Salutations to the Fine People of Wizards of the Coast,
To quote the great and magnanimous Grog Strongjaw, the barbarian of Critical Role renown, “I would like to rage.”
What was once a not so simple war game— developed in the basement of a man whose wife thought he was cheating— Dungeons and Dragons evolved into one of, if not the most popular, tabletop role-playing games of all time. I’m sure Gary Gygax, the man who invented this wonderful game, would be astounded to see it.
Such an achievement is made more impressive by the fact that it has happened despite your success with major tabletop games. The design philosophy (the existence of which is a matter of debate) of the latest edition of the game appears to have been conceived by designers who decided to make intelligence their dump stat. Between a sense of game balance that feels like the scale is being held sideways, rampant power creep, and almost unquestionable class favoritism, to say nothing of the string of controversies that only continues to grow, one has to question how things got this far. For my part, the phrase “failing upwards” comes to mind, and the over half a million-dollar profit you made in 2022, surely must have pleased your corporate overlords over at Hasbro.
Stepping outside the game for a moment, you’ve made some major blunders in the real world too. You can’t go more than two new releases without some new controversy. Most recently with the latest handbook, Bigby Presents: Glory of Giants, featuring blatant A.I. generated art (and not even good art at that, if I’m being honest). Not even paying a proper artist and just having a computer do it? You’re supposed to be good at this. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice? To quote the Sniper from Team Fortress 2, “professionals have standards.”
Back to the game itself, I’ll start with a question that everyone who plays this game has pondered at least once: why in all Nine Hells do some things seem deliberately designed to be less fun? Seriously! To be fair, most of that stuff is from the earlier days of D&D Fifth Edition (or 5e for short), but that’s not the point. It’s one thing to make what could be considered a suboptimal choice for roleplay reasons (and in my unprofessional opinion, these are the best choices), but it’s another thing entirely to have mechanics built into the game that most people are going to ignore or house rule out anyway. Like the Berserker subclass for the Barbarian getting hit with one of the most debilitating effects in the game for using the ability that makes up the foundation of what it does. I understand it’s a callback to previous editions, but it feels restrictive, to say the least, to pick something for your character and then end up shooting yourself in the foot for using the main benefit of that choice. That’s just a drop in a bucket of issues, and I say this as someone whose favorite class in this game is the Barbarian: fix your game, damn it.
Which brings me to my next point: optimization and power creep. It happens all the time in games, of both the video and tabletop variety; new content gets released, or there’s a patch or an errata, and now there’s this new thing that’s like that other thing that already exists but is better in every way. To give an example: I’ve seen many people say that the Conquest subclass for the Paladin is just a better version of the Vengeance one from the initial release of 5e three years prior, since they fill near-identical roles in a party and are aesthetically similar. As someone who has been playing this game almost since the start of this edition, it feels like every time you guys make something new, it renders something else obsolete, especially for those of us who would rather our characters rely on strength and steel rather than scrolls and sorcery.
Oh, and damn you for making the dexterity stat way too important. It’s the most common saving throw; it determines how good you are at not getting hit, when your turn is in combat, and can be used not just for accuracy, but damage too? You guys must be on some good spice or something to put so many eggs in one basket.
On the subject of optimization, in games like this that come with a high degree of customization, not all options are created equal, and it doesn’t take long for players to start throwing science at the wall to see what sticks. When they do, it will inevitably happen that some things work better than others (Fireball being deliberately designed to be overpowered being a go-to example). This forms what many people refer to as “the Meta,” which to some is short for “Most Effective Tactic(s) Available.” Everyone has their own style of play, and most of us are here to have fun, but there are online communities (such as the section of Reddit called r/rpghorrorstories, which contains an endless number of stories of problem players of all flavors of awful) dedicated to sharing stories that, if nothing else, show that there are those who will tell you that if you’re not playing a Wizard with a level in Cleric for that heavy armor proficiency or your Paladin isn’t taking a three- level dip into Warlock for those sweet, sweet, smite slots, then you’re playing the game wrong.
And that’s another thing I’d like to talk about: the class ladder. For lack of a better way to put it, the game has a serious problem with a lack of exclusivity. I’ll admit that I have no experience with older editions, but from what I understand, it used to be that the trade-off for being able to use magic was you were sacrificing the high hit points and armor values that martial characters like the Fighter and Paladin got. You know how it goes: phenomenal cosmic power— teeny, tiny hit points. Nowadays, though, all you need is to dip a level or two into the right class or pick the right spells, and suddenly Merlin over there can go toe to toe with Achilles and even come out on top despite having never even touched a sword in his life— except for the one he put in the stone, but I digress. I despise the fact that if something lacks options, then the go-to solution is to just give it magic. I get it; you guys aren’t Fighters of the Coast, but for the love of Moradin’s magnificent beard, give us martial players some more options than just “I hit it with my sword again.”
My final point—or else we’ll be here all day—is one of the most egregious issues: the vagueness of some rules and a complete lack of others. I’ve heard it said that 3.5e had rules for just about anything, but while too many rules can be restrictive, a lack of rules leaves the opposite problem. Sure, you’ve got your Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and a plethora of other books to look to by this point, but you yourself say in those books that they’re more meant to be guidelines than hard and fast rules. That’s not a problem in and of itself—if the conversations I’ve seen online are any indication, half of players don’t even read the books anyway.
The problem lies in the fact that so much is left up to the Dungeon Master’s (some say Game Master’s) discretion. To the point where it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it sometimes feels like it’s easier to just make your own game, but at that point you’re just playing Calvinball with dice. That’s not to say one shouldn’t play fast and loose with the rules; if that’s how you have fun, then more power to you. But first, there needs to be rules to play fast and loose with, and your attempts to clarify vague or missing rules via your Sage Advice page are often not helpful or just plain dumb. I mean, really? Even if you can see an invisible creature, they still get the benefits of being invisible because it’s a condition, not an effect? But I suppose all this is what homebrew, meaning unofficial player-made content, and house rules are for. Hells, even Gygax supposedly had a few house rules at his table, and he invented the game! But if you’re going to leave things to us, the players, then we’ll respond by quoting Thanos and saying, “fine, I’ll do it myself.”
So, overlords at WotC, I say unto you— congratulations. You’ve managed to make Dungeons & Dragons successful in spite of yourselves.
From an irate barbarian,
Jacob Topliff is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Header Image Courtesy of https://company.wizards.com/