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What is the essence of D&D

@lowkey13
I think you answered the question partially by yourself.. continuity.
D&D was the first of its game of its kind that reached a broader publicity and kept continuing to this day. The history of the game itself (more than 40 years) is the answer in itself. While those teenagers and youngsters back from the days grew up, they may have dropped out here and there, but at least to a certain point some returned at one point or the other. And decades or perhaps years later, the game is still there (different editions, but still the same name). So those old folks sometimes pass the gaming virus down to their kids, are involved in some kids programs (just remember the articles about the boy scout group designing games, etc.) or simply pick up something (OSR or new) and start a new table with either veterans or new players.

And at this point one thing clicks in: Even if you never played D&D or another TTRPG before, there is a big chance, that you heard the term Dungeons & Dragons before and have at least a clue what it is about. D&D nowadays is far more known than it was in the earlier times due to factors like video games and references made by reviewers to D&D and a far broader gaming availability in general.

So one of the reasons in summary is the game's publicity and constant availability on the market. There was never a gap, when the game wasn´t available on the mass market. D&D was always present in comparison to others. And being present means it is getting played = stays alive.

But what is the essence of it then?

The basic concepts of it haven't changed like you pointed out: stats, AC, HD, class, level, combat and magic mechanics, saving throws etc. etc. And those are easily to understand even by new players even if they have problems at first identifying the different dice (the d12 - d20 confusion happened couple of times at my table). But the game in itself and its mechanics are explained in a very short time (together with the concept of fantasy - whatever "level" (high /low fantasy etc.) you choose).

And although the game developed significantly over the years, it still stays true to its roots (perhaps excluding 4e, which I never grasped, despite buying the core books).

And those basic concepts have one thing in common: Although they are easy to adapt to bascially any RPG genre and allow for great individual modifications (aka house rules), one thing remains:

Basically they can't be broken to the point of unplayability (exceptions exist I bet).

To speak more in RPG terms I would say, that the basic things that make for a fantasy game are all there in every edition: magic, swordfights, fearsome monsters and the prospect to become a hero saving the world.
 

SpoilSpot

Explorer
I think that a lot of things can be changed in D&D without loosing the D&D feeling (why D&D, AD&D and 3E, which are very different games, still felt D&D to most people), and some things cannot.
I seem to remember the designers of 5E made some observations along those lines - some things couldn't be changed without the result no longer feeling like proper D&D (like new spell levels every 2 levels).

So, to me, those things must be the essence of D&D.

I think that some of the core things are: Classes (with fighter, cleric, wizard, rogue at the core), class levels, spell levels (different from class levels), spell lists, Vancian magic (to some degree, even if not for everybody), HP, AC and rolling D20's to hit.

I didn't mention races. I don't think they affect mechanics enough that a "human only" world would not feel like D&D.

Other games have classe (like WFRP), but not level progression. They feel different from D&D.
Other games have magic, but free form magic won't feel like D&D.
Sorcerers, bards and warlocks have non-Vancian magic, but a system with nothing but that would fell ... less like D&D. Probably not as essential as class levels, but still part of the core feeling.
Most other fantasy games have the same weapons and armors, but few have only AC as defense. You can complicate things more, but it quickly stops feeling like D&D then.

Many other fantasy RPGs are about killing monsters with longswords and magic, and looting their lairs. That's pretty much the definition of fantasy RPG, not essentially D&D. Some monsters might be iconic, but I don't think omitting them would make things feel less like D&D. You can go far with orcs, goblins, undeads and demons (Yey, Tolkien!) and the occasional dragon (Yey, Beowulf!). I think it is the mechanics, not the setting, that makes D&D feel like D&D, and makes other games not feel the same.

Everything obviously just IMO, YMMV, etc.
 
That commonality, that communal experience, is a huge part of it. Most D&D players can sit down and wax poetic about their favorite setting, relate what happened to them when they stormed the moathouse in Hommlet, how many PCs the Tomb of Annihilation claimed, or that crazy trick they pulled off that saved them from a TPK at the hands of Strahd.

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

Parmandur

Legend
For a serious answer, that cuts deeper than the brand itself and to what RPGs are, I'm going to quote Marc Miller:

"When Dungeons & Dragons came out, I was a wargame designer. In a sense, the fantasy role-playing idea was new, but in another sense, it was a familiar concept. I had done political role-playing exercises in college: model UN and model Organization of American States, and some campaign simulations."

"What struck me (and everyone else) about D&D was the application of numbers to the individual character and role. Gary Gygax’s conversion of role-playing from a touchy-feely analog system to an easy-to-use digital character system was brilliant, even if we couldn’t quite put it into words."


Dungeons & Dragons (and by that I mean RPGs like Kleenex means tissue paper) is communal storytelling with a robust system for action resolution, unlike a less robust form of communal storytelling like Model UN.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What makes tabletop D&D (and many other RPGs, all of which are more or less D&D derivatives) what it is can be largely boiled down to one word:

Open-endedness.

Every other game type has a built-in and (usually) well-defined end point, and also has hard and fast borders along the way. But D&D is by design completely open-ended - a player can try anything, a DM can do anything, there's no defined end point (3e's 1-20 and 4e's 1-30 designs notwithstanding), the "game board" (i.e. the setting) is infinitely large...and so on.

No other game - including computerized models of this one - can claim these things.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I try to avoid edition wars. Just because I burned out on 4E doesn't mean that it was a bad game, it just wasn't for me at least not when it got above the initial tier of play.

But I know a lot of people that felt that the edition just didn't "feel" like D&D. It had a lot of things in common with D&D. The basic structure was there, so why did it feel different?

One main reason is that the rules were too "tight". In some ways that was a good thing but it didn't leave a lot of wiggle room. As a DM if there was a power that could achieve something, it always felt a little bit like cheating if someone could just replicate a power through improv.

So I would say another aspect would be ease of customization and creative play. A player picks up a gnome goblin and starts swinging it by it's legs like a club? No problem! Make up a rule that makes sense or use the improvised weapon attack.

That flexibility also applies to styles of play. As much as there are some never-ending threads about how to play if you take 10 different groups, each group is going to have more in common than not. But they are each going to be played slightly differently. TOTM? All grid all the time? Lots of in-person RP or just describing what your PC does in third person. It's all D&D.

Different classes just "feel" different. A paladin plays different than a rogue, a wizard has different concerns than a fighter. That wasn't true in 4E, with everyone having the same basic structure.

Related to that, you can have characters that feel special but not supernatural. A champion fighter is just a guy that wades into combat and swings a weapon. It may not be very realistic, but it's one of the classes that you could throw into a movie set in the real world and it wouldn't look too out of place.

I also think alignment as a simple hook is iconic. Yes, I know it's overly simplified but it does give me a quick starting point, particularly for monsters. I know a devil will be slightly different from a demon just based on alignment.

So while 4E had the sheen and look of D&D, it was a different game and just didn't scratch the same itch for a lot of people.
 

Shiroiken

Explorer
What is that essence of "D&D"?
The playing of at least 1 character in a fantasy setting/adventure, that has a class and level. That's the only real unifying core between all editions IMO. Role-playing vs. Roll-playing, story vs. competition, these all vary by edition and group, but they are all D&D. You don't even need a DM, as there were BECMI and AD&D solo adventures you could run by yourself.

There have been a LOT of different rules for resolving issues, and while the d20 was common for combat (attacks and saves), it hasn't always been the god-king it is today. Armor Class, Hit Points, and Saving Throws will probably remain an integral aspect of D&D, but might not always be the case. You list has one particularly glaring error, however:

The six ability scores. Whether it's the right way (SIWDConCha) or the wrong way (heh, SDCIWC), you should have six abilities. No more. No less. Six shalt be the number of abilities, and the number of abilities shall be six. Seven shalt thou not have, nor either five, accepting that thou then write down the sixth ability. Ten is right out.
Then I suppose that 1E wasn't D&D then, as with the release of the Unearthed Arcana, the 7th ability score appeared: Comeliness. Don't get me wrong, it was abysmially bad, often ignored, and gleefully discarded in 2E, but it was officially part of 1E.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Then I suppose that 1E wasn't D&D then, as with the release of the Unearthed Arcana, the 7th ability score appeared: Comeliness. Don't get me wrong, it was abysmially bad, often ignored, and gleefully discarded in 2E, but it was officially part of 1E.
What? You think you are going to get an argument from me that UA wasn't hot trash, and that anything past 1984 doesn't count for 1e?

Are you going to try and tell me that Paladins are bad or something too?
 

Celebrim

Hero
Class, level, hit points.

Everything that uses those things owes D&D and will feel something like D&D.

Those mechanics shape the D&D experience:

You have a role that gives you something you are good at.
Starting from very limited ability, you have the ability to get better at that role.
You have plot protection in the form of hit points that serve to pace the story and warn you when you are getting in over your head and may be in trouble.

There a lot of other things that are really iconic as well - the six attribute bonuses certainly would be high up there. Any time you see a design with six attributes, classes, levels, and hit points, you can pretty much guarantee that the designer got his start with D&D, or got his start in games where the designer got his start with D&D.

I'm not entirely sure the shared experience is as shared as people assume. There are people playing recognizable D&D set in 4th century Constantinople and focused heavily on political intrigue where the DM is geeking out on his love of ancient history and languages. There are people playing D&D in stone age settings where the world is covered in ice and giant mammals rule the world, where the DM is geeking out on his love of primitive survival techniques and archeology. There are people playing D&D in spaceships in outer space. But we know it is all D&D because the characters are defined first by what they can do, and their story is about how they steadily acquire resources and escape death and disaster with cunning, valor, and a generous helping of hit points.
 

GrahamWills

Explorer
"AC, HD, class, level, combat and magic mechanics, saving throws etc. etc. And those are easily to understand even by new players"

Not actually so. Having run for a lot of new players, D&D is not more obvious than Fate, Big Eyes Small Mouth, GUMSHOE, or, I am guessing, many others.

D&D's core advantage is simply that a lot of experienced players can sit down and play it together with little hassle. Not just because it's popular, but also because generic fantasy is both very understood and easy to play a wide variety of play styles in.

D&D's complete failure to make inroads into other genres shows that it is intimately tied to the genre. A reasonable was might be made that the essence of D&D is simply "being the most popular game for the fantasy genre".

If BRP or Runequest was dominating the genre, I don't imagine we'd have much of a different climate for RPGS. I don't think it's anything special about D&D, honestly
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
"AC, HD, class, level, combat and magic mechanics, saving throws etc. etc. And those are easily to understand even by new players"

Not actually so. Having run for a lot of new players, D&D is not more obvious than Fate, Big Eyes Small Mouth, GUMSHOE, or, I am guessing, many others.

....

If BRP or Runequest was dominating the genre, I don't imagine we'd have much of a different climate for RPGS. I don't think it's anything special about D&D, honestly
And yet, despite there being nothing special about D&D, none of the other games you have mentioned is much more than a rounding error compared to "D&D" (as defined by its editions and spinoffs, such as retroclones and PF).

At some point, given that this has now gone on for decades, and the only serious contender to D&D's dominance in RPGs was a D&D clone (PF), maybe it might be interesting to wonder why that is the case? I mean, it's trivial to say that D&D isn't that big in the non-fantasy RPG market; but then you notice that there is almost no non-fantasy RPG market. ¯\(ツ)

(Here- Top 5 RPGs Compiled Charts 2004-Present

That's only since 2004, but I doubt you'll find much difference in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You can also look at the games played online; again, maybe it's not "special" but man, if that isn't special, then it has had DECADES of amazing and unwarranted luck, right? )



EDIT- to be clear, I am not saying that D&D is "better" than other systems in a normative sense, but I do think that there is something special about it that must differentiate it from the many many other games that are not nearly as successful or as long-lived.
 

OB1

Explorer
Here is my essential list

1. The D&D fantasy setting (all 45 messy years of it) of Monsters, Races, Worlds and Planes
2. A d20 to resolve uncertainty between players and DM
3. A rule set that modifies those d20 rolls with classes, spells and abilities
4. A rule set simple enough for a brand new player to RPGs to enjoy their first session and complex enough for the veteran to enjoy her thousandth
 

Mercule

Adventurer
At a high level, it's two things: 1) A toolkit for a breadth of settings and 2) An approachable, large-grain system. Let me unpack that a bit:

1) Toolkit for a breadth of settings

D&D has lists. Lists of spells. Lists of classes. Lists of races. Lists of feats. Lists of magic items. Lists -- tomes, even -- of monsters. Heck, first edition even had lists of colors, smells, and freaking furniture. No setting has to use them all. In fact, I'd say most settings would benefit from being selective in how they mine the books, but that's an aesthetic. By mostly just mixing and matching from the menu, you can get Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, DragonLance, Eberron, Ravenloft, Kara Tur, Planescape, Spelljammer, and any number of others. Those settings are all stand-alone and do not require or imply any tie to the others. You can tie them together, but I'd argue that's just a matter of using Planescape, Spelljammer, or a homebrew setting in a similar vein.

D&D lets you pick up the core books and immediately start building your own setting. I know this because that's what hooked me as a 10 year old punk in the early 1980s. There really isn't any other system that provides the tools for doing that. Things like Hero or GURPS have the mechanical wherewithal to create anything, but little is ready made. Fate and Savage Worlds are similar, but lighter weight. Shadowrun, Star Wars, and a number of others have had almost as many crunchy books published as D&D, but the lists are all tied into their dedicated settings.

2) Approachable, large-grained system

D&D is easy to play. You've always been able to hand a new player a human fighter (standard human champion, in 5E) and turn them loose with 15 minutes of explanation. You can make convoluted characters, but the basics are straightforward enough to hit the ground running. It owes a lot of the approachability to the large-grained system. So, what do I mean by that?

What do hit points mean? How about armor class? If AC determines how hard you are to hit, why do most folks say that hit points aren't just the ability to take damage? If HP includes things like near misses, why do we need AC? It doesn't make sense. But, it doesn't matter. Many of the concepts are mechanically as gross (large, not icky) as building with Minecraft.

Anyone who has ever played in a point-based game knows that there's no way a class and level based game can compete for customizing your character. Again, it doesn't matter because most players show up to, you know, play. Many of them have a character "type" and don't mind having their 14 barbarian in a row, other than that one strength-based ranger. The levels, classes, HP, AC, even the six stats all factor into the large-grained nature of the game. It's a feature, not a bug.

The specific configuration of those large grains are a mix of taste and feature. Skills didn't used to be a thing. Now they are. Clearly, they aren't definitive for "what is D&D". I don't think that barbarian adds value to the game, as a class. Others love it. Some sick bastards want to ditch the 3-18 range in ability scores. I think that's a crime, but 2E Dark Sun wasn't "not D&D" just because they used 5d4, so who knows.
 

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