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D&D General The Eternal Braid: Why D&D Continuing Dialogue With RPGs is its Success

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Promises made, promises kept. I said I would return a third, and final, essay springing from Jon Peterson's book (The Elusive Shift) and here it is! As a reminder and some links-
1. Review of the Book.
2. First Post about RPG Theory.
3. Second Post about Commercialization of 1e.

I wanted to end my series of thoughts and ruminations with a general thought that I had while reading the book, and that builds on the ideas within my post about the commercialization of AD&D (1e) as compared to OD&D. Specifically, that OD&D (D&D) was not a system, so much as a toolkit. And the way that the RPG (I'm going to use that abbreviation to stand in for "TTRPGs") market grew from those historical roots created the conditions that continue to persist today- specifically, that D&D is always in a dialogue with the entire remainder of the RPG market, and that dialogue, between "D&D" and "not-D&D," effectively defines the entirety of the market and the conversations that we continue to have today.


A. How OD&D and the Early RPGs defined the Conversation.
OH HEAR ME! The lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen... (drops stone tablet) Oy. Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!

It is difficult to explain just how thoroughly D&D defined and dominated the early conversation regarding RPGs. While people today joke about the ways that D&D dominates the market, or how "laypeople" use D&D as a generic term for RPGs, D&D really was the RPG. As in ... the only game in town. Many of the seminal early RPGs that we think of today were simply outgrowths of D&D. For example, Empire of the Petal Throne was, for all practical purposes, a translation of M.A.R. Barker's world (Tekumel) into "D&D" after Barker was shown D&D. Superhero 2044, the groundbreaking superhero game, was simply the campaign notes of a D&D campaign where the characters entered a portal and hobnobbed with superheroes. Chivalry & Sorcery, likewise, was a game that grew from the D&D campaign notes. Tunnels & Trolls was based off of D&D, but simplified, cheaper, and not using the "exotic" dice of D&D, instead requiring only the standard d6.

This was so common that people such as Edward Simbalist (creator of C&S) referenced this- that once your campaign notes got to a certain point, why not just publish them? The reason for this was fairly obvious- D&D wasn't a game, so much as it was a toolkit. It was more of an idea, a concept, than a full system. To crib the quote regarding the Velvet Underground- very few people were playing D&D in the first three years, but it seems like a good portion of them ended up trying to design their own games!

And this made perfect sense. After all, this whole "RPG" idea was completely new. People were trying to wrap their heads around what to do with it! Some were taking D&D into completely rules-lite directions, sometimes playing out political conferences without rules at all. Others were getting more and more crunchy and simulationist, looking for rules for everything. There were people who designed rules for strange (and relatively progressive) fantastical sexual and romantic affiliations to layer on top of the D&D rules. Others used D&D as a hub from which their adventurers could travel to any fantastical genres of their In short, D&D wasn't so much a single thing, as it was a base to build upon.

But this also caused a relatively strange problem. Because D&D was so dominant, and because D&D was so "open" as a toolkit, people didn't necessarily view different systems as ... different. A person could easily say, "Oh, I'm playing D&D using Chivalry & Sorcery rules and my own new saving tables!" D&D was both a system, and a toolkit. As much as Gygax fumed and obsessed about competition, the competition only ended up getting folded into D&D. D&D wasn't a single thing- it was a mélange of playstyles, and homebrews, and third-party product, and rules imported from other games, and the detritus that likely flowed in from the cosmic unconsciousness.


B. There is D&D, and the Other.
We are so poor, we don't even have a language! Just a stupid accent!

I would say that this dichotomy- that in RPGs there is D&D, and everything else, has been the sole constant. The dichotomy that defined the beginning of the market is the same one that defines it today. And the reason is fairly simple- because the conversation in the RPG market is not, and has never been, about numerous competing viewpoints; instead, it has always been about how different products and approaches define themselves in relation to D&D.

What is remarkable about this is that you can see this conversation reflected even when the ostensible subject doesn't appear. To give a few examples I have seen recently-

1. "Why don't branded RPGs do well?" This came up in a conversation about Star Trek, but it could be regarding any branded RPG- whether it's some derivation of Tolkien, or Marvel, or Dr. Who, or even Star Wars. And the answer is ... well, they aren't D&D. So they will never do "well." They might do better, or worse, compared to other RPGs (Star Wars is better, Star Trek is worse, usually), you might change the definitions to make them look better (if you consider CoC "branded" then they do really well ... for "not D&D"), but in the end, the reason they don't do well is because they aren't D&D.

2. "Why does fantasy dominate RPGs?" Again, it doesn't! Instead, D&D (and prior versions of D&D, and D&D clones like PF) dominates the market, and the remainder has a decent mix of genres (horror, fantasy, science fiction, etc).

I could keep going, but you get the gist. And this conversation has remained constant, even while D&D itself has changed. That's where we get into the most fascinating thing (to me) about D&D presence in the market- it both informs the RPG market, defines the RPG market, and reacts to the RPG market. Normally, hegemony like D&D's would be displaced ... instead, because of the somewhat unique nature of this conversation, it continues to be reinforced.

It's the same cycle, edition to edition. People play D&D. People talk about RPGs. People eventually play other RPGs (or even design their own). People bring their experience playing other RPGs back to D&D. The cycle begins anew.

I should point out that this is not an argument for the superiority of D&D- far from it! Instead, this is a final reflection on how the early history of D&D shaped the game and the discourse that we still see today. Specifically, I've been thinking about this every since reading, in The Elusive Shift, a few bits about how early designers complaining about how their superior systems kept losing out to D&D. A lot of them couldn't understand why people kept playing D&D! Those conversations felt so eerily familiar- more importantly, they reminded me that the same ideas- the concepts of defining RPGs in relation to D&D, haven't change for nearly 50 years.

Pictured- The Superior, Non-D&D, RPG:
dukakis-losing.gif


Anyway, those are my final thoughts on a really good book. With the holidays upon us, I will give one final recommendation for The Elusive Shift as the perfect gift for the cerebral RPG fan in your life!

Now, have at it ....
 

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And this conversation has remained constant, even while D&D itself has changed.
This might reflect an insular view from me, but my experience is that his actually isn't quite true. That for a brief period, maybe less than a decade, from about the early-mid '90s, to the very early '00s (yes a little after 3E came out), the conversation changed, and D&D's privileged (or however you want to put - "central" or "default") position sort of gradually went away. Discussions of how RPGs were, where they were going, and so on, featured D&D less and less, and was seeming like kind of a historic artifact. People didn't even moan about it anymore. It feel like it was notable that when I went to the RPG club at Manchester University in 1997/1998, there was just one small table of people playing AD&D (and that was the only D&D variant). There were literally more people playing Ars Magica. And nobody seemed surprised or whatever about this among the people new to the club with me. So I saw it online and IRL. The conversation about the future of RPGs and how RPGs worked had, for a while, moved on.

And I don't think 3E changed this, strictly, but the d20 licence and the goldrush that followed, that absolutely did. Since then the conversation has returned to the situation you're describing and has yet to leave. Indeed, I feel like right now, D&D is more entrenched in the conversation than ever, because so many people who espouse other RPGs feel the need to bring in D&D as a comparator or whatever, which means it is actually more focused on now than it was in, say, 1994.

All my experience of course and I may be a freak (well... there's not really a lot of maybe...).
 

Voadam

Legend
There was a period when AD&D felt like it was at a bit of a nadir and White Wolf in particular seemed to be taking over the big dog position as far as RPG zeitgeist. When TSR hit its hard times in particular it seemed like D&D could have ended and RPGs would have kept going.

For the most part though D&D has always felt like the dominant center of gravity for RPGs.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
There was a period when AD&D felt like it was at a bit of a nadir and White Wolf in particular seemed to be taking over the big dog position as far as RPG zeitgeist. When TSR hit its hard times in particular it seemed like D&D could have ended and RPGs would have kept going.

For the most part though D&D has always felt like the dominant center of gravity for RPGs.

Arguably this is because it responds and corrects course when needed - that’s why I think that it’s always regarding D&D, even when D&D itself is changing.
 


TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
D&Ds lasting dominance is due to a few advantages, but one of them is that the game got a lot of things right, and there have know been several editions trying to confirm what those things were--and not always figuring it out.

The two way dialogue with other games is tricky. Late 2e and 3e complexity reflected what was happening in the rest of the hobby, and the results were a mixed bag. Similarly, in 5e inspiration and related descriptors were inspired (ahem) by other RPGs, and again the results have been mixed at best.

I think D&D has worked best when it followed its own logic--including fan feedback and actual play experience. The rest of the industry is forced to react and define themselves accordingly.
 

Voadam

Legend
Arguably this is because it responds and corrects course when needed - that’s why I think that it’s always regarding D&D, even when D&D itself is changing.
Has responded so far.

I think it is like evolution and extinction, it could have turned out differently.

It could have been no WotC buyout and 3e/d20. D&D could have been a game that some people continued to play but was essentially abandoned from an ongoing product point of view as rights got sold off or split and tangled or a new owner who just flubbed things.

The path history has taken so far was not inevitable and neither is the future course.

It has a lot of good advantages to stay dominant, but it is not automatic.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The path history has taken so far was not inevitable and neither is the future course.

It has a lot of good advantages to stay dominant, but it is not automatic.

Nothing is automatic, but I also think it's instructive. I think it is helpful and useful to think about why it is the way it is- after all, it is unusual (not unprecedented, but unusual) to have this type of situation in a small market.

And after reading the The Elusive Shift, the reason is apparent to me- that is to say, the "early advantage" of D&D was that it wasn't considered a single product, it was considered more akin to a toolkit. So competing products were both necessarily born out of it, and incorporated back into it. D&D was always a part of the conversation- either the product that you were compatible with, or the product that you were defining yourself again.

The same was true for the players, as well. People would play other games, and would use other techniques, and would often come back and incorporate those rules and techniques into their D&D. Again, it was both funny and familiar to see game developers complain that D&D can't do everything, and wonder why people kept playing D&D instead of the system that they had designed for them.

Same as it ever was.
 

Aldarc

Legend
in the 4e era, people played pathfinder because they didn't like the new D&D. So... yeah
But does that really count? Pathfinder branded itself as a continuation of 3.5 D&D, so it was fundamentally D&D vs. D&D as the top competitors in the market. The fact that it wasn't WotC publishing Pathfinder or called D&D was more a technical distinction than really one that reflected the true nature of the situation.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
More than a toolkit, I wonder if it was not actually the multiple worlds and in a sense the openness and « weakness » of those which made D&D what it was, what it is. Most other RPGs come quite a fairly well defined universe. But in the end, for these games to be successful, you need to like the ruleset and the universe, both. For D&D, you only need to love D&D, then you can use many worlds that are not that strongly defined, or create your own very easily. It never was as simple with most of games…
 

Voadam

Legend
in the 4e era, people played pathfinder because they didn't like the new D&D. So... yeah
For me it was the reverse.

When 4e kicked off I was really enjoying 3.5/Pathfinder and WotC did not do enough to get me to try out 4e. No free SRD to learn and reference the rules for example while I had free online references, plus existing rules knowledge, plus enjoying the existing game, plus owning tons of resources, plus owning adventures for the pathfinder game I was very interested in running meant I was happy to continue on with 3e/d20.

It wasn't until I joined a group that was playing 4e that I bought the 4e PH at all fairly deep into the 4e era (when they had a Christmas PH I&II deal).

Once I was playing it and was reading the books there were a bunch of parts I really liked and I enjoyed the game itself.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
More than a toolkit, I wonder if it was not actually the multiple worlds and in a sense the openness and « weakness » of those which made D&D what it was, what it is. Most other RPGs come quite a fairly well defined universe. But in the end, for these games to be successful, you need to like the ruleset and the universe, both. For D&D, you only need to love D&D, then you can use many worlds that are not that strongly defined, or create your own very easily. It never was as simple with most of games…
I think you are onto something, but there are some notable exceptions. In some cases, both the rules AND the universe are worth using. I've used the warhammer frpg rules in a non warhammer world (it worked well - and I will note that the reverse, using D&D rules in warhammer, doesn't work so well, BUT other rulesets, like Troika! or the GLOG, would). Also, there are a number of systems that attempt to be universal - GURPS for example, or HERO.
 

The irony is that if you read OD&D and then read Empire of the Petal Throne, Petal Throne is way more easily digested and understood when it comes to mechanics. I think the hiccup was the setting, as rich and detailed as it was. D&D worked so well at first in part because its setting was implied and vague.

It is difficult to explain just how thoroughly D&D defined and dominated the early conversation regarding RPGs. While people today joke about the ways that D&D dominates the market, or how "laypeople" use D&D as a generic term for RPGs, D&D really was the RPG. As in ... the only game in town. Many of the seminal early RPGs that we think of today were simply outgrowths of D&D. For example, Empire of the Petal Throne was, for all practical purposes, a translation of M.A.R. Barker's world (Tekumel) into "D&D" after Barker was shown D&D.

With branded RPGs, I think there's almost always a degree of tension between the the RPG mimicking the source material and the RPG having to function as a game. There've been a bunch of adapted properties where, in service of presenting the source material, they've made cumbersome design decisions, or one option is so clearly better than all the others, because that's the world of the source material.

1. "Why don't branded RPGs do well?" This came up in a conversation about Star Trek, but it could be regarding any branded RPG- whether it's some derivation of Tolkien, or Marvel, or Dr. Who, or even Star Wars. And the answer is ... well, they aren't D&D. So they will never do "well." They might do better, or worse, compared to other RPGs (Star Wars is better, Star Trek is worse, usually), you might change the definitions to make them look better (if you consider CoC "branded" then they do really well ... for "not D&D"), but in the end, the reason they don't do well is because they aren't D&D.
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
A. How OD&D and the Early RPGs defined the Conversation.

My take is a bit different for this:

IMHO being first is VERY powerful when it comes to RPG's

But, D&D also just got certain things right pretty much straight out of the gate from a game design perspective.

yes, OD&D did assume previous wargaming knowledge to fill in the gaps.

But it was first! And no one had seen anything like it before.

TSR also upgraded the game fairly quickly to keep up with and stay ahead of the upstart competition.

OD&D only had a 3 year edition life until Holmes basic and AD&D started rolling out. And they kept refining the B/X side of the game which covered for any of AD&D's foibles.

TSR upgraded and clarified things, while holding on to the things that it got right.

And once those elements were refined into what became B/X D&D starting with the blue box, none of D&D’s early “competition” had anything for them.

In addition to being first:

The 5 points that secured D&D's early dominance:

1:
Easy PC creation: You could make a character and begin play in a matter of minutes. A selling point for new players.

2: Graspable Rules complexity: The first levels are not rules heavy. The mechanics were understandable. New players gradually got introduced to any additional complexity, easing the gateway for new players.

3: Easily grasped Default play mode: The Dungeon, an easy to understand and grasp mode of play. New players knew what they were gonna do right away. Explore a forgotten crypt, kill things and take their stuff.

4: Easily understood setting: Common Sword and sorcery fantasy tropes with lots of 'Tolkienesque" elements; Elves Dwarves, Halflings/Hobbits, Fighting evil Orcs, Trolls, monsters, etc... And Dragons! New players could easily imagine the kind of medieval fantasy land their PC's were adventuring in.

5: Straight-forward reward mechanism: The leveling mechanic is a great 'gratification' reward for killing things and taking their stuff. New players unambiguously knew how many XP they needed for the next level, and what to do to get it.


Yes you can point to the rules bloat of 2e and 3e, and how 4 or 5e fudge some of them and legitimately argue that some of those points got stretched more than a bit.

But by that time; it didn't really matter as D&D had already cemented its market leader position. And the network effect of being the 800lb. Gorilla in the room smooths over any rough edges the system has.

Because as the market leader, D&D was/is Good Enough that most players do not feel a compelling reason to go to a different fantasy RPG.

It takes a unique set of circumstances for Being First + Good Enough to not be a winning advantage.

What is particularly interesting is that when you really think about things, virtually all of D&D's early competitors failed miserably on more than one of these points.

IMHO how the early competition fell short:

Tekumel: Obtuse setting not newbie friendly.
Tunnels and Trolls: Group combat is a deal killer – Individual heroics in combat was gone. No other successful rpg has done combat the T&T way.
Chivalry and Sorcery: System complexity + Obscure default play mode = Ouch.
RuneQuest: Glorantha. I could just stop with that… But also character creation, and certain system elements. While a technically a more straight-forward system they dropped the ball on most of the other points.

In every case, D&D was delivering a more newbie accessible, better overall game, than any of its early competitors.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
I think you are onto something, but there are some notable exceptions. In some cases, both the rules AND the universe are worth using. I've used the warhammer frpg rules in a non warhammer world (it worked well - and I will note that the reverse, using D&D rules in warhammer, doesn't work so well, BUT other rulesets, like Troika! or the GLOG, would). Also, there are a number of systems that attempt to be universal - GURPS for example, or HERO.

Of course, there are exceptions, I fell in love with Glorantha/Runequest for example, the only thing that I'm saying is that you have to love both, which could limit the popularity of games other than D&D.
 

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