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What is the essence of D&D

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I honestly think the biggest thing that makes D&D D&D is the Monster Manual. The focus of the game almost always centers around fantastic and mythical creatures that players try and kill. While it's nice to say that the game has Three Pillars, the essence of D&D has been and always will be a combat-centric game. Most of the statistics of a PC is meant for combat, as is most of an NPC's. And while there will certainly be times when you will have a session where no combat happens... that is always seen as the outlier, not the other way around. I think there are exceedingly few D&D games out there where the realization "Wow, we actually had a combat for once!" was actually true.


Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't think there's one single thread that is "the essence". I think it is more that there's a whole lot of shared experiences, whether they were "core" to their thoughts of D&D or not.

To oversimplify... Say we both watch a Western film. You can say, "The cowboy hats are what made it a Western!" I can say, "The horses are what make it a Western!" Even if there is no agreement on our lists - we both watched the same movie!

Difference of opinions about what was important in the experience are secondary to the fact that it was shared.
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Core to the D&D experience, I’d say, is the storytelling. Heck, the very first time I played D&D, we didn’t have d20, so we just used a bunch of d6s from boardgames. The game as run by the DM barely resembled D&D as written. But we were hooked.

But what never changes is the thrill of the DM describing the scaled dragon, the look of malice in its eyes, the gleaming fangs. The clink and glitter of its treasure horde sliding beneath your feet. The guy pretending to be a dwarf passionately arguing with the guy pretending to be an elf about events in a made-up history. The simple thrill of describing your character when you make that first introduction. The DM describing that simple +1 sword you found like you’ve just pulled Excalibur out of the stone.

Sure, you can do this with just about any RPG. But D&D, at its best, its core, balances the rules just right to give structure and form to these stories, being neither too little or too much.


Mod Squad
Staff member
I agree- but I'm trying to understand something a wee bit different. This goes to the idea of why "D&D" (however defined) is, and has remained, a "Big Tent" game.
Okay, I think "What makes it a Big Tent game?", and "What makes it what is is?", are actually two very different questions.

If you want to use your analogy, it wouldn't be that we both saw a western film; it would be "What makes something a western such that people can discuss Stagecoach, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven, Serenity, and Moon Zero Two as westerns? If I wanted to make a western, except it was set in the 70s in Manchester England, what would that look like?"
This is easy - it is basically, "What defines a genre?" I am now pedantic for those who have not considered the definition of genres before.

The interesting thing about genres are that, despite folks trying to make it otherwise, they are defined by inclusion, rather than exclusion. There's some list of tropes. If you have enough of those tropes, you wind up recognized as in-genre by the audience. Lacking a few tropes is fine. Including tropes from another genre is fine. So long as you've drawn enough from the "Bag O' Westerns", you'll be seen as a Western, whether you like it or not.

This is how you cna get a thing like Firefly which has drawn heavily from both the Western and Sci-fi bags, so it is a sci-fi/Western both, recognizably.

Now, I'm writing this talking about fiction tropes, because that's the easiest example to reach for when discussing genre definition. RPG genres will have tropes that aren't about the fictional genre, but are about rules, or playstyle, and the like as well.

The question of why it is a Big Tent game is not so much about precisely what is in the bag, so much as it is about how accessible and flexible those items are, in general.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
A cleric, a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief walk into a tavern. A stranger approaches and gives them a quest to find the macguffin and save the village. The party ventures forth into the dungeon, exploring and fighting weird monsters and strange traps that someone put there for no logical reason other than to oppose unwanted guests at that particular time. Battles are won. Treasure is found. And the party returns as heroes, stronger than before and ready to face greater battles and win better treasures.

This, to me, is D&D at its core. The characters may change, but the roles (and the goals) remain the same. "Dungeons" are not literally defined as many variations exist as wilderness, aquatic, planar, and urban sites. Narratives can vary as much as the settings, as well as degrees. A story-driven campaign is as much "D&D" as any tactical/combat-heavy dungeon crawl.

But that is just my take from personal experience. Ask someone who just started recently, without exposure to the edition changes, supplement bloat, and enduring nostalgia. This renaissance that is occurring today is their starting point. The old style that we grew up with may appear archaic and perplexing to the modern ideals and standards of game design.

For all its flaws and imperfections, D&D is a household name. It is the common point of reference for all other roleplaying games, as well as the yard stick by which all others are measured against. That doesn't automatically make it the best, mind you. But it remains the standard in the industry/hobby/genre.


Unserious gamer
The spell list. Or specifically, having magic be a bunch of blocked rule texts that's separate from other forms of resolution. Any sort of skill-based or freeform magic makes the game into "not quite D&D".

Classes, and especially classes in a stretched out table with level, special bonuses, and class features in columns. When you monkey with that, you're in Heartbreaker territory.

6 stats, Str Dex Con Int Wis Cha. The order doesn't matter, but the stats do.

d20 based combat. Damage that varies in the dice used based on weapon type or the spell cast.


In all seriousness, I think you're list is pretty close to being spot on. I'd also add the ability for each table to make adjustments to make the game their own. That really separates it from every other traditional face to face game. So that was a revolutionary change at the time.

For me, the essence of D&D means some other things as well:

kill monsters and take their treasure
the social interaction among friends
daydreaming (becoming pondering as I got older) about sessions past and future, ideas, and adventures when I wasn't actually playing the game.


Theater of the mind.
You don’t have your rule books, nor your character sheet.
You have a single pen and a small sheet of paper,
If you rely on theater of the mind, you can play.


Hobbit on Quest
For me, there's always an ambition to be more than a board game. You can move a token on a board and fight enemies and take their stuff like in the Dungeon board game. But D&D characters are larger than that and offer a certain personal escapism that a board game token cannot.


Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
More seriously

Common shared tropes. People know what dwarves and elves are. I don't have to describe what a dragon is.

Relatively simple mechanics, with a decent amount of variety.

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