Last week I ran a survey across Google+, Facebook, and Twitter about D&D assumptions, and I got 1260 responses. Probably a drop in the bucket of actual D&D players, but larger sample than I expected when I first threw the form together. There is still a bias in the data, given that not every player, by a longshot, engages in gaming talk online. That said, I tried to post the survey to "broader appeal" gaming spaces, rather than sites that catered to specific settings or genres of D&D.
The results are here if you would like to look at them directly. My analysis may not line up with yours, and if it doesn't, I'd love to hear from you.
What I Learned
I'm not a professional pollster, and I know I could have structured and expressed these questions more effectively. Once I had options in place, I didn't want to add any options, so that I didn't skew what past respondents might have answered, but I did post some pictures to help clarify editions, and explanations for some of the terms I used in the questions. Thank you to everyone that helped to point out gaps in my explanations, or potential issues. Hopefully the survey can still provide some useful data even with some of my quirks in design in place.
Among the respondents, most responded 5th edition, which is probably a good thing for the future of the game. It does mean that the results are skewed by newer adoptees of the game, and that newer adoptees seem more likely to discuss the game online (these findings wouldn't be too shocking to me, overall). The next most likely editions that respondents listed as their "onramp" to D&D were 3rd edition and 2nd edition. Not overly shocked by this result either.
First Campaign Setting
The most common first campaign setting for most respondents was homebrew, which I was not surprised by. For years WOTC has said their own data shows homebrewed settings as the most common setting used in home games. The next most likely first settings were Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Those don't surprise me, but what did surprise me was that Eberron wasn't higher on the list. When the setting was published, it was designed to be a more accessible way for new players to enter the game, but while the survey doesn't measure IF you played in Eberron at all, it does show that it wasn't many respondents first setting. Also, while not putting in a major showing, it's interesting that Tal'dorei (the Critical Role setting) actually shows up with a few entries.
Should Dungeon Crawls Be An Important Aspect of the Campaign
Two-thirds of the respondents thought dungeon crawls need to be important to a D&D campaign. I'm not shocked, since, well, its in the name. Also not shocked that, of the three big "onramp" editions mentioned earlier, 2nd edition is the least likely to think dungeon crawls need to be an important aspect of the campaign. Yes is still the majority response, but its a narrower margin. There was a huge emphasis on setting in this time, and some of those settings had less dungeon crawling than the established baseline of D&D.
Episodic Versus Serialized Campaigns
I can tell from the responses I got that I needed to explain this one better. My intent was more about continuity than actual session/adventure structure. In other words, if not just the PCs, but the NPCs and locations they interact with, are recurring things, I was picturing that as serialized campaign. It wasn't just meant to be about if a story wrapped up in one session, or one adventure. That's on me.
Even with my imperfect explanation, two-thirds of respondents wanted a more serialized campaign, with elements bleeding over from adventure to adventure. Among those that primarily play in organized play, this number is more evenly split, which isn't surprising. New 5th edition players are a bit more likely to favor episodic games, which makes me wonder if their first experience wasn't organized play, even if they have moved on to home campaigns.
Should the Majority of PCs be Heroic (In the Modern Sense, the Good Guys?)
These results surprised me. I was expecting 2nd edition adoptees to be more likely to think of D&D as a game about heroes, and lower magic or grittier settings players to be less likely to assume PCs are heroes. It was actually the opposite. The majority of respondents think most PCs should be the good guys, but it gets closer to even if you look at 2nd edition adoptees, or people whose first setting was the Forgotten Realms.
Do You Assume Most Adventurers are out for Gold, Glory, or Fame?
The majority of respondents said yes to this. BECMI adopters are the most mercenary of the bunch, and among first campaign setting adopters, Mystara adopters are the most likely to say yes, followed by Greyhawk, then Forgotten Realms. This one wasn't really a shocking data point. The only thing I found weird is that there were respondents that didn't think the majority of PCs should be heroic, but that they also are primarily out for gold, glory, or fame. Which I guess indicates a game predicated on basic survival? I guess?
Does A D&D Campaign Require External Guidance to Make sure People are On the Same Page about Tropes/Campaign Structure/Base Assumptions?
This question was asking if you needed to sit down and talk about tropes and campaign expectations, if it was readily apparent just from knowing how to play D&D itself, or if you primarily play organized play, so those assumptions are essentially "baked in" to the play experience.
About 10% of the respondents said their primary play experience was organized play, which I think is an important data point, because even the survey is even a little representative, that a not insignificant number of people that are compelled to go online and talk about the game, respond to surveys, and their primary playing outlet is only adventurer's league.
Almost 50% of respondents think that you should understand how D&D works by knowing the tropes and elements that make up the game. I'm not sure if this means those groups don't have a "session zero" style discussion about future campaigns and what gets included or excluded, but it does seem to imply that they don't think it's a critical element of playing in a D&D campaign. That really makes me wonder how often those games have stress created by the assumption that everybody is on the same page when it comes to what they expect out of the game.
Most Adventures Should End With A Villain
I was surprised, again, that 2nd edition adopters were less likely to expect an adventure to end with a specific villain. Players whose first campaign setting was the Forgotten Realms are more likely to think an adventure should end with a villain than Greyhawk first timers.
Preference for Epic Fantasy
This is another question where I had to work on my clarity. To me, Epic versus Gritty meant "national/global scale stakes versus local/personal stakes" for adventures. Assuming that most people came to this same conclusion, two-thirds of respondents want most of their adventures to end up affecting the nations and continents of their setting versus just dealing with local and personal issues over time.
Preference for High Fantasy
Almost 75% preferred high fantasy (which I tried to define as how common magic or supernatural elements are in the campaign). This preference was higher for players whose first campaign setting was the Realms over first time Greyhawkers. The preference is higher for 5th adopters than for 3rd or 2nd edition adopters. For people that wanted a gritty game, that preference shifts to about 50/50.
Hard to paint too broad a picture of these responses, but in general, a lot of people think of Lord of the Rings or Tolkien, although I wish I had more data points for if that meant books, video games, or movies. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire was riding high on this list as well, and again, I would love to know the split between books versus television. Critical Role shows up on the list, and video games definitely spring to mind for some people, as Skyrim, Dragon Age, and the Witcher get multiple mentions as well.
I'm not sure if I learned any one unified useful thing from all of this, but the results were definitely interesting. Fifth edition has definitely brought a lot of people to the party, and organized play may not be the majority play mode, but it's got a significant (10%) chunk of players in the game. Critical Role and video games may not be as high on the list as Tolkien, but Game of Thrones is certainly a modern heavy hitter, and, a little sadly for me, some old standards like Fafhrd and Mouser and Thieves' World are not quite as "top of mind" as they might have been at one time for D&D players.