My 11-year-old niece is filling out her character sheet because I’ve suckered her into trying Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. It’s the preeminent fantasy role-playing game in which a group of friends don characters like halfling clerics, orcish warriors, and elvish rogues to explore dungeons and wilderness for treasure and glory.
I have the new box set—fifth edition—and she decides to be a wizard.
But she has stipulations.
Apparently she wants to be a Rakshasa, a mythological creature that can turn into a leopard (and not a sanctioned D&D character) and a hippogryph, too. Because apparently there’s some new series of YA books where turning into an ancient, highly specific Hindu spirit is possible. And it annoys me she won’t just play with the precanned Wizard character, but I appreciate her zeal and her early insistence to be her own person. And whatever she's reading about Rakshasas must be better than that vampire-crush fiction, at least.
So I flip through the rulebook frantically, seeing if I can accommodate these requests before I lose her interest—and my best chance to play D&D as a grown man—to some glittery rubber-banded loom thing. But this Starter's Set Rulebook, what I want to be a dusty old encyclopedia, filled with every possible provision an 11-year-old can make, is more like a glorified brochure with a dragon on front. It’s thin, flimsy, downright anemic.
Are you kidding me? This is the ruleset behind D&D, the greatest fantasy world game of all time! Where are the combat squares?? Where are the polymorphs?!? Where are the niece provisions?!?!?!
In attempts to figure out if I can BS the fighting prowess of a "steed born of a mare and a griffin," I find myself under-gunned. I find my authority as both an adult and as Dungeon Master, the game's resident master of ceremonies, slipping.
She senses the chink in my armor, my panic growing, my grasp of logic failing, my lawfulness diminishing, her opportunity for becoming a game-breaking goddess who can question every foundational bit of D&D logic increasing to mythic proportions.
Was my niece's request reasonable? Of course, we were just playing a game! But was that game still D&D? That I didn't know.
In 2008, D&D's parent company Wizards of the Coast must have been asking itself the same thing. They'd just released D&D 4. The wildly imaginative fantasy game—which Time once categorized as giving pop culture itself "the confidence that through imagination, [we] could become anyone"—was honed to focus on combat, and people hated it. In the era of iPhones and Game of Thrones, how many more flops could a 34-four-year-old dice game take? How could the company reinvent D&D for the future in a way that was still D&D at heart?
The answer was to break all the rules and focus on storytelling again.
The Fantasy World
This summer, as Dungeons & Dragons sees its fifth release in its more than 40-year history, the gaming industry has never been bigger. Board games are a $1 billion dollar a year industry, with games such as Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride its crowning jewels. Collectible card games, like Magic the Gathering, represent hundreds of millions more. And almost every video game you can think of—whether it’s World of Warcraft, Yahoo Fantasy Football, or Grand Theft Auto—now contains elements intrinsic to role-playing. Stats. Character customization. Pretending to be someone or something you’re not.
And yet, Dungeons & Dragons, the quintessential fantasy role-playing game, has been foundering. The fourth edition, released in 2008, was collectively panned. While its parent companies Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro don’t publicize figures, they also don’t try to hide the fact that the game was ill-received critically and sold poorly.
The D&D team is now hedging its bets on a fifth version, which they’ve cockily simplified to Dungeons & Dragons with no number attached. Their process? They listened to customers, reverse-engineered what they did wrong, and pared down their product to the bare essentials, they say. The latest edition of D&D has a flexible rule set and a universal storyline that allows the game to be bigger than a few dice and two-liter of Mountain Dew. "We’re storytellers," D&D Brand Director Nathan Stewart says. "We want people to have shared experiences, loving and knowing the stories we’ve created, without letting the platform get in the way."
The Evolution of D&D
I’m turning through the pages of my flimsy D&D Starter Set Rulebook, trying to find hard numbers with which I can ground my niece's requests. But the information just isn’t there.
Little did I know, this minimal approach is actually a nod to the original D&D rulebook, released in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Looking through its scans in a PDF, I’m immediately smitten by its amateurish charm. There are illustrations inside of witches and ghouls that look to be pulled straight from a grade schooler’s notebook. And there’s a near-feverish explanation of new concepts in gaming, from experience points to magic item buffs.
But the original D&D ruleset wasn’t actually a complete set of rules. The original D&D was designed to sit on top of an existing board game called Chainmail, and to extend the board game experience into an endless story-based adventure. Gygax and Arneson were that childhood friend you had—you know, the one who always attempt to invent new sports by having you do things like wear rollerblades while playing basketball.
D&D was as much a game as it was a new way of thinking imaginatively with others. D&D was a safe place for our inner children to run wild. Per the rulebook:
Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don't care for Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard's Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find Dungeons & Dragons to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a "world" where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!
The next version of D&D would be a complete game with all of its own rules. Its expanded, deeper explanation of mechanics earned it the name Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. You rolled dice and used tables to decide, not just whether you were able to strike an opponent with a sword, but whether your 75-year-old elf who had encountered a blind king could contract his parasite—along with what area of the body it would affect, whether it would be a chronic or acute problem, and how many months or years the infection would last. By the third edition of the game, released in 2000, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was renamed Dungeons & Dragons, completely erasing the idea that a simpler version of this fantasy game ever existed.
Then came the fourth edition. D&D characters had always been classified by their fighting abilities, but D&D 4 took the idea further, ignoring multifaceted parts of one’s character, like their 9-to-5 jobs, to focus on their specific role and abilities within a battle grid. Combat took longer to complete. And each player had a very specific job to fulfill in the battle.
"People playing the third edition really liked combat. They wanted to customize the characters and use those abilities to fight. So in fourth edition, you had even more specificity: miniatures and dungeon tiles," explains Mike Mearls, the current head of D&D rule development, who was eating string cheese during our call. "The people who used minis all the time really loved it. But what we found was the other groups were finding: I can’t play D&D the way I used to play."
Today, Mearls admits that D&D 4’s combat approach was disastrously timed when it arrived in 2008, as it would face competition from the dominant MMO World of Warcraft (a game many might argue the D&D 4 character system was largely modeled after), along with the rising market of smartphone gaming and free-to-play MMOs, which could simulate customizable characters, casting spells, swinging swords, and wielding countless other weapons.
"There was market situation for that style of game," Mearls says. Much of D&D’s fantasy world approach to gaming, once so fresh and original, had been commoditized and digitized over the course of decades.
D&D needed more than a new edition. It needed a rethinking.
Building A Modular Ruleset
By this point, I've lost my niece's attention. She's abandoned her character sheet in the interest of her Kindle. I read through the adventure that we could have had. On her way into town, she would have come across a broken cart on a road that had been attacked by goblins. If she'd followed the clues, she would have ended up in a forest—a goblin camp. Oh man, she could have interrogated goblins! She could have become part of their tribe. She could have married their king. Anything!
"The real thing that changed [with D&D 5], and was part of this evolution of D&D, was saying, 'Throw out the rules,'" Stewart explains. "That’s not the important thing . . . don’t be beholden to those rules."
When Mearls took over the rules development of the new D&D, the process was highly public: 170,000 playtesters tried early releases and offered feedback over the course of a year and a half. There would be no blindsidingly poor reception for this version of D&D because the core audience was testing and experiencing the product during development. For instance, fans demanded a skill system—a way for characters to master various talents—so designers added one.
Fans also demanded more intricate rules across the board—what I might call the niece provisions—which the team resisted implementing. And in fact, the designer’s restraint on this topic defines much of the new D&D.
To get started with D&D 5, you can buy the Starter Set. It costs less than $15. The box is mostly filled with air rather than rules. Remember that flimsy brochure that I was flipping through in attempts to appease my leopard/hippogryph/niece on that fateful day? That was the 31-page rulebook that the buyers of the Starter Set get, and a lot of it is background about the D&D fantasy world, and tips to roleplaying. It’s just one tiny piece of the grander D&D rules. And it was designed to be vague in order to just get me telling stories about goblins, elves, and dragons to my niece.
For those who want to dig deeper with dice roles and character specialization, designers developed a system called the Basic Rules, which at 110 pages long, is a bit of a misnomer, but allows fans to go deeper with the game. Those rules are free to download as a PDF. And for people who’d like to go even further, there’s also the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual coming out over the next year, adding more and more rules if you’d like them.
"You don't need to know all the rules of basketball to start playing. You dribble around and shoot it in the hoop," Mearls explains. "What makes the tabletop game fun, it’s the social interaction. It was very, very intentional on our part, and to make the DM comfortable, that you couldn't make a mistake. You’re the DM, relax and play the game."
Throwing Out The Rules
In other words, I was supposed to bullshit my way through the rules just so we’d get playing. And as we played more, a deeper ruleset was available to seek out and download if we wanted it. But even that ruleset? That’s modular, too. In essence, this means that if you’re not the type of player who wants to roll the dice to learn which specific disease is inflicting what part of your body, you don’t have to, because the rules aren’t built to be interdependent, causing some domino effect should one group of players want to ignore the more complex mathematical calculations in the game.
"We can take a mechanic and give you a few settings for it," Mearls says. "And we explain, if you want to turn that mechanic up, here's what it means. You want it to turn down, here's what it means."
The new D&D can be a basic story, or it can be a complex, customizable game of advanced tactics and combat. By design, that choice is yours.
With the rules in place, the next question became, how do you scale D&D beyond the tabletop dice game? How can D&D re-establish itself, not just as a book publisher, but as the lucrative, licensable franchise it was in the 1980s (when it was a Saturday morning cartoon) or in the late '90s and early 2000s (when watershed computer games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights translated RPGs as virtual technological wonders).
That’s largely Stewart’s job, a 20-year video game industry veteran—to figure out from here. "[The performance of D&D 4] prompted us into a direction that was, what we really need to do is create the best rule system for a tabletop RPG," he says. "Okay. We can do that. But that’s not going to fix the thing, because D&D is so much bigger and broader than that."
The D&D team’s plan is to tell one big story a year, across every medium D&D appears on. In 2014, that story is called Tyranny of Dragons, in which Tiamat, the queen of evil dragons (not to be confused with nice dragons), has been trapped in nine hells for 1,000 years but, I’m guessing, breaks free and must be stopped through the unification of all good in the world.
The idea is that a tabletop player can buy a turnkey adventure book to play through with their friends, while those who prefer console play may buy an first-person-shooter D&D video game. The characters might have different backstories, abilities, and entirely different adventures on a chapter by chapter basis. But both players will be experiencing that global story—like the Queen of Dragons wanting to rise again and take over the world—and follow their own adventures, encountering mysteries and racing to save the day through different viewpoints.
Stewart and others from the team namedrop The Avengers more than once when defining this approach. Indeed, what became one of the most popular films of all time was largely successful due to its story’s pyramid-scheme architecture, in which many layers of famous heroes with their own comics and films culminated in one umbrella blockbuster. It can be difficult to imagine, say, a level-six gnome warrior named Finnegan Brownbuckle playing through D&D’s The Lost Mine Of Phandelver campaign as having quite the same appeal as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but the point is well taken. Entertainment properties of today rule many mediums. D&D wants to rule more.
And in the longer term, Stewart would like to go even further, introducing, not just one story to unify the world of D&D, but what he’s dubbed "ubiquitous gameplay," a way to take your custom character from a tabletop game, to an Xbox game, to an iPad game, (though yes, getting your guy onto the big screen, too, would be a little tough). He calls it "the dream," and is almost self-conscious when he reveals their first step toward it: Players of the Neverwinter MMO video game will be able to unlock an in-game magical item that they can use in the tabletop. (Now, why any tabletop player couldn’t just reward themselves with piece of equipment is an idea I can’t quite follow.)
The larger idea is to make D&D more than a universal story—to be a fantasy world you can dip into socially with your friends around a table, compulsively on a train with your iPhone, and fanatically as you go to the movie theater.
With Apologies To My Niece
I'd like to say that when my niece asked me to be a Rakshaka, I handled the moment with perfect clarity of mind and just let her. But instead, I did what any [bad] adult would do when I couldn't make up my mind. I just say no. "Maybe later, though, when you level up!" I offered.
My niece and I never got around to playing that game. (All wasn’t lost, dear reader, we went to the movies instead!) In retrospect, it’s partly my fault for being wound so tight, and partly the Starter Set's fault for not saying more overtly, "Go ahead, make it up! Because unless you download 110 pages of additional rules, and maybe half a dozen more books, you’ll probably need to."
But with the rare opportunity of talking to the man who literally wrote the book on D&D, I asked Mearls what he would have done in my situation. Would he have let his niece bend the rules and be a Rakshaka?
He laughs. "I probably would have. My first daughter is due in November. I’m sure I’ll say, 'You can have a unicorn, a magic sword, whatever you want!'"