Does the Power of 5E D&D Characters Eclipse the Game’s Original Intent?
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted take a look at a social media thread about the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons experience from a “self-parody account” that tagged Nerdarchy. The thread presents a fun topic for consideration and discussion. Do the onramps to great power for 5E D&D characters reflect a community and rule set much different than the creators of the game’s original vision? It’s a deeply abstract notion to explore. So let’s get into it (a little bit anyway — I’m not writing a master’s thesis here).
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Start with the original
Right off the bat my instinctual answer to the question is no. Plenty of anecdotal examples of D&D creators and designers from the original folks to those in stewardship today rattle around my memory to believe with a high degree of confidence the game’s focus is highly subjective to each individual group of players. Like any other storytelling medium I can think of the pseudo-medieval fantasy trappings of D&D is set dressing. Where each campaign goes from there is anyone’s guess.
Maybe it’s the journalist in me but I always feel the best place to start looking into a topic is the source so I looked up the very first published D&D material — 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson. What do they have to say about their own work as regards any raw medieval feel? The foreword to the original edition points to the Scope section as a reference to “provide an idea of just how many possibilities are inherent in DUNGEONS and DRAGONS.” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t sound very strictly medieval to me.
“Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future, but such expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored.”
Like Dave and Ted make clear in the video there’s no intent to cast shade at the original poster or anyone’s opinion on the topic. I love digging around for data and research. I used to do it professionally as a journalist and now I get to do it for tabletop roleplaying games so I’m not complaining. If I’m honest my expectations were finding the original D&D material indeed limited in scope to medieval simulation much more grounded in reality. Hitting the ground running with the vision of the game’s scope reaching far beyond the milieu frankly is pretty damn cool.
Looking through the 1974 text revealed quite a few other things I didn’t expect too. For one the game’s assumptions extend only to using paper, pencils and map boards — not miniatures. In fact they’re described as “only esthetically pleasing” although the implication is some sort of physical representation of individuals and creatures is part of the experience. It’s kind of like a Monopoly game with no pieces and rules that direct players to roll the dice and move a number of spaces equal to the result with no other explanation. It seems like most people would probably figure out some basic standards of play but a hell of a lot of people would have a vastly different experience.
Source of power for D&D characters
What strikes me as the red meat of D&D’s changes since 1974 throughout all the editions and even during any particular edition’s lifespan is the shifting levels of responsibility and influence of both the players and the characters in the game system and in the gaming group.
It’s my understanding the term Dungeon Master emerged through the game’s direction “to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons” and each campaign referee (what such folks are called in the original book) is instructed to create their own labyrinths. Hence, each campaign referee was the master of their dungeons. The first instance I found of the term is in the foreword to 1975’s Blackmoor written by E. Gary Gygax.
“I can not recommend him more highly than simply saying that I would rather play in his campaign than any other — that other dungeonmasters [sic] who emulate Dave Arneson will indeed improve their games.”
Characters in these campaigns braved such dungeons to test their mettle and find treasure more or less. The basic assumption for all characters was a motivation to adventure for power and wealth, and the place to do so was in dungeons. Dungeons, which by the way, contain among other things “a bowling alley for 20′ high Giants” in at least one case (Castle Greyhawk as described in the 1974 book). Raw medieval feel, indeed.
For me the evolution of the game dynamic is at the heart of how changes emerge. Because D&D and by extension pretty much every other tabletop roleplaying game to some degree is so largely unpredictable there’s a sort of ebb and flow to how much control and influence players have over game circumstances. When characters embark on a lives of adventure to acquire power and wealth from dungeons their sources of motivation and reward are mostly external. Each class of course brings unique features to the table but a lot of characters’ advancement depended on the dungeon almost symbiotically.
Spellcasters gained the ability to use more powerful magic more often but they also needed to find such magical formulae in dungeons to expand their repertoire. I’m actually not 100% sure how magic-users or clerics gained spells originally but I do feel a high degree of certainty they didn’t get nearly the breadth of spellcasting power they have in 5E D&D. Likewise fighting-men grew more hearty through advancement but without magic items they possessed no special features. An important feature of any class was their magic item accessibility.
In contrast 5E D&D characters fresh out of the 1st level gate posses extraordinary power wholly in their players’ control. The design philosophy behind 5E D&D assumes magic item scarcity in fact, which in turn places more control and customization of power in the hands of players rather than being a more curated experience crafted by a DM. A terrific illustration of this paradigm hit the D&D community just yesterday as a matter of fact.
I’m really quite fascinated by the give and take of responsibility and influence between players in a D&D game. I think it’s wonderful to see gameplay dynamics evolve, explore and experiment with those dials. Personally I’ve been making an effort to get in the habit of making less distinction between a DM and the other players in a game. It began to feel awkward to me when people reference “their players,” like there is some implied possessive. Maybe in conjunction with the “Master” part of the referee role it created a weird association for me. Author and Nerdarchy writer Steven Partridge offered a great counterpoint though, making a connection more akin to a host and their guests. Great point, Steven!
It’s safe to say I’m going to continue playing D&D for the foreseeable future. It’s been about 35 years already and I’ve enjoyed the amazing experiences and opportunities from every iteration of the game so far right up to as recently as last night with session two of our Dungeons & Delving live play campaign over at Nerdarchy Live.
If you’re interested in checking out the original edition of D&D from 1974 you can find the PDF version at Dungeon Masters Guild right here. The book is relatively short and it’s a pretty compelling read with a lot of expressive ideas you might be surprised to find inside. The afterword does a terrific job capturing the spirit of D&D, which makes perfect sense since the words come from the game’s original creators. Reading them today they feel and pertinent as if they’d been written today. This leaves me with a sense of optimism even more than I usually feel about D&D. From the very start the creators knew this game would invite tremendous scope and equally tremendous numbers of deeply curious and invested players. Stay nerdy!
“There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oft times have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.” — Afterword to Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson