The last few years have been phenomenal for D&D. There are more roleplayers now than ever before and D&D books are showing good sales figures overall and are getting good reception. Is now the Golden Age of D&D?
I started playing when AD&D was at its peak. When TSR had more than a dozen settings going and produced modules like there was no tomorrow. Players older than me, veterans at the time, looked with nostalgic gleam in their eyes at 1st edition and talked fondly about Golden Age of D&D and how ‘they don’t make’em like they used to.’
Sometimes I hear myself talking like that. I stare at my bookshelves, at the dozens upon dozens of AD&D books and modules and let my mind wander back to sessions when -2 AC was considered good. When my group trekked for the first time through Xak Tsaroth or paid the dreadful lord of Barovia a visit. When we sat 6 teenage roleplayers in a tiny, windowless room, which of course meant that the room smelled as nice I imagine a dead horse does.
Still, this is nothing but nostalgia. I see these sessions with rose-tinted spectacles, the same way I sometimes look back at my time in high school. I’m getting older and this time, when I was younger (and thinner and had more hair for that matter) is naturally something I yearn for. But do I long for the mathematical exercises or earlier D&D versions? Were saving throws vs. petrification, spells or deaths better than Constitution, Strength or Wisdom saves? Were Reflex saves better than the other two versions?
The best edition?
I know many players that abhor 4th edition. I also know a few that played AD&D until 5th edition was released, tried a few times and reverted back to AD&D. Then there are of course those who still play 3.5 or Pathfinder versions of D&D.
Whatever edition you play, whatever you think might think of 5th edition, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it is the single most successful edition of D&D ever. There are more D&D players than ever, there are more books sold and, though there have been a few naysayers, this edition has been generally very well received.
Despite what flaws the edition has as a game system, despite the fact the Forgotten Realms is now the standard D&D setting, 5th edition is a success and brings more players to the table every week than older edition have done.
And note this, it has nothing to do with the quality of 5e as a game system. It also has nothing to do with the failures of 4th edition or whatever “edition war” arguments you’re thinking of right now. 5th edition as a game system has its pros and cons, just as every other edition of D&D has.
My point, and the reason I mention this, is the fact the WotC used different tactics when designing 5th edition. The company got the community involved and they still do. They listened to what the community of thousands of D&D players had to say. I think that the reason for 5th edition’s initial success lies in this: 5th edition was our edition.
But there’s more to it than 5th edition simply being our edition. Hasbro and Wizards have a powerful marketing team and I think that they have done a terrific job in getting D&D into mainstream media and bringing both new and old players back to the table.
And if you think that marketing has nothing to do with it, think again! For marketing has everything to do with it.
Marketing is more than creating and buying ads. If you’ve watched or listened to Dice, Camera, Action, Critical Role, Girls Guts Glory or Acquisition Incorporated it’s all a part of Wizards marketing efforts, one way or the other. They have created kind of D&D rock stars and the new rock stars are the dungeon masters. Are there many D&D players today who don’t know who Chris Perkins or Matthew Mercer are?
This has had enormous effect on the success of D&D today. For years all we had was either game designers and writers like Gygax, artists like Elmore or Jeff Easley, or novelists like R.A. Salvatore.
By making the game masters the rock stars, Wizards have elevated the role and I think by doing that they really have shown much intelligence. It’s now cool to be a savvy game master like Mercer, a true rock star of our edition.
Inclusivity and representation
And there is still more to it. In last few years there has been a revolution in the whole RPG industry. RPG’s are now more inclusive towards all social groups and that applies to D&D as well.
I’ve written before about the representation of gender and sexuality in modules and rulebooks (see here). This really matters, and not just because it’s “politically correct.” This is important from a marketing aspect, since it enlarges your audience.
When I was starting to play there were very few women who played. For the last decade or so I have been a part of very few groups who haven’t included a girl or two and people of different sexual orientations than heterosexual.
I strongly believe that by steering away from white men being the dominant benevolent acting party in images and texts, by making gay and bisexual NPCs part of D&D modules, Wizards have enlarged their audience and made other social groups feel more welcome in D&D.
Studies here in Iceland have shown that over 10% of the population have other sexual orientation than heterosexual. Why shouldn’t the same apply for roleplayers?
I think that D&D has taken huge steps in the right direction in the last decade or so and perhaps even more so due to marketing efforts, e.g. having an all girl podcast like Girls Guts Glory. I think this started with 3rd edition (e.g. the Monk Ember) and is coming even better together in 5th edition, e.g. in Storm King’s Thunder when the PC’s meet with Thelbin Ostra, the wheat farmer in Nightstone, and his husband Brynn.
Modules and strong narrative
Ok, I admit that I’m not Wizards’ biggest fan when it comes to modules, especially when it comes to their 5th edition modules. I feel that they are too busy in re-purposing old ideas, storylines and villains. I long for something fresher than Acererak, than the Queen of Dragons trying to take over the world, the Barovian Lord having adventurers for dinner or some giants going on a rampage.
Still, I freely admit that they have proven that despite me not liking their approach that there are so many new and old players out there that really like it and me being wrong. And that’s fantastic, because it means that the books are selling and the word is spreading. And a middle-aged player like myself isn’t necessarily the target audience anymore, after all, they won me over years ago.
However, what all the new storylines have in common is that the new modules have strong narratives, where the PC’s are the main protagonists and all the modules have the length of a whole campaign. The narratives have strong objectives and are more or less well laid out. Many of these are set up as sort of sandboxes, e.g. The Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss.
By remaking tried and tested storylines WotC aren’t really rocking the boat, so to speak. They know what the community wants, they know what modules have been the most successful and popular. Why shouldn’t they just analyse those and recycle those ideas for a new generation of players, for a new edition?
After all, if you’re after fresher content or a different approach than Wizards have to offer, you can always visit dmsguild.com for that.
The Golden Age is now!
Much as I like to reminisce about older editions, about how everything was better back than, I regularly remind myself that it wasn’t necessarily so. No matter how much I personally like this or that edition, how much I believe that “they don’t make’em like they used to”, the fact of the matter is that the Golden Age of D&D is now.
There are more people playing D&D than ever, D&D is more mainstream than ever before and the game is more inclusive now than older editions. And what’s even better, last year was the most successful year ever for D&D. How great is that!
The Golden Age is now. Us old fellas can moan and bitch all we like, then continue to play older versions and look with disdain upon those unfortunate souls who play 5th edition. But the fact is, we’re all part of the Golden Age, because we are responsible for where D&D has come. We’ve bought the game, the books, the dice, the modules and models.
Give yourself and your fellow D&D players a pat on the back. Despite playing different editions, we’re all D&D players. We’re all part of the same community – a community of a great role playing game.