Part 1: The Caveat
To paraphrase my recommendation of the chronicle of the real-world history that is Game Wizards:
Dungeons & Dragons was in the news for all the wrong reasons circa late 2022/early 2023.
I’ll spare you the details (in part because I’m not actually deep enough into the hobby to really understand), but the short version is that Wizards of the Coasts — the subsidiary of Hasbro that owns the Dungeons & Dragons brand — announced (and then promptly backed down from) a pretty substantial overhaul to the licence that allows third parties to use elements of the Dungeons & Dragons IP, barring those elements that Wizards contends are integral parts of their corporate IP( for example, those dudes with octopuses for faces — basically everything that isn’t already a Public Domain folkloric being) in derivative works.
And by “overhaul”, I mean “claim IP ownership and demand royalties from basically everything even remotely Dungeons & Dragons-related.”
Naturally, this has led some players to swear off the game completely — though Wizards has since walked back the most egregious parts of that plan.
So, basically, at this point, I’m not going to change my recommendation to me going “Don’t.” But I’d be remiss not to at least mention the new situation since I originally wrote this recommendation.
Essentially, get as angry (or not) as your principles dictate and rethink (or not) your hobbies as your principles dictate.
I’m not the boss of you.
What I will say, though, even if you’ve sworn off the game of Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a lot of merit to the idea of Dungeons & Dragons. So, basically, you can read this recommendation more as “Tabletop RPGs in general” than “Dungeons & Dragons specifically.”
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of suggestions here for other Tabletop RPGs to replace Dungeons & Dragons with, since Dungeons & Dragons is the only one I’ve played to any meaningful degree — but here‘s a couple places to look more into alternatives.
Though, realistically, you’re going to have the easiest time finding people to actually play Dungeons & Dragons with, by virtue of it being far and away the most popular and best-known game in the genre…
Incidentally, I am looking in Pathfinder, which has been pretty consciously built from the ground up as a direct alternative to Dungeons & Dragons and actually started as content for Dungeons & Dragons before being spun off into its own game when 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons alienated a chunk of the fanbase of the established game. Short version: it was too much like a video game.
Hmm. I’m noticing a pattern here…
This sort of fanbase-alienating, PR-nightmare unforced error has been a bemusingly common element of the history of Dungeons & Dragons, dating back to pretty much the creation of the original TSR— basically, read Game Wizards for the full story and plenty of examples.
Part 2: The Recommendation
Close your eyes (except maybe don’t, because you couldn’t keep reading) and imagine the Fantasy World.
Now, you’re probably just envisioning Lord of the Rings. Thing is, Tolkien’s world isn’t actually that much like the later archetypal Fantasy World, even given Tolkien looming over the genre like, in Terry Pratchett‘s words, Mt. Fuji.
Of course there have been other very influential Fantasy writers: Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Magazines in general. And, honestly, in a lot of ways, they’re probably more Archetypically Fantasy-y than Tolkien is.
And, of course, especially because I’m writing about Dungeons & Dragons, I would be remiss not to mention Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and their creation of Dungeons & Dragons.
Admittedly, early Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t necessarily resemble later Dungeons & Dragons and the worldbuilding has changed markedly even within the game itself, but a lot of the Archetypically Fantasy-y elements found in any given Fantasy world probably owe a significant debt to Dungeons & Dragons, which we wouldn’t have without Gygax and Arneson.
After all, Dungeons & Dragons has been consistently popular for 50 years now.
A deep dive into the history of Dungeons & Dragons is a little beyond the scope of what I want to do here.
First, allow me to pitch Game Wizards one more time, that’s literally what the book is about…
But second, let me summarise briefly: Gygax and Arneson met at Gen Con in the late 60s, they began collaborating on game design, eventually put out the earliest forms of Dungeons & Dragons, started working together professionally at TSR, fell out with each other, and then basically spend the rest of their lives feuding to greater or lesser degrees.
All that aside, Gygax and Arneson (and, of course, the later writers and designers who built on their early work) are hugely influential in the Fantasy genre, both in terms of what a Fantasy looks like and in terms of how a Fantasy game works.
At its core, pretty much every Fantasy RPG, whether a video game or a pen-and-paper game, is to some degree a variation of the systems established by Dungeons & Dragons back in the late 70s.
Of course, Dungeons & Dragons was not the first tabletop game and was itself influenced by what came before, but itself surpasses those earlier games both in fame and influence (seriously, how many of you have even heard of Chainmail?).
Of course, given how huge Dungeons & Dragons has grown over the years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s been a lot of Dungeons & Dragons media over the years: many, many books series (though only actually a handful of good books), video games – including at least one regarded as one of the best ever, an 80s TV show, basically a whole bunch of stuff.
At this point, Dungeons & Dragons is both a nerd icon and essentially a nerd rite of passage, to the point that pretty much everyone with even the most tenuous connection to well-known Pop Culture plays Dungeons & Dragons.
Given my audience — and, again, my intended scope for this recommendation — I don’t think I really need to break down how the gameplay actually works, but, uh, I hope you like Math…
Fundamentally, any action in Dungeons & Dragons — be it punching an Orc in the face, doing a flip, tying a rope, picking a lock, climbing a mountain — has a designated numerical value signifying its difficult (the aptly-named Difficulty Class), while your character has scores indicating their various aptitudes at things.
You declare your intent to punching an Orc in the face/do a flip/tie a rope/pick a lock/climb mountain, you roll a die (almost invariably a 20-sided one) and add that to your character’s skill points add the numbers together. If it’s higher than the task’s Difficulty Class, you succeed (resoundingly if you roll a 20) and if it’s lower, you fail (egregiously if you roll a 1).
Though, of course, because the game is limited only by the Human Imagination, there’s not real constraint to how exactly you approach the challenges facing your party.
And, yet, inevitably, it’s always “I move and attack”…
Of course, that basically boundless openness and infinite variability isn’t always a good thing and leads to the very real threat of players taking the adventure and planned campaign completely off the rails.
Incidentally, the TvTropes article for one of my other recommendations, Slayers has a great line describing this phenomenon:
“Lodoss [i.e. epic, Heroic Fantasy] is what Dungeons & Dragons GMs wish their campaigns were like, and Slayers [i.e. wacky, ridiculous antics] is more like they really are.”TvTropes entry on Slayers
So, basically, it’s all but inevitable your is going to end up taking twists you never anticipated. Usually in the most flagrantly ridiculous manner possible.
I, for example, have suplexed a dragon through a table during a bar brawl.
Man, that was a weird first campaign..
In Dungeons & Dragons, you, too, can experience the simple joys of wrestling a crocodile in a flooding room, getting into a fistfight with a whale (man, that really was a weird first campaign), and live out your own Conan-esque days of High Adventure!
I would have linked that to a clip of Mako saying “HIGH ADVENTURE!” from the opening narration of the Conan movie; sadly, I could not find a suitable one.
Part 3: The Logical Conclusion Regarding Life in a Fantasy World
The short version is this, I’ve realised something about life in a Fantasy world, be it my world of Terrace (Terrace is the planet; Realmgard is the continent), or any of the various worlds the various Dungeons & Dragonses are set on — and there are a lot.
And that thing is as follows:
Uh, no. That is, um, that’s not it. Though I am indeed not wearing a tie as I write this…
Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that even in the world(s; see above; there’s a multiverse that would put Marvel and DC to shame) of Dungeons & Dragons, they would still have a game like Dungeons & Dragons.
Hear me out, here.
Just because the people living in a Dungeons & Dragons world live in a world where epic heroes fight epic battles doesn’t mean everyone in that world would be an epic hero fighting epic battles. There would still be boring people living boring lives.
Just like in real life.
And, of course, those people would want to break up the drudgery of their lives by living vicariously through facsimiles of exciting people.
Just like in real life.
Look at it this way. We might not live in a world with dungeons to explore or Dragons to slay, but we do live in a world of professional sports played by high-level athletes. But that doesn’t mean everyone gets to be a pro athlete.
Basically, in real life, only John Elway gets to be John Elway.
And in lieu of getting to actually be one of the greatest football guys of all time, we’ve created novel ways to live vicariously and pretend to be great football guys.
And clearly, there’s an obvious appeal to doing so. According to Wikipedia, the Madden video games have sold 130 million copies (that’s slightly more than the entire population of Japan) and have made $4 billion.
So, when your world’s equivalent of the NFL is adventuring, why wouldn’t the people who don’t get to go on real adventures create a way to adventure vicariously?
Well, that, or they’d do the opposite of what happens in the real world. In our world, mid-level office works play games where they pretend to be Elves and Wizards.
So, I guess in a world of Elves and Wizards … they’d play a game about being mid-level office workers.?
And it might go a little something like this:
Copyright 2023 J.B. Norman.
Revised and expanded based on a post originally published 2020.
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