No True D&D

If you follow Matthew Mercer (of Critical Role) on Twitter, you’ll have seen his recent twitter thread. For those that don’t follow, or haven’t seen the many, many retweets, here is the text of the first two tweets in the thread:

Every six months or so, I see discussions pop up defending CR from people saying it “isn’t real D&D”. (Mind you, I don’t see most of the instigating statements, which might mean I have the right people muted…?) Regardless, the whole premise of this argument is hilarious to me.

First off, who are you to define what is real D&D? What makes your narrow, personal experience so unilaterally qualified to make that judgement regarding a game that is designed to create wholly unique experiences at every table?

You can follow the link above to read the whole thing.

When I first sat down to write about this for the blog, I was going to talk about how tired I am that I or anyone else in the hobby has to keep making this same point over and over. After all, it should really be self-evident that you can play the game your way, and that way is no more or less correct than any other way. Why, then, do I have to keep slapping down this periodic “No True Scotsman” gatekeeping rhetoric? When is it enough?

Giving it some more thought, I have at least a partial answer to why it keeps happening on what seems like an ever shortening cycle: The streaming of actual plays has shortened the time it takes for new gamers to feel like veteran gamers. For example, when I got into the hobby in [REDACTED], there was no secondary source I could go to to see how the game was “supposed” to be played. I learned at the table, in real time, with my fellow nerdlings. So for the first several years of my hobby experience, how I was “supposed” to play was however we were actually playing it right then at that particular table.

Flash forward to now. Now, if I want to see how a game works one of the first things I do is hunt up a video of it, whether it’s a How To or Actual Play. I’ve never actually played a game of Savage Worlds RPG, for instance, but I have watched Wildcards on Saving Throw, so I have a pretty firm grasp of how that system works. Certainly enough that I feel comfortable sitting down to play it, maybe even run it. After watching two seasons of Shield of Tomorrow, I knew enough about the mechanics of the game that I was able to build a character and play the first couple of sessions in a short-lived campaign, while barely looking at the rulebook for Star Trek Adventures.

All of which I think is fantastic! I love that people new to the hobby don’t have the kinds of barriers that I had when I first started. These days, if you’re a nerdy kid it is almost harder to not learn how to play D&D. Which is a world I couldn’t have comprehended growing up in an isolated northern Canadian city in the {REDACTED]. For someone nervous about finding a group, or going to a D&D event at a store or game cafe (Jeebus, game cafes! WE HAVE PLACES THAT SERVE COFFEE AND GAMES!), the ability to get a grasp of the mechanics of the game before subjecting yourself to public scrutiny must be such a relief. These videos and streams are now an integral part of training up new gamers, serving the same function as tutorials at the start of video games.

What I see as the issue, and what I think motivates these periodic outbursts of “YOUR FUN IS WRONG!”, is that folks take in not just how to play, but how to act when you play. So depending on what show is teaching you, you will have a much different idea of how to act at the table. Critical Role has, for lack of better terminology, the dominant market share in the actual play space. It is safe to say that if your first experience with D&D was through an actual play video it was probably watching Mr. Mercer and the gang. And so many, many gamers will look at not just what they do, but how they go it, and say, “That. That is how one D&Ds.” It’s no one’s fault, that’s just how human brains are built.

But it does mean that we get generations of gamers trying to emulate a play style instead of develop a play style. Subsequently they get upset when their DM or fellow players can’t or won’t mimic the style they remember from last Thursday night. And because Actual Plays have shortened the learning curve for new gamers these “new generations of gamers” appear in months rather than years. Say, approximately every six months, as Matthew noted above.

So what does this mean? Well, I said that I had intended to sit down and write a grumpy little article about how we should all just get along, dammit! But when I took everything above into consideration, I find I’m not really grumpy about it anymore. This is the progression of gamers into our hobby now. They’ve sped-learned the details and mechanics of the games, and now is the chance for us wily veterans to help them learn the experiential lessons of gaming, the stuff that can only be learned by sitting down and rolling dice with fellow nerds. That we have to essentially start a new class every six months or so should be exciting for anyone who loves this hobby. It means that it is growing, and it’s an opportunity for us to ensure that that growth is healthy.

So thank-you to Matthew Mercer for his thread, and especially the stern but patient delivery. Thank-you to everyone else who shared it and reaffirmed their love of the hobby. This was an excellent example of being the example of what you want others to become, and it reaffirms my faith that this hobby can be a beautiful thing.

I’ll see you all back here in July for the next wave.