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

Hero
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

Final Form (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

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
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

Redlined Ratrod
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.
 



Hussar

Legend
I’ve long believed that rpgs are not games in and of themselves. They are game creation engines.

The game you or I or Dave plays is the confluence of your or my or Dave’s group plus the rules of the time plus a thousand other factors.

And that game is unique to that time and place and cannot be recreated. It might be emulated to some degree but there are so many intangibles that it can’t be copied.

And while there may be some commonalities, at the end of the day every campaign will be a unique game and largely opaque to anyone on the outside (and often pretty damn foggy to those inside as well) to such a degree that analysis is often extremely difficult.
 

the DMG, the nobody read book, identify 7 field of interest for players:

Acting
Exploring
Instigating
Fighting
Optimizing
Problem solving
Story telling

if you cross the importance of each field with the number of players around the table you got indeed a wide variety of play style.
 
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@Snarf Zagyg you’ve put into words what has been bouncing around my head the last few weeks. So I thank you and wish to add my two cents (Canadian cents so it’s cheap).

5E, in spite of all its subclasses, feats, and options, is at its heart a toolkit for playing a fantasy TTRPG. Use as much or as little as you and the weirdos playing with you need to achieve fun. And for the love of Gygax, if you don’t like a rule or think something is missing in the game, fix it yourself.
 

Kurotowa

Legend
Another thing to consider is competing mediums.

There's a particularly satisfying gameplay loop of try - fail - learn - try again. It feels really good to practice and improve your player skills until you can overcome a challenge. My sense is that early D&D utilized this gameplay loop a lot with disposable PCs and an expectation of what we'd call metagaming today. If Jim the Fighter died to a particular hazard, his cousin Jimbob the Fighter would take his place and the player would have ideas on how to avoid that hazard in the future.

But here's the thing. Video games do that better. The proliferation of Rogue-likes and Souls-likes, or the MMO raid scene if you prefer a group project, are a far more refined arena for that particular gameplay. And so D&D has steadily been moving away that style and focusing more on character and story. It's not a recent shift, either, but one that's been happening over decades. We're just really seeing the culmination of it now, especially in the style preferred by a lot of the popular streaming groups.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
D&D is often refered to as a "big tent" game. It covers a lot of different types of D&D-liek relations. But that's not all that is there. To make a horrible analogy, there are infinite fractions between 0 and 1, but that doesn't mean it can cover -1 or 134.

The rules of D&D provide both focus on what they want to do, and limits on what you can do. Look at how much of the PHB and the MM are devoted to material that is useful during combat. If I wanted to play a pure politics, drama and interpersonal relationship game under D&D could I? Absolutely. Will I have a lot of mechanical support for it? Well, no. I'd have some general bonus to use, like a few skills. Will the classes be balanced at it? Well, no again because casters can have all the skills plus spells, there aren't drama-related features other classes have that they lack, and the attrition resource model is tuned for the dense resource depletion of combat.

Again, since you don't need any rules to play an RPG, any RPG with rules can still handle everything. But that doesn't mean it does provides mechanical support for your concept.

Pivoting a bit, look at a game like Fate Core, where death is entirely off the table unless the player pushes for it and therefore the stakes of conflicts are about larger goals. Could I run the same scenarios in this as D&D? Sure. Will the mechanics of each provide a unique feel for that system? Yes. D&D has it's own feel, Fate will provide a different one. Both are good.

D&D has good bones, and is only moderately difficult to hack well. It's a big tent with lots under it. But the rules provide mechanical support for certain types of play, and other systems can provide mechanical support for types of play other than D&D, while not providing a D&D-feel. D&D does cover a wide spectrum, but other games cover other parts of the spectrum, wide or small. It's only by understanding and using a wide variety of different games with different goals that one can truly cover the whole spectrum.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
D&D is often refered to as a "big tent" game. It covers a lot of different types of D&D-liek relations. But that's not all that is there. To make a horrible analogy, there are infinite fractions between 0 and 1, but that doesn't mean it can cover -1 or 134.

In addition to the other things you say, there are some elements of D&D that are, frankly, jarring to some people and don't stop being jarring with experience. And some of them are core to D&D style design. Some of them are persistent enough that they come up again and again and again. That doesn't mean they bother everyone, or course, and the popularity of the game would suggest that enough people can get around all of them so its still functional, but it still calls into question the frequent attempts to use D&D as the all-purpose power tool.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
D&D has good bones, and is only moderately difficult to hack well. It's a big tent with lots under it. But the rules provide mechanical support for certain types of play, and other systems can provide mechanical support for types of play other than D&D, while not providing a D&D-feel. D&D does cover a wide spectrum, but other games cover other parts of the spectrum, wide or small. It's only by understanding and using a wide variety of different games with different goals that one can truly cover the whole spectrum.

So., this isn't exactly what I was getting at, and it's kind of a separate post. But here's the gist of why I don't agree (building on the last paragraph of the OP)-

Yes, some games are INFINITELY better at certain things than D&D. It's not even close. Heck, trying to get a Fiasco-like experience out of D&D? Yeah, good luck. Or, for that matter, BiTD- sure, you can do a heist in D&D, or advance in a criminal organization, but it's not exactly made for it.

In a way, its similar to kitchen gadgets (the good ones). There are a lot of great kitchen gadgets that are perfect for certain things- a cookie scoop, if you're into making lots of cookies. A rice cooker. A lemon juicer. Heck, maybe you need that Williams-Sonoma stainless-steel pineapple slicer and dicer because you make so much pineapple pizza. I am not saying this to be a dismissive Alton Brown, by the way- things that are purpose-designed for a task will be better at it.

It's like that with games- there are a lot of great games out there that superbly cover a narrow niche- either a narrow genre niche, or a narrow gameplay niche, or (usually) both. If someone said, "I have a group of really enthusiastic gamers that wants to play a cinematic-style heist game," I probably wouldn't be recommending D&D. ;)

But that's not what I'm getting at. Your concentration on what the rules support misses what is popular about D&D. This is where I draw the line at the people that are hard supporter of, um ... let's say rules matter. Because D&D isn't just about what the rules support ....

1. It's about what the rules don't support. The negative space in D&D (the places the rules don't exist) is actually an important feature, not a bug, of the game.

2. It's about the community of D&D. Right now, I can play a game of D&D with a grognard who is running a highly hacked version of OD&D with a 200-page player supplement that, inter alia, details how he allows the original White Dwarf Barbarian as a playable class, or I could play D&D with a group of high-schoolers that use a lot of 5e homebrew to make it an anime/manga game with Wuxia influences. And all of those people are communicating and cross-pollinating in the greater D&D community- something that no other game has, and no other game is even close to having (in terms of both size and history).

3. It's about the flexibility within the game- this is, perhaps, the most important. Building on what @Gradine posted (re: types of fun), D&D has a long history of being able to engage different kinds of players, seeking different kinds of fun, at the same time. On these boards, we often hear about groups that try another game for a while, and then "return to D&D." I suspect that this is because a lot of games are built to primarily appeal to certain kinds of fun, but are not as engaging for all types of players. Take BiTD, for example- it's a great and brilliant game. But players that are really into narrative, discovery, or abnegation (yeah, I don't like submission either) ... maybe not so much?

And that's where D&D (esp. 5e) can shine. Yes, the drawback of it, the failure point, can be a bad DM. But a good DM is able to run session so that players who enjoy different kinds of fun can get their needs at least partially met during the game. Just run through the categories-
a. Sensory Pleasure- I like to roll dice and move miniatures and paint miniatures and look at the maps.
b. Fantasy- "Olaf's honor demands that I kill the brigand!"
c. Narrative- Well, that's what the APs are for, right? ;)
d. Challenge- "+2, +1, or +1, +1, +1? THIS DECISION WILL HAUNT ME FOR THE REST OF THIS CAMPAIGN!"
e. Fellowship- Yo, who ordered the pizza? No evil PCs, right?
f. Discovery- I like to draw the maps, and take the notes, and write down the treasure. Wait, there's a rumor of a lost town?
g. Expression- Just wait until you read my 58 page character backstory!
h. Abnegation- I'm here to drink beer, eat pretzels, and play a champion. Now get out of my way and let me roll that d20.

D&D is not a great game system for everything, or every person. But it's a really good system for a lot of people when you have groups with mixed interests. IMO, etc.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
D&D is not a great game system for everything, or every person. But it's a really good system for a lot of people when you have groups with mixed interests. IMO, etc.

Eh. I'd say its a really good system for people who have mixed interests and have internalized D&D's approaches as an okay way to get to them. The latter is extremely common because of the networking effect, but I don't have much sign that there's anything intrinsic about D&D's mechanical structure that even supports varied desires better than other choices; its just what a lot of people get exposed to early and imprint on if they don't, at the time, have strong wants it doesn't fulfill.
 

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