On D&D as a Brand

As I’ve mentioned before, I follow professional wrestling, and today I want to talk Sunday’s WWE event, “Hell in a Cell”. Its namesake is the Hell in a Cell match, which is the big brother of a steel cage match. It’s intended and expected to be vicious, dangerous, and often bloody. They say that anybody who goes into such a match doesn’t come out the same, assuming they come out at all. In storyline, wrestlers try to avoid it to protect their bodies and careers, and it’s saved for only the most important, feud-culminating matches.

Except that around this time every year, several wrestlers suddenly decide the Cell is the only way to resolve their differences. They don’t do it because they’re actually embroiled in important battles, or because they need to brutalize their current adversaries more than normal, or because they need to protect their matches from outside interference. They do it because it’s October. That’s the time of year when the Hell in a Cell event is, so that means it’s time to have Hell in a Cell matches. There’s no other reason besides “that’s what happens in mid-fall”.

I’m pretty convinced this is dumb. Treating the event like this is sacrificing the story for the sake of the medium. It’s like how television shows all come to a head around the end of a season, except TV shows are designed and written specifically to build their arcs for thirteen episodes and resolve them all at once. Wrestling doesn’t work like that; it’s made of several stories, all at different points and often overlapping, and hitting the “this is a blood feud now” button on multiple storylines at once does a disservice to the narrative, the viewers who expect a logical and interesting show, and the event itself by reducing it from a thing of some importance to just a thing that happens around Halloween.

So why the disconnect between what we expect and what we get? Because WWE’s goal isn’t to create a cohesive narrative, it’s something else. They tell viewers their goal is a story with conflicts expressed through specific athletic contests (“sports entertainment”), but that’s not what their goal actually is.

See, when you’re telling a story, your goal is that story. Everything else you use, from the medium and delivery to the characters and settings all the way down to the pacing and language, should be in service of that goal. If you make choices that actively disrupt the story to prop up one of its constituent parts, you’re not telling a story any more. You’re focusing on that element, and the story is just the catalyst to make that element happen.

That’s fine. But if you’re fully aware of your goal yet presenting a different goal to your audience, you’re either a cunning tactician or you’re in for trouble when that audience figures it out. It’s why so many television shows jump the shark when the male and female leads get together; the creator thinks viewers watch for the characters themselves or the snappy dialog or the actual plot, but the viewers are most interested in the will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Viewers think they’re watching the world’s slowest pre-courtship, and when the creator resolves it to focus on something else, that disenfranchises those viewers. The creator (usually) doesn’t actually tell them they’re wrong for liking the wrong thing, but it feels that way.

Regarding gaming, this disconnect between a game’s intention and the players’ knowledge of it is a running theme throughout this blog. If you’re so focused on making monsters powerful that you sacrifice the player experience, you’re not making a role-playing game about characters, you’re making a battle simulator, and you lose players who want something other than numbers. If you’re so focused on building a unique world that you lock players into prescribed roles, you’re not making a game to be played, you’re writing a script to be followed, and you lose players who want to influence the setting. If you’re so focused on making adventures for everybody, anytime that you limit how, when, and what players can do while preventing them from having any say in the overarching story, you’re not making a gaming system, you’re making a video game (and not even a modern video game, but one where you can only “touch”, “take”, “use”, and “lick” certain background objects), and you lose players who want freedom of choice. I feel very strongly that players deserve to know what a game is before they get into it, because suddenly finding out that a game (or TV show, or poem, or business, or person) isn’t and never has been what you thought is incredibly jarring.

I went through something similar recently with Pathfinder, where I finally realized that what I wanted out of Pathfinder wasn’t something the creators wanted to produce. I’m still trying to reconcile that. So you can imagine what I’m thinking now that I see D&D is doing the same thing.

The impetus for this is a smart but jarring article on Gnome Stew that basically argues D&D isn’t a roleplaying game any more, at least not in the way I want it. Part of the fun in a roleplaying game is playing a character I want to play. Based on the evidence, that doesn’t factor into D&D any more. Wizards (and, as the article says, this is probably more a Hasbro thing) is instead pushing D&D as a brand, with video games, online videos, board games, and an upcoming movie. And that brand isn’t based on letting players do or be who they want, it’s about pulling them into a unified, approachable story.

This is a weird place for me. I cut my teeth on 3E, which had various splatbooks with classes, feats, equipment, monsters, and new rules. 3.5E did the same, and so did 4E, and so does Pathfinder. There was a regular stream of new options to expand what I could do as a player and as a DM. In 5E that’s gone, replaced by the DMs Guild, which is somewhere between “third-party publisher” and “my personal Geocities page” in terms of quality. When I heard about the DMs Guild I was excited for what it meant for the hobby and the direction of future publications, but now I see there aren’t any “future publications”. I didn’t expect the SRD to come at the expense of official content, and I’m incredibly disappointed that I may never hold a D&D book in my hands again.

Wizards is still publishing material, of course. But it’s all adventure paths, per the Paizo model. If you want something you can run in your own game, Wizards is not interested in your interest. And it’s all in Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft, so if you prefer another setting or your own, the same applies. None of it is intended to let players do what they want. As with the WWE, it’s intended to bring players into the story Wizards wants them to want.

I’m not going to go so far as to say D&D isn’t a roleplaying game any more. I’m not that alarmist. It still is, but a far more limited one than it has been in previous versions. It’s more a gateway to a shared multimedia franchise. That’s fine from a business perspective, but it’s not what I want. I don’t want a brand, I want a game that gives me enough freedom to tell the stories I want, and the only way I can do that is by giving up on the system as written and making my own version of it.


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2 Responses to On D&D as a Brand

  1. MisterBlake says:

    You say, “making my own version of it” like that wasn’t great fun when we did it to 4th Ed.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      We really didn’t. We made small tweaks here and there, but we never got around to making new classes or powers or rituals, or implementing that “ability score reskinning” system, or introducing any new mechanics beyond secondary skills. The intent of the system remained the same. This is on the other side of what we’re doing to Pathfinder, where we’re directly challenging the math itself. Making 5E what we want is a lot more labor intensive than what we’ve done to 4E.

      Though, yes, it has been great fun.

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