I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons since 1979. I started in the 1st Edition boxed set, moved to Advanced D&D (AD&D), on to 2nd Edition, then to 3rd Edition/version 3.5. But the time 4th Edition came out in 2008, I was “editioned out”. With each succeeding version, the game rules became more complex and unwieldy. A task as simple as rolling to hit required a degree in Mathematics. The rules slowed game-play to a crawl, and tactical combat overruled story and imagination, which were the foundations of the game since its inception. Although the 4th edition streamlined the rules, it also gutted the heart and history of D&D out too. The rules were simplified for electronic and computer gamers, not the pen-and-paper gamers that supported the game for decades; gamers like myself. For several years I left the game to focus on my professional career, dismayed the game had degenerated from its lofty origins.
A Return to Its Roots
But Wizards of the Coast (WOTC or Wizards), owners of the D&D game and brand, finally wizened up. With the release of their D&D 5th Edition (5e), they streamlined the cumbersome rules that slowed down game-play but kept the classic races and classes of the older editions. As a result, 5e returns the D&D to its roots. The rules enhance the game but don’t overpower it. As a result, the emphasis moves away from combat back to the story. But the funny part is, even the combat is better. In previous editions, each character could move and take an action. In 5e, a character can move a little, take an action, MAYBE take a bonus action, and then perhaps move more. There is no specific order in how a character conducts its combat round. Combat moves from move-attack, move-attack, move-attack to a delicious cacophony of actions, reactions, bonus actions, and interactions.
With the removal of so many bonuses and penalties, the Dungeon Master (DM) moves from being an arbiter of rules and regains control of their game as both a referee AND a storyteller. 5e replaces all the math by the simple concept of Advantage and Disadvantage. If a character has Advantage, they roll 2 D20 dice and take the better of the rolls, meaning increasing the odds of success. Conversely, Disadvantage takes the worse of the 2 dice rolls, meaning success is much harder to achieve (but not impossible). This basic change to the game makes the game much easier to DM and play because there is no need to memorize all the different dice condition modifiers. It also takes the wind out the sails of Rules Lawyers and Meta Gamers. They can no longer rely on min/maxing numbers or obscure rules to overpower the game. As a result; Game, Set and Match to the DM. An interesting side-effect of the simplifying of D&D rules means that virtual tabletop systems like Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 can create adventures and games. This allows gamers who moved away can still connect and play with their old groups and colleagues. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia for the surge in popularity for the 5th Edition.
Wizards of the Coast played up the history of D&D, releasing updated 5e versions of some the adventure classics of its heyday. Both young and old players alike can enjoy the vintage Temple of Elemental Evil, Tales of the Yawning Portal, or the remake of the mega-dungeon Ruins of Undermountain, now called Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage. THE classic gothic horror adventure of D&D of old was Ravenloft. Now players can experience the fun of that adventure setting with the 5e Curse of Strahd. These adventures have been hugely successful in winning the hearts and minds of old gamers like myself.
Learning What Works
Wizards also learned from its competitors. Paizo developed a strong user base of players to its Pathfinder game by offering its rules in play-test mode and listening to the feedback. WOTC did the same with 5e, first creating a play-test version of the edition called D&D Next. 175,000 registered players were part of the testing, and listening to their users was the best reason for 5e’s success. Wizards also aped Paizo’s Pathfinder Society, structured games and characters used in one-shot adventures in conventions and gaming stores. Wizards revamped their D&D Adventurers League to do the same things. League player can accumulate points in League play, and sanctioning player characters to use in League games.
Wizards also noticed that many other game creators offered basic rules for free that allowed new players to experience the game and old gamers “try before they buy” into 5e. While the basic rules are limited in scope, they provide enough structure and flavor so new players can play multiple sessions before deciding if they want to graduate to the official 5e ruleset. In fact, some committed role players have never felt the need to move past the free basic rules.
In the past, WOTC followed the dogmatic notion that rules must be in book form. However, today’s gamers are comfortable with electronic devices and prefer the ease of rules in digital format. Wizards made the conscious effort to market their books and adventurers through third-party distributors and online vendors. Players can find online versions of the 5e sourcebooks and adventures at D&D Beyond, Fantasy Grounds and Roll20. This change brought D&D out of the Stone Age and into the digital world.
While Wizards of the Coast learned and adapted their strategy based on the marketplaces, they also came up with a fresh idea or two that has paid huge dividends. They created a subscription business relationship with Twitch, a popular online service for watching and streaming video broadcasts. Wizards created or supported broadcasts like Critical Role, streaming D&D games with a group of Hollywood voice actors. Shows and podcasts like this one brought the full experience of D&D 5e to a new set of gamers. Famous celebrities have declared their love of D&D. Actress Deborah Ann Woll of True Blood and DareDevil fame hosts an online streaming game called Relics and Rarities, exposing fellow celebrities like director Kevin Smith and actors Matthew Lillard and Charlie Cox to D&D.
In the past playing D&D was a guilty pleasure and rarely shared with outsiders, now celebrities relish in their love for D&D and Role-Playing Games in general. Action actor Joe Manganiello plays D&D again after years away and even started a company called Death Saves to promote gaming and gaming memorabilia. Late night talk show host Stephen Colbert was an avid D&D player in his youth and has talked positively of his gaming experiences. After decades of D&D being for geeks and losers, playing D&D is now “cool”, and WOTC has promoted that fact for its 5th Edition to great success.
If you miss playing D&D after many years away or have never played but are interested to see what all the fuss is about; give it a shot. D&D lost me as a player 10 years ago, but after my self-imposed banishment I am back, and it’s like I’ve never been away!