Hard Project: Dungeons & Dragons
When Gygax and Arneson first came up with Dungeons & Dragons, it seemed to be half for a lark. Cue years of discussion, back and forth, debates about the nature of roleplaying, the inclusion of computers, debates about the nature of what makes a computer game a proper RPG or not, and so forth. Amidst all of that, the franchise has steamrolled on, and let’s be fair, we’ve gotten some pretty great games set in one of the many Dungeons & Dragons settings over the years.
We’ve also had some horrible ones. And quite frankly, they’re hard to get right no matter what you do.
Part of the problem is that Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t quite have a mythos so much as it has disconnected setting elements rammed together in order to make tabletop games work. But I don’t think there’s ever a way to make that title into an easy project, despite the good games that have come out of it. For a lot of good reasons.
The fantasy settings are painfully generic
Originally, the “setting” for Dungeons & Dragons was little more than a pastiche of various elements lifted out of other fantasy stories. Conan by way of Lord of the Rings, if you would. Eventually, though, the game started to branch out, providing a collection of different settings, aiming less at being a single unified world and more for being a toolbox full of stuff that could fit into lots of stories. Sort of an omni-fantasy game, if you will. So there are a lot of different settings to pick between – the traditional fantasy of Greyhawk, the also traditional fantasy of Forgotten Realms, the… slightly less traditional fantasy but still pretty traditional fantasy of Dragonlance…
Full disclosure, back in the day I was a huge fan of the Dragonlance novels. The thing was, though, that those novels did their level best to turn the world and the setting from a grab-bag of fantasy tropes that needed to be there into a real, living realm. Even then it didn’t wholly gel, and you still had an awful lot of elements that were just there because they needed to be. There are evil gods because the setting has to have evil gods in place, rather than having gods that belong to wholly different religions, rather than heresy, rather than religious debates that include even the slightest bit of, you know, debate.
In good settings, things are the way they are for a reason. In reality, same deal. The Greeks didn’t have Hades as the evil god whom people happily worshipped to worship an evil deity, he was just another part of the pantheon. Unpleasant, but plenty of people worshipping the same gods found more than enough reasons to fight one another. Fantasy settings in Dungeons & Dragons are stereotypes arranged in a predictable fashion, where elves are every stereotype about elves because that’s what elves are. No metaphor, no larger meaning, just the thing in itself.
They’re fantasy by the numbers, by design. It’s hard to feel much for the settings as a result.
The non-fantasy settings aren’t what you got the license for
That alone isn’t such a huge problem, though – you have other settings to choose from. Planescape. Dark Sun. Ravenloft. Spelljammer. The crazy part about Dungeons & Dragons is that a lot of people, thankfully, took the whole “build a fantasy setting” torch and decided to really assemble something you wouldn’t see otherwise. And the range is truly impressive, from settings that simply exist in what would normally be some of the high-spun endgames (Planescape) to games entirely focused around twisting the very premise (Dark Sun).
Unfortunately, no one came here for that.
If you see the name Dungeons & Dragons on the cover, you are expecting fantasy. Not just any fantasy, either, but something that has a healthy collection of existing tropes you recognize run through the predictable filters of getting weirder names with a few extra Rs. Which means that the truly neat stuff that could come with the license usually gets shuffled off to the side in favor of the stock-standard fantasy that could be produced for free.
There are exceptions. Planescape: Torment made use of that brilliantly open setting, for instance, and Dungeons & Dragons Online was originally set in Eberron (at which point the designers tried to make the setting feel as generic as possible despite Eberron’s actual backstory, but that’s a different discussion). But by and large, you wind up with a weird situation wherein the licenses people would buy for aren’t worth purchasing and the licenses that are worth purchasing don’t carry the brand-name recognition that makes licensing Dungeons & Dragons worthwhile in the first place.
The actual game isn’t sure of what it is any longer
Tabletop games have been in a weird damn place. At first they seemed like they were going to really experience an explosion of popularity, then they weren’t, then they sort of did but also not. We went through a big boom-and-bust period there, and it’s a cycle that’s left a lot of big names in the field glancing around to see if anyone in the audience has money. Wizards of the Coast survived in no small part because of Magic: the Gathering and the sheer amount of weight given to them as a subsidiary of Hasbro, but even so, the tabletop industry is in a weird place.
No game better embodies that than Dungeons & Dragons, unsurprisingly. As the game swings into its fifth edition, it’s outlasted all of its competitors… and at the same time, it’s just not what it used to be. It’s a throwback to an earlier time when games were focused more upon chained combat than they were on actual storytelling, when all you needed were rough pieces of mechanical outlining to make people play. In a time before you could get that combat-with-a-plot fix from an awful lot of budget games, for example.
At the same time, move too far away from the core of Dungeons & Dragons and the game doesn’t feel like it really deserves the name any more. The name is potent, but the name also has baggage, and it’s hard – if not impossible – to separate those out.
So it goes with video games, too. It’s a well-known name, but at the same time it’s a name that doesn’t imply a whole lot. It makes for a tricky project, to say the least, one where the license helps your recognition… but it doesn’t actually make for a game. You have to do a lot more legwork to make it identifiable. Hard stuff, for sure.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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