D&D General Rules, Rules, Rules: Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In the Dedicated Mechanics thread, I discussed some of the ways that D&D is sui generis- unique- and therefore not a good comparator for most other TTRPGs. Given that I have written extensively on this topic before, I wasn't sure I wanted to do another dive into it again ... but you know ... Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the topic up with my words unheard.

If you are one of the people who do not enjoy reading, and instead simply want to get to arguing without wading through these vast fields of verbiage in the belief you might get tripped up by the landmines of nuance, I will put forth the basic idea here and save you the time of scrolling so that you angrily denounce something or other:

1. D&D, by virtue of possessing a different position through history and market power, should be viewed differently than other TTRPGs. It is not simply a ruleset, but the interplay of diffterent factors, including but not limited to its history (past editions), rules, the community (incl. homebrew), third party product, and norms, as well as its position vis-a-vis the remainder of the market.

2. Bonus speculation- to the extent that WoTC is attempting to "tie down" D&D (rules, not rulings), this will eventually lead to the loss of those things that make D&D different than other TTRPGs.



1. Understanding the History of D&D Through the Year 1981.
You're drowning in the past, Mike. But I've got your life vest right here: it's called the 80's, and it's gonna be around forever!

I really wanted to use 1983 (a merman I should be), but I'm going with 1981. Specificity is the soul of narrative, and I think that the use of the year 1981 provides the best example for understanding how the history of D&D isn't like that of other games, and why that matters today. I've written about this before, but I'd like to concentrate on a specific year that (in likelihood) many people aren't familiar with in order to illustrate the essential weirdness of D&D in the TTRPG (hereafter, just "RPG") market.

As I've previously covered elsewhere, the great debates in RPGs were already in full force. People arguing for strict RAW, and people arguing against it. People arguing for more rules for social occasions, and people arguing that specified rules stultified roleplay. People arguing for more rules, and people arguing for fewer rules (and more rulings)- heck, people arguing for the importance of the rules, and people arguing that the actual rules weren't important. People who wanted more realism, and people who wanted more abstraction. People who came up with familiar typologies for different games and different gamers, and people who thought those typologies were facile and self-serving. People who wanted to play a game, and people who wanted to participate in a story. Heck- by 1981 we already had old timers (grognards was still used to refer to wargamers) from the 1970s complaining about the munchkins who were only interested in power due to the influx of younger gamers who weren't playing the game right. In short- same as it ever was ... time is a flat circle. If EnWorld existed back then, the majority of the threads would probably look pretty similar.

But looking more closely at D&D in 1981, we see why it was so profoundly weird, and how that weirdness set up the gestalt for D&D in the future. In 1981, you had:

OD&D. Yes, OD&D was not only still around, in the form of Holmes Basic it was incredibly well-known. While the core set and supplements for OD&D was complete by 1976, the 1977 Holmes edition had been a bestseller ever since the Egbert incident in 1979. And yes, they kept printing and publishing Holmes through 1982.

AD&D. By 1981, you had the core three (the DMG was published in 1979) as well as Deities and Demigods and the deeply weird Fiend Folio.

B/X. 1981 also marked the publication year for Moldvay/Cook (Basic/Expert).

Thing is - while today we understand that these are different rules, back then it was pretty much "mix-n-match." So to start with you had three different "rules" for a game circulating at the same time. To give you an idea of how strange this might be- B2 (Keep on the Borderlands) was written by Gygax to be used with OD&D, so if you look carefully you'll notice that it complies with those rules. But B2 came included with Moldvay Basic. And many people used it in their AD&D campaigns. So you could have a table running an OD&D module that they bought with Moldvay Basic with AD&D rules. And no one would bat an eye. In short- there was already an idea of remix culture in terms of rules that was alive in D&D.

And that's because D&D, for many reasons, contained multitudes. On the one hand, the game was so "loose" that if you talk to people who actually played then, you will quickly learn that no two tables played exactly alike or with exactly the same set of rules. On the other hand, D&D was so omnipresent and "standardized" that they ran competitions during conventions (the "C" series of modules was just the release of the competitive tournament modules, and had the included rules as to how to "score" PCs). Because D&D was such a major force in the market, you not only had the TSR magazine (Dragon) releasing constant new material (including "NPC-only" classes) for use in games, but a deluge of third party product for the market leader. Moreover, the rules themselves (dating back to the "incomplete" OD&D approach) were never considered mandatory, but permissive. The most basic concepts in the game- things like ToTM or miniatures - were left undetermined.

In addition, 1981 is also a useful snapshot of the market for D&D. As reported in (I believe Game Wizards) the majority of the D&D market was pre-college by 1981. In fact, you already had D&D products sold at Scholastic middle school "book fairs" in addition to D&D becoming increasingly common for middle school and high school kids (pace the depiction in Stranger Things and E.T.). D&D was a game designed by (and for) middle-aged wargamers that was also, for lack of a better term, a kids' game. This dual focus, which became more of an issue with the Satanic Panic, was inherent in the game from 1979 on- Dragon 36 (April 1980) recounts the experience of one DM at a convention being flustered when running a dungeon for a group with mixes ages that had prostitutes (of both genders) that were offering their wares to the party, because the dungeon had been designed for the older players that the DM had expected and younger players had shown up.

The reason I bring up 1981 (arguably, the 1979-1983 period was the original "golden age" of D&D, not to be repeated until 5e) is because we can see that the basic issues that animated D&D and the conversations around it were already in place then.



2. The History That Carries Through
An amazing sight, seeing someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket.

And while D&D has had good times and bad times since 1981, and editions, and arguments, and SPLITTISTS! (ahem, Pathfinder), the core concept has remained. D&D is constantly in a conversation with its past and with its community. Other game systems do things very well- for example, if you have a focused system like Blades in the Dark (BiTD), you have a specified default setting (the city of Doskvol). You have a specified type of adventure (crews performing heists). The mechanics are suited to that setting and that type of adventure; to the extent you want to muck around with it greatly, you create a new game (using the Forged in the Dark base system). Heck, I do something similar when I create one-page bespoke rules-lite games for running one-shots! I make a game tailored for what I want to do.

That's not D&D. D&D has always been, for both better and worse, a system that isn't defined by its ruleset. This leads to frustration in two different ways- one that tends to annoy me personally (and I am easily annoyed, as I am a person who has strong opinions that are lightly held), and one that I see re-occur regularly here.

The first is a common mistake when people are looking at history- its the mistake of assuming that history is like the present. We had a recent thread that went through this debate again; the mistake that is often made when people look back at older rule sets for D&D is assuming that they can extrapolate how the game was played simply by looking at the RAW. The fetishization of RAW, however, is not something that was always so prevalent, especially in D&D. While there were always rules lawyers (the original term, barracks lawyers, was well-known in the '70s), the actual importance of RAW qua RAW is an artifact of the early 2000s - both within D&D (there is a reason that we had 3e and the coinage of Oberoni Fallacy at that time) and in opposition to D&D and other prominent RPGs from the 90s ("System Matters" and related ideas).

When looking at the rules for D&D in a historical sense, you always have to be aware not just of the rules of particular editions, but of norms as well- which could be wildly varying (the lack of internet in the old days meant that different localities would often have wildly varying playing styles and content). Anything prior to 1989 (and the simplification and codification of the OD&D / 1e rules into 2e, and the general marginalization of the Basic line) is especially fraught. Just as saying, today, that "5e tables all do X" would be a strange statement to make, it would likely be even stranger to say about pre-'89 D&D simply because there was such a diversity of both rulesets, 3PP, and the malleability of the rules themselves.

Second, D&D today is not defined by its ruleset alone. The combination of the history and the primacy of D&D within the market means that the ruleset will necessarily be incomplete, as the rules do not define the game. To explain within the parameters of 5e-
The game must be both welcoming to newcomers as well as crunchy enough for people that have been playing for years (or decades)- in other words, it has both serve as the entry point for kids as well as the game for long-term players.
It must support both ToTM and grid-based approaches to the game.
It must be able to have a regular "basic" game, as well as be able to support innumerable expansions from both WoTC and 3PP.
It must have elements that are familiar to people who have played before ... from 0e to 4e.
It must support a diversity a playing styles- everything from set-piece combats to diplomatic intrigue to sea journeys.

In short, D&D has to be a little of everything, to everyone ... often at the expense of doing some things particularly well. Which is why a lot of the heated debates about D&D are often just people talking past each other- many times, it's simply a question of perspectives. If someone is bending 5e to play it more like 1e, and another person is playing it more like a 3e, and a third person is trying to play it as close to RAW 5e as possible, the three people will often have difficulty determining how to "correctly" play the game - and will end up arguing over the results.

This lack of uniformity is something that most (not all) RPGs don't have. Many modern RPGs are designed to be played "by the book," and it's relatively trivial to discuss best practices when it comes to those games. That doesn't mean that there aren't vibrant communities that discuss the games ... far from it ... but the nature of the conversations tend to be very different. It is rare to see the types of infighting that you do for D&D, because D&D lacks that definition within the rules- for better and worse.


3. Brief Thoughts on the Future
I'm not interested in heaven unless my anger gets to go there too.

One of the things that caught my eye with the recent flurry of announcements on 1D&D was this (quoted from the survey results thread)-
Thief subclass's cunning action does not interact with use an object; this is intentional. Removed because the original version is a 'Mother may I?" mechanic - something that only works if the DM cooperates with you. In general mechanics which require DM permission are unsatisfying. The use an object action might go away, but that decision will be a made via the playtest process.

So I have a very deep dislike of this term, partly born out of the history of its use. Originally traced back to Mike Mearls (go figure!) the avoidance of so-called MMI mechanics was a driving force behind late-3.5e and 4e design principles. Without going too far into the weeds of this part of the history, one thing definitely stands out about this concept- given that WoTC has announced that they are going heavily into having a more on-line presence (via DDB etc.), and given Hasbro's stated desire to extract more money from D&D, this seems awfully familiar.

The reasonable concern I would have, then, is that this is part of a desire for increased uniformity of play. Which might sound like a great thing to many people- I know that there are a lot of people out there that, pace Oberoni, are looking forward to our new rules standardization overlords. That said, it would seem that the periods of greatest success for D&D have generally not occurred during standardization, but far from it- when there was ferment and division, and the game itself was merely a scaffolding erected upon which many styles could climb.

But perhaps I am wrong! The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I'll have lunch. Anyway, thought I'd throw this out there.
 

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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
<snip>

1. Understanding the History of D&D Through the Year 1981.

<snip>

As I've previously covered elsewhere, the great debates in RPGs were already in full force.

Dragon Magazine started 1981 with issue 45. It would be interesting sometime I'm trying to avoid work even harder than I am write now to go through year by year in there and see what the great debates are.

Thing is - while today we understand that these are different rules, back then it was pretty much "mix-n-match."
The group I played with from late grade school to early high school at a local comic/game/book/record shop in Rockford, IL had some folks (including the DM) who war-gamed and rpg'd with the gencon folks at local conventions from the earliest days. I was never sure which people at the table were using OD&D, AD&D, or B/X for their characters.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I might quibble with a part of the timeline, specifically:
So I have a very deep dislike of this term, partly born out of the history of its use. Originally traced back to Mike Mearls (go figure!) the avoidance of so-called MMI mechanics was a driving force behind late-3.5e and 4e design principles.
I expect the MMI criticism predates your attribution to Mearls here, but the main point I have is I'd say that the targeting of MMI-type criticisms and avoidance of mechanics were a major part of the philosophy behind the 3e revision. Skip Williams was one of the driving forces behind defining the rules so that players knew what to expect and how to make meaningful and informed choices. Add in system mastery and the fact that you need a more robust system to master, and you've basically got the fuel for the RAW obsessed 'roid rage that followed.
It's not late 3.5 and 4e, it's right at the front and center of 3e.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
3. Brief Thoughts on the Future
I'm not interested in heaven unless my anger gets to go there too.

One of the things that caught my eye with the recent flurry of announcements on 1D&D was this (quoted from the survey results thread)-
Thief subclass's cunning action does not interact with use an object; this is intentional. Removed because the original version is a 'Mother may I?" mechanic - something that only works if the DM cooperates with you. In general mechanics which require DM permission are unsatisfying. The use an object action might go away, but that decision will be a made via the playtest process.

So I have a very deep dislike of this term, partly born out of the history of its use. Originally traced back to Mike Mearls (go figure!) the avoidance of so-called MMI mechanics was a driving force behind late-3.5e and 4e design principles. Without going too far into the weeds of this part of the history, one thing definitely stands out about this concept- given that WoTC has announced that they are going heavily into having a more on-line presence (via DDB etc.), and given Hasbro's stated desire to extract more money from D&D, this seems awfully familiar.

The reasonable concern I would have, then, is that this is part of a desire for increased uniformity of play. Which might sound like a great thing to many people- I know that there are a lot of people out there that, pace Oberoni, are looking forward to our new rules standardization overlords. That said, it would seem that the periods of greatest success for D&D have generally not occurred during standardization, but far from it- when there was ferment and division, and the game itself was merely a scaffolding erected upon which many styles could climb.

But perhaps I am wrong! The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I'll have lunch. Anyway, thought I'd throw this out there.
On this front, I'm not as concerned about the standardization nor think the opposite really has much to do with success and popularity of D&D. I think a less structured game is easier to enter for casual players, but has its issues in the long term. Cultural elements outside the ruleset I believe play a larger part in combination of ruleset. YMMV.

I think folks like both structured mechanics and those that are open to interpretation. I had a lot of thoughts recently about feats of 3E-PF1-PF2. The big issue I had was the choice comparisons. For example, you may have to choose between a really cool feat that is very situational, like maybe once a campaign situational, against a feat that is not cool, but of great utility in every session, if not every encounter. That is a crappy position to be in. One that has plagued the game for sometime as more system mastery minded folks push the gulf between them and less rules inclined players in effectiveness.

Im not a designer, but if I was, Id make sure mechanics choices remain siloed into similar ruleset expectations.
 

One of the things that caught my eye with the recent flurry of announcements on 1D&D was this (quoted from the survey results thread)-
Thief subclass's cunning action does not interact with use an object; this is intentional. Removed because the original version is a 'Mother may I?" mechanic - something that only works if the DM cooperates with you. In general mechanics which require DM permission are unsatisfying. The use an object action might go away, but that decision will be a made via the playtest process.

Well, in my experience, the whole game works far better if the DM cooperates with you.

Player: "I push the door and enter the next room."
DM: "..."
Player: "what do I see?"
DM: "..."
Player: "please?"
DM: "Make a DC 40 Spot check to see what's inside the brightly lit room, or die."
Player: "I love 1D&D".

However weak the argument is, it also helps implementation in a computer game: simulating a (potentially large but) closed set of actions is what computers are good at, allowing creative input to change the game is what humans are better at.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
However weak the argument is, it also helps implementation in a computer game: simulating a (potentially large but) closed set of actions is what computers are good at, allowing creative input to change the game is what humans are better at.

I think that's exactly the reason behind the implementation.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Snarf won't be able to reply, as they have me blocked. But I doubt anyone will be surprised to know that I find about two thirds of this completely untenable, and the remaining third factual but not particularly informative. E.g., Snarf's list of things D&D needs to do--I completely agree with most of them. However, unlike Snarf, I don't see this as an excuse for throwing up one's hands as a designer and saying, "Clearly, no game could possibly achieve these ends." I find such quietism deeply frustrating. Instead, I see these as a design challenge: how DO you make a game that is friendly to new players but challenging for old hands? How DO you support both heavily-abstracted non-spatial combat and physically-rooted, spatial combat?

Answering these questions is the challenge of game design. The designer responds to this challenge by:
  1. Defining the purpose and intended experience of play in clear and useful language,
  2. Forming specific, testable design goals based on the previous definition,
  3. Writing provisional rules which seek to implement those design goals,
  4. Setting ranges of acceptable performance for meeting those design goals,
  5. Performing rigorous, thorough testing, preferably statistical in nature,
  6. Modifying the rules from step 3 where they fail to fall within the ranges from step 4,
  7. Repeating steps 3-6 until no further areas remain which are outside the parameters, OR until you come to believe the design goal you set is not feasible, at which point, return to step 2 and revise that goal, then proceed as before.

The trick, with the above, is that steps 1, 2, and 4 all involve making value judgments about what things are worth doing/pursuing. Consequently, the designer must exercise wisdom and cleverness in those judgments, and no amount of effectiveness in the design (which is the result of following the above process) can ever compensate for poor design judgment. Unfortunately, even very good design judgment can be marred irreparably by a bad implementation.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Gygax (sometimes, he isn't easy to pin down) wanted AD&D to be the standardized game, so all players would be playing the same way. Didn't really work out. But this unifying idea has continued with every edition.

It's possible Hasbro/WoTC are hoping to make D&D Beyond so appealing that it's fancy graphics and seamless play aids will eventually lure in the bulk of players. It will create a kind of walled garden which will be difficult for 3rd party companies to play in. Rules will tend to be RAW cause the program will keep track of things for you. Then at last, Hasbro has full control of the money making machine.

This is what my cynical side whispers to me anyway. I don't think that's the future, however. D&D is already out there, big and messy.
 

Shiroiken

Legend
To be specific, the term was actually first used by Mearls (as far as people can determine) shortly before he was hired by WoTC.

The concept predates him.
The term predates this, as it was used in reference to Counterspells in MtG in the 90s. He might have been the one to term it for use in RPGs, however.
 

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