Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a fantasy game. You might descend an ancient staircase to an abandoned wizard’s chamber and ambush the slobbering goblins who lurk there. But when the game ends, the adventure stops.
Fearing that the fantasy might creep into the real world, a number of Christian groups and concerned parents have opposed D&D over the years, including my own seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Bueckman, who forbid us from playing D&D because it would invite Satan into our lives and make us run away to the woods and hack each other’s heads off. But in the 40 years that D&D has been around, most players have kept their heads. The fears have been unfounded. What happens in the dragon’s lair stays in the dragon’s lair.
The newest chapter in the D&D saga is especially compelling because the adventure has finally spilled into the real world. In the classic D&D storyline, a diverse group of humble adventurers (the players) must band together to defeat some kind of evil overlord and his nefarious schemes. But now, for some players, the evil overlord is Dungeons & Dragons itself, and the nefarious scheme is a book known as 4e.
4e is shorthand for the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, released in 2008. With D&D already positioned as the most successful roleplaying game of all time, the fourth edition of the rulebook attempted some new things. It offered new kinds of heroes for players to be, like a race of heroic lizards called the dragonborn, and an elite tactical fighter called a warlord. It simplified and standardized the core mechanics of every battle, so that massive fights could proceed in precise ways, even if one character was invisible and swinging a giant axe, while another character was magically chanting to make the ground crumble beneath everyone’s feet. It placed on a stronger emphasis on battle maps and miniature figurines, so that players were encouraged to buy little avatars of their characters and arrange them on a neat grid.
For people who love D&D because of its ability to fire their imagination and encourage long, often-hilarious bouts of make-believe with their close friends, 4e was an abomination. It was all rules and no soul. It was an undead wizard king with a nefarious scheme to darken the entire world. For the first time, D&D lost its position as the world’s leading roleplaying game, as disenfranchised players flocked to new games with an old-school D&D feel, like Pathfinder. (For an excellent overview of the Edition Wars, see this authoritative post over at Logic is My Virgin Sacrifice to Reality.)
So the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, released a month ago, is no routine update. It represents a dramatic shift in the essential gameplay and philosophy behind D&D. But the changes are remarkably conservative: 5e looks an awful lot like 3e, as if everyone is trying pretend that the ill-conceived 4e never happened. D&D is no stranger to behind-the-scenes drama and unforgivable betrayals. Its creator, Gary Gygax, was unceremoniously pushed out of his own business, and a new documentary about the game is in serious trouble because of infighting among the filmmakers. But all of those battles could be forgotten, or at least swept under a necromancer’s dirty rug, if 5e wins the war by making D&D’s longtime players happy again.
So what’s in 5e? Fewer capitalized words, basically. While 4e offered an official name for every possible action, all of which sounded like new scents of Axe Body Spray (a first-level Warlord could fight using Viper’s Strike, Furious Smash, or Wolf Pack Tactics), 5e trusts the players to figure things out. (Now, a first-level Fighter makes “an attack.” Other factors come into play, but it’s always just “an attack”.) Those who love D&D for its simple camaraderie and storytelling potential should be pleased. And comforted by the familiarity.
I played D&D in its second, third, and fourth editions. And you know what? I had fun with 4e. Maybe I’m not a serious enough player to be deeply affected by detailed rules. I played 4e with friends, and pizza, and booze. We never split the party—never divided our small band of heroes into even smaller groups, because that’s the surest way to lose the game. We scandalized each other by ripping our clothes off and defiling the corpses of our enemies (all in the game, of course). From what I’ve seen, 5e could be the best D&D rulebook in the game’s 40-year history. But it’s not really about the rulebook, is it?
The introduction to 4e offered “The History of D&D” with nods to Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and the specific years when different editions of D&D were released. The new introduction to 5e washes all of that out. It doesn’t give anyone credit for creating the game. It never mentions the abomination of 4e or the so-called Edition Wars that made it necessary to create 5e in the first place. It tells a redacted story.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a realm called the Midwestern United States—specifically the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin—a group of friends gathered together to forever alter the history of gaming.
That’s true. But it splits the party.