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Diving into the Evolution of Tabletop RPGs

I couldn’t be more excited going into our new Dungeons & Delving campaign at Nerdarchy Live. The premise is a dungeon delving reality game show where our characters are treasure hunters. This fascinating premise comes from the mind of our own Nerdarchist Ted. The hype is real and it’s gotten me thinking about the premise itself and why we’re seeing an influx of nontraditional content in the streamed gaming community for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Perspective on D&D

If you’ll indulge me I’d like to do a sort of deep dive into 5E D&D — where it stands currently and where it’s going. I want to get heady and crunchy, delving into the nuance of our hobby’s evolution. If I wax verbose hopefully you’ll forgive me but while having these thoughts I wanted to express them in the best and most articulate way I know.

Climax of 5E D&D

The game has been out as long as many editions were when they gave way to the next new thing. Many RPG YouTubers talk about branching into other games and questioning core elements of the fundamental building blocks making D&D what it is. Essentially we’ve reached the part of the edition where everyone seems to be looking for ways to spice up their games while newbies still flood in, enamored with this brave new world of tabletop RPGs.

I view it much like a massively multiplayer online RPG. Once you get to the endgame content you’ve seen much of what it has to offer and the novelty wears away. New expansions (like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything for 5E D&D) try to mix things up and offer new options but it seems the game itself  grows more quickly than it can evolve and this leaves some people frustrated with 5E D&D. I’ve even heard some say they think D&D is stagnating or waning.

I disagree. I think D&D is more relevant today than ever and I also think these conversations about innovations to the game are the beginning of an evolution for D&D like we’ve never seen before.

Deconstruction and dissertation

There’s been a lot of talk deconstructing the building blocks of D&D through things like the class system, races and more. People ask why things are the way they are and question how to retool familiar tropes with innovative perspectives or outright replacement.

An example of this is the orc race. In 2020 we experienced a conversation among the community about orcs. Are they problematic? Why are they mechanically represented the way they are in Volo’s Guide to Monsters? Why are they considered monstrous in the first place?

The orc player race we got in VGtM was a specific type of Faerunian orc but even in the Forgotten Realms there are multiple types of orcs, as explained by Mr. Rhexx.

Wildemount and Eberron both introduced us to an updated orc race forgoing the penalties so many had hangups about when choosing to play an orc character. While the original orc almost felt like a race trying to inherently disincentivize its play these new orcs presented us with a more appealing option.

This caused many to question why orcs have to be presented a certain way and why any race would have certain abilities with weapons or other cultural staples and if the implications of such were problems on a societal level in our own world.

Ultimately I think questioning racial mechanics is the gateway to a broader discussion about how we view TTRPG ancestry and the types of language we use when referring to fantasy and science fiction species as opposed to our own world’s view of race, which has its own baggage by virtue of the word alone.

What’s more, I suspect that this conversation — while an important one — is the symptom of a bigger shift in the community toward evolving the game to be more open.

Evolution of D&D

When it comes to publishing fiction editions come and go, correcting grammar or inconsistencies. When it comes to TTRPGs editions are entirely new rule sets. I’m of the opinion calling a new version of D&D an edition is a bit of a misnomer.

Each new iteration of D&D is a whole new game to learn. Granted each seeks to improve and streamline the perceived weaknesses or flaws in its predecessor but weaknesses and flaws are subjective, especially when it comes to TTRPGs.

While one person might consider a lengthy ruling on an aspect of the game to be arduous or complicated another might see specificity, realistic simulation and welcome mathematical complexity. Where one person sees an ancestry’s representation as problematic or non-conducive to play in their setting another sees flavor and worldbuilding in the peoples of the game.

Much like many things in our world there is no truly black or white, only shades of gray. Because we’re talking about fantasy worlds we can’t so quickly or easily correlate things to our own experiences. It’s for this reason each new edition’s changes lose part of what the game was along with gaining new aspects to evolve what the game will be.

Hopeful melancholy

I’ve been playing D&D since fourth edition and I remember when D&D Next came out I struggled to understand how each new edition was really its own wholly unique game.

This left me feeling bittersweet. While I was excited to play with the new rules and options many of the aspects I’d just truly familiarized myself with were gone. It left me feeling conflicted.

When I learned of people playing different editions of D&D it all began to fall into place for me and when I learned of other TTRPGs offering more open rule sets things began to click for me about D&D — where it’s headed, where it’s been and how it all relates.

What’s the point?

You’re probably asking what all this has to do with my original point of original settings and deconstructionism. The evolution of the game has bred an inherent trend toward deconstruction and rebuilding.

We’re at the stage in 5E D&D where we’re seeing the deconstruction of themes and concepts once more. In an effort to remain the most flexible edition of all time 5E D&D gave us Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which gave Dungeon Masters written permission to essentially do what they want. That’s not a bad thing.

Each edition has its own pros, cons, goals and mechanics. With each comes a new focus of play and a new means of storytelling. Earlier editions were a foray into the unknown seeking to simulate narrative elements as accurately to the author’s vision of fantasy as possible. Third edition and 3.5 came along to streamline much of what had come before and lend new accessibility to the game. 4E D&D did something similar with an emphasis on combat and wargame mechanics and while its success is debatable it’s always simulated tactical grid-based combat better than others. 5E D&D arrived as a love letter to its predecessors, streamlining things still further and allowing for new levels of customization.

At its core D&D has always evolved to make things more accessible and more streamlined. This has been the focus of its transformations since the beginning, balancing reality and fiction in an accessibly gameable way.

If you thrive on crunch then RPGs like Pathfinder, AGE, Cyberpunk and others provide what you seek. For more open and versatile experiences, game systems like Cypher, Savage Worlds and more offer your cup of tea.

D&D pioneered a whole genre of RPG, much as DragonQuest did for JRPGs back in the day. Part of the beauty of D&D’s deconstruction phase is its spurring of entirely new rule sets not only by D&D.

The coolest part about D&D editions is you can always choose to play what’s come before or you can plow ahead and follow the trailblazing path. Along your journey you may discover new games you like as much. You may even find D&D isn’t your favorite anymore and this is okay.

The coolest part of our hobby is the journey of discovery. As our games and interests evolve we evolve too. Our communities evolve, split and form new communities. The entire hobby revolves around growth and togetherness. As long as we continue to foster those ideals, we’ll continue making the world a better place one game at a time.

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Steven Partridge

Steven Partridge is a published fantasy author and staff writer for Nerdarchy. He also shows up Tuesdays at 8:00pm (EST) to play with the Nerdarchy Crew, over on the Nerdarchy Live YouTube channel. Steven enjoys all things fantasy, and storytelling is his passion. Whether through novels, TTRPGs, or otherwise, he loves telling compelling tales within various speculative fiction genres. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing TTRPGs with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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