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.