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D&D 5E What D&D Does That is So Good: A Celebration of 5e's Advantages

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
A recent thread ended up dwelling on negative aspects of D&D in general, and 5e in particular. And while it is certainly true that D&D (any version) is not perfect, there has to be a reason that it has remained so popular. Without delving too far into the argumentum ad populum, I thought it would be worthwhile, especially in the context of 5e's unprecedented popularity and cultural relevance, to look at D&D and why it keeps on, keepin' on.

Or, with all apologies to Mr. Neil Diamond and to the denizens of Fenway Park, I wanted to look at why ...
Sweet D&D .....
Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)



1. Network Effects.
I'm sorry that people are so jealous of me. But I can't help it that I'm popular.

Let's get the most obvious factor out of the way first- the very popularity of D&D breeds more popularity. Do you want to play a TTRPG down at the FLGS? Well, the most likely game you will find is ... D&D. Do you have a little time and some money, and jump on to Roll20 to see what pick-up games are available? Guess what? It's D&D. If you just want to see the GMs looking for players to fill out their free groups, the first page of unsorted listings that I just looked up has .... 1 Starfinder, 1 Star Wars (SW5e rules), 1 ICONS, 1 Kids on Bikes, 2 Pathfinder, 1 AD&D (1e/2e), and 22 5e. Given that AD&D is D&D, and Pathfinder is a D&D variant, and Starfinder is a Pathfinder variant, and even the Star Wars game is running on the SWe variant, that means that there are two non-D&D games, and 27 5e/D&D games to choose from on that random page. Yes, that isn't exactly a comprehensive survey, but that lines up with what most people understand- D&D (and D&D variants and clones) make up an overwhelming amount of the TTRPG market. Most of the reports put out by Roll20 show that straight 5e accounts for more than 50% of all campaigns, while the only noticeable and named games that account for much more than 1%, other than Call of Cthulhu, tend to be "D&D" - Pathfinder (both versions) and 3e.

Now I don't want this to turn into a statistics argument; maybe X game has its adherents playing on Discord! Maybe the true numbers are slightly off, and, in fact, all the cool kids are really playing Scum and Villainy over a new, alternate internet consisting of Dixie cups and an absolutely incredible amount of twine! It's possible! But the exact numbers (whatever they might be) would not belie the truth of the relative numbers that all of us experience. If the local library or school has TTRPGs days or clubs, it is likely D&D. If you move to a new town and want to meet up with a group of new people to play, you will most likely be able to find a game of D&D. If there is some twitch or youtube stream about RPGs or "acting out" a campaign, it is most likely about ... yes, D&D.

To put D&D in D&D terms- D&D is the "common" of TTRPGs. Every character knows common, so every character knows common. It's a virtuous cycle.


2. The History.
We are so poor, we don't even have a language! Just a stupid accent!

One of the primary advantages of 5e that Hasbro (the shark that eats consumer dollars and poops profits for shareholders) leverages is the history of D&D. Simply put, when it comes to "IP," there is a lot of there, there. Here on this board, there are repeated comments and/or threads speculating about what they are going to do with the 50th anniversary of D&D. I mean... that's a lot of history. So before we get into all of the cross-brand synergistic goodness that Hasbro can utilize (from M:TG settings to, I am sure, Yahtzee Campaign Setting: The Modron March of Dice) it is helpful to remember that D&D has a history that is unmatched in the world of TTRPGs. Which has several benefits:
a. Hasbro can mine past products for additional material. Whether it's APs (Tales from the Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh), licensing (Goodman Games and the Original Adventures Reincarnated), or settings (Ravenloft, SPELLJAMMER CONFIRMED!), Hasbro can make profits the environmentally conscious way; reuse and recycle.
b. There is a wealth of product out there. Sure, there is everything you can find on, inter alia, Drive Thru RPGs. But 5e can use material (lore, definitely, and sometimes crunch), including 3PP, from the full spectrum of nearly 50 years of some amazing product .... okay, a lot of really bad product, but some great stuff as well.
c. Experience. This is important enough that I will devote the remainder of this section to it, but the overall gist is that we now have multiple generations of D&D players, who have played the game in a vast amount of ways.

The reason that the history and the experience matter can be summed up in a recurring type of thread you see; the "I am teaching my kids to play D&D" thread. People wanting to share an experience that they had with a new generation. There is a continuity that matters.


3. The Flexibility.
It's just like the Titanic but it's full of bears!

D&D in general, and 5e specifically, is the quintessential "big tent" game. What I mean by that is that for various reasons, including the ones I have listed above, it has a wide appeal to a great number of people. And the primary reason for this is the flexibility. But I think it's important to start by understanding what this "big tent" and "flexibility" don't mean:

a. There are not normative statements. This doesn't mean that D&D is "good" or "bad," or is "better," or "worse," than some other, Brand X, RPG.
b. This doesn't mean that D&D 5e is a "generic" system, like GURPS or FATE Core (for example).
c. I think it is an interesting question as to why TTRPGs started, and continue, so heavily slanted toward fantasy, but that's neither here nor there right now.

In order to understand what I do mean, I will relate two anecdotal experiences that I believe would resonate with most people. I know one group of people that "plays D&D," and they do so with an elaborate system of miniatures, models, and setpieces. They are very much "RAW only" and any additional rules (flanking, for example) tend to be thoroughly vetted and combat-focused. I know another group of people that "plays D&D," except that they do so primarily during lunchtimes, and primarily without dice, and usually as an interactive narration/RPing with the DM having final authority in the story, but with the players (from what I have observed) having significant ability to modify the world as well.

Both groups have the books, both groups have PCs created using 5e's rules, both groups say that they are playing D&D, both groups are having fun, and yet they approach and play the game very differently. And while this might be somewhat more extreme than most difference, it is illustrative of the flexibility of 5e (and D&D in general). You want to play it as an OD&D-style Dungeon Crawl? That works! How about a 3e-style RAW campaign? Okay! Do you enjoy the narrative styling of Matt Mercer and Critical Role? Well, I have a campaign book to sell to you! Maybe you just want a superstructure for some anime-styled goodness? The resources for that are, well, limitless.*

* Ladies and gentlemen of Enworld, I’m just a grognard. I only play dungeon crawls and yell at kids to get off my lawn. Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the strange beeping sounds of your weird little cellular devices shock me and make me drop my iPhone ... and runoff into the hills, or wherever ... Sometimes when I get an email message, I wonder: “Did little demons get inside my MacBook and type it?” I don’t know! My primitive grognard mind can’t grasp these concepts. But there is one thing I do know – when someone rips the copy of B4 out of my hands and demands to play Conan Edogawa, I advise them that an Inquisitive Rogue should be the starting point.

But the nature of D&D has always been that it is a mutable and hackable system. I won't bore most people (those that have read this far) with yet another deep dive into OD&D and 1e, but there was always a strong presumption that (1) you were hobbyist at the time and had a background in the material and/or wargaming (which is why OD&D was so confusing to people with no background in it); and (2) that the rules were meant to be altered, discarded, or supplemented as needed, and that other game systems would and could be incorporated (with the DMG having specific rules for other TSR products, like Gamma World and Boot Hill). Early on, we had the clear dichotomy between those who were playing it with miniatures (in the wargaming style) and those who were playing in ToTM- and the game has continued to support both methods.

5e begins by introducing the players reading the PHB to the idea of options. Multiclassing? Optional rule. Feats? Optional. Variant humans? Optional. And so on. The DMG is practically a how-to guide to altering the game; it has everything from variant rules for plot points (which allow players to do things from creating fiction to becoming the DM), to sanity (with some stuff about horror), to variant rules for proficiencies/skills (how they would be based on your background and personality that the players create, instead of limited to certain skills), to rules for degrees of success and failure (and complications), to hero points. And that's before looking at all the rules for creating custom races, classes, monsters, and settings. Of course, all of this is without even getting into the other official product (from Volo's to Tasha's), 3PP, and legacy product that can be used. D&D is not a tool, so much as it is a toolbox.


4. Conclusion- So good, so good, so good.
Built in the Upside-Down World, this haunted hospice was closed when inspectors found a sexy form of asbestos that could cause disease: Me-so-horny-oma. This place has everything: young popes, old popes, Roman J. Israel, Esquire.

I was watching the NFL Draft, and someone repeated an old quote (sorry, can't remember the sourcing) that the trap that a lot of scouts fall into when evaluating great talent is that the scouts get so caught up in nitpicking the things that the player is doing wrong ... that they forget about what the players does right that makes the player great. And I think that we see that sometimes with 5e. 5e is wildly popular; as much as the olds like me will always bring up the 1977-1983 period, even we have to stop and look at the success of 5e and let out a long ... "Dayyyyyyyyy-ummmmmm." And, sure, there are undoubtedly some external factors- everything from the ability to use twitch and youtube as platforms (and the ability to play remotely) to the COVID lockdowns which had the weird effect of increasing remote play and/or play with family and acted like an accelerant to the rocket fuel of 5e's rise.

But fundamentally, WoTC/Hasbro did a lot of playtesting, and released the product that a lot of people wanted. Not everyone. There are people that still prefer older versions of D&D- from OSR fundamentalists to 4e lovers. There are those that just prefer to play RAW, and find 5e's RAW to be lacking. Some prefer more crunch ... some less. Some want a game that is tailored to a different genre. There are all sorts of great reasons to not play 5e! And yet, the amazing success of 5e is a boon for everyone.

Look at the ongoing playtesting of Level Up. Having a singular, massively popular product, allows people to make products for it. And because a rising tide lifts all boats, the success of 5e is good for all publishers; every new player in D&D is (at some point) a potential new player for their TTRPG. Finally, having a product that most people are, at least, somewhat familiar with provides a specific and articulable base of knowledge for people to communicate with; for example, if I want to discuss TTRPG mechanics, I can use examples from 5e and extrapolate from there and be reasonably certain that the audience will understand them without having to resort to jargon and verbiage that is alienating and often deliberately off-putting; if I am using Atomic Highway as my go-to ... it is likely to lead to confusion, given that it is not familiar to everyone.

But circling back to the original point, I think it is helpful to not just look at what 5e does that doesn't work- no game will be perfect for everyone, all the time (and wouldn't that be boring)? Instead, an understanding of the things it does right, and why it appeals to such a wide variety of people (the crunch and the lore, the miniatures and the TOTM, the RAW and the DIYers, the advertiser's target demographic and the CBS watchers, etc.) is, more often than not, the productive exercise.
 

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loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
Inappropriate language
And, yeah, I'm gonna make a moderator remove my inappropriate language and drag a discussion I started in the neighboring thread here.

At which point the flexibility (real or imagined) of D&D is stretched beyond the limit, so ceases to be D&D, and B/X becomes GOATCE/CX? Can we actually meaningfully talk about D&D, if it's such a big tent that there is no set of best practices that don't need to be foreworded with "yeah, I know that your table may be different, blah-blah-blah"?

And wouldn't it be better for everyone, if people with 300 pages binders of printed house rules would embrace the fact that they are actually engaging in game design, and not mere houseruling?

Mod Edit: Whoa! Language! Link removed. Family-friendly place and all that! ~Umbran
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
At which point the flexibility (real or imagined) of D&D is stretched beyond the limit, so ceases to be D&D, and B/X becomes GOATCE/CX? Can we actually meaningfully talk about D&D, if it's such a big tent that there is no set of best practices that don't need to be foreworded with "yeah, I know that your table may be different, blah-blah-blah"?

And wouldn't it be better for everyone, if people with 300 pages binders of printed house rules would embrace the fact that they are actually engaging in game design, and not mere houseruling?

(You may want to avoid specific and graphic references, which I omitted from the quote)

I think that's part of the genius of it. You can play it "as is." Or you can keep hacking at it. You can keep playing with it.

You're right- at some point, you're no longer house ruling, you are engaged in game design. But ... that's a good thing. The first experience many game designers have is with extensive modifications to an existing game- often, D&D. And best of all, since pretty much everyone plays D&D, you can find people to play your game.
 


loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
You're right- at some point, you're no longer house ruling, you are engaged in game design. But ... that's a good thing. The first experience many game designers have is with extensive modifications to an existing game- often, D&D. And best of all, since pretty much everyone plays D&D, you can find people to play your game.
Yeah, people engaging in gamedesign isn't just a good thing, it's an awesome thing! But, if you are doing gamedesign, isn't it just better to embrace this fact, give your baby an awesome name and work on it, like, for real? I don't think that "I'm running D&D 5E, but with a dozen of houserules" is any more inviting for die hard D&D fans than "I'm running a system of my own, based on 5E".

It's not like there are people who are gonna say "No! I'm playing only REAL D&D, with a REAL TSR stamp on it! I'm not gonna touch your Labyrinth Lord with a ten foot pole!" (these damn westerners with their footfetish).

I think that's part of the genius of it. You can play it "as is." Or you can keep hacking at it. You can keep playing with it.
Maybe. But for me, it's a main reason to refuse an invitation to a D&D game (at least, when the flavour of D&D in question is 3E, 3.5E, 3.75E or 5E) -- I just don't know what to expect. This, and also the fact that people can't give me a damn elevator pitch for some reason.
 

Arilyn

Hero
D&D levels and pre-packaged classes (with variations that can be slotted in) are silly, not realistic, often feel wrong in other genres, but are a lot of fun! They satisfy that urge to get treats and see meaningful chunks of stuff as players progress.

And the more options I have, the happier I am settling in with a stack of books and crafting a character. "Hey, look at this useless feat, but ohhh, matches my character perfectly. I'm taking it!" And, "If I mix this race from Eberron with this new class archetype from Tasha's, I can get a whole new character concept."

This is my favourite thing about F20 games, whether it's 5e, PF or 13th Age. Throw in the backgrounds and one unique thing from 13th Age, and I'm a happy gamer.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Yeah, people engaging in gamedesign isn't just a good thing, it's an awesome thing! But, if you are doing gamedesign, isn't it just better to embrace this fact, give your baby an awesome name and work on it, like, for real? I don't think that "I'm running D&D 5E, but with a dozen of houserules" is any more inviting for die hard D&D fans than "I'm running a system of my own, based on 5E". It's not like there are people who are gonna say "No! I'm playing only REAL D&D, with a REAL TSR stamp on it! I'm not gonna touch your Labyrinth Lord with a ten foot pole!" (these damn westerners with their footfetish).

Every journey of a thousand miles is started with a single foot fetish ...

Or something like that. Would it be nice if everyone was a game designer, and designed their own games from scratch? Maybe. Other than the issue of who is playing them. "If everyone is a referee, who is playing futbol?"

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuttttttttt (and to quote the good Knight Sir Mix-a-Lot regarding coordinating conjunctions, "I like big buts ...."), there's a difference between telling someone, "Design a game from scratch," as opposed to, "Learn principles of game design over time by modifying a game you are already playing."

More importantly, there is a general consensus (it's not 100%, but close enough) in D&D that house-rules, even hundreds of pages, are totally fine and still "D&D." In other words, D&D has always been hella progressive in the sense that the game allows tables to self-identify what they are playing.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
Every journey of a thousand miles is started with a single foot fetish ...

Or something like that. Would it be nice if everyone was a game designer, and designed their own games from scratch? Maybe. Other than the issue of who is playing them. "If everyone is a referee, who is playing futbol?"

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuttttttttt (and to quote the good Knight Sir Mix-a-Lot regarding coordinating conjunctions, "I like big buts ...."), there's a difference between telling someone, "Design a game from scratch," as opposed to, "Learn principles of game design over time by modifying a game you are already playing."

More importantly, there is a general consensus (it's not 100%, but close enough) in D&D that house-rules, even hundreds of pages, are totally fine and still "D&D." In other words, D&D has always been hella progressive in the sense that the game allows tables to self-identify what they are playing.
I didn't say anything about making a game from scratch. I'm bad with words.

I say, screw houserulling. Stop living in the shadow of D&D. Steal their engine, scrap off their paint, smash it to pieces and rebuild it a new. Give your damn game a cool name, that rolls pleasantly on the tongue.

So people wouldn't call you "oh, that weird dude with with a 100+ pages of houserules on naval combat", but "author of Burial at Sea, a cool seafaring 5e hack"
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
But, if you are doing gamedesign, isn't it just better to embrace this fact, give your baby an awesome name and work on it, like, for real?
That is exactly what happened to me in 2019. It kept working on 5e house rules (unplayed and untested) until I realized I wanted to go further. I ditched D&D and started from scratch. The pandemic gave me more time to read other game systems and write my own RPG. It's much more demanding but I find it more rewarding.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I didn't say anything about making a game from scratch. I'm bad with words.

I say, screw houserulling. Stop living in the shadow of D&D. Steal their engine, scrap off their paint, smash it to pieces and rebuild it a new. Give your damn game a cool name, that rolls pleasantly on the tongue.

So people wouldn't call you "oh, that weird dude with with a 100+ pages of houserules on naval combat", but "author of Burial at Sea, a cool seafaring 5e hack"

1. People would still call me, "That weird dude."

2. Smash the control images, smash the control machines.
 

Campbell

Legend
5e has a fairly robust and extremely accessible combat mini game that is a lot of fun to play.

It's core model of a team of adventurers tackling heroic adventures is extremely casual player friendly. The drop in Adventurers League format shows the power of that model to get people in the door.

There's also pretty good adventure support.

It's a great game with loads of mainstream appeal that is extremely good at what it does.

It's really not anymore flexible from a technical standpoint than any other game, but it does not need to be. It's great st what it does and people like what it does.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
5e has a fairly robust and extremely accessible combat mini game that is a lot of fun to play.

It's core model of a team of adventurers tackling heroic adventures is extremely casual player friendly. The drop in Adventurers League format shows the power of that model to get people in the door.

There's also pretty good adventure support.

It's a great game with loads of mainstream appeal that is extremely good at what it does.

It's really not anymore flexible from a technical standpoint than any other game, but it does not need to be. It's great st what it does and people like what it does.

I think that a starting analysis, like yours, is actually really helpful when people try and understand what makes D&D good and why it is popular.

The idea of a team of co-equal adventurers (the party) is engrained in D&D and part & parcel to TTRPGs; it is much easier to envision "the party" in this genre for a number of reasons (the legacy of Tolkien and other fantasy authors being among them) than it is in many other areas.
Needing only one person (the DM) who is rules-savvy and comfortable with narration allows it to be newbie and causal friendly.
The simple, "DM describes environment, players describe what they want to do, DM narrates the results," loop is simple and easy to understand.
The zero-to-hero, gain new abilities and power and items over time, is such a successful and powerful rewards-loop that it is the basis for a good deal of the CRPG industry (and, arguably, even more).
And then, contrary to what you ended with, I believe that the core rules supporting and encouraging multiple modes of play, from variant rules to the interminable TOTM/GRID debate, creates an atmosphere that encourages flexibility in a manner unlike most other TTRPGs.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I agree that the things you listed are good, but I find it interesting that you can't find anything about the design or rules that you think is worthy of praise. Are popularity, tradition, and flexibility really all that D&D has going for it?
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
In addition to the reasons you gave:

The brand matters. A lot. Any person who took a marketing class in college will tell you that. It's the reason why a generic brand of coke, for all intents and purposes is the same as Coca-Cola, doesn't sell as well as Coke despite being much cheaper.

D&D has that.

It also has a major reach and a big budget. Not just for marketing, but people who play D&D sponsored by WoTC all over social media.

5e does a lot of things right, which makes sense since a lot of people-hours and money went into its development. There's no way a smaller indie publisher like me can fund the work of hundreds of people who were involved just for the PHB. That results in a genuine good game, which also helps it a lot popularity wise. It meets the expectation of the brand. It's not "new Coke". It's the familiarity of the brand.
 

Blue Orange

Explorer
All the stuff the grognards hate is probably good for getting new players in.

Low difficulty level and rapid progression hook people in. A wide variety of ancestry and class options let people create inventively weird characters (tiefling artificer?).
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I agree that the things you listed are good, but I find it interesting that you can't find anything about the design or rules that you think is worthy of praise. Are popularity, tradition, and flexibility really all that D&D has going for it?

Well, I could say that, um, system really doesn't matter that much, but I didn't feel like opening that can of worms. Instead, I would say that 5te incorporates some of the best aspects of the prior versions of D&D, while maintaining a lightness to the ruleset that can either be drilled into to give it more complexity (such as the upcoming Level Up) or removed without breaking the system.

What I find most interesting isn't the particular rules or parts of the design that I think are worthy of praise, but instead that such a wide variety of different people find different aspects of the design or rules worthy of praise. You can have some people say that 5e is awesome for all the stuff that grognards hate, and grognards say that 5e is awesome because it's easy to run a 1e module on the fly, and both are right. :)
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
All the stuff the grognards hate is probably good for getting new players in.
This is nonsense. I am a grognard, and I like a lot of things 5e does. Bringing in more players is good for the hobby, and good for all of us. 5e does a good balance of letting you play how you want. For a grog like me, that means rulings over rules, and level 1 PCs that aren't already superheroes out of the gate (although they are much more powerful than low level PCs from earlier editions I like and grew up with). it allows you to play quickly, and not be required to play on a battlemap with a million conditions you need to keep track of.

And...

it allows to you to do the opposite of all those things too. So people who don't share my preferences can play their way too.

Whenever someone makes a comment like yours, it tells me that you aren't really knowledgeable about the people you are insulting.

Edit For example, these grogs who you're insulting prefer a game style that led to a meteoric rise of the game, so based on history alone, your comment makes no sense. Obviously a whole lot of new people were brought into the hobby playing a gamestyle that "grogs" like. We all, including grogs, were new players at one point.
 
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loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
The idea of a team of co-equal adventurers (the party) is engrained in D&D and part & parcel to TTRPGs; it is much easier to envision "the party" in this genre for a number of reasons (the legacy of Tolkien and other fantasy authors being among them) than it is in many other areas.
I'd say the concept of the party is treated as an important part of TTRPGs because of D&D, and not something, uhm, I want to say "valuable on its own", but I'm not sure. Required? I don't know. Damn why I can't just switch to Russian or Arabic.

Ok. I don't think that people outside of the hobby necessarily expect being the party. Someone who did dabble in something like Gears of War the Board Game (the best board game, ever, and not only because I love chainsaw guns) or Arkham Horror or party-based vidya maybe does, but I don't think that's universal (or even common).

I, personally, grew up on Conan (who isn't particularly famous for having a stable party) and in my first game ever expected that my character is going to go on adventures alone and maybe meet other PCs (which may mean clashing swords with them). My wife came into TTRPGs from forum games, where a game with a party is an outlier, and not a norm. And I often see people suggesting to split up to tackle the problems at the same time -- a thing that makes us boomers go "DON'T SPLIT THE PAAAARTY!".

Party-based game isn't something bad, but it's something that you need to unlearn if you, well, ain't running/playing a party-based game.

5e does a lot of things right, which makes sense since a lot of people-hours and money went into its development. There's no way a smaller indie publisher like me can fund the work of hundreds of people who were involved just for the PHB. That results in a genuine good game, which also helps it a lot popularity wise. It meets the expectation of the brand. It's not "new Coke". It's the familiarity of the brand.
It also gives you as an indie publisher much more flexibility. You have nothing to lose. There are no hoards of old fans that gonna crucify you if you dare to make a 4E.
 

Awfully Cheerful Engine!

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