What D&D Is (To Me)

March 15th, 2009

Bookending my previous post, in which I speculated about what D&D means to different groups of players.  I didn’t think this post was necessary, originally, but a comment by Brian Gleichman has convinced me otherwise.  Tempting as it was to dismiss it, between the veiled insults and a self-evident failure on Brian’s part to read the page very carefully (in case any of the rest of you were wondering:  I am not Ambrose Bierce, the renowned satirist who died in the early 20th century), I think it’s probably better addressed, because he raises at least one good point.  I spent a fair amount of time talking about what I think D&D isn’t, but I left what I think it is mostly between the lines.  It’s probably better to be clear, especially when making statements such as “the import of mechanics is limited.”

As an initial clarification, I’ll say:  That’s not the same as “the rules don’t matter.”  More on that in a little while, though.

What is D&D?  To me, it isn’t any of those rules in my last post.  It’s not 3d6 chargen, or 4d6, or point-buy.  It’s not level draining, or lack thereof.  It’s not wandering monsters and random treasure, or the absence of same.  Those are just elements, and every one of them is dispensable.  To re-use a metaphor I threw at Brian, they’re like team uniforms in baseball.  It might (arguably) not be the Yankees without the pinstripes, but it’s still baseball.  It might not be OD&D without level drains (at least, some people would say it wasn’t), but it’s still D&D.

D&D, to me, is essentially about the creative experience.  It’s a modern form of the age-old entertainment of sitting around the fire swapping stories.  That’s been happening since the development of fire and language, and D&D.  D&D is knights setting forth on quests for the honor of their liege and their lady.  It’s swordsmen confronting sorcerers and demons in a clash of steel and magic.  It’s a group of friends battling against encroaching evil with the fate of a village, a nation, or a world on the line, and emerging victorious… or going down fighting, spitting in the face of the All-Devourer.  It’s gods, heroes, and monsters, and often characters who’re hard to separate into just one of those categories.  It is, in short, not what’s contained in the rulebooks, but something greater that emerges from them, as a play well-acted is greater than the words in its script.

Only it’s more than that, too, because it’s not just one story.  It’s multiple stories, being created by the gamemaster and the players alike, simultaneously and in cooperation with each other.  It’s not reading a script, or even writing one; it’s improv and round-robin.

That’s the important part of the game, as far as I’m concerned, and it is absolutely the same as it’s ever been since I first cracked a rulebook.

The mechanics, as I said in my previous post, are still important.  But they come in after all of that.  The mechanics are there to resolve conflict and other questions.  In D&D, they’re also there to provide randomness at times, although this is far from universal in RPGs — Nobilis and Amber both manage fine without the dice.

The mechanics are important to me insofar as they impact the experience of the game.  As a player or a GM, I’m looking for the mechanics best suited to allowing me to realize my game.  This might be Cyclopedia D&D, or it might be 4th edition — both feel very similar to me, although that’s a topic better suited for another post.  It might be a non-D&D ruleset — HERO is a perennial favorite of mine, and Nobilis is a wonderful diversion.  But I could play the same game in 1e or 3e as I do with the Cyclopedia or 4e.  I have, before 4e was released.

House rules, you see.  If I don’t like 3d6-in-order chargen, I dispense with it.  I’m still playing the same game.  I can change level draining to stat drains.  I can make up rules for guns.  I can change Vancian memorization to a mana-point system.  I can give everyone maximum hit points at level 1, start the campaign at level 3, set the campaign in the Bronze Age or the post-nuclear new-Dark-Age future or inside a spaceship.  I’ve done all of these things at one point or another.  I’m willing to bet that almost all GMs with a couple of campaigns under their belts have done similar things.  And maybe you like it and keep it, or maybe you decide it doesn’t work and revise it, or maybe you even trow it out and go back to the rule in the book.

I remember when Old School meant not only doing that sort of thing, but celebrating it.  Embracing the flexibility, the sheer possibility, of the game.  I still can’t see the use of house rules as anything other than an admission that the rules in the book, as-written, are of relatively minor importance to the game, and can be replaced with something that works better for the individual play group.  And I see that as a strength, not as a weakness.

It seems, though, that some of the new “old school” don’t see it that way.  They agree with Brian:

Yes, D&D is to use Scott’s words a- “…game of rules”. And there is no irony in Old School saying that, as their whole mindset is a return to the original version of those rules and the methods of play they inspired.

A D&D Campaign is more than the rules of course, as is any other RPG. But relying upon this fact to say we all (no matter the edition) play the same game is as foolish as saying that those playing GURPS are playing D&D. It makes you look silly, and it belittles people playing older editions for no reason.

To each his own, of course, but… I can’t understand that outlook.  And to find it belittling that we could all be playing the same game after all of the time that’s passed and all of the changes to the rules?  I look at it as inspiring, myself.

I suppose in the end, D&D is what you make it.

Closing thought:  I wouldn’t say people who play GURPS are playing D&D.  But I would say that GURPS players and D&D players are playing, ultimately, different variants of the same game.  Roleplaying transcends system.  Some systems are better than others — but only for a given purpose, or perhaps more accurately for a given outlook.  If you want a fairly-realistic and deadly combat system with lots of options, you could house-rule D&D… or you could use GURPS, which has designed toward that aspect.  If you want something more rules-light and abstracted, you could house-rule GURPS… or you could use D&D.

Hopefully that’s a little clearer on where I stand.

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Related posts:

  1. What is D&D, Anyway?
  2. The Rules Gap
  3. Hanging in the Balance
  4. Ten Monsters I Love (But Rarely Use)
  5. 4E from One Year In

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10 Comments

  1. Beth, Mar. 15, 2009, 10:47 am:

    Hi Scott, I liked the posts. Maybe because I agree. I’m pretty new to RPGs and I was drawn to the story, not the mechanics. When I try to explain to my friends what I’m doing every Wednesday, I describe it as collaborative story-telling.

    Beth´s last blog post: Altars and Stones

  2. Joshua, Mar. 15, 2009, 1:28 pm:

    If GURPS isn’t D&D why not? It fits every criterion you mention as being the essence of what D&D is to you. You wind up with “It’s D&D if I say it is, but it’s not if I say it’s not.”

    Why not just say roleplaying when you mean roleplaying? Acknowledge that there are indeed differences between the systems people use for roleplaying games and allow that people sometimes find these differences important to their enjoyment or find themselves in the mood for one system or another for the different things they emphasize or do well (or poorly) and move on. I honestly don’t get why you’ve lashed yourself to this particular rhetorical mast. Especially when there’s a perfectly good term that everybody uses to talk about the essence of the experience that matters to you.

  3. Scott, Mar. 15, 2009, 4:01 pm:

    @Joshua: For the same reason five-card stud isn’t Texas hold-em. They’re both card games, yes, but nobody would say they’re not both poker.

  4. PrecociousApprentice, Mar. 15, 2009, 6:50 pm:

    “The mechanics are important to me insofar as they impact the experience of the game. As a player or a GM, I’m looking for the mechanics best suited to allowing me to realize my game. This might be Cyclopedia D&D, or it might be 4th edition — both feel very similar to me….I could play the same game in 1e or 3e as I do with the Cyclopedia or 4e. I have, before 4e was released.”

    This is very much where I stand. The ruleset is there to help you play your game. Where it doesn’t, houserule or hand wave. If there is a system that does it better, change if you want to. In all, I have been playing for 22 years, and I have played every edition since BECMI and AD&D, as well as other game systems. For my D&D fix, any edition can work. Some require more house rules that others, but they all require house rules. 4e is the easiest edition yet for me to house rule. I currently like it best for this reason.

    I would not worry at all about what Brian Gleichman has to say about you. I am currently banned from commenting on his blog because he doesn’t like people pointing out when he is being both self-contradictory and extremely condescending in his One True Wayism, even as he is accusing others of the same. It is a shame. I began reading his blog because he appeared to have some insight into the game theory wars and a rare good point. Apparently he just likes to shout that other people are idiots and liars. Not overly productive.

    Thanks for saying what I have mostly felt about this whole oldschool/newschool flameup. I wish people would quit trying to tell me I am playing D&D wrong.

  5. Scott, Mar. 15, 2009, 8:29 pm:

    @PrecociousApprentice: I’m not worried, believe me. I just think it’s a good idea to take a long look at any criticism that’s even vaguely polite, and consider whether there might not be something to it. Sometimes there is, and I can use that.

  6. bonemaster, Mar. 16, 2009, 10:18 am:

    @PrecociousApprentice – I will never tell say that you are playing DnD wrong, even though I’m my feet more in the Old School camp than not. I think a “true” old school will tell you to do what you like and ignore the rest.

    @Scott – You are correct DnD is what you make it. I’d almost say that DnD as a brand is sort of like Kleenex or Band-Aids. It has become almost a generic word rather than a single brand name anything.

    bonemaster´s last blog post: Starting RandomCon 2009 – An Interview with the Organizers

  7. Wyatt, Mar. 16, 2009, 2:01 pm:

    I find Ben Gleichman is very insightful when he is not seemingly lost in frothing rage about something insignificant. He reminds me of the RPGPundit sometimes in spite of once having repudiated him for his antics against Forgeites.

    Wyatt´s last blog post: Might of Eden: Cleric of Eden

  8. PrecociousApprentice, Mar. 16, 2009, 11:51 pm:

    @Wyatt- I agree wholeheartedly. I am very disappointed at the way he reacts to things. I am serious about being banned from his site. He didn’t take it too kindly that I pointed out his direct contradiction of himself within the span of a week. He is shooting himself in the foot. If he quit with the one-true-wayism, he could have a lot of good things to say. As it is, he just rants.

  9. Samuel Van Der Wall, Mar. 18, 2009, 9:25 am:

    If D&D is about the ‘creative experience’ then I believe there are better games out there for that. The fact of the matter is though, that D&D has the lion’s share of the market and is all many gamers know. If they are familiar with more than one game, D&D is at least a familiar fallback game. And like an old girlfriend or annoying bully, it keeps rearing its ugly head around in your neighborhood.

    Samuel Van Der Wall´s last blog post: Can Anyone Stand Up To The 800-Lb Gorilla?

  10. Scott, Mar. 19, 2009, 3:05 am:

    @Samuel: I’m not so sure of that. There are games that place more emphasis on description, but creativity is a little more nebulous than that. I find it tends to work out to a personal taste.

    I like to play Nobilis for its emphasis on description and Byzantine relationships. As a diceless system, it works pretty well in getting people away from the numbers on the page (though there still are some). But then, I also like to play HERO, for its universality and ability to model damn near any effect I can think of, given enough points (and also for the fact that it’s still simpler and more elegant than GURPS). HERO’s level of crunchiness makes 4e look like Tic Tac Toe, but I don’t see any less creativity among my players.

    I like 4e and the Cyclopedia because they strike the right balance for me. They’re pretty quick, reasonably flexible, and everyone knows a little bit about them.

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