Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

*Note - this post is in response to JB over at B/X Blackrazor asking me why I feel that 4e is still D&D.   I have no desire to argue about which edition is better.  I hope that this blog, with it's focus on the Rules Cyclopedia, and posts about 4e, M20, Star Wars, etc. shows that I am not dogmatically tied to one game, edition, or company.  I read, write, and play those things that I think are fun.

**Note 2 - This is my blog, my post, and my personal opinion.  I am not writing this to try to change your mind, to brainwash, feeblemind, or geis you into liking and playing 4e.  I am writing it in order to try to explain my personal opinion so that others who come here will understand (not necessarily agree with) my point of view.  In light of that, I ask anyone who decides to comment to be respectful, as always, of the author and other commentators. 

What is Dungeons and Dragons?
Is 4e still D&D?

I'm going to start by answering the second question.  Yes.  I feel that Dungeons and Dragons, in it's current incarnation, is Dungeons and Dragons.  But to understand the rest of the answer I have to tell you what Dungeons and Dragons is to ME.  

Dungeons and Dragons is, at it's heart, a fantasy role playing game.  But what does that mean?  It's a game, where people take on aspects/characters/avatars of fighters and wizards, of elves and dwarves, and they take these characters fantastic places.  Locations like floating cities and dark dungeons, and even other planes of existence.  These characters then encounter fantastic creatures like goblins, werewolves, and the titular Dragons!  They interact with these creatures, and through this the players and the DM forge a story.  The events of this story are often determined by the roll of dice.  The dice used must include a d20.  It's about getting together with friends to have a good time. 

I got into Dungeons and Dragons via the game HeroQuest, which lead me to the black box intro game.  After that I got several of the other boxed games (Dragon's Den, Haunted Tower, Goblin's Lair), all of which included gridded map sheets, fold up cardboard characters and monsters, and I think 3 adventures.  After that I got the Rules Cyclopedia, and then later I transitioned into AD&D2e.  But I started with a very basic GAME that came with tokens and a board.  We didn't always use them.  A majority of the time we didn't use them, especially once I got the RC.    But that's where I started.  That's where the answer to "what is D&D?" was formed.

Between my Basic D&D days we passed through the Rules Cyclopedia and Thunder Rift, stayed for a time in 2nd edition.  Moved to 3rd edition, stopped playing shortly after 3.5 was released and took up wargaming.  Thus we come to the release of 4th edition.  It is a new game, with a new engine.  Some sacred cows were slaughtered.  Others were feed only the best organic feed and allowed to wander freely in their new meadow.  But when I read the game, when I play the game, this is what I see: Fantastic characters, in fantastic locations, interacting with fantastic creatures.  We roll d20s, we fight goblins at first level, and they can be deadly, all while sitting around our table with our character sheets, and thinking about raiding that dragon's hoard.  When I play 4e, it feels like D&D to me, just like it did when I was 11.

So by my definition, what is D&D?  Everything produced by TSR and WotC is D&D.  The retroclones based on the SRD (S&W, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, Labyrinth Lord, etc.) are D&D.  M20, M74, M75 are D&D.  I haven't read or played Castles and Crusades, but it sounds like D&D.  Pathfinder seems to be D&D3.75.   

What isn't D&D?  If you aren't rolling a d20 to hit something, with higher being better, than it isn't D&D.  If you can't play a fighter, wizard, elf, dwarf, etc.  It isn't D&D.  If there aren't dungeons and dragons than it isn't D&D.  If a game uses the d20 system, it does not necessarily equal D&D - for instance d20 modern or future are not D&D.   

The focus of 4e is different than that of the previous incarnations.  It's much more about the game experience, and less about trying to "realistically" portray the happenings in the game.  It is designed for those of use who don't have tons of time to play, and want to spend our couple of hours of live game time doing something awesome and fun.

Is 4e the perfect game?  No.  Probably not even close.  But it is fun, and sitting around the table with my friends, kicking down doors, slaying goblins and taking their stuff.... I'm playing D&D.


  1. No argument here. I have no experience playing anything past 2e (though I've read a number of 3&4E products) so it's hard for me to understand some of the language in the newer editions and I dislike some of the design choices I've figured out from what I've read, but, yeah, it's still D&D...

  2. Hmm. I'm not familiar with "Black Box" D&D, but none of the old editions I played with as a kid (B/X, AD&D, BECMI) came with "tokens or a board" and we never used any such thing in out games...which may be a reason why the idea of doing such makes latter editions feel more like a board game and less like a role-playing game.

    By your definition, there are a lot of fantasy role-playing games that are "D&D." Palladium Fantasy, for instance, provides one the opportunity to play fantasy characters in a fantasy environment fighting fantasy creatures...and you roll D20 in combat.

    Back in the "old days" non-gamers (like my parents) referred to any RPG as "D&D." Oh, you kids are playing D&D? Because for outsiders D&D = RPG.

    As an "insider" I understand the distinction. There's Dungeons & Dragons and there are other RPGs. I'm sorry, but I don't feel your definition of D&D clearly distinguishes it from other fantasy games.

    But maybe I need to define what D&D means to me before I criticize.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Dave. I do appreciate it!

  3. You have said it alot more eloquently than I did in my review of the new 4E Tomb of Horrors.

    I am not totally saavy with all of 4E's terms and lingo, but I liked the module on the terms of its story aspects. It gives another layer of mythology.

    And like you said,
    "It is fun, and sitting around the table with my friends, kicking down doors, slaying goblins and taking their stuff..."


  4. A good explanation. I think it bothers some folks, however, that what it comes down to is "it's D&D because it's branded D&D." There are a lot of fantasy RPGs where you can be an elven wizard kicking down doors. Is it simply the use of a d20 as a core mechanic which qualifies it, because there are a lot of other fantasy games that happen to use a d20 out there too... Sure, they're all RPGs, but are they D&D; do they really capture the historical core D&D feel?

    I feel like if some other company had released the exact same game as 4e - let's say "Mongoose Publishing's new FantasyStalker!" - there would not exactly have been droves of people moving from 3.5e to that game. Does it stand as D&D, and especially as an improvement on D&D, on its own? If not, and "it says D&D and it's shiny new" is the whole justification, you might see how some gamers might not really be impressed with it.

    For me, there's a lot of "core D&D feel" that they eliminated. You can be an elven wizard, but if you wanted to be a half-orc barbarian you're out of luck. Both fighty type and magicy type characters don't feel the same in play any more - as a fighter you have superpowers, as a mage you can't cast clever spells any more. And your class gets "buffed or nerfed" every month as the official electronic rules god changes. There's a whole raft of stuff like this, that if maybe they had changed one or two things for an edition rev it wouldn't be such a striking departure from historical D&D.

    Is it a total departure? No, they have kept some percentage of the game's original nature. But the percentage they kept seems to be down around the same percentage that other games in the industry resemble each other. Which isn't innately bad, but it did I think allow a lot of people to wake up and look around, and say "well, I *could* stay on the WotC train, but that's a lot of change, and there are a lot of other options for me out there..." They broke customer lock-in with an upgrade, which is always chancy.

  5. @JB This is the box I'm talking about: Dungeons and Dragons Game I haven't looked at Palladium Fantasy in a long time, but I remember feeling that it definitely was NOT D&D, but I don't remember why. And that's a big part of it... the feel of the game. 4e is VERY different from all the previous versions, but it still FEELS like D&D to me. I'm definitely interested in reading what your opinion of what D&D is.

    @mxyzplk~ And I totally get what bothers people, why it bothers them, and why they don't feel it's D&D. I don't agree, but I get it.
    They didn't eliminate half-orc barbarians, it just wasn't available as an initial option.
    Characters getting buffed or nerfed monthly really depends on how you play, and how your group plays. I haven't looked up a single errata for my game, or taken it beyond the initial core book release.
    "They broke customer lock-in with an upgrade, which is always chancy." Yup, and good for them for trying to keep gaming active and new, and still published. I have no idea what 5th edition will be like, but I hope it brings in new players, and keeps things rolling.

    To all commentators: Thank you!

  6. Paladium Fantasy is a D&D clone with heavy house rules. (Not to knock Paladium--it is an interesting game and definitely worth a look.)

    4ed, minus the powers, is starkly similar to 3ed. (At least as similar as 2ed was to 1ed.)

    Ultimately, I think D&D is a state of mind. You have just inspired a post! Find it here:

  7. The term "D&D" to me has become like "Xerox" or "Kleenex", it defines an activity, rather than being defined by a ruleset.

  8. A few things that I would add to your qualifications of 'what is D&D?'

    *Class-based archetypes, not a free for all skills system.

    *The players take the roles of adventurers.

    *Resource management is one of the determiners of success or failure, not just the needs of the story. (Prior to 3&4e this included many things besides hit points - rations and the like. 3.x at even lower levels removes a lot of resource management. I think 4e actually builds this back in with a hard limit of healing surges.) Other roleplaying games pointedly do not have resource management.

    A few qualifiers that not everyone agrees with, and a few officially published products contradict:

    *the focus of the game and the story created is the decisions made by the players

    *the outcome is in doubt

    Quite a few railroad products contradict these points, but most people still say that this is D&D.

    I think 4e is still D&D, but it focuses more heavily on the combat portion of adventuring (and does it very well) while providing tools to abstract other portions of the game. To some, 4e is no longer D&D because they see the ability to abstract portions of adventuring as eliminating them to the point of only becoming a combat game. You could play 4e this way, but you do that in other editions as well.