Twenty three years ago I left my just-purchased copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia in math class. I went back for it at the end of the day, and found that my teacher wanted to have a Very Serious Talk about D&D.
I was primed for this discussion, ready to fight. I’d been an avid reader of Dragon magazine, which in those days was filled with letters from soldiers in Iraq for Operation Desert Shield. They were writing in defense of D&D — how it taught them leadership, teamwork, even a little math. Most of all, they were pushing back against the moral panic that D&D had inspired in the ’80s. The Christian right had been campaigning against this role-playing game: it was a danger to the youth of America; the weak among them lost the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
My teacher (let’s call him Mr. Johnson) jumped right in to talk about the demons featured in the game, which in the early days of D&D had become an easy mark for the 700 Club.
No, sir, I cut him off. I’m a good Christian and I know the difference between this game and reality. I am not confused about whether or not demons are real and anybody that is confused is probably mentally unstable in the first place. Soldiers play this game, American heroes.
No, son, Mr. Johnson told me. You misunderstand. Demons are real and this book of yours turns them into a game. You need to be more careful. I left in a hurry.
We’re a long way from that panic now — the Moral Majority has video games and the internet to worry about now. It’s also precisely those two things that have made D&D more acceptable to the mass culture. It’s harder to feel like you have a niche hobby these days; there’s always more hardcore nerds out there, and the internet makes them easy to find. Video games have taken the core material of high fantasy and turned it into multimillion-dollar blockbusters. D&D players aren’t nerds anymore. The internet has made nerds of us all.
When people who have never played a role-playing game ask me what *D&D is like, I have a hard time describing it. From the outside, it’s simply strange: people sit around a table and roll funny-looking dice and have character sheets with stats on them. A dungeon master (DM) describes the world and talks in funny voices as he describes (or acts out) the actions the players are imagining.
But at its core, D&D is about trust. You’re with a group of people who are doing things that are patently ridiculous. You’re talking in a falsetto voice as a kobold who serves as comic relief but, years into your campaign, turns out to have been a powerful sorcerer in disguise who has been secretly pulling the strings. You’re asking a group of people to take part in a shared illusion, to suspend their disbelief and create a world together without the overwhelmingly powerful tools of cinema or electronic games to help.
D&D has become part of our culture. If you’ve never played it, you probably still have a basic idea of what it is and how it works — even if your idea is based on an an episode or two of Community. If you don’t play soccer, it looks like a bunch of guys kicking a ball around, and if you don’t play D&D, it looks like "a bunch of guys talking about wizards." In both cases, there’s a deep well of mythology, community, and internecine conflict.
There’s a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons coming out right now. It’s the fifth edition of D&D, but depending how you count you could probably add up a dozen different editions. Every few years there’s been a new version of D&D that tries to address the shortcomings of the previous version and also make itself more palatable to its age.
To understand why there’s another version of D&D, you need to know that for the past few years D&D has been fractured and split. I won’t delve too deeply into the so-called "Edition Wars" — (this is a pretty good primer) — but a small, oversimplified history is helpful to set the stage. The third edition got a reputation (which it didn’t necessarily deserve) for being too complex and rules-focused. The fourth edition got a reputation (which it didn’t necessarily deserve) for being too focused on miniatures and grids, too mechanical. Meanwhile, the company that owns D&D had released a bunch of its old material for free as a service to fans, and some of that was built up into a competing game called Pathfinder. Pathfinder ultimately became more popular, by some metrics, than D&D itself.
Wizards of the Coast, which now makes D&D (and also the Magic: The Gathering card game), told me that this edition of D&D isn’t designed to try to bring more players into the role-playing game fold. It’s not trying to expand the market or win people back from video games. It’s designed for one purpose: to bring D&D back to its roots and win back everybody who left during the edition wars.
There’s an intimacy to role playing games that’s impossible to convey until you try it
There’s an intimacy to role-playing games that’s impossible to convey until you try it. Your character acts in ways that you yourself would never, and your friends at the table accept this and do not judge you for it. You trust that you can be weird because it’s not you, it’s your character. It’s like reading your secret poetry to your friends, but it’s poetry you create on the fly right there in front of them, with only the barest structures of paper and dice to support you. RPGs give you permission to share your creativity in a safe space in a way that few other things can.
When I first met my last DM, he requested that we hang out socially for a little while before I joined his group so he could interview me. It felt like a strange thing, but in fact it was genius. I was asking to be allowed into a group that spent hours together every week creating a communal story, and there’s no room for assholes in that kind of circle. Luckily, I managed to convince him I wasn’t an asshole and gained a friend who, later on, would help me through some of my own real-life drama as effectively as he shepherded us through dungeons.
So when the company that makes the rules for that shared, intimate space screws it up by releasing too many editions and poorly-thought-out editions, it breaks your trust in the game. You can see why people may have felt personally betrayed.
D&D is back to try to fix all that. It’s no small thing, to restore that trust and bring people back to the table. Based on what I can tell from the books, it looks like a good system of rules paired with a deep mythology for players and DMs to draw from. There’s a bunch of free material online as well, if you want to take a look for yourself.
Mr. Johnson, if you’re reading this, Hi! Thanks for teaching me algebra. I still don’t believe in demons (and I’m no longer a good Christian), but I wish that I had thought to tell you something back when I was 13. Math is great for making rockets and computers and it’s also a lovely study in its own right. The numbers and the formulae aren’t real, but understanding them makes our lives better.
D&D is great for making a pretend world with your friends, for learning to trust them, and for giving yourself permission to be weird. The dragons and elves aren’t real, but creating them has made my life better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Verge What were you trying to accomplish with the fifth edition?
Nathan Stewart, brand director for D&D [We’re trying to make] an experience that everybody who’s ever played D&D recognizes as D&D, as, "Yeah, I love this, this is awesome." So it’s really kind of distilling it down to its core essence of what makes D&D awesome, and then delivering that to the fans, and then giving them enough flexibility and modularity so that they can add on certain aspects that they really like.
Because if you’re a D&D fan, I don’t care what edition you liked or played, you should all be able to have fun together and talk about the same stories and be like, "OH MY GOD, do you remember when we went in and faced Athrak!" and, you know, "You almost died!" It’s so much about the storytelling and then having that shared experience. Having rules get in the way of that because, "well, I do it like this," and "I do it like this!" That’s silly and Mike and his team have tried to strip out that aspect and take it to just its core essence of fun.
The Verge I know that there’s a lot of relatively opinionated gamers that have different opinions of what the core essence of D&D is. Is there anything in particular that you guys were trying to focus on?
Mike Mearls, senior manager for R&D for D&D It’s really about boiling it down to what are the elements that — specifically for [the] fifth edition — that make it unique compared to other types of games. So when you think of role-playing games, you think of the interaction between the players and the DM. You think about the idea that you’re playing the game, players aren’t constrained, the rules are there to liberate you, to make it possible to try almost anything. To be very creative in your approaches. That the DM has the ability to modify the adventures as you go, create adventures, create worlds.
So really we’re looking at sort of the big picture in terms of tabletop gaming these days. And looking at board games and other types of games that are out there, making sure that the things that make D&D as a role-playing game unique, that those are the things we’re really emphasizing, both in the design of the rules, in how we’re talking about the rules, and in how we’re building the stories and the adventures that we want to [see] played with those rules. So it’s really about getting at the roots about what, back in the ’70s, made role-playing games so revolutionary at the time.
The Verge So what are some of the problems that you’ve guys seen that you’re trying to excise so that you can get back to that sort of pure ’70s gaming experience?
Mearls I think what happened is, over time there’s been more and more reliance on rules, as opposed to settings, as opposed to stories. I think what was happening was … [the game] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact, it really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.
And, you know, those are the real things that when you think about things like rules mastery. There’s plenty of games that offer that. Competitive games, [like] Magic the Gathering, League of Legends, where you can take apart that system and solve it, or, you know, figure out the most efficient combos you get rewarded. And D&D has gone really far down that path, and I think in doing so, we really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play.
There’s a type of person that D&D’s attracted, the storyteller, the creative person, but that was actually the big barrier to entry for them, having to sort of vault over this giant wall of rules; people were just bouncing off the game, they weren’t getting into it. Where, maybe under a simpler version, where those rules aren’t required, we would have that person who didn’t start playing D&D really get into it.
Stewart Well and if you think about it, like, you’ve never heard someone hearken back 10 years ago to their gaming group and go like, "Man, I remember when they changed my +2 to a +4 modifier on advantage, that was awesome, I loved that." You know, they’re always telling the stories about, like, "Oh yeah, remember when we this, and we then…" like, it’s always a story of "We." Them and their friends, they remember who they were with, what they were doing, why it was awesome.
The Verge So you guys went through a pretty long rules-testing process where people were able to test out different variations of the rules that you guys were posing. Can you talk a little bit about how that went and what you learned from it?
Mearls Yeah, it was, it was very — it was fun, and it was nerve-wracking, and it was exciting all at once.
Stewart And it was long. We had over 175,000 people who officially signed up and download all of our playtest packets. Common sense says that if you’ve got 175,000 people who’ve downloaded the rules, everybody at the table doesn’t need to have downloaded them to be able to play, so the number could’ve been way higher. And then, Mike and his team were committed to the process no matter how long it took, and when he says it was nerve-wracking, it was like, "How long is this going to go on?" It only ended up being like a little over two years.
Mearls I talked earlier about how we really wanted to boil it down to the essence. Well, if you’re not doing a lot of rules in your game, you have to make sure that you have the right rules. We could not afford a blind spot, because if we just completely whiffed on something that people thought was really important to the game, it would just be a huge hole for us to fill. So what the test let us do was, as we started simplifying the game down, and condensing it down and making it more accessible, it let us have some of our most hardcore players and DMs checking all our work. And not just in the traditional sense of, "Hey, does this work, does this rule make sense?" But it let us get a sense of what the audience thought of, "Well, what is the essence of D&D?"
Obviously it was about making sure this rule is clear, it works, or this number is right, but it [also] was about making sure that if you give an experienced DM and player a set of rules, they could look at it and go, "This is Dungeons & Dragons. Everything I expect to be in the game is here, and this feels complete."
And I think what it meant was, for the past 14 or so years in tabletop role-playing, and in D&D, there’d been a sense of, you know, complexity is better, people want more detail, they want more comprehensive rules. And what this essentially let us do was let us test that theory and find that was not true. There was a big desire from people to be able to get into a simpler role-playing game. Get D&D boiled down.
Stewart The main crux of it was that you were trying to make an edition that appealed to everyone. And so, we knew what people’s favorite edition was, and we could see how their satisfaction with the current rules were. My favorite part of this is every time you talk to somebody, they were like, "Oh my God you guys are doing amazing, it’s like you’re making second edition all over again." And then I’d talk to [another guy] and he’d be like, "Oh my god, it’s like you’re making third edition all over again."
Mearls It was kind of funny, I almost forgot that it was a phase and we thought, well, our fans of each edition are just incompatible. People might say I like this edition better than the others, but when you actually ask them about what they like about the game, we really didn’t see a ton of variation. Sometimes there were things that resonated more with one group than the other, but we never saw one group get happier, and like a different group get more upset. It was more like, everyone’s happier.
The Verge I need to bring up the elephant in the room, Pathfinder. It has gotten really popular, and so I’m wondering, are you trying to win people back from Pathfinder?
Stewart Pathfinder is published by Paizo, who worked very closely with D&D for many years doing the magazines, and as a matter of fact, a lot of the leadership over at Paizo actually worked here at Wizards for a long time on that. They are using our base rules from 3.5 and then modifying them. So I think when you look at the RPG sandbox, people playing Pathfinder, in my opinion, are D&D players, Just, know you, 3.75 edition ones.
Honestly, we want the role-playing game community to have what they want; we want them to play games, have great stories, tell amazing stuff. Pathfinder, if that’s their style of play, that’s awesome. What we’ve found, for our player base, is that we really wanted for focus on the Forgotten Realms and our worlds and our amazing iconic monsters, and things that we think are very unique to Dungeons & Dragons. The kind of fantasy role-playing game that resonates in the Forgotten Realms and some of our other key settings, that’s what we’re focusing on for our core base. If a player wants the other RPG instead, hey, okay. Or, more than likely they’ll be like, whoever, whatever the gaming group wants to play at that time, because you know it’s this cooperative, community decision.
We’re doing different stuff, obviously we’re focusing a lot of energy on playtesting a great set of rules that’s far beyond the work that was done back then, in terms of resonating with the group of RPG players today, and we think we’ve got a really, really good story cadence going forward, and we’re excited.
The Verge So you’re really focusing on the Forgotten Realms universe here.
Stewart Forgotten Realms was an easy choice for us to focus on to reboot the brand because it is so vast and so detailed. We’ve spent just as much time and energy detailing every corner and every nook of the Faerun map, so I can tell you what the flatware looks like in the houses for that fighter that he’s talking about. You want to know the buildings are in this area? Well this is one that’s prone to floods, so they’re up on stilts and they use this kind of material because this is the stuff in the lowlands around there. They’ve gone through and just done such an amazing job capturing every written word that’s been created about the Forgotten Realms over the last 20 years.
Mearls I think one of the big steps forward is that we’re moving into a more digital entertainment, there’s now a need for a lot of that detail to be brought to life visually. That we need to see, well, what does a town guard of Waterdeep look like? What’s the difference between someone from Calimshan versus someone from Cormyr? We’re way past the time now in fantasy gaming where everyone can kind of look the same. You look at Skyrim and games like that where they have these distinct cultures and distinct groups, and with the Realm we have a lot of these just great baked in to cultures.
The Verge What’s your thinking around expanding the target audience and bringing more people into the D&D fold when it comes to the tabletop game?
Stewart Actually I think that’s not necessarily the goal, bringing more people into the fold on the tabletop games. We want to make the best games possible, working with the best game designers and game creators in the world. Because we think we’ve got one of the best fantasy worlds ever created, we think we have iconic elements that resonate with old audiences, new audiences. So the idea is not "How do we get this new audience coming in and playing tabletop RPGs" The idea is, how do we take the Forgotten Realms and Dungeons & Dragons, to all the people who want to experience great fantasy games.