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D&D 5E 5e and the Cheesecake Factory: Explaining Good Enough

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
An idea I've been noodling around with for a few weeks is trying to understand not just "Why 5e," but "Why 5e?" To put it more bluntly; it would seem obvious (to me, at least) that D&D has been having a cultural moment, and capturing the zeitgeist, in a way that hasn't been seen since the prior Golden Age of the late 70s and early 80s. While this is great for D&D, I think that it's also great for the TTRPG hobby in general. D&D is traditionally the 800lb gorilla in the room for the hobby, but to borrow a phrase- when D&D sneezes, the rest of the hobby catches a cold; but the rising tide of D&D tends to raise all the games by bringing in more attention, more new players, and more interest.

Moving it back to the issue of Why 5e, I think that there are a number of factors at work that are exogenous to the game (such as the popularity of streaming platforms, the return of older gamers after a hiatus, a return to basics in hobbies, and so on), I've been thinking about the factors in 5e that have made it attractive to gamers. And the more I think about it, the more I've realized that 5e exemplifies something I understood earlier in my life- The Cheesecake Factory Theory.

So, without further ado, The Cheesecake Factory Theory of TTRPGs.

(Quick explanation for non-Americans. The Cheesecake Factory is an upscale-ish chain restaurant. It is known for having, in addition to cheesecake, an incredibly large and diverse menu with over 250 dishes from burgers to pastas to salads to steaks to pizzas to all-day breakfast to TexMex/Asian/Italian/American/Fusion Entrees)

Imagine you are going out to eat with a large group of friends.
Anne loves Chinese food, and hates standard "American" fare.
Bob loves pizza, any kind of pizza, and dislikes "weird" food.
Cathy wants to get some fattening, yummy desert, and isn't too picky about the entrees; but the place has to have good desert.
Derek needs a place with a full bar, because ... Derek.
Eddie always prefers choices; it's not that he's going to order breakfast at 8pm, he just wants to know that he can.
Fran needs a place with a number of large and hearty salads, because she never got the memo that they are filled with calories.
Gary is doing keto, so he only wants steak. Just steak.
Henrietta can only go to a place that can accommodate her dietary restrictions.

Now, none of your friends would necessarily choose CF as their first choice (except maybe Derek, because he hasn't been tossed out of that bar yet) ... but all of them want to go out to eat together. So the Cheesecake Factory, even though it might not be the top choice for any particular person, is by far the best choice for the group because it is agreeable to all of them! The best choice for that group of people to have a good time might be the Cheesecake Factory ... not because the food there is the best, but because it offers something for everyone, and doesn't have any dealbreakers (for example, it can accommodate people with dietary restrictions like Henrietta).

And that, in a nutshell, is the appeal of 5e. 5e is the Cheesecake Factory of TTRPGs.

I don't mean this to be either an insult (for those of you hate chain restaurants) or a compliment (mmm, I love me some Cheesecake Factory), but just a working descriptive theory. 5e has worked so well, has been so popular, not because it is great, but because it is so perfectly acceptable. Let me go through some of the various reasons, and then, since this is already too long, let other people rubbish the theory in the comments.

1. It's D&D. This goes without saying, but it has the brand. Everyone knows what D&D is. It's practically a synonym for the TTRPG hobby - seriously, if you have a friend who still doesn't know what TTRPGs are, you can always tell them that you are "playing D&D" and they will have an idea.

2. It uses all the old tropes. The six abilities. Saving throws. Classes (including the classics). Alignment. Fireball and magic missile. It's easy to bring players back when there is a certain level of comfort. No matter what edition was the last edition you played, from OD&D to 4e, you can make the leap to 5e.

3. It's got combat, and it's got the rest. Some people love combat, some people love the other pillars. It's always amazed me that there are people that play 5e and break out the minis and the battlemaps, and others that play it with few combats that are ToTM, and everyone in between.

4. It allows for optimization, and not worrying about it. D&D has a history of optimizers and rules lawyers, and 5e can certainly enable that. On the other hand, with bounded accuracy and attunement and other rules in 5e ... there is no pressing need to optimize.

5. At any given table, players can be both really engaged and ... not so much. One of the key features of D&D that has always been appealing (and often unremarked) is that it allows players to ... um ... check out a little. Some players don't like to have to be "always on" or telling their backstories or interacting with the environment or creating new narrative hooks for the group. They just want to be there, enjoy it, and doodle and occasionally interact. Why? I don't know, but there's usually one of them in every group ... Derek. D&D's mechanics allow for players to choose options that keep them from being the center of attention, if that's what they want.

6. The recurring event. D&D can always work as a one-shot, but it's best as a campaign; even the published adventures (Adventure Paths) acknowledge this. That's part of the charm, as well. Sure, there are many better TTRPGs in terms of one-shots (IMO) that don't require the prep and the setup time of D&D, but D&D has the standard "go out, adventure, kill stuff, get stuff, level, repeat" that is the basic pleasure loop of TTRPGs, and means that the same group can keep coming back for the same social event.

I could keep going on, but the idea generally holds. 5e isn't a great game in any given aspect; I would argue that there are other, better TTRPGs out there for many uses (and I'd even say that in terms of pure "D&D" some people might prefer other editions, or even clones). But when it comes to disparate groups of people getting together and finding that sweet spot of play, I am envious of the way that 5e always seems to be good enough for a critical mass of people to play.

Also? It accommodates dietary restrictions. Unless you're on Keto. There might be some carbs in the PHB.
 

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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
First, you forgot to mention in your description of The Cheesecake Factory that they will also sell you one meal that has enough calories to feed a small third world country. ;)

Second, while the general cycle may be "go out, adventure, kill stuff, get stuff, level, repeat", it can also be running a detective agency or being pirates or hunting pirates or being criminals trying to avoid the detectives and anything in between. There is no default concept like you get with Vampire the Masquerade, there are multiple published campaign settings and the sky is the limit to create your own.

Many other games have a single overarching theme. If I want a world sinking into madness I can play Cthullhu or I can play D&D with mind flayers, aboleths and aberrations. Cthulhu will handle some aspects better of course, but you can get a similar feel from D&D even before adding some house rules in to get a bit closer to the mechanics. Want to do a bronze age campaign? Add some restrictions and have at it. Weird West? Victorian? Space fantasy? Other games may support them better in some ways, but D&D can do that as well all you need is some tweaking and maybe buy a conversion kit like Esper Genesis for space fantasy.

D&D doesn't have to do as well as other games at specific tropes and niches, but many other games don't have the flexibility that D&D has. Even playing "standard" D&D you can have a different feel to the game going from one table to another. Which, to me, is part of the success of 5E specifically. With the previous couple of versions, they tried to lock people into one way of playing,

Last, but not least I personally want a game that gives me a good enough framework to build a world and resolve outcomes that are uncertain. There will never be a perfect game, but as you say D&D is "good enough".

P.S. Now you have me hungry for Godiva Chocolate Cheescake because nothing says "scrumptious desert" like 1,400 calories of sugary goodness. :mad:
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Yeah. If I were designing my ideal TRPG, it wouldn't be D&D 5E--it probably wouldn't have much in common with D&D 5E--but the various convenience/familiarity aspects you call out are good reasons, and the game is good enough, and I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
 



GlassJaw

Hero
Cheesecake Factory is "upscale" dining for people who don't know any better. A large menu is a HUGE red flag.

I would argue that's not what D&D is. It's focused in scope and while it's been varied, the design of every edition has been fairly tight.

D&D is better described as a restaurant that appeals to diners that want something simple (like a hamburger) but also diners that are more knowledgeable about food and want something high quality. D&D's strength is that it can be appreciated by a large number of people.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Also, I largely agree. Though I think there’s an additional element to it. In addition to being “good enough” at a wide enough variety of things that most people are happy to play it, even if it isn’t their favorite... There’s also a level of familiarity. D&D is gaming comfort food for a lot of people. For many, perhaps most players, some edition of D&D was their first TTRPG, and even if it wasn’t this edition, chances are there’s enough familiar to make it feel comfortable.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
F*ing Derek, man...

giphy.gif
 


Campbell

Legend
I just do not think it's true that provides some middle ground experience where everyone can get a little bit of what they want. I think it's like Monopoly, Big Bang Theory, Mario Brothers, Call of Duty or CSI. It provides a specific experience that is easy to get into and a lot of people enjoy. It does not have to be more complicated than that.
 

6ENow!

The Game Is Over
While I think the resurgence of D&D is due more to the prevalence of the Internet, mainstream culture adopting it (somewhat) so it isn't just for basement nerds anymore), and other factors, I will say this about 5E: fifth edition has the best foundation for making the game how you want it to play. You have many options for players--your PC can be as complex or simple, really, as you want, and the DM can use as many optional variants and added house-rules as they want. The foundation, like it or not, is solid IMO. They made a game, which at its core, is simple to play, but allow for varying degrees of complexity ordered to taste.

Now, personally, I wish that foundation had a bit more to it and I find aspects of the rules lacking.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I just do not think it's true that provides some middle ground experience where everyone can get a little bit of what they want. I think it's like Monopoly, Big Bang Theory, Mario Brothers, Call of Duty or CSI. It provides a specific experience that is easy to get into and a lot of people enjoy. It does not have to be more complicated than that.
Yes, but this is EN World; we can make it more complicated. :)
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I don't really think it's that at all. I think it's more that D&D is the only game a lot of people have heard of, it's the first one they play, it's the one everybody else plays, and they're not really exposed to anything else because what they have works for them. In that analogy, it isn't that each of those people have different dietary requirements, it's that the Cheesecake Factory is the only restaurant in town unless they wish to drive to the next town to try some obscure restaurant they've never heard of.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Now, none of your friends would necessarily choose CF as their first choice (except maybe Derek, because he hasn't been tossed out of that bar yet) ... but all of them want to go out to eat together. So the Cheesecake Factory, even though it might not be the top choice for any particular person, is by far the best choice for the group because it is agreeable to all of them!

For voting nerds - Cheesecake Factory and D&D are what wins in the Ranked Choice Voting for what to do.

I could keep going on, but the idea generally holds. 5e isn't a great game in any given aspect;

Oh, I think you can still allow that 5e is a great game in many ways. In analogy, Cheescake Factory, for example, does have really good cheesecake. Honestly, their desserts in general are awesome.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
An idea I've been noodling around with for a few weeks is trying to understand not just "Why 5e," but "Why 5e?" To put it more bluntly; it would seem obvious (to me, at least) that D&D has been having a cultural moment, and capturing the zeitgeist, in a way that hasn't been seen since the prior Golden Age of the late 70s and early 80s. While this is great for D&D, I think that it's also great for the TTRPG hobby in general. D&D is traditionally the 800lb gorilla in the room for the hobby, but to borrow a phrase- when D&D sneezes, the rest of the hobby catches a cold; but the rising tide of D&D tends to raise all the games by bringing in more attention, more new players, and more interest.

Moving it back to the issue of Why 5e, I think that there are a number of factors at work that are exogenous to the game (such as the popularity of streaming platforms, the return of older gamers after a hiatus, a return to basics in hobbies, and so on), I've been thinking about the factors in 5e that have made it attractive to gamers. And the more I think about it, the more I've realized that 5e exemplifies something I understood earlier in my life- The Cheesecake Factory Theory.

So, without further ado, The Cheesecake Factory Theory of TTRPGs.

(Quick explanation for non-Americans. The Cheesecake Factory is an upscale-ish chain restaurant. It is known for having, in addition to cheesecake, an incredibly large and diverse menu with over 250 dishes from burgers to pastas to salads to steaks to pizzas to all-day breakfast to TexMex/Asian/Italian/American/Fusion Entrees)

Imagine you are going out to eat with a large group of friends.
Anne loves Chinese food, and hates standard "American" fare.
Bob loves pizza, any kind of pizza, and dislikes "weird" food.
Cathy wants to get some fattening, yummy desert, and isn't too picky about the entrees; but the place has to have good desert.
Derek needs a place with a full bar, because ... Derek.
Eddie always prefers choices; it's not that he's going to order breakfast at 8pm, he just wants to know that he can.
Fran needs a place with a number of large and hearty salads, because she never got the memo that they are filled with calories.
Gary is doing keto, so he only wants steak. Just steak.
Henrietta can only go to a place that can accommodate her dietary restrictions.

Now, none of your friends would necessarily choose CF as their first choice (except maybe Derek, because he hasn't been tossed out of that bar yet) ... but all of them want to go out to eat together. So the Cheesecake Factory, even though it might not be the top choice for any particular person, is by far the best choice for the group because it is agreeable to all of them! The best choice for that group of people to have a good time might be the Cheesecake Factory ... not because the food there is the best, but because it offers something for everyone, and doesn't have any dealbreakers (for example, it can accommodate people with dietary restrictions like Henrietta).

And that, in a nutshell, is the appeal of 5e. 5e is the Cheesecake Factory of TTRPGs.

I don't mean this to be either an insult (for those of you hate chain restaurants) or a compliment (mmm, I love me some Cheesecake Factory), but just a working descriptive theory. 5e has worked so well, has been so popular, not because it is great, but because it is so perfectly acceptable. Let me go through some of the various reasons, and then, since this is already too long, let other people rubbish the theory in the comments.

1. It's D&D. This goes without saying, but it has the brand. Everyone knows what D&D is. It's practically a synonym for the TTRPG hobby - seriously, if you have a friend who still doesn't know what TTRPGs are, you can always tell them that you are "playing D&D" and they will have an idea.

2. It uses all the old tropes. The six abilities. Saving throws. Classes (including the classics). Alignment. Fireball and magic missile. It's easy to bring players back when there is a certain level of comfort. No matter what edition was the last edition you played, from OD&D to 4e, you can make the leap to 5e.

3. It's got combat, and it's got the rest. Some people love combat, some people love the other pillars. It's always amazed me that there are people that play 5e and break out the minis and the battlemaps, and others that play it with few combats that are ToTM, and everyone in between.

4. It allows for optimization, and not worrying about it. D&D has a history of optimizers and rules lawyers, and 5e can certainly enable that. On the other hand, with bounded accuracy and attunement and other rules in 5e ... there is no pressing need to optimize.

5. At any given table, players can be both really engaged and ... not so much. One of the key features of D&D that has always been appealing (and often unremarked) is that it allows players to ... um ... check out a little. Some players don't like to have to be "always on" or telling their backstories or interacting with the environment or creating new narrative hooks for the group. They just want to be there, enjoy it, and doodle and occasionally interact. Why? I don't know, but there's usually one of them in every group ... Derek. D&D's mechanics allow for players to choose options that keep them from being the center of attention, if that's what they want.

6. The recurring event. D&D can always work as a one-shot, but it's best as a campaign; even the published adventures (Adventure Paths) acknowledge this. That's part of the charm, as well. Sure, there are many better TTRPGs in terms of one-shots (IMO) that don't require the prep and the setup time of D&D, but D&D has the standard "go out, adventure, kill stuff, get stuff, level, repeat" that is the basic pleasure loop of TTRPGs, and means that the same group can keep coming back for the same social event.

I could keep going on, but the idea generally holds. 5e isn't a great game in any given aspect; I would argue that there are other, better TTRPGs out there for many uses (and I'd even say that in terms of pure "D&D" some people might prefer other editions, or even clones). But when it comes to disparate groups of people getting together and finding that sweet spot of play, I am envious of the way that 5e always seems to be good enough for a critical mass of people to play.

Also? It accommodates dietary restrictions. Unless you're on Keto. There might be some carbs in the PHB.
And here I was all set to have you tell us that all you have to do is shove a lot of fat and butter into your D&D game.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't really think it's that at all. I think it's more that D&D is the only game a lot of people have heard of, it's the first one they play, it's the one everybody else plays, and they're not really exposed to anything else because what they have works for them. In that analogy, it isn't that each of those people have different dietary requirements, it's that the Cheesecake Factory is the only restaurant in town unless they wish to drive to the next town to try some obscure restaurant they've never heard of.

Except, that a whole lot of us who play other games on a regular basis also like the heck out of D&D. Lot of people actually like Cheesecake Factory, too. Their food legitimately is tasty. "Second choice" does not mean "bad".

To suggest that the only reason people play it is because people already play it is a pretty nasty drag on the game that's the lifeblood of the site.
 



I agree completely with the original thesis.

Specific restaurants/RPGs are where you go when you know you want a specific thing, and your friends want the same thing, or don't care.

Wide variety restaurants/D&D are where you go when you don't have anything super specific in mind but, y'know. You could eat/game.
 


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