D&D Reflections At 5.1

Today is my 21st birthday for the 31st time. Or something like that. I survived another sojourn around the Sun and can chalk up another year on Planet Earth. Birthdays invite reflection. Given that this year has been full of re-evaluations, I thought that I would share my recent thoughts about Dungeons & Dragons.

I am putting together a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons game, initially pitched as a one-shot game using Old-School Essentials (itself a clone of Basic/Expert from 1981). This coincided with reflections I have been making on my methodology as a GM in roleplaying more generally. And so I ended up digging out all the editions of D&D and reviewing them.

This activity, innocuous though it seemed on Saturday, actually helped me delve back in my memory to the better games of D&D that I have experienced over the past 40 years or so. I have fond memories of BECMI – especially the introductory adventure that inspired Mystamyr – and more recently had some fun times with the 5th Edition at the school club. But of all the incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons, the one that I had the most and longest fun with was this:

When 3rd Edition arrived in 2000, I was ready to receive it… and relished the unified “core mechanic” of the d20-System. At the time, I felt that it was one of the most solidly constructed set of roleplaying game rules I had played… and in lots of ways, I still do. When 3.5 arrived I was suspicious but we soon adopted it and ran, on and off, several short campaigns.

4th Edition disconnected me from D&D when, after about 3 months of intense play, we began to feel bored by the way in which all classes were, essentially, the same. That game felt like a skirmish wargame and the group lost interest. Looking back, I am not sure why we didn’t simply revert to 3rd Edition… but we didn’t. This was 2008 and my journey into the “Old School Renaissance” was about to begin, so I suppose I got distracted.

But over the past 20 years, D&D 3rd Edition has always drawn me. Some say it’s too complicated, especially in the light of the 5th Edition, but I never felt that way. Putting aside the avalanche of d20-System material published in its wake – and sticking, as I always did with D&D, to the core rulebooks – it was a game we played a lot more than others.

Version 5.1 of me is looking at the spectrum of Dungeons & Dragons on offer and is drawn towards a combination of the rich tapestry of the pre-Wizards game as it evolved towards 2nd Edition and the way in which I finally grokked 3rd Edition. While I prefer many other rules engines for my roleplaying, generally because D&D worlds always ended up feeling like the same D&D world, the reality is that D&D has long been a kind of safe place for me as a gamer.

In 2022, I feel like an outsider to the modern community of Dungeons & Dragons – labelled, as I have been so often, as an old grognard and tagged with all manner of other horrifying assumptions about what it means for me to be an older white male gamer.

I think that, perhaps at least in terms of my own experience, the 3rd Edition felt like the hey-day for my Friday Night Roleplay group when it met – for more than 20 years – at my home. But then, I was turning 30 and the 21st century seemed so hopeful.

There is a sense of loss now that playing at my home table has ceased. I wonder if that will ever return. But there is also a sense of hope because, as a GM, I have begun to re-learn my trade and apply the lessons I wish I had learned pre-2018 to my most recent designs.

And there is a curious sense of acceptance about the idea that my favourite edition of D&D is, in fact, the 3rd Edition.

Game on!

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