My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
This week, an introduction to the column.
“If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find we have lost the future.”
When Bart Carroll and I sat down to plan the vision behind this column, it seemed pretty simple. I’d have a chance to talk about D&D’s past and present from my own little soapbox—a fairly choice assignment, in my book. However, it wasn’t long after we announced the new column that Bart sent me feedback from a few readers. They had a fairly simple question that boiled down to this:
"We already know about the past. What we want to know about is the future."
That sentiment popped Churchill’s opening quote into my mind. These days, when we think about D&D’s past and present, we all too often think of it in adversarial tones. 4th Edition is a lame tabletop MMO. 3rd Edition is for number-crunching losers. 2nd Edition is for setting junkies. 1st Edition is for people obsessed with polearms. Let’s not even talk about Basic D&D. Who plays that? Take your pick of invective, cast your favorite edition in the most positive terms, and you have what seems an all too common discussion on the internet and in game shops. Even when you talk about an edition (or editions) positively, there can still be an air of defensiveness, as if you have to apologize for what you like in order to avoid making a perceived attack. We allow ourselves to open that proverbial quarrel.
What we forget, though, is that the path to our future stretches back through our past. I honestly believe that when Gary Gygax sat down to write D&D those many years ago (based on plenty of ideas supplied by Dave Arneson, of course), he wasn’t inventing a game so much as discovering one. There’s something innately appealing about D&D, about its nature as a roleplaying game, that made it spread like wildfire. D&D took off and remains healthy to this day because it answers a basic human need that hadn’t been met before. It was the first game that let us share our imaginations against the backdrop of a fantastic world of sorcery and danger. It’s no wonder that so many digital games plunder from D&D’s rich history. The idea of going to another world and sharing that journey was heady stuff back in the 1970s, and it still defines hardcore gaming today.
When we look at the past, we see how we played the game and learn where it started. As we move forward from D&D’s beginning, we see how the game changed, why it changed, and how we changed in response. When we understand the sum of those 38 years of changes, we can understand the present. We can see the big picture, the tale that extends from 1973 (the year Gary signed the foreword to the Original Edition) to today. A cycle emerges, as each version of the game represents a shift from one gaming generation to the next. What I’d like to do in this column is inspect that cycle, take it apart, and use it to look to the future.
In the end, understanding the past is far more than a mere bath in nostalgia. It’s about getting to the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. Whether you play the original game published in 1974, AD&D in any of its forms, 3rd Edition and its descendents, or 4th Edition, at the end of the day you’re playing D&D. D&D is what we make of it, and by "we" I mean the DMs, the players, the readers, the bloggers—everyone who has picked up a d20 and ventured into a dungeon.
This may sound strange, coming from R&D—but it’s easy to mistake what Wizards of the Coast publishes as the core essence of D&D. We might print the rules for the current version of the game, or produce accessories you use at your table, but the game is what you, the community of D&D fans and players, make it. D&D is the moments in the game, the interplay within a gaming group, the memories formed that last forever. It’s intensely personal. It’s your experience as a group, the stories that you and your friends share to this day. No specific rule, no random opinion, no game concept from an R&D designer, no change to the game’s mechanics can alter that.
When we look to the past, we learn that there are far more things that tie us together than tear us apart. The fact that we play this bizarre, arcane game puts us on the fringe of normal. Whether we like powers, feats, ascending or descending AC, Thac0 or base attack bonus, those are all details. We like to dream of worlds beyond the mundane, of great battles and victories that occur only in the shared imagination of a gaming group. To borrow from the foreword to the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook: "As diverse as this mélange of enthusiasts is, they all seem to share one commonality: a real love for Dungeons & Dragons and a devotion that few other games can claim."
This is our game, and it is as healthy, vibrant and important as we make it. The rest is details. Don’t let that details drive us apart when the big picture says we should be joined together.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.