The Decade in Tabletop Gaming, as told by Dungeons & Dragons
Yesterday I wrote about the broad history of the current decade in video games, but today I’m going to talk about the decade in tabletop roleplaying games. My focal point for this will be the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, because despite my love-hate relationship with it (or perhaps because of my love-hate relationship with it) I think it can illustrate the trends of the decade quite well, despite being first released in 2014.
This is an entry for the Archdruid Gaming contest for articles about the current decade in gaming. Go check them out!
The defining element of Dungeons and Dragons’ 5th edition, often simply referred to as “5e” (which is how I will generally refer to it), is that it bucked the trend of its wargame roots to become something that looks more like a narrative and storytelling game.
While it is probably the most well known roleplaying game, it’s part of an ever-expanding ecosystem that includes a multitude of other great games, including the ones I work on, and there have been a bunch of trends that have come up that 5e has generally presaged or at least reflected a movement toward.
One of the interesting things about 5e is that it has a very unique approach to how its mechanics work. While nothing that Dungeons & Dragons does is particularly novel (it is, after all, a product of Hasbro and no longer a genre-creating innovator), it combines things in ways that have been generally advantageous.
Take, for example, its proficiency system, which gives a flat bonus to all actions that a character is proficient with.
This makes almost all of a character’s decisions binary: you are proficient with a skill or piece of gear, or you are not. However, it still grants room to grow and develop as characters become stronger, since the proficiency bonus increases as characters level up. There are also ways for characters to gain half proficiency or double proficiency in some areas, which opens up a higher degree of resolution without adding much complexity to the game: gone are the days of tracking fifty numbers.
A lot of mechanics have also been streamlined; each individual system is used for as many functions as possible, and this makes the game a lot easier to pick up and play.
This echoes a lot of what we’ve seen in other game systems. Where almost all roleplaying games in the 20th century and most in the previous decade focused on numerical complexity, a more prevalent philosophy that has sprung from this decade is to use fewer numbers for more outcomes.
Narrative Over Math
While there are a handful of games that have relied on more storytelling-focused methods before 5e came along, one of the major changes that marks a philosophical shift is that 5e started to care about results in a very different way than previous games.
Namely, the presentation of many of the rules in 5e was redesigned so that instead of focusing on the numbers that come up during a game, 5e focuses on narrative intent.
This means that the game is built around asking what goals and stories should be told, and then uses its mechanics as a way to fulfill the story. This is not something that 5e has fully converted to; look at any of the published adventures and compare them to something like Savage Worlds’ story frames and it’s obvious that they are much more scripted and traditional. However, the idea that the official guidance for running the game has moved away from a simulationist approach (i.e. the dice say what happens) and toward a narrativist approach (i.e. the dice serve as a referee and arbiter)
While it is not the only game of its kind to do this, Fantasy Flight Games’ Genesys system moved away from numbers in its outcomes, relying on dice that have special results for a narrative approach.
Some indie games have taken this approach since the early 90s, but it was not something that one would expect from the “average” game; the 90s and 00s were dominated by games ruled by numbers and rules, not fast narrative results. Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (my Game of 2018) show off how the same method can be applied to dice with traditional numerical results with the use of relatively simple mechanics, and I think that it is another good example of
One of the defining elements of 5e is that it places more of an emphasis on characters as narrative and dramatic agents. While previous editions of the game and many games written in the last decade often portrayed a roleplaying game as a story told by the Dungeon Master (or, more generically, Game Master) which the players uncovered, the decade has seen a reversal in this trend.
Characters now are the center-point of storytelling, which not only better fits traditional storytelling forms like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but also gives players more agency and power to play a role in creating the world.
Definition versus Variety
One of the changes that has come up during the decade is a shift from an increased amount of character options in many games (particularly in games like Shadowrun, GURPS, and earlier editions of D&D and its successor Pathfinder) toward making characters defined by fewer options with a greater impact from each option.
For instance, 5e greatly reduced the impact of feats, which in previous editions were options that characters gained every few levels and granted special abilities or bonuses. In 5e, many things that were formerly feats became class features, and feats were generally reduced in influence (though some feats have been added over the course of 5e’s development and they were always available as variant rules).
Part of this was the idea that characters should broadly be able to do almost anything, and special abilities that became “must-haves” should be avoided in favor of abilities that defined a route a character could take.
5e brought archetypes to the forefront, using a system where characters are defined broadly by a class, more specifically by an archetype, and then even more specifically by the use of background and fantasy races like elves and dwarves.
This creates characters who have very clearly delineated abilities, something which has come up as a trend across the decade as game rulesets have trended toward being simplified and streamlined: fewer numbers, more rules alterations.
The games industry has become more overtly political in this decade than it had been in previous ones.
5e is one of the most obvious examples of this shift; you can find the official D&D logo in pride colors as part of official merchandise, and conventions and major discussions in the tabletop roleplaying sphere include more references to LGBT and minority issues.
This has led to some positive improvements and some negative ones.
The portrayal of women and minorities in games has been improved by removing many of the stereotyped and cliched portrayals of previous decades (improvements in this started last decade, but the idea of advertising a game using a bikini-clad woman unironically is no longer mainstream). Likewise, a lot of the old concerns and moral panics about roleplaying games have faded and they have more of a place in mainstream dialogue, including their therapeutic and empathy-boosting potential.
There is also increased accountability within the games industry with regards to sexual harassment and predatory behavior. Many of these issues revolve around people who were celebrated at the beginning of the decade for mainstreaming more edgy and explicit content, particularly by those who wanted to destigmatize certain types of behavior, highlighting a blind spot in how influential and popular creators can use their power in the industry to exploit others.
On the other hand, games are now political. With 5e, this is generally just branding and not something that has made a major impact on game mechanics and material. In some games, like Spire, this makes a lot of sense: games now feel free to address important topics and can expect and be expected to include serious discourse.
This has a downside: it means that games that lack a political statement, or which are perceived as making the wrong political statement, are in danger of attracting criticism. There are still games that exist in a sort of sphere of political innocence, but they have been relegated to a special niche.
It also means that games have shied away from some topics or have taken stances that are more overt about the people, places, and events they depict, imposing a freeze on dialogues that look like they could take a “dangerous” direction but also leaving important questions unasked and unanswered.
The Artisan Option
5e has been a less prolific edition than other Dungeons and Dragons product lines, with only a handful of books from its core product line intended as core rule supplements. However, one of the new focuses has been on tailoring content to settings; Eberron, Ravenloft, Ravnika, and the Forgotten Realms serve as distinct settings with rules for tailoring the game to fit certain themes and styles. Other rulebooks exist to facilitate other styles of play and capitalize on pop culture: a Rick and Morty tie-in, a book based on the popular Acquisitions Incorporated campaign run by Penny Arcade, and a Stranger Things tie-in.
This reflects a general trend in the tabletop roleplaying industry: higher production values are achievable thanks to a larger market, Kickstarter, and digital production processes than were possible ten or fifteen years ago.
Generally, games have not been as experimental in pushing genres, because it is rare for tabletop games to themselves become a genre based on their features (games like Microscope notwithstanding), but rather reflect the literary genres they represent more directly.
Each major genre spawns its own contestants, with games like Symbaroum representing dark fantasy, Seventh Age representing historical fantasy, Scum and Villainy representing space opera, and Degenesis (disclosure: I am a freelancer working on products for Degenesis) representing post-apocalypse fiction.
Tabletop roleplaying is no stranger to licensed games, but it’s worth noting that a major factor in the resurgence of games like Dungeons & Dragons as household names is the increasing relevance of licensed games based on popular franchises.
Even niche franchises, like Judge Dredd or Conan the Barbarian, which often struggle to attract the interest and financial investment for triple-A films and video games, can support well-developed product lines of roleplaying games. In many cases, these games can also offer a second breath of life to franchises that have encountered licensing difficulties, especially in film or TV, or which have found a lack of demand for sequels and spin-offs.
In the last decade, the d20 system, based on an earlier edition of Dungeons & Dragons, was very popular as a basis for licensed games, but it is increasingly common for licensed games to receive bespoke systems or be treated to variations individual studios’ in-house systems (e.g. the Genesys system, the 2d20 system, and the Cortex system).
This means that audiences are increasingly being drawn away from the realm of Dungeons & Dragons-compatible rulesets and toward more variety in games.
This decade in tabletop roleplaying has been less of an influential one in the overall history than the decade in video games; this is in part because the field is more broad and less cohesive, more heavily influenced by hobbyists despite ostensibly being dominated by a few major players.
It also has been a decade in which the industry has blossomed and expanded, but part of that has been a stagnation in some ways; the attempt at hitting larger audiences means that new niches emerge, but they are filled quickly by games that do exactly what that niche demands.
A focus on storytelling and narratives, and rules interpreted by individuals, means that a lot of the changes that have been going on in things like video games just aren’t possible in the realm of tabletop games; digital distribution has been more prevalent for a longer period of time in the tabletop field, but the appeal of printed books is still strong in a way that physical video game sales can’t duplicate.