Daggerheart and the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying

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Daggerheart and the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying

When Dungeons & Dragons (“D&D”) first came on the scene in the mid-1970’s, it was pitched as a variant of one of the creators’ previous publications, Chainmail (a miniature wargame focused less on in-depth social roleplay and more on combat). In that market landscape, it was miniatures that sold, and there was little demand for thick rulebooks sold separately from the profitable market of crafted miniatures. Imagination was required to pull a social experience out of the dense, math-heavy set of guidelines, which meant less products to purchase. So why has D&D become so popular over the last 50 years of its existence when it is, in its simplest form, just a rulebook? What has allowed D&D to become so much more than what it was initially? 

One word: Evolution.

Over the years since its introduction to the market, D&D has not only changed the entire design of role-playing games, but it has in many ways created the modern concept of the tabletop role-playing game (the “TTRPG”) where players sit around a table and act out a story as characters separate from themselves, sometimes even without miniatures, maps, or other visual or physical aids. In many ways, “D&D” was so formative to the genre that its name has become a term which encompasses, at least to the average person, any TTRPG. When I’m asked about my TTRPG hobby, which encompasses many variations on the D&D theme, when I tell them I’m meeting up with my role-playing group, the response is usually, “oh D&D, nice!” 

However, in the last 10-15 years, the concept of the TTRPG has expanded, evolved, and many would say improved, from being a combat-centric game to a more socially-accessible, less math-centric narrative experience which is open to more emotional drama or even psychological horror, such as Call of Cthulhu and others. In 1999, Wizards of the Coast became a subsidiary of Hasbro, and took over operations of the D&D universe. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast outsourced and licensed a D&D magazine to Paizo, a relatively fledgling company at the time. Then, in 2007, after a five-year run, Wizards of the Coast declined to extend Paizo’s license to publish the magazine despite its popularity and engaging content. Paizo, not to be deterred, decided to take the opportunity to innovate and announced their own concept for a TTRPG, “Pathfinder”, which would thence become one of the most popular TTRPG games of all time. This was followed by a space-themed version called Starfinder. In 2017, Paizo even released a video game version of its popular TTRPG as well, a predecessor to newer video game adaptations of TTRPGs like Baldur’s Gate 3.A video game cover with a group of people

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Other companies and individuals, like this awesome Viking-Cyberpunk TTRPG by Mongoose Publishing that I and many others backed on Kickstarter (Shieldmaidens) have taken a page from Paizo’s playbook and, over the last decade, crafted a multitude of new systems, some using different dice or other combat systems, others replicating the D&D concept in different worlds under Hasbro’s “Open Gaming License” or “OGL”, which was the source of much controversy last year when Hasbro announced changes to the OGL, which was quickly followed up with a retraction after swift and angry community feedback, but in many ways it was too late and far too little. Hasbro showed its cards. It wasn’t about the community for them. It was about the money. Arguably, many of the innovative changes were unintentionally brought about by Hasbro’s acquisition of Wizards of the Coast in 1999 and its many questionable decisions thereafter, but that’s a discussion for another day. 

This brief history is meant to provide some context for some of the most exciting news in recent TTRPG history. Matt Mercer, the DM and figurehead of Critical Role, and Darrington Press, a prolific publisher responsible for delightful additions to the tabletop space such as Candela Obscura, Vox Machina, and a whimsical, humorous board game called “Guardians of Matrimonia”, have teamed together to bring a new rulebook to the TTRPG library. 

Its name? “Daggerheart.”

It should be stated on the front end that this system is still only in the open beta stages and is subject to change. In fact, it was released very recently. From what can already be gleaned from the free 377-page manual, this system is exactly where TTRPGs have been leaning for years, and while it innovates in many ways (such as by introducing the use of cards to help players keep track of their character’s abilities and story in a visually appealing and user-friendly way), it is also a good marriage of the evolving social-emotional aspects of TTRPGs without removing the elements that people know and love. 

In many ways, it seems to bring these elements out in a form that is more well-suited for a modern audience’s understanding of game systems. For example, it takes the concept of inherent race-based bonuses and addresses it in the form of different experiences and skills gained in community and heritage, rather than one race being strictly better than another. This has been an issue that has plagued D&D for years. The character creation in general, as expressed in this video by Critical Role, is extremely smooth and innovative as well and I am excited to try it out myself. It was an absolute pleasure to watch the Critical Role team have fun with it in its first character creation session. One of my personal favorites is the “Ribbet”, a froglike creature with the ability to breath underwater. There will be many jokes about “croaking” in the future of this game, I’m sure.

The game also smooths out the rolling system, creating a situation where damage is based on a range of dice rolls easily markable on the players’ character sheet, as opposed to doing crunchy calculations every time. The game also adds an engaging element whereby the rolls gain you either Hope or Fear, which either the Game Master or the player can use to add flavor to the encounter. The rules, and the math of Daggerheart, are much more simple and smoother than that of D&D, taking after the more story-based and less numbers-heavy approach of systems such as “Powered By the Apocalypse.” While some in the community have pointed out that this game may be too “rules-light” and that the turn system lends itself to shy or neurodivergent players feeling left out, I think that this will not only work itself out at individual tables, but the rules will be refined as the open beta continues. A screenshot of a black and white page

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In its introduction video and in the first section of its lengthy manual, Darrington Press has explicitly stated that they are welcoming feedback, and that this version of the game will change based on that feedback. This is exactly what makes this the perfect newcomer to the TTRPG scene. It follows a long history of gameplay and social evolution, but it is crafted not only by two of the greatest minds in modern TTRPG history, but it is crafted with the help of the community, which will always be a core part of the game. 

In the 1970’s, D&D created a space for a community to emerge and share experiences around a game, but now that community has helped that game to evolve and emerge as well, into many different forms. It is a back-and-forth that Hasbro seems to misunderstand, but Matt Mercer, who has made his living on community engagement and fun roleplay immersion, understands this very well, and the fingerprints of his attitude are hard to ignore even in the most basic parts of this open beta. 

The community is everything, and without it, there is no evolution of D&D, and without an evolution of D&D, there is no Daggerheart. 

-Stephen Corell

Twitter/X: @Steve_TheCleric

YouTube: @stevethecleric9846

Reddit: U/SteveTheCleric

Email: SteveTheCleric@Gmail.Com

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