There are hundreds of quality pen and paper RPGs around that cover all kinds of genres, from classic sword and sorcery to steampunk to space opera. But no matter how great and unique a tabletop RPG might be, it will inevitably draw a comparison to Dungeons & Dragons.
The simple reason for this is that D&D set the gold standard for all pen and paper RPGs that came after it. Alternative tabletop RPG creators behind the likes of Blades in The Dark, Shadowrun and Bubblegumshoe stand on the shoulders of giants, and those giants are D&D creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. But what makes the granddaddy of the tabletop RPG genre such an all-time classic?
A pivotal element of D&D is the variation of quality play between players and groups. A well-managed group can feel like players have been transported into a fantasy novel while a mismanaged group can be tedious and confusing. D&D brings out the strengths and weaknesses of friends and players; groups quickly learn who makes a good DM and who makes a good player. Sometimes it takes players a bit of time to figure out just what character they best play as. D&D is a game of imagination, and it’s easier for some players to relate to different classes, races and character types in order to play them well. But this is half the fun — finding who is best at what and working together to create an immersive narrative.
Outside of that, it’s hard to pindown just one thing that makes D&D the gold standard but the outstanding collaboration between creators and fans could well be it. The game started bare-bones with only three classes to choose from — Cleric, Fighting-Man and Magic-User. The fanbase for the game was also small in the beginning, which allowed Gygax and Arneson to become known for being responsive to fans. More importantly, they took constructive criticism well.
The original flaw that fans saw in the game was that no matter what weapon you had, you’d always roll a d6 dice. This meant that it didn’t matter if you had a dagger or a sizeable two-hand gun, they’d have the same max damage, which didn’t make any sense.
Gygax and Arneson didn’t let this criticism fall on deaf ears and by the 2nd edition, the team had fixed the issues. They even transformed the aesthetic of D&D to a more broadly high fantasy one instead of the niche sword and sorcery genre the first edition had. For years, D&D set the standard for tabletop mechanics. The character creation of the later editions became a signature and the world and potential for Dungeon Master creation were outstandingly imaginative.
There have been mistakes made throughout the editions, but D&D has always managed to find new ways of creating the maximum amount of choices for players. The mechanics of character development come from decades of trial and error. D&D is what players make of it; the journey to a successful campaign comes with ups and downs but, ultimately, the struggle is rewarding for any player as long as they stick with it.
The world of tabletop RPGs might be booming but Dungeons & Dragons still reigns supreme — and for good reason.