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

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Fifth Edition is indeed uniquely popular for a variety of reasons. D&D has a compelling premise that feels natural to just about anyone who has played a video game like ever because its basic format matches the expectations of someone who has played Dragon Age or Mass Effect pretty much perfectly. The drop in format of Adventurer's League makes it extremely easy to try the game out and meet other people who play it. It's also the most accessible it's ever been and the design has been executed more soundly than most prior versions. Add on top the effect of streaming and Let's Play.

That does not mean it is necessarily of higher quality than other games with less mainstream appeal and/or commercial success like Pathfinder Second Edition, D&D 4e, 2d20 games, Apocalypse World, Exalted, Tales of Xadia, et al. It also does not mean it is more meaningfully flexible and can provide the sort of play experience other games do.

I really do not get why people in this community feel the need to put up D&D as superior to other games, to place it on a unique pedestal. Basically there's this tendency to treat other games and people who do not exclusively play other games as Eddie(s). As not fundamentally just as worthy of inclusion in our greater community.

How can one say D&D 5e is as popular as it is in part due to its design without being accused of putting D&D as superior to other game?

IMO. I often get told the only reason d&d 5e is popular is because it was the first or had the biggest market share. Can I push back against that idea without being labeled?
 

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FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
One might consider a car analogy.

The Toyota Corolla. It’s been a very popular car in terms of sales and current number of corollas on thee road today.

Compare to a BMW which outperforms the Corolla on most metrics but doesn’t sell nearly as many units.

Price, Reliability and perhaps Popularity are really the only things the corolla has going for it in that comparison.

Which car is better designed? That depends on the design goals IMO. I think both cars meet their design goals. They are both well designed. I also think their design goals are so different that talking about better designed loses much if it’s meaning here.

Instead the pertinent question seems to me to be, why did they choose the design goals that they did and what effect did achieving those design goals have upon their commercial success.

The same for RPGs.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
A mediocre product may be successful but nearly a decade of double digit growth every year seems to indicate a little more than bare minimum competency. We've seen numbers that go beyond initial growth, 5E is a mature product by RPG standards and yet it continues to increase sales rapidly.

Lot of reasons for that of course, but the fact that no other RPG even comes close even now indicates it works for a lot of people.

Observation of the rest of the commercial sphere and products that had heavy first-entry benefit does not seem to make your first sentence compelling, and that's before you get into the networking benefit present in a large well-known RPG.

Because the unanswerable question is how many other RPGs wouldn't "work for a lot of people" if they'd been the first out of the gate. You can absolutely make an argument that certain elements of the D&D experience were an easy sell (I think its pretty defensible that the gold/magic/levelling process has a basic appeal to a lot of people), but whether that would have been a necessity is impossible to say because D&D was the first out the gate, and that can't be usefully removed from the equation.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Sure, popularity doesn't equal high quality. Fair enough. But, continued popularity does generally mean that it's getting the job done. Not that improvements can't be made. Heck, we've got a two year process that's just started that's likely going to make a number of changes to the system.

Which, note I've said. D&D wouldn't succeed if it wasn't at least functional. There's just a big gap with what is needed to produce the level of success its had given its history, and the level some people will claim for it.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Which, note I've said. D&D wouldn't succeed if it wasn't at least functional. There's just a big gap with what is needed to produce the level of success its had given its history, and the level some people will claim for it.
Do you really think it would have reached, maintained and improved upon this level of success if it was merely ‘at least functional’?
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
How can one say D&D 5e is as popular as it is in part due to its design without being accused of putting D&D as superior to other game?

By accepting that there are tradeoffs, and while that design may contribute to that popularity, there could be other things that are perhaps not compatible with it that could do the same.

That basically says that D&D is at least a functional game that does as well as it does compared to other functional games with different approaches partly by the approach but partly because it has the combination of first-entry benefit and the networking benefits that go with it.

IMO. I often get told the only reason d&d 5e is popular is because it was the first or had the biggest market share. Can I push back against that idea without being labeled?

You can, but at that point you have to make an argument that teases out those factors; you can't do the "it wouldn't be so popular if it wasn't so good." As I said, you can, for example, make a functional argument suggesting that levelling and some other elements of the D&D playcycle are a natural comfort zone for people, so it has an edge there over games that don't do those. I don't think those are an overwhelming argument, but they're at least making an argument about both what's there and what people respond to, that isn't dependent on using popularity as a proof.
 

Oofta

Legend
I would like to know who, exactly, is saying that D&D is superior to every other game? Quality, after a certain level of competency, is going to be all in the eye of the holder.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
By accepting that there are tradeoffs, and while that design may contribute to that popularity, there could be other things that are perhaps not compatible with it that could do the same.

That basically says that D&D is at least a functional game that does as well as it does compared to other functional games with different approaches partly by the approach but partly because it has the combination of first-entry benefit and the networking benefits that go with it.
I think if one really listens to other people it’s always been accepted that being first gave d&d a huge advantage. No one has ever denied that.

What does get pushed back against is the notion that the only reason d&d is popular is that it was first/previously popular.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I think if one really listens to other people it’s always been accepted that being first gave d&d a huge advantage. No one has ever denied that.

What does get pushed back against is the notion that the only reason d&d is popular is that it was first/previously popular.

While I agree there are some people who play that card, I think you're also reading into from the reaction some people have to the "If it wasn't good, it wouldn't be popular" which is a much farther bridge than "If it wasn't at least okay and had the other advantages it wouldn't be popular." As I said, the other advantages are not enough to make up for a game that for a large number of users is subpar. People who think so are privileging their own tastes and looking for an explanation for things they don't like that a lot of people do.

But the inverse is no more sensible.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
While I agree there are some people who play that card, I think you're also reading into from the reaction some people have to the "If it wasn't good, it wouldn't be popular" which is a much farther bridge than "If it wasn't at least okay and had the other advantages it wouldn't be popular." As I said, the other advantages are not enough to make up for a game that for a large number of users is subpar. People who think so are privileging their own tastes and looking for an explanation for things they don't like that a lot of people do.

But the inverse is no more sensible.
I think that reaction stems from differences of opinion around what good and okay mean.

Because I agree with the basic sentiment. That’s basically the same argument i make except with ‘okay’ replacing good.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
I think if one really listens to other people it’s always been accepted that being first gave d&d a huge advantage. No one has ever denied that.

What does get pushed back against is the notion that the only reason d&d is popular is that it was first/previously popular.
It's not the only reason, or even the only important reason, but I do think it's the  most important reason.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
It's not the only reason, or even the only important reason, but I do think it's the  most important reason.
To me that would be a much more interesting discussion to have.

Historically how important has it been to be first, especially in games and more broadly in all other industries. Sports might make a good starting comparison - it’s really hard for a new sport to totally take off. We get some hype around certain newer ones at times. But they all mostly remain fairly niche. Usually fairly quickly peaking in interest.

But sports is large enough to support 4 or 5 dominate ones and a dozen or so slightly less popular ones before you get to truly niche levels.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Which car is better designed? That depends on the design goals IMO. I think both cars meet their design goals. They are both well designed. I also think their design goals are so different that talking about better designed loses much if it’s meaning here.

Instead the pertinent question seems to me to be, why did they choose the design goals that they did and what effect did achieving those design goals have upon their commercial success.

Exactly. Too often, people mistake design choices that do not appeal to them with "bad design."

This doesn't mean that D&D is immune from critique, or that it doesn't have bad design elements- but in order to understand what is good and bad about D&D's design, you have to understand the design goals D&D begins with, and the ways in which it satisfies (or fails to satisfy) those goals.

There are foundational issues with D&D design that are quite fascinating- like the continued need to have support both for both ToTM and grid within the same system. Or how to incorporate elements to appeal to players with different preferences. Or even the constant push/pull tension of incorporation of old elements (continuity) with moving to new elements (modernity) .... these are all things that pose unique design challenges that most games in this field do not share.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Exactly. Too often, people mistake design choices that do not appeal to them with "bad design."

This doesn't mean that D&D is immune from critique, or that it doesn't have bad design elements- but in order to understand what is good and bad about D&D's design, you have to understand the design goals D&D begins with, and the ways in which it satisfies (or fails to satisfy) those goals.

There are foundational issues with D&D design that are quite fascinating- like the continued need to have support both for both ToTM and grid within the same system. Or how to incorporate elements to appeal to players with different preferences. Or even the constant push/pull tension of incorporation of old elements (continuity) with moving to new elements (modernity) .... these are all things that pose unique design challenges that most games in this field do not share.
Exactly! And usually it’s due to the solutions navigating those constraints that people critique D&D for. Which comes across a bit unfair IMO.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
@Snarf Zagyg I've multiple times brought up games like d20s that have the same design as D&D literally, but do not have the characteristics you ascribe to it. What we can take from this is that it is not simply a matter of what is between the covers that makes D&D so big. You reject "brand", will you accept "celbrity".

I wouldn't, if I were him, because changing the word doesn't actually elucidate much.

If I am reading him correctly, Snarf is saying that under and behind "brand" or "celebrity" there are actually a large host of items that are of actual interest and could/should be discussed at length individually, rather than used as a whole.

Another way to put it - the marketing strength of the brand cannot/could not be maintained for decades with no regard to the qualities of the product. Brands are not, in fact, self-sustaining. So, it pays to look at the qualities of the product that allow that brand strength to be maintained.
 
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Oofta

Legend
Something else to consider is that with 5E, WOTC had a huge advantage. They could afford to do the biggest survey ever.

They may have targeted a wide audience, building a Toyota instead of a BMW which won't work for everyone. But I do think that leg up allowed them to build a better game.
 

That does not mean it is necessarily of higher quality than other games with less mainstream appeal and/or commercial success like Pathfinder Second Edition, D&D 4e

Let's start with the premise that anything officially labeled as "Dungeons and Dragons" as certain built in advantages given that dnd was the start of the hobby and built up a player base and reputation in the 70s and 80s. In that context, it is interesting that you mention dnd 4e as a game with less mainstream appeal and commercial success, as it is an official dnd edition, and it came in with all the advantages of that branding. I'm not making any claims about the design merits or flaws of 4e or any edition, but it seems to me that the advantages of name recognition, existing player base, branding, and having more available capital than anyone else will get wotc so far, but isn't enough to "maximize" the value of all those things. To do that, they needed a different product, hence 5e in 2014. That being said, post 2016, stranger things/critical role/pandemic established a new floor for what they can get out of the brand.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Which car is better designed? That depends on the design goals IMO. I think both cars meet their design goals. They are both well designed. I also think their design goals are so different that talking about better designed loses much if it’s meaning here.

Instead the pertinent question seems to me to be, why did they choose the design goals that they did and what effect did achieving those design goals have upon their commercial success.

The same for RPGs.


Agreed. Of course, we are not often given the actual design goals the writers were aiming for, so that can be difficult.

One thing I have been saying for a whole now, and I will keep saying, is that when you ask the question, "Is this more/better designed?" the question is incomplete. The question more fully stated is "Is this better designed for specific purpose X?"

If you leave off the purpose, the question cannot be answered.

Frequently, when folks say things like this, the implicit purpose is "meeting my particular desires". The result is that two gamers, looking for different things, can have vastly different opinions on whether a game is well designed. So, in this case, we'd have to actually be up front with our own preferences before talking about the design.

And, there is a third option. Do not worry about the goals. Do not worry about your personal desires. Whatever the designers goals, or our own desires, the thing is what it is - one can discuss what it does well, and what it doesn't do well - you can discuss where/how you find the fun in each given system, and decide if that's the fun you want to have.

This last requires a bit of dispassion from the person doing the analysis. The game may be very good at doing things that you don't happen to like, and you have to set aside yourself for a moment and own up that this is okay.

Sometimes you can see this in movies. I use Sin City as an example. I do not like the movie. However, I recognize that it is very well made, and is very effective at what it does - which just happens to be stuff that I don't usually want to watch.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Sometimes you can see this in movies. I use Sin City as an example. I do not like the movie. However, I recognize that it is very well made, and is very effective at what it does - which just happens to be stuff that I don't usually want to watch.

Great example.

Take two directors- Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. I love both of them. But they are both very different in terms of their style- they are both incredibly effective, but they make different types of movies that are unlikely to be confused for one another.

There are people (like me) who happen to like both. But there are also people that I know that only like one, or the other, or neither. Tarantino is "too violent." Anderson is "too twee."

But then think about the difference between these two, relatively popular directors, and a Marvel franchise movie. It's hard to imagine either of them directing Black Panther 2, isn't it? Or The Fantastic Four? I mean, I'd love to see either of them do it* ... but that's not going to happen.

It's perfectly possible for something to be well-made, but just not made for you.


*Wes Anderson Presents: A Marvel Movie, starring Bill Murray as Mister Fantastic, Jason Schwartzman as the Human Torch, Tilda Swinton as Sue Storm, and Jeff Goldblum as Ben Grimm. Willem Dafoe as Victor von Doom, MD. Coming Fall 2024, The Fantastical Foursome and the Case of the Cosmic Ennui.

Or The Marvels: Three Girls, Two Feet, One Grindhouse. Quentin Tarantino's Tenth, and Last, Film.
 


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