3e: The Excellence of the D&D Onramp

There’s a recurrent pattern of discourse in the TTRPG community, especially amongst indies, that, cooked down into its parodically simple position, goes:

D&D is hard to teach, and nobody plays it properly.

So let’s talk about D&D having one of the absolute best onramps of all time starting with when I started to play it, in 3rd edition D&D. I bring up this edition of the game because it is absolutely a pigs arse of a game, and I know that a lot of the systems of the rules are only attempted by extremely bold people who needed something systematised.

Lemme tell ya, you run one aerial combat in 3rd edition you quickly invest in every technique you can to ensure you don’t have to run another.

First, a qualifier. D&D’s existing onramp is that it is part of our culture and has been for nearing on sixty years. When I started playing D&D it was older than I was and some of the people I first played with are dead from having lived too long. The current edition of D&D is from 2014, which means it’s now two years older than 4e was when it launched. D&D has had multiple movies, it had literal physical stores for its own branding at one point, it is without a doubt one of the most infrastructurally entrenched RPG brands in the world.

That is a big part of how D&D’s onramp works. It’s everywhere and you can almost always find someone to talk about it with you, or someone on the internet to help you with some element. There’s what we call a paratextual industry around the game. Speaking as someone who has tried to promote the work of indie RPG makers, and for it been called ‘a weirdo who talks about shitty games that aren’t D&D nobody cares about,’ the communal infrastructure is part of D&D and it is powerful.

It’s also, very much not something you can brush off.

Like, it’s really easy to want to do that. After all, it can feel like cheating, right? D&D gets to have poorly written Dungeon Master’s Guides because there’s a huge communal pool of video, podcasts, and personal tuition happy to show it off, and people even learn about how to DM from watching actual tv series and stuff? Right? It’s like how the art of documentation feels like it’s being crushed under a world of video tutorials.

So anyway, let’s pretend for a moment that D&D doesn’t get to be judged on the basis of the sixty years of market dominance and successful entrenchment. Let’s pretend we’re just talking about the books.

D&D gets you playing almost instantly and the thing it gets you playing with is your stuff and that immediately pushes you towards understanding what that means.

The onramp to D&D is in the character creation, which is itself, something like a game. There’s a reason gigadorks like me have spent twenty years caring about 3e D&D builds even though we don’t play the game any more. The actual mechanical puzzle starts with a phrase like:

“Elf Wizard.”

“Dwarf fighter.”

“Half-orc bard.”

The game presents you two pieces to work together, and those things are, you may notice, incredibly stereotypical and basic. A lot of D&D’s racism problems start baked into this part of the game, because of how the game tries to present whole cultural groups. The demihumans, that grouping, yeah, them.

There’s this idea Mark Rosewater talks about in D&D, that he refers to ‘preloading.’ The idea is that if you approach game mechanics to express stuff the players already imagine, or that makes sense to them, when players engage with the mechanics, they’ll have a pre-existing handle on them and be able to imagine a way to treat them that gets them to care and invest.

And they invite you down two paths: What’s an elf do? Okay, cool, I can look that up. It’s over here. And over here there’s what a wizard does. And oh wow that relates to this stuff. And you might be looking at me like I grew a tentacle in my forehead because you’ve probably heard me bullying games for having a complicated, non-streamlined character creation system – how is it okay that D&D makes you look up tables and not okay that Rod Reel And Fist does it?

It’s a matter of why you’re engaging with these things. When you’re checking around the D&D character creation system, in these first times, you are playing with pieces, you’re playing with some of the most familiar pieces in literary canon. The idea of ‘our hero, and his dwarf fighter friend,’ that’s language that’s standardised outside of the game media. And that means that you’re building something that’s both very familiar, and gives you freedom to be playful in that space.

Can it be better? Absolutely, 3rd edition’s character building is extremely cumbersome. There are tons of problems in the game, in its systems, but the thing that starts you playing is so painfully efficient that people don’t even notice it. People act like making your character isn’t playing the game, because, when taken as a whole task people need to do perfectly, to achieve certain results, it is a big homework task. But making choices and learning about those choices is presented as a playful activity.

I’m not trying to be uncharitable with this summary, and I want to make sure that if you’re reading it, I’m not trying to make your position sound silly. Nor am I thinking of anyone specific – that kind of thing is for discord sessions of meanspirited gossip. This is about the general idea that D&D is ‘hard to learn’ or a ‘bad system’ because of it, and that ‘nobody plays it right.

And for that I have to pull one of those memey faces like ‘ehhhhhhhhhhhhhnnnnnn’ because I feel like people are speaking to an emotional truth while making factual assertions that don’t respect the way the actual game that exists exists, and this kind of talk makes for conversations about games and how to make games… worse.

It makes them worse.

And it makes them worse in an unhelpful way.

There’s an impulse in the not-making-D&D community, even those of us who play D&D, to overstate its weaknesses and minimise its strengths. I don’t know why necessarily. On charitable days, I feel like it’s because the problems D&D presents to a designer can seem large and obvious, and on less charitable days I feel like it’s because a lot of us are pretty pissed that we can put in tons of work to make original material and get passed over by someone pooping out stock-art modules on DMSguild.

But if you can appreciate what D&D’s doing good – and its unfair advantages! – then I think you get into better habits, and better perspective on how to make your own games more engaging. Technical superiority isn’t actually an inevitable good, and turns out that sometimes you lose in the Big Game of Capitalism even if what you made is great.

Waging a war against D&D for your life sucks, but I feel like it works better when you’re honest about it. If nothing else, it means someone who sees you talking about it will at least be able to test for yourself what you say. And when we appreciate this problem system, and the problem it represents in the ways it actually is, we’ll avoid weird brain-boiling conversations like ‘Players don’t actually like rolling dice.’