The Ever-Changing World of Tabletop Games: The Problem with D&D

By: Elisheva Zahtz  |  November 1, 2020

Elisheva Zahtz, Features Editor

When I say “tabletop game,” I’m sure many of you will think of a board game, or perhaps a card game. But there is much more to tabletop gaming, including the genre of roleplaying games, which are exactly what they sound like — everyone steps outside of themselves to mix improv and make-believe with the game itself, taking on the part of a character to explore possibilities and scenarios that are otherwise impossible. Of those games, I’m sure the title of “Dungeons and Dragons” (D&D) would strike an association for many of us. Whether it’s being portrayed in the context of the recent show “Stranger Things”, or through an actual-play podcast, D&D and other roleplaying games have become more widespread and recognized than ever before. 

But while “Dungeons and Dragons” is perhaps the most well-known of the tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), it is not the end-all-be-all of the genre in any way. There are a number of problems that have come to light in recent years that have pushed many of the game’s fans away in search of other games. For example, racially-bound traits, including lower intelligence for many of the races that are POC-coded, and the fact that one of the main developers on the staff at Wizards of the Coast (the makers of D&D), Mike Mearls, has covered up for known abusers. To make up for this difference, and for the difficulty in D&D and the lack of representation, people have come up with the perfect solution: making their own games.

Recently, I took my first steps into this world with writing and developing my own game. It dabbles in the murder-mystery genre, something traditionally hard to make into a game, but something which I wanted to attempt. Terrified, as I consider myself not nearly on the level of a “developer,” I put months into researching and exploring other systems and games, looking at how games likeGenesys”, “BOLT”, “Quest”, and other TTRPGs explore the issues of the Game Master (GM/DM) who runs the game, and the rules systems. As with many industries, the tabletop community is rife with marginalized populations (LGBTQ+ players, POC, or even people who don’t want a Christianized understanding of mythology and other pantheons), and these are all important aspects to consider when making a game. The point of TTRPGs is to be inclusive and fun, but it’s hard to have fun when you’re a Jewish player and you’re listening to the GM explain how the greedy goblins are attacking your village, or an Asian player seeing how your culture has been butchered to create a samurai class that focuses exclusively on honor mechanics. 

To avoid that, I made my game entirely separate from the idea of set characters, and moved into the realm of basic, plain characters. Other developers have made all the races equal in their games, or made games inherently aimed at providing a place for LGBTQ+ players and encouraging creative storytelling. Not everyone is comfortable with action-heavy blood-and-guts games, and not everyone is comfortable with story-heavy acting games. Developers pick up on these issues, using the games they find flaws in and creating solutions and alternative methods of play that are comfortable and safe for the players who might otherwise be uncomfortable. There are games like “Masks”, where you play as a group of teenage superheroes looking to find their identity and their place in a world full of full-fledged heroes, or like “BOLT”, where experience is gained through your character’s personal goals and the accomplishment of those goals. These games move away from the tactical side of D&D and allow for the exploration of situations and experiences that are personal and subjective, creating rich narratives and explosive combats where players have to confront pieces of themselves. These games often encourage the use of safety mechanics (mentioned above) like Lines and Veils, where you can set limits and ensure that triggering topics are avoided or handled with care. 

Developers of indie TTRPGs put their hearts and souls into their games to create systems and models of play that are safe and comfortable, and also fun and interesting. With the addition of Safety Tools and new awareness of the problems present in many of the big-name games, creators have come together to create and build a new community away from D&D. One of the newer systems on its way to release is BOLT”, which was recently fully funded on Kickstarter. “BOLT” is a tabletop game that revolves around quick combat and the understanding that people will want to create rules and settings to fit into the world designed to encourage individual creations and additions to the game. Unlike most other tabletop games, this encouragement enables the publication of content using the engine without threatening agreements, and utilizes a combat system that’s fast-paced and streamlined. The game aims to create a personal sense of accomplishment as the character’s progress through the adventure. The creator, Ajey Pandey, spoke to me about why he chose to create a new game rather than “homebrewing” (creating rules and modifications to the game that aren’t official) and what’s so special about the game:

Elisheva Zahtz: The world of tabletop games has expanded into platforms and systems far beyond the scope of D&D. Why do you think that is? 

Ajey Pandey: Since “D&D” was released, there have been games made outside the “D&D” space. Back in the 70s and 80s, there was “GURPS”, and by the 90s, there were a bunch of non-“D&D” games, like “Vampire: The Masquerade, Cyberpunk 2020”, and “Shadowrun”.

Really, the difference now, post-2010 or so, is that there are games that try to reach beyond snotty cishet white dudes. Games like “Masks” and “Monsterhearts” started to open the space to games by and for a broader set of people, which is bringing in a huge new set of people that would otherwise get turned away from the nastier elements of “D&D”. I mean, there have always been marginalized folks TTRPGs, but now there are way more spaces that aren’t actively hostile to, say, women, or queer folks, or people of color in TTRPGs, and that’s leading to a flourishing of new approaches to role-playing.

EZ: What inspired the production of your own game/system as opposed to “homebrewing” or modding another game? 

AP: For me, I started writing “BOLT” because I was frustrated with homebrewing in this other “toolbox game” [a game designed to be a blank template where the players can create their own setting and adventures] called “Genesys”. Don’t get me wrong, “Genesys” is a great game, but it was hamstrung at every point by management running on venture-capital logic. If I wanted to make my own setting, I would get stuck in a predatory licensing “agreement,” which I didn’t want to deal with — and then the writing team got laid off.

So I wrote “BOLT” to be a game everyone else could homebrew or modify. When I started writing “BOLT”, there weren’t really many good options for writing a combat-heavy RPG if you didn’t want to make “D&D” content. There was “Fate”, which isn’t my taste, and “GURPS” and “Genesys”, which both had their own problems. So I just made my own system so that people didn’t have to put up with the problems I had.

EZ: What about tabletop games inspires you to create? Why do you play these games? 

AP: Writing tabletop games is a fun exercise because you’re not writing stories — you’re writing the framework within which other people tell stories. It’s writing something like “The Silmarillion” and then hearing back how other people took that book and wrote “Lord of the Rings” out of the “laws of physics” you wrote.

And I play TTRPGs because it’s frankly the best way to make characters and stories that speak to me, short of writing a novel. Like, take “Star Wars”: it’s a struggle to be an Asian Star Wars fan, because the franchise rarely treats its Asian characters well. But if I’m running a tabletop game in “Star Wars”, I can take creative liberties with the source material. I can populate the galaxy with Space Desi characters I relate with, and tell stories I relate with.

EZ: If you could change anything about the TTRPG community, and the gaming industry, what would you change? Do you think this would change how people feel about/view tabletop games?

AP: I would take every abuser in the industry, and everyone who defends or covers for abusers in the industry, and throw them all into the sun.

That’s Mike Mearls, Zak S, Gary Gygax, Chris Perkins, Jeremy Crawford, Adam Koebel, DungeonDining, Swords & Flowers, there’s a pile, and I don’t even know most of them!

There’s a lot of toxicity in the industry, and I’ve seen it burn people out of RPGs. Cutting out the worst abusers in the industry (and — importantly — not giving them money and influence for their work) won’t address all of these problems, but it’ll go a long way towards making the industry more open to marginalized voices.