Wednesday, April 2, 2008

D&D in the News

D&D had a news story devoted to it yesterday on MSNBC, the first time I can remember such a thing occurring in many a moon. Sure, Gary's death last month brought the game back into the spotlight, but it mostly in the context of being Gygax's creation rather than as a topic of discussion in its own right. This time, though, it was different and, I suspect, much of what was said in the story will shock and offend a lot of gamers, particularly the hardcore gamers who spend a lot of time online posting to forums and reading blogs about their shared hobby.

The story was entitled "'Dungeons & Dragons' fights for its future" and begins by stating, "It must be tough to be 34 and already see your children overshadow you." Those are harsh words and yet true. The reality is that the computer games D&D helped inspire long ago overtook their erstwhile "parent" in popularity and profitability, a situation that will only get worse as time goes on. As I noted in my post yesterday, the release of D&D in 1974 was a perfect storm, an unpredictable confluence of events that led to the game's faddish popularity for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s -- a popularity it has never regained despite lots of claims by people at Wizards of the Coast that more people play D&D now than have ever done so and that the line is more profitable than ever.

Those claims might even be true in an absolute sense, but, relatively, D&D is not what it was and couldn't be. Those fad years have skewed a lot of people's perceptions, both ordinary gamers and game designers. When Gygax tried to sell his idea to Avalon Hill, he anticipated that there were maybe 50,000 people who might buy and play the game. By today's standards, where a "successful" RPG might sell one-tenth that amount, 50,000 might seem like a lot -- and it was, for an untested and peculiar kind of "wargame" -- but Avalon Hill wasn't willing to take that gamble and so turned Gygax down. In the end, Gary had to start his own company to publish D&D, which quickly sold far more than 50,000 copies and established D&D as the 800-pound gorilla of the roleplaying game industry, a position it has never relinquished, despite years of mismanagement and outright stupidity by its caretakers.

But the reality is that D&D's popularity was a fad, a fad made possible by the parallel growing popularity of fantasy literature, at once inspired by and driving the success of D&D. Remember too that, as a hobby, D&D predates most of what we would today call video games and it would be years before most such computer entertainments could compete with even the most primitive hack 'n slash dungeon crawls. In those halcyon days, D&D succeeded because it gave people something they wanted -- fantasy escapism -- in a way that no other medium could provide. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the entire video game industry, which now overshadows RPGs, arose out of a variety of attempts to reproduce the D&D experience in electronic form.

It took years for it to happen, but the video game industry has succeeded. I say "succeeded" in the sense that it now gives the vast majority of people who, in the past, might have turned to D&D for their fantasy escapism what they want but without the fuss of complicated rules or funny dice or even having to find some friends with whom to play the game at all. Most people nowadays can get the same experience they'd get out of D&D by playing computer games or MMORPGs, with the latter even providing much of the social aspect many "purist" roleplayers say is the true appeal of the hobby. The fact is, though, most gamers are very happy with the experience computer games provide. I observed this years ago, back in the dying days of 2e, when Blizzard, the company that would go on to claim the fantasy gaming crown with World of Warcraft, put out its dungeon crawl game Diablo. A dear friend of mine played it and loved, as did we all, but I still wanted to start up a D&D game and asked him to join. He demurred, saying, without a hint of irony, "Why would I play D&D when I can play Diablo, which has better graphics than my imagination?"

While my friend now regrets having ever said that, the reality is that he was right then and even more right now. For many people, D&D is a very inefficient vehicle for delivering what they want out of a fantasy game. I say that without a hint of either venom for those who prefer computer games (I am a guy who plays in a WoW raiding guild) or disdain for pen and paper games (which I continue to play and design). I simply think that what we are seeing is that the last vestiges of D&D's faddishness are finally falling away and the game is revealed for what it always was: a peculiar little hobby activity for a small group of peculiar people.

Again, I say this without contempt. In fact, I rather look forward to the days when roleplaying is comfortable being what it really is. Those days of tremendous success were oddities. The hobby has been coasting on momentum from the mid-80s and inertia is finally exerting its inexorable pull. My own kids will probably be roleplayers, but only because their father is. They might in turn spread this hobby to some of their friends, but the odds are not great. Like model railroad building or playing bridge (a fad of its own -- the D&D of the 1950s), roleplaying games will eventually become a marginal activity that a small portion of the public finds joy in. For myself, as one of the people who finds such joy, I see no problem in this future. My only concern is that, in their quest to regain something that can never be regained, D&D's current custodians will sell the game's soul and history for a bunch of magic beans.


  1. "I simply think that what we are seeing is that the last vestiges of D&D's faddishness are finally falling away and the game is revealed for what it always was: a peculiar little hobby activity for a small group of peculiar people."

    I think you're exactly on the right track here. I also loved your comparison to bridge, since my dad is a bridge die hard. I exchanged emails with him and he sees the comparisons as well.

    I'm going write a post piggybacking off your final posts at my lj. Super short version: Why can't rpgs be happy with what they are?

  2. Here's the link to my post, since IDK how to do that cool trackback thing:

  3. I've called 3e: a computer game without the convenience of a computer. Which is rhetorical hyperbole, but for which the rhetoric is as important as the hyperbole. (^_^)

    It's natural for the casual observer to assume that computer games completely obsolete pen & paper role-playing games. Just as for many wargamers, computer versions nearly completely obsolete board wargames.

    (Miniatures wargaming means more investment in the physical bits, so provides more reward in eschewing the computer.)

    Then, if they bother to look at D&D3e, it does a lot to confirm that natural intuition. (Despite the fact that it can be played in a much looser style.)

    I don't think it helped that, IMO, the original games did a poor job of communicating themselves. My understanding of original, classic, and advanced D&D has changed quite a lot since seeking out the stories of & discussing with Gygax, Kuntz, Mornard, and others.

    Just as reading (fiction) is still attractive despite television and film and computer games (which are sometimes more story than game), so does pen & paper role-playing gaming still have a place despite computer games, MUDs, MMOGs, etc.

    Now, I'm not one who thinks our hobby needs to conquer the world. I'd rather it be a niche than morph into something just to appeal to more people. But I worry that in the current state of affairs, too many who would enjoy our hobby can too easily miss it.

  4. I'm someone who would much prefer roleplaying remain a niche hobby. I'll be writing my thoughts on that in a day or two, depending on my schedule.