A Long Goodbye for D&D

Dun­geons & Drag­ons is dead! Long live Dun­geons & Drag­ons! With each decade, this cry her­alded an updated edi­tion of D&D. Three times I’ve wit­nessed the cycle resound and echo loudly to merit the game’s con­tin­u­a­tion. Some­times even expan­sion. So it is with regret that I’ve noted the lat­est edi­tion isn’t far­ing well. Finan­cially or crit­i­cally. Why not?

There’s more than one rea­son. Much of the fade in pop­u­lar­ity can only be blamed on William Shock­ley and Al Gore. These days, if you’re the socially rejected, mod­er­ately escapist child who D&D has his­tor­i­cally appealed to, we have things for you. They’re called video games. And the inter­net. Sure, they may be more expen­sive than a Player’s Hand­book, but they demand a lot less work. It is eas­ier to learn to play WoW than it is to make a sin­gle role­play­ing char­ac­ter, much less build dun­geons or whole cam­paign worlds. And more impor­tantly, these vir­tual fan­tasy worlds are open 24/7/365. I believe this is true: The his­tory of what we call progress is a cat­a­logue of ways in which the desire for con­ve­nience has trumped almost every other concern. 

Back when I was work­ing at Wiz­ards of the Coast, I remem­ber some­one from the mar­ket­ing team relay­ing the fol­low­ing point of dis­ap­point­ing data. The aver­age D&D gamer grew nine months older for every cal­en­dar year. The audi­ence is aging, and as it loses fans (to death or dis­in­ter­est), the younger gen­er­a­tion does not replace them. This is not a for­mula for build­ing or sus­tain­ing enter­tain­ment. Paper-based role­play­ing can fore­see a happy march to the grave. There it joins sim­i­lar vic­tims of time and technology—model trains, mar­bles, ham radio, scrap­book­ing, and stamp col­lect­ing. To con­tinue with the line of thought above, these are incon­ve­nient forms of enter­tain­ment. While a dili­gent few sol­dier on, the masses aban­don them.

Demo­graph­ics and tech­nol­ogy rep­re­sent epic-level,  impos­si­bly fatal chal­lenges. I rec­om­mend a healthy, stoic atti­tude to the slow-paced Rag­narok. Tell a good story, and remem­ber the good times. With luck, D&D sur­vives as an idea, in divine ascen­sion to other media, like video games. That’s already hap­pened, though the best incar­na­tions to date have come with­out the D&D logo. Has­bro appears to agree with me about D&D’s dig­i­tal future, today reclaim­ing the rights they fool­ishly gave away to Atari a decade ago. It’s a start, I suppose.

P.S.: This apolo­gia doesn’t mean that 4th edi­tion is free from imper­fec­tion. In fact, I believe it has a fun­da­men­tal design flaw right at its core. I’ll write some­thing about this soon. Also, you may also won­der why we care about paper role­play­ing. Beyond the sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons, for me the fate of D&D is of inter­est because its design influ­enced the work I do today. I stand on its shoul­ders, and I live in its shadow. I con­tinue to enjoy a weekly D&D game with friends, despite the com­mute down US-101 and dif­fi­cul­ties of sched­ul­ing six work­ing professionals.


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