There are a lot of moving parts to be sure. But the games, D&D included that existed before 1999 are absolutely relevant beyond mere nostalgia. Many of the questions we ask today, have been asked for decades. These discussions are not new, which is not to say they are not still relevant. They absolutely are relevant, but do not think we weren't talking about this stuff thirty years ago. Trust me.
As always, love to hear your comments
A few disclaimers, just to make sure we are all on the same page.
I am absolutely sure there is no more important thing we can do as role players and content creators than embracing diversity in everything we do. Not for the sake of diversity; that would be disingenuous and frankly completely misses the point. Cultivating relationships with people outside of your own paradigm, social groups, and comfort zone is easier than you think and makes your work better, as well as making the hobby and world a better place. That people resist the idea seems counter intuitive to me. There is literally no down side.
As a player and games master, as well as content creator, I love Dungeons & Dragons. Love it. Dungeons & Dragons was my first introduction to role playing games and without a doubt the best gift (outside of my little girl) I have ever received. In no universe do I want to see D&D or Wizards of the Coast suffer a loss of revenue or popularity. I just want more Spelljammer, dammit!
I am a straight white male. Middle aged. Played D&D since the early 80s. I have a beard and extra body fat, you know in case I am stranded at a convention with no cash. I won't lie or even disseminate on that fact because full disclosure let's you know my POV. In fact, because of my heritage the common setting shenanigans of fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) are my literal cultural wheelhouse. So you are stuck with me, though I encourage you to seek out the opinions of players of color and women and other gendered folks as well. I consider myself a Third Wave role player, which I will explain at the end.
A few days ago, not quite a week as of this writing, the folks at LearningD&D put out a top 10 list of twitter accounts to follow for D&D content. There was (and should have been) reaction concerning the idea that 90% of the list is white dudes. The other 10% was Wizards of the Coast itself, which frankly should be number one I would think? Now I am not going to cast aspersions on those who made the list; I do not know them, (still) do not follow them, and frankly have not noticed them as a voice and force in the D&D community. I could be wrong; after all I am not plugged into the community myself. I am a starving game developer with more projects than time. I am not an authority figure, just a member of the community who has an opinion on all of this. I guess the point is no one should feel attacked, I just happen to not agree with the list and feel it is indicative of a greater issue we are facing.
A couple things struck me however, in both the list itself and in the reaction to it. Most notable was that no one really wants to discuss the basic issue: Dungeons & Dragons itself. Dungeons & Dragons is without a doubt informed by an Anglo-Norman-Norse-Germanic cultural aesthetic. Both in how it is portrayed and the audience it was targeted at. This is not uncommon in fantasy and science fiction although that attitude is changing in those genres and in gaming itself. This time around 5th Edition D&D explicitly said that not only is everyone welcome, but you should try things from those other perspectives. Play the character you want.
This is good. No, fuck that. It is great. Like many people who play, although not explicitly or even implicitly gate keeping others not like me from playing, I was late coming to the party of adding my voice to calls for a more diverse community paradigm. I should have opened my mouth sooner. But although I encourage everyone to play and will teach anyone any time to play, I do not think we can say “let's be diverse” and then only talk about one game. I know D&D is the most popular game and I know the industry would be nowhere without it. I know I would be struggling in my own content without the OGL and the DM's Guild. As I said, I don't want D&D to go away; I just want to expand the conversation to other games because there is less cultural baggage involved with many of them.
As an example. Let's say someone who was a fan of the most popular fast food restaurant, we will call it Burger Place & Soda (I hope there is no such place or I might get sued) put out a top 10 list of food bloggers on twitter who were experts on BP&S cuisine. One of them was BP&S itself, three others were the burger meisters of BP&S, and one of the food bloggers... well has issues. All of them are meat eaters even though of late, BP&S, lead by the a fore mentioned Burger Meisters, had made a point of asking vegetarians, vegans, and people of faith who did not eat say, turkey, to come to their restaurant. I think that is great. The problem of course is that even though there are vegan fans of BP&S, not a single one of them made the top 10 list. Why? Well, because BP&S is a fucking meat palace, that is why. It is a house built on meat and even as it evolves, the central product will still be meat. Dungeons & Dragons, no matter how much narration and evolution this frankly beautiful game goes through, will still be firmly set in a faux Medieval Europe paradigm where people in metal armors, roided up on magic and super powers, murder their way through the landscape. Its a power fantasy.
And we (rightly) want to share this power fantasy with everyone, the same way we try and share democracy with everyone. I am not sure that approach really works as well as we think. I am as guilty as anyone on creating content with that power fantasy in mind. I am trying to adjust my world view as a designer and a games master, but I realize I will never truly do justice to other cultural world views. That is why we need diverse voices and diverse games. That is why the diversity conversation has to include the games themselves.
But Sean, D&D is my favorite game and anyway my advice covers...
Please, just stop. Wanna know how salty I get on my D&D? I still get angry about Magic Missile in AD&D1,2 and so on only being a 1d4+1 when in B/X it was 1d6+1. So don't tell me you are too damned loyal to D&D to look outside of it. Trying to shoehorn diverse play into a not all that diverse paradigm will only get you so far. I am not saying Don't Do It. I am saying, let's look for a solution to our diversity issues by tackling the ultimate RPG diversity issue: playing other games.
Over at EN World we (I am one of many user content generators) are doing articles on cultures outside of Europe. I call them the Journey To.. series. It is not perfect; I am still working on being a good content and review writer. Honing my skills as it were. But I think these articles are a great start and have sparked some interesting conversations. It involves thinking outside of the box, something I am told is a good skill to have.
At the end of the day diversity is difficult to embrace. I know it is from personal experience and just playing something that is non D&D won't solve all the issues. However, expanding your point of reference certainly will help you embrace other views and just playing a different RPG is the easiest way to do that.
1. Burger Place & Soda is not a real place, though Google did show me a number of Burgers and Sodas places with names close to it. Seriously? Also BP&S should be an rpg or Cartoon network show.
2. Third Wave role player. In my mind the first wave was 1974 to 1978. The second wave was 78 to 81 or so. So from 81 to 91 is what I consider Third Wave. /shrug. Your Wave May Vary.
3. I did not put a list of games for you to play, because I am not pimping a specific company, genre, or style. I am just saying go play other games.
4. Yes it IS 1d6+1. Go look it up.
Sean AKA The Dragon has been gaming or thinking about gaming for over thirty years. Game design is one of his greatest passions. He has ideas and is not afraid to talk about them.