D&D Is a Problem for the RPG Hobby

Previously I wrote about how I don’t consider D&D a roleplaying game. You can find that here. Not surprisingly, the idea was not welcomed by all readers.

Well, this being the Internet, I didn’t really change my views. Instead, I’m actually doubling down and going much, much further. Here, I’m making the claim that D&D is not in fact only not an RPG, but it is in fact a gatekeeping mechanism that is a huge problem for the hobby at large.

What is ‘gatekeeping’? If you are not familiar with this, it’s when someone claims to have a right to keep people out of a certain community or identity. For example, when Eminem was starting, there was a lot of talk about that whites shouldn’t rap (even though Eminem was hardly the first white person to do, Beastie Boys, anyone?). When Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean first came out, MTV wouldn’t play it, because the artist was black, until the record company basically forced them to. In the 90s radio stations wouldn’t play two songs by women back-to-back, because that wasn’t seen as feasible.

These are all forms of gatekeeping. Some worse than others, but still, basically the same thing. Now, gatekeeping isn’t always conscious. For example, I play MtG at my local game store and the community is quite tightly knit, as many of us have been playing with and against each other for years. We don’t try to keep anyone out, but it might easily seem like it when we talk, often quite bolsterously, with each other using weird jargon and freely critiquing each others plays. To us, this is all just part of the friendly environment, but it might not seem as such to a newcomer.

Also, the more invested players have also have better decks, so it might be hard for newcomers to fit in, because they haven’t spent the money or don’t have the connections for the deck they might actually have a chance with. In fact, most of the new players who come alone don’t have much of a chance of coming back again. Those who have friends to join them might and often will, even if their friends drop out, but that seems to be a way for them to overcome the first hurdles.

How does this relate to D&D?

D&D is basically the face of RPGs. There aren’t any real RPG celebrities (although there are celebrities who play RPGs), who would fit that role, so it falls upon the most famous of all RPGs itself (even if it’s not actually one). You’ve seen it on Stranger Things and possibly the IT Crowd and maybe other outlets as well. To many people, D&D and RPGs are synonymous.

So, when someone hears about RPGs, they often want to try D&D. Which is kind of a horrible idea.

You see, D&D is complicated. You have this vision of being able to do anything and then you are given a huge amount of options, from where you are supposed to be able to choose good ones and then you are supposed to remember them and how they work. That’s not good. That’s not conducive to actual roleplay. This is exactly what you don’t want to present new players with.

I mean, compare this to certain approaches to HeroQuest, for example. You just describe your character and that’s it. Is your character strong? Sure, go ahead. No need to look into how much bonuses they get to their damage and whether they should now by a certain trick or whatever you call them. Your character is strong and even though it has rules implications, you don’t have to be aware of them at this point.

It’s not only HeroQuest, which is extremely simple in this regard. It’s most of the newer generation of games, where you don’t have to feel left out just because you don’t know something within the system. Like World of Dungeons, for example, which is simple enough that you can have the whole system on one half of a A4, with the other half being your character sheet.

D&D creates an artificial barrier. It requires a degree of tactical thinking and rules knowledge we shouldn’t expect a newcomer to have. Or any roleplayer for roleplaying purposes that matter. Still, for some reason this is the game we continue to push. What the fuck are we doing?

Just because back in the day, when nerds weren’t as aware of this stuff as we (hopefully) are now, we sort of felt pride for knowing the rules, but that shouldn’t be important. D&D definitely emphasizes the understanding of rules on a level much higher than those new, better designed, games, which emphasize simplicity and straightforward rules. They also have designs which actually support the thing you are supposed to be doing, which is also very good for… basically everyone.

8 thoughts on “D&D Is a Problem for the RPG Hobby

  1. This time I can agree with most of what Aki says. D&D has the same problematic burden of rules that Magic the Gathering has. Then again I would still argue that you do not have the play D&D as you describe it.

    Experienced GMs would/could simplify things for new players. It’s not like they all NEED to know all the rules. Heck, I still do not have understanding of how D&D works in detail but I have been able to enjoy it.

    This means that it all boils down to the gaming group. Are all players new to roleplaying or are there veterans? If all players are new I would not recommend World of Dungeons because it might just make them more confused about what they are supposed to do.

    The same goes for almost any game. Picking up the book and trying to understand what it does could be very hard without any reference or idea what should be going on.

    From this view I will argue that even though D&D definitely is “gatekeeping” it also serves as reference material for new players. It’s much easier to follow the example given by popular media than trying to discover what roleplaying is by just reading the book.

    Sure, this might mean that new gamers would get a distorted view about roleplaying but they might get it from various other sources as well.

    From my point of view supporting D&D supports the whole gaming community. If players get into gaming via D&D they still get into gaming. It’s all about the community and the connections you make. People don’t need to make intelligent choices about their entertainment. If they will make them it’s all good for them but D&D is not really ruining the whole scene from my point of view.

  2. The point of the author might be worth discussing, but the author seems to not want to do so, based on the reactions to earlier posts and the beginning of this one. It seems the author enjoys making clickbait proclamations, but is unwilling or incapable of finding out the limits and edge cases of them, and the qualifiers required to make them true.

    Is there a way of getting the RSS feeds of only a limited number of authors of the blog?

    • Agreed. There might be a problem, but baby, bathwater. There are more creative ways to address issues than nuke ’em from the orbit and it’s not like D&D is toxic. On the contrary, D&D5 has taken great steps towards inclusiveness.

      Sorry for not writing more to this blog, for my part. This year has been really heavy personally.

  3. Once again, I cannot but shake my head in disagreement. Like Tommi said, there might be point worth discussing here, but mr. Vainio certainly doesn’t seem to want to discuss it in good faith.

    Let us start with the obvious: no game is ever a gatekeeper, people are. Mr. Vainio, it seems, is one such person: I presume he would direct newcomers away from games like DnD and speak of them in a negative manner even if they asked about those. Can’t speak for him, so maybe Aki can elaborate if he wishes. As said, this is nothing new or personal, since almost everybody does so, either deliberately or unconsciously. Hell, I know I have a tendency to steer people towards OSR-games and diss mathfests like Pathfinder or other modern DnD-derivatives. So, with that in mind, we can actually talk about the role of DnD here and the comparison with MtG is a good one.

    Both DnD and MtG are extremely popular and leading faces in their genres. There is a huge amount of gatekeeping in both fields, with internet “gurus” and armchair generals declaring who are worthy of playing “their games” or which ways are “playing them right”. This may come in the form of derogative comments like “lol noob that card sucks real players use this” or “your char suxx y u no take this feat on level 4?!?!?”, both of which could be actual questions (like Aki’s MtG-groups friendly though strict banter) but more often come from someone trying to put another down and reinforce their own selfworth with perhaps unmeditated bullying. While some parts of these games structure does facilitate these dumbasses actions especially in this internet age, it is still the people at fault. Both games can be played and enjoyed in a much more supportive fashion, too.

    Which then leads us to the second point worth mentioning, the style of play and gatekeeping thereof. Aki mentions DnD as a complicated game as if that would be some magical property, inherently bad for the game no matter what. This is a ridiculous notion. Would someone say MtG is a bad card game because it has gazillions of options, most of which are strictly worse than others, rules quite byzanthian in their application and counterintuitive rulings that can’t be inferred from the cards themselves? One could, but it isn’t a very fruitful discussion since how good a game is comes down to personal experience in the end anyway and it is clear to anyone that MtG has been a smashing success. Still, when you start to learn the game, you don’t know all the rules but learn more as you go. Same goes with DnD and any game, really: if played with good people, the newcomer can have fun and do meaningful things without the whole picture from the get-go. This rulesmastery, that somehow hampers newcomers ability to jump in and try, is much more a symptom of unfriendly playing groups than it is a requirement of the game. DnD games, as there are dozens of them instead of one monolithic entity, can be played like you want and in whatever style is desired by the group. It isn’t the best engine for non-wargaming play, sure, but no game ever is best for everything and as such it would be good for everyone to have a bit wider knowledge of what is out there.

    Carrying on with that: Aki decrees it bad for a game to require tactical acumen, I say he’s talking utter balderdash. Not every game should require such, nor should every game go without. Once again, the whole point of trying to not be a gatekeeper into the hobby would be to understand what newcomers would like to try and offer that, then other things and eventually they’ll know what they like and decide for themselves. This “ease of access and streamlining makes for good beginner games” is partially true, partially an infantalizing fallacy that reduces thinking human beings to “newcomers” that can’t be allowed to jump in the deep end or they’ll die. Or something. I’ve heard the argument so many times I might puke one of these days because it’s bloody normal for some people to desire more mechanical weight in their pastimes. Perhaps not even mechanical, but *gasp* tactical or strategic! There’s a good reason for roleplaying games and wargames intertwining. And once again, I will argue against anyone who dares to maintain such a position that usage or presence of tactics or strategy in an rpg would necessarily take away from the roleplaying aspect, because that view is so full of bullgak it isn’t even funny.

    I’ll agree on one thing though, which is the personal preference against what I see as unnecessary rules bloat. DnD and its ilk are their best when they are run as very stripped down versions, as most of their rules are irrelevant for the core game experience. My own campaign runs on an entirely homebrewn system, which is very tight and streamlined set of DnD’s methodological core able to support any new situations that might crop up in play instead of trying to list them beforehand. It might change bit by bit at the table when needed. I don’t think this is in anyway a rare occurance: people take existing games and proceed to deconstruct them for building their own, as it should be. Everyone ought to make of their games what they wish, in order to move closer to the sublime in their life, whether it be thespianic perfection or tactical supremacy or some hybrid of these which people on the internet always seem to forget.

    That being said, I will continue to be a bad man and in all ways encourage people to try all sorts of games, especially good ol’ OSR DnD. I will carry on corrupting the youth and enjoy those moments, where people can decide for themselves. Where complete newbies try it out and a teenaged girl’s eyes flash as her inner general’s iron fist starts to organize their troops. Where strategy and logistics actually rule supreme and brave commandoes lament for their dwindling munitions as they try to make best of their situation and crave more of that experience, enough that they’ll come back to the table again and again through the years. And I’ll do it with dozens and dozens of people, time and time again.

    I hope you do the same, perhaps with your preferred games instead of DnD, because that is the proper work needed to advance this hobby instead of creating artificial barriers between DnD and “actual roleplayers” like a fool.

    • Thanks, Peitsa. I was about to write a reply to Aki myself (and I still may), but you took great care in replying and did it with flourish. I enjoyed your style and the content.

      Saying that people are the gatekeepers rings true. I myself have run games at Ropecon that are much lighter mechanically than D&D, but I have often limited the participants to experienced adults. The games I’ve run have also often been quite obscure.

      D&D, by comparison, suits a lot of people. The little that I’ve played it, I can tell that more than any other game I’ve played, it can accommodate tacticians, thespians, explorers, immersionists, storytellers, world creators, and whatever your preferences are, to the same table and everyone has fun. Sure, it may not be the BEST game for intense drama, for example, but when you want to have fun with a wide variety for friends, it’s a great goddamn game for that.

      Shitting on D&D is quite frankly nauseating and reminds me of the worst days of the Forge, which are luckily behind us, and we can just enjoy the beneficials fruits of those days.

  4. I also don’t recognize my RPG hobby from modern D&D and especially how it’s presented in various web series. Surely some people realize that it’s only one way of roleplaying and that there are myriad ways of roleplaying, but not everybody. I’ve been amazed how even some people who have been RPG hobbyists for several years still don’t know any other playstyle than “GM is the entertainer” sort of D&D.

    However, what I don’t understand is Aki saying: “Still, for some reason this is the game we continue to push. What the fuck are we doing?” Who’s this we? Members of Redemund’s guild? Certainly not Aki himself nor anyone who knows that there are more interesting and more beginner-friendly ways of roleplaying than D&D. And those who don’t know anything else, how could they promote anything else?

    So we are already doing what we can by playing other games than full-rules D&D with beginners. What else could we do?

  5. You are, by definition, wrong. Having a ruleset, however complex, doesn’t dictate whether a game is an RPG or not. It is literally in the name Role-Playing Game, last time I checked you play a role in D&D, and D&D is also a game so by definition, D&D is a Role-Playing Game. It is also not a gatekeeper, I like many others started playing RPGs with D&D and have since played a handful of others and at no point did D&D stop me from that.
    Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is the most popular TTRPG in the west by far that does make it so that other systems get less love, and that is an issue worth discussing, however, the fact that DnD 5e has brought so many new players into this wonderful hobby cannot be ignored while doing so.

    In conclusion, there are both problems and blessings that D&D 5e brings to the table of the TTRPG community but both of the topics you raise are mistaken and misinformed.

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