Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Advantages of Being First

There are much better systems than D&D in the world. In fact, D&D is rather incoherent and riddled with irregularities, despite its charm. Yet from a certain perspective, D&D is the best game there is, simply because it is the first and most popular.

This is no circular argument: what I mean to say is, because D&D was the first role playing game and has hence secured the Top Dog space for itself and ruled the roost ever since (to mix my metaphors just slightly), there are vastly more people playing it and hence vastly more people creating things for it. To put it in fashionable terminology, the D&D brain trust is massive in comparison with that for any other RPG. The OSR blogosphere is only one small example of this. From house rules to new monsters to campaign settings to alternative classes to whatever else you can think of, there are dozens of times more people creating things for D&D than any other system, and thus there is a greater vat of accumulated knowledge from which any given D&D player can draw inspiration and edification than there is for game X, Y, or Z. Or even A, B or C.

But it doesn't stop there. I would suggest that D&D's pre-eminent position at the forefront of the hobby has a more profound and subtle impact on D&D players than just providing them with loads and loads of ideas, new rules, and customisations. The boon is far greater, if slightly more difficult to access: it comes in the idea that D&D is not a fixed thing but is ever changing. The fact that every month there is (was, once) a new Dragon magazine packed with different rules, that there are blogs and forums and websites out there dedicated solely to the creation of new material, that a never-ending sequence of splatbooks was being farted out by TSR at its height...all of this creates a self-perpetuating, virtuous cycle, in which any individual DM or player is being constantly reminded, almost as if he can't escape the notion, that D&D is ever evolving, ever-changing, ever-ready to be kitbashed and mangled and beaten into something new and different and better. This creates a special D&D mindset. The pressure to think about evolution. Other games may have a certain feeling that the rules and content can change, but D&D is impossible to imagine without the constant pressure of change, improvement, expansion. And this D&D mindset is a precious gift to the player of that particular game. It means that anybody playing D&D is always confronted with the question: what can be done to make this better?


  1. It's like English.
    The word "Phlegm" tells you almost everything you need to know about what's wrong with English. Esperanto doesn't pull shit that. But...english has (I think) the largest vocabulary of words in any language.
    It has more flaws, yes, but it's also bringing way more to the table.

  2. Or to put it another way: the quality of an operating system is kind of irrelevant if all the interesting software is for some other platform.

    1. But also, the operating system's lack of quality forces users to come up with innovations.

  3. Yes, D&D was first, and that's an advantage. But despite its rough spots, D&D also has a number of qualities—besides the continuous mindshare you mention—that differentiate it from other rpg options, and those qualities probably also factor in its popularity. In other words, it's hard to credit D&D's top position to *just* being first, plus the mindshare momentum it gained from that.

    For instance, one (non-unique) quality of D&D is the use of a fantasy backdrop. D&D isn't overtly sci-fi; it's not horror; it's not supers; it's not western; it's not supernaturals. It's *fantasy*, and, for some strong reason, that's very important.

    Some other genre has had 40 years to displace fantasy as the #1 rpg genre, but it hasn't happened. Many of those other genres are reasonably popular—extremely so outside the rpg space—and there's been no lack of trying to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Buffy, etc. In the case of Star Wars, it was even in a position to take over by virtue of capitalizing on a shared D&D infrastructure. Similarly, other genres were spliced into D&D via product lines like Ravenloft, but these did not significantly shift the fundamental genre of D&D; they _could_ have shifted D&D's genre, but didn't.

    But none of those other genres took over the #1 spot. Fantasy still rules the rpg roost.

    So the fact that D&D was explicitly given a fantasy backdrop was an important _decision_ by the designers.

    Of course D&D isn't the only fantasy rpg. But it does offer a particular mix (and now _multiple_ mixes) of qualities that set it apart from other rpgs. For example, few rpgs offer anything close to D&D's magic system, both in terms of casting system (Vancian) and the particular mix & granularity of spells. Few rpgs offer a _lack_ of a skill system (note that prior to 2nd edition, D&D rarely uses the term "skill" to refer even to thieves' abilities). Few rpgs offer a _lack_ of an explicit religion. Few rpgs offer a _lack_ of an explicit setting. Few rpgs offer combat success certainty for an experienced PC vs weak enemies. Few rpgs offer copious magic items built around imaginative concepts (as opposed to leveraging some kind of mechanical "design space"). Few rpgs offer an advancement system built around the idea of primarily seeking something in-game that we players see as monumentally important in the real world. These qualities are all decisions D&D's designers made (either through action or inaction).

    Now none of those is _the_ key to D&D's success. But D&D's particular mix of decisions has been challenged time and time again by competitors. (And of course, some of those choices are different in more recent versions of D&D.) In some of the aforementioned cases, early competitors tried to set themselves apart by _deciding_ to be notably different in one or more of these areas. But it didn't work. D&D still has _enough_ of what sets it apart, for it to remain #1.

    ...or at least its worth considering that perhaps some of the design choices behind D&D are actually relevant to its #1 status.

    1. Yes, fair enough. I've often said on the blog that D&D is, in its own way, almost perfect - though I think largely by accident than design.

      What I really meant with this post was that D&D's most important quality is the idea that it is all subject to change. OD&D is really unplayable without some measure of house-ruling on the part of individual DMs, and, at least until the 3rd edition era, the game was always about that. It was a contingent system that constantly evolved in a de-centralised way. That produced a mindset which is very powerful.