D&D 5E The D&D Advantage- The Campaign

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Long time, no big post! I've been ruminating about a planned two-part post regarding D&D that has been informed by some recent conversations I've had, the first dealing with narrative authority, and the second dealing with rules, but before going into the weeds I thought I'd start what is now a trilogy with an essay about the single greatest advantages that D&D has in the world of TTRPGs- the Campaign.

We all know that D&D is the 800lb gorilla in the TTRPG market. D&D and the various other D&D-derived games (from PF to older versions of D&D to various OSR clones) command a disproportionate share of the market, mindshare, and, for that matter, the conversations on Enworld. But why is that? I mean, there are a lot of very good and valid reasons that play into it- the sweet sweet Hasbro money backing D&D. The fact that D&D was the first major mover in the field. Path dependency- people play D&D, because they invested in D&D, and they will continue to play D&D. There's also everyone's favorite- network effects. People play D&D because other people play D&D so when you're looking for a game, you always know you can play D&D.

But today, I'm going to examine another, less-lauded, aspect of the success of D&D. The persistent character, the advancement of levels, and (to sum it up) the Campaign.

1. The Early History- The Persistent Character, Experience, and Leveling Up
Well, let's see: First, the Earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil.

The great innovation of D&D that most people talk about is that the game allowed you to take control of a single character (an alter ego) and play as that character. But Arneson had already done this before- in Braunstein, he had "won" the game, which then ended. So simply having an alter ego was interesting, but the problem faced by Arneson was similar to one we all dread-
"Okay, the game ended. Now what?"
If you're having fun, you don't want it to end. And if your character rocks, you don't want to give that character up after a single session! So the idea of a persistent character, going from game session to game session, arose.

But ... then what? That would get boring after a while. The character might rock, but you'd want some new challenges. Something different. Why does the character keep doing that? What's the point of this new-fangled game, anyway? And that's the moment of inspiration. From a Wired Article:

There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson's group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of points, a character would "level up."

This is also what Arneson stated in Different Worlds #3. Importantly, when Arneson showed his creation to Gygax, the things that made the biggest impression on Gygax were the dungeon (ahem) and the experience system. Gygax quickly adopted these two aspects of the game- a dungeon to explore, and XP to gain to provide characters the ability to "level up" and get more powerful. In fact- he combined them, by rewarding the characters for going into the dungeon and getting gold by providing them XP for that gold.

Whether knowingly or not, D&D had hit upon the basis for sustained success-
Create a character
The character is persistent in the world
The character gains experience over time
Through the experience, the character "levels up" and gets more powerful, allowing the character to take on even more difficult challenges
More difficult challenges = more XP = more leveling = more abilities = more difficult challenges etc.

2. Why We Love the D&D Reward Loop
Blood keeps drifting your way, certain of its destination, driving through New Orleans at night, gotta find a destination, just one fix

At its most basic, D&D is providing you the sweet, sweet rewards that your brain craves. There is a reason that the D&D reward loop was copied and refined endlessly when it came to computer games. From the dark pre-history of computer games (Wizardry, Bard's Tale, Ultima, Might & Magic etc.) to the straight-up "shoot it in my veins now and give me the dopamine rush" of Diablo and its successors, we see the same psychology at work-
Character starts as a zero.
Character gains (magic items, gold, XP) over time.
Character "levels up" and gains more abilities.
Character can handle more difficult challenges, which provide more magic items, gold, XP.
Rinse, repeat.

We can even see this love of advancement, of seeing the "leveling up" in other games as well; famously, the Civlization games have the "One More Turn" to see what happens- what new tech, what new wars, where will the Civilization go?

This same quality is present in D&D. The chargen mini-game is not just about the options you get at the beginning- it's about projecting what you might do with that character in the future. The group will get together, not just to see the individual "mission" through, but the whole sequence of missions, the whole ... campaign. From the beginning, to the end.

3. The Reward Loop as the D&D Differentiator.
If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

So what's the big deal? Why do I think that this fundamental reward loop structure has been so important to D&D's success? Well, because it's a feature that many other TTRPGs either don't have, or struggle to have. One easy way to think about this is as follows- there are many TTRPGs that you can play as a "one shot" and you wouldn't think twice about it. But for D&D, the default is the campaign, the long haul; this is such a norm that if you play a one-shot in D&D, you usually make sure to specifically say that!

Many people observe that it is remarkable that D&D, and fantasy, occupy the top tiers of TTRPGs. And yet, fantasy is particularly able to accommodate the campaign and the reward loop. Most other genres struggle in some way in capturing that feeling-
Superhero games struggle with the whole "gaining in power."
So do most games that traffic in "realism."
Science fiction games sometimes fare better, but find it difficult to keep pace with both the zero-to-hero of the Hero's Journey in fantasy as well as the ubiquity of magic items and other enhancements that are common in fantasy. One notable, and popular, exception- Star Wars- is essentially fantasy.

There are entire genres that make it difficult to run campaigns- FKR, recently discussed, is often better suited to one-shots or mini-campaigns than the multi-month or multi-year campaigns that typify D&D. Other games, such as Paranoia, explicitly play against the expectation that you will have a campaign.

Anyway, I thought I'd put this out there as a palate cleanser before the next two posts. I'm not saying that this is the sole, or only, or even necessarily the predominant reason that D&D is the big fish in the small pond of TTRPGs.

But I do think that the reward loop of D&D- the XP system, leveling up, and the persistent campaign- is a factor in the success of D&D in general, and 5e in particular (Adventure Paths!). What do you think?

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He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I think a mad case of nostalgia in American entertainment markets and social media has had a bigger impact than adventure paths on 5E. For earlier editions, I think the popularity of The Lord of the Rings novels had a large impact on popularity of D&D over other types of TTRPGs. Though, I agree the combined elements of XP, leveling, and persistent campaign are enticing to most gamers and D&D provides it well.

Helpful NPC Thom

D&D has a je ne sais quoi that creates longevity in a way that other games don't. There's the combination of the reward loop, incremental advancement, the de facto campaign structure, the emphasis (especially in early editions) on exploration of a fictitious world teeming with life. Secrets, dangers, discoveries, treasure, and an XP progress bar hit all the right buttons to create an experience that draws people in for more.

Heck, people now use the phrase "level-up" in real life...."Level-up your coding skills with our 3-day course!" "Level-up your lifting routine by chugging Creoswole+, available for $30 in our store!"

Leveling and experience is one of the those things that D&D just excelled at. I mean, it's so good that it has become a mainstay of not just TTRPGs, but video games too.

Leveling up is a huge part of D&D's appeal. I also think that starting at level 1 and seeing your character grow in power is a central part of the game. In my experience, you do not get the same character (certainly not the same depth) if you, say, start at level 8 and miss out on the "zero to hero" experience.
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He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Its been an interesting dynamic for me for years. I've always preferred a lower level game (1-5 or 1-10) for my D&D. In fact, I actually preferred Traveller to D&D because you just dive in and play the game and dont get stuck playing the rules.


Moderator Emeritus
I recently continued a campaign (adapted to 5E) over Discord that began in 1993 with 2E and ended in 1997. We decided the 24 year gap in real time is what passed in-game as well. So yeah, campaigns have a life of their own.


Follower of the Way
I'm having trouble determining whether this is supposed to be retrospective or generalized. That is, I agree that both character persistence and event persistence within the world are key factors in the rise of RPGs generally, of which D&D was the first. But there seems to be an underlying point that this persistence is, in some way, unique or special about D&D alone (and 5e in particular, given the bit at the end), which is...I mean, pretty demonstrably false? Whether it was copied from D&D (likely, but not guaranteed) or hit upon as an original thought, these things are widespread and demonstrably not unique.

You can, for example, make a pretty direct comparison between the idea of the "campaign," in the D&D sense, and the pre-planned TV show, which was pioneered by Babylon 5 in the 90s. Prior to B5, the vast majority of TV shows (other than melodramatic soap operas) were pretty much purely episodic fare. Even those soaps weren't planned and written the way B5 was, in that they absolutely intended to run essentially forever, while B5 was meant to have a clear, clean 5-year narrative, with arcs building together, sometimes across multiple seasons. In a very real sense, television of the new millennium would be unrecognizable without this. And, just like D&D, B5 was not alone in doing this, with stiff competition (and tons of controversy surrounding it!) from Deep Space 9.

Persistent characters, narrative arcs that can last more than single "sessions," a world that grows and responds based on the actions of the characters, the ability to actually experience long-term consequences...the campaign and the narrative-heavy TV show are deeply similar, and yet I can pretty much guarantee that D&D had little to no impact on this development.

So...which point are you making? "D&D was the first to strike gold, and the rush that followed proves the formula works," or "D&D was, is, and will continue to be unique and special because of this feature"?


Follower of the Way
It's this one.
Then...I mean, this is a historical fact, but it's not exactly saying much that "persistent characters and levelling up are well-liked because they're popular." Tad circular, even; it's used because it's popular, and it's popular because of how widely it's used.

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