D&D 5E Heteroglossia and D&D: Why D&D Speaks in a Multiplicity of Playing Styles

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Neither are most of the games I'm talking about, so that doesn't seem much of a counter.

So, I didn't want to get into this, but since you replied again ... this is what you had in the original post ....

Eh. I'd say its a really good system for people who have mixed interests and have internalized D&D's approaches as an okay way to get to them. The latter is extremely common because of the networking effect, but I don't have much sign that there's anything intrinsic about D&D's mechanical structure that even supports varied desires better than other choices; its just what a lot of people get exposed to early and imprint on if they don't, at the time, have strong wants it doesn't fulfill.


I suspect that its unintentional, but the bolded part of the sentence is one of those things I see a lot, and it always strikes me as ... problematic ... for two reasons.

The first (the idea that people get "imprint{ed}" by D&D "early") echoes some truly horrendous comments by a particular person in the TTRPG field made some time ago. That's as much as I'd like to say about that. I do think it is best practices to avoid using language that negates individual agency and assumes that people are only playing a game not out of preference, but because of some type of conditioning they can't overcome. That's kind of insulting.

The second is the "opera problem." There is often an assumption that if only people knew better, they'd like this better thing that I like! But that's not often the case. I call it the "opera problem," because most people can instinctively understand that- that someone might talk down to others who enjoy, say, Lizzo and not opera. But the history of "betters" telling hoi polloi what they should like is not a long and glorious one; far from it. It's always better to understand why people like what they like, even if you don't have the same interests. You tend to learn more.

It's the same here; it seems that a lot of time is spent trying to explain away the success of D&D, instead of grappling with what it might mean. There are many things in life I don't personally understand the popularity of (SUVs and CUVs, TikTok & Twitter, canned wine, hard seltzer, abominable pizza toppings, etc.), but I can recognize that there may be a reason that these things are popular. Shrugging and saying, "People be stupid, yo" might be satisfying to my ego, but isn't productive in understanding why people are doing what they are doing.

YMMV.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
As usual, lots to chew on and not much time to respond.

But I do want to get an early word into the conversation that I think all of the really successful RPGs in history succeed because they cater to multiple styles of play and multiple aesthetics of fun.

The real trick is writing an RPG that doesn't completely get in the way of a style of play or an aesthetic of fun and so immediately kill a huge percentage of your potential audience.

Games that are written so that they play only in one way tend to not stick around, no matter how well they do that one thing. Or at best, they become a go to one shot system were people occasionally play it for that one experience, but spend most of their time in some other system.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
1. It's about what the rules don't support. The negative space in D&D (the places the rules don't exist) is actually an important feature, not a bug, of the game.
I believe I can see what you are championing here, let me restate this to see if I understand it.

"Because D&D gives authorial control to one person, who therefore requires the trust of the players and a certain set of skills (heh), areas unsupported by mechanics are still open to skillful adjudication and play as befitting the table."

I think this is where you are going, if I understand I'll dive into it, but I don't want to accidentally go off on a tangent from misunderstanding.

2. It's about the community of D&D. Right now, I can play a game of D&D with a grognard who is running a highly hacked version of OD&D with a 200-page player supplement that, inter alia, details how he allows the original White Dwarf Barbarian as a playable class, or I could play D&D with a group of high-schoolers that use a lot of 5e homebrew to make it an anime/manga game with Wuxia influences. And all of those people are communicating and cross-pollinating in the greater D&D community- something that no other game has, and no other game is even close to having (in terms of both size and history).
This is nothing inherent to the rules, and is inherent to the brand. As a counterexample, let's look at 13th Age. It's a d20 OGL (so D&D bones) written by one of the lead designers of D&D 3e and the lead designer of 4e. That's got to be closer to many than older editions, kitbashes, and heavily homeruled games as a system. But it doesn't have the support of the brand. Without the name "Dungeons and Dragons" emblazoned on it, it's not a big part of the "greater D&D community". So really, this is something 5e has going for it, but not because of anything between the covers of the books.

Now, this goes back to you saying "system" and I using the term "mechanics". Perhaps "system" does include the brand and these other aspects, but to me they aren't part of the rules, but almost are in spite of them.

And then you have edition wars and D&D players who fight even more than they do about other systems.

3. It's about the flexibility within the game- this is, perhaps, the most important. Building on what @Gradine posted (re: types of fun), D&D has a long history of being able to engage different kinds of players, seeking different kinds of fun, at the same time. On these boards, we often hear about groups that try another game for a while, and then "return to D&D." I suspect that this is because a lot of games are built to primarily appeal to certain kinds of fun, but are not as engaging for all types of players. Take BiTD, for example- it's a great and brilliant game. But players that are really into narrative, discovery, or abnegation (yeah, I don't like submission either) ... maybe not so much?
It's funny, I add up the same points and get a potential negative. It's about what a table wants.

If I want a fast sports car, and my friend wants a all wheel drive pickup, and a third friend wants a minivan because they have four kids and it's just the easiest, looking for a compromise of a sporty SUV may be something they each could settle on, but it's not the best for any of them.

Even within people looking for D&D, I know some who name their characters "Burger King" and have silly adventures fully of punny names and Monty Python references, some who are looking for heavily tactical chessboard battles, and some who are looking for character drama soap opera where adventuring is the genre and backdrop. They likely wouldn't have a good time all sitting at the same table even though D&D can -and does - cater to all of them. If your table is out of sync with each other in terms of expectations, just haing a system that can cover won't make everyone happy.

And once you are looking at a unified table, picking the Porsche instead of the sporty SUV can provide an even better experience.

Now, to be honest, a unified table doesn't mean unified in all ways, and in that variation the flexibility of a big tent game like D&D can be a good fit, assuming that the players are looking for a D&D-like experience in the first place.

And getting back to brand, it's likely the most common first RPG, and for many only RPG that they have enough players to actually play extended amounts, so there's a huge community that thinks that the D&D feel is synonymous with all RPGs.

As an aside, I grew up with fake maple syrup. Here in the States it's high fructose corn syrup (read: sugar) with corn syrup (read: more sugar) and artificial maple and butter flavors. It tastes very little like actual maple syrup, which I didn't have until my late teens. But I buy it today because it completes the comforting taste of my childhood pancakes and waffles. But I don't mistake it for good.

And that's where D&D (esp. 5e) can shine. Yes, the drawback of it, the failure point, can be a bad DM.
And that's one of the historical holdovers that can be the downfall of D&D. You talked about how the video game industry has advanced much faster than the RPG one, but we have come up with points that make running a game a different all-powerful-so-must-be-good experience of D&D. There are games with very clearly defined GM rules. And DMs used to D&D where they can change rules as they wish don't seem to get that this is a massive shift. Here's how the DM does their part, just as defined as the player side of the player loop. Here's what they must do - they don't have lassitude. Here's what they can't do - they also don't have lassitude. Here's the ranking of what you need to consider when making a call.

I've played with new RPG players and had a great time - as great as with experienced players. But with D&D you can not say it is the standard that a newer DM will provide for the table as good an an experience as a veteran DM. But other systems have reduced that bar and redefined the role so the table as a whole isn't nearly at the mercy of the quality of GM.

When you can say that you (the plural you) have a consistently enjoyable play experience with a mediocre DM, then D&D has caught up to industry. Until then it offloads so much of the game onto the DMs shoulders that it can be a critical failing point. And a daunting barrier of entry for new DMs.

D&D is not a great game system for everything, or every person. But it's a really good system for a lot of people when you have groups with mixed interests. IMO, etc.
D&D is a quite good system. Everyone should play it at least once, at the very least for context for that "greater D&D community" you spoke of. But there are also experiences that other systems handle very well that tables interested in them should also try - likely more than one. There isn't a system wide enough to be everything to everyone. So I advocate multiple systems - find what fits best for the feel your table wants next. And then feel free to change for the next.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
So, I'm aware of the effect of being the big fish, and network externalities.

But, there's an implicit point I question - I am not sold on the idea that D&D owes its success only to being big. Being big is a nice place to start a new endeavor, but is not, in and of itself, self-sustaining. You speak as if, if the game sucked, those wouldn't have eroded faster than your vorpal blade goes snicker snack, much less last for nearly a half century and now grow.

No, I'm suggesting that given its historical situation, it would have to be actively bad, and in a way most people care about (including the large number of people who only modestly care about mechanics) not to be a success. Its history just means it doesn't need to be particularly good; it doesn't mean it could get away with being particularly bad.

The world is full of functional but so-so things that get used by a lot of people because they're well known and people don't care enough about the particular thing to notice any issues.

Entertainments are victim to the vagaries of fashion. Being big doesn't make you immune to becoming last-year's thing.

That's usually because there's something else that is at least within shouting distance of being as well known that manages to hop on the bandwagon of whatever is the hot new thing; its pretty rare for something small to come out of nowhere and dethrone the king. And its been rare throughout the life of RPGs as a hobby for anything to even be within shouting distance of D&D, and one of the two times that occurred it was a close cousin.
 

Ovi

Adventurer
It is entirely valid to push back on part of a claim, you know. I am not required to address points only as you want me to. If you don't want to engage with such, that's okay - you aren't required to.
Yes, but you picked a part and pushed back against my whole claim based on that part. That's... less valid.
So, it is weird to go back to the OP when we are only on the second page of the thread, but let us do that...

"A group of highschoolers get together at lunch and plays D&D without dice or their rulebooks- that's D&D."

To which you asserted "...the claim in the OP about kids playing D&D without dice or rules are both speaking to D&D as genre and a set of tropes while expressly denying that D&D is, in fact, a game with actually codified rules and systems."

I am simply pushing back on those kids play as being about tropes and genre, and rejecting that there's any denying going on at all. I think you've got to do a lot of work to make those stick.

If you aren't interested in doing that work, that's fine. But you shouldn't expect folks to accept the assertion as given.
The pushback wouldn't be to point out I swapped (unintentionally) rulebook for rules, and an error I'll admit to. However, I find it a hard sell to make your assumption that "without rulebooks" automatically means "has memorized the rules" instead. You've just added a different assumption. If you'd like to make the case its "kids playing D&D without dice and with memorized rulebooks" we can do that.
Not rhetoric - just personal experience.
No, it was a rhetorical sidestep. That it's also your experience doesn't change that.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
The first (the idea that people get "imprint{ed}" by D&D "early") echoes some truly horrendous comments by a particular person in the TTRPG field made some time ago. That's as much as I'd like to say about that. I do think it is best practices to avoid using language that negates individual agency and assumes that people are only playing a game not out of preference, but because of some type of conditioning they can't overcome. That's kind of insulting.

I think there's a massive distance between "can't overcome" and "Don't care enough to do the lifting needed to even find out" which is much more the case I'm thinking. Becoming significantly aware of and investing the time to learn if another system suits you better is not a zero-cost process in time and effort, and if someone already doesn't care much about systems, what's going to motivate them to do that?

The second is the "opera problem." There is often an assumption that if only people knew better, they'd like this better thing that I like! But that's not often the case. I call it the "opera problem," because most people can instinctively understand that- that someone might talk down to others who enjoy, say, Lizzo and not opera. But the history of "betters" telling hoi polloi what they should like is not a long and glorious one; far from it. It's always better to understand why people like what they like, even if you don't have the same interests. You tend to learn more.

The problem here is that while there's elitism present in a lot of this kind of discussion,its also absolutely true; but as I noted, its only really liable to be relevant if someone, frankly, gives a damn. Many people will enjoy other things if they get out of a rut they're in, but many people also don't care. They're happy enough with what they've already got, so why bother? That isn't anything that says anything about them other than the fact the vast majority of people are not adventurous in their tastes, no matter what those tastes are. Because, again, it requires extra effort to find out, and what you may well find out is you don't like the other thing anyway (if you normally listen to one or two styles of music, there's a pretty good chance some other style may well suit you, and maybe even better than the one you do, but how much time are you going to spend trying out different styles to find out, and where do you start? For everything else out there you like, there may be 20 things you don't, so is it worth your while?).

For almost everyone, close enough is good enough in at least some parts of their life. I'm not an adventurous eater; as such most of the of what I eat is things I got used to early in life, and have only slowly moved on from them. That fact is not a moral judgment on me. But its a reality, and its a reality with a lot of people with a lot of things.


It's the same here; it seems that a lot of time is spent trying to explain away the success of D&D, instead of grappling with what it might mean.

Or, frankly, that there are people who want to claim there's an intrinsic virtue of D&D that others do not find to be obvious. Which is true is liable to be in the eye of the beholder.

I'll pretty much stand by my opinion; D&D doesn't need any special virtue. It just needs to be functional. Its size and history will do the rest. But that doesn't mean its equally adaptable to things outside the kind of fantasy it has historically been focused on.

There are many things in life I don't personally understand the popularity of (SUVs and CUVs, TikTok & Twitter, canned wine, hard seltzer, abominable pizza toppings, etc.), but I can recognize that there may be a reason that these things are popular. Shrugging and saying, "People be stupid, yo" might be satisfying to my ego, but isn't productive in understanding why people are doing what they are doing.

YMMV.

Since my position is not that "people are stupid" but "people do the effort they feel is worthwhile" I consider this pretty much irrelevant to my point.
 

You can get a lot of D&D, which can work for a lot of different styles of play, assuming you're willing to do the work to make any necessary changes (including any necessary suspension of disbelief). Different editions have done different things better or worse, but each can do all of it. Yes, there are a lot of other RPGs that can fit a particular niche a lot better, but learning D&D can allow you to use the same ruleset (with some modifications) for all of them.

And for the love of Gygax, if you don’t like a rule or think something is missing in the game, fix it yourself.
This is one of the advantages of 5E over some prior editions: it's moderately easy to houserule to create a specific style of play. It's designed to have the broadest appeal possible, but because of this it won't fit everyone's needs perfectly. Modding the game for your group should be the assumption for experienced DMs.
 

I'd say its a really good system for people who have mixed interests and have internalized D&D's approaches as an okay way to get to them. The latter is extremely common because of the networking effect, but I don't have much sign that there's anything intrinsic about D&D's mechanical structure that even supports varied desires better than other choices; its just what a lot of people get exposed to early and imprint on if they don't, at the time, have strong wants it doesn't fulfill.


There are several slightly different things we are calling "dnd" in this thread. From more specific to more general:

  • 5e
  • All official editions of dnd
  • the OSR
  • fantasy "trad" games
  • all "trad" games

If we take all of the above, there is a significant difference of playstyle between the various editions of dnd (e.g. 1e vs 5e), between official editions and other games in some "based" on dnd (e.g. 5e vs Mork Borg), between those different games (e.g. tunnels and trolls vs into the odd), and between games that have an entirely different theme but have playstyle elements shared among them (e.g. call of cthulhu, vampire the masquerade, dnd).

For this reason, I'm not seeing how the "imprinting" argument makes sense. That is, if someone started with 1e and only played each official edition of dnd only, and only played the modules published for those specific editions, they'd still have played at least two and arguably five different games with their own playstyles. They couldn't have simply "internalized D&D's approaches" because their play experience will have covered everything from challenge-oriented large dungeons to epic scene-based narratives, from very simple and fragile characters to character optimization. And that's even before you get people, say, in the OSR, who are very "adventurous" in their tastes and constantly hacking making new games that are both basically dnd and something different.


Anyway, interesting recent-ish article on abandoning and rejoining dnd



D&D fatigue is not a bad thing. As I stated at the beginning of this post, the existence of a larger roleplaying hobby depends, in large part, on people becoming dissatisfied with or tired of Dungeons & Dragons and creating and/or seeking out alternatives to it. Very few of those alternatives ever came close to rivaling D&D's popularity or sales – but they didn't have to. During the days of D&D's first faddishness, there were more than enough players to support many RPGs and the companies, large and small, that produced them. Simply by existing, D&D created a demand for alternatives that others stepped forward to fill.

Over the course of the more than four decades I've been roleplaying, I've fallen in and out of love with Dungeons & Dragons multiple times, for a variety of different reasons. In each case, I'd eventually return to playing it, because I do like D&D, warts and all. While I was feeling the full force of D&D fatigue, I'd explore other options, in the process learning to love other games I otherwise might not have noticed. I also learned to appreciate better the things I liked about D&D, so that, when I returned to playing it, I often had more fun with it than I did before.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
There are several slightly different things we are calling "dnd" in this thread. From more specific to more general:

  • 5e
  • All official editions of dnd
  • the OSR
  • fantasy "trad" games
  • all "trad" games

To be clear, I'm only formally including the first two (and possibly the third) of these, since I'm addressing primarily the acceptability of D&D (theoretically 5e, but I try to step carefully here since unlike OD&D, D&D3e and D&D4e I'm not familiar enough with it to want to talk about it in depth) for multiple purposes including things outside the traditional D&D style fantasy. I'm making certain assumptions about ongoing structures (level elevating largely abstract hit points, armor class, classes, levelling, generally the way the spell system works) that run across most or all of the above (which is why I'm a little hesitant about including the OSR as I would not be surprised that there may be OSR games that have modified one or more of these outside the normal range of such things for D&D).

If we take all of the above, there is a significant difference of playstyle between the various editions of dnd (e.g. 1e vs 5e), between official editions and other games in some "based" on dnd (e.g. 5e vs Mork Borg), between those different games (e.g. tunnels and trolls vs into the odd), and between games that have an entirely different theme but have playstyle elements shared among them (e.g. call of cthulhu, vampire the masquerade, dnd).

For this reason, I'm not seeing how the "imprinting" argument makes sense.

That's because you're applying my statements far beyond what I was. I was in no way including dissimilar traditional fantasy games, let alone non-fantasy trad games in my comments.


That is, if someone started with 1e and only played each official edition of dnd only, and only played the modules published for those specific editions, they'd still have played at least two and arguably five different games with their own playstyles. They couldn't have simply "internalized D&D's approaches" because their play experience will have covered everything from challenge-oriented large dungeons to epic scene-based narratives, from very simple and fragile characters to character optimization. And that's even before you get people, say, in the OSR, who are very "adventurous" in their tastes and constantly hacking making new games that are both basically dnd and something different.

They still have some assumptions about how characters are structured, how combat generally works, and a number of other things that are radically different from any number of games, even trad games. On the simplest level, the degree of shock someone coming from virtually any incarnation of D&D to virtually any incarnation of RuneQuest is large, and RQ is for the most part very much a trad game. But it differs in radical ways mechanically and in some cases, almost as radical ones in assumptions about game focus usually (perhaps less in RQ3 or other non-Gloranthan fantasy BRP offshoots).
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
And, in considering this, we can look at the results of the WotC 1999 market research and the cluster analysis they did on the results. Sean K Reynold's archive of this seems lost to the aether, unfortunately, and I haven't found an entire reposting of it anywhere yet.

To summarize - They found gamers fit into five different categories. Four of which they named Thinker, Power Gamer, Character Actor, and Storyteller. The fifth group was an admixture of the other four. Most importantly, most people fit into this admixture, rather than have one major strong type.
I think you're referring to this old article.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Honestly, I think these discussion would be better served by the separation of "D&D the genre and tropes" and "D&D the game." This claim, and the claim in the OP about kids playing D&D without dice or rules are both speaking to D&D as genre and a set of tropes while expressly denying that D&D is, in fact, a game with actually codified rules and systems. The idea that a massive hack of D&D is still D&D rather than a different game is one I struggle with -- you've completely changed the game, why are you attributing your design work to others? Is it just a claim to membership in the club?
D&D's market dominance over nearly 50 years has led to the idea of "playing D&D" being synonymous with role-playing in general, especially to the mainstream. As a result, what counts as D&D casts a much, much wider net than any other game, for good or ill.
 

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
I take real moral offense when others pretend to some moral authority to govern my tastes and preferences, but for that very reason I will never, ever try to govern theirs. I expressly am not competent for that and would not want to be; they alone are fit for such decisions. And this includes to what extent they choose to investigate other options for their hobbies.

Assuming Mill's Harm Principle reasonably satisfied, why should other people's choices and enjoyments cause me any stress? That's none of my business, is it?
 


Mercurius

Legend
A few stray thoughts...

I think there are many reasons that D&D has maintained its popularity and top dog status for almost five decades - some of which are intrinsic to the game itself, some not. It is impossible to divide its "popularity share" between the two, intrinsic and extrinsic, but my main point is that we have to consider BOTH, that to focus on only intrinsic elements--what the game itself does--ignores the broader context of RPG history, just as focusing only on the extrinsic elements--the fact of name recognition and such--ignores what the game actually offers as a game.

I mean, there are so many factors we can consider. In terms of extrinsic factors, for instance, we can use monetary wealth as as an analogy: it takes money to make money, and people with lots of money usually don't end up with no money. On the other hand, if you have no or little money, it is hard to get more money. So wealth begets itself, and rich people stay rich (and often get richer) and poor people stay poor (and often get poorer).

So we cannot ignore D&D's central place in RPG history, and the fact that it was first to the top of the hill. If you play King of the Hill, it is far easier to stay on top then get to the top.

On the other hand, we should not cynically reduce D&D's sustained success to just being the first, or equate 5E with a rich and pampered heir who lives off daddy's wealth. For one, 5E is a much larger success than any edition that came before, or at least since 1E, so we have to consider what it brought to the table to build that hill up higher. But even then we cannot ignore extrinsic factors; for instance, Stranger Things is a huge part of why 5E is so popular now (among others, but I'm thinking it is probably the biggest single factor).

I'll share my own personal experience, because in the end I can only speak authoritatively about my own experience. Like lots of old-timers on this board, I started playing D&D in the early 80s. At the time, it was (almost) the only show in town. There were other games, but as a kid still shy of middle school, I didn't know about Runequest or Tunnels & Trolls. I vaguely remember seeing them in a hobby shop, but people mostly played D&D.

By the late 80s I was reading Dragon regularly so started hearing about other games. "No Elves!" declared Talislanta and I thought, "But I like elves!" But then I flipped through the book and bought and loved it. Did I play it? Only once or twice, because, well, most people I knew were playing D&D. At one point a friend brought in a copy of Ars Magica to our D&D group (around 1990ish, I think), and when he explained the magic system, I thought, "Wow, that's how magic should be!" Did we play it? No, because, well, we knew D&D.

Throughout the 90s and into the 00s I explored the world of RPGs beyond D&D, even dabbling in this or that game as the opportunity arose. Over the decades I bought dozens, even hundreds of different games, most of which remain(ed) curiosities on my game shelf. I always came back to D&D for several reasons, but most centrally two:

One, everyone played it. Sure, I'd encounter groups playing other games, and during the mid-90s when I lived in Burlington VT, there was a massive White Wolf LARP going on run by an acquaintance who was a barista at my favorite coffee shop - people would come in and touch base with him, the Storyteller, as he made lattes. But for the most part, most people I knew played D&D.

Two, it felt like home. I grew up with it--so yes, imprinted with it--and it felt familiar and comfortable.

Those are the largest two, but not that far behind is a third: And that is that the game itself works for an enjoyable experience. If it were just the first two, I probably would have moved on. But I like using all the polyhedral dice. I mean, Platonic Solids! I like silly but familiar rules like "saving throws" and "hit points" and weird monsters like the catoblepas and displacer beast. Meaning, crunch and fluff that is intrinsic to D&D.

I do think that there are many fantasy games that are "better" designed, or at least that I find more aesthetically pleasing. I think Ars Magica's magic system makes D&D's Vancian magic look anachronistically primitive. I love the simple d20 system of Talislanta, as well as the richly psychedelic world. It is hard to beat the flexibility and ease-of-use of Savage Worlds. Etc, etc. But for a wide range of factors, the melange that is D&D is just pleasing to me, so I come back to it, again and again.

Oh, one truly final note: I think the editions are a feature and not a flaw of what makes D&D what it is. If it is was just one version over 50 decades, it would grow stale. But a new edition allows us to experience the game afresh. There's a sweet-spot, of course, and the inherent problem of leaving people behind for whom the latest version isn't their cup o tea. But I also like seeing new versions of the same game - and it is the same game, for ultimately the most essential elements of D&D remain intact, edition after edition. It is the secondary elements that we argue over.

That said, I think there are other ways they could handle editions, but that's a different conversation. But in short, I still like the idea of the "complexity dial" and "modular options" that was talked about circa 2013, but has been left behind (for the most part), presumably because it is easier to talk about in the abstract than actually design and publish. But still, I can imagine a theoretically D&D with a simple core rule set and many different modular options that can be used to customize the game as desired by each group. One can dream...
 
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Oh, one truly final note: I think the editions are a feature and not a flaw of what makes D&D what it is. If it is was just one version over 50 decades, it would grow stale. But a new edition allows us to experience the game afresh. There's a sweet-spot, of course, and the inherent problem of leaving people behind for whom the latest version isn't their cup o tea. But I also like seeing new versions of the same game - and it is the same game, for ultimately the most essential elements of D&D remain intact, edition after edition. It is the secondary elements that we argue over.

Sid Meier, the creator the Civilization video game, has discovered that sweet spot of change. One third should be untouched, one third should be adjusted, and one third should be redone.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
A playstyle is far more than a particular type of fiction though. It is also the experience of running and/or playing the game. Games that place us under constraints offer us something we can never get in games that lack them - the fundamentally unwelcome outcomes. Outcomes that no one at the table would choose if not for the constraints we are operating under, but are still very compelling when they happen. Even in the same sphere of D&D likes you will never get to the experience the same set of playstyles that Pathfinder Second Edition enables within the context of a 5e game where the same constraints and reward systems are not in place. The set of playstyles enabled by a game are entirely dependent on the actual process of play.

Rulings over rules is an excellent play process to enable specific sorts of play, but it is no panacea to open up a verifiable ocean of play experiences that players of other games get to experience. Acting like it is only serves to diminish the creative accomplishments of game designers, GMs and players of other games.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I believe I can see what you are championing here, let me restate this to see if I understand it.

"Because D&D gives authorial control to one person, who therefore requires the trust of the players and a certain set of skills (heh), areas unsupported by mechanics are still open to skillful adjudication and play as befitting the table."

I think this is where you are going, if I understand I'll dive into it, but I don't want to accidentally go off on a tangent from misunderstanding.

This isn't the point I was making. Instead, it really is just about the negative space of D&D. What remains unsaid can be as important as what remains said. This has nothing to do with so-called skilled play, which isn't really a common style of play at all in 5e. Instead, it's about the understanding that D&D is much more than the rules , and that a focus purely on the rules is to miss the point of D&D.

If someone, today, was to try and understand OD&D (or 1e) purely by looking only at the core rules, they would likely come away with close to no understanding of the overall play of either system at the time. This has always been a truism of D&D - what remains unsaid in the rules is just as important as what is said.

In that way, D&D more closely resembles a common law system than it does a prescribed civil law system. It is built up over time, through a constant conversation with the past and the present. It exists in a dialogue with both older versions of itself, with the community as a whole, as well as with the TTRPG field (given it has always been the market mover).

For that reason, the constant refrain of, "Oh, it's just the brand," misses the point completely.
 

pointofyou

Adventurer
A few stray thoughts...

I think there are many reasons that D&D has maintained its popularity and top dog status for almost five decades - some of which are intrinsic to the game itself, some not. It is impossible to divide its "popularity share" between the two, intrinsic and extrinsic, but my main point is that we have to consider BOTH, that to focus on only intrinsic elements--what the game itself does--ignores the broader context of RPG history, just as focusing only on the extrinsic elements--the fact of name recognition and such--ignores what the game actually offers as a game.

I mean, there are so many factors we can consider. In terms of extrinsic factors, for instance, we can use monetary wealth as as an analogy: it takes money to make money, and people with lots of money usually don't end up with no money. On the other hand, if you have no or little money, it is hard to get more money. So wealth begets itself, and rich people stay rich (and often get richer) and poor people stay poor (and often get poorer).

So we cannot ignore D&D's central place in RPG history, and the fact that it was first to the top of the hill. If you play King of the Hill, it is far easier to stay on top then get to the top.

On the other hand, we should not cynically reduce D&D's sustained success to just being the first, or equate 5E with a rich and pampered heir who lives off daddy's wealth. For one, 5E is a much larger success than any edition that came before, or at least since 1E, so we have to consider what it brought to the table to build that hill up higher. But even then we cannot ignore extrinsic factors; for instance, Stranger Things is a huge part of why 5E is so popular now (among others, but I'm thinking it is probably the biggest single factor).

I'll share my own personal experience, because in the end I can only speak authoritatively about my own experience. Like lots of old-timers on this board, I started playing D&D in the early 80s. At the time, it was (almost) the only show in town. There were other games, but as a kid still shy of middle school, I didn't know about Runequest or Tunnels & Trolls. I vaguely remember seeing them in a hobby shop, but people mostly played D&D.

By the late 80s I was reading Dragon regularly so started hearing about other games. "No Elves!" declared Talislanta and I thought, "But I like elves!" But then I flipped through the book and bought and loved it. Did I play it? Only once or twice, because, well, most people I knew were playing D&D. At one point a friend brought in a copy of Ars Magica to our D&D group (around 1990ish, I think), and when he explained the magic system, I thought, "Wow, that's how magic should be!" Did we play it? No, because, well, we knew D&D.

Throughout the 90s and into the 00s I explored the world of RPGs beyond D&D, even dabbling in this or that game as the opportunity arose. Over the decades I bought dozens, even hundreds of different games, most of which remain(ed) curiosities on my game shelf. I always came back to D&D for several reasons, but most centrally two:

One, everyone played it. Sure, I'd encounter groups playing other games, and during the mid-90s when I lived in Burlington VT, there was a massive White Wolf LARP going on run by an acquaintance who was a barista at my favorite coffee shop - people would come in and touch base with him, the Storyteller, as he made lattes. But for the most part, most people I knew played D&D.

Two, it felt like home. I grew up with it--so yes, imprinted with it--and it felt familiar and comfortable.

Those are the largest two, but not that far behind is a third: And that is that the game itself works for an enjoyable experience. If it were just the first two, I probably would have moved on. But I like using all the polyhedral dice. I mean, Platonic Solids! I like silly but familiar rules like "saving throws" and "hit points" and weird monsters like the catoblepas and displacer beast. Meaning, crunch and fluff that is intrinsic to D&D.

I do think that there are many fantasy games that are "better" designed, or at least that I find more aesthetically pleasing. I think Ars Magica's magic system makes D&D's Vancian magic look anachronistically primitive. I love the simple d20 system of Talislanta, as well as the richly psychedelic world. It is hard to beat the flexibility and ease-of-use of Savage Worlds. Etc, etc. But for a wide range of factors, the melange that is D&D is just pleasing to me, so I come back to it, again and again.

Oh, one truly final note: I think the editions are a feature and not a flaw of what makes D&D what it is. If it is was just one version over 50 decades, it would grow stale. But a new edition allows us to experience the game afresh. There's a sweet-spot, of course, and the inherent problem of leaving people behind for whom the latest version isn't their cup o tea. But I also like seeing new versions of the same game - and it is the same game, for ultimately the most essential elements of D&D remain intact, edition after edition. It is the secondary elements that we argue over.

That said, I think there are other ways they could handle editions, but that's a different conversation. But in short, I still like the idea of the "complexity dial" and "modular options" that was talked about circa 2013, but has been left behind (for the most part), presumably because it is easier to talk about in the abstract than actually design and publish. But still, I can imagine a theoretically D&D with a simple core rule set and many different modular options that can be used to customize the game as desired by each group. One can dream...
This very much aligns to my own experiences. While my journey though different games and different styles of play and GMing has been different from yours I have also kept coming back to D&D. I think the biggest advantage for me is that you can almost always find a table or a DM or players. This is not often the case with other games.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This isn't the point I was making. Instead, it really is just about the negative space of D&D. What remains unsaid can be as important as what remains said. This has nothing to do with so-called skilled play, which isn't really a common style of play at all in 5e. Instead, it's about the understanding that D&D is much more than the rules , and that a focus purely on the rules is to miss the point of D&D.

If someone, today, was to try and understand OD&D (or 1e) purely by looking only at the core rules, they would likely come away with close to no understanding of the overall play of either system at the time. This has always been a truism of D&D - what remains unsaid in the rules is just as important as what is said.

In that way, D&D more closely resembles a common law system than it does a prescribed civil law system. It is built up over time, through a constant conversation with the past and the present. It exists in a dialogue with both older versions of itself, with the community as a whole, as well as with the TTRPG field (given it has always been the market mover).

For that reason, the constant refrain of, "Oh, it's just the brand," misses the point completely.
First, I don't ascribe that negative space to just D&D. RPGs as a whole are a bit esoteric as a hobby, and for any of them - D&D or not - just plopping the rules down in front of a group of people who have never heard of them would be an uphill climb to get to an understanding of play. But the shared-greater-community-experience is not locked into D&D at all, and works perfectly well cross-RPGs. It feels like every time you say D&D above, I could strike it and write in "an RPG" and have it work. D&D, as game with the most players, is definitely a big deal in that space. But that has nothing to do with D&D per se (outside the brand), and all towards the size - if D&D was a tiny indie game and some other game had the long-standing brand and players of D&D it would be in the same place.

What you are talking about is the community, and that literally only is this size because of the brand, and nothing to do with the game itself. Without the brand it would be another small niche game, like many d20 games which share similar bones, foundation, and potential connection to the community are. There is nothing inherent in D&D above other RPGs to fit the role you are projecting except the recognition of the name and brand.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
First, I don't ascribe that negative space to just D&D. RPGs as a whole are a bit esoteric as a hobby, and for any of them - D&D or not - just plopping the rules down in front of a group of people who have never heard of them would be an uphill climb to get to an understanding of play. But the shared-greater-community-experience is not locked into D&D at all, and works perfectly well cross-RPGs. It feels like every time you say D&D above, I could strike it and write in "an RPG" and have it work. D&D, as game with the most players, is definitely a big deal in that space. But that has nothing to do with D&D per se (outside the brand), and all towards the size - if D&D was a tiny indie game and some other game had the long-standing brand and players of D&D it would be in the same place.

What you are talking about is the community, and that literally only is this size because of the brand, and nothing to do with the game itself. Without the brand it would be another small niche game, like many d20 games which share similar bones, foundation, and potential connection to the community are. There is nothing inherent in D&D above other RPGs to fit the role you are projecting except the recognition of the name and brand.

I think that this is entirely wrong, something that I have written about numerous times, and something that we will have to agree to disagree on.

This experience does not work as well for all RPGs. It simply doesn't. On the most basic point, the vast majority of RPGs have not been around for almost 50 years- very few (Traveler, GURPs for example) have that kind of longevity, and none of those have the vast history and vast player base. So no, you can't simply cross out D&D and substitute in "an RPG."

That would be like saying, "Every time someone says Tolkien, I can simply cross his name out and put in the name of any other rando fantasy author." I mean - yeah, you could do that, but then you're probably going to miss the point of what someone is saying.

So it's not just about the size. It's about the combination of the size and the history. And this is something that is paramount in the actual design of the game. This is something incredibly basic, but also profound. You can't design D&D to be Fiasco, or BiTD. And it's also not some niche game- this is like saying, "I don't get why McDonald's doesn't just make Pho. I like Pho. I eat Pho. Why doesn't McDonald's make it?" At a certain point, you have to understand what something is, before you can begin to appreciate both what it can do and what it can't. If you keep saying, "Oh, that's just a brand," then you're stuck with an insult without insight.
 

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