The toughest part of writing the core rules for a role-playing game comes on page one, when duty and tradition force the author to describe how to play a role-playing game. When you sit at a table and see a RPG played, it makes sense, but try describing the activity to someone who has only seen chess and Monopoly.
Although most new players enter the RPG hobby through Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D books tended to do the worst job on explaining role playing. In the brown books, Gary Gygax did not even bother. In the first basic game, J. Eric Holmes devotes two paragraphs to convincing you to play and to shop for more TSR products. The original game had to spread gamer to gamer, like the best con crud ever. Since then, the how-to-play section in D&D has gone something like this: “Players, you create a character. Dungeon masters, you create a dungeon. Now read this long glossary.” Other games work a bit harder, typically by making some comparisons to children’s make believe and then replacing the glossary with an explanation of funny dice. Among D&D releases, the second edition First Quest box does the best of explaining the game. Third edition consciously delegated the chore to the starter set, which offered a offered a programmed adventure rather than an explanation.
The Introduction in the D&D’s fifth edition Basic Rules does a far better job of describing how to play a tabletop role-playing game than any other introduction I’ve seen. This is the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s ninth, and Die Hard of the seldom appreciated-genre of “How to play an RPG.” Instead of dumping a two-thousand word example of play, this introduction explains the game with a couple of concise examples. Instead of “create a character and then tell the DM what you want to do,” the “How to Play” section explains play in three numbered steps. At last, a D&D writer thinks like technical writer to help players.
The introduction explains, “There’s no winning and losing in Dungeons & Dragons.” To gamers who grew up immersed in World of Warcraft and Minecraft, this may seem like an odd point to make. In the late 70s, when I started playing, the the first question folks asked me about D&D was, “How do you win?” Back then, a game had to be a competition. If a game failed to produce a winner and a loser, what was the point? Such questions, more than anything else, reveal the gulf between now and how people thought of games in 1974. Such questions show just how revolutionary D&D was. For more, see “But how do you win?”
Now, almost everyone has seen a video game where you play a character and finish rather than win. Virtually every computer game owes a debt to D&D. Almost everyone has seen D&D played on The Big Bang Theory or Community or in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We hardly need an introduction this good. But they could really use it in 1974.
Three more observations:
- The “Worlds of Adventure” section seems like a nod toward the strategy that elevates D&D from a mere tabletop role-playing game to a multi-platform brand for stories and worlds. You may grumble, but we can credit this effort to sell D&D as a brand for the resources and patience Hasbro has granted to developing the fifth edition.
- The “Game Dice” section explains how to roll a d100. Fourth edition eliminated percentile dice, but apparently they make a return in fifth.
- Even pages of the basic rules are labeled V0.1, while odd pages are 1.0. This means that if you want to play the official game, you can only use rules on odd pages.