Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So What Is D&D Anyway?

Here I am, a 30 year veteran of RPGs and particularly D&D, reconsidering what the heck this game  means anyway. What was it's founding intention? And what does that mean for D&D today? First off I feel the need to clarify that though I've been playing D&D (mainly AD&D, but I've played most versions) since 1981 I am not a child of the 0e era. I was not 'in" on the founding period of D&D and I am also still barely scratching the surface of true D&D history. So please take what I say with a grain of salt. No matter how passionate, dogmatic or grognardly I may come across. These are just the opinions of one gamer seeking understanding.

It seems to me that the game was originally about free form creativity in a role playing game atmosphere. You had a referee or DM that would be responsible for creating the adventures for the player characters and eventually a campaign or world in which these were to take place. You had players that would assume the role of character types drawn from the speculative and adventure fiction of the time. The game was designed to be cross genre like much of the fiction of the period, but was essentially a fantasy game. Combat structure was basic and simple, characters were basic and simple in terms of mechanics. And the game rules were kept straightforward and few. Hence the term "free form". There was lots and lots of wiggle room for creative personalization and basically anything goes.

I'm loathe to say the game was designed to focus on roleplay as a way of covering all the inherent rules-gaps in the game, but it certainly enabled that. There were those gamers, I'm sure, that filled in those gaps with personalized rules and extensions of the rules to more consistently address those concerns. But these technicalities were left up to individual DMs and their groups. The game also allowed lots of openness for additions of new classes, treasures, monsters, and the like if players and their group so desired. In fact it seems that was what was expected.

And, as has been previously mentioned, the game to this point (the initial publication of Greyhawk) was still considered done, complete, as is. You needed nothing more to play the game. The quote from Gary "Why have us do any more of the imagining for you?" is indicative of this approach. The game was designed for players and the DM to take control from here. And from what little I know and understand about the way early games were played with Gary, his kids, Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz and others the games were all played this way. Creation of the milieu happened as the game unfolded. The newness of it and the fast and furious gaming of those early days necessarily required lots of improvisation and experimentation and free form creativity. At least it appears this way when one reads the stories of early games. Gary would literally stay up late after a session to finish the next level of the dungeon so he could be ready for the next day's session (this is from his EnWorld Q&A). All of these comments and explanations make it clear that they expected everyone to play the game like they had when they were first discovering and enjoying it.

Now, that being said obviously D&D changed over time. There were certainly different fanbases with different ideas of what the game was about with each successive iteration of the game. I was one of those. I was introduced to the game via AD&D and that determined how I saw the game. The real question is how much of that version of the game, and later ones, were truly different in the minds of the players from the original game? And could that early creative ethos have persisted in later editions and if so to what extent and in what form? More on that next time.
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