Dungeons and Dragons Must Be Destroyed

Now that I’ve caught your attention with that sensational hot take of a headline, allow me to walk it back a little. When I say ‘Dungeons and Dragons must be destroyed’, I do not mean that the game, Dungeons and Dragons, created in its first edition by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the mid-1970s, and currently published by Wizards of the Coast, should cease production, should no longer be sold, and all copies must be burnt. I have no beef with Dungeons and Dragons the game existing. Granted, I don’t think it’s actually very good at what it’s trying to do, but nonetheless I’ve had many a good time playing it over the years, and it’s brought joy to the lives of many people. Dungeons and Dragons, the game, can and should continue to exist.

What must be destroyed is instead Dungeons and Dragons, the hegemonic institution which bestrides the tabletop roleplaying world like a colossus.

Allow me to explain.

Dungeons and Dragons Has a Stranglehold on the Tabletop RPG Space

It’s not easy to know the exact market breakdown of the tabletop roleplaying market. There aren’t a lot of public numbers we can draw on, and the companies keep exact sales numbers close to their chest. But there’s no question that Dungeons and Dragons is doing gangbusters right now. Wizards of the Coast claims that sales of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, the basic book containing the rules you need to play the game, have eclipsed all previous editions of the book (probably; prior to the 3rd edition, Dungeons and Dragons was published by Gygax’s now-defunct publishing house TSR, and although Wizards bought TSR out when it collapsed in the 90s, apparently they don’t have reliable sales figures from TSR’s era). From 2016 to 2017, Wizard’s Dungeons and Dragons products reported a 44% increase in sales, which is just completely buck wild.

Another metric we can look at to get a better grasp of D&D’s dominance is Roll20’s quarterly report. Roll20 is a popular – probably the most popular – platform for playing tabletop games online with your friends, and the site of most of my recent games. Every quarter, they publish a report detailing which systems are most played in their app. This comes with a caveat: first of all, it only counts games that take place on Roll20. It doesn’t capture the full breadth of online play, let alone what people are getting up to in the comfort of their homes. That said, Roll20 has five million registered users, and with everyone trapped inside their homes, online play has gotten quite the boost lately. So while it’s not the entire picture, it is a great deal of it.

According to Roll20, 53% of all campaigns run on Roll20 are run in Dungeons and Dragon 5th Edition. It’s not the only D&D product on the list as well; The D&D 3.5e, the version I learned to play in high school, comes in sixth place, accounting for 1.4% of all campaigns.

That’s an extremely dominant market position. But actually, it might be even moreso than it first appears. The second largest game system on the list, after Dungeons and Dragons 5e, is ‘Uncategorized’, pulling in 17%. This is not an actual tabletop game, naturally, but rather a catch-all for all campaigns for which the game being played could not be determined. If we exclude these, since we have no data from which to draw conclusions about them, D&D controls almost 2/3rds of the market. Incidentally, if you break the numbers down by players instead of campaign, they’re even more tilted towards D&D.

(As if to add insult to injury, two of the other top five slots are held by versions of Pathfinder, taking up about 6% between them. Pathfinder is not a Dungeons and Dragons product…but it is a modified version of the D&D 3.5e rules, made possible by Wizards of the Coast’s OGL license, and made by and for D&D grognards who were unhappy with the changes made to the game’s 4th edition. It’s Dungeons and Dragons in everything but name)

That’s an absolutely buck wild market share. How big? Well, consider, as a point of comparison, that Disney accounted for almost 40% of box office revenue last year. That’s after buying out their largest rival, and decades of corporate consolidation to produce what many feel is a dangerous monopoly. Of course, these are not by any means the same market, and box office is only one aspect of the House of Mouse’s market power. But nonetheless, it throws into sharp relief how unusual it is for more than half the market to be dominated by not only a single company, but a single product. Imagine a world where Avengers: Endgame, which already pulled in an absurd 850 million dollars in the domestic box office, had instead earned somewhere between six and 7.5 billion dollars, eclipsing the sum total of the rest of the film industry combined. We’d all agree that that market was, to use a piece of technical jargon, completely fucked, wouldn’t we?

Dungeons and Dragons Crowds Out Other Games

Dungeons and Dragons is a game built around a very specific mode of fantasy. The world is full of wild areas, where a group of men (and women) armed with a firm swordhand or a canny mind full of spells can find fame and fortune by clearing it out. This isn’t the only thing you can do with the system, but it certainly is what it does best. Try to play out, for example, complex court intrigue, and you’ll quickly find the system provides you insufficient support. The DM will either need to do some ad hoc inventions of mechanics or else play will devolve into freeform roleplay. The 5e Player’s Handbook devotes less than a full page to describing how to handle ‘social interactions’. As the name implies, there’s a Dungeon, and it’s got a Dragon in it. Go fight win.

Even as far as combat-based systems go, D&D is very specific in its focus. Lord of the Rings is obviously a touchstone, but so too is Conan the Barbarian. But it has no frame of reference for, for example, two beefy muscle men shooting through the air like rockets and firing beams at each other. It wouldn’t know how to handle a shootout in a dark alley. It doesn’t have a good model for a character declaring that they’ve been forced to show their true power and then transforming into a whole new creature, an order of magnitude stronger. (You could homebrew that last one up reasonably easily as an enemy encounter, but what if a player wants to do it?)

And, of course, why should D&D? That’s not what it’s made for. But because Dungeons and Dragons is, in many people’s minds, synonymous with the medium of tabletop roleplaying as a whole, when people want to branch out into other genres, it’s extremely common for them to ask ‘how can I do this in D&D?’ instead of the much more reasonable ‘what game would suit my purpose?’. So many people cobbling together shambling monstrosities of homebrew and layering it on top of Dungeons and Dragons when they could just play Shadowrun or Fate instead.

And, look, I get the impulse. Valor, my system of choice (and, full disclosure, my part-time employer; I edit for them), started off as an attempt to hack D&D 3.5e to run Bleach, before the creators wisely decided that they should just make a new system. Hell, in the follies of my youth, deeply enamored with The Matrix, I tried my hand at creating a hack of D&D 3e for it. Thankfully, nothing of that attempt remains.

But I think it really speaks to an impoverishment of the scene that so many people can’t imagine a roleplaying world outside of D&D’s shadow.

Dungeons and Dragons’ Design Has Become Ideological

Somewhat more insidiously, many players assume that concepts that are specific to how D&D works are in fact universal; that is, that all tabletop games work like D&D with a different coat of paint. I’ve written at length before about how experience points infect other games simply by dint of mindless expectation, but here’s another example: ability scores.

Many games allow you to describe your character’s capabilities in terms of some set of numbers. In Dungeons and Dragons, those are the classic Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. In Valor, you have instead Strength, Agility, Spirit, Mind, and Guts. In Broken World, you have Body, Reflex, Heat, Breath, Mind. This is so common that games which don’t use it tend to be strange outliers like Fiasco, and it’s very easy to provoke a heated discussion about whether they even belong in the same category.

In D&D, there is the idea that a value of 10 in an ability score represents the ‘average adult human’ value. That’s how strong, or how nimble, or how intelligent the average adult human is. This stems from D&D’s pretensions that its ruleset serves as a semi-realistic simulation of a fantasy world; the attribute score is an objective benchmark against which the simulation can gauge your character’s abilities. A 10 strength means you are this strong and can lift 150 pounds, no matter who you are. If your score is lower or higher, that means you’re that much stronger or weaker than our imaginary average guy.

This is, by contrast, very much not the case in Valor. In Valor, attributes are relative to your character’s overall level; a strength attribute score of 10 is very good on a level 3 character, but poor at level 10. It’s not pegged to an objective feat of strength like lifting 150 pounds, it’s an expression of what your character does well. The difference may seem subtle, but on a fundamental level these superficially similar attribute scores mean something entirely different.

All well and good. Here’s the issue: multiple times when I’ve introduced players to Valor for the first time, I’ve had them ask me what the ‘average human’ number for a given attribute is. And when I explain that there isn’t one, and that it’s a question that doesn’t really make sense, I’ve almost always gotten a blank, confused stare back, as if I’d just said that the sky was pink or that water was dry. I actually once had someone try to argue with me for more than an hour that what I was saying couldn’t be right; there had to be a score that represented an average human’s strength. I’ve had multiple other people report similar experiences.

What I’m trying to get at is that because of D&D’s enduring dominance over the tabletop scene, the assumptions baked into its game design have become unquestioned ideology for many players. Which isn’t great, especially since…

Dungeons and Dragons is Kind of Bad

Look, if you’ve had many a fun time playing Dungeons and Dragons, I’m not here to take that away from you. I have as well! But it’s not…good. The fun times being had are often at odds with the design of the game itself, which is one reason D&D players have so many house rules.

Consider the d20, the gasoline that powers the engine at the heart of Dungeons and Dragons. While other dice have their uses, the d20 is the king; any time you attempt to use one of your skills or abilities, you roll a single d20, add any relevant modifiers, and then see if you succeed or fail.

Why a d20, though?

And before you ask ‘why NOT a d20’, consider the properties of using a twenty-sided die as your resolution mechanic. The range of potential outcomes is very large, especially compared with the modifiers you get to add to your dice roll. Consider, for a moment, Cleveland Notdetroit, a level 7 Half-Elven Sorcerer I’m playing in a campaign with some guys from work. Cleveland has a pretty high Charisma score; a 19, just one point shy of the maximum score allowed under the basic rules. This translates to a +4 modifier to rolls involving Charisma. Furthermore, as a level 7 character, Cleveland has a +3 proficiency bonus to skill checks which he is proficient in, such as Deception. So, when Cleveland tries to tell a lie, he rolls a d20, and adds a total of +7 to the result. This is about as good as a character can be at a skill check at this level, ignoring Rogues (who get such large bonuses to their specialty skills that it basically trivializes all checks), abuse of magical items, and other shenanigans.

Think about that. That means that there is a 60% chance that the dice roll will contribute more to Cleveland’s success than the decisions I made while building him will. A level 1 character with a -2 charisma modifier and no proficiency in Deception (that is, more or the worst liar the game will allow you to create) has a 16.5% chance of telling a lie at least as well as Cleveland does. That’s not particularly likely, of course, but it’s about the same odds as rolling a 1 on a six-sided die. That seems too high considering the builds involved!

Furthermore, rolling a single die means that any given roll is just as likely to fall anywhere on that 1-20 range as anywhere else. If the resolution mechanic was 2d10 instead, or 3d6, the combination of multiple dice would result in the same (or similar) range of possible outcomes, but with a distribution more normalized towards the median value. 2d6 and 1d12 are very different beasts even if their ranges are very similar.

As a result, D&D rolls are hilariously swingy, something that players themselves make all the worse by adding critical success and critical failure house rules. Your build and tactics often matter less than pure, dumb luck. Is that part of the fantasy which D&D sells to its audience?

Or, consider how boring waiting for your turn to come back can be. Depending on the size of your party and the encounter, and how on-task your group is, you can easily be waiting around half an hour between your turns. And during that time there is…basically nothing for you to do. Occasionally, an opponent may use some ability that requires you to make a saving throw, but apart from that there is literally nothing for you to do; your armor class and HP are precalculated for the DM’s use, so by and large you can check out Twitter or watch about half an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and not miss out.

Or, consider that in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, you really only make meaningful character build choices twice: once at first level, when you decide on your character’s race/class combination, and once at third level, when you decide which subclass path you will pursue. And honestly, a shockingly high number of subclasses are straight up traps. 5e is absolutely riddled with trap options, which means there’s only one correct build option in a lot of cases.

(Yes, spellcasters do get to choose which spells they learn as they level up; but that’s no help for combat classes, and anyway there too, the game is riddled with trap options and objectively correct options)

Or consider all the weirdly half-assed simulationism that runs directly contrary to the desired fantasy. Or how much better casters are in almost all circumstances. Or how no human has ever remembered to actually use their Inspiration, even if they lucked into running with a DM who remembers that the system exists. Or how you have to buy three books at fifty dollars each minimum to run a campaign.

I could go on and on and on, but honestly it’s well-trod ground. System Mastery has a threepart special in which they just spend almost four hours just grousing about things they hate about Dungeons and Dragons. I recommend giving it a listen, it’s a pretty good time.

But in addition to mechanical complaints, there’s also the other elephant in the room. I mentioned above that D&D is selling a pretty specific fantasy, and, well, that fantasy is…

Dungeons and Dragons is Kind of Racist

Look, between getting rid of the concept of Evil Races and moving away from racial ability scores, Wizards of the Coast has been putting in some effort to try and clean up the racist muck that drifts about in Dungeons and Dragons’ wake (although I will note that to my knowledge neither of these changes have actually appeared in an official D&D source book yet, so at this time the credit they’re due is for promising to do better at a later date). And I applaud them for that. I’d applaud them more if Wizards wasn’t such a shitty work environment for black people, but eh, it’s something.

But my god, the only appropriate image is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Look, I’m an overeducated white guy. I am not the right person to be treated as an authority on the history of racism in Dungeons and Dragons. But man, even for me, it’s not hard to see it. Gary Gygax, fabled creator of the game, had a lot of essentialist and downright repulsive views, which wound up in the game, and were then re-packaged as tradition for future generations of players. The game’s long fixation on the image of the Orc, and all the insulting orientalist juvenilia, have been long documented and criticized.

These are the sorts of things that can be rectified in future printings and editions, if Wizards chooses to care, and I hope that they do. But that still wouldn’t change the fundamental issue, the player fantasy that undergirds the entire edifice, the reason why there’s a dungeon and why players may want to fight a dragon in it: The fantasy of a world that is largely unoccupied and filled with treasure, occupied primarily or only by wild things or lesser peoples to be subjugated.

And that’s…colonialism. That’s the fantasy that supported colonialism the world over. The idea that Africa and North America (among others) were big empty spaces, ready for discovery and exploitation, occupied only by lesser people who could be subjugated without moral stain, if it helped the colonizers (who would certainly have largely described themselves as some flavor of Good-aligned if asked) claim the treasure they were squandering.

This is the fundamental problem from which all others spring. Until you fix this, everything else is set dressing, and I don’t think there is any way to fix it. If you take away that fantasy from Dungeons and Dragons, the resulting product would no longer be recognizable as Dungeons and Dragons.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this means that nobody should ever play Dungeons and Dragons; the fantasy isn’t the same as the evil deeds it inspired, and applying the fantasy to imagined spaces is not the same thing as projecting it onto the real world where real people live. But it’s one thing for a roleplaying game that encourages players to uncritically reproduce colonialist narratives to exist, and another thing entirely for that game to have eaten the market and the mindspace whole. If we must have one dominant product, why does it have to be this one?

Dungeons & Dragons Delenda Est

It’s long past time for the D&D deathgrip to be prised open. Destroy its institutional power. I have no idea how we get there, but if you’re reading this and you agree with me the D&D must be destroyed, I think the best place to start is with our own circles. Educate yourself on other games, and play them whenever you have a chance. When you and your tabletop friends are talking about starting up a new campaign, chime in and suggest maybe going with something different. Spread the knowledge. Spread the fun. Wean as many people off of D&D’s rancid old teat as you can. Because for its own good as well as ours, Dungeons and Dragons must be destroyed.

Disclaimer: Most of this post was written up quite a while back, and then abandoned for various reasons. Some of the specific claims made in the first couple of sections may have changed in the intervening time.

This post was modified with a correction: I was under the impression that Bleach d20, which was a precursor to Valor, started as a hack of D&D 4e. I was incorrect, it was actually a hack of 3.5e.

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