Box Half Full — Why D&D is so revered and popular

by Ben Potts

Box Half Full — Why D&D is so revered and popular
October 30, 2019 Ben Potts

In the first issue of this publication, we made the case that Dungeons & Dragons is overly combat-focused, and ought to become less combat-heavy. This month, we present another perspective on the world’s most famous tabletop roleplaying game.

My colleague is correct in his observations about Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (2014). Like its predecessors, it is a game centred around mechanics-focused violence. Some players may see it as a knock-off of today’s violence-based video games, while others recognize or remember that the inspiration originally went the other way around.

Today’s world has changed enormously since the 70s when D&D came into being. Around the globe, wars and violence have decreased. Greater peace and prosperity has promoted more nuanced ways of problem-solving. The global economy is faster paced and more interconnected than ever before. Former enemies can be current trading partners. Information that used to require hours of painstaking research can now be retrieved with a few clicks. For all the recent rise of nationalist movements in Europe and the Americas, our planet is as far from the conflict-ridden, low-tech worlds of D&D as it has ever been. So why do we need a game that is, at its core, a clunky, rules-heavy narrative of a bunch of demigods ramming their fists against progressively bigger and badder monsters? Why do we cling to a game whose rulebook has an entire chapter simply on the mechanics of combat, with comparatively little emphasis on more peaceful or clever ways of solving problems?

Tradition and history

We live in a time when many of our old institutions are seen as broken and disinterested in the welfare of the people they serve. Many people, young and old, chant that we ought to ‘burn it all down and start again.’

However, for all that we find frustrating and out-of-touch about the past, there is value in shared history and traditional storytelling. The hovering, eye-riddled body of the beholder; the Cthulhu-lite horror of the mind-flayers;  the classic fantasy trio of dwarf-elf-halfling; these are familiar images that go back decades into our cultural memory, or even longer — the legendary Tolkien universe, for example, has inspired much of the entire fantasy genre, including D&D. Many older tabletop roleplayers (often, though not always, white men) see a lot that they remember from the 70s and 80s in today’s updated D&D, and this allows them to share their experiences with younger generations. There is a power in intergenerational storytelling that should not be discounted.

Diversity and representation

One would think that a progressive perspective on character diversity and representation would be at odds with my first point about tradition and nostalgia, but the 5th Edition makes it work. Lead Rules Designer of Wizards of the Coast (WotC), Jeremy Crawford, has led the team in making D&D more diverse and queer-friendly in a number of ways.

First, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender…. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.” It’s a low key but important gesture of invitation to members of the queer community. Published adventures include queer characters, and Crawford has pledged to continue this inclusion moving forward. WotC has also gone out of its way to promote queer content creators who broadcast on Twitch and other platforms, leading to an explosion in queer participation in the game.

Second, the sexist ‘fan service’ of previous editions has gone the way of the dinosaur. Rulebooks and sourcebooks are full of beautiful illustrations, and practically none of them are of sexy-looking women in skimpy clothes. Even some of the monster designs have been reworked. The femme-fatale trope of the alluring succubus is now complemented by a male version, the incubus, and many traditionally scantily-clad female monsters, such as the Erinyes, have been illustrated fully-clothed or armored. Even the harpy, a creature that relies on its feminine sexuality to draw in prey, is drawn in a way that preserves its modesty. The classically over-sexualised nymph has been eliminated entirely from the game.

The fantasy genre and the gaming industry as a whole has a long history of objectifying women, but 5th Edition has made enormous strides in turning that around. You can, of course, still play a hot woman in a chainmail bikini — but only if you choose to, and the artwork of the books no longer objectifies women in the same way it once did.

The clarity of the visuals and their alliance with storytelling draws something from D&D’s legacy of miniatures. The clean, almost photographic quality action poses are a clear design choice, the responsibility of Kate Irwin, the senior art director. 

As a young man myself, I’ve found these changes to be tremendously liberating and welcoming to people from all walks of life. My personal gaming group is majority-female and majority-queer, and around a lot of tables now, that’s the norm.

A simplified ruleset

While 5th Edition is a relatively complex rule system compared to some other games, it is far simpler than it used to be, with more of an emphasis on story. After the lacklustre reception of the 4th Edition of the game, WotC did a fantastic job of collecting player feedback and recruiting fans to help create this version. The playtest process, known as D&D Next, went on for an extended period of time while WotC drew on feedback to dramatically reduce the scope of the rules and simplify combat. As a result, the abilities and other important stats of most non-spellcaster characters can be summed up in a single page character sheet.

Simplicity is the order of the day for 5th Edition; a good contrast is Pathfinder, D&D’s best-known spin-off and rival. In many ways, Pathfinder occupies ground that D&D has abandoned. Pathfinder’s roots lie in 3rd Edition D&D; its new 2nd edition (released in 2019) is detailed and dense, the rules more bent towards simulation than D&D’s storytelling focus and lighter touch. Pathfinder is filled with complex rules for building characters and playing them in adventures that almost require the use of a battlemap and complex, multi-page character sheets filled with essential details. Pathfinder is a fun and engaging game with millions of players across the world; however, many players prefer a ruleset that is simpler, but still has enough depth to make interesting and unique character choices.

Sales prove there is definitely a market for both. 

An old-school war game

Now we come to the crux of my colleague’s critique: that D&D is, at its heart, a war game. For the most part, problems and challenges are met with violent solutions that turn into a series of contested rolls. This is undeniably true. It is also… not a problem. As they say in the programming world: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

 For all its fantastic embellishment, the violence endemic to D&D is authentic to the European medieval era which inspired most classic fantasy settings. For most of human history, global average life expectancy hovered at an average of around three decades; this was not only the result of poor hygiene and infant mortality, but also due to very high rates of violent death. In medieval England, the average homicide level was at least ten times higher than it is today — not to mention the risks of war and genocide. For most of humanity’s history, life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” D&D can serve as a way to revisit the brutal danger of our species’ past — with some added fantastic monsters for a little extra joie de vivre! We may be glad we don’t live in those times, but it can be fun and cathartic to revisit them with a few trusty companions and the aid of supernatural abilities.

In conclusion…

So what is 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons? It’s a classic game, updated for the present day. It brings with it a solid, simplified ruleset, a healthy dose of traditional content, a number of powerful storytelling tropes, and open arms for diversity. 

That said, many of my colleague’s critiques of 5th Edition are valid. At times, players do stick religiously to published rules, despite the rules themselves repeatedly encouraging them to take liberties when it makes the game more fun. Many players don’t know those rules intimately, and try to force their game into a less enjoyable template.

Still, so what? Yes, there is value in stepping away from wargames and telling less restrictive stories, but that’s not to say that D&D isn’t also a valuable experience. It’s easy to understand, it’s fairly simple to play, and it envisions a world that’s quite familiar to most players. Besides, just because players of a game may have unimaginative and uninspired sessions doesn’t mean the game itself is unimaginative. D&D’s non-combat rules may be less emphasised, but that’s not to say players can’t tell almost any kind of story they want to, often without having to ‘work against the system.’ On the contrary, the internet is full of players recounting amazing stories they shared with their friends at the gaming table with 5th Edition. As for those who prefer to stick to old-fashioned, uninspired dungeon-crawling — more power to them. Not everyone wants to change up the formula, and if there’s anything we escapists ought to have tolerance for, it’s how others choose to express their escapism.

Is it worth leaving the ‘cul-de-sac’ of D&D to explore other, different games? Of course! Just as there’s value in exploring all the various genres of literature, so too there’s learning and inspiration to be had from exploring all manner of games. Try out simpler and different games like Into the Odd and Ars Magica, mentioned in my colleague’s piece. Explore more complex systems like Pathfinder. You can even split from fantasy settings altogether, and look at games like Call of Cthulhu or Monster of the Week. All of these games offer unique and valuable storytelling opportunities.

Still, D&D is a big, functional, and clearly enjoyable cul-de-sac, as cul-de-sacs go. Its world is vast, and it has room for all kinds of players, from the old-school dungeon crawlers with their pen-and-paper character sheets to the young people with their electronic sheets from the emerging website, D&D Beyond. Let’s give D&D, and the many millions of people who love it, a bit of grace.