Way back in the early (really early) 1980s I began playing Dungeons and Dragons (1st edition, baby!). It was fun and I played for a number of years (just graduating to 2nd edition) until life intervened and I stopped playing when I joined the Army.
That ended my involvement in the game until a few years ago when a nearby friend invited me to give the game a second look just as the 4th edition rules came out. Our little group played for awhile but maintaining a long campaign is a little more difficult with six adults who have jobs, wives and lawns to mow.
My impressions with 4th edition left me a bit cold. Original D&D had a small number of character races (human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, half-orc, halfling and gnome) and classes (fighter, thief, magic user, cleric, ranger, paladin, illusionist, druid and assassin, monk – bard optional!). That was it. Each class and race had distinct advantages and disadvantages and were clearly distinguishable.
4th edition, on the other hand, had dozens of races, classes, ‘builds’, and paths all of which allowed for hyper-individualization but also meant that there were a billion ways to end up with characters that were essentially the same even if superficially they appeared very different.
And this was a problem.
Tabletop gaming today focuses very much on storytelling. The reason, I suspect, has something to do with the rise of good computer based gaming. Back in my day, if you wanted to fight a dragon, D&D or similar role playing games were your only options. Now, you have your pick of computer games which give you not only the ability to fight the dragon but look amazing and take care of the bookkeeping for you.
D&D just isn’t designed to be a storytelling game. It has it’s origins in miniature war-gaming and it’s core as a roleplaying game was almost exclusively wrapped up in combat and loot. Combat and loot are things that computer games can do much, much better than you can with sheets of paper and a dozen rule books (all at $20-$40 a pop). I’d argue that 4th edition did a bit of slight of hand by covering up this shortcoming by offering players a dizzying array of supplemental books filled with new races, classes, spells, loot and monsters. In short, a ton of additional ways to do combat and loot but precious little to do good storytelling.
Now, we hear that D&D is going to release a 5th edition. Details are few but I can’t imagine we’ll see much different in terms of the key focus of the game. I suspect it’ll remain a combat and loot centered game. As a result it’ll continue to lose relevance and, like a once beloved TV series, become increasingly irrelevant and even pathetic.
I’m not sure (apart from the ability to generate cash for Wizards of the Coast) that D&D should continue to exist. The game has had an almost 40 year run, which is pretty good, and for those who want a combat and loot game it’s just fine as it is. Perhaps it’s time we all acknowledge it’s importance and move on to games which are relevant and interesting to today’s culture.
So, what could D&D do to stay relevant (kinda sorta)? Here are some ideas
- Let go. Back when 3rd edition went out they released the game system and allowed anyone to produce content for the game . Expanded rules or new adventures could be published (and sold) by anyone. This meant less revenue for Wizards of the Coast but a better chance for user generated products to keep the game relevant. I’m not expert in the field but I have to think the timing was off (3rd edition came out in 2000) to really take advantage of the culture of user generated content that the web has allowed over the past six or so years. D&D should, therefore focus on creating fertile ground for users to build worlds, rules and supplemental material.
- Embrace technology. If computer games are relieving players of the need to focus on record keeping (encumbrance! spells! rules!) why not use that? Use D&D insider to allow players (and the DM) to use computers (particularly tablets) to track a lot of this stuff. Die rolls, equipment, damage, etc. can all be tracked and done with a computer and you don’t need much imagination to think about how much easier it would be if you could use a touchscreen.
- Decide what you want to be. If you want to be a combat and loot vehicle, own it. If you want to be a game about roleplaying and storytelling, develop mechanics that can give a group of players a reasonable chance of having a fun session without one combat encounter.
Of course, what do I know. I’m probably not the target demographic for D&D as I’m (at best) a casual player and don’t buy much (read: any) of the materials. Hmmm…so maybe nertz to me.