If there’s one tabletop roleplaying game that people outside the hobby recognize, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. Unleashed in 1974, the game had a cult following until the Satanic Panic. The Satanic Panic was a period in the 80s and early 90s when conservatives in the US waged war against anything that was thought to be evil. As musicians who were targeted for their filthy music quickly discovered, the Satanic Panic worried pearl-clutching parents and excited young people.
D&D picked up steam as it entered popular culture and became an even bigger hit with the advent of Actual Play. The 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most popular to date and the hobby grew as the traditionally musty white man’s game embraced more people outside that target demographic. D&D attained such widespread popularity that Target picked up an all-new D&D Essentials Kit for distribution at stores across the US. D&D reached mainstream popularity.
But with D&D having such a larger fanbase, it was only a matter of time before people started airing out the dirty laundry on D&D’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast. From game design mechanics that utilize race science to Design Team Lead, Mike Mearls allegedly outing people who accused an associate of sexual assault; the game and the publisher are fraught with controversy that deserves attention.
Recently the platform DMs Guild, which is a proprietary partnership between Wizards of the Coast and OneBookShelf Publishing that allows independent creators self-publish using Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property, deactivated a title featuring queer artwork. The DMs Guild insisted they were merely fulfilling the family-friendly guidelines established by Wizards of the Coast. They argued they applied this standard universally, a demonstrably false statement.
It seems that Wizards of the Coast has an aspiration to be the publisher that meets the needs of every hobbyist, but like so many corporations, it has yet to reckon with all the deeply entrenched bigotry that’s been part of the game since its inception. The Wizards of the Coast team has been making progress, most notably in a statement they made committing to a variety of plans to rework racist concepts and mechanics in the game. It’s a step forward, but often it appears to be one step forward and six steps back for the company.
There’s also another very simple problem: people try to shoehorn elements like storytelling and worldbuilding into a game designed for combat. Dungeons & Dragons has its origins in tabletop wargaming. In 1974, the game essentially consisted of: explore this dungeon, kill this monster, get loot, rinse, repeat. Though the game has expanded to accommodate a variety of playstyles, some people may be frustrated and spend a considerable amount of time creating their own content that allows for the kind of play that isn’t centered around combat.
Fortunately, there is also a rather simple solution: play other games. The rise in popularity of D&D means that other tabletop games have gotten more attention and the whole hobby has grown as a result. In recent years, Shawn Tomkins released Ironsworn which has a Viking-esque theme that can be played alone, with friends, or in a more traditional D&D-style with a few players and a Game Master. John Harper created Blades in the Dark which features a rich world, powerful factions, and a whole lot of intrigue. There are even games that cater to new players like Quest.
If fantasy isn’t your thing, there are a wide variety of science fiction games like Stars Without Number, Scum & Villainy (which is a hack of Blades in the Dark), and even franchise tie-ins like Alien RPG and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. If you like big mechs, there’s Lancer and Beam Saber.
There are also games that focus on storytelling and world-building such as Microscope which invites players to create the history of civilizations, Kingdom which dramatizes the rise and fall of kingdoms, The Quiet Year which is a brutal survival game, and the teamwork narrative game Follow that asks players to strategize how to solve a problem with conflicting personal goals.
It’s both understandable and acceptable if people just starting out want to play D&D, but playing other games opens up a world of possibilities that may otherwise be hampered by the constraints of one specific game. It’s also worth pointing out that to purchase all the games mentioned above would be cheaper than trying to buy all the D&D 5th edition core and supplemental books (excluding the franchise tie-in books).
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