Other Games at the Height of D&D 

There’s been a long conversation occuring on the Internet over the past year or two about the difficulty of promoting or finding people to play other roleplaying game systems (read: non-D&D game systems) and why the d20 system isn’t the be-all, end-all of roleplaying games. Bloggers and tweeters have commented that they can incur feedback and comments from arent Dungeons & Dragons fans whenever they mention or hype other games or producing products—such as campaign settings—for other systems. These D&D fans ask why said product isn’t being made for Dungeons & Dragons, doesn’t support D&D as an option, or even wonder why someone would play a game system other than D&D.

I’ve had debates (read: heated arguments) about this a few times in the last couple months, and wanted to get my thoughts out in a more permanent manner than a transitory tweet or message board thread. Because this is a big issue and I view myself as a “tabletop gamer” first and a “D&D player” second. I love smaller RPGs, non-D&D games, and even non-d20 systems. But this isn’t a simple issue. 

Size Matters

It’s easy to say that Dungeons & Dragons is huge and equate it to other ubiquitous entertainment properties like EA Games or Disney. Especially with the game constantly being mentioned in pop culture: being favourably featured in Big Bang Theory (the highest rated network sitcom of 2018) and a stable of streaming darling Stranger Things.  D&D is certainly ubiquitous. Even monolithic.

Except it’s not.

Being referenced and name dropped in a successful property doesn’t always mean success for the inspiration or source material. Marvel comic book movies are earning all the money, but comic books themselves are struggling to survive. Success at the box office hasn’t translated to success in the comic store. 

D&D and Wizards of the Coast is undeniably the predominant figure in the RPG market. Heck, it effectively IS the roleplaying game market, as even its best selling competition brings in a fifth of the revenue. But the industry is tiny. The entire roleplaying game market was only $65 million in 2018, a mere 1/23rd of the hobby gaming market as a whole. Back in 2013—when sales of D&D were non-existent—the market was $15 million. The majority of that $50 million difference is D&D. Which seems big until you consider Angel Has Fallen, the third movie in Gerard Butler’s forgettable “Has Fallen” series, made $50 million in the US alone. Last weekend (at the time of this writing) It: Chapter 2 made a comparable amount of money in its first two days. D&D and the entire RPG industry is tiny. D&D is the big fish in an exceedingly tiny pond. 

For comparison, the North American movie industry is a $41 billion dollar industry which is dwarfed by the $138 billion dollar video game industry. (With mobile games being $70 billion!) In a single month, Fortnite made more than six times as much money as D&D did during all of 2018.

Scratch what I just said. D&D isn’t just the big fish in the small pond. It’s the big fish of the tide pool catching the runoff from the small pond.

While the hobby has doubled in size in the last few years, it’s still a niche hobby. It can only support so many recognisable names and brands before things become too fractured. Which seriously isn’t good for the hobby.  

First World Problematic

With the above said, D&D is still having it’s best few years in, well… ever. But despite the amazing success that is Dungeons & Dragons, this is not normal. Within the last decade, D&D almost went away. Pathfinder was killing D&D in 2010 and the game was fighting for its life in 2011. That the long-floundering game line was rebooted and not shelved was a gamble on the part of WotC management. Which has since paid off as D&D has really become a runaway success, but even then that’s only occurred during the past three or four years.

This is important for a couple reasons. 

First, up until just a couple years ago, just finding D&D groups was hard. D&D was nerdy and unpopular, not being a thing people readily talked about. I struggled with this several times during my life, and finding people to play with was difficult. (Even now finding a fifth person for my D&D game is hard.) And one doesn’t have to look far online to see hopeful gamers sadly commenting on their inability to play or find groups. With so many people wanting to play D&D but failing or struggling, complaining that there’s only D&D and not other niche games is, frankly, a first world problem. At best. Grousing about how D&D is doing so well while your favoured indie game publisher is struggling to make ends meet could easily be considered sour grapes. 

Back when D&D was dying and then in the midst of its two-year long playtest, numerous new game systems emerged and found players, buoyed by the emergence of Kickstarter and aided by all the spare cash people weren’t spending on D&D. Because people couldn’t play D&D they found other games. Which seems good at the time—there were so many new games and new ideas—but in practice this didn’t significantly grow the hobby. In fact, the market probably shrank. Regardless, once D&D 5e was released its not like the players of these side games all went away. They just didn’t grow and the number of players didn’t increase at the same rate as 5e’s exponential and explosive growth. The same amount of conversation is being had about Numenera, Fate, Dungeon World, and Apocalypse. There was just that many more conversations about D&D.

Meanwhile, with D&D’s amazing success has come a wave of new players. It’s been estimated that half of the people playing D&D currently are new to the game. So why then, when just the experience of roleplaying is new and they’ve barely tapped the surface of D&D, should we expect them to switch to new and different systems? It seems selfish to ask people to stop playing a game they want to play and instead try out your preferred system.

When asked about the potential success of 5e D&D, Paizo staff commented “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Which is probably true… just not instantaneous. Given time, this veritable army of new D&D players will exhaust the easy potential of D&D or begin to chafe at problematic rules and limits or simply want to try more of what the community offers. And then they’ll move onto new game systems. Right now we’re in the golden age of D&D, but the new golden age of other systems is coming and just a few years away. But these players need to discover these new games at their own pace and get tired of D&D on their own. 

You can’t force people to move onto new games! 

Selling Your System

There’s a lot of reasons people like D&D and are defensive of the system, wishing to support it, shield it from critics, and generally champion it. The biggest reason is that D&D is a beloved hobby that people enjoy, and folk innately get protective of their personal tastes and things that bring them joy. Attack someone’s sports’ team or favourite movie franchise or choice of game console and they come out swinging. This is the sunk cost fallacy at its finest. People want to believe they’ve spent their time and money wisely and not wasted it on inferior fun. The second you even imply there’s a better game than D&D or that 5th Edition is bad, and you’ve made yourself the enemy. You’re attacking something they love. And when you love something you’re inherently emotional and illogical. There’s nothing rational about love. 

This is especially true for gaming, as nerdy people tend to be that little bit obsessive. If you suggest something as relatively as minor as James T. Kirks being the worst captain in the franchise, you better be wearing fire retardant clothing because the torches will be lit. 

Additionally, defending elements of D&D from attack is largely the same behaviour that drives edition wars. D&D players who have lived through those are innately conditioned to react to threats and criticism of D&D. That’s almost associative behaviour. When someone slams an aspect of 5e, the fan won’t see much difference between a 4th Edition fan (a 4venger), or an OSR supporter, or a dedicated RuneQuest fan that doesn’t remotely care about the D&D edition wars. 

As such, when trying to talk to someone about a non-D&D RPG, it’s best to choose your words carefully. Avoid saying it’s “better than D&D” or commenting on the quality of D&D in general. It’s probably best to avoid mentioning D&D at all, apart from a potential disclaimer than you love/ don’t hate D&D.

Instead focus on what the game does well. Why someone would want to play this other game rather than why they shouldn’t play D&D. Focus on what makes the game cool and unique. Why you’re excited about the game.

Some of this can focus on truly unique mechanics and gameplay, especially if said mechanic is evocative and can be explained simply and in non-technical terms. Examples of unique action resolution systems are the tower in Dread, the tealights in Ten Candles, the poker system in Deadlands, and the app for Weave. 

In general though, you should avoid speaking about mechanics. Selling games based on mechanics is just innately weaker, as you can house rule and homebrew rules elements, patching many mechanics into D&D. Additionally, the majority of RPG players are casual and getting too nitty-gritty into dice probability or subsystems is boring. That’s being told how the internal combustion engine works when all you want to know is how fast the car goes 0 to 60 or how it handles while making turns in the rain.  

Instead, you should focus on stories you can tell. Specifically, the stories you can’t tell with D&D. The types of narrative that are enabled and encouraged with that game system and the types of characters you can play. This is especially true as streaming games exert more influence on new players, who are coming into the hobby focused on roleplaying and character. Explaining a game system that’s “like D&D but with 3d6 rather than a d20” or “with more character customization options” or “where armour reduces damage rather accuracy” is okay, but isn’t going to let someone imagine characters that are different than they could in D&D. They’re not going to do anything different at the table for the 60% of the game when they’re not rolling dice. But if you say the game is set on an Earth a billion years in the future with the technology of eight prior civilizations littering the world, then that sparks the imagination.

Games that have a very different genre are particularly good choices. Science fiction games of cyberpunks,  transhumanity, or even space operas are very different in terms of play experience. Modern (or near modern) games of pulp detectives, superheroes, urban monsters, and cosmic horror. These are cool because they do something so completely different than D&D that would require a lengthy and radical rewrite of the d20 system to accommodate. 

Complexity is also a big factor that can be a selling point. D&D 5e is a fairly complex game. It gets called “rules light” by gamers used to Pathfinder and 4th Edition, but compared to almost any other modern game, D&D is heavy and dense. Which is fine for an ongoing campaign, where you can slowly learn the rules over a year or two of play, but is detrimental for a game you might only play for one or two sessions. 

When looking at other game systems, one has to compare the depth of the ruleset with the amount of time one might commit to play. How long you can conceivably run a campaign with that game. The more complex a game, the more time and sessions you’ll need to truly play that game: the first couple sessions will be spent just building a character, learning the rules, and getting a feel for your options. Which makes those games inherently poor for mini-campaigns or one-shots. But a rules lite RPG or a microsystem are tailor made for one-shots and side games, such as when one or two players is absent but the rest of the table still wants to play. That’s a huge selling feature for some games. 

All of the above is doubly true if trying to sell a fantasy game. Games have tried to be “D&D… with a twist” since 1978, when it was much, much easier to be inarguably and empirically better than D&D in every metric. And yet they never dethroned D&D. Because D&D pretty much has a lock on generic fantasy gaming, and always will. Modern gamers aren’t going to care as much about the OSR retro-clone D&D that’s nostalgic for game design of the mid-1980s. 

Adventures in Generica

I like D&D but, no, it’s not the best roleplaying game on the market. But it’s a nice “moderately generic”. Which is it’s greatest strength. 

D&D is bland, which makes it easier to customize. But it’s not so generic a ruleset that you have to invent everything yourself. And it’s familiar enough that everyone can settle on playing that game as “good enough”. The farther you drift into indie or niche games, the harder it becomes to please everyone. Finding some flavour or subgenre of fantasy everyone at a table tolerates is easy. But finding three to five people who all want to play a transhuman body horror game about futuristic sex workers set in a rundown district of an asteroid mining colony is harder. 

Which is especially true if looking for a new gaming group. As I mentioned above, even finding new people to play D&D with can be hard at times, let alone a group you mesh with and are socially compatible with in terms of playstyle. Finding one that also has your same combination of interests is extra hard.  

There’s also the hidden costs in the “price” of switching away from D&D; even if a brand new one that’s inarguably and empirically better than D&D was released tomorrow I’d be hesitant to switch. Because it’s not enough for a game to be better than D&D. It has to be so much better that I pack-up all my hundreds of dollars of D&D rulebooks and move them into storage and so much better that it’s worth the pushback when I try and convince my players to do the same and also worth the trouble of learning a new ruleset. (It’s been four+ years and two campaigns since I convinced my main gaming group to move from Pathfinder to 5e and some of them are still on the fence.)

D&D is the pizza of roleplaying games. When you have five people trying to settle on a place to order food from it can be tricky, but pizza has enough variety to satisfy most people, is relatively inexpensive, and is easily found in most cities. You can suggest other places to order from but Thai is too spicy for one and another doesn’t like Greek while a third doesn’t deliver and is expensive and a fourth has no vegetarian options. So, eventually, it’s just easier to settle on the old mainstay.

Ending this blog/rant with a little personal reflection. I’m a D&D fan because, like so many others, it was my introduction to gaming. My feelings for it are a complicated mix of childhood nostalgia, memorable times with friends, and also joy that the latest edition is so very good. I didn’t like 4e as much, and found it weird to no longer identifying as a “D&D player” after that being a part of my identity for longer than I’ve been shaving. But as I look forward to what I might run when my current Sunday D&D game wraps up, I’ve been considering (relatively) smaller games like Eclipse Phase and Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars. But the appeal of D&D is strong. My homebrew D&D world beckons, so I can show some of the consequences of the past campaign while also playing with D&D lore, as does campaigns in Ravenloft and Dragonlance. I could play these campaigns and tell these stories with other systems, like Genysys or Fantasy Age, but there’s little gain: I already know the D&D rules and own the books.

Back in 2011, when I chose Pathfinder over 4e, I realized it wasn’t the best game system I wanted. It wasn’t the most balanced system. Because it’s not about “the game” I want to play. It’s about the stories I want to tell. And the best game system is the one that best lets you tell the stories you want, in the way you want.

Shameless Plugs

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