Kyle Mecklem recently blogged his thoughts on how and why D&D has become a "boring" game in recent years. While I think his analysis is a little off (you can read my comments on his post), it still raises a subject I find worth discussing.
[not beating up on Kyle, here...I'm just riffing off his subject matter]
Sure, I can get on board with the idea that the latest editions of D&D don't hold the same appeal for me that the older versions of the game do, but that doesn't mean they're boring to everyone. Clearly there are folks enjoying 5th edition in some capacity, and who are more than willing to put their cash in Hasbro's cash register. Perhaps I am simply out-of-touch with what "the kids" want these days...certainly that's true with regard to pop music and reality television.
And even if though I can come around (rather easily, I admit) to an idea that the game is objectively "less fun/exciting" than it was "back in the day," I'm rather hesitant to consider it has anything to do with the reasons Kyle lists: low effort players, hand waving away of minutia, and the lack of "true challenge." I can see how these things might appear to be causes of this "boring-ness problem" -- they are all features of classic "old school" play, and Kyle's premise seems to imply old school play being more desirable than the current systems -- but I'd argue against them. After all:
- There are plenty of RPGs that require extensive, pre-play character development that offer nothing like classic D&D play. Furthermore, if players are approaching the game with a "video game mentality" (as Kyle suggests), I would lay the fault at the feet of a game designed with video game sensibilities, not the players' response.
- Too much minutia can be off-putting and distracting from the escapism of the game being played. Some people want to count arrows and torches; some people find this breaks their immersive experience. Different players have different thresholds for the amount of minutia they can handle; I for one did not enjoy the "challenge" of worrying about my caloric intake when I played in a certain on-line campaign.
- Games that are too deadly in nature promote caution in players, leading to slower play, which I consider to be fairly boring. On the other hand, what Kyle describes as a "slow grind" is very inherent of some styles of Old School play, and the wahoo "lich council assault" he describes sounds much more video gamey in nature. I suppose I'd just say these are matters of style and personal taste over something inherent in the game itself (neither in its current nor past incarnations).
Here's the thing: what Kyle is expressing is a lack of satisfaction with the D&D game experience these days, and I can agree with that. I mean, I have sampled 5th edition and found it dead boring (and 3rd edition, which I played for a couple-three years, was at least as much, if not more so). Mostly though (mostly), I would chalk this up more to the manner in which the game has been presented...the main marketing thrust of the game since the advent of the 21st century seems to have been to make the perspective DM reliant on company-created game resources, rather than promoting one's own ability to create and run the game independently. This may be an excellent business model (evidenced by the company remaining in business) or it may not be (I haven't purchased any of their D&D stuff in 15 years). Regardless, I don't subscribe to this presentation of D&D, and I would actively discourage anyone else from doing so, were they to ask my opinion.
['course, I'm not playing much at all these days, though I am gearing up for the future, so take my opinion for what it's worth]
Alexis Smolensk, bless his ever-present-desire-to-help-us-be-better-DMs, has written a couple good posts about encouraging player agency over victimhood. "Victimhood," a term I'd use interchangeably with "de-protagonization," may be the usual state players find themselves in when playing a published adventure path, but it's been the default starting point for adventures since the Hickman/Weiss era of the mid-1980s. See examples such as Dragonlance ("Your village has been burned and you've been captured by the Dragon Army"), the Desert of Desolation series ("You've offended the local lord and you are being forced to do this quest in the desert"), and, of course, Ravenloft ("You're trapped by this mysterious fog in some Transylvania-equivalent; go break the curse!"). And reading and running (and aping) published adventures is one of the main ways young DMs learn their craft.
[I'd argue that earlier adventures (Against the Giants, the Slavers Series, early Basic modules) offer a bit more player agency: here's some adventure site, do you want to take it on or not?]
Unfortunately (in addition to de-protagonizing players), relying on this kind of heavy-handed story-forcing doesn't do a DM any favors, either. Not only are they subject to extensive cliches (how can it not be, when fantasy adventure gaming is built upon and chock full of cliches?) but requiring a DM to follow a dramatic plot...whether a published one or a story of her own design...ties the DM's hands, limiting the DM's ability to improvise and adapt to the needs/wants of players or even (on occasion) the results of the dice rolled.
Yes, such constrained play can certainly feel trite and/or boring.
In my opinion, the main lacking in the most recent editions (perhaps ALL editions) of D&D is the clear, concise instruction needed by perspective DMs for building and running adventures and campaigns. Without that instruction...well, you get what you've got.
And that's all I've got to say on the matter right now.
***EDIT: I wrote this post before reading this, published today. It's a little harsh, but not terrible advice to the perspective DM. More of this kind of thing would be helpful, I think.***