The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons was just released. Why does that matter? Well, to start with, it’s supposed to. This edition is designed as an entry point for people who haven’t tried the series before. A preview of the new rules coming later this year, this “Starter Set” has everything needed to get a game of D&D going: a book with 32 pages of base rules, another book with an adventure, some characters ready to be played, and a set of dice to use at the table. It is a simple beginning for the new version of an old game.
Dungeons and Dragons began over 40 years ago in 1974 when a pair of writers, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, began customizing rules for a miniature war game that applied them not to an army, but an individual warrior. Soon parties of adventurers were questing in dungeons and living the kind of epics only previously seen in fantasy books. This new game would have all of the strategy of war games, but also the limitless imagination of storytelling.
Throughout the decades, millions of people have played some version of D&D. As a player you could create a character as detailed and as unique as you wanted, assuming the Dungeon Master running the game allowed it. And you and your friends could do just about anything you wanted. This was a game of imaginative storytelling and clever combat. And it began in the ’70s.
If you were playing a role-playing videogame in the era of Atari and Colecovision, you controlled a stick figure that shot out little arrow dots at blocky monsters in simple Pac-man mazes. How does that compare to controlling an Elven Wizard who seeks revenge against the warlord who killed his beloved? Or searching the intricate ruins of a temple or searching a medieval city for the one person who can tell you where to find your enemy?
Even decades later, after thousands of computer and console role-playing games, the endless possibilities of tabletop D&D provides unique experiences. There are intricate puzzles with incredible freedom in their solutions. There are interactions with non-player characters that can end in a million ways; a videogame may provide only two or three choices. Mass Effect and other modern RPGs may have 3 or 5 pre-determined endings; a D&D campaign could have an ending completely customized to the players’ actions, intentions, and desires.
And looking at videogames, many of the tropes come from D&D: Characters that have classes and races, that earn experience points and gain levels. Terms like NPC, inventory, moral alignment—these are all inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. More directly, there have been dozens of videogames that were made with D&D rules, including enduring classics like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Torment.
So does that sense of possibility still exist in this “Starter Set?” When one looks at the rules provided, they are the minimum to play. And that is not a bad thing. For this new D&D game, Wizards has simplified the game. This results in two things: the game’s return to a focus on storytelling, and a simpler game that can appeal to a wider audience.
This helps, because over the years the game has become fragmented. There are D&D players who are still playing the first edition from 40 years ago or the third edition from 14 years ago, people who did not like how the rules changed and decided to stay with the version of the game they did like. It’s akin to players who still prefer playing the simpler Super Street Fighter 2 over the newer and more complicated Ultra Street Fighter 4.
By stripping away a lot of the excess stuff that was introduced in later editions, the game aims to broaden its appeal. A complex skill system introduced in the third edition has been simplified. Miniature-based rules, which give the game the sensibility of a strategy RPG or an MMO, are optional now. This new D&D can be the D&D that appeals to everyone who has played some version of D&D.
Besides being simpler, the rules now emphasize storytelling. Characters have to be described with more detail, with intangibles like Flaws (little personality failings) and Bonds (objects or people they are attached to) spelled out. Even the simplified rules allow the Dungeon Master running the game to improvise more, pulling the story in a certain direction rather than having everything dictated by the toss of the dice.
The included scenario, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver,” is a solid adventure for a group of people to cut their teeth on. The players are a party of adventurers hired by a trio of Dwarves to escort some mining equipment to the small town of Phandalin. They soon come across signs that their patrons have been abducted or killed by goblins, who are working with an enigmatic figure called the Black Spider. As with the rules, this scenario is written to appeal to as many kinds of players as possible. Players will have little crypts to explore, a town that becomes a base of operations, a sandbox area of sidequests, and epic set-pieces. There are little hooks where the Dungeon Master can improvise or embellish: an extra treasure map found in an abandoned house, an NPC’s willingness to recruit the adventures for a secret organization, or even just some additional ruins noted on the map.
So engineered toward accessibility is the new D&D that its “Basic Rules” are available for free online. Curious parties have never had a more encouraging time to try it out. You may find a form of play and storytelling that takes hold of you because it is so different from a videogame, with its boundaries and graphics. At the very least, you can become part of a game that has inspired others for four decades and counting.