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

pogre

Legend
I think it is a good analogy.

My brother is manager at the number one Cheesecake factory in the U.S. They had more pasta sales than any pasta restaurant in town. More pizza sales than any pizza restaurant in town. More steak sales than ... you get the idea. The place is enormous and it is a wonder to behold when you walk in the door. They turn more tables in two weeks than an average Red Lobster does in a quarter.

It's success also has something to do with his state's regulations (lack of) when it comes to the pandemic, but that conversation veers towards politics.

It's consistent food, not amazing for the most part, but man is it a crowd pleaser. They do a lot of food "good enough." I have had one amazing meal there and never a bad meal. That's certainly D&D 5e to me.
 

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TheSword

Legend
@Jack Daniel

My personal experience has been that if you want to change the energy or character of play you have to change the process of play. If you attempt to play a thieves' guild game in D&D and just change the content without changing the process of play what you get is still essentially the same game of following plot hooks, challenge oriented group problem solving, and incentive structure that points towards solving most problems with violence. That's still a great game, but it is not remotely what a typical Blades in the Dark experience feels like in play.

Can you change the process of play while mostly using D&D character sheets? Sure, but at that point I think you are mostly playing a different game.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

Following plot hooks, challenge orientated group problem solving, and incentives. All with a healthy does of violence...

... sounds like a lot of fun to me. Probably one of the reasons 5e is so successful.

I disagree with incentivized-to-solve-problems-with-violence though. It can be played that way with old XP system. However milestone levelling as adopted by most published 5e adventures now moves away from that.
 
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To build on this, I'll add a very different analogy, of instead of chain restaurants, but instead computer operating systems. Ignore whatever OS you personally prefer; what matters more is how popular they are.

D&D is very much Windows. It's the most popular OS (by a lot, 76%), it's one that everyone knows of and has used at least once in their life, and one that every almost every computer company builds their product line around (and most other computer-parallel industries). There are folks who use Windows, will also use Windows, and will never use anything else. There are other folks who have tried Windows, but prefer something else (usually MacOS). There are even folks who use more niche things, like Linux.

Why is Windows so popular? It's popular... well, because it's popular. Everyone knows it, most people use it, and it's not unreasonable to expect your employees to be use it. Whether it's the best operating system is not important; it's way too costly, and too frustrating, to expect a company to force their employees to use something like FreeBSD or something.

D&D is the same. It is the brand almost everyone knows, and it would be extremely weird for someone to recognize the game "Call of Cthulhu" but not "Dungeons and Dragons." Yes, there are players who prefer non-D&D games, but they've almost all tried D&D. And the majority of people who have played TTRPGs have played only D&D.

D&D is popular because it's popular. Everyone has heard of it, most TTRPG players have played it and are familiar with it, and that makes it by far the easiest to set up a game for, either among veteran TTRPG players, or among folks completely new.

It also helps that 5E is one of the (if not the) easiest editions of the game for new folks to pick up and play, helping with its exponential growth.
The OS analogy is good one that can be extended into other areas as well. Windows might be true for all of the reasons you list when choosing a desktop OS for general desktop usage, but it's not so simple when other uses come in
  • General webhosting? Probably some *nix variant
  • dotnet coding? it depends to a degree but generally a windows server outside specific use cases due to native vrs mono support
  • Database server? what scale database & what type of database?.... probably some *nix variant depending on answers
  • Studying for a cert? which cert, the answer will decide the OS usually
  • photoshop? Probably a mac but it's not so clear these days as it used to be.
  • Building an IoT device?... well raspberry Pi has a well developed OS called "Raspberry Pi OS" that I think is a linux variant, is your IoT device compatible?
  • so on & so forth.
5e has some areas where it does poorly despite variant/optional dmg rules that fail to fill the gap & prior versions of d&d that did them fine, but much like an OS where someone might point out "It's open source so you can just write the drivers you need" or "no actually linux is great for photoshop because gimp is just as good & wine can run photoshop if you follow this twelve page writeup explaining how"... yea 5e has those too. As a guy who has held titles like "Unix Admin" I don't have time or interest in those workarounds any more than I find unfinished variant/optional rules in the DMG useful.
 

To build on this, I'll add a very different analogy, of instead of chain restaurants, but instead computer operating systems. Ignore whatever OS you personally prefer; what matters more is how popular they are.

D&D is very much Windows. It's the most popular OS (by a lot, 76%), it's one that everyone knows of and has used at least once in their life, and one that every almost every computer company builds their product line around (and most other computer-parallel industries). There are folks who use Windows, will also use Windows, and will never use anything else. There are other folks who have tried Windows, but prefer something else (usually MacOS). There are even folks who use more niche things, like Linux.

Why is Windows so popular? It's popular... well, because it's popular. Everyone knows it, most people use it, and it's not unreasonable to expect your employees to be use it. Whether it's the best operating system is not important; it's way too costly, and too frustrating, to expect a company to force their employees to use something like FreeBSD or something.

D&D is the same. It is the brand almost everyone knows, and it would be extremely weird for someone to recognize the game "Call of Cthulhu" but not "Dungeons and Dragons." Yes, there are players who prefer non-D&D games, but they've almost all tried D&D. And the majority of people who have played TTRPGs have played only D&D.

D&D is popular because it's popular. Everyone has heard of it, most TTRPG players have played it and are familiar with it, and that makes it by far the easiest to set up a game for, either among veteran TTRPG players, or among folks completely new.

It also helps that 5E is one of the (if not the) easiest editions of the game for new folks to pick up and play, helping with its exponential growth.
The counterpoint to this is: both Windows and 5e DnD do a pretty good job of delivering what people want. Windows may not be the best, but if it failed to let you do what you wanted with your computer, you would find another OS that will. Since 76% of people haven't felt a need to switch from Windows - it's fair to say that it is satisfactory.

Most people don't switch brands when someone comes out with something that's better in some way. They switch brands when the brand they've been using stops meeting their needs.

5e DnD is the same way, in a way: most people are having a great time playing the game, to the point where they don't see any reason to even research other systems. They often know they're out there, they just don't care because they already have a game that works for them. So they stick with it.

An OP's point is that at least part of the reason so few people feel a need to switch is it is satisfactory for people with a wide array of tastes. 4e, for a counterpoint, drove a lot of players away. Not because it did what it did badly, but because a lot of players wanted to do something else, so they found a tool that did that instead.

(The restaurant analogy breaks down here, because people generally don't have brand loyalty to restaurants outside of industry niches. You might only go to Wendy's for fast food, but you don't always want fast food.)
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
@Jack Daniel :
Honestly, this is probably closer to the mark. 5e was surveyed and focus-grouped and in the end practically grown in a lab for mass market appeal.

I disagree with this, to a point. 5e was playtested, but the design wasn't open sourced -- the designers designed, and then after that ran a playtest to see if people liked it. The game wasn't designed in playtest, it was just playtested more widely than was (or is) the norm. This gave good feedback to the designers to iterate. The actual design work is still pretty closed.

I'm not Jack, but it seems the point was that it was involved with lots and lots of feedback and surveys during the public playtest. It was, as he was saying "surveyed and focus-grouped and in the end practically grown in a lab for mass market appeal". None of that requires that it was open soured, and with a property both as sacred-cow laden and having very specific market goals of recapturing gamers lost to PF and reclaiming the #1 sales spot worldwide, open sourcing it would likely have not met their goals as admirably as 5e does.

This isn't bad, it's good - they gave us many iterations of playtest, and produced a game based on the volumes of feedback we gave them on their designs. Definitely their designs, but their informed designs by the end of the process.
 

see

Adventurer
I disagree with this, to a point. 5e was playtested, but the design wasn't open sourced -- the designers designed, and then after that ran a playtest to see if people liked it. The game wasn't designed in playtest, it was just playtested more widely than was (or is) the norm. This gave good feedback to the designers to iterate. The actual design work is still pretty closed.
So, what, exactly, do you think you're disagreeing with?

There's no particular relationship between "open source" and "user testing". Indeed, my personal experience is that they're almost opposites; open source software developers seem to do almost no user testing, while the people making Microsoft Office (at least historically) did massive amounts of user testing.
 

pemerton

Legend
I wasn't going to post in this thread, but @Ovinomancer called me into it.

I'm not American, and so don't quite get the American relationship to chain restaurants. I live in a city that - whether right or wrong - thinks of itself as the food and coffee capital of Australia. Chain restaurants and cafes (eg Starbucks) exist, and presumably get a reasonable amount of custom (at least the restaurants; at least one Starbucks in a major cafe/restaurant strip had to close due to a lack of patronage). But they wouldn't normally figure in a taste-based discussion about where to go out for dinner. As opposed to, say, a price-based one - when I was a student the chain burger restaurants were very cheap - or a is there a climbing frame for the kids-based one. To some extent there are geographic differences here - there are more chain restaurants in middle-to-outer than in inner suburbs - but as is often the case with cultural trends the suburbs have themselves changed over the past decade or two, catching up with cafe and restaurant culture.

I also don't play 5e D&D, and have no interest in doing so. As I posted a while ago on another active thread, the only version of D&D I have interest in playing these days is 4e. The three main (and related) reasons why I am not interested in 5e are that it (i) has little in the way of non-combat resolution, (ii) tends to emphasise GM rather than player influence over the outcome of action declarations (especially outside the space of combat resolution and the hit point/damage framework) and (iii) relies upon strong GM control over the "adventuring day" in order to ensure the intraparty balance of mechanical effectiveness.

What those three things have in common is that they all push towards a GM-as-storyteller approach to RPGing which doesn't appeal to me. That impression of 5e D&D is reinforced by scanning threads on these boards, where the overwhelming discussion of mechanical issues seems to be focused on combat resolution, while the predominant approach to other features of play, both non-combat resolution and "bigger picture" matters like pacing, establishing stakes, etc seems to be one that emphasises GM authority and "spotlighting" of characters rather than either (a) player protagonism producing character-driven play (such as I would associate with Burning Wheel or PbtA systems) or (b) strong and binding mechanics that produce outcomes in the fiction somewhat independent of what anyone might want at the moment (such as I would associate with Rolemaster, to some extent RuneQuest, and to some extent Classic Traveller). Part of what I like about 4e D&D is that it tends fairly strongly towards (a) in many parts of play, and in those parts - especially combat - where it doesn't, it tends fairly strongly towards (b) instead.

My view is that there are a range of reasons that explain 5e D&D's popularity. A number of them have been canvassed in this thread. I think one important one is that, for a lot of RPGers, RPGing is largely synonymous with working through a story that the GM (or module writer) has set out in advance while evoking their character from time-to-time in ways that are fairly immediate and memorably colourful. 5e D&D's emphasis on GM authority and "spoltlighting" of characters is well-suited to that sort of play.

Sounds like something a movie critic would say. A lot of movies get panned by critics, yet at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is does the audience enjoy the movie.

<snip>

Maybe you like the art-house version of TTRPGs. That's fine. But year in year out growth with no other TTRPG nipping at their heels? You don't get that with a bad game.
If you define bad game so that it is inconsistent with commercial success then your last two sentences follow. But that definition is not self-evident.

All the evidence available to me suggests that chain hamburger stores are doing fine in Australia. That doesn't settle the question of whether or not they're selling bad food - where the basis for the judgement of bad food could be health, or gastronomics, or environmental, or socio-cultural, or any of a number of other potentially applicable frameworks for evaluation.

Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed a pretty popular movie. That didn't stop a prominent Australian reviewer panning it (the online journal is called The Daily Review). The fact that a lot of people paid money to see it, and didn't agree with the critic, doesn't show the critic was wrong. Teju Cole had a pretty critical review of The Black Panther. It's a very interesting review. The popularity of the film has no bearing on whether his criticisms are sound or not.

In my view, the dominant screen personalities in The Avengers, that make it an enjoyable film, are Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. Ruffalo came up through small films - the ones I remember are You Can Count on Me, My Life Without Me (a wonderful film) and the Kids Are All Right (not so good in my view, and you can start to see Ruffalo projecting a persona that it's about him rather than the character). Someone who measures the quality of movies by reference to their box office is, even if they don't realise it, wishing away the necessary conditions of Ruffalo appearing as The Hulk.

To go back to food, in Melbourne today it is utterly routine to walk past a building site and see a construction worker eating take away sushi. That would not have happened but for the "avant garde" sushi restaurants of 20 and 30 years ago. The hamburger chains now advertise their "plant-based" burgers on primetime TV. They will sell more vegetarian food than Shakahari, the vegetarian restaurant in Carlton that's been there for maybe 50 years (once a hippy restaurant, it is now quite upmarket). But those plant-based burgers would not exist but for Shakahari and its ilk.

The relationship between the avant-garde and the mainstream, and the relationship of both to quality, is not just one of relative popularity or relative sales. It's much more complex than that.
 

pemerton

Legend
The counterpoint to this is: both Windows and 5e DnD do a pretty good job of delivering what people want. Windows may not be the best, but if it failed to let you do what you wanted with your computer, you would find another OS that will. Since 76% of people haven't felt a need to switch from Windows - it's fair to say that it is satisfactory.
For a very large number of people who use computers - I would posit well over 95%, maybe over 99% - what they want a computer to do is a function of what they are told a computer can do.

In a workplace of around 100 people in my building I believe I am one of the few who can build a simple database in Access, and am perhaps the only one who can use a bit of VBA to improve the function of my database (maybe there's a guy in Student Services who can also do this, though I'm not sure). Mostly I used to do this to manage Rolemaster character sheets; I've also done it to manage marking in units with large enrolments.

But beyond a vague sense of computers are good at handling large amounts of data I rely on friends who are better at computing than I am, and websites with tips (or back in the old days on the built-in help files) to work out how to do the things I would like to do. If I don't find a way to do it then I just don't do it. The barriers - institutional, economic, time - to exploring further options are far too great for me to seriously consider trying to break through them. For those of my colleagues who've never even opened Access, or who don't understand that and why I use Thunderbird rather than the web interface as my Google Mail client, the idea that they have well-formed wants about what they might do with a computer gets even less purchase.

To some extent I think the same thing is probably true for many RPGers.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm not Jack, but it seems the point was that it was involved with lots and lots of feedback and surveys during the public playtest. It was, as he was saying "surveyed and focus-grouped and in the end practically grown in a lab for mass market appeal". None of that requires that it was open soured, and with a property both as sacred-cow laden and having very specific market goals of recapturing gamers lost to PF and reclaiming the #1 sales spot worldwide, open sourcing it would likely have not met their goals as admirably as 5e does.

This isn't bad, it's good - they gave us many iterations of playtest, and produced a game based on the volumes of feedback we gave them on their designs. Definitely their designs, but their informed designs by the end of the process.
Informed design doesn't align with "grown in a lab for mass market appeal" to me. YMMV.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Informed design doesn't align with "grown in a lab for mass market appeal" to me. YMMV.
Maybe think of it as something like a movie or TV show that a focus group or a test audience reacts to in ways that cause the studio/distributor/financiers to insist on a different edit or perhaps re-shoots, and the conversations as to whether the director/auteur deserves control of his art, or whether the people expecting to make money on it do.

I personally don't think software comparisons are as apt, but that's something I'd pick a fight over.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Maybe think of it as something like a movie or TV show that a focus group or a test audience reacts to in ways that cause the studio/distributor/financiers to insist on a different edit or perhaps re-shoots, and the conversations as to whether the director/auteur deserves control of his art, or whether the people expecting to make money on it do.

I personally don't think software comparisons are as apt, but that's something I'd pick a fight over.
I have no issue recognizing the feedback loop, but the statement was extremely strong to me, and I don't think the feedback was that strong an impact. Valuable, yes, beneficial, yes, but the main reason for 5e's success? Eh. I think it would have done pretty much the same with the first playtest packet released, honestly. 5e's success as a system isn't really owed to the public playtesting. 5e's success with regards to making fans feel involved, though -- that's the real kicker to the playtesting: it gives fans a sense of investment and goodwill, even if they offer little say in design.
 


I have no issue recognizing the feedback loop, but the statement was extremely strong to me, and I don't think the feedback was that strong an impact. Valuable, yes, beneficial, yes, but the main reason for 5e's success? Eh. I think it would have done pretty much the same with the first playtest packet released, honestly. 5e's success as a system isn't really owed to the public playtesting. 5e's success with regards to making fans feel involved, though -- that's the real kicker to the playtesting: it gives fans a sense of investment and goodwill, even if they offer little say in design.

Have you seen the early playtest packets? Huge changes were made in response to feedback. One Mearls mentioned at least once was the Champion subclass. He thought nobody would want a simple roll-n-kill Fighter, but requests for one were overwhelming.
 

pemerton

Legend
Informed design doesn't align with "grown in a lab for mass market appeal" to me. YMMV.
I find the relationship between WotC's market research for 5e D&D, and the "subjects of"/participants in that research, an interesting one. It seems to suggest a very high degree of buy-in, by at least a core group of consumers, to the product and its vendor. I'm sure that analysts of the role of "brand" and "brand loyalty" in marketing would be able to say something more sophisticated. From a different perspective, probably so could someone drawing on (say) Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity.

I don't remember any of the survey questions asking things like who should control consequences of action resolution or what authority should non-GM participants exercise over scene-framing. We can see some implicit response to those sorts of matters, though. For instance, making Teleport a 7th level spell means that it is unlikely to be used by players in the vast majority of D&D games, which means that the particular problem it creates in a FRPG - ie giving players a very high degree of control over which characters are present in which scenes, and where those scenes take place, and to some extent even what they are about - is quarantined if not completely eliminated.

Part of the science (or art?) of polling is knowing how to extract information from responses beyond simply the content of assertions made by or agreed to by those who are giving those responses.
 

Ogre Mage

Adventurer
This makes me wish there was a Cheesecake Factory in this godforsaken town and COVID-19 was over so I could eat there without worrying ...

Anyway, with regards to the popularity of 5E, I think there are several things. Some of which agree with The Cheesecake Factory theory.

--Name/Brand Recognition. D&D is the one TTRPG that even non-gamers know about.

--Livestream explosion. Critical Role became the "D&D" of livestreams, but there are many others. This was big in drawing new players to the game. It also halted a cultural backlash like the 1980s/1990s satanic panic because everyone could watch the livestreams and see those stereotypes were false.

--Nods to previous editions. 5E cherry-picked elements from 1E, 2E, 3E and 4E. Some previous editions made such radical changes they alienated older/current players.

--Extensive playtesting and feedback by the player base.

--Moderate level of complexity.
Some hard-core gamers complain 5E is too simple while some noobs find it too complicated. But it sits squarely in the middle between Pathfinder 2E on one end and Cypher/Numenera on the other. Most folks can hang there even if they may be a bit uncomfortable one way or the other.

Now, I have to figure out how to bring a Cheesecake Factory here ...
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Have you seen the early playtest packets? Huge changes were made in response to feedback. One Mearls mentioned at least once was the Champion subclass. He thought nobody would want a simple roll-n-kill Fighter, but requests for one were overwhelming.
Yes, I have it on my harddrive. I'm not saying the feedback didn't cause changes, but rather than 5e would have been a success without any. The main impact of the playtesting was psychological in the fanbase -- it garnered a feeling of ownership and that's had way more of an impact than any changes due to feedback. In other words, 5e isn't really popular because of it's system, which is what that feedback tuned. It's popular because, well, it's D&D, the designers executed a masterful PR campaign with the playtests, and it happened to reap the perfect storm of the streaming explosion. Good enough game, but more about right time and good management.


EDIT: I feel like this might again be the time to say that I've been running 5e since launch, I'm currently running a 5e game, and I don't have plans to shelf 5e in the near future.
 
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pemerton

Legend
it happened to reap the perfect storm of the streaming explosion.
I have watched very little streamed D&D (or other RPGing).

What does the entertainment consist in? Given it's such a drawcard for new players, I'm going to guess it's not in demonstrations of technical mastery as in (say) broadcasting darts or snooker.

Does the entertainment come from enjoying the fiction and the participants' exposition? In this case a system like D&D 5e might be a better fit than some others.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I have watched very little streamed D&D (or other RPGing).

What does the entertainment consist in? Given it's such a drawcard for new players, I'm going to guess it's not in demonstrations of technical mastery as in (say) broadcasting darts or snooker.

Does the entertainment come from enjoying the fiction and the participants' exposition? In this case a system like D&D 5e might be a better fit than some others.
Couldn't tell you, not my thing, really. I have a hang up about watching other people play a game I can't ever join in.

EDIT: No, that's not really it, thinking a bit more it's that I don't really find the story of an RPG to be exciting in the retelling, but in the playing to find out what happens.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Couldn't tell you, not my thing, really. I have a hang up about watching other people play a game I can't ever join in.
It's not mine, either, but I think @pemerton has the right of it that it's mostly about the fiction that emerges, with--in many instances--reasonably-talented voice actors (in many instances, voice actors start as actors) around the table.

I do know that two of the players at one of the tables I'm DMing were introduced to D&D by streamed play. I'm happy to have them at the table, and I'm pleased to see something serving to attract new players--even if they may think that play is always like what's on the livestreams. Heck, my wife got into play streams a couple years ago (I wasn't in much of a TRPG space) and bought the 5E PHB; I read it out of idle curiosity, and it clicked. So, in a way, I'm gaming again because of play streams, even though I don't enjoy them, for reasons similar to yours, @Ovinomancer .
 

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