Friday, April 17, 2009

My D&D

As everyone knows I am not a slave to the rules. My favorite aspect of D&D is making things up. Now that I have learned the concept, the one introduced by D&D to the gaming world in 1974, I don’t need to ever spend another penny on anything to continue playing the game for the rest of my life. Everything I create and run using this concept is D&D to me.

Let’s pretend that I learned how to play D&D in 1974. I paid particular attention to the Introduction in Volume I, Men & Magic, and the words: “[These rules] provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity - your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors…”. Notice that the quote says game and not world or campaign. So I grasped the concept and never, ever picked up another game book from TSR or any other RPG company.

The game I end up playing, let’s say three decades later, is D&D to me and my players. Others might see strange house rules and unconventional interpretations, and to them it might not appear to be D&D at all. Such an observation from an outsider would be an opinion based on subsequent events, those that occurred after 1974. Observations based on 35 years of game evolution which have brought about expectations and the need for labels and categories. If my make believe game no longer uses dice, hit points, alignment or character classes, it is still D&D in so far as the original concept was presented over three decade ago.

This is an extreme, unrealistic example of the concept, but one which serves to support the adage that every RPG is really just a house ruled game of D&D.

I like to call my D&D exactly that, D&D; and I like to call my other games by their titles: Gamma World, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and so forth. So what exactly then is D&D to me? Is it little more than simply the role-playing game concept that it created? As I’ve mentioned before, D&D could’ve been published with no more than a dozen pages from Men & Magic. The amount of pre-game work required by the referee would have been problematic for beginners, to be sure, so the other 100 or so remaining pages in OD&D filled out some of the details for referees. As far as I’m concerned, those “other 100” pages are no more than examples of what a referee can do with D&D.

If I had to distill my D&D down to the essentials, the list would look something like this:

Sham’s Essentials of D&D

1. Characters (Race/Class)
2. Ability Scores
3. Hit Points
4. Experience/Levels
5. Mechanics/Randomization
6. Adventuring Groups
7. Exploration
8. Hazards/Challenges (Monsters/Traps/Tricks, etc)
9. Treasure (Monetary/Magic)
10. Fantasy Setting (Dungeons/Wilderness)

If hard pressed, it comes down to Characters, Mechanics, and Environment. I added the other features which I feel are hard coded into the game. If I left the list simply at Characters, Mechanics, and Environment, I just described every RPG ever made. But hey, that IS the concept. It’s Distilled D&D.

As long as a game embraces these elements I would consider it D&D. And I suppose even a game with no Dungeons at all could still be D&D, even though it pains me to admit that.

Keep in mind that when I say distill my D&D down to the essentials and list categories such as Class or Monsters, it does not mean that one needs to use the published entries. On the contrary, what I am trying to clarify is that the only aspect required is the category itself. I can take these categories and completely homebrew each. If I mix them all together the end result is still D&D as far as I’m concerned.

Being D&D “as far as I’m concerned” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans to others, though. The question then becomes is it D&D in Name Only? If I’ve been running that imaginary D&D game, letting it evolve and change over the past 35 years, I might have something which would be considered D&D only conceptually. I’ve bought into the concept, but I’ve changed or overhauled every guideline found in Men & Magic. The modern term for the above example might be Homebrew D&D, but that’s a rather loose, catchall category.
To me, it is still D&D. Anything which combines the Essentials of D&D is, by all rights, D&D.

What does D&D mean to you?

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Patrick W. Rollens said...

Funny, I'm running an old-school fantasy game for my friends using the Savage Worlds ruleset. It is most decidedly not D&D, but I can't help but think of it as D&D when making notes or coming up with campaign ideas in my head. The fact that we're running it with Savage Worlds is not relevant; to me, it is D&D.

Sham aka Dave said...

I'm not familiar with the Savage Worlds rules. It's a safe bet to say that conceptually, it is D&D I assume. Just slightly altered mechanics, and a specific milieu.

jdh417 said...

Two great, thought-provoking pieces. I suspect this one will generate several blog entries by your readers.

D&D to me? It probably boils down to a very evocative brand name. Not necessarily a bad thing.

What are the thoughts, feelings, and tangibles associated with D&D as a brand? Sounds like potential blog topic.

What are the essentials of D&D as an RPG compared to other RPGs? Whew. It's like comparing any rock and roller to Elvis. They're all an imitation of, or a reaction to him.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I think "hit dice" (rather than hit points) are fundamental. As descriptors they inform many other aspects of the game, particularly attack values and saving throws.

The desire to "define" D&D often leaves me a bit cold. Partly it is because I know games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay were designed with the mandate "D&D, but grittier" and really it played a lot like D&D. In the same vein, games like Role Master and Rune Quest are at heart another take on D&D.

The question of branding is therefore a complicated one, and bound up with the problem of "what is D&D?" and I am not sure it is even beneficial to come up with an answer.