D&D is not a game. It's games.


A few days ago I joined a largish 5E D&D group on Facebook and I was ... astounded. For a few days I clicked around, participated in a few discussions, and most of the people were normal and quite polite. So far so good.

But still. Astounded. I've run 60 sessions of more-or-less D&D 5E. Sure, there are house rules - what game isn't house ruled? - but the game we run is certainly 5E compatible. It's also OSR compatible, with everything from DCO to DFD and SUD getting played.

And there I kept asking myself, what game are these people playing? Who are these dungeon masters? These games sound nothing like my games! The core books held as laws to be followed. The constant call to "CR" and "balanced encounters" and "challenges" and calls to "fudge dice".

My mind is completely boggled. D&D is supposedly a game where your imagination provides an unlimited special effects budget ... and here I saw it reduced to accounting over and over again.

I vented my astonishment on the G+ OSR group - again managing a pretty normal and polite discussion. Good job folks.

My Bard

The whole experience with accountant-D&D reminded me of one experience, years ago, when I tried to join a group at a game shop. I'd been DMing for years and I looked forward to being able to play a bit. So ... the DM lets me know the basics, level, setting, stuff like that. I roll up a bard.

I show up at the table and all the other players begin complaining, 

"Oh, God! A bard!"

"Bards are totally underpowered!"

"Bards can't fulfil any role, they don't even make good support!"

We came to the first encounter, some orcs at a barricade. I announce that I try to talk to them. The DM stares at me, "But they're orcs!"

I respond, "Yeah, but I'm a bard with an epic lute and I can try to soothe the savage beast."

All the other players look at me darkly. The DM looks at me darkly.

My bard offers parley, the orcs accept. The bard stands up and starts to talk. The DM rolls some dice and announces, "Five arrows hit you. 22 damage."

My bard was down.

The party charged into battle and killed the orcs. My bard bled out.

"Now you can roll a character that can help the team fight."

I left the group. F**k if I was going to waste time moving minis around square rooms shooting orcs with a wand of magic missiles Mk 3 for four levels until I got fireballs and could do the same thing but against appropriately higher CR monsters.

D&D is Not A Game

Finally, the heart of the post. During that OSR discussion (and also thanks to this here post on RPG combat as war vs. combat as sport) I became aware more acutely of something. When you get together with friends to play chess or monopoly, you know exactly what game you will be playing and what the victory conditions are.

But not with D&D.

Because D&D is not actually a single game. It's actually more a type of play activity, within which different games are played. Let's look at the games (pl.) of D&D.
  1. An overland exploration / travel game that is literally Outdoor Survival from Avalon. The so-called Hexcrawling. This is a game I never managed to play successfully at my sessions, by the way! (with resource management system 1 - over long periods)
  2. A combat game that comes originally from Chainmail, which was a miniature war game (and I think that's where the accounting war game tension comes from). (with very short term resource management)
  3. An exploration / mapping game where players delve into a dungeon. This is where the grid squares come from (it was easier to get grid paper to draw architectural-ish labyrinths!) and this is the game that is well spoofed in Munchkin. (with resource management system 2 - over short periods)
  4. A hero simulation game, where the PCs go from zero (or level 1) to hero over the course of several sessions. This is where the whole experience thing comes from.
  5. A game of improv, which is the DMs funny voices and the actual role-playing - which are surprisingly completely untethered from rules in actual D&D. At least some basic improv tenets would be useful here.
I actually think this is pretty great. It means that you can take this House of Games (HOG) and cherry-pick your play experience. It's also pretty easy to add additional games to the D&D play house:
  1. A 'domain' game of geopolitics, which might as well be replaced with Diplomacy or a similar simple strategy game.
  2. A world-building / history-building game, which could be either wholly narrative or set up as a card game (I think Microscope does something like this).
  3. In-game gambling / fortune-telling with cards, dice and more.
  4. A dungeon or city-building game with lego bricks and dice.
  5. A music game of trying to find the perfect song on Youtube to fit a given scene / character / battle or result (I actually do this at the game and give XP for players who come up with great music).
This big playhouse means that there are different things for different people to enjoy and actually think reducing D&D to just one or two of any of these components diminishes it. Honestly, it's not a great exploration game, and it's not even that great a combat game! But, the mix and the openness of games it allows, this is amazing (I suspect even the founders of D&D didn't realize exactly what kind of play house they had created). By the same token, taking the subsystems of the game and trying to reduce them to the same rule system does not necessarily work well.

What I do think is a problem is that D&D as presented in the game books isn't up-front and open about this situation! It clearly refers to D&D as a game, but then says that "the game has no real end".

No, of course it doesn't have a real game! Why? Because the "campaign" is just a themed play-time. We're playing Feyrun [sic] or Greyskull [sic] or Mordorland Blues because it gives a mental reference frame to our actual games of "kill the annoying archmage Elfminister" or "explore the ruins of Aetheria to find the Magic Sword of Swordiness" or "banter and jibe in an improvised rhyming competition among oppressed railroad worker orcs while listening to music"

So ... phew. Not sure exactly where to take this forward, but the Games not Game realization has opened my eyes to possibilities. Now, since you read so far, some music from Dio (and Rainbow):


  1. I see this a lot and there are as many different ways to play D&D as there are people. A lot of people like to play it as a war game, the monsters are bad and can't be reasoned, threatened or otherwise convinced to just leave instead of being killed to a man. And that's fine if everyone is on the same page. I'm more of a "think our way" though things guy but a some people (and GMs) will treat attempts at negotiation as the GM you ran into. Combat (i.e. die rolling) is what they are there for and screw you for trying to interrupt. You did the right thing by leaving as you wouldn't fit or be happy in his game. Luckily there are lots of other games to be a part of :D

    1. Don't I know it ;) life's too short to stay in badly suited games. They're like poorly fitting jeans. Folks might say you'll break them in but ... no. No you won't.

      But the really interesting realization was that not only are there different ways to play D&D - D&D actually involves a lot of different games within its default state.

  2. Yeah, weird. If someone volunteers to talk you out of something with no injury...cool!

    1. Always! And for my games ... wow, if I can cut down the dice rolls, most excellent. The combats take too long as it is!

  3. Similar things have happened to me. I love playing bards and that class is usually the litmus test of whether or not I have a decent GM.

    1. You know, there's a blog post in there. The bard as litmus test! :)