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General What is D&D? A Universal Definition

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Another thread came up with the intriguing idea that D&D died when TSR died:

As always, things go well when people mark some editions as "D&D" and other editions as "Not D&D." :)

Notably, @MichaelSomething made the following observation-
"First thing is, what is D&D? We can't even seem to reach a common agreement on what that is."

Which is a great point! How can we even get our blood boiling by screaming about what isn't D&D, until we at least define what is D&D? In order to assist this uncontroversial effort, I thought I might channel my inner Wittgenstein .... "D&D, D&D, what is D&D? That D&D that we cannot define, we must pass over in silence."

Now, here is my stab at a working definition of "D&D":

A. My Head Was Screaming No, But My Mouth Was Chewing Gum

The Ship of Theseus, eh? We are all familiar with it, but if you aren't, a quick primer- Theseus's ship is kept in the harbor. Over time, as the ship rots, the old rotted wooden parts are replaced by new parts. Eventually, all the parts .... the entire ship .... has been replaced. Is the restored ship the original ship? Is the ship that is now in the harbor, the Ship of Theseus?

There are variations on this, and of course there is the whole, "What if every rotted part was put in a warehouse, and then at some later date, was cured of rot, and all of the original pieces were then re-assembled ... what then? And what if the two Ships of Theseus then got into a transporter accident and merged somehow, thus teaching us a valuable lesson about racism?" Admittedly, I often confuse my philosophy with old Star Trek episodes.

It's an interesting thought experiment about identity, and it has some limited value when thinking about the continuity of D&D over time; as editions continue over time, they add, replace, and subtract material. As a new edition replaces an old edition, there are often extensive re-workings of old and rotted rules (ahem). At what point (if any) do the alterations become too extensive? At what point are you no longer playing the "same" D&D as Theseus?

Of course, this thought exercise has a limited utility when it comes to brands and IP like D&D. The rules and lore don't rot, and they aren't replaced by exact replicas. Instead, they change and evolve over time. A better analogy would be to look at examples like cars and shared fictional universes.

B. This Certainly is an Upsetting Number of Pancakes

What is a car? Four wheels, etc. But more importantly, what is a mustang? A corvette? A bronco? A wrangler? A land cruiser? A 911?

All of those are models of car that have span years (in many cases, decades .... the 911 since 1963), and most of them are identifiable in certain ways. Car technology has changed greatly over time, but there is some commonality in the lineage that ties certain models together. If you're a car person, you know exactly what that means.

But if you're not, think of the more recent concept of the "shared universe." Whether it's the Buffyverse, or the MCU, or Doctor Who, or Star Trek, or Star Wars, there is a set of associated "signals" and "branding" and "IP" that let us know that something exists within that universe. Regardless of quality (which is hotly debated by fans!) or timelines or canon or any other factors, we know that, for example, the new Below Decks and the Chris Pine movies and Discovery and ST:TNG and ST:TOS are all Star Trek.

It's the same with characters; Batman has been portrayed countless ways and times; from camp to grimdark, from brawny thug to brainy detective, to everything in between. Yet they are all "Batman". So I think looking at this concept provides us with the first glimmer as to a working meaning of "D&D." I'm going to paraphrase someone again-

For a large class of cases in which we employ the word D&D it can be defined thus: the meaning of D&D is its use in the language. And the primary use of D&D in the language is a descriptor for the TTRPG brand that is specific to TSR/WoTC/Hasbro.

So D&D, at it's core, is the OD&D/1e/2e/3e/4e/5e and BX/BECMI/RC line of games. Or, put another way, D&D are the games designated as such by the D&D rights holder.

Kind of unsatisfying, isn't it? But wait, there's more!

C. We don’t go home. We’re burned to death up there. Then the company wakes up a new one. Every three years. Like clock work.

While it might seem that the prior definition is both overly expansive and unsatisfying (art is what artists do), it is not expansive enough. Because I would go further; D&D isn't just "official" D&D, but D&D in terms of usage, now encompasses a whole style of play and rules. This gets a little more interesting. IMO.

Quick link to terms, if you aren't familiar:

Going back to the Ship of Theseus, again, there is an entire universe of games that emulate D&D; they are clones of the rules. Maybe they have a tweak here or there, but these games, everything from OSE to OSRIC to so much more (retroclones) are, in fact, D&D. Any game that seeks to emulate and/or clone the rules in whole or in part to simulate a version of D&D is D&D.

...and that would include Pathfinder. That means that Pathfinder is D&D.

So this brings up three controversial edge cases, all of which I would say are not D&D.

1. What if it isn't fantasy? There were a number of d20 games that are not fantasy. The D&D rules in different editions have been adopted for use in different non-fantasy campaigns. There is noting wrong with playing a non-fantasy campaign, and there is nothing wrong with using "D&D rules" for something that isn't fantasy. However, by using the term "D&D," (which, before we forget, means Dungeons & Dragons) you are necessarily invoking fantasy. As such, while you can look at the amount of "fantasy" necessary, I do not think you can use "D&D" to refer to, for example, a purely modern or science fiction campaign.

2. What if it's based on a clone, but not based on D&D? This is the "PF2" exception. PF can be called D&D; but PF2 was developed independently, with new rules, regarding PF. So PF2 is not D&D, even though PF is.

3. What if it's not designed to emulate the rules, but the "feel" of D&D? If a game is using a completely different underlying engine (PbTA, BiTD), but is looking to emulate the feel of a classic fantasy dungeon game ... it's not D&D. It might be a great game, but unless it is trying to emulate the rules of one of the D&D games, it isn't "D&D."

Now, if you read all of that, you might be thinking, "Okay, what about AIME (compatible with 5e)? What's the status of that?" To which I reply ...."This is why we have comments after the OP."

D. If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story.

Why do all of this? Because it's there. Discussing what is, and isn't D&D (especially when it comes to actual editions) seems like a fool's errand; defining something as "not D&D" is often just a way to get personal preferences enshrined as fact, and often happens in these types of discussions (Well, that movie isn't really Star Wars! That show isn't really Star Trek! That Doctor isn't really a Gallifreyan!).

Based on what I wrote, I'd go with the following definition of D&D:

Those fantasy TTRPGs designated as "D&D" by the rights holder, and those fantasy TTRPGs that seek to emulate the official "D&D" games by cloning the rules in whole or in part.

Now, what does everyone else think?

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Since you mentioned me, I feel the need to respond.

The "meaning" of D&D is vague and people like it that way! The vagueness allows people to use D&D for whatever they want to do.


I guess I can examine this by looking at what I would want in a typical session, and if any of these elements were not present, maybe I'd feel something was missing. (Not that they have to all be in absolutely every session, but more than a handful of sessions without them, and it's not the right game anymore.)

Heroic adventurers - your character is better than your average citizen, mightier, craftier, or able to harness magical powers. For me, they should embark on tasks to better their world (or at least, improve their own standing in it).
Fantastic elements - the world is not mundane. It can be a typical Tolkien-inspired fantasy world, gothic horror, or something else - but it can't feel like actual reality.
Exploration of the "dungeon" (adventure site) - whether a subterranean dungeon, dangerous wilderness, a city of cutthroats, or something else, there should be a world of challenges for the characters to navigate.

Level-based - your character progresses in experience level and gains new powers and features
Class-based - your character has a role in a party based on a defined template of abilities, which can be customized
Race/ancestries - your character can belong to a fantasy culture and have specialized traits as a result
Armor to avoid damage - Armor as damage reduction is an okay rule for other systems, but it doesn't feel like D&D
Hit Points - your character can take damage (hopefully) more than one time and still live to fight, without a downward spiral making them less effective in battle. Hopefully there will also be magical healing available.

Now, what does everyone else think?
Any definition of D&D that doesn't include Dungeon World but does include some the wackier OSR entries or Pathfinder (esp. PF2), which yours arguably does, isn't very useful. DW plays more like 1E/2E AD&D or B/X than 3.5E does (in a broad "how it feels" sense).

Also the biggest difference between D&D and virtually all non-D&D RPGs is themes, and particularly the approach to combat/loot. Even other fantasy RPGs with relatively similar rules don't share "kill things and take their stuff" as a major theme in the way D&D typically does.


Any definition of D&D that doesn't include Dungeon World but does include some the wackier OSR entries or Pathfinder (esp. PF2), which yours arguably does, isn't very useful. DW plays more like 1E/2E AD&D or B/X than 3.5E does (in a broad "how it feels" sense).
Really? Dungeon World? Really?
It's the fantasy RPG I've played that's farthest from the D&D experience. (And I've run it for like a year, all combined.)
Equipment doesn't matter. You don't really roll to hit, and there are "misses, kinda misses, kinda hits, and hits." And the DM never rolls dice. And treasure doesn't matter. And there's no Vancian magic. And armor absorbs HP damage. And monsters don't do damage but have weird "maneuvers."
And you only use d6s to hit or do skills.
And you roll to not die.
And you roll to handwave the exploration segments.
And the DM comes up with "story pages" that you have to write in advance what the plot is and can only enact the plot if a player rolls badly.
It's weird. It's definitely not D&D to me.


Well...what are the Wizard of Oz books?

Are they anything made by anyone that has the land of Oz with it, or are they strictly the book series and things created by Frank Baum?

What is the Lord of the Ring?

Is it the items written by J.R.R. Tolkien and his designated heirs, or is it anything anyone puts out with the name Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth put on it?

I think in both cases you have what one could call the official works, and those that are by other authors. One is the REAL, or official setting and writings, the others are more fandom items, made for fans and having their own Canon, but not recognized by the Author's as compatible with what they created.

In otherwords, to be official it needs to be recognized as such by the author, or at a minimum be compatible with what they made and wrote.

In that light, for the Wizard of Oz, only the selected works by Frank Baum are the REAL Land of OZ, they being the official canon and creations of him.

There is an entire universe for the Land of Oz beyond that, and which many fans enjoy, which is also the Land of Oz and the Wizard of Oz, but they are not the REAL OZ, merely artifacts that have their own creation and universe. The foundation is something different.

In that light, only the items approved by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien and recognized as part of the Lord of the Rings/Middle-Earth Mythos are actually the OFFICIAL canon, or official world and canon of it.

Nevertheless, you have a ton of other items which fall under the Middle Earth franchise, which are official to their own setting, but not actually the real thing. These would include movies, games, toys, etc.

We see this in games and literature all the time. In games we could ask which is the original Landlord's game. Should that honor fall on Monopoly, or maybe the Game of Life? Both are it's heirs and take their ideas from it? Which is it?

Plausibly it would be neither, as the Landlord game is it's own rules. Monopoly has descended from it, but it is not the original game that it came from.

Thus, with D&D, anything that was created by Gary Gygax would be seen as the OFFICIAL D&D, be it D&D or AD&D. Arneson's hand makes it even more official, but more limiting, with it being recognized that it would therefore be limited to OD&D and possibly AD&D.

If we include that which was also seen as compatible by the original authors, and as it is specifically spelled out in the Grandfather clause, and until at least the lawsuits ironed everything out, it would also indicate that early AD&D 2e (at least the core rules and maybe one or two supplments) would also be included under the umbrella.

However, later AD&D 2e which was never acknowledged by Gygax or Arneson as compatible with their earlier creation, nor any of the later versions, despite them being credited (and though more privately, it can be found in some public sentiments Gygax's feelings on 3e being a different game), could be seen as the OFFICIAL game, or version.

Sure, they are D&D, just like the Lord of the Rings movies are Middle Earth, but they are not the OFFICIAL versions or the authentic versions or base upon which it actually was seen as by it's creators.

PS: Unless we simply say whatever we slap the name of D&D on is D&D (which is basically what people are stating today when they say D&D still exists in 5e or 4e or 3e) which then means the name or title of D&D really means nothing at all. They could slap it on a cookie recipe and call it the game of D&D and it is therefore D&D in that respect. On the otherhand, if we do it by similarities and rules, then by including 3e-5e as D&D based upon similarities to the rules of Gygax's D&D, we would by necessity also state the following as D&D...

D20 Modern
D20 Star Wars
Star Wars Saga Edition
Palladium Roleplaying
Gamma World
Gamma World (4e version)
Mutants and Masterminds
Federation Space
DC heroes
Star Ship Troopers
Castles and Crusades
Swords and Sorcery
For Gold and Glory
Amazing Adventures

and on and on and on...because if it's based on rules and similarities to AD&D or BX/BECMI/OD&D there are many games out there that have similarities far closer to it than whatever current version of D&D has the title slapped on it.
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Okay, here comes a very general statement:

D&D is whatever you want it to be. D&D means different things at different tables and groups.

Some of my games have never featured dragons, or dungeons. Some games (other TTRPGs, video games) can have these features, and not be considered D&D.

D&D is interactive and a group effort, except when it isn't (when making characters on your own). D&D is about exploring, except when you don't explore. D&D is fun, except when it definitely is not.

For me, above all else, D&D is a way of life. It's not just a game, not just a hobby or habit. D&D is a part of my life, and a part of many of our lives.


Archdevil's Advocate
D&D is about exploring Dungeons and kicking Dragon arse.

D&D is a game where everyone explores an area and fights the monsters within the area. They do so to get treasure and experience to get stronger so that they can do it again until they die.

That's what D&D meant. Now, it doesn't have much of an identity anymore. Is it a storytelling game? Uh...sure? How about a combat game? I guess...Politics? Who knows?

The identity is constantly being changed. It's not even table-by-table. D&D designers seem to not want to discourage other modes of play while being so obviously in favor of only one particular one. It's why people see that when they step foot outside a dungeon, balance become thrown off. It's hard to justify a certain amount of encounters outside a dungeon, etc.


D&D is a Class and Level based Gonzo Fantasy RPG

Levelling Classes and kitchen sink, OTT is what defines the D&D genre and makes the genre different from other RPG engines

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
D&D is a Class and Level based Gonzo Fantasy RPG
If it's not gonzo, is it D&D? I mean, I personally think that D&D is like the Muppets- Gonzo is required.

But there are a lot of people that don't want the gonzo in their D&D, and that are all super-serious about it.


Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
If it's not gonzo, is it D&D? I mean, I personally think that D&D is like the Muppets- Gonzo is required.

But there are a lot of people that don't want the gonzo in their D&D, and that are all super-serious about it.
I think the definition of "gonzo" will depend on whom you ask. I don't think either of the campaigns I'm DMing is particularly gonzo, but someone else might disagree; that same someone else might be fine with campaign elements I thought were over-the-top.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think the definition of "gonzo" will depend on whom you ask. I don't think either of the campaigns I'm DMing is particularly gonzo, but someone else might disagree; that same someone else might be fine with campaign elements I thought were over-the-top.
Gonzo, truly, is in the eye of the beholder.

(not pictured, the Beholder getting ready to disintegrate)

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