Friday, 9 July 2010

D&D is About...

I've been playing some more 'modern' or story gamish games recently - things like Blood & Honour, Unknown Armies and Burning Wheel. One thing you notice about modern games is that they all tend to be 'about' something. They're not just tabletop games that you play to have fun. They're supposed to enable you to explore certain deep human emotional themes. Thus Burning Wheel is 'about' having your beliefs challenged; Blood & Honour is 'about' how obsession with honour leads to tragedy; Unknown Armies is 'about' making sacrifices for the pursuit of knowledge; Changeling: The Lost is 'about' finding onself after personal tragedy. And so on.

I think there's a tendency to contrast this with more trad games like D&D. You find this on both sides of the old school/avant-garde divide, so OD&D grognards poo-poo story games because "it's about the game, not the narrative" and story gamers poo-poo OD&D because it's "incoherent" and doesn't have a goal. Both sides perpetuate a supposed gulf between the two different play styles.

Au contraire. I think D&D is actually 'about' something too, and moreover, it's about something very specific. What it's about is ambition.

What else could it be? PCs begin at 'level 1' and hope to progress upwards to level 9 or 20 or 36. They progress upwards by gathering ever more wealth and doing deeds of derring-do of ever increasing magnitude. They learn new abilities and magic spells. They behave avariciously, whether in terms of wealth, power, or experience, and are never satisfied with what they have. Their goal is almost universally to dominate the world, even if this is usually unspoken, because world domination is implicit in their drive to succeed.

Ambition even seeps into the metagame, because in my experience it's generally only in D&D that you get DMs doing the crazily obsessive worldbuilding which you find all over the blogosphere and which I also engage in with so much gusto. You don't get people DMing Unknown Armies and coming up with the gargantuan folders stuffed full of random encounter tables, maps, random treasure generators, weather and climate charts, new monsters and NPCs, and campaign notes. You don't get the almost megalomaniacal ambition of a true D&D DM to catalogue an entire world in other games. Or, at least, not at all as commonly.

D&D is about ambition, greed, power, and the will to win above all costs.


  1. Good call.

    Reminds me a bit of those D&D detractors in the early days who decried the game's low moral bar, based on pretty much the same observation (Kill monsters and take their stuff so you can kill stronger monsters and get even more stuff. Then go build a castle.)

    Certainly the way we played back in the day. What's interesting to me is how the game's structure supports more nuanced play for those who like their D&D without all the avarice...

  2. There's something about the inherent dynamic of D&D that's always precluded my groups from really getting deep into rp. We're all about solving problems, killing monsters, becoming more powerful and exploring the world. Put the same group in a WoD game, and we completely change, but D&D's basic setup always has us seeking action.

    Which basically confirms your theory--our will to action is engaged in the pursuit of power and domination, and we can't seem to shake that mindset whenever we sit down to play.

  3. Best way to describe the game and differentiate it from the later editions (2e onwards) of the game I have seen.

  4. Right on.

    I think what really drives this dynamic is the advancement mechanism. Since advancement in DnD is level-based, and one advances in levels through defeating monsters (and acquiring treasure, if you're old-school), players are driven to seek conflict and treasure.

    A similar dynamic plays out in other systems. Skill-based systems where skill advancement occurs through the action resolution mechanic tend to encourage players to use skills for the sake of using skills, and systems like WoD that have more of an arbitrary advancement mechanism reward going with the GM's flow.

    I've played and loved games that went each of these ways, so hopefully no one will take the above as criticism of their preferred mode of play.

  5. I've noticed something similar in designing games that'll be on the TV show:

    Since each episode has both a guest star AND players who are around every episode, the regular players have a certain amount of automatic interest in the game since they want to survive to play again with that character or get something done with that character.

    With the guest stars (at least the ones who are playing for the first time), it helps to give them some kind of secret, extra in-game goal or gimmick to think about since, for them, it's a one-shot and they may never use that character again.

    i.e. You have to give them something else to play with to compensate for the fact that they have less ambition.

  6. Off topic - I'm developing a webapp with the intention of providing a gaming table environment over the web. I've got some proof of concept stuff going but I need someone to consult and/or beta test and from what I can tell you and your people are leaders in the RPG community on the web. Just so we're clear I have some stuff I can demo today, I've got the codebase going I'm not some kook with big ideas and no work ethic.

    I know it's been done, but I think it would be a fun project. If there is any interest please email me; mestesco at hotmail dot com

    If not, sorry for disturbing you.

  7. This post really makes crystal clear an important point. One thing that often comes up with getting new players to roll up a character is they often have characters that don't want to DO anything. The caveat I often have to give is "Your character must have drive and ambition"

  8. Absolutely, D&D is about "ambition;" also it's often about (I think) "making a buck." PCs are folks who'd rather loot some treasure, dangers or no, rather than till the soil or cobble shoes.

    But then, I NEVER said D&D is "incoherent."
    : )

  9. I wonder if that's one of the things that killed 3E for me.

    The money you found didn't matter, except as a means to buy more magic items.

    The monsters you faced were nearly always 'just right' thanks to the CR/EL system.

    Going up in levels meant adding more powers to your sheet, but little changed for your character in the game world.

    If your ambition is just to become a badass character, then it works. If your ambition is to become rich and famous and rule a domain someday (if the dragons and green slimes don't eat you first), then it doesn't work so well out of the box, IMO.

  10. D&D is a product of late 20th century capitalism and thus reflects the context of its creation. No surprizes there.

  11. Erin: Yeah, it's hard to say anything about D&D really, because the game has become so huge that it can encompass almost any type of game that you want.

    Phil: I absolutely agree with this observation. But I have to say the groups I've been involved with have never been all that thespy or heavily into rp even outside of D&D. It's always been more about the headtrip and weird situations.

    Crazyred: Heh. Don't forget the harlot encounter tables - they also account for Lust.

    Joethelawyer: Thanks! But don't you think the same applies to 3rd and 4th editions too?

    frijoles junior: Yep, level advancement is a very weird idea but it definitely gives D&D "coherence" (to use a pretentious indie-game phrase) in that its a mechanic which serves the game perfectly.

    Zak S: That's an interesting thought. Having a goal is so important to get the players really engaged with the game. I've never given it all that much thought until very recently, but I'm definitely noticing how true it is.

    Warmotor: I don't really play games over the web outside of PBP, but I'll certainly take a look at whatever you come up with.

    Zzarchov: Absolutely. There's nothing more annoying as a DM than having to spoon feed the game to the players. There needs to be get-up-and-go on their part. The beauty of D&D is that it provides this on a plate: get rich, get experience, get powerful.

    JB: Making a buck is part of it, of course, because in older editions it's what makes you really powerful.

    Lord Gwydion: I really think that doing away with XP for treasure was the stupidest thing WotC could have done.

    Kiltedyaksman: That's true, but a bit of a weird comment, as all role playing games that have been produced for profit are necessarily the product of late 20th or early 21st century capitalism. Even the non-profit ones if you want to get all Pashukanis on us.

  12. I agree with this post entirely. I wonder if the perspective of D&D represents the time and place of its development, i.e. America in the 70s, when Americans were beginning to confront more openly (I'm guessing) the real nature of the frontier, and at the same time the discourse on economics in America was shifting from post-war Keynesian ideas to Vietnam-era Chicago-school neo-liberalism, with its emphasis on individualism and small government. D&D for me has always had a kind of frontiersman's mentality about it that is also visible in Traveller but maybe lacking in Warhammer or later games. This is reflected I think in its focus on ambition, killing things and stealing their stuff, building your own kingdom, etc. The rules even include that inherent 9th level stronghold thingy, which is a blatant representation of the individual's will-to-win ("I'll make my own goram laws!!!")

    I certainly don't think capitalism per se has much to do with it, or the other games we play would have the same feeling and as the OP notes, they definitely don't.

  13. frijoles junior said

    I think what really drives this dynamic is the advancement mechanism. Since advancement in DnD is level-based, and one advances in levels through defeating monsters (and acquiring treasure, if you're old-school), players are driven to seek conflict and treasure.

    and I agree. I put together a "Roll to Advance" system which replaces the standard XP system with one where players roll 1d20 at the end of each session to see if they go up in level. The target number is based on current level, class, and race. While probably too random for a lot of players, I like the fact that it removes the NEED to hack, slash, and take in order to improve. Simply PLAYING is all that it takes to have a chance to level up. That means you can play however you want to play.