D&D 5E Heteroglossia and D&D: Why D&D Speaks in a Multiplicity of Playing Styles

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
You know what people love? BIG WORDS! So I thought I'd put a bunch of 'em in the title. I mean- those aren't just your nickel or dime words. That's a Sacagawea!

Anyway, I wanted to get an issue of off my chest I've been thinking about for a while. It's closely related to something I wrote about before ... The Cheesecake Factory Theory of D&D. I recommend reading that essay if you haven't. Basically, it's the idea that D&D in general, and 5e specifically, is so popular because it doesn't try to be the best at any single thing, but is, instead, good at a lot of different things. I thought I'd drill a little deeper into that by adopting some old Russian literary theory from Mikhail Bakhtin about how novels can speak with many voices. Just, you know ... bear with me. This is going somewhere! Maybe.

1. Illusions and player agency.
He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.

A story someone on EnWorld relayed always haunts me. They told the story of how they were playing D&D and the DM was running a great game. Everything was going fast and smooth, and it was one of the best games of D&D they had every played. Everything felt right. A few days later, the player learned that the DM never really determined rolls exactly- instead, the DM would just see what a roll was and eyeball it and narrate the results. In other words, the DM didn't know if the player needs a 15 or 18 exactly, but instead would just kind of look at rolls and determine if they were "good enough."

When the player found out, they were outraged. All the careful planning of their character, and the bonuses they had allocated, every little sacrifice they made in one area to squeak out that extra +1 in another ... it was for naught. The whole chargen process was basically worthless. The game experience, which at the time was fun, engaging, amazing, and one of the best experiences that they had ever had in D&D, retroactively became one of the worst games they had played.

The reason I think about this so often is because this scenario encapsulates a lot of the tensions and issues I see in D&D; ideas about how faster play can be more immersive, concepts of illusionism and player agency, table communication, and even more ephemeral issues such as the interplay of present experience and memory when it comes to the enjoyment of an experience. But the reason I bring this up now is because (other than the communication issue) neither DM nor player were "playing D&D wrong," instead, they were playing D&D differently. And this is an issue that I think keeps popping up in discussions about TTRPGs in general, and D&D specifically, because unlike many other games, D&D has a long tradition of allowing and encouraging multiple ways to play; D&D is not a monolith, but instead is an amalgamation; it speaks with a multiplicity of tongues within a single set of rules (heteroglossia).


2. OD&D as a toolkit, and the original combat/social dichotomy.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

Brian Eno once remarked that very few people bought the original Velvet Underground album, but all the people who bought it started their own band. OD&D had a similar reputation, as it was (especially early on) more of a toolkit for designing an RPG than it was a full-fledged instruction set for play. Many of the earliest TTRPGs were simply the DM notes for OD&D- even the first superhero game (Superhero 2044) was based off an OD&D campaign that went to an alternate plane.

That early expansiveness in OD&D, and its status as the "default" TTRPG (to the extent that many arguments early on consisted of people arguing whether D&D could or should handle all types of TTRPG activities) forced an openness to the approaches in gaming. However, one carryover from the wargaming roots of OD&D was that combat was codified in the rules, whereas most other interactions in the world were not codified in the rules. This original dichotomy (combat/social, rollplaying/roleplaying, etc.) has continued throughout the history of D&D, with some arguing for more binding rules related to non-combat encounters and situations, and others arguing for more streamlined and less rule-bound combat.

Early on, though, we see that people were having all sorts of experiences with D&D. There were dungeon crawls. There was wilderness exploration. There was D&D in space and on spaceships and in post-apocalyptic landscapes. People played theater of the mind. People played on re-purposed tables from wargaming with terrain and miniatures. People made expansive rules and tables to cover everything under the sun. People played freeform versions that had them roleplay out political meetings without the use of any dice. There was no single "right" way to play D&D.


3. Evolution of D&D.
Honeydew? Why does Cantaloupe think every time it gets invited to a party it can bring along its dumb friend Honeydew? You don’t get a plus one, Cantaloupe.

Over time, D&D began to integrate even more ideas into the overall "D&D gestalt." Ed Simbalist, who was first well-known for asking for more realism in D&D (and writing Chivalry & Sorcery out of DM notes) later began to impress upon others the need for illusionism in order to have satisfying narratives for the players; this style of play (with illusionism and what we often call 'railroads' today... the injection of more pre-scripted plot into adventures) became more prevalent in D&D during the so-called Hickman revolution (which I am somewhat ambivalent about as a term, but it seems to have currency).

Later, D&D began to incorporate much more a chargen minigame focused on players (really beginning to take off with 2e's, and becoming a standard in 3e). Other things added into D&D included an emphasis on RAW (3e, which was very much counter to the prevailing ethos of TSR-era D&D) and incorporation of some modern gaming elements (4e). Eventually, we ended up with 5e.

Now, of course, the question is ... what is 5e? How do you play it? You could look for some answers in the DMG, except that (1) there isn't a lot of great advice in there that specifically addresses how to properly run a game using specific principles with examples, and (2) ... no one reads the DMG (you knew that was coming!).


4. The strength of D&D is that it isn't prescriptive.
I was never one to hold a grudge. My father held grudges, and I'll always hate him for that.

One thing that I keep coming back to is the diversity of ways that people play D&D. There are the obvious divides, like ToTM or grid for combat. But it goes much further than that. A group of highschoolers get together at lunch and plays D&D without dice or their rulebooks- that's D&D. I run different groups- one is mostly RAW to teach people to play, the other is mostly an amalgamation of diceless and FKR-style rules with some 5e trappings; both of those games are D&D. Matt Mercer running a professional with voice-actors game (Critical Role) is D&D, but so is a monthly get-together at the local library with "no funny voices."

Of course, it goes deeper than that- often times, the strongest debates we see here are over issues that are just issues of playing preferences, that most people wouldn't argue with if they were at a table having a good time. For example, few people would say that they want to get "railroaded" into a combat. On the other hand, I've seen tables that gleefully look forward to a giant setpiece battle that was painstakingly set up the night before and features minis, terrain, and buildings, and would get quite angry is that battle didn't take place. People play 5e freeform and RAW, they play it like 3e and 1e, they play it as a dungeoncrawler and to indulge in their favorite anime. The sheer variety of experiences that D&D can provide ... unlike most games, it is not a product of a ruleset. It is the product of the rules, and the norms, and collective experience of the community that has played it. To look solely to the rules of D&D is to miss the point entirely.


Anyway, thought I'd post this. It's been a little while.
 

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Mad_Jack

Legend
He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

Honeydew? Why does Cantaloupe think every time it gets invited to a party it can bring along its dumb friend Honeydew? You don’t get a plus one, Cantaloupe.

I was never one to hold a grudge. My father held grudges, and I'll always hate him for that.

I think ENWorld should publish a book of Snarf's collected section subtitles.
 

Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
Loathe as I am to recommend the person in literally any other context, but Angry DM's "8 Kinds of Fun" article pretty clearly and succinctly applies the Aesthetics of Play video game design theory to tabletop rpgs in what I've found is still the absolutely the best breakdown of individual playstyles and matching play aesthetics to system and game design.

The best news about the article is because the content runs so counter to his usual obnoxious shtick that he tones it way down for the duration of it.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Loathe as I am to recommend the person in literally any other context, but Angry DM's "8 Kinds of Fun" article pretty clearly and succinctly applies the Aesthetics of Play video game design theory to tabletop rpgs in what I've found is still the absolutely the best breakdown of individual playstyles and matching play aesthetics to system and game design.
He’s a truly odeous person, but one can’t deny that he does give very good DMing advice. Especially his early stuff that was more focused on fundamental skills, instead of his more recent trend of multi-part series he never finishes that are basically trying to systematize his own intuitive approach (despite being vocally opposed to systematizing gameplay).
The best news about the article is because the content runs so counter to his usual obnoxious shtick that he tones it way down for the duration of it.
His shtick has also grown… less shticky over time. Early on it came across more as a silly affectation, but the line between the character of the angry GM and the actual person who writes the articles got blurrier and blurrier, until it became clear that he was in fact just an angry, bitter person.
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
He’s a truly odeous person, but one can’t deny that he does give very good DMing advice. Especially his early stuff that was more focused on fundamental skills, instead of his more recent trend of multi-part series he never finishes that are basically trying to systematize his own intuitive approach (despite being vocally opposed to systematizing gameplay).
I'm not sure whether it's that he opposes systematizing gameplay, or that he refuses to admit how much of what he does is intuitive, or both; there is a deep tension there, regardless.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I'm not sure whether it's that he opposes systematizing gameplay, or that he refuses to admit how much of what he does is intuitive, or both; there is a deep tension there, regardless.
I think he’s pretty open about the fact that most of what he does is intuitive. And the condescension with which he presents systems for approximating his intuitive approach is palpable. But, this thread isn’t about the angry GM. Sorry for the tangent.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Loathe as I am to recommend the person in literally any other context, but Angry DM's "8 Kinds of Fun" article pretty clearly and succinctly applies the Aesthetics of Play video game design theory to tabletop rpgs in what I've found is still the absolutely the best breakdown of individual playstyles and matching play aesthetics to system and game design.

The best news about the article is because the content runs so counter to his usual obnoxious shtick that he tones it way down for the duration of it.

One source of continuing frustration I have is that video game design has advanced by leaps and bounds because it is treated seriously, believes in data, and has money behind it- whereas TTRPG theory still has people re-inventing the wheel and claiming things that are two decades old are "avant-garde."

While I don't think that the mapping is perfect, and I am not a huge believer in typologies, I think that ideas like LeBlanc's taxonomy provides a good reference point into understanding why different people enjoy different game experiences; with regard to the instant issue, it also provides an understanding as to why D&D, which is unusual in that it can support (albeit far from perfectly) different types of fun for different players during the same game, has popularity.

Of course, that strength also depends upon the GM being able to adjust the game for the players' interests- something that not all GMs are equally adept at doing.
 

Art Waring

halozix.com
1. Illusions and player agency.
I think it's possible that people are using different parts of their brain when they are in a tabletop game, and when they are on an online forum theorizing about D&D. That cognitive disconnect is what causes friction, because perception is relative, Timothy Leary referred to perception as a "Reality Tunnel," literally limiting your perception of the world.

When you are in a game, you are in a social environment with friends, and creating spontaneous moments, sparks are flying in the room, peptides be going places.

Often times on the forums, we're on a phone or a computer, and our brains simply function differently in that state, many unspoken forms of communication are lost, and we are left with the artifacts of communication.

Just my thoughts on the matter.
 

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