This Isn't D&D Anymore

In a recent interview on the official Dungeons & Dragons YouTube channel discussing the early years of D&D in the 1970's, the WotC staff made the caveated statement at the end that "this isn't D&D anymore" when referring to the classic game of the 1970s. They were mainly referring to the language used at the time and the overall demographics of the player base (you can watch the interview here, with the comments coming after minute 35). This somewhat inflammatory statement, when taken out of context, prompted me to think beyond the original intent of the statement made. I have to say that I agree with the WotC staff and this modern version really isn't D&D anymore, though not how they meant it.

When I think of Dungeons & Dragons, I think of endless adventures, delving into catacombs, exploring the unknown, and hopefully barely surviving to tell the tale at a local tavern with a treasure hoard hidden away. This really isn't what D&D is least not entirely. A while back, Matthew Colville also addressed this topic in saying that the current 5th edition of D&D isn't designed with the same play experience in mind that you found in the game from 1974 - 1999. Yet despite the massive changes in play style, you still find certain remnants of the past within the equipment section of the PHB.

When removing emotion and coldly analyzing D&D 5e, you can see what it is mainly designed for: set piece combat. Social interactions have become mechanical due to the skill lists (the truth serum skill known as "Insight" or the mind-controlling skill called "Persuasion") and exploration is relatively muted. All classes are focused on how best they can be optimized for combat and not too much beyond that.

The pervasiveness of dark vision (even though it is largely misunderstood) and Light being a cantrip, have removed the darkness and dread felt by previous editions' players when crawling through the depths of a dungeon.

DMs and players alike have eschewed things like tracking encumbrance, rations, water, and ammunition as they have been deemed "uninteresting" or "tedious" and don't help "move the story forward". Those might be correct in the very linear, rail-roady experience of adventure paths and official WotC "campaigns". Now players expect to either find a bag of holding early in the adventure to take care of the pestering question around encumbrance, or it is simply ignored completely. But in a true emergent sandbox campaign, as was more prevalent pre-3e D&D, such things are vital as they can drive the campaign (i.e., "story") in new and unexpected directions.

The importance of gear and treasure have also been largely relegated to sideshows most players of 5e don't care about since they hardly matter. Survival gear is pointless and coin is useless as well. It isn't needed to advance levels or build a stronghold (again something completely ignored in today's "story/narrative game" environment). Pay to consult a sage? Why do that anymore? That's what the "magical" skills are for (I think you can sense the sarcasm here).

The DMs role has also shifted dramatically. Aside from being a rules arbiter, they are seen as a storyteller and entertainer. Even beyond that the shift is palpable. Gone are morale checks, encounter reaction tables, random encounters, getting lost in the wilderness, and roaming monster tables. The DM is being asked to do less, yet somehow needs to do more. Fully prepping and "balancing" every possible encounter, whilst keeping in mind that there is an unbalanced, broken, and far too fluid action economy to keep track of. No wonder many 5e DMs rail road the heck out of their players and fudge dice rolls to simply keep things somewhat manageable at times.

Unlike in classic D&D, combat in modern D&D is a slog that can chew up hours to resolve a single combat encounter. And with the speed of advancement now, plus how XP is gained (if tracked at all anymore), PCs rarely (if ever) try to avoid combat or come up with clever non-combat solutions to defeat a monster.

I ran D&D 5e for many years, for many groups, and all long-term campaigns (until the mechanical shortcomings of 5e ended the campaigns). It was through me going back to my beloved AD&D and then going through the iterations of Basic D&D (mainly BECMI and OSE) over the past 3 years that it became painfully obvious where 5e is lacking to generate the play experience that I want and enjoy. The classic versions (honorable mentions also for Basic Fantasy RPG (from whom the top banner art is taken)OSRIC, Castles & Crusades, Hyperborea, ACKS, and Swords & Wizardry at this point) are certainly not "perfect", but they create the perfect game for me and my players, most of whom only knew 3.5e or 5e or are kids aged 9-14.

I could go into depth and analyze each one of these points for pages on end and might yet do that, but that isn't the intent of this article. I wanted to underline the fundamental differences between Dungeons & Dragons pre-/post-2000 and that the esteemed sages at WotC were correct when they said "this isn't D&D anymore" albeit not in the way they meant it.


  1. So we've gone full circle and we're back to skirmish wargaming but with better rules than Chainmail

  2. I agree with TheRealmBuilderGuy quite a bit, but I also see things (having come up through the original D&D from 1980 onward) a bit differently. I think the above article was thoughtful.

    My reply and perspective at the link below:

    Article isn't as nice visually as I'd have liked; Have been off blogger for a while and am no longer happy with the look and feel I previously created. Ah well, hopefully some of what say might make some sense.

  3. I'm right there with you. 5e has put me off of the concept of "high fantasy" altogether. I like creative problem solving with friends. And there's nothing creative about selecting one of your godlike powers to smash an underpowered monster ad infinitum. Dungeons were once warehouses full of problems to be solved, the monsters were chief among them, but not alone. I'm actually about to start Running Call of Cthulhu after years just playing and running 5e. I want to play something with stakes, where bad ideas and bad rolls are punished. And 5e isn't that.

    1. CoC: The game where having fast movement for running can be a great asset! :-)

      I recall the range of traps, weird plants and animals, and magical or odd rooms in the older games. And you didn't get a locked-in result you were simply supposed to serve as the delivery person for. Player agency was present.

      Look at B1: Keep on the Borderlands - if the monsters at the Caves of Chaos ever got together, the Keep couldn't have stood (well, except for a siege). And X1: Isle of Dread where you spent a lot of time just mapping the island and figuring out who the players were. Or B4 (maybe?) - the one with the underground society with strange teleporters joining sections of the dungeon... that was wild. And Hommlet... should have been called Omlette for all the characters that went down in that wee village and the Moathouse and surrounds... mostly because back then we weren't smart enough (younger then) to cooperate and didn't know when to run. I think the graveyard scroll they created had over 80 characters on it.... and then there was Ravenloft... broke two experienced parties and never went back!

      Last 5E session I ran a year or two ago, the party had been pursuing Goblins into a cave complex. Half way through, the Goblins (that were living) were fleeing.... because something else was attacking them. The party headed through a broken cavern wall that the Goblins had opened into a long buried ancient temple of some sort of Eldritch Evil.

      As we went along, I would do things like say "Gary, uh... oh, never mind." and kept going or I'd say "Can you roll a D20? Tell me the result." Then I'd look at some notes, scribble something, and keep going. As they walked down into the empty Chapel, I described geometries that just didn't sit well with anyone - kind of nauseating. As time went on, they kept thinking they saw some sort of movement just in the corner of they eye, but when you look, nothing is there. Then they came into the second level and they felt a frisson on their back that made the hair on their necks stand up.

      When they got to a fountain above a pitch black alcove (that had something they might have wanted to have) and they weren't willing to reach in. But as they walked deeper, more of the mind games. When they did fought some ghostly foes and I told them, when they were hit, that they felt a real coldness and a sense of weakness on them - clammy skin. (It was a mere -1 to STR temporary, but they didn't know that....).

      They fought the last group near the ancient henge in a cavern that ended with a strangely lit crysteline formation and a stained altar. They fought the guardians. All they had to do was to walk into the strange light and look at around to find some good loot....

      ... and they retreated out of the dungeon, never came back, notified the higher ups (the local Knight, the Baron down the way) assuming someone else would finish that.

      They hadn't taken more than 20% of their hit points. The NOT KNOWING what the described sense meant and me not explaining what the attacks were underneath and what of the sensations they felt left them UNABLE to determine the odds and the sort of danger they might be in. Goblins they know and they know how tough they are against Goblins, but strange sensations and almost-seen movements and the hair standing up all over them... and rolling and not knowing what any of it meant (some of it meant nothing.... LOL)...

      They scared themselves out of the dungeon.

      That's because the PLAYERS did not have a good meta-game understanding of what they faced so the CHARACTERS became fearful.

      I really, really enjoyed that (as a GM). They behaved more like modestly brave but ignorant heroes who don't want to die horribly, not just confidant warriors who fear nothing and know when they need to heal or put off healing, that know how many swats Goblin needs, etc....

      MAKE THE PLAYERS UNSURE AND CAUTIOUS.... and then see if they are heroic and risk taking!

  4. Okay, I have to say I agree with you post in almost all details. But I have to say I'm a little annoyed that you didn't mention Basic Fantasy RPG but you used a piece of our artwork for this post. That art piece with trolls about to encounter adventurers was drawn for me by the late Steve Zieser and has been in the core rules since the first edition.

    1. I truly apologize for this. Basic Fantasy RPG was one of the key games to get me back to classic play. I’m planning on doing a review of some “old-school” systems that started all for me again, and yours is definitely one of the games I wish to review and highlight. I also loved running the game for my kids.

  5. Well, the truth of the matter is that games change with time, and play styles. And then there is the fact that each edition has maxed out with it's products, so it's natural to have to do a new edition to create new revenue (even the mighty Pathfinder ended up doing this lol). Now that they have released all the old products as pdfs, and they are starting to do print on demand with more of them, it's no biggie to me what the current company that owns the licence does with D&D anymore (unless they pull the open licence BS, then that effects more than just D&D too). I have more of a problem with wizards of the coast than the edition, personally.

    1. Good points. I can’t extract the publisher from these editions, since they’re so intrinsically linked.

    2. But it is no new edition... at least they are telling us and alot of the "fanboys and -girls" out there are repeating it on Discord and Youtube all day long.
      And with all their designers gone, at least all who have more than 3-5 years of D&D experience, it seems there never will be something worth the imprint "new edition" as long as the license lies with WotC.

      The problem described in this post are there from the beginning. It has nothing to do with later splatbooks. The game is unbalanced and purely heroic. Typical "standard fantasy" can only be played during the first tier. If at all.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Ballance? I usually wing that stuff (lol)

  6. I started my D&D adventure when the first boxed set hit the UK shores circa 1978 and I've progressed through most of the editions since, although my playtime was heavily skewed towards BECMI, 1e, 2e and 5e because life was pretty busy in the 3e/3.5e/4e days. There's a lot I like about the way 5e has rationalised the game and a lot I don't. The one thing I'll say is it's respectful of people's time, which is rather important to me now that I'm older. You can have a meaningful amount of progression in a 3 hour session and complete a campaign in a year. You won't spend an entire fight staring at your phone because you failed a saving roll in round 1 so your job is drinks duty for the next hour.

    I loved old-school D&D but most of the high level modules we played had to be done with throwaway characters. It took most weekends of my student life to nurture a single character up to level 11. I'm immensely proud of that druid, but at the same time it meant that I never played the vast majority of classes at all beyond about level 5. Campaigns would fall apart.

    5e doens't have to be easy. It doesn't have to be 90% combat. That's about the skill of the DM. We have a couple of DMs that love putting the party under extreme pressure and a couple that are very good at crafting a great story and atmosphere. The beauty of 5e is we have the time to allow them all to take their turns (and us to build new characters) because we're not mired in a single campaign for an eternity.

  7. When I ran a 19 real year campaign, the highest character was the Wizard (Necromancer) at level 12. I think the main fighter (a Knight) was level 11. Most of the others were 10 or 9/9 or 9/8 (for the multis). We used to play twice a month in school (4 hour slot) and kept that up through school with some breaks and then when I moved 2 hours away, we played 4-5 times a year and played 6-8 hours. Laterally, probably 3-4 times a year. I try not to imagine how much time was put in. Climbing fairly takes a long long time in D&D (we started in early AD&D, then 2E, then 2E with Kits, then 2E with Player's Option (the best product I ever encountered the way we used it) and laterally a bit of 5E but I don't count that because we ran a different group of characters.

    Now, that's not possible. And we never had folks wanting to take on demigods, so 12 was around the most we'd expect to play to, but the time from L3 to L7 is modestly long but once you started rolling from L8 to L10/11/12... that was really long.

    Mind you, the Wizard was going to be Master of the Royal Arcanum. The two War clerics had went different ways - one a reformer, one an orthodox one - they both got Bishoprics. The lead fighter was the son of a Duke and he took over that job. The Bard was a bastard royal and with others being kidnapped and some killed, he helped out with threats for the Kingdom, but he didn't want to ever come anywhere near the Crown. The mercenary/duellist became the Kingdom's spy master and ran his own salle des armes. One of the characters was a Wizard/Fighter and he touched some god-level gear in revisiting a multi-diety temple... and ended up with random spoutings of cryptic bits about the future. Oh yes, another player was another Duke's son who also just took over the family business.

    We lost a lot of characters between 1th and 4th level. After that, there were only one or two casualties after that. Everyone had literally invested hundreds of real world hours between gaming and prep and planning.

    Loved that game and that group. We used to play with crits and they could be unkind (and very lethal). The nice part of DMing 2E with PO: Combat & Tactics gave us good miniature use and clarified where everyone was at. The Channeling rules from PO: Spells & Magic and the exhausting casting made for very different but constrained casters. Each deity had a spell list. The War folks only got healing up to spell level 3 - it is not their first concern. The goddess that could do Heal and various purgatives was a 100% pacifist so anyone wanting those sorts of high level meds had to convert and repudiate the use of violence.

  8. I started DMing/Playing in September 1975. Moved on thru the various editions and by the time I got into a few years of 5E, I began placing several "House Rules" in My/Our Campaign and blending numerous aspects of AD&D with my campaign to the point I refer to it as a D&D Variant Game. Adventurers have returned to Taverns to share tales of our adventures, we don't allow players to even play "Evil" characters for the first 20 Sessions they play in / 1st Calendar Year... This cuts back on "wannabe" Murder Hobos, less Min-Maxers because we play a slower, character building, "ROLE-Playing". We have tavern wenches, we have "Half-Elves" & "Half-Orks" and always will. We will ALWAYS refer to Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, etc, as Races, like Adults do on Earth. Works will never be a "Soft, Cookie-Baking" race, so we are Old School!!!


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