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D&D Comes Full Circle

Sometime in the winter of 1980-81, I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. I was in fourth grade and Ronald Reagan had just been elected to president. My friend Greg has an older brother who had started playing this crazy fantasy game, and we sat down and tried to figure out what all the Roman numerals meant in the adventure scenario as we fought monsters and collected treasure. It was so easy back then to just jump in and game — you had your character, some basic stats, a couple pieces of equipment, and you just played. Yes, there were a couple charts, but overall it was just easy and fun and you could really play with just the game book, some pencils, paper, dice, and, of course, your friends.

I was hooked for life.

My parents bought me the red dragon boxed set (the one with chits instead of dice – lame), and over the next few years I began collecting RPGs: first the AD&D books and modules, then other games (including Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes), and I even wrote my first RPG: TimeLords. For these first ten years or so (including heading off to college), I played D&D off and on. I ran a short campaign in college, played the Warhammer RPG briefly there as well, and even ran a 2ed AD&D game for kids when I worked as a summer camp counselor in the early 90s.

Eventually, though, I just stopped caring about D&D. I would play it every couple of years at a convention (usually with 1st ed stalwarts), but other RPGs and genres became far more interesting. Superheroes, science fiction and of course the Cthulhu mythos all became much more intriguing worlds to game in — at some point I even hacked together a time travel campaign for GURPS using multiple sourcebooks, which I would never try these days. (Using GURPS, that is; clearly I still have a thing for time travel games.)

The last game of D&D I played was around four years ago when our high school gaming group reunited to play 4th edition. My entire experience with that trainwreck of a game system can be summed up with me attempting to read the flavor text from the spell card and being told in no uncertain terms from my fellow gamers to “shut the fuck up and just tell us what you’re doing.” The complexities and time it takes to move through 4th ed combat inspired, it seems, impatience with the actual role-playing part of the game.

So it was with slight trepidation when, 2.5 years ago (has it really been that long?) my gaming group at the time playtested D&D 5th edition (which was called D&D Prime at the time, I believe). Sure, of course I’ll play, nothing to lose here. We played through B1, the original scenario, and I sat down at the table to be handed a dwarven cleric and a beer.

I was immediately overwhelmed by how simple the game had become. It was like I had been transported 30 years into the past and suddenly I could just play. It’s like the game had circled back around and found me at 9 years old, except that now I have much higher standards to what constitutes a good and fun role-playing game. And yet, this game was good. This game was fun.

Flash forward to just a couple weeks ago and my 9 year old daughter was harassing me to play D&D. Last summer, when she had seen this video on girls playing D&D with boys, she shouted “I want to play D&D!” Since then, every couple of months she had asked to play, and I had continually put her off. Finally, realizing that a) WotC has posted the D&D rules online for free, and b) what the hell was I waiting for?, I got us playing D&D for the first time just two weeks ago.

The results could not be more amazing. Fifth edition is so easy to learn and run that I really have to give it up for WotC, who has done an amazing job at fully rebooting the game. Firstly, giving away a streamlined version of the rules online for free shows they understand how to market games and interact with their customers in the 21st century. Basically, anyone who wants to play D&D just needs the requisite pencil, paper, dice and friends (plus the free rules) to get started. This is a gateway game, folks, and they’re treating it that way.

Second, the rules have *finally* been streamlined to remove so much of the chart-referring, page number memorizing days of old that you sense a full understanding of how RPGs have changed in the last decade. All high rolls are good, all low rolls are bad (not the case with 1st-4th eds); a monster’s armor class is the number you need to roll higher than to hit them (goodbye THAC0!) — these are a couple examples of how much easier the game is to play.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the game has really made it easy for the old-school gamers (like myself), to feel right at home with a game world that can be fleshed out as you play. For starters, during character generation, the game helps build out PC backgrounds that not only provide context and history in categories such as Ideals and Flaws, but also tacks on game-world applications to these: character bonuses, special equipment and world-building opportunities (which guild do you belong to?) all help create verisimilitude out of the gate. But the game is also incredibly fun once you get into it. The ease of gameplay lets both players and DM focus on doing cool stuff and not having to refer back to the gamebook all the time.

This is incredibly important for first timers like my 9 year old, (and eventually her friends) who has never played RPGs before. If we tried to play 4th edition or some other new RPG that is more complex or awkward than it needs to be (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, I’m looking at you), her first interaction with RPGs would just result in confusion and frustration. But with such an easy method for creating fleshed-out characters, with a fun and easy to understand game system, and with some excitement and passion for having a good time, my daughter was hooked.

Just like I was 33 years ago.

It seems far easier for a company with intellectual property, especially something as iconic and old as D&D, to lose sight of what originally made that IP special (*cough* George Lucas *cough*). Greed, ego and laziness can all get in the way of doing the hard work it takes to continually keep the IP fresh and evolving. This is what happened with 4th edition — changing the game system to hook in the “video game kids” is a good concept on paper (and I’m sure was a great pitch to the executives), but it lost sight of what the game really was about. Instead of making the game an easy way for kids to enter a world of fantasy role-playing, they made it about leveling-up your powers and reading really small text from cards.

With this new edition, though, they finally got it right. You should check it out.

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