This was meant to be a different post. I was going to talk about rehabilitating post-D&D GMs and players. That particular fuse will have to wait for its match. As I worked on the intro, meant solely to prevent readers from declaring me a heretic, it kept growing larger. And larger. Until it became its own, quite distinct thought. And now it is its own post. Rehabilitation post-D&D will have to wait. For now lets question its existence.
What is D&D? Depends on whom you ask. It’s a game of dungeons and dragons where dungeons are passe and dragons are to be avoided. Of heroes going on epic quests where said heroes may have to save-or-die at any point. Of sacrifice and raise dead. Of mystery and stat blocks of gods. Of imagination and dozens of rulebooks. Of tables for every occasion and “GM knows best”. Of Tordeks and Pun-Puns. Of Tolkien and Conan. Of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale.
It is all those things and more. It’s everything and therefore nothing. This is its legacy and its tragedy. D&D doesn’t exist. A mass hallucination, an alluring mirage, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. It is not a game. It is a cultural artifact. Everyone has their own D&D. Every gaming group, every online forum, every game designer. They all play their own D&Ds, they all discuss their own D&Ds, they all make their own D&Ds.
This uncomfortable truth is at the core of some of the fiercest misunderstandings of the hobby. It goes deeper than “optimizers” versus “true roleplayers”. Saying you play D&D conveys minimum useful information beyond “fantasy” and “class-based”. It is impossible to have a conversation about D&D without laboriously establishing common ground first, and not many people realize the need for that. Or, rather, not many people realize that “D&D” is not common ground. Instead, we put forward our opinions based on our versions of D&D against different opinions based on different D&Ds and are amazed that others have come to different conclusions.
Of course, all roleplaying games are by definition unique to the group playing them. They are a process, an ephemera, an experience. However, a focused game system produces similar experiences, while a generic system can be used to play different games. But that’s just it – D&D is not a generic system. Instead, it is THE system. The first such game that existed, the first game most roleplayers tried. And thus it is the tool that all too often gets used for any job, regardless of its fitness.
D&D’s development history reflects that of many successful software projects. It’s early history is a classic example of feature creep. As the hobby was being developed, as it stretched its metaphoric muscles for the first time, players tried to achieve things that core game didn’t offer, by bolting new sub-systems onto it. D&D’s middle history is all about legacy content. It had all these “classic” features that made it up, and it tried to streamline them and make them more useable. And while mechanics got smarter, the inherent incongruences were made all the more obvious. D&D’s modern history was a departure from tradition. Yes, 4e. The designers actually tried to make the game focus on something. And the game was better for it! Of course, focusing on one part of D&D made it not the D&D that half of the community played. And the edition wars raged on. And, finally, the future: Next edition.
On the one hand, designers of Next recognize the immaterial nature of D&D: they promise us rules modules to build the game that most resembles D&D of our own. On the other, everything they’ve shown so far I’ve hated, because it wasn’t my D&D. It’s already full of assumptions about the core game that I’m not interested in. And if their best attempt at producing most bare bones basic core D&D that everyone will accept fails, is there any hope for the final game?
Which makes me wonder: do we really need a new D&D at all? Can’t we accept D&D as the origin point from which the hobby has sprung, to be remembered fondly? Can’t we be content with Dungeon World and 13th Age and Cortex Fantasy Roleplaying and others? All less than D&D. All more than D&D.
Whatever Next will be, it won’t be D&D, because D&D only exists in our imagination. Reality can’t compete with it.