D&D General How has D&D changed over the decades?

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I’m not talking rules or mechanics. I mean in terms of theme, tone, and aesthetic.

To you, what are the main ways D&D has evolved it’s tone, theme, genre, and aesthetics since you first started playing?

[Note — keep any rants about how you hate inclusivity or diversity out of this thread; not interesting in the slightest].

It’s hard to pinpoint how, but I feel that the implied ‘setting’ or ‘genre’ constantly evolves. I’m not an OSR style gamer generally, and my memories of play way back then are mixed in with being a kid, so everything was different just because I had a different lens. It feels more cartoony or modern American 'Ren Faire' to me than it used to rather than anything European/medieval (which is fine — it is it’s own genre, not a documentary). In other words, the emphasis is more on fantastic heroics than 'dark ages'. I guess player empowerment is a big theme.

I also feel like the implied time period (not that it's a simulation of anything) has moved forward from medieval to renaissance. Obviously this analogy is mightily flawed, but again, I'm talking in terms of aesthetic and tone.
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
In my experience, over time it's become easier to do fun things with your character.

I started with 2e, although it was just for a year in Middle School so I don't have a lot of memories of it. I remember playing a Wizard and having to think very hard about what spells to prepare and cast.

3rd Edition is when I gained system mastery. I loved the d20 system, but you still had to plan out characters carefully if you wanted to be effective. On the other hand, there was the rule that if you wanted to try something, the DM could just ask you to roll a d20 and add a number to it.

4e was the first time I saw D&D just let players do things because it's fun and cool. Spellcasters could suddenly cast endless spells. Fighters had neat powers. Clerics didn't have to sacrifice an attack in order to heal.

And 5e has continued this trend, in a way. Cantrips allow you to always be able to cast spells. Backgrounds and feats give you things your characters can just do, no rolling required. Bounded accuracy means they even if you are using skills you aren't trained in, you still have a chance of success.

Overtime, it's just gotten easier and easier to have your character do fun things.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
To me it is the "just let players do stuff that is 'fun' and 'cool'" with little to no regard of how likely to succeed or put you in a bad position it might be. Not to say that this style of play did not exist throughout my many decades of play, but it feels (at least) a lot more common a reasoning for doing/allowing things. Personally, I find that approach neither fun, nor cool and the so-called "Rule of Cool" makes me roll my eyes but as I have said before, I am an outlier. :LOL:
 


As fantasy literature has changed and evolved, I think my campaigns and characters have as well. Early on, my homebrew was very much always in the Tolkien model, with dashes of Fritz Leiber, Thieves World, and Moorcock. Whereas my last homebrew was a world of earthmotes, had magitech, and was mostly set in a sprawling urban environment, pulling more from N.K .Jemisin, Max Gladstone, and Brandon Sanderson.

Now, if we're solely talking about implied settings, one interesting thing I'd note is the role of technology in D&D - in early editions, it was present, but as an outside element, whether from the future, ancient past, or another planet or plane. Now with current D&D, technology is of the world. You have artificers, trains, airships as parts of the world.
 
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tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
The "just let players do what they want" is a big part of the shift & I think it was probably a good thing for a while. That kept going till it became "the gm is just life support for The Main Character's story" as it started removing tools from the GM's toolkit that were previously used to influence things. These days d&d pretty much amounts to something akin to "the GM is expected to be mat mercer & mat colville combined but better and he or she better be happy that The Main Character bothered to bless them with their unprepared presence" with very little devoted to filling the GM's toolbox with tools that reward/penalize & incentivize/penalize player (dis)engagement.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I’d say some of the general themes:

1) alignment playing less of a direct role.
2) spellcasting becoming weaker but also easier to do.
3) focus on d20s for player resolutions (as opposed to % dice or roll 1d6 type mechanic)
4) power of magic items more codified and understood.
5) healing becoming more accessible through “self” mechanics, as opposed to utilizing magic.
6) a very soft inclusion of “points” that can be spent for various effects (action points in 4th, inspiration in 5e)
7) a shift towards faster recovery mechanics (short rests over long ones)
8) XP has become more streamlined, and is almost never used anymore to “power” abilities.
9) the growth of “secondary classes”, whether that’s a subclass, background, paragon path, more and more character abilities come from mechanics outside of class/race
 
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Lidgar

Legend
It has become more of a superhero game, which is fine. In general it can also be more gameist, less focused on narrative and story telling. As always, the tone elements are highly dependent on the DM.

For players, there tends to be more reliance on skill checks and class powers versus ingenuity around interacting with the environment.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I’d say some of the general themes:

1) alignment playing less of a direct role.
2) spellcasting becoming weaker but also easier to do.
3) focus on d20s for player resolutions (as opposed to % dice or roll 1d6 type mechanic)
4) power of magic items more codified and understood.
5) healing becoming more accessible through “self” mechanics, as opposed to utilizing magic.
6) a very soft inclusion of “points” that can be spent for various effects (action points in 4th, inspiration in 5e)
7) a shift towards faster recovery mechanics (short rests over long ones)
8) XP has become more streamlined, and is almost never used anymore to “power” abilities.
9) the growth of “secondary classes”, whether that’s a subclass, background, paragon path, more and more character abilities come from mechanics outside of class/race
This is just rules stuff; we all know about the rules changes in each edition. I'm interested in the genre itself.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I’m not talking rules or mechanics. I mean in terms of theme, tone, and aesthetic.
I don't think there's any real way to separate these things. The art, theme, tone, and aesthetics imply what the setting is like. The mechanics dictate how the setting actually is. You can have all the story snippets and art suggest heroic or epic fantasy all day long, but if the mechanics tell you that you start with 1 hit point and even a cat will deal at least 1 hp worth of damage...you're not going to get anywhere near emulating that art. Comparing a 1st-level character from older editions to a 1st-level character in 5E will tell you a lot about the shift in the tone and theme. Comparing healing rates of AD&D to 5E tells you infinitely more about the implied world than the shift in art.
To you, what are the main ways D&D has evolved it’s t and aesthetics since you first started playing?
I started in '84 with B/X, but quickly moved to the "more adult" AD&D. So that's my frame of reference. Color covers and black & white art that showed characters engaged in dangerous activities surrounded by typically small- or human-sized opponents, or squaring off against something huge and menacing. And the characters showed fear. They were typically afraid of what was happening around them. Cowering, gasping, shrinking away.

The cover of the Moldvay Basic Set has two characters against a dragon-thing. The woman casting looks horrified. The dwarf standing next to her is leaning away with his shield up guarding his face, spear ready to thrust. The AD&D DMG's guide has an efreeti squaring off against three characters. The unfortunate damsel in distress trope aside, it's three PCs against a huge, tough monster...and all the PCs are shrinking away. Dungeoneer's Survivial Guide has a lone climber being menaced by a few tiny creatures. MM2 has one character against a giant or ogre. The Wilderness Survival Guide has three against some kind of giant or ogre and they're clearly threatened by it. One's already captured and about to be dropped into a ravine.

Compare that to the 5E covers. The PHB has two against a giant. The PCs are on the attack, one mid leap, they show nothing like fear or trepidation. Though the MM cover is more like the older stuff. Two characters against a beholder and it looks like they're running away.

The interior art suggests much the same. In older editions, B/X and AD&D, there was more threat, menace, death, and dying. In recent editions, especially 4E and 5E, there's more action heroes fighting fantasy monsters.
It’s hard to pinpoint how, but I feel that the implied ‘setting’ or ‘genre’ constantly evolves. I’m not an OSR style gamer generally, and my memories of play way back then are mixed in with being a kid, so everything was different just because I had a different lens. It swiftly feels more cartoony or modern American Ren Fair to me than it used to rather than anything medieval (which is fine — it is it’s own genre, not a documentary).
I think it's fairly easy to spot, myself. There's a distinct shift away from being rooted in the pulp fantasy, swords & sorcery, and weird fiction of the 1920s through 1970s. Appendix N. Less Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. A shift from humanocentric to the "Mos Eisley Cantina" effect. I'm glad for the increasing diversity of human representation in the game, that's wonderful to see. I do think there's something lost when you take every vaguely human-like creature and make them humans with funny hats or facial prosthetics. You're taking something magical and making it mundane. Don't show me the humanity of the monsters, show me the monstrous in humanity. To me, that's infinitely more interesting.

I think that's a large part of the tonal shift. Making the magical mundane. That shift away from even a bad attempt at rooting the game in the medieval to the cartoony Ren Faire you mentioned. Things becoming more abstract and less rooted in our understanding of history. As you say, it's a game not a documentary. But it feels more real, more immersive, when it hews closer to history than self-reference. For something to be special it needs to be rare or unique. Dragons aren't rare, magical, or special when you can fight one every level or play as one. Magic isn't rare, magical, or special when 9/13 of the classes use magic...and there are magic wielding subclasses for the other four. Magic items aren't rare or special when you end up with so many you need to sell them off to make space in your bag of holding. Skipping over things like how much you can carry or worrying about food and water or light sources is also a big shift. Sure, a fair amount of people skipped that back in the day, but a lot of us didn't.

For me, Dungeon Crawl Classics nails it. Rooted as much as you can in the medieval, make magic rare, scary and dangerous...and suddenly it all just pops more. You can go gonzo and weird with it because it also tries to be more rooted. It's only special and magical by comparison. If everyone and everything is magic, nothing feels magical. To quote Syndrome, "When everyone's super...no one will be."

Anyway. A lot. Enough rambling.
 
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Remathilis

Legend
D&D has become increasingly not medieval. Not that it was ever was historically accurate, but it has increasingly looked more and more like a Late Rennisance or even later. Firearms, rapiers, and far more technological advances. Enlightened government and economics. Dress that is far more modern than anything. Knights and kings and jesters are all MIA.

It's not necessarily a bad thing: I like Eberron and Ravenloft which are very not medieval, but the core game has really stopped feeling like the middle ages.
 

How as the genre changed?

To me, the biggest change has been the expected 'relationship' between the DM and the players. OD&D started out really as a players vs the challenge setup by the DM. Now the game has evolved into a more, players create an adventure story in the setting provided by the DM.

This change is reflected in many many ways. Such as the awareness of railroading, save or die, player agency, etc.

Despite my comments to my players on a frequent basis that "perhaps tonight is when I finally get a TPK", that's not been the objective or even desirable in a long time. (Don't get me wrong, character death is real in our games, its just no longer an expected occurrence.) Last night the players took the adventure on a path I never expected, all because they drew inferences and conclusions I never thought of. No idea where the story will go now, but it's there story to tell (not mine). And I'm happy with that.
 

payn

Legend
Using movies (Not D&D brand specific but in feel)

Early D&D was like Red Sonja, Beastmaster, Conan, and especially, Conan the Destroyer.

Middle D&D more like Willow, lord of the rings, Dragonheart

Current D&D is like Your Highness, Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, Anime stuff (im not familiar with)

Future D&D new hasbro movie and franchise?

My experience is that the power level and scope has slowly risen over the decades. Early on was a bunch of nobodies in a sword and sorcery gritty and dangerous world. That expanded into knights of the realm and more detailed settings and longer expectations of PC lives. Now is a drive to push the power level of each individual PC up, more tactical and frequent combats, detailed and intricate campaign arcs and stories.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
D&D began to reabsorb the genre and media that broke off from it and changed.

What fantasy was changed and when the fans of new fantasy came to D&D, D&D had to change with match the different audience.

Less medieval. Less European. PCs were not typical of their race and class. More definition of higher levels. More exploration of the parts talked about but not visited or discussed.

Or in simple terms. The PCs and special monsters used to be exceptions to the normal world . Now what was exception is the norm. PCs are now exceptions to the exceptions. Before there were 10 paladins. Now there are 10 factions of 1,000 paladins, each with their own oaths.
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
In terms of setting, there seems to be a difference.

The 1e diehards that I played with, who taught me how to play D&D, value the DM (and the players) creating their own living setting from scratch, from diverse inspirations, including 4d hypercube math.

It seems to me, that original 1e ethic to create ones own universe whose only limitation is ones imagination, drifted in later editions to entire communities conforming to an "official" setting, with its "factual" cosmological assumptions.
 

Yora

Legend
I've recently been thinking about how contemporary D&D presentation really does nothing for me. It's still fantasy, but I don't really see any medieval elements in it anymore. I hate to use the term videogamey, as it's brushing over the great potential and achievements of videogames as a medium. But when I think of current D&D, I am getting images of the Playstation Final Fantasy games, DotA, or Kingdoms of Amalur. Garrish colors and lots of sparkles and laser beams.
 

RuinousPowers

Adventurer
2e was very alignment restrictive. Evil characters were highly discouraged, and the sourcebooks were filled with comments about "here's an evil class/race/item but it's for NPCs only". There was also a LOT of metaplot and assumptions of use in every product.

3e was much more of a toolbox, where it encouraged you to make things more your own.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
For me, the nature of Dungeons has changed. Early on, it was no accident that the word Dungeon was first in the game's title, but that seems to have receded somewhat, or at least changed considerably.
Campaigns were based around a multi-level dungeon with varying degrees of logical ecology (or not) and, in better games, one or more local settlements which allowed roleplay and some form of buy-in. These sometimes expanded to wilderness adventures, which were often more perilous. Worlds were usually homebrew.
"Dungeons" continue to exist but tend to be much smaller and thematic within a campaign.

Which is better? I loved every aspect of OD&D/1E as a teenager, and I love every aspect of 5E as a grandad. It's the Game.
 


HammerMan

Legend
I’m not talking rules or mechanics. I mean in terms of theme, tone, and aesthetic.

To you, what are the main ways D&D has evolved it’s tone, theme, genre, and aesthetics since you first started playing?

[Note — keep any rants about how you hate inclusivity or diversity out of this thread; not interesting in the slightest].
okay so flavor and theme and tone are hard to pin down... D&D has always been a set of legos that you could build your own theme flavor and tone with.

At it's base it hasn't changed. For 50 years it has been the game of make believe with loose rules that allowed us to get together and tell stories. It grew from a wargame to what it is now... but just cause the core is the same doesn't mean I can't see growth...

1e-3e is a game about wizards. its a game about powerful spellcasters and the parties that form around them (Gandalf is the easiest example but I am sure people can name dozens)

However I feel (IMO) that 3e moved from a list of sub systems that barely fit together (2e) and made a Combat Engine that then bolted on social and exploration subsystems to it. They paid lip service to being a corporative game, but it seemed to feel (IMO) to be more of a race or a VS challenge. 3e did not invent Min Maxing, or Optimizations... but it plus the internet brought it to new heights

4e leveled the playing field and made it a true everyone mattered equally, and I feel (IMO) it was the best at meeting the promise of D&D feeling like it (IMO) and giving weight to the mechanics of everyone.

5e tried to step back and move forward (and kind of tied itself in notes trying). Learning from all 9ish versions before it but still working off the d20 system.

my problem is (and it is something that lately feels like it is addressed more) is that it is a TTRPG that is basically a Combat Engine that then bolted on social and exploration subsystems to it. instead of (IMO) what it should be 3 equal engines with a link.

I will say every year I feel there is MORE toward RP Social Challenges and the like and LESS focus on the combat... every edition, every mid edition even every few months of splats.

Strixhaven and Wild Beyond the Witchlight both are evidence (IMO) that they are leaning into that more and more.
 

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