Ruminations From the Vault

All of the Dungeons and the Dragons Part 2: The d20 Bubble and Beyond

Welcome to Part 2 of my history of D&D blog posts! If you didn’t read Part 1, by all means do so. If you have, well then good job and all that, best not keep Part 2 waiting.

So without further ado, we will continue where we left off, with the complete and utter destruction of TSR, the publishing company behind D&D since 1974. “Wait  what?!” you are no doubt thinking. Long story short, TSR grew too quickly in the 80s, spent too much precious ducats on nonsense like a fleet of cars and a needlepoint business (no really), was basically stolen from the firm grip of Gary Gygax by some random rich lady with the help of the nefarious Blume bros, and driven directly into the ground by the late 1990s.

Enter Wizards of the Coast. Flush with both success and cash, in 1997 WotC (pronounced Magic-the-Gathering) purchased all assets and intellectual property of the defunct TSR, including D&D. Not wasting time, they embarked on a glorious road to a brave new world of profit and game design revolution.

Within three years the gaming world was rocked by D&D 3rd edition, accompanied by twin wunderkinder, the “d20 System” and the “OGL.”

Rebuilt from the ground up, 3rd edition boiled D&D down to the very core, keeping the 6 basic stats, basic character classes, some familiar terms, and the use of polyhedral dice. Released concurrently, the Open Gaming License (OGL) allowed third party publishers or just randos the ability to legally create D&D-compatible products. This was a boon to the industry for a time, with a huge spike in released content compatible with D&D. Unfortunately after a few years, this resulted in a massive bubble that burst, leaving many retailers, distributors, and publishers with tons of overstock with little to no value. Just ask the owner of any game store open at the time how that went.

The Highlights:

  • More modern, garish (to me) full color art. The art design will never be considered a classic, and is frankly embarassing and cringe-worthy in many instances.
  • Finally a unified task resolution system, the d20 System.
  • Reduces the original six Saving Throws to three.
  • Thoroughly and continuously playtested and revised, resulting ultimately in the D&D 3.5 update.
  • Marketed to … ? D&D nerds and aspiring D&D nerds I guess. 
  • A really great idea, but just overwhelmed by player character power proliferation and way too many options and combos.
  • Edges D&D from “role-playing” to “roll-playing” with the reliance on stats, buffs, debuffs, and modifiers. Encourages min-maxing.
  • The rules-implied shift of power from the DM to the players begins with this edition, which is definitely not my personal DMing philosophy.
  • Responsible for more unnecessary splatbooks than the known universe has ever experienced.
  • Responsible for the near destruction of the RPG hobby by introducing the OGL. Many companies went under or were severely damaged when the d20/OGL bubble burst.

 The Conclusion: The go-to core fantasy RPG system for the time. But that time is passed. Skip it!

Yo dawg, I heard you like World of Warcraft and have no imagination or sense of wonderment. Well grab your Mountain Dew and Cheetos because this edition is going to make you flip your wig right up into the rafters. Someone at WotC decided that D&D 3.5 had two undesirable attributes: 1. It was too hard for beginners to get into, and 2. It was not Xtreme enough. Also by 2008 WotC’s pre-painted miniatures sales needed a spike so next thing you know D&D 4th Edition is spawned.The Highlights:

  • Even more modern, garish full color art. If you like big spikey shoulder pads and unwieldy spikey swords you’ll love it. I don’t. Therefore I hate it. 
  • A unified task resolution system, still theoretically called the d20 System.
  • Marketed to MMO players, kids, uhh I guess tactical miniatures gamers, and for a short time, old school D&D players for some reason.
  • A really great system for board games. Which it was later used for in a watered-down version, how about that.
  • Pretty much removes the role-playing emphasis of the game and turns it into a miniatures skirmish system rife with cards and accessories.
  • The DM is basically the slave of the players, the rules, and the adventures.
  • Amps up the player character power levels to astronomical levels.
  • The abandonment of traditional RPG characteristics in this edition rubbed many players the wrong way and created a void in the market, soon filled by Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder game system, which is basically D&D 3.75.

 The Conclusion: This game is not D&D, it’s an overwrought board game. No thanks!

 Okay folks, this here is the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition. I have some pretty mixed feelings about this one. This edition is simultaneously very different from and very similar to previous editions. It experienced an extensive semi-open playtesting period, and underwent several iterations before it settled in the form as released.

The game is a mixed bag. The art is both excellent and just godawful depending on the page. WotC has become “socially conscious,” or rather recognizes it can gain market share and press by pretending to be, so the reader must endure socio-political commentary, both subtle and overt, scattered throughout the books. The game both simplifies certain systems yet increases complexity in others. This is the most popular edition of the game, if sales numbers is how one measures popularity. And of course it is the only version of D&D in print, and is widely available.

The Highlights:

  • Slick modern art and presentation with a few just plain ugly images. 
  • A unified task resolution system, basically the tried and true d20 System.
  • Intentionally designed to entice players of earlier editions of D&D and current players of Old School Renaissance (OSR) RPGs.
  • Marketed to everyone basically. WotC wants you, your kid, your mom, and your imaginary friend to play D&D. Also, specifically marketed to people who enjoy advertising themselves as “socially conscious.” Which is of course a smart marketing move as that has now become the popular thing.
  • Merges Ability Scores and Saving Throws, substantially reduces number of skills and Feats for more streamlined play.
  • Increases player character power and survivability at lower levels.
  • Buffs up monster stats. Kobolds can now survive a thrown mud pie, for instance. I personally don’t like this aspect of the rules but hey to each their own.

 The Conclusion: Tied for best D&D with The D&D Rules Cyclopedia. If you are a more free-form DM, go Cyclopedia. If you require more structure, go 5th Edition.

Now, you might be thinking this is the end of this series. But oh how wrong you would be my friend. Stay tuned for Part 3, when I present two alternatives to D&D that have emerged on the sidelines, Pathfinder and the various games of the Old School Renaissance movement. Only then will I sum up what we have learned and pronounce my full judgement of these myriad of D&D options! You can rest assured your trust in me is well placed, after all my middle name is Old English for “Judge,” and who better to vouch for one than an unreadable obsolete language? Assuming languages were animate with the capability to actually vouch. See you next time!