Outside the Walls of the Dungeons and Dragons Empire

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  • 22 July 2021
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I was asked by a teenage co-worker, about a month ago, “Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?” I proceeded to tell him enthusiastically, “I do play D&D, I’ve been a game master for almost seven years!” He wanted to know what Dungeons and Dragons was because he was invited to be part of a campaign and had no clue what it was. I explained to him that it’s a collaborative game between a game master, the one player who acts as a referee of the rules and plays out the non-player characters, and a few players to go on adventures of small and epic proportions that use dice rolls to determine the results of your actions. After chatting about Dungeons and Dragons for about 30 minutes he said, “You must love Dungeons and Dragons.” I responded quickly with, “I love Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s not my favorite tabletop role-playing game anymore.” He looked so confused after I said that. After processing what I just uttered he asked, “So there are more games like Dungeons and Dragons?” I simply responded, “So much more.”

The Rise of an Empire

You the reader may also never have heard of other TTRPGs outside of Dungeons and Dragons. Why is that? The main factor that I notice is Dungeons and Dragons relevancy in pop culture is what separates them from the rest of the TTRPGs. Dungeons and Dragons is widely considered the first role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. So it’s had time to get popular and to be known; however, in my opinion it’s popularity truly skyrocketed in the mid 2010s with a combination of three things: the release of D&D 5th edition, Critical Role, and Stranger Things.

I never played D&D 4th edition, probably never will, but after talking to some people who have played it the consensus was the same: 4th edition was not as fun as 3.5 edition. Wizards of the Coast, the game development company for Dungeons and Dragons, had to create an edition of D&D that could fix the faults of its last edition while keeping the spirit of the 3.5 edition, with that 5th edition was released in 2014, six years after the release of the 4th edition. It was touted as the most easy to play edition of Dungeons and Dragons for both Dungeon Masters and players alike. Considering it was my first Dungeons and Dragons game I played I do agree with that statement from both a DM and a player. A year later it would receive its next push with the creation of Critical Role in March of 2015. A simple idea for Matt Mercer and his nerdy-ass voice acting friends was to stream themselves playing Dungeons and Dragons on Twitch. They couldn’t have predicted the extreme popularity that Critical Role would be now six years ago with millions of people watching and receiving an animated series based off their first campaign. It’s hard to not be engaged when watching the show because Matt and company are all 100% invested in the game and tell interesting and compelling stories. The next push that I believe to truly skyrocket Dungeons and Dragons for the general masses was Stranger Things. I didn’t see Stranger Things season one until October of 2016, even though it was released on Netflix in July of 2016; however, after seeing the first episode at 8 PM on a school night I binged it all until 4 AM and slept for three and half hours and went to school at 8 AM. To this day it was still worth it. There have been tv shows in the past that mentioned Dungeons and Dragons in a particular episode(s) like Community, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, etc. Stranger Things was different because Dungeons and Dragons was used as a crucial storytelling device that was integral to season one. I noticed that around that time people were talking about Dungeons and Dragons a lot. I went to a rural high school with a graduating class size of 27 students for context. If something became so popular that it made its way to my school in general conversion, something was going on.

Beyond the Walls

Around late 2017 to early 2018 I was not enjoying 5th edition anymore. As a player the character customization seemed too laid out for me after level 3 and was not satisfied with the options given to me. As a Dungeon Master the rules seemed to be vague at times, especially when a ruling was a deciding factor on if a character was going to have to make death saving throws or not. Yes, homebrew classes and rules are always an option and I did that; however, it still wasn’t getting the job done for me. In mid-2018, a friend of a fraternity brother told me about an announcement that was buzzing about a playtest for Pathfinder Second Edition. Pathfinder First Edition, for the uninitiated, is a TTRPG based off of and compatible with D&D 3.5 edition. It was unofficially known as the 3.75 edition because Paizo fixed a lot of problems that were in 3.5, which made it popular after people didn’t want to convert to D&D 4th edition or who did play 4th edition but didn’t want to go back to 3.5 because the lack of new content. That person who talked about Pathfinder said he loved it, felt confident about the second edition, and said Paizo pushes out content regularly for it’s games (one little complaint that I had about Wizards of the Coast was lack of regular player/Dungeon Master content outside of adventures). Sure enough I believed him and bought the playtest. To my surprise it was exactly what I needed that 5th edition couldn’t provide, deeper character customization and clearer rules. An added bonus was that combat was more flexible because of its new three-action economy.

Soon after the playtest concluded, I started to do more research into the different TTRPGs because I wanted to expand my knowledge. My philosophy was if I was in the dark so long about Pathfinder maybe there was something else out there that I may equally like or like more. I was blown away at how many there were. It was a buffet of TTRPGs. Each genre has its own section and subtleties about them, each different from the last. You want to be in a cyberpunk world with a fantasy flavor to it, play Shadowrun. You like cyberpunk but with no fantasy, play Cyberpunk 2020. You want to be superheroes, play Mutants and Masterminds. You want to be in the Star Wars universe as bounty hunters and smugglers, play Star Wars: Edge of Empire. You like space but hate Star Wars, play Paizo’s Starfinder. Love Lovecraftian horror, play Call of Cthulhu. I could go on forever about the different TTRPGs out there.

The First Step

It brings me to my main point that I want to say: there is more than Dungeons and Dragons out there. The exceedingly popular D&D does seem very appealing because it seems that everyone is playing it; however, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s inherently the best game for you. I do appreciate and love D&D to this day. It has done so much for me in my life and the lives of many others. It’s not the game for me anymore, but my memories of being an assassin turned god of death and DMing with a player who seduced a kelp monster are forever burned into my brain. I am excited about Pathfinder Second Edition and the many amazing TTRPGs out there and I encourage you to take the first step, if you haven’t already, and go to www.drivethurrpg.com to explore the different games they have. You may surprise yourself at what you find and may go away from 5th edition or you won’t. It doesn’t matter as long as you find the game(s) for you and your friends!

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