D&D is Weird, and That’s Fine

Even though back in my Yaruki Zero book I had an entire section about D&D, I’m still grappling with it. There are a lot of reasons for that, the biggest being that it continues to dominate RPGs, even as there are new developments in how people relate to RPGs. Podcasts and other online media have given us actual play shows with a heightened level of polish, to the point where they can develop their own fandoms, but I still find myself feeling the need to remind people that RPGs other than D&D do in fact exist. D&D is also genuinely a very deep an interesting topic though, and we’re belatedly starting to get a clearer picture of its history.

Despite its position of dominance and its massive cultural reach, D&D is a very strange game, even within the weird niche that is tabletop RPGs. It’s not a bad game, but it is an incredibly specific one, in countless ways. It’s situated in a “dungeon fantasy” subgenre that it created, and despite its massive popularity, in many ways it sits outside the mainstream of tabletop RPG design.

Wargame Origins

D&D evolved out of wargames, and there were more transitional forms than people realize. Wargames are roughly divided into miniatures and board wargames. Board wargames typically come complete in a box, with maps and cardboard chits, whereas miniatures wargames were a surprisingly informal and creative hobby, even though in the 60s and 70s they’d attracted a fanbase that looked down on anything not based in historical warfare. The vagueness of miniatures wargames caused a lot of disputes during play, which led to experiments with having a human referee. The referee role existing led to the referee making rulings on the fly, so that players could conceivably try things that weren’t in the rules. The rulebook might not have anything to say about whether units can ford a river, but a referee can make a ruling and the game can roll on. I think that’s a really interesting development for wargames, and in general it’s rare to see anything remotely like it in tabletop games other than RPGs. These days, while wargame rules aren’t always as clear as would be ideal, they’re closer to board games in that they generally allow for straightforward play without recourse to a referee. (And the most played wargames today are ones with copious fantastical elements.) While this was of course before the internet, the wargames scene communicated more broadly through zines, letting these gamers communicate these ideas around the country and beyond.

white box
…And Some Friends and Polyhedral Dice Even Though They (The Dice) Are Hard To Find Because It Is 1974

David Wesley’s Braunstein game let players take on the roles of non-military actors in a town caught in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and that in turn led to Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which then became the basis of D&D. While we can retroactively call early D&D a role-playing game (the box actually called it “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”), it was certainly a different beast from what we’d consider a typical RPG today. The OD&D rulebooks say you can play with between 4 and 50 players, but recommends 12 or so. For most people, a group of 6 players in an RPG is starting to get a bit unwieldy, but from what I’ve read, early D&D play tended to focus less on role-playing a character and more on what we might call human-mediated dungeon exploration. Although the scale of the “army” was smaller and the “battlefield” more baroque, it was a bit closer to a wargame than D&D and other RPGs typically are today. The core competency of D&D, particularly in the early days, wasn’t to collaboratively tell fantasy stories out of a novel, but rather to conduct what we might retroactively describe as a more creative and interactive version of a roguelike video game.

Early D&D had a rule where a character got 1 XP for every gold piece worth of treasure they recovered. If you think of experience points as a simulation of a character gaining more experience at adventuring and thus honing their abilities, it’s a nonsensical rule. Someone could hand you $100 and it would let you buy some video games, but it wouldn’t contribute to you being more accomplished at your profession. But if you look at it as a game mechanic giving players a powerful incentive for pulling off a fantasy heist, it’s kind of brilliant in its effectiveness and simplicity. It seems like Gygax didn’t really articulate the reasoning behind the rule though, which may explain why later editions dropped it, making D&D a bit less of a fantasy heist simulator. Still, despite the game changing hands so many times, it retains quite a few rules that are at their best when applied to that style of play.

D&D’s specialization isn’t a bad thing, especially when it can do that so well, but if you’re not doing that, the set of tools it does and doesn’t provide can be an issue. That dungeoneering style doesn’t particularly call for developing characters’ backstories, whereas (for example) in most any genre aimed more at creating a story, tools for developing character backgrounds are hugely helpful. Not every game needs an hours-long process of creating a complex relationship map before play like the Smallville RPG, but most would benefit from having more than the minimal amount of backstory that D&D provides. While D&D originated the overall medium of RPGs as we know them and established some important conventions that still hold sway over the majority of RPGs, a significant portion of the history of RPG design has been a struggle to figure out how to modify conventions made for dungeon fantasy heists to other styles and genres.

Game Design

Despite its dominance and a preponderance of clones of various stripes, D&D is something of an outlier as a work of game design. While we’re past the days when publishers would market their RPGs based on being different from D&D (even accounting for questionable stragglers like White Wolf’s “Upgrade Your Game” campaign for Exalted), designers were readily discarding major elements of D&D’s rules from the moment there were other RPG designers outside of TSR. Tunnels & Trolls has the distinction of being the second tabletop RPG ever, and it came from designer Ken St. Andre flipping through D&D and deciding to fix what he saw as nonsensical rules, like armor making you “harder to hit” rather than reducing damage. Games like RuneQuest and GURPS prided themselves on not confining players to predefined classes, and games like Call of Cthulhu and Traveller charted out new genres and new rules concepts. Outside of D&D and its direct imitators, RPGs with classes, levels, static defense values, random stats, alignments, etc. are the exception to the rule. (Palladium, whose house system seems to have started as an AD&D variant, is a glaring counter-example, but also increasingly feels like a living fossil in the industry.) After originating the medium of tabletop RPGs, D&D’s history has largely been a balancing act between playing catch-up with innovations in RPGs and staying sufficiently true to what people perceive to be the essence of D&D.

A lot of the mechanics of D&D that other RPGs have largely abandoned are those that are very specific to its particular genre and style of play, and which at best require careful adaptation in order to fit with other genres. While the “zero to hero” aspect of D&D’s level mechanic resonates with Luke Skywalker’s journey from farm boy to Jedi Master, by and large the d20 system was an awkward fit in the licensed Star Wars RPG that Wizards of the Coast published in 2000, drawing all kinds of complaints from fans of the classic Star Wars RPG from West End Games. In d20 characters have classes (which they can mix via the multiclassing rules), but every class advances their base combat stats and saving throw bonuses a certain amount. In contrast, in the D6 system that powers the WEG Star Wars game, on a mechanical level characters mostly consists of attributes and skills, which players can assign how they want. Since Star Wars makes more room for non-fighty characters than D&D, a PC with no combat abilities is quite a bit more viable. The d20 system having an open license led to quite a few examples of publishers shoehorning other genres and settings into the D&D rules, largely to the detriment of the resulting products. There were some gems from the d20 boom—most notably in the forms of fully D&D-compatible settings and some new games that freely changed the rules—but that era is also a litany of mismatches between rules and content. Things like Babylon 5, Big Eyes Small Mouth, pro-wrestling, and blaxploitation all got inferior d20 adaptations, while Mutants & Masterminds managed to become a credible d20-derived superhero RPG by making major changes to the core rules.

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what.

To cut the other way for a moment, there are some more fundamental aspects of D&D that still permeate most RPGs. The whole paradigm of using randomness to see whether characters succeed or fail at their endeavors is a specific framework born of wargame conventions, and while it’s useful for a lot of purposes, it’s nonetheless one of many possibilities. RPGs can use randomness for other purposes (as seen in games like Hot Guys Making Out and octaNe), or eschew randomness entirely (like in Golden Sky Stories and Amber Diceless). Likewise, while there are “GM-less” RPGs that apportion the duties of play differently, the structure of having a DM/GM and players is extremely common in RPGs. There are all sorts of other possibilities, but the GM role is enduring and effective.

RPG combat also often shows its descent from D&D’s combat system, which in turn drew inspiration from naval wargames, hence the recurring convention of battles of attrition. While a lot of games trade D&D’s static defense values for some kind of active defense rolls (as seen in most World of Darkness and Palladium games), they still retain the convention of combat that involves whittling down your opponents’ capacity for damage. That turns a lot of RPG battles into fights to the death, and some versions of D&D go as far as to make sparing opponents significantly more difficult. From what I know of real-life combat, morale is much more of an issue than in D&D-style combat rules, hence it’s an explicit rule in a lot of wargames. In fiction, fights instead tend to have a very clear role in the story—or else they’d happen off-screen or not at all—and their resolution is often less about wearing the other side down and more about finding the approach (practical or emotional) that finally works. Combat rules don’t necessarily have to be about who wins and who loses, and they don’t even have to be a factor in the first place if the game doesn’t involve violence.

Also, while things like levels and classes don’t fit every genre and style, the degree to which RPG designers have avoided them has been arguably a bit knee-jerk and excessive. The Japanese TRPG scene has some localized games (including D&D), but the amount of games published and supported locally is genuinely impressive. A lot of those games—including hits like Sword WorldArianrhod, and Alshard—have classes and levels, and use them well. They fit dungeon fantasy perfectly of course (since D&D itself is the core of dungeon fantasy), and can work particularly well in general in games where PCs are a group of specialists who undergo a great deal of growth. While not many RPGs have classes in precisely the D&D sense, many use archetypes to varying degrees, such as the clans in Vampire: The Masquerade and the less rigidly enforced archetypes in DeadLands.

Weird Heroes

D&D is also an oddity in terms of genre. It drew on basically every available scrap of fantasy literature and mythology, but it assembled the pieces in such a way that in the aggregate you got something not quite like anything else in the fantasy genre. This basically created a “dungeon fantasy” subgenre, which sits apart from sword and sorcery, high fantasy, comic fantasy, heroic fantasy, and all the other branches of the fantasy literature family tree. D&D was a massive influence on video games—going back at least as far as Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) a whole lot of nerds took inspiration from D&D when programming games—giving it a cultural reach far beyond its player base, but even fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin who did in fact play RPGs tend to part ways with D&D’s take on the fantasy genre. It’s not unlike how Star Trek is one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time, but outside of Star Trek parodies you basically never see science fiction stories with “warp drive” or “transporters.”

The eclecticism and eccentricity of D&D are among of its delights, but it also further reinforce its status as a weird outlier. This is apparent from the start when you look at the composition of a typical adventuring party. A typical D&D party will have a cleric. The cleric class originated with a particular player wanting to play some kind of Hellsing-esque vampire hunter to counter another player’s overpowered vampire character, called Sir Fang. As they refined the concept, Bishop Carr entered the campaign as the first priest character (which they later changed to “cleric”), a sort of templar who wears chainmail, wields a mace, and has holy magic at his disposal. (And he apparently did in fact take Sir Fang down.) Of course, D&D clerics will worship one of the gods from the campaign world’s polytheistic pantheon, even as they wield powers like Turn Undead that might make more sense coming from a Christian character. It’s an odd mishmash of religious traditions, exacerbated by how D&D doesn’t really talk about any kind of religious practices per se.

While other fantasy works have been known to include priest characters with special powers, the cleric class is a D&D-ism that appears almost nowhere else. The cleric class is also all but required for an adventuring party to function. They’re the main source of magical healing, and the game usually makes non-magical healing too slow and healing via magical items too expensive to be practical as more than a supplemental source of healing. Outside of dungeon fantasy, characters who go on quests are usually able to get by without requiring literal miracles to heal their wounds. In R.E. Howard’s Conan stories, priests with magic powers were typically vile cultists that ended up on the receiving end of Conan’s sword, and certainly not the mutant Hellsing/templar/pagan hybrid of the D&D cleric.

The wizard class is significantly closer to what we typically think of as a wizard outside of D&D (though it’s entirely distinct from Tolkien’s wizards, who are basically a kind of angels), though it does use the “Vancian” spellcasting system, which is vanishingly rare outside of D&D and its imitators. In Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, wizards would memorize spells, which would then boil out of their memories upon casting. In the novels a skilled wizard could hold maybe three or four spells in his head, albeit to devastating effect when used. D&D’s spell slots escalate from a tiny handful at first level to dozens, and they encompass basically everything that one could conceivably do with magic (that D&D hasn’t assigned to the realm of cleric spells). Where the game defines a lot of other classes in terms of what they do, it defines wizards mainly in terms of how, and with the exception of healing, there’s basically nothing another class can do that a wizard can’t as long as they can get the right spell out.

Although it’s since filtered into other media, D&D-style spellcasting is notable for how it makes most magic so reliable and knowable. Tolkien’s wizards used subtle magic that was largely unknowable to mere mortals, while magic in Game of Thrones involves ancient secrets and dark rituals. Even with the return of magic being a key plot point over the course of GOT, Melisandre isn’t throwing fireballs, but rather using ancient rituals, intertwined with her religion, that shape the course of history. D&D wizards in contrast can use magic for things as simple as lighting the way, and for them spells are for the most part wholly predictable procedures they carry out, which tend to be far more reliable than anything non-magical. While fighters and rogues and so forth can have useful abilities, there’s almost always some kind of die roll or skill check to make them work.

Another thing that separates D&D from its source material is that, especially at low levels, adventurers can be fragile creatures. In some editions characters would roll a single hit die to determine their starting HP, and since a wizard got a d4 for hit dice, it wasn’t unusual for a wizard to have a single hit point, low enough that, as statted in the game, an angry housecat could literally be a threat to his life. More dangerous monsters, spells, and traps could even have “save or die” effects, where you’d have to make a saving throw, and if you failed, your character was simply dead, period.

D&D doesn’t actually operate on the notion that the heroes of fantasy literature should be fragile weaklings, but it does operate on the idea that PCs should at best have to “earn” their durability and power by surviving many challenges. Even then, if the write-ups that TSR did for various fantasy characters are any indication, they simply didn’t allow PCs to achieve the level of power of the heroes of fantasy novels. One Dragon issue had stats for Conan at various points in the Cimmerian’s life, and even the less experienced versions had sky-high ability scores and even some psionics. His Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution vary depending on his age, but start with 18s in each. His Strength even reaches 19 when he turns 30, meaning it was literally impossible to generate a character as powerful as Conan by the rules. Meanwhile, according to Deities & Demigods, Elric of Melniboné’s ability scores are high but not impossible to roll, but he also has a total of 69 levels worth of six different classes (…nice), something just as impossible for an actual PC without the DM flagrantly ignoring a lot of the game’s rules and advice.

ConanStats

As with a ton of other things, that’s perfectly reasonable for a specialized dungeoneering game about nobodies facing dangerous situations as they work their way up to greatness, but it’s a highly specific choice that makes the game part ways with most of its source material. An RPG that lets you play out something more reminiscent of a story by R.E. Howard of Michael Moorcock would look very different from D&D.

Specificity

One thing that separates D&D from fantasy literature and mythology is the sheer specificity of it. When you’re used to D&D and the media it’s influenced, folklore can feel weird and vague. Fairy tales mention goblins for example, but have basically nothing to say about what a goblin actually looks like. Even Tolkien was a bit vague on that, and scarcely made a distinction between goblins and orcs, even as he created whole languages and elaborate histories. D&D specifically outlines big orcs and little goblins as two distinct species of humanoids, and its depictions have influence not only video games like World of Warcraft, but even the film adaptations of Tolkien’s novels.

Although this specificity-laden approach runs counter to the traditions of mythology and folklore, it’s entirely natural when you have a game where players can poke and prod everything, forcing the DM to come up with answers to questions about how stuff actually works. One of the weirder examples of this at work is kobolds. D&D originally described them as small, scaly canine humanoids, and in later editions they evolved into little lizard guys who are distantly related to dragons. Japanese media based in western fantasy got this indirectly and in mutated form, which is why in Record of the Lodoss War, kobolds are humanoid canines. All of that is super weird if you read up on the original mythology of kobolds. To quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The kobold (occasionally cobold) is a sprite stemming from Germanic mythology and surviving into modern times in German folklore.

Although usually invisible, a kobold can materialize in the form of an animal, fire, a human being, and a candle. The most common depictions of kobolds show them as humanlike figures the size of small children. Kobolds who live in human homes wear the clothing of peasants; those who live in mines are hunched and ugly; and kobolds who live on ships smoke pipes and wear sailor clothing.

Kobold2Based on that description, the kobolds of folklore appear to be more like brownies or gnomes, and aren’t even a little bit canine or reptilian. Of course, apart from the oddities of being able to turn into a candle, the folklore doesn’t provide a lot to work with to distinguish kobolds from the dozens of other types of domestic fairies. In a world where fairies are real, we might simply state that “kobold” is a German name for brownies. The D&D version has basically nothing to do with the folkloric version, but if you go by the folklore, you’d have a hard time answering a question as basic as “What does a kobold look like?”

A Dungeon World

D&D also has a lot of elements that emerge from its heavy emphasis on dungeon crawls. That’s good game design really, but it does make the game that much more specific and specialized. It’s especially apparent in the selection of monsters, many of which are part of the game solely for the role they can play in dungeons. That results in charmingly dungeon-adapted creatures like the gelatinous cube, but also some monsters that seem like Gygax or someone else at TSR spitefully designed them to punish adventurers. There’s the Ear Seeker, which apparently exists solely to punish the completely rational strategy of listening at doors before entering, rot grubs that burrow into flesh to punish the normal activity of thoroughly checking rooms, and rust monsters that exist more or less entirely to destroy adventurers’ hard-won magic items.

This can get downright absurd, since there are the lurker above (which can pretend to be a ceiling), the stunjelly (which can pretend to be a wall), the trapper (which can pretend to be a floor), thus accounting for all the surfaces of a room. There’s also the mimic (which can pretend to be a treasure chest), the cloaker (which pretends to be, you guessed it, a cloak), the piercer (which pretends to be a stalactite), and I could keep going but we don’t have all day. The “everything’s a monster” dungeon room would be a hilarious contrivance, but the tools definitely exist in the game.

lurkerabove

Like a lot of things in D&D these aren’t inherently bad, but they’re very specific and can be counterproductive for many styles of play. You sure as hell wouldn’t have Conan die to an ear seeker or let a rust monster eat Stormbringer if you wanted your game to be even a little bit like the stories. While there are other RPGs that are equal or exceed D&D in terms of being specialized, they tend to be specialized by way of a shifting of focus rather than defining an overall setting around the game’s core activity. Dogs in the Vineyard is a hyper-specialized game about young adults in a fictionalized Mormon church going around different towns and trying to solve problems. It would take a great deal of hacking and rewriting to use it for something else, but it doesn’t posit anything unusual about the world beyond the area of North America that the church had settled.

On the other hand, the cool thing about D&D’s willingness to invent new monsters and such is that it’s got some truly unique creatures in its rogue’s gallery. Alongside the critters borrowed from mythology are things like beholders, modrons, mind flayers, githyanki, and displacer beasts. While a lot of stock fantasy parts went into D&D, it has some impressively distinctive creations that remind us that we’ve stepped a long ways away from Tolkien.

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The Center of the Multiverse

The Planescape setting for AD&D 2nd Edition had three principles that guided the D&D multiverse: Rule-of-Three, Unity of Rings, and Center of the Multiverse. The last was that the multiverse doesn’t have a center exactly, but in a sense you’re always in the center of it from your own perspective. I don’t know if the creators intended it that way, but the Center of the Multiverse rule is kind of a perfect metaphor for the game of D&D itself.

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One of the biggest things that makes D&D different from other RPGs is how varied it is, both in terms of published versions—there are over a dozen just including official tabletop RPGs—and what goes on at the table. Gygax came from the miniatures wargame scene, where incomplete games that players could hack into what they wanted was the norm, and wrote D&D accordingly. It also came out well before the internet was a thing, and the availability of game materials was highly varied. White box D&D was hard to come by, AD&D was expensive and came out over the course of multiple years, basic D&D showed up even in department stores, and none of them were completely compatible with one another. On top of that, gamers were passing around photocopies of the rules, and mixed in material from zines and other publishers (notably Judges Guild) as well. Lots of people thus ended up playing their own Franken-D&D, by choice or outright necessity. Even gamers today who use a more robustly-written D&D ruleset and go in intending to follow the rules as written can have very different experiences depending on the myriad choices one has to make when playing D&D. If I join in a random Golden Sky Stories game, I have a significantly clearer idea of what to expect going in, and not just because I translated the game.

I don’t think that RPG designers can or should give ironclad pronouncements about how to play from on high. I prefer games to articulate a clear vision of how to play and put the requisite tools in easy reach, but that’s ultimately a matter of taste. The varied and hacking-friendly aspect of D&D is only an issue where it collides with expectations or geeky entitlement. When you sit down for a game with massively varied play depending on the approach the DM takes, if you don’t know the DM well, there’s a much higher chance of finding yourself in a game not to your tastes than with a more rigidly defined RPG.

Geeky entitlement is a thing that’s been rearing its ugly head a lot lately. People invest a lot of time, effort, and emotion into something, and start to both form part of their identity around it and feel a certain ownership over it. That can get ugly even when we’re talking about passive consumption of more passive media, but with D&D especially, there isn’t and never was a single definitive vision of how the game should be. There is no single “authentic” D&D, not when even the official published game has changed hands so many times and encouraged hacking from the very beginning.

The giant mess that was the discourse around D&D 4th Edition is thankfully behind us (more or less), but it vividly illustrates how flagrantly emotional the whole thing could be. Fans of older editions—at least the vocal ones getting involved in edition wars—weren’t saying “I don’t care for this, so I’ll keep playing the old edition,” they were saying they found 4th Edition nauseating, insulting Mike Mearls’ intelligence, and generally mocking the edition’s fans as entitled whiners. None of which is to say that 4th Edition’s fans were innocent; it was every bit as immersed in geek culture and the attendant tendency to form identities based on media consumption.

I once wrote a blog post about how 4th Edition’s design choices were very clearly made in part due to the influence of late 3.5, which someone on a forum decided to post about under the subject line “Ewen Cluney thinks 4th Edition was your fault” (thus inventing a connotation of blame where none existed), resulting in a comment by a “Bob Goodfellow” on my blog containing an interminably long diatribe about just how much of a personal insult he considered the changes in the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms to be. A person who, based on the available evidence, at least presents the appearance of being an adult man (for some values of “adult”), commenting on an article about the design decisions that went into a game where you pretend to be an elf, wrote the words, “Every time someone says ‘post-spellplague’ aloud, an angel has it’s [sic] wings ripped off and it is forced to eat them. The Angel’s mother has to watch. And for some reason, it arouses her.” I sort of wish I cared about anything quite as much as Bob cares about FR, but even more I wish he was putting that kind of passion towards something that actually matters. I don’t think that the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms book was that great, but I’m also reasonably sure no one from Wizards of the Coast sent the firemen from Fahrenheit 451 to burn all his old FR books. Since I was a fan of 4th Edition I sometimes catch myself getting upset when people bash it, but remembering Bob does a lot to help me put things in the proper perspective. (Also, I’d be reticent to actually play 4E again; I’d rather try a game like Strike! that builds on its achievements while cutting down on the overhead involved.)

Probably the most interesting and important new development in D&D (and to a lesser extent RPGs in general) is the development of D&D-based entertainment where you can enjoy someone else’s campaign as a kind of show. The 2018 Diana Jones Award as always had some very interesting contenders, but the prize went to the Actual Play movement as a whole, and I think it’s well-deserved.

The Adventure Zone is the AP media I’m most familiar with. It’s a podcast where the McElroy Brothers (best known for their podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me”) and their father played a lengthy and memorable D&D campaign (before trying out other games and settling on Monster of the Week for their second full campaign). TAZ started out as a fairly generic D&D campaign, but developed into something much more unique and creative, with Griffin McElroy not only acting as a skilled DM, but composing original music for the podcast. There are a lot of people who enjoy TAZ without playing D&D themselves, and there are undoubtedly people who got into D&D because of it or who let it influence how they play D&D. The same goes for other D&D shows like Acquisitions, Inc. and Critical Role, and while this is easily the most exciting thing happening with the game right now, you will not be surprised to hear that some people aren’t taking it well. While there’s a lot to be said for RPGs as an interactive experience, gatekeeping people who’ve found a new way to enjoy the hobby is pretty dumb.

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This is pretty cool and if you’re a TAZ fan you should check it out!

For a while I’ve been wondering what could revitalize tabletop RPGs and draw in new people. By and large I’d been thinking in terms of what kind of new games might appeal to the kids, e.g. by tapping into the popularity of YA genre fiction like Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc. But I’d always said that if someone ever pulled it off, it’d probably be something that those of us already deeply involved in RPGs never could have anticipated. Personally, I don’t listen to many actual play podcasts, and by and large I don’t watch livestreams, Let’s Play videos, or YouTube personalities. I like to think I’m at least mature enough to recognize the difference between something that’s bad and something that’s not for me (though there are some really awful YouTube personalities), but I really didn’t see it coming. I’m just old enough to feel a bit out of touch with the kids (but also just old enough to feel like a Chill Older Dude a lot of the time), but to me this is certainly worth celebrating regardless of how much I’m into it personally. I think part of aging gracefully is learning to share what you’ve learned while letting the kids decide their own future.

Of course, these new fandoms are also geeky fandoms with the same attendant issues, so they have their own challenges to grapple with. When a character in the Critical Role series permanently died, a portion of the fanbase didn’t take it well, to the point where DM Matthew Mercer took a lot of flak and had to explain to fans how this was a dark note in an ongoing story. While hating on a DM for something that is absolutely a part of the whole proposition of D&D (albeit to varying degrees) is silly, it does show that the Critical Role group has used D&D to create something that people deeply care about. That at least is something every creator aspires to.

Being Weird Together

One of the best things about D&D is the sheer variety of stuff it happily blends together, and in the early days, Gary Gygax and the other people at TSR were even bolder about that. The 1980 adventure module Expedition to Barrier Peaks has your adventurers discover a crashed spaceship with all sorts of robots, strange creatures, and nifty high-tech items. Where today D&D seldom ventures further afield from dungeon fantasy than, say, Ravenloft, The Adventure Zone includes races in magical battle wagons, a murder mystery on a train, a time loop in a mining town, and a deadly game show (to name some elements that aren’t too spoiler-y). With Wizards of the Coast embracing online broadcast D&D, with any luck the game itself will take on more of its old zaniness and then some.

barrier peaks

This newer style of D&D is also helping welcome people outside the stereotypical white male cisgender heterosexual gamer demographic. A quick look at posts about D&D on the internet brings up all kinds of delightful art and such that shows a whole new dungeon fantasy aesthetic, born of a different group of people engaging with the same material, and often presenting a warm and wonderfully human take on the game. I still wish more people would give other RPGs a chance, but I’m nonetheless excited and energized seeing people show us how tieflings are hot, wizards wear the most amazing hats, and half-orcs give the best hugs.

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