Last week I was idling down the magazine section at the local supermarket and spotted the first issue of something called D&D Adventurer - which, it turns out, is a line of introductory short zines which one can collect and put together in a binder and which will 'teach you how to play the world's most popular tabletop roleplaying game'. I think I just about know how to do that already, to a point (we are all of us works in progress and 5th edition seems terribly complicated to a forgetful old sausage like me) but it was only £1.99 and I was curious as to how the game is now being sold to newcomers.
The answer, it turns out, is that it is being sold very slickly indeed. What one gets for one's £1.99 is an entire set of dice ('One special die, the d20, helps decide if your character succeeds or fails at a task or attack...the remaining dice in the set are mainly used to determine how much damage their attacks deal'), some pregenerated characters and character sheets, some very brief instructions which are actually quite hard to parse for the middle-aged adult reader but probably very accessible for a youngster, some photographs of a wholesome and photogenic bunch of such youngsters enjoying themselves tremendously while playing D&D (and, improbably, drinking orange juice), and a short adventure that can be run straight 'out of the box'. The production values are high given what the product itself is; the art is very much of the modern probably-painted-by-a-person-but-indistinguishable-from-midjourney school of Generic Fantasy Banal, but competently executed, and the whole thing looks very plausible - at the level of the type of thing Games Workshop would put out.
The idea, it would seem, is that little Johnny (probably more like 8 or 9 years old than the college students depicted in the zine itself) sees the magazine in the supermarket, is impressed by how exciting it looks, pesters his parents to buy it, and then goes and plays it with his friends and decides that for Christmas he wants Santa to bring him the full game.
Worth a punt, as Duncan Bannatyne used to put it, from WotC's perspective. But is it worth a punt from the punter? Unless one is 8 or 9 years old, the answer is: not really. I was quite taken aback by just how ludicrously slim the beginning 'adventure' is. If you thought the entanglement with Bargle in Red Box Basic was somewhat slight, let me tell you that 'King Under the Hill', the first encounter in D&D Adventurer, is positively anorexic in comparison: basically two rooms and a fight with some cranium rats. This is supposed to last '1-2 hours' (this may be accurate given what D&D combat is like nowadays) but it could be comfortably writtten up in half a page.
The main reason for a grown adult to be interested in the product is its sociological - nay, anthropological - import. Some observations and idle speculations:
- Someone at WotC obviously believes that physical objects and physical tabletops retain appeal to youngsters, and possibly even could be a USP for a game like D&D (rather than trying to compete with video games) - I find this interesting.
- Diversity is pressed very strongly, which is fine, but done quite heavyhandedly, so that, for example, the fighter pregen is (inevitably) a sexy female elf. It seems we've become stuck in a bit of a rut wherein 'diversity' has come to always mean doing what is stereotypically unexpected, in a very obvious and slightly hamfisted way - such that, indeed, it ends up becoming its own stereotype. (Is anyone any longer remotely surprised or intrigued by 'Guess what? The heroic fighter lead in this piece of culture is actually a woman!'?)
- It seems odd, and vaguely sad, that the d20 seems to have taken over as the unacknowledged King of D&D dice; running BECMI as I do, I actually far and away use the humble d6 the most, because it's what's used for encounter rolls, monster reactions, surprise rolls, initiative, and so on. This may say Important Things about the direction in which the game has gone, though I'm not sure what they are.
- The Forgotten Realms seems to have been honed, carved, and polished over time such that it now more or less perfectly epitomises Generic Fantasy Banal; it genuinely cannot be improved upon as the pinnacle of what non-fantasy fans think of when they think about the aesthetic of the genre. This in itself may indeed be D&D's chief cultural achivement - the creation of the mildest and most inoffensive, but still palatable, form of what we know of as fantasy (the Glenfiddich of the genre).