I was thinking the other day about the overwhelming popularity of D&D as opposed to all other tabletop RPGs. Outside groups of players that specifically won’t play it at all, D&D is the default game. The more concurrent RPGs a particular gamer is involved in, the more likely at least one of them will be D&D. At least in my experience, in any given group of gamers, D&D is simply a much easier sell than any other game on the market. “I’m running a D&D game,” requires far less explanation or coercion than the other options. Why?
I think the answer is, in large part, due to the default narrative of D&D: a group of adventure-seekers enters lairs full of fantastic beasts, kills them, and takes their stuff. While many joke about this component of the game, it’s incredibly effective in a number of ways:
- It’s scalable: A scenario can be as small as Orc and Pie or as big as World’s Largest Dungeon. Each room can be smooth walled and populated only by monsters or intricate and full of traps, riddles, and portents. Motivation can be simple naked greed or involved backstory. The premise stretches easily to work with as much or as little as the GM, players, and game time will allow.
- It automatically provides conflict: There are creatures and traps. They are in between the players and their goal. They must be bypassed; by combat, skill, trickery, or even diplomacy if so required. The very nature of the setup creates interest and action.
- It’s systematized: If a GM is not feeling particularly creative when planning the adventure, it’s still ridiculously easy to make a dungeon. Draw out rooms and passages. Pull appropriate, pre-made creatures and other threats according to specific guidelines. Have fun. It may not be the most emotionally deep experience of your players’ roleplaying lives, but it will be a game.
- It encourages the players to be proactive: Adventurers in D&D find holes in the ground, fight what’s inside, and take out the rewards. If a group is feeling adrift in the plot, in a standard game of D&D, all they really have to do is figure out how to get into a dungeon and things become remarkably clearer.
- It’s predictable: For all the reasons above, a D&D group knows, at least within a ballpark, what kind of game they’re likely to get, even assuming no prior experience with one another. There are GMs that run dungeon crawls better than others, but within the standard range of GMing skills, the difference between a bad dungeon crawl and a good one is an order of magnitude smaller than the range between, for example, a bad mystery game and a good one, or a bad horror game and a good one. If the GM and players can trust one another to not deliberately try to ruin everyone else’s experience, it’s pretty easy to create fun.
Obviously, D&D can be a lot more than dungeon crawls. Should be, even. But that’s the default narrative, and it’s a rare D&D game that doesn’t send the PCs regularly into interlinking collections of roomlike spaces to fight or otherwise bypass fantastic creatures.
The interesting thing is that no game that I’m familiar with, mainstream or indie, has a similarly defined default narrative (unless they are also fantasy adventure games of a similar vein to D&D). Many of the indie games I’ve played come much closer than mainstream games, but I don’t know that any of them are there yet. Any game that’s heavily reliant on the GM to craft a plot from a huge variety of possibilities has created a game that’s potentially way more work for the GM and way less predictably enjoyable for prospective players. I’ll run a D&D game with no real ideas and I’ll play one with no real concept of the GM’s skill in a way I simply won’t for literally any other game system.
And I think that’s because there’s no other game system that provides a scalable, systematized, predictable default narrative rife with conflict and opportunities for player-directed action. D&D has an easy answer for what to do if you’re stumped for fun, and, despite well over three decades of attempts to improve on the original, I’m not aware of any game that’s created anything really comparable. I’m not sure why.