I was gone for quite some time. Decades, in fact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I kept cursory interest in the comings and goings of 3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition. I don’t think that I truly REMEMBER the release or products for 4th Edition due to my nearly all-consuming involvement in playing, Storytelling and writing for White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness setting. But somewhere along the way, life happened and role-playing, running and writing games about monsters and the darkest aspects of the human condition stopped being fun for me and became more and more tedious in and of itself.
For me, my answer to the doldrums of role-playing was to pretty much abandon it altogether for a hobby quite new to me, which was tactical table-based miniature combat games such as Warmachine and Warhammer 40K.
I was “gone” for quite some time.
When the local store where I played my games closed in the Spring of 2011, I moved “full-time” to MMORPGs such as Elder Scrolls, EVE, and of course, World of Warcraft, which I had played off and on since its release. However, in the back of my mind and nearly always, there was this itch; all these games and all these settings and all the imagery and imagination that birthed them – all of them – had come from a singular parent.
Dungeons & Dragons.
So, I started to look online at where Wizards of the Coast had taken the game that had taught me – literally TAUGHT ME – how to tell stories, how to craft adventure, how to play, run and write for a role-playing game. I saw that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a new, fat-faced four-year-old, was still pretty much in its toddlerhood… so I began to gobble up the books one at a time and search for a group to play with.
It didn’t take long.
Here’s what I learned from my origins in D&D to my abandonment to my rediscovery:
1) Always Imitated, Never Duplicated
There is a form and a function to Dungeons & Dragons that sets it apart from every other role-playing game, table top or MMO. The worlds created within Dungeons & Dragons have, since 1974, dwarfed and, in many ways, miniaturized Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Hyperboria and Moorcock’s Melnibone. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, the Underdark, Faerun, Spelljammer… the Basic Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons looks like a small island off the coast of Virginia with the rest of the individualized settings for the game spanning out away from it like the rest of the known world. It is the format against which other RPGs – nearly every “World Sized” RPG in publication since the release of Dungeons & Dragons – measure themselves. Some have met success.
Most have not even come close to being able to call themselves a mediocre knock-off of the original.
The scope of the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons is, for all intents and purposes, a world without end. Always imitated but never duplicated, in so many ways, all RPG roads seem to lead back to the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons.
2) High Adventure, High Fantasy
The 80’s were absolutely rife with high fantasy tropes; Conan: the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Ladyhawke, Willow… the list goes on and on and on. In a lot of ways, these cinematic offerings were a response to the times and there was a huge demand for them. On the other hand, these movies gave rise to the visualization of a lot of our campaigns and ideas that swam within RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. We began to write our own stories, inspired by the works of Moorcock, Salvatore, Donaldson, Brooks, Jordan, McAffrey, and McKiernan. With these scribblings, we learned how to tell stories. More importantly, we learned how to bend stories to our will because we became so well read. We learned how to not fall into tropes that worked just because they worked. We learned how to keep our players on the edges of their seats. We learned how to make a bad dice roll into something wonderful. We learned how to inject emotion and empathy into a game founded on myth and mathematics. We learned these things from playing Dungeons & Dragons. We learned that even though we may have had boring or inauspicious lives, all we needed for high adventure on a cold winter’s day was a couple of friends, a set of dice, some paper, a pencil and a good freakin’ story to tell each other.
What’s BEAUTIFUL about 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that much of what has been released and written regarding pre-generated campaign publications has come with emotion and empathy included at no extra charge. The writing has been top notch, there seems to be no expense spared on the artwork, and in a world where game stores can be hard to find and where bookstores close on the daily, sites like Amazon and D&D Beyond serve to provide to-the-door delivery for books, supplements, and gear you may want or need to create your own provinces within the aforementioned world without end.
3) No One Does It Better Than Wizards of the Coast
Let’s be honest here; book publishing and games are a part of entertainment. Entertainment is one of those things that you spend discretionary income on. I played Magic: The Gathering for about 15 minutes when it was first released in the 1990’s. The CCG scene simply wasn’t my bag, personally, but I always admired people who stuck with it and who became strategically good at mastering the ins and outs of it. But that’s the FIRST TIME I heard the name “Wizards of the Coast.” I remember wondering in the mid-90’s, when WotC bought TSR and the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, how long it would be until the company completely consumed the whole of the RPG industry. Then, in 1999, Hasbro played the wildcard and bought WotC for somewhere around the sum of $325 million.
Close to 2 decades later, we have Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. While Wizards of the Coast suspended previous products from being sold in .pdf format on sites like DriveThruRPG.com, in July of 2014 they released the Basic Rules box for 5th Edition.
In between 4th and 5th Editions of the game, a lot of the RPG community had gotten used to “community generated” content and “print-on-demand,” .pdf-formats for RPG books that allowed for less overhead and risk for game manufacturers and publishers on the one hand, but that opened the door for a stunning potential for piracy on the other.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books are hardbacks with crisp, quality printed paper and bindings that seem to be able to go the distance. They harken back to the “good old days” of RPGs, when there were core books and hardback supplement books and things people called splat books and the biggest difference (one that I personally like, to be completely honest) is that now, instead of your “modules” being these sort of flimsy little paper things that come in a little folder that can get grease-stained when some mouth-breather uses it as a pizza coaster on game night, they’re called “Campaign Sourcebooks,” and they’re hardbound, too. Woe to he that places a slice of pizza on the DM’s book…
Dungeon Tiles have been released to keep you from having to draw maps, Spell, Monster and Magic Item card decks have been released so that players and GMs have a more portable way to manage what they need when they must travel to and from a game. In short, it’s a class act. Wizards of the Coast has learned through doing what they do EXACTLY what players and consumers want. They listen to their marketing team, their play testers, and their product development people. Are their books and products expensive? Perhaps. When you’re talking
about discretionary income, ALL HOBBIES are expensive.
But they’re not Games Workshop’s level of expensive.
And when you buy a product from Wizards of the Coast, you most certainly will get what you pay for.
4) What’s Old Is New Again
I could sit here and literally rattle off a list of horror RPGs that I have played, or written for, or read about, or reviewed. Dungeons & Dragons did it first. Call of Cthulhu? Dungeons & Dragons’ 1st Edition of Deities & Demigods had the Cthulhu Mythos statted out for use as PC/NPC deities for use in the game. If you look long and hard enough, and you’re willing to pay the price for a copy in semi-decent condition, you can still find this book and you can, with a little elbow grease and brains, adapt Lovecraft’s mythos into Dungeons & Dragons. ShadowRun was (and perhaps still is, although I’m not certain that it is still in publication) Dungeons & Dragons in a science-fiction, Blade Runner-meets-Cyberpunk setting. Eberron takes Dungeons & Dragons into a fantasy, sort of steampunk-esque flavoring that works to compete and, in many ways, surpass games that have attempted to do the same thing in the past like Exalted. Here’s the deal: there is not a single RPG that I am aware of that is worth playing as it was written and published that CANNOT be adapted into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a talented Dungeon Master at the helm.
Some may say that they systems of play are too complicated, and to an extent I agree, but 5th Edition has streamlined the rules into very smooth playing with as little mathematics as possible slowing down the pace of the game. Some say that straight up d10 or d20 RPGs are superior because they – by the very nature of the dice you use to play them – eliminate most of the complications inherent to Dungeons & Dragons. I disagree with this in that when one mechanic is removed due to complication, another complication will arise due to individualistic perception of a rule as written, to wit, the only RPG that will ever be completely free of rules and systems complications will be the RPG that has no rules or systems. That’s not a game. That’s just chaos and tomfoolery while sitting at a table, so you might as well be playing Go Fish… although, there are rules for that game, too.
I find that the streamlined, more accessible and easier to understand rules system of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons a breath of fresh air. I sincerely missed it. I missed the Saving Throws. I missed the Perception Checks. I missed all the nuances that were available to you if you decided that you wanted to play a Halfling archer, although now, I’m more solidly set into the saddle of my Svirfneblin Gloom Stalker w/ Bracers of Archery.
While there are still some components of the game that can take some time to get used to, once you latch onto them, you’re hooked in, and things start to run as smoothly as clockwork… just like every edition before 5th.
5) It Makes Me Feel Young Again
I sincerely cannot remember a time when sitting down to write an outline for an RPG that I wanted to run didn’t feel like work to me. I cannot remember a time when playing an RPG didn’t disappoint me. Either there were too many constrictions on my splat, or there weren’t enough options for what I wanted to do with professions or skills or there were no modifiers for a specialization that I wanted to take for my character… so many of them just fell flat for me. It started to feel like work, and then, for a time, it WAS work, so I just gave it up for something else.
Then, about a month ago, I bought Mordenkainen’s Guide to Foes, and it was like looking at a photograph of your high-school sweetheart in her prom dress.
There they were: the Gith, the Lords of the Nine Hells, the Red Wizards of Thay. Names I hadn’t heard in literally decades. And it wasn’t enough. I got a fix… but I needed more.
So, I started to look up things that I didn’t know anything about; the Warforged… the Tiefling… the Dragonborn…
And I consumed these tomes one after another after another. Volo’s Guide to Monsters is hilarious… I read that one to my wife chapter by chapter, section by section (I did, however, skip the architecture of the lairs and dens to keep from putting her to sleep). Xanathar’s Guide to Everything - written by the Eye Tyrant Crime Kingpin of Waterdeep – Was fascinating in regard to the new subclasses and magic items that weren’t in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And then, around Christmas of 2018, I bought a DM’s Screen and I waited to hear whispers of someone needing a DM.
That fell into my lap recently, as the DM of the group that I’ve been playing with for about six months got a new job and dropped out of the game. I was asked “Hey, Shannon… do you think YOU could run a game for us?”
I hadn’t been asked that question in I don’t even know how long.
And I smiled.
And I said yes.
And now, as I bring this blog entry to a close, I begin preparations for the second night of running Curse of Strahd for my players.
For them, it will be a well-orchestrated and organized dive into the horrors of Barovia and the treasures of Ravenloft if they are able to withstand the onslaught of a vampire older than the Harpers Guild itself.
For me, well… I’ve never felt quite as young as I do when I get to say “Well, you can certainly roll to try.”
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games