Here’s the basic idea:
You get a bunch of guys together around a table. In the 70s, these ‘guys’ would almost always be male; that’s not necessarily the case now. Whatever their gender, all of them will have paper, pencils, and funny-shaped dice.
One of the group will be the “Dungeon Master,” or DM. Everybody else is a “player.” The players each create a character, the sort of hero you’d expect to find in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. They write down on a piece of paper various numbers that define what the character can do ― how strong the character is, how smart, whether he or she can cast magic spells, or knows which end of a sword goes into the bad guy. The DM then puts the characters in a specific setting: “After a hard day of travel, your characters are all in a roadside tavern,” the DM might tell the players. “A mysterious hooded figure comes to stand before you.” The players then get to tell him what their characters do, faced with the tavern and the cloaked figure.
They’re limited only by their imagination, and what’s written down on the paper before them. Maybe they want to do something the character might fail at: say one of the players wants to grab the hood of the figure before them and flip it back. That’s where the dice come in. The player looks at the numbers that make up the character, rolls the dice, and the DM ― who doubles as a referee, adjudicating all these contested situations ― tells the player what happens, based on the character's statistics and the die roll.
That’s Dungeons & Dragons, as it’s existed since the early 1970s. The game’s gone through a number of changes over the years, changing the rules ― how the numbers work, how the dice are rolled ― in an attempt to make the game more coherent, more ‘balanced,’ or, simply, more fun. Results have been mixed. Each time the makers of the game have released a new edition, some players have refused to update, resulting in a fragmented fanbase: the so-called ‘edition wars.’ Recently, Wizards of the Coast, the company that now owns D&D, announced a fifth edition was in development. The reaction, despite mentions in media outlets like the New York Times and Forbes, has seemed muted.
Over the past forty years, D&D’s spawned a whole industry of other role-playing games, and influenced the development of video games and multi-player online games. If you’ve ever played a game where you control a character who gains experience through combat, and becomes more powerful with more experience, then you’ve played a game based on a D&D mechanic. If you’ve played a game where your character has a number of points representing health ― ‘hit points’ ― and loses points when struck or injured by enemies, then you’ve played a game based on a D&D mechanic.
Does D&D still have a place in the world, or has it been replaced by new technology? In the early 80s D&D was a widespread fad, effectively mainstream, much as games like Diablo or World of Warcraft are now. That's clearly no longer the case. In theory, though, 'tabletop' role-playing still has something that sets it apart from computer games: the creativity of its players and DM. In a computer game, the argument goes, however large the world, however many cutscenes or prepared dialogues there are, you’ll still find things that don’t make sense ― characters repeating themselves when you talk to them two or three times in a row, for example. And you’ll find yourself trying to do things that the game doesn’t understand; if you’re in that hypothetical tavern and trying to throw back the hood of the mysterious cloaked figure before you, the game has to recognize that action as a possibility before it allows you to do it. A human DM may not have prepared for the action ahead of time, but can improvise any number of reactions.
The problem is, not everybody who plays D&D has the same level of creativity. There’s a reason the game has a bad reputation; the reason why even fantasy writers will dismiss bad fantasy fiction as something that could have come from a D&D game. Not all DMs, and certainly not all players, are up to the challenges of creating believable stories and characters. Nor is everyone necessarily interested in story. Sometimes the game’s just a chance to imagine your thinly-developed character taking parts in acts of violence against other sentient creatures, and taking their stuff: hack and slash.
The game has a built-in motivation for characters to adventure. They want to gain experience points. Specifically, you gain experience points by gaining treasure, and by overcoming monsters. If you gain enough experience points, you’ll go up a level. You’ll get tougher, and better at fighting, and if you use magic you’ll be able to cast more and mightier spells. This means you’ll be able to fight even tougher monsters, and recover even greater treasures, to become even stronger. At worst, then, the game devolves into a simple routine. Kick in the door. Kill the monster. Take its treasure. In many editions of the game, player characters and monsters have an alignment, a kind of moral tag: lawful good, chaotic evil, true neutral. If the monsters are all evil, your good characters don’t even have to feel guilty about killing them all and looting their homes.
Perhaps the odd thing about D&D isn’t that it so often produces bad storytelling, but that it sometimes produces something pretty good. If you’ve got an imaginative DM, and you’ve got a good group of players who're prepared to take the game seriously and invest real depth into the characters they create, you can collectively tell an involving story. A story that evolves as it goes along, and is shaped by no one person; a DM may have an idea of how things are going to go, but players will often have their characters make choices the DM couldn’t expect, sending things off in odd directions.
Why a new edition, then? And why is it all about wizards and elves, anyway?
Answering the second question leads to the answer of the first. D&D developed out of wargames, attempts to replay past military conflicts using miniature figurines and battle-maps. Gary Gygax, a fan of pulp fantasy writers like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, added rules for magic and fantasy creatures to a wargame that attempted to recreate battles from medieval Europe; Dave Arneson came up with rules to adjudicate the actions of individuals, rather than whole military units. Gygax and Arneson between them worked the game up into Dungeons & Dragons. In 1974, as TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) Inc., they published the game as a set of three rulebooks in a white box.
The game was popular, but an odd thing happened: most of the DMs who ran games found situations came up which the rules either didn’t cover or didn’t seem right. Players were infernally creative, and were constantly trying things nobody'd thought of. So the DMs added rules, changed rules, created their own monsters, created new magic spells, and generally did whatever they had to do to keep their stories going. Gygax and Arneson, both DMs themselves, were tinkering with the game as much as anyone. New supplements soon appeared collecting new rules. A magazine, The Dragon, published variant rules and character options. Things were getting complicated.
Gygax, who had effectively taken charge of the game, decided to update it in two different forms. In 1977 he published a simplified rule-set, written by J. Eric Holmes: the Dungeons & Dragons Basic boxed set. He also began to publish a more complex, detailed set of rules, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which took the form of three hardcover books ― the Monster Manual, the Player's Handbook, and the Dungeon Masters Guide. The two games weren’t really compatible, and Gygax insisted that there could be no deviations from the rules laid down in the AD&D rulebooks: “uniformity of rules and procedures from game to game, campaign to campaign, is stressed,” he wrote in the introduction to the Dungeon Masters Guide. Gygax said he wanted to keep a recognizable framework for the game, so that players in any given D&D game (or “campaign”) could move into another DM’s game without worrying about the rule-system.
It’s debatable whether this actually happened. DMs mixed rules from D&D and AD&D, The Dragon continued to publish variant rule possibilities, and other role-playing games appeared with new ideas for rule systems. When Gygax published a fourth D&D rulebook, 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, some gamers used the new rules and some didn’t. Meanwhile, the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set was revised, then expanded; it had become its own game.
Gygax lost control of TSR in 1985 following various legal maneuvers; Arneson had already left, after a dispute with Gygax over royalties. In 1989, the new owners of TSR decided to launch an updated version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: AD&D 2nd Edition. It brought together some of the new rules that had appeared in various supplements and sourcebooks. Crucially for the now-struggling company, the new edition meant that gamers had to buy the core rulebooks all over again. Some upgraded; some didn’t.
A few years later, TSR was driven into bankruptcy. Assessments of the reason for the company’s failure vary, but typically involve tales of mismanagement at high levels. It was bought in 1996 by Wizards of the Coast, or WotC, the company that published a popular card game called Magic: The Gathering. The next year, WotC launched a third recension of the game: Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. This mixed the basic and advanced lines into one game, and radically revised the rules. The upshot was a game that was more mathematically balanced, but more complex to play. It succeeded at one thing, though ― it drew a lot of disaffected former players back to the hobby. Once again, gamers were buying three big hardcover rulebooks.
By that time, D&D in its various iterations had created a whole industry of role-playing games. Most of them weren’t fantasy games. Some of them were licensed from other entertainment franchises ― Star Trek and Star Wars, for example. Others, such as Vampire: The Masquerade, created settings of their own. Third Edition ― later revised by WotC into “Edition 3.5” in 2003 ― reached out to players of these games with an innovative business tactic. WotC released the basic rule system of Third Edition D&D basically without copyright restriction, as the Open Gaming License. Other gaming publishers were invited to use the system for their own games, which many of them then did … meaning that the players of those games now needed to buy the D&D rulebooks.
Whether as a result of the OGL or not, Third Edition D&D became the best-selling role-playing game in years. Odd, then, that WotC decided not to re-use that strategy in 2008, when they launched a Fourth Edition of the game. For whatever reason, this version didn’t have anywhere near the same success as Third Edition. More oriented to the use of maps and miniatures, and widely perceived as more oriented to combat and tactics than story, it felt like a much different game than any previous version of D&D. If Second Edition was a step beyond the original AD&D (now counted as ‘First Edition’), and Third Edition was several steps away from Second, Fourth Edition was across the street from Third ― if not on the far side of town.
Each new edition had in fact divided players further, much as Gygax, who died in 2008, had feared. Some players upgraded with each edition. Others upgraded for some editions, but not others. And some turned back. After Fourth Edition was released, a number of disappointed players seem to have gone back to First Edition ― becoming a part of the so-called “Old School Renaissance.” The older rules are less mathematically balanced, they argue, but the feel of the game is looser, more customizable. There’s more freedom, things move faster, and there’s more space for atmosphere over math.
All of which leads us to the announcement of an upcoming Fifth Edition. WotC seems to see it as a chance to unite the warring tribes of gamers. Mike Mearls, the senior manager of Dungeons & Dragons research and development (one hell of a job title, that), wrote on the WotC web site that: “We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game.” Elsewhere, he’s spoken of a customizable game ― different rule sets that different DMs might choose to include or ignore as they like. And speaking to another gaming web site about Fourth Edition, he asked rhetorically: “How do we get all these guys back together, so we actually have real communities, not just a bunch of separate smaller communities that don't really interact in any way?”
Frankly, I think that the concern’s overrated. Sure, not every player or DM knows the rules to every version of D&D. But no edition is so far away from the others that they’re difficult to learn if you already know any given version. Many gaming groups regularly try out different games from different publishers anyway. House rules have been a part of the game literally from its beginning; the need to “unify” all players to one given standard is a chimera ― and no, it doesn’t matter which edition of the Monster Manual that chimera comes from.
Dungeons & Dragons is a storytelling game. It’ll always have a place because of that. Rules systems are, in the end, chaff; good DMs will modify rules systems as they like anyway, so they can have the action flow the way they like, so they can tell the stories they want to tell. The ‘edition wars’ are a problem for the bottom line of Wizards of the Coast, but not necessarily for the people who play the game.
Gary Gygax’s original D&D rules are not always clearly written, and for that matter not always good rules ― even Gygax admitted that AD&D’s notoriously bizarre unarmed combat system was a mistake. But as a writer, Gygax was influenced by and passionate about the authors who created fantasy fiction. Appendix N of the original Dungeon Masters Guide lists “Inspirational and Educational Reading” by fantasy writers from A (Anderson, Poul) to Z (Zelazny, Roger). There's no doubt you can see the elaborate diction of H.P. Lovecraft or Jack Vance in the purple pitch of his prose. And it all makes the game better. Paging through the treasures of the DMG, it’s hard not to be inspired by the lists of monsters, treasures, dungeon furnishings, and reputed properties of gemstones. The vocabulary of philtres and phylacteries, of grimoires and dweamers, sets a tone of wonder ― a very rich tone, granted, but on the whole an effective one.
The more the game moves toward a focus on mathematical balance and combat tactics, the more likely it is to lose that focus on wonder ― on the engine that drives the stories. That’s the quality that makes D&D whatever it is, for better or worse. No edition since Gygax left TSR really managed to consistently capture that atmosphere of wonder in the core rulebooks. They were better, clearer rules, and they did a better job of teaching you how to play the game; but they didn’t show you why you’d want to. I doubt Fifth Edition will really recapture the gamers who’ve gone “Old School” and turned back to First Edition. I doubt it’ll be the universal role-playing system WotC seems to want it to be, though I also doubt it'll do any real harm to the hobby.
Why should it? You don’t need any official set of rules to make the game work. Just a bunch of guys (of whatever gender) in a room, with papers and pencils and funny-shaped dice and a lot of imagination. That last thing is the trick; but you don’t get imagination out of a game. All a game can do is give imagination a way to exercise itself.
D&D in all its forms has managed that trick for almost four decades. One more edition won’t hurt.