Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Most Phenomenal Game Ever Created

Compare with print ad: The clothing colors are
different and the girls have switched places

Not surprisingly, the recent release of the Fifth Edition Starter Set and Basic Rules has fostered an abundance of commentary in various forums and blogs, including those associated with the OSR.  In general (from what I can tell), criticism has been mild.  Wholesale acceptance, of course, is impossible and there are some who would treat 5E with contempt no matter what.  Criticism about the system tends to boil down to the fact that 5E isn't like (or isn't sufficiently like) the older editions (i.e., how the game is “supposed to be”).  With these criticisms, it is important to remember that people who already play D&D don't need the fifth edition; they can take or leave it in whole or in part.

“Dungeons & Dragons” exists as different concepts.  The Product is the trademark, intellectual property, merchandising, and everything associated with D&D that makes money for Wizards of the Coast.  The Practice is how people play D&D.  WotC has learned to its detriment that the Product does not control the Practice.  The Practice doesn't need the Product and, for some people, the two are entirely divorced.  With this latest edition, WotC is attempting to embrace the current Practice in the hope that the Practice will embrace the Product.  It is also attempting to cultivate the future Practice.  Only by thus engaging the Practice can WotC maintain (if not increase) the profitability of the Product.  I don't know if WotC will succeed, but they're certainly trying.  The true test of this latest edition is not acceptance by a legion of jaded grognards, rather it is the favorable exposure of new players to the game (and thus to the hobby).

When looking for a picture for today's post, I came across this commercial.  About five seconds in, there is a glorious pronouncement, “You're playing the most phenomenal game ever created!”  One might easily dismiss that statement as advertising hyperbole, but it's arguably true.  Thanks to the commercial, not only did I have an image for this post, but I also had a title.  (The title I originally intended – “Playing D&D with Paint Sellers” – lacked a certain gravitas.)  Anyway, I participated in a 5E game yesterday.  This is not something I would normally make the subject of a post; however, this particular session was the first tabletop role-playing experience for a majority of the players.

The most important change in 5E from previous editions is the inclusion of Personal Characteristics – Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws – along with Inspiration, the tool that integrates Personal Characteristics with play.  Many experienced players might ignore these rules as they are not essential to the game.  After all, D&D has managed to exist for forty years without them.  In a post two-and-a-half years ago (!) when 5E was first announced, I said “D&D needs to leverage its differences from computer gaming.”  This is exactly what 'Personal Characteristics/Inspiration' does.  It accomplishes what graphics and algorithms cannot; it emphasizes the personal interactions inherent in tabletop role play.

Elitists might sneer at the notion of using game mechanics to promote “playing in character.”  The execution is new, but the idea isn't.  In 1E, Gygax associated 'good role playing' with adherence to class function and professed alignment.  Characters who deviated from the ideal were penalized with extended training time and costs for level advancement.  (DMG, p. 86)  5E approaches the issue differently, it immediately rewards 'good role playing' with a currency the player redeems at will.  This sort of thing isn't necessary for veteran players, but it effectively educates new players as to how tabletop role-playing is different from/better than computer role-playing.  'Player' means “theatrical performer” as well as “person who plays a game” and both senses are applicable to RPGs.  Just as a theatrical performer considers the motivation of the character he portrays, so should the role-player consider the 'Personal Characteristics' of the D&D character he plays.  Appropriately, the Personal Characteristics are written on the character sheet alongside other important pieces of information like Armor Class and Attack Bonus.

In addition to Product and Practice, there is also the Phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons, by which I mean the effect of D&D upon popular culture and the lives of the players, as well as the reciprocal effect of culture and individuals upon D&D.  The world is a different place than what it was thirty and forty years ago when D&D was achieving its initial popularity and the new players now are a different generation from the new players then.  The Phenomenon is necessarily different and so is the Product.  What made the Product successful back then may not be the best way to make the Product successful today.  The Practice may not need it, but the Product can benefit the Practice.  Regardless, D&D remains most phenomenal game ever created.

(“Only by doing so can we hope to have a Fifth Edition that’s worthy of the Dungeons & Dragons legacy” – I actually wrote that?)

"Use your Lightning Bolt!!"


  1. That is a good argument in favor of those sorts of mechanics. I'm still working out how I feel about the Inspiration mechanic (and 5E as a whole), but it is hardly a deal-breaker or -maker either way. It's not essential to the play of the game, and can be left out or added into another edition or set of rules as desired.

  2. Very thoughtful post. I am looking forward to giving 5E a spin in the fall.

    About the traits and flaws and stuff - without having the rules (haven't downloaded them yet) it sounds a little like the old Champions/Hero system and Disadvantages, maybe the GURPS Quirks/Disadvantages as far as having a mechanical effect for roleplaying. Very interesting.

    Did you enjoy the 5E game?


    1. Hero/GURPS Disadvantages are, by definition, impairments. They are a necessary evil used in order to get character points. They help define the character but do not (necessarily) deal with motivation.

      Personal Characteristics are aspects of a character. Unlike disadvantages, they have no ‘worth’ relative to one another; you don’t get more or less “points.” Personality Traits are similar to ‘quirks’ but the other Personal Characteristics develop the background and persona of the character (including motivation). By “playing up” to Personal Characteristics, a player receives “inspiration” which he can use to gain “advantage” with a die roll.

      So, Disadvantages are more of a ‘character build’ tool while Personal Characteristics are more of a ‘role play’ tool.

      When you’re having a good time (and not obsessing over orcs with one hit point), system doesn’t matter. That said, a good system facilitates reaching that “good time” experience. I enjoyed the game, but more importantly, the newbies enjoyed it. 5E ‘Personal Characteristics/Inspiration’ definitely helped them “get” role-playing. The Trinket table was fun, too.

  3. Thanks for the explanation. Last paragraph is very well-stated, no idea what the trinket table is, though.

    I might nitpick with Disadvantages in Champions not providing motivation. DNPC's and and Hunteds drove nearly half of our games, as well as figuring into origins. But I get the point.


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    1. So 1HD orcs should have max hit points if they practice yoga and eat turmeric? At first, I was going to dismiss this comment as spam, but it got me thinking. What if an EHP starts a "health cult" for humanoids? I realize orcs aren't likely to have the temperament for yoga, but bear with me -- maybe it's like evil anti-yoga or something. (Is it a skill? A feat? Both? Neither?) Anyway, orcs attack a caravan and they seem especially hard to kill. They don't take gold or slaves; all they take is “turmeric.” WTF? Spice merchants hire the PCs to get to the bottom of things, but what are they hiding? Are they really what they seem?

    2. Also, maybe the orcs go on a rampage killing all the cows, owing to their non-dairy ideology, and the PC's must re-establish the cow population or seek alternative sources for milk. maybe they bought a few goats from the old PHB tables and set themselves as milk-brokers. And then the EHP send Vinnie and Guido to have a chat with the PC's...

      This is gold!