Dungeons & Dragons, pt. 1

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by Randall S. Frederick

In my early teens, when D&D was moving from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to simply Dungeons & Dragons (or “Third Edition” to those who had been playing for a while), I saw advertisements in between the pages of X-men and The Avengers, but the game barely registered. Like many other science fiction and pop culture staples, Dungeons & Dragons was too nerdy to me with my action figures on display shelves and boxes of comic books, my Star Wars posters, and my videogame magazine subscriptions. Perhaps, looking back, I simply couldn’t afford to play D&D. The weekly comic cost $10 at most and, let’s be honest, I didn’t have many friends. Even now, I struggle to think of who I could have convinced to play with me if I had tried. Maybe I avoided it because I was embarrassed by my stepfather. Whatever the reason, it was after grad school that I became aware, dimly at first, that Dungeons & Dragons had released a new version of the game. By then, D&D was the punchline to an occasional joke on television, a pop culture reference that always seemed to most past me without ever fully understanding what it meant. I knew overweight and balding men (“neckbeards” as I still call them) with Cheetoed fingers played in game stores, but if I noticed them beyond this, it was in the periphery as I tried to track down a graphic novel or whenever my little brother wanted to look for a Marvel Comics statue. I saw the books, I saw the gamers, but the connection still failed to register until I literally walked into a showy endcap at a local bookstore. The cover was slick and shiny with great art and there I was wondering, candidly, why it had taken me so long to direct my attention toward the game since it seemed perfectly suited to someone like me – a neckbeard nerd. I was hooked. That night I went home, quickly scanned online long enough to understand which books were necessary to begin (the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide in case you were wondering – the “core trilogy”) and drove back to the store to buy all three.

In the weeks that followed, D&D books became my primary method of relaxation, tapping into some kind of arrested development of which I had not previously been aware. I kept buying, first the Wizards of the Coast publications and later expanding into third-party booklets on DriveThruRPG, projects on Kickstarter, or other words by Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press. Kobold especially seemed to be able to expand on the core books faster than Wizards of the Coast whose work gravitated toward cross-product promotion. 

In 1997, the near-bankrupt company that owned D&D, TSR  (Tactical Studies Rules, Inc.), was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the gaming company that published Magic: The Gathering and its expansions. Following three years of development, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was released in 2000 and folded the Basic and Advanced versions of the game into a single unified game – “Third Edition.” It was the largest revision of the D&D rules to that point and served as the basis for a multi-genre role-playing system designed around 20-sided dice, called the d20 System.

Third Edition was designed to be internally consistent and less restrictive than previous editions of the game, allowing players more flexibility to create the characters they wanted to play. For instance, the game restricted players from creating characters of a certain race (ex: elves, humans, dwarves, etc.) who were also a particular class (ex: fighter, druid, wizard, etc). Players sometimes argued this amounted to embedded racism and class privilege, constructing the rules in such a way to disallow for a diversity of experience. Skills and feats were introduced into the core rules to encourage further customization of characters and new rules standardized the mechanics of action resolution and combat, but there was still a learning curve once Third Edition was released. In 2003, Dungeons & Dragons released a series of slight revisions and modifications to the core rulebooks of Third Edition, or 3.5, and this became the standard for tabletop roleplaying games. The updated release incorporated hundreds of rule changes, mostly minor, and expanded the core rulebooks but the D20 system of 3.5 was adaptable and allowed players a greater degree of freedom, reward to continued gameplay, and shared narrative between Dungeon Master (the primary storyteller of each session) and players. 

Still, the company struggled to meet an aging and evolving market. Paizo Publishing helped supplement by releasing a Dungeons & Dragons magazine and fan-driven content but, with monthly rather than yearly releases and severe internal conflict after game creator Gary Gygax was unceremoniously pushed out of the company he had created, TSR simply could no longer compete. Accusations of disloyalty to the “father” of tabletop gaming and sluggish corporate culture followed the game when it was saved from bankruptcy and restructured under Wizards of the Coast, itself under the umbrella of Hasbro, Inc. 

In early 2005, Wizards of the Coast’s design team started to develop Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, prompted mainly by feedback obtained from the D&D playing community and a desire to make the game faster and action-oriented, more intuitive, and with a better play experience than under the 3rd Edition. The game was being taken away from a long history of being story driven for something more similar to other tabletop games, something that could be played over the course of an hour on one night instead of hours over weeks and months. Advance artwork and promotions emphasized a game more in line with comic books and action-oriented experience for teenagers. But gamers, at least before it was released in 2007, were left in the dark as to what Hasbro was going to change about the game. It only served to build excitement and anticipation.

Fourth Edition was developed through a number of design phases spanning from May 2005 until its release three years later after it had been “officially” announced at Gen Con, a gaming convention similar to the Superbowl for tabletop games in August 2007. The initial three core books were finally released on June 6, 2008 and gamers were immediately unsure of what they had been given.

Driven by initial player feedback, 4th Edition streamlined the game into a simplified form and introduced numerous rules changes for a game that had worked out its flaws over the three previous decades. This was not D&D, but something new, intended for players to level up quickly and decimate a battlefield. Many character abilities were restructured into “powers” which altered the spell-using classes (wizards, clerics, warlocks, etc.) by adding abilities that could be used at will, per encounter, or per day. In parallel to traditional games, this would be like giving extra turns and bonuses. Likewise, non-magic-using classes were provided with parallel sets of options. Software tools, including player character and monster building programs, became a major part of the game. 

Put simply, the game had been hollowed out. The game would move faster, sure, but the challenge, character development, and narrative had all been terribly reduced. More, players were encouraged to transfer their games online – which fundamentally went against everything Dungeons & Dragons had been created to do. When Gary Gygax originally conceived of the game, he wanted an alternative to “inside the box” tabletops and, even with the rise of videogames, the game was an alternative to the mainstream. It had inspired religious outrage in the 1980s, gunge culture in the 1990s, and now players were being encouraged to forget all of that.

Because of this, the game never really took off with fans, to the confusion of everyone at Hasbro. In their enthusiasm, Wizards had “unlocked” the D20 system of 3.5 for gamers, making it public use and setting aside the privileges of copyright protection. This was supposed to be seen as an abandonment of the old and an embrace of the new, a decisive action to shift gamers away from 3.5, 3.0, 2.0, and 1.0 – three decades of play. Instead, it proved a terrible misstep that caused the game to languish for another half decade and provided evidence of why gamers should have been brought into the development instead of “building anticipation” by leaving them in the dark. D&D had always been a shared experience. Hasbro not only misunderstood that, but it had also violated a fundamental trust. More, in giving up their rights to the public domain, Wizards allowed the Paizo team to build off of an already popular system and produce content.

Paizo had been a partner with TSR and later Wizards of the Coast through the publication of rules supplements and modules in monthly magazines. With the “release” of the D20 system to open license, they sailed past Wizards, capitalizing on a decade of content that Wizards had not only walked away from but publicly abandoned. Paizo quickly renamed key areas of D&D 3.5 and published the Pathfinder roleplaying game – a game that adopted everything Wizards had left behind, welcomed disgruntled D&D players, continued to build on the 3.5 Edition, and capitalized on on all of this at the critical time that Wizards struggled to explain new rules, new designs, and new modules to fans who weren’t especially eager to throw away the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours (and money) they had already invested in Third Edition.

As Paizo took over the gaming market, now publishing year-long campaigns, world books and maps, cross-platform materials like comic books, tie-ins with Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, electronic games, and tabletop card games, Wizards once again followed their corporate instinct and abandoned the project. Fourth Edition was pronounced dead and the company used all the creative energy to expand on their tabletop card game Magic: The Gathering, which by now had become their primary source of revenue.

The corporate approach to gaming made sense. Wizards had been acquired by Hasbro in 1999 and provided for under their umbrella. Early on, when Magic: The Gathering was originally been released, my drug dealer (the manager of a comic book store) gave me a rulebook and deck of cards. I kept them for years because they were very well designed before ultimately trading them away for a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on VHS cassette. My interest in fantasy moved from the re-released Star Wars trilogy and computer games like Doom and Warcraft. D&D, now owned by Hasbro, joined other gaming and entertainment properties like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Monopoly, Candyland, and Battleship. As every child-turned-adult will recognize, games became more violent during the late 90s and early 00s. Director Michael Bay turned some of these properties into blockbusters after 9/11. The Transformers worked side by side with U.S. Marines, the movies serving as a kind of extended fantasy recruitment for the American military.

Which is to say, there is an abundance of failed efforts with a company with decades of inherent nostalgia, family-oriented play, and bright colors. The Transformers and Battleship films are entirely foreign to the games on which they are based and underwhelming if not outright insulting in terms of narrative structure and family-orientedness. Still, they built upon nostalgia properties and had an audience eager to see their childhood updated for the global challenges so many confronted in adulthood. Simple popcorn movies and increasingly violence appealed to moviegoers in the same way that previous fantasy movies like Conan the Barbarian (1982). Our heroes could defy the law, live for revenge, and consistently reaffirm traditional gender roles. But there was a reason audiences walked away from fantasy epics. As Brian Baer writes in How He-Man Mastered the Universe (2017), “Transformers was a palpable hit and more than that, it was a cross-media juggernaut. After its big opening weekend came the new action figures, the new animated series, the trailers for the next film, and so on. Twenty years after Masters of the Universe”, a 1987 film based on the action figure that inspired the popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon (1983-85), “made its attempt, audiences were finally ready for [another] blockbuster movie based on a toy franchise.”

Hasbro followed the success of Transformers

with their other big toy property from the 1980s: G.I. Joe. Though 2009’s G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra did fairly well at the box office, it wasn’t as well-received as its predecessor was. Audiences found it cartoonish and overly broad, while critics poked at its plot holes and disappointing special effects. Worse, hardcore Joe fans complained about the liberties taken by director Stephen Sommers. Still, one disappointment did not end the new cross-media expectations. The Joes got their sequel. Transformers got four and counting. These blockbuster adaptations added fuel to the fire of franchise expansion. (20)

Whether the movies were good is debatable, but the well quickly ran dry because they lacked content. In subsequent sequels, the Transformers die and return from death, are disavowed by the U.S. government and then targeted as enemies before once again being embraced and then once again driven underground. Battleship took a very simply concept and made a war movie based on a war that never happened. G.I. Joe lost half the cast when the sequel went into development. Paramount retaliated by killing off their most bankable star, Channing Tatum, for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to prove actors, story, and nostalgia were each replaceable. Once again, Hasbro insulted their base by purposefully and forcefully telling them they didn’t matter. Critically and commercially, the films continued to decline but financially, the films were a lifeline to the company.

Which is why, because of where it was as a company in 2012, Hasbro’s next move with Dungeons & Dragons seemed both out of character and a welcome return to form. Hasbro was on a roll revitalizing commercial properties from the 1980s, but having failed at holding on to an audience with three film efforts, translating the sprawling open world of D&D in 2000, 2005, and 2012 seemed impossible. They acknowledged finally that D&D was something outside of corporate understanding which needed to be returned to the fans if it was to survive. And that’s what they did.

On January 9, 2012, Wizards of the Coast announced that it was working on a Fifth Edition of the game. Disgruntled, disappointed, and very turned-off to the market-driven Hasbro and Wizards, many gamers simply dismissed the news. Fifth Edition would, they guessed, either be another insult driven by action and intensity (ala Michael Bay) or the fallen cousin of Magic: The Gathering. The company planned to take suggestions from players and let them playtest the rules. Public playtesting began on May 24, 2012, and by Gen Con 2012 in August, Mike Mearls, lead developer for 5th Edition, said that Wizards of the Coast had received feedback from more than 75,000 playtesters. The message was clear: players wanted something better than abandonment and action. D&D was a narrative-driven game. With Third Edition, it has become too “crunchy” with excessive rules and technicalities which were great – if players could afford the entire library. But they wanted something fun, a game they could play with their friends – the “squish” of comfort and familiarity. That’s what drove so many of them to the cheap (and more frequent) offerings of Paizo – first as a magazine supplement to Dungeons & Dragons in their 3rd iteration and later through Pathfinder which only continued to release new products containing a colorful sense of imagination, wonder, and episodic storytelling. Players weren’t interested in investing all over again in a game the company would just walk away from, as they had with 4th Edition. If Wizards of the Coast wanted feedback, here it was: Players wanted a robust, colorful game that was driven by narrative and the sense of family Hasbro knew well. They wanted a nostalgia property, not the grim schlock of Michael Bay with explosions, racism, and technology. Dungeons & Dragons was a fantasy game for goodness sake, driven by the imagination of the mind and storytelling.

Feedback in hand, Mearls announced that the entire development process would take two years, adding, “I can’t emphasize this enough … we’re very serious about taking the time we need to get this right.” And it was timed well. The release of the 5th Edition, coinciding with D&D’s 40th anniversary, occurred in the second half of 2014. What happened next is one of the great returns in publishing.

Disgruntled fans returned to the game, but scholars by now (seeking to capitalize on the anniversary) published sociological works on the “neckbeards” who continued to play, religious studies on panic and hysteria on the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s of which D&D was a recognizable part, studies on the migration of gamers from published works to digital gaming back to published works, and of course business magazines took notice of Hasbro’s looser corporate oversight of Wizards. 5th Edition was not only a success, but welcomed “home brews” from gamers who wanted to create their own stories to fill the gap between published modules that Wizards was still trying to rush to market. In other words, D&D content creators actually listened, Wizards invested in their gamers, and Hasbro took a needed step back to let things settle into place. Old gamers returned to a relaxed rule system that encouraged novelty and embraced all races and classes – even introducing new ones like the Tabaxi (cat-like) and Kenku (bird-like). Instead of waiting until they were ready to abandon the project to release the ruleset, Wizards approached gamers through DriveThruRPG and DMSGuild to set up an officially-unofficial Adventurer’s League that offered content creators the opportunity to cultivate periodic modules with oversight of the Wizards team. Unlike what they did with Paizo, Wizards welcomed innovation on a monthly basis from fans (not a company) while continuing to hold control of the property rights. Meanwhile, fans were encouraged to create their own modules and rule modifications as long as their published works acknowledged Wizards of the Coast would hold the rights and could discontinue, revoke, or renegotiate them at any time. The very act of publishing allowed Wizards to access what players were already doing and cherry-pick the best ideas. Finally, the content developers at Wizards made a distinct visual and tonal shift in keeping with the gothic horror, even at times epic feel of Advanced (Second Edition), the gritty cartoonish appearance of 3rd Edition game, and the episodic “comic book” feel of 4th Edition. 5th Edition’s visual style returned to the detailed, nuanced fantasy appeal of Second Edition – but broader and more epic. To prove the point, Wizards encouraged their creative team to sit down for the documentary Eye of the Beholder, released in 2019, with previous artists, designers, and writers to better contextualize the decisions made by Hasbro for the future of the game.

What continued to develop was a version of the game that had “returned to its roots” of adventure storytelling rather than a series of partially scripted Monopoly encounters where the “heroes” killed and destroyed as much as possible to level up and accrue the largest loot pile. First, there was an adventure module where the heroes took on a cult ushering in the evil goddess dragon Tiamat, then there was the gothic horror module Curse of Strahd where players fought the titular vampire, a callback to a popular series of modules from Advanced. Later modules went underground to the dungeons of Dark Elves and ancient evils, allowed players to explore new continents like the Sword Coast and cities like Baldur’s Gate. Before long, old players were happy to return to familiar stories revamped for the 5th Edition rules system while new players were given access to those same stories and allowed to hear the backstory of older gamers who remembered the game. In parallel, it would be like your older cousin introducing you to the videogames he had played as a kid on a new console system with better graphics, longer gameplay, and easier controls. Sure, the running commentary might get in the way but then again their experience and the secrets built into the system as well as new pockets and levels would make the game richer, fuller, and more interesting for everyone involved.

This is part of the problem D&D faces now as they move away from the nostalgia of publishing old adventures under a new system and move towards building worlds for new players. Many older players cry foul, claiming Wizards has performed a bait-and-switch while Wizards continues to quietly insist they are “reaching new audiences” and expanding on a 40-year old gaming property.

The figure in the center of the conflict is Matt Mercer, a lanky and long-haired Dungeon Master and the host of web series Critical Role.

Cont. in part 2 (coming soon)

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