First, I want to make one thing clear: I own the core books and I’ve played the game. There are some smart mechanics, and it runs well. If you love it, I get it. It’s also a bloated example of what happens when a niche product turns mainstream.
More than any other game I can think of D&D 5e is a product. It doesn’t just feel play tested, it feels focus grouped. 5e is a Disney cruise – expertly promoted, and suffocating.
Listen, I’m not naïve, I get it – this is a business, profit is the goal. Hell, I work in advertising. Marketing is a necessity. Each new hardcover is a product launch designed to create FOMO. To make me wonder what kind of influence everybody’s favourite DM Matt Mercer had on Dragon Heist. Which, by the way, is an extremely savvy example of cross-promotion and influencer marketing. See what they did there?
Celebrity endorsement and Critical Role have done more to popularize the hobby than anything else in my memory (and I go back to Moldvay) but the presence of celebrity players and DMs combined with their muscular social media presence doesn’t feel like fans celebrating something they love, it feels like product placement. The slickness and packaging of the actual plays can’t help but feel inauthentic, because they are inauthentic. They’re spectacles, and they make a lot of noise.
Platforms like Roll20, and RPG nights at game stores are flooded with 5e games. Reddit is covered in questions about how to get the most out of The Curse of Strahd. For a lot of people 5e is the only game they’ve played. It is the RPG. From a sales point of view, Wizards of the Coast is killing it. So are McDonalds fries. But that doesn’t mean they’re the best.
So where does that leave me?
I’m caught in a tug of war between the excitement I feel knowing that the popularization and normalization of a hobby I love will ensure its sustainability, and the overwhelming feeling that a shareholder is looking up at me from the inside of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s the same feeling I get when I stand in one of the last remaining chain bookstores and the only game I see is 5e, and when I read posts by frustrated DMs who want to play anything other than 5e but can’t find players. It’s the feeling I get every time I see Matt Mercer’s charming face.
I can’t help but picture Johnny Rotten crouched on the stage at the final Sex Pistols show, glaring at the audience and saying, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”