The 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published in August 2014 and has been a huge success. Many fans believe the 5th edition to be the best edition ever published. But what makes this edition great?
I still remember when I bought my first D&D player’s handbook. It was the 2nd edition AD&D with a cover by Jeff Easley and if I’d only spent half the time on my studies at that time in my life as I spent browsing that book I would probably be a rocket scientist now. D&D was the first roleplaying game I learnt and the one rpg I keep coming back to. No matter how much I’ve delved into Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, the new Scandinavian games or whatever new game is being released, I keep going back to D&D.
In truth, I don’t mind all the different editions and I find fighting over which edition is the best one boring, to say the least. I played AD&D for years, I loved it when the game changed to 3rd and 3.5. I’m even one of the strange tribe of people who actually liked 4th (and, what’s probably even greater sacrilege, I do not deny the existence of part I, II and III in Star Wars, I’m that kind of people). Each of these editions has brought me sessions of joy and many great memories.
For me D&D is more about the setting than the system. Today, I run a biweekly AD&D Dark Sun game, where we have a lot of fun and many laughs. Of course, the system isn’t perfect, but then again, what system is perfect? For me, playing roleplaying games is about having fun, through a great social activity. I don’t care if the system says I should be using Thac0, BAB or a Proficiency Bonus to see if my character hits.
The 5th edition
In August 2014 WotC released D&D 5th edition and now, four years later, the game is more popular than ever before. One could say that WotC team crowdsourced the system of the game, they released D&D Next in 2012 and got massive feedback from fans, insuring that the game had, pre-release, a massive following. This is something that the WotC team still does, the Unearthed Arcana is their way of introducing new features like classes and monsters and get feedback from the players.
This is a great way to make the players feel invested in the game and help them feel empowered, that D&D is their game. After all, the idea of D&D and what makes D&D isn’t something you can register as a trademark or own anyway, especially when we’re talking about something that is as social as a roleplaying game.
Still, WotC has also resisted the urge to release many books each year, with a myriad of player options, and have focused more on keeping the game simple and story-centred.
This isn’t in the best interest of the company. Selling books is how WotC (and other rpg publishers) make money. So, to make as much money as possible they could be releasing books every month, but so far they haven’t and by doing that they also make sure that every product gets a moment to shine. But what’s more, they also make sure that they keep the players hungry for more. They don’t saturate the market.
What makes a good thing great
Many D&D players feel that 5th edition is the best edition so far, that 5th edition has the best system and the books are well edited and good.
System-wise, 5th edition isn’t perfect. It still suffers from the some of the same issues that plagued older editions. High level characters are still an issue (finding and creating suitable encounters for these semi-demi-gods is still a hassle) and for those players who are more systematically inclined min-maxing is just as much as a problem as it always was. But this isn’t a piece on the flaws or merits of 5E as a system. Let’s leave that for a later date.
Ever since 3rd edition the books have gotten better and better. They are better designed, the editing and proofing has gotten better and the setup as well. The 5th edition is simply the sum of all the experience that WotC has gathered through the years and to be honest, I would be very surprised if their good team of writers, editors and designers would make a mess of a new rulebook.
So, basically I don’t agree that what makes 5th edition great is the system, the books or the art. I don’t think that the reason is as superficial or simple as that. I think that a good system, great books and modules all sum up and make the game good, but to find the real reason for why 5E has been such a success and so great I think we need to dig deeper.
Inclusion is a key element
I think that I won’t hurt anyone’s feelings when I say that D&D was for years mostly a white guys’ game. Yes, there were female players and designers in the early years, but the idea of the game, you know, the one that WotC can’t patent, was mostly owned by us white men.
This has changed.
Ever since the 3rd edition WotC has been introducing other ethnicities in the artwork of their rulebooks, e.g. Ember the monk of 3rd edition PHB. This subtle change was simply the first of many. Introducing Anton Marivaldi as The Reaver and one of the antagonists in the Sundering books was another. Having some the NPCs in the new modules of other sexual orientation than heterosexual is yet another step. There have been many more, some more subtle, while other are more prominent.
This change, this inclusion, is what I think makes 5th edition great.
Speak to a larger audience
By making the idea of D&D more open for other people than white dudes, D&D now speaks to a much larger audience than before. And D&D’s popularity has in turn grown exponentially.
I think that this is not something that happened automatically, but something that the WotC team has been building towards for years. Changing an idea takes time.
Of course, there are some people out there that feel that D&D shouldn’t be something where gender, sexual or ethnic issues matter. But the fact is, it does and to be honest I feel that it is and should be a part of WotC social responsibility.
I’ve often told the story of my older boy (then 9 years old), who is Haitian-Icelandic, when he first browsed through the 5th edition PHB. When he saw the fighter he immediately pointed the fighter out and said that he wanted to play that character. Growing up in Iceland (a predominantly white society) can be hard and finding role models which you relate to is even harder. Our society is so monotonous that the teachers in his school don’t see the difference between my son and the only other coloured boy in his class, despite the fact that they don’t look anything alike at all.
Now, imagine how you’d feel if you were in his place, feeling out of place, an island in the society where you grow up and what a relief it is to see a game where you feel included and welcome.
I can see and feel that this is something that matters to my son and I can only imagine how people of other genders or sexualities must feel realising that the world greatest roleplaying game has room for everyone. But unfortunately my imagination is confined by my own experiences.
Be the change
I feel that this inclusion is the greatest part of the change that D&D has been seeing in the past few years. But changes are always met with scepticism by a certain number of people. That’s alright, because D&D has room for us all. You are free to play the D&D you like, with the people you like. You can either embrace this change or resent it. It’s up to you, because at your table D&D is your game.
WotC has done a remarkable job in empowering and encouraging D&D to be embraced by different kinds of people, through their marketing, the modules and novels, the visual art and brand image, and just simply how they display their game. They are the change they’d like to see in the world.
There are many online shows where you have an all-female cast, where you have an all LGBT cast, where the cast is mixed and where the cast is solely made up of white males. There are hundreds of groups just here in Iceland playing D&D and each is different, special and unique. The idea of D&D is no longer the sole property of a small portion of the society, but it has been adopted by many more groups of people, which is simply awesome. Everyone is welcome to play.
And that is the main message, D&D is for everyone. Make it yours.