My Dad and I Never Played Dungeons & Dragons — But Next Year It Will Be Easier For Families Everywhere
The immortal game is about to get a whole lot more accessible.
Screen time is always a concern when it comes to parenting, which makes picking up the dice for Dungeons & Dragons an appealing activity for a fantasy-loving family. The nearly half-century-old tabletop game is all about imagination, with some tactile rulebooks, dice, and perhaps a miniature or two as aids. However, D&D is also much more complex to play than just booting up a gaming console. The rules can be confusing to newcomers, and prepping a session can be time-consuming for even a veteran dad Dungeon Master. That’s why the D&D brand is preparing a massive update to the rules of the game, in large part to make them more accessible to players — and Fatherly was there in May 2023, when they shared details about what’s in the works.
I have some experience with playing D&D with my family. Or, rather, not playing D&D with my dad. Back in the ‘80s, when my dad was in his 20s, he went on a trip around the world with two of his college buddies. They had plenty of fun adventures, but there was also, as one might expect, a lot of downtime during their travels, and my dad filled that with Dungeons & Dragons. Armed with an increasingly beat-up copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, my dad would torment his friends with monsters, labyrinths, and fiendish puzzles. I heard all about one such puzzle, where his friends were confronted with a small empty shelf and a closed door. With loads of time on his hands, my dad let his friends get increasingly frustrated by their inability to get the door open. (The answer to this riddle: The shelf was a shoe rack. Their characters had to take their shoes off in order to get inside.)
Yet, despite Dungeons & Dragons being an important part of my dad’s journey, we never played D&D together when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong — we played lots of fun games together, but D&D never came up. I don’t blame him! This was in the ‘90s and ‘00s when D&D was in something of a fallow period before the release of the game’s Fifth Edition in 2014. That moment marked the start of an unprecedented explosion in D&D’s popularity, which has basically been steady until 2023.
And, now, the team behind D&D is working hard on a major update to the game, one that will tweak a bunch of mechanics and result in a new set of rulebooks that will make it much more accessible and intuitive to play. It’s the next generation of D&D — and part of that means making the gameplay feel intergenerational. What didn’t pass down from my dad to me, will now be much smoother.
Even before the update — which is in playtesting now and will make its official debut in 2024 — D&D was a different sort of game than what my dad played decades ago. “In the past, it was a very mechanical game,” Kyle Brink, D&D’s executive producer, explained at a press preview event at Wizards of the Coast’s Seattle headquarters. “The focus of today’s play is on storytelling.”
Whereas my dad’s version of D&D (the game’s Second Edition), lent itself to meat-grinder dungeons and unforgiving traps and puzzles, modern D&D is very story-driven. Players tend to get much more invested in their characters, opting for roleplaying rather than just brute-forcing their way through dungeons. Podcasts and “actual-play” web series like The Adventure Zone, Rude Tales of Magic, and Critical Role had made watching people play D&D into a huge genre of entertainment. (Then there’s the new hit movie, Honor Among Thieves, which quite neatly exemplifies the sort of adventure that many modern tables aspire to.)
But, in order to see those stories play out, you need to understand the rules. And if you’re new to the game — or even if you’re returning to it — the current Fifth Edition’s rulebooks leave something to be desired. The current Dungeon Master’s Guide explains different forms of authority for a fantasy city in the first chapter. Dice and table rules (you know, the basics of gameplay), don’t come up until Chapter 8. Really!
“We are working on new ways of creating experiences that are all about getting people playing D&D as quickly as possible with as few barriers to entry [and] providing tools for people to play across generations,” Jermey Crawford, D&D’s game design architect and one half of the brain trust primarily responsible for creating D&D’s rules, explained. “A major focus of the revised Dungeon Master’s Guide is training.”
The new Dungeon Master’s Guide aims to make things accessible and inviting for new DMs while making life easier for veterans. One section deals deal with the real-world issues that tend to be the biggest barriers to play — like scheduling issues, which are more dangerous for a D&D party than any litch or dragon. The new DM’s Guide will offer advice on actually getting a group together and running the game, and it will put a premium on the DM’s prep time in general. These are changes that will likely prove handy for any time-strapped dads who want to get into D&D, either with their kids or with their friends. All of the player classes, like wizards, barbarians, and druids, are getting changes, the details of which are currently being worked out in a regular series of playtests and user feedback surveys.
Some of these changes are significant, though everyone involved stresses that the updates are not Sixth Edition and that the new releases will be backward compatible with the past decade of Fifth Edition books — and they will, albeit with maybe a little finagling and consulting of glossaries on the DM’s part.
Additionally, the new books will have new, lavish art in them — art that depicts much broader and more diverse examples of adventurers, part of the game’s ongoing (if occasionally rocky) efforts to be more welcoming to all sorts of players.
The nearly 50-year-old game is also making extensive efforts to educate kids, both about how to play the game and in the scholastic sense. Wizards of the Coast is offering free resources to help kids (and/or any eager involved parents) to set up D&D clubs at school, and a series of D&D-themed teaching activities is getting rave reviews from educators. The game, teachers say, is an excellent (and fun!) tool for teaching literacy, one that inspires writers and helps teach social and emotional skills, which are especially important after lockdowns.
“Materials for teachers also work for parents, if they’re curious,” said Shelly Mazzanoble, the game’s senior brand manager. “More resources are coming out for parents, [especially] if they don’t know how to play.”
There’s a lot more in D&D’s pipeline in addition to those resources and the updated rulebooks. This year will see several major releases for the game, all of which Wizards of the Coast previewed in Seattle. Bigby Presents Glory of the Giants is a rules expansion focused on one iconic type of D&D monster, giants, while Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse brings a beloved campaign setting to Fifth Edition. (Dads who love Discworld or kids who love Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness might take a shine to this one.) Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk is a classic dungeon-crawling romp that’s a natural sequel to one of the starter adventure sets that served as many players’ entry to the game, and the Deck of Many Things is basically D&D’s take on Tarot Cards — only they’re much more powerful and chaotic. (These two releases basically show the breadth of D&D’s content, the former is ideal for new players, while the latter is geared towards established DMs.)
Wizards of the Coast also previewed an early, early build of one of the most ambitious endeavors in the game’s history — a virtual tabletop. The ability to play D&D online has existed for a while, on sites like Roll20, but D&D’s own virtual tabletop is an elaborate setup that aims to emulate the feeling of playing on an actual tabletop, down to a deliberately toy-like aesthetic that recalls the actual miniatures many groups play with. It’s still a little wonky at this early development stage, but it has immense potential, even if it can’t quite replace the tactile feel of a real, physical table. Getting it fully up and running might take a while. (Maybe something to flag if you need to continue a family D&D game into the college years.)
That’s in the farther future than some of D&D’s other plans, though. But it and the myriad of other planned releases and updates the game designers have in store are all working towards making sure Dungeons & Dragons continues to endure. And, If this update to D&D’s Fifth Edition endures for another decade, my own kid will be old enough that a d20 will no longer be a choking hazard. Maybe we’ll get Grandpa to roll up a character. It’s certainly a much more inviting game than it was in his day.
The updated version of Dungeons & Dragons will release in 2024.
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