A friend of mine put it succinctly: "D&D is a cargo cult of older D&D". Basically he claimed that new editions of Dungeons & Dragons try to replicate the story of how "original" D&D was a game of mystery and whimsical adventure, whereas the game was actually designed as a tactical skirmish-level wargame. He also noted that even the current editions make more sense when viewed through this lens - when the character is just a set of numbers that enable you to solve puzzles and reach goals within the game, the "gameness" of D&D with its encounters and reward systems comes alive as a complex and fascinating challenge.
But I've been thinking, if a person comes into roleplaying games via D&D, will its fundamental principles become ingrained habits in any future games that the person plays or designs? Many aspects of D&D have ended up in definitions of that roleplaying games are, such as the preeminence of a gamemaster's vision of the world ("Is there a door here?" "No"), the limitation of a players' agency to the character's agency ("having authority end at the ends a character's fingertips"), and having logical, social and tactical challenges as the core of the game experience.
The watershed moment of roleplaying beyond D&D in our gaming circle was the introduction of Apocalypse World after its author, D. Vincent Baker, visited Ropecon in 2013. The post-apocalyptic game of Playbooks and Moves instead of Classes and Attacks took us by storm. Suddenly we were handing out storytelling authority let and right, groaning about the uselessness of detailed battle maps, and writing our own derivative games called "hacks" in AW circles.
But out group didn't really "click" with these games, not in the way convention games I played in did. We laughed and usually had a good time, but we couldn't replicate those moments when everyone around the table is leaning in with anticipation and hanging on every word of a dialogue between two players. And that kept bugging me.
As this was going on, I was researching facilitating knowledge co-creation with games (you know, the serious stuff). Studying these "serious" games finally helped me pinpoint what it is about roleplaying games I find so irresistible but often beyond my grasp. It's the act of co-creation.
To be precise, it's the act of spontaneous, intrinsically motivated social co-creation with a dynamic team in a psychologically safe space. And what my research into co-creation has taught me is that all those other words around "co-creation" are redundant: co-creation is either the result of or the cause of spontaneity, intrinsic motivation, sociability, team dynamism and psychological safety.
What's more, games research superbly summarized in length by Jaakko Stenros indicates that both (free-form) play and (structured) games are adept at creating this kind of mental and social space. The first time I saw people playing the knowledge co-creation game ATLAS, all I could think of was "this looks exactly like roleplaying". People throwing dice, moving tokens, having discussions about imaginary things they were personally invested in, all in the intense atmosphere of co-creation.
Years later and despite getting proficient with a number of co-creation methods and tools, I still struggle with the same themes. It is hard getting into a co-creative space for fun, let alone at work where you maintain an image of responsibility and usefulness. But in understanding my struggles with our D&D background roleplaying group, it sheds a light on why I have found it so hard. Unlike at work, I don't have routines of co-creation with these people and I'm in a setting where I have modes of acting that date back to our D&D days.
So I arrived at a conundrum: What could I change about our regular gaming that would create the expectation of and the ability to create a space conducive to co-creation?
I didn't find an answer to that question, but on the side I have begun a project to introduce new people into the hobby by running beginner-friendly roleplaying games. The games I'm running are based on tropes from popular media (our first game was set in Victorian England) to provide content authority, and utilize lightweight description-oriented systems (such as FATE Accelerated) to give system authority to the players . After that it's my responsibility to run the game as a facilitator which in my mind involves setting expectations and providing an inciting goal or a shove that will orient the players and get them over the awkward start of a game.
Early results with these games look encouraging. I still feel that the "click" eludes explanation but creating a culture from scratch had led me to some tricks that make it more probable. Whatever the answer, co-creation has proven to be a challenge worthy of tackling in an academic discussion - with the potential to save my living room table.