Inside the informational black box that is Wizards of the Coast exists a few individuals who always tend to drop a few morsels of information any time they get in front of a camera. Veteran designer Chris Perkins habitually fills this row, and his latest appearance on the official Dungeons & Dragons YouTube channel illuminated some critical history behind the tabletop RPG’s critical disparity between players and dungeon masters.
Some people believe it’s old gospel that players vastly outnumber DMs to the point that it can be difficult to put together a game. Others swear the drought is a myth, a misappropriation of generally lazy players unwilling to step up and do a night of prep for their friends. But now even D&D’s creators are selling the story - Todd Kenrick told Perkins in the video that the world’s largest tabletop game “needs more dungeon masters rather desperately.”
Tabletop’s popularity explosion since the pandemic, largely buoyed by the unstoppable success of Critical Role, Dimension 20 and a deluge of actual play has created an influx of new players who understand D&D as a highly polished production. Instead of a collaboratively told story, many have the same relationship with the game as most people do with Netflix - it’s passively consumed media that you show up with expectations to be entertained.
But even beyond the shadow of Exandria and Stranger Things, D&D itself has set up dungeon masters to fail from 5th Edition’s outset all the way back in 2012. According to the video, Perkins’ claimed the team responsible for creating the newest version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide was “incredibly small” compared to the weight and capital Wizards of the Coast currently throws around.
Perkins says they struggled to hit “pretty ambitious timelines” using limited budgets to outsource work to freelance artists and writers - “resources were at a premium”. Wizards of the Coast leadership wanted to focus on the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual, as character creation and possible foes would be the most compelling reads for the three or more players per group who might want to purchase a book.
Several months back, Wizards echoed this statement when President Cynthia Williams said that dungeon masters, which make up roughly 20% of the playing population, already buy the books. They don’t need direct marketing to increase their monetary investment in D&D, but players do. Hence the increased focus on the PHB and MM at the outset of 5th Edition, which left the third book in the trio considerably imperfect, as Perkins mentions.
Is it any wonder, then, that D&D’s facilitating players aren’t too keen to create another campaign when saddled with outsized expectations from players comparing them to Matt Mercer, Brennan Lee Mulligan and Aabria Iyengar, while wrestling with an inadequate tool? Perkins says he and other lead designer Jeremy Crawford sat down to lunch the day after the 5th edition books went to the printer to begin planning everything they would do differently on the next one. Not exactly a vote of confidence.
D&D’s next slate of core rulebooks, slated for publication in 2024, won’t revolutionise a tabletop RPG consistently being lapped in design by independent creators a fraction of their size but without Hasbro’s billion-dollar megaphone. But it should hopefully ease the tension off dungeon masters and remind players that collaborative storytelling means everyone shares the cognitive load.