Dungeons & Dragons, first released in 1974, was the product of a perfect storm of a burgeoning interest in wargaming, a resurgence of pulp sword and sorcery literature, and the overall weird pop-culture leanings of the 1970s fueled by Conan comic books, Saturday morning TV monster movies, and the debris left over from the psychedelic sixties. It would all come to head when in 1977 the game company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) released what would become an unforeseen cultural force: The Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and the three-volume hardcover Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (made up of the now ubiquitous Dungeon Masters Guide, Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual), which would set the standard for tabletop role-playing games for all subsequent generation of players.
Now, forty years later, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is releasing over the course of the next few months a new edition of D&D. In the intervening decades there have been four other editions, each one intending to streamline the rules, but in so doing stripped away some of the essential role-playing elements, instead focusing on character stats and combat. The 4th edition was largely dependent on miniatures and battle grids. D&D is more than just a set of rules for fantasy roleplaying, however.
The game has become a cultural force for sure, but at its roots D&D seems to mirror each decade it is played. The 1970s was a time of garage tinkering ingenuity, fanzines, and high weirdness and the first edition of the game reflected these qualities. When computers and videogames started to dominate the landscape, D&D pulled in many of these qualities, where leveling up and boss-fights became an essential part of gameplay. But we are living in a time of deep nostalgia. People are going back into their garages to build things. Small presses and independent labels are flourishing. And the table-top roleplaying industry—even during a time when electronic screens have all but dominated daily life—is thriving. Where will the new D&D fall in all this?
A disclaimer: While I have read all the other iterations of D&D, I have only ever played the Basic/Expert rules and the first edition of Advanced D&D as well as many permutations of D&D clones. I had every intention of hating the new edition. I tried to keep an open mind, but after trying out the Starter Set recently released by Wizards of the Coast, my fears were fast becoming realized. At first it seemed WotC was attempting to recapture the idea of offering two different models for play: a boxed set with complete, but simple enough rules for those new to the game or for those returning souls looking to ease their way back and three core rulebooks for those looking for more in-depth and, as it was once referred to, "advanced" rules.
Unfortunately the Starter Set is more like a videogame demo that allows you to play a level or two, but cuts you off just as the going gets good. Unlike a video game demo which is typically free, the Starter Set is twenty dollars. But exactly like a demo, the box set is not a complete game at all. Here is what you get: the 32 page Starter Set rulebook, a 63 page adventure, 5 pre-rolled characters, a set of dice, and a folded piece of cardboard to fill up the empty space, raising the actual gaming material to the top 1/3 of the too-large box.
Where the Starter Set really goes wrong, however, is that it doesn't provide rules for creating characters, relying instead on the idea that giving players pre-made characters will allow them to jump right into gameplay. But this undermines the very idea of repackaging and re-releasing the game in the first place, which by all accounts was to get new and old players alike invested in the idea that D&D is once again about the role-playing experience. There are also no rules for the budding dungeon master. The rulebook contains no monsters, and not a single bit advice on how to run a campaign, map a dungeon, or work with NPCs.
Other criticisms may appear to be picking on WotC, but this short-sightedness (or is it profit long-sightendness) plays out in a few other ways here. The adventure module, for example, does not include separate or back page maps, but places them throughout the guide, making running the game an unnecessary frustration. (This layout style is repeated in the first hardcover adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen, an attractive book in its own right with a solid story line and interesting new monster-like NPCs, but again undermined by making it impossible to use at the gaming table.)
After reading the Player's Handbook, however, the first actual release of the new edition, I don't think I have been this impressed with anything bearing the D&D name since I first cracked open the original Player's Handbook in 1978. Gameplay is streamlined, character classes are given much more depth, and the combat battle grid has been reduced to alternative rules. To put it simply, D&D no longer feels like a cardless version of Magic the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast's new emerald tablet seems to be playability. But it's not the actual rules that impress the most. What WotC has done right is writ large on one single page: the inclusion of an Appendix N, called here Appendix E. This simple inclusion returns the game to its roots, something once supercharged by its influences.
The first edition of the 1977 Dungeons Masters Guide included an "Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading," in which Gygax reminisces about his father telling him fairy tales, as well as a list of authors he would subsequently read that were the inspiration behind much of the D&D game's aesthetic and gameplay. The list of authors and works in this appendix are a collection of classic fantasy fiction, pulp supernatural and adventure stories, and the weird science fantasy of the 1970s. Appendix N, a mere page in a dense and detailed book, satisfies in that it illuminates that D&D is a living expression of pulp, science fiction, and fantasy literature, not merely an overly-complicated board game. The new Appendix E is a powerful admission that D&D does not exist in a vacuum, and that one of the best ways to learn how to be a role player is to immerse yourself in literature.
There is little doubt that the new edition of D&D was influenced by that loose group of stalwart players and creators that are part of a trend called The Old School Renaissance. While the OSR has no overarching mission statement, there does seem to be a common thread weaving through the many games, supplements, and home-brew adventures; an attempt to capture a flavor of gaming that emphasizes gonzo adventuring over stiff combat rules and an unabashed love for the literature and myths that inspired the earliest iteration of the game. Nevertheless, D&D 5th is much slicker than anything in the OSR, and the original DIY quality of D&D can probably never again be captured except by those producing third-party materials.
Some problems still abound. Like editions 3.5 and 4.0, the new Player's Handbook is presented as rules for a very specific universe; Wizards of the Coast's vision of fantasy where all the characters and settings appear to be part of the same world. It even includes the ill-conceived planes, a D&D cosmology that appeared in the very first Player's Handbook. There it was a quaint accessory, but merged with the hyper-fantastic aesthetic in the new edition it feels too literal, too much of a requirement. Surprisingly, the Player's Handbook includes a list of more recognizable deities from world mythology, another wonderful nod to D&D's early days when the gods first appeared in Gods, Demigods, and Heroes, a supplement to the original boxed set of and then later in the wonderful but mostly useless Deities and Demigods.
Will I play the new D&D? I'm not sure. My current group of 40-somethings has been using Basic Fantasy, a simple but robust rules set that uses D20 mechanics within an old-school framework. But I am thrilled that a new generation of gamers will find Dungeons & Dragons again offering something that is a mix of simple and complex, a game that lets the players and dungeon master keep it light or pile on the rules as they see fit. For a time it seemed as though WotC called their fantasy roleplaying game D&D simple because they owned the rights in all the intellectual property of the original game. But D&D is more than just a brand. It's a legacy, and this new edition does a fine job of reminding the public that the game transcends the company that is distributing it.