A few months ago, I signed on with several other bloggers who have each agreed to write essays about games they love. What follows is a rambling narrative of my history with role-playing games, and why I love Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition. Following my essay you’ll find links to essays from others involved in the project and I’ll update that list as the other bloggers post their work. There are some talented writers here writing some great stuff, so I encourage you to have a look. The plan is to eventually compile all of these essays into an awesome PDF and I’ll be sure to let everyone know when that happens. Anyway, that was the preamble, and here is my essay:
Why I Love Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons
Full disclosure: at the time of this writing, I’ve played less than twenty games of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That doesn’t matter though; I’m still going to tell you why I love it. The route that we take will be a circuitous one, but hopefully the journey is worthwhile.
The story behind why a game system released in 2014 is my favorite game system actually begins in the late eighties, with a fourth-grader with a mullet. That kid was of course me, and besides the sweet hairdo, I had one other thing going for me when our story begins: an older cousin of mine had just given me a red box with a dragon on it. I was hooked less than five minutes into the solo adventure. There was a snake, a cleric, a wizard named Bargle… I’m sure a lot of you know what I’m talking about. From that point on I tried to convince anyone and everyone to play this awesome new game with me. Some of my fondest memories are from those early game sessions that took place in the clubhouse in my backyard. The only accessories we had aside from the dice were some pencils and some graph paper. We braved dungeons that I designed based almost exclusively on what monsters looked fun to fight and what treasures they would yield. And when I say dungeons, I’m really just referring to a series of rooms with nothing in common except for the presence of monsters and treasures; dungeon ecology wasn’t even on the radar back then. We made a lot of stuff up, too. There were house rules and ad hoc die rolls that determined all sorts of things. And if we didn’t like our rolls, we would often come up with justifications for re-rolls. We were kids, after all, and the adventure was the thing; the rules often took a backseat to the action.
Cut to a few years later. The mullet is gone, but the passion for Dungeons and Dragons is still going strong. At some point over the course of the next few years, I stumbled upon an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook at a local bookstore. My mind was blown. You could be an elf AND a thief? A dwarf AND a fighter? And what are paladins and druids all about? This book opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities that I had never even imagined. Little did I know that while I was in my tree house playing “basic” Dungeons & Dragons (technically “expert” at this point) there were people out there playing “advanced” Dungeons & Dragons, and second edition at that. I immediately – and ham-fistedly – started incorporating this new information into our games. Suddenly there were elven rangers and dwarven thieves running around in our imaginary world. I can remember the concept of “percentile dice” being a mystery to me, which made the thief ability tables quite confusing (we made due with a d20 roll if I recall). It wasn’t too long after discovering the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook that I made another life-altering discovery; I stumbled upon the existence of a local gaming group.
I had discovered by accident that a nearby sports card and comic book shop also sold some roleplaying game merchandise, including Dragon Magazine and some books for Dungeons and Dragons. I just so happened to be in this shop late one afternoon, just before closing time, in order to purchase The Complete Psionics Handbook that I had seen advertised in the latest issue of Dragon. At the time, the idea of psionics in my D&D games fascinated me. I’ve since done a 180 on that, but that’s another topic for another time. Anyway, I showed up at the store just moments before closing time, and couldn’t help but notice several people with game books and backpacks milling around some tables that had been set up in the back of the store. They weren’t getting ready to play Dungeons and Dragons, but they were getting ready to play something. I was still in junior high school at this time, and all of these guys were older than me. As luck would have it though, my father worked with the father of one of the assembled gamers. Even though I was much younger than the other players this guy (his name was Richard) agreed to take me under his wing, even agreeing to give me a ride home after the game. I was excited beyond words. I was about to play a roleplaying game with real gamers! This wasn’t some group of amateurs that I had cajoled into rolling some dice during their lunch period, these were honest-to-God role-players.
The game they were playing that night was Marvel Superheroes. I’d seen “The Marvel-Phile” in Dragon Magazine, and that was the sum-total of my knowledge about the game prior to playing it that night. The character I was given was some lizardman sort of guy who could regenerate and blend in to his surroundings. On the first turn I was “grand slammed, “ which means I was knocked through about a dozen walls before landing half-dead about a mile away from the action. I spent the rest of the evening waiting for my guy to regenerate enough damage to get back into the fight. Then I walloped the guy that hit me and spent all my karma on the roll – and I grand slammed him! It was awesome. This was the first time I’d ever played a role-playing game other than Dungeons and Dragons, but it wouldn’t be the last. I’d even go on to play several more games of Marvel Superheroes in which I was able to accomplish more than getting my ass kicked, but those stories aren’t a part of this story. The important thing was that I had found a gaming group, and I became a regular in their weekly games.
And the vast majority of these games were Dungeons and Dragons games. Specifically, they were Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition games, although there were quite a few first edition Dungeon Master’s Guides and Monster Manuals floating around too, since these guys were all older than me and had all been playing for quite some time. I learned a wealth of information about roleplaying, dungeon mastering, and all things Dungeons and Dragons from these veterans. The mystery of percentile dice was revealed, as well as a few other concepts that had eluded me. Perhaps more importantly, I learned that role-playing games weren’t just “kid’s stuff.” Some of the guys that I met back then were around the age I am now, and that was over twenty years ago. I felt like I was a part of something special, and I was pleased to see that it wasn’t something that I would be expected to grow out of anytime soon.
Over the next few years I really came into my own as a gamer. I kept playing with a lot of those guys I met at that comic book store, even though it closed down several months after I discovered it. I met other gamers as well. A friend that I went to school with had an older brother that played roleplaying games; a friend of a friend played Dungeons and Dragons. The pizza guy who delivered to my house while we were playing a game played Dungeons and Dragons, and he knew some other guys who would like to play too. I played games and I ran games. My adventure designs evolved. Plots became more complex. I’d spend hours poring over rule books and adventure notes, preparing for the next game session. I had binders full of maps and character sheets. I played Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Vampire, Star Wars, Rifts; the list goes on and on. Each game I played had something going for it, some pros and cons inherent to the system, some reasons to play or not to play them. They were all fun, in their own way.
But Dungeons and Dragons reigned supreme. Sure, there were some people that I met during that time who preferred other games. I knew a few people who would only play White Wolf games, and one guy who hardly ever wanted to play anything besides Shadowrun. But for the overwhelming majority of my gaming friends, Dungeons and Dragons was the go-to game. We played in homebrew campaigns and one-shot adventures from Dungeon Magazine, and we all had a healthy respect for Gary Gygax and the classics. We journeyed to White Plume Mountain and braved the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. Much to my chagrin, we tried several times but never made it past the second level of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Only one of those games ended in a total party kill, while the rest just seemed to fizzle out for various reasons. To this day I can draw the moat house from memory and tell you what’s in each room; the names of Zert and Lareth still make my hackles rise.
My collection of gaming books grew to be pretty impressive. I had probably a dozen “Complete Something” handbooks, including that little-used psionics handbook I had purchased in that comic book store once upon a time. I had a decent collection of old modules and all of the staples, like the Fiend Folio, Deities and Demigods, and one of my all-time favorite supplements: The Rogues Gallery. I had some books for some of the other games I was playing during that time too, but when it came to determining where to spend my hard-earned money, TSR had an overwhelming advantage.
Then everything changed.
TSR released a line of “Player’s Option” books, with subtitles like “Skills & Powers” and “Combat & Tactics.” These books represented the death throes of TSR; they felt like rules for a kind of half-conceived “AD&D 2.5.” Like most rule books there were some good things and some bad things , but the reception among my group was mostly poor – it was too much change or not enough change; it was a square peg in a round hole. We used the critical hit tables in the Combat & Tactics book, which I thought were excellent, and we largely ignored the other options we had been presented with. Then the guys who make Magic the Gathering bought TSR and a few years later there was a full-fledged 3rd edition.
At first, my group stuck to our collective guns and dug our feet in; we already had all these books and we weren’t buying any new ones. We decided to just keep playing 2nd edition like Gary Gygax was still running the show from up in Lake Geneva somewhere and everyone else could go get bent. But eventually, one by one, folks started to crack. Eventually a new Player’s Handbook made its way into our ranks; eventually I bought one myself.
Other things besides our game had started to change too. People were getting older and the “old gang” was drifting apart. We all had jobs, and everyone couldn’t get together every weekend all weekend and play Dungeons and Dragons. I started to feel like maybe I was outgrowing what I had assumed would be a lifelong pursuit. By the time fourth edition came out I was barely playing role-playing games anymore, despite the fact that a few splinter groups of the old gang still played on a semi-regular basis. Most of these guys weren’t even playing Dungeons and Dragons anymore; they were playing something called Pathfinder. I personally didn’t care for it. I found some old friends that were still playing some 2nd edition and I liked that better, but it wasn’t the same. Then I moved to another state.
By now you’re probably wondering what in the hell any of this has to do with Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I promise that we’re getting there.
When I moved away from home, all I took with me in the way of gaming stuff were some Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 rulebooks, a few older Dungeons and Dragons books (no core books), some miscellaneous maps and modules, and a big box of Magic cards. Those magic cards were instrumental in helping me forge new friendships. I heard the guys upstairs having a goodtime one night and thought I’d go up and say hi, since it was better than sitting in my apartment drinking alone, and to my surprise they were all sitting around playing Magic: The Gathering. I went down and grabbed my Magic cards and voila – I had some new friends.
Eventually I broached the subject of role-playing games with these guys. None of them had ever played any, but they were interested. We sat down and made some 3rd Edition characters, but I wanted to run the group through some classic modules instead of something newer. This was mainly because I didn’t have time to create anything new, but it was also because I still had some old modules and I still loved them and the memories I had of them. I found some conversion notes on the internet and printed them off. We were ready to play.
Referencing these conversion notes was far from ideal. Furthermore, it didn’t seem like a “straight conversion” of statistics was all that was necessary. Encounter difficulties were way off, and this was complicated by the fact that I had a smaller group. My ad hoc adjustments betrayed my lack of familiarity with the system, leading to some skewed encounters. I gave it a college try (whatever in the hell that is) with the conversion notes for the modules, but in the end I decided that what really needed to be converted were the characters. I downloaded a set of retro-clone rules that played very similar to Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and running the adventure became much easier.
That could have been the end of the story, but I had been closely following play test reviews and release notes for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and everything I was reading was beginning to win me over despite my resolve to not shell out the cash for a new set of books. When the Starter Set was released, one of my new players agreed to try his hand at Dungeon Mastering and I was sold. Not only did the new rules look interesting, but now I would actually get a chance to play the game too.
Right away I could tell how much the new rules clicked with everyone, including myself. Everything just felt like it made sense. It worked, and it worked well. It felt like just the right mix of old and new ideas. After playing a couple of games I knew I wanted to convert our other characters yet again and take a stab at running some old modules with these new rules. I felt like I could do it without too much difficulty, even; I didn’t think I would need a big stack of conversion notes or encounter difficulty calculation formulas. My instincts turned out to be correct.
We were able to jump right in to our old module with our new characters, and it was by far the most fun we’d had yet as a group. The players appreciated all of the modern updates to their character classes, as well as the short rest and long rest mechanics that kept them in the game longer, while I enjoyed how much running the new stuff felt like running the old stuff. My instinctual understanding of encounter difficulties had returned, and I felt much more confident making adjustments on the fly. The streamlined design allowed me to worry less about whether I was getting the rules right and focus more on getting the fun right.
And so about twenty five years and twenty five hundred or so words later we come full circle. I love Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because it plays like something new but runs like something old. I love all of the modernizations to the character classes, and I particularly enjoy the updated magic rules with things like spell slots and concentration. The rules for Advantage/Disadvantage are so elegantly simple they made me smack my forehead and ask: “why haven’t you been doing this for years?” Speaking of elegance, I love how much work “proficiency bonus” does to unify things like saving throws, skills, and attack rolls under one mechanic. I love Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because when I play it I feel like I’m playing the game I fell in love with all those years ago; I love it because it feels like Dungeons and Dragons.
Other Essays In This Series