I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7. I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times. But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look. I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance. I’m glad I did. It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.
There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify. These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later. The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters. I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.
To start with, it’s important to me for there to be a diverse set of representations in the art of any given RPG. My friend Mattias’ article says why this is important better than I could. Basically, I want one of my favorite hobbies to have room for everyone, instead of just straight white male nerds. I can’t see how anyone benefits from alienating whole groups of people, and I’d like everyone to be able to look into an RPG book and find someone that makes them think “I could do this, that could be me, that could be my character.” Maybe it’s odd, but I often smile when I see women and non-white people in gaming stores, or playing RPGs. It’s not like that makes everything better, but it’s definitely progress.
So. The art in D&D’s sourcebooks has come a long way from its origins. Looking through the new PHB I’ve been impressed by the presence of so many depictions of female adventurers, and by the fact that so few of them are suffering from the classic fantasy art problem that I’ll call chainmail bikini syndrome. There’re still a few scantily clad women, but when they’re wearing armor they generally seem to be wearing actually effective armor instead of simply being turned into sex objects. That’s all change in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe now it needs some more male sex objects?
I’ve also been impressed by the numbers of people of color who’ve made it into the book; don’t get me wrong, there’s still lots of white people on the pages, but the character palette is no longer nearly so monochromatic as I remember it being in previous editions. I’d be happy to see more, but again, I think this is change in the right direction. My one big gripe is that the art doesn’t appear to include different skin colors for non-human races. It’s like only humans can come in any shade, since the only time you see a differently colored elf is when they’re obviously a dark-skinned white-haired drow. As I said at the start of this digression, this art question is something I’m not sure how to qualify. It’s a clear improvement over the previous editions with which I’m familiar, but it could probably be better.
Right, time for the next topic! Most of the games that I’ve been playing for the past six years or so have put considerable emphasis on using the game’s mechanics to help create story and narrative, beyond the usual “arbitration of disagreements about reality” level of things. I can’t say that the new D&D totally embraces the idea of tying the mechanics into the active construction of narrative, but for the first time that I can recall the book actually has a discussion of ideals, personality traits, flaws, and bonds. Not only that, but there’s a neat sub-mechanic called “inspiration” which is used to reward players for being especially true to their characters.
I’m glad that D&D didn’t completely change course and adopt all the narrativist structure of, say, Apocalypse World. I love AW, and I think it’s a great game, but I don’t want every game to be like it. It’s nice having a variety of flavors to choose from, and sometimes what I really want is a good old fantasy adventure with swords and sorcery. I’m just really glad that new D&D has offered a system-internal option for improving the roleplaying part of its experience, and that it’s started to address the concepts central to creating and playing a character with some sort of background beyond that of “I dunno, let’s get some loot.” Sometimes all I want to do is go get loot, but as a lover of improv I like to see D&D using its massive market presence to encourage people to engage in the more theatrical side of RPGs. I’m also tickled pink by their use of “bonds,” given that that same term was used in the D&D-loving AW hack Dungeon World. I can’t help but imagine that DW inspired them to include these things in some way.
Alright, and now we’re finally back to the first item I mentioned. I’m inordinately pleased by the specific inclusion of genderqueer characters, and by the conscious investigation of cultural expectations. Let me just type up the section so that you can read it:
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.
You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.
Much like with how I feel about the inclusion of non-white characters, I’m glad to see that D&D has consciously embraced yet another group of people. I don’t know how much difference it will make overall, but knowing that this game specifically mentions wanting to include some of my friends certainly makes me feel better. I hope that the attitude shared in this book can spread more generally throughout nerd culture.
I’m not sure I really have more to say here. I’ll tell you how I feel about the new rules once I’ve had a chance to play with them, but they look pretty good for the moment. I’m glad to see D&D’s shift towards inclusivity, something I more commonly associate with the indie RPGs I’ve been playing for a while now, and I’m glad to see D&D pick up a little more of the in-depth character design and theatricality that I’ve been enjoying so much elsewhere. All in all, I’m pretty happy with this.