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What is the essence of D&D

dave2008

Adventurer
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.
But is that essential to D&D? You can play D&D without a reliance on TotM so I would think that is not core.
 

Hussar

Legend
I’d agree with the “shared tropes” definition. No single element defines the game but reach a certain critical mass of tropes and you’ll get people agreeing that X is dnd.

What that critical mass is varies from person to person.

It’s no different than the perennial “Is Star Wars SF or fantasty” genre wank. For folks Star Wars has enough tropes to qualify as one or the other. Since dnd lacks specific themes, all we are left with is trope.

Many of which originated within the game itself.
 

Raith5

Adventurer
I play games other than D&D and I am always struck with D&D is the way progression of your character is so dramatic and addictive. In marvel heroic, pendragon and traveller, progression is pretty minor. The zero to hero progression in D&D is so dramatic, and sometimes runs against sensible story telling, but is central to what makes D&D tick.
 
The feeling of rolling a 1, or a 20. No other game I've ever played had such an impact for a single result on a d20. D20 = D&D
That reminds me of a session, when we played the german "The Dark Eye" back in the days. The game just received a new rules companion "introducing" critical hit tables. Before that the rule was, that if you rolled a 1 or 2 (lower is better here), no parry roll allowed and your damage bypasses armor protection (= no points deducted from the damage roll due to the armor of the enemy (natural and worn alike)). Now there was this fantastic table, that you rolled on after you had that critical.
So during the session, the party encounters this big Hydra. Things go wrong and one of our fighters only had his dagger left. and since he was more or less out (being dragged to the back of the battle with like 2 or 3 HP left), he decides to throw that dagger - To-Hit roll turns a 1 Critical! Now he rolls another d20 - comes up a 20- again - maximum result on the crit table. And now you are allowed to make a third d20 roll to see what exactly happens.And voila another 20 resulting in the immediate death of the beast and party saved. One of the most memorable and cinematic moments in my player "career".
 
"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
I have to counter that. I DMed many sessions, either with totally new people to RPGing or few experience with other systems. The basic concept of RPGing (dialogue, explaining your actions during the game) is explained easily, no matter what the system is you are playing. The game mechanics are not that complicated (combat f.e.: roll a d20, add or subtract a modifier and see if that result is equal or higher than a target number (=AC)) and are understood after the first couple of combat rounds. And for that no expereince with RPGs is necessary.

Now I agree on the basic concepts of fantasy (dragons, dwarves, elves, etc.). Basically everybody knows what that is and how it looks (thanks Mr. Jackson for making those great movies).

One thing though, that makes D&D so easy to transport to the table is, that no matter what edition or clone you play (some exceptions exist), veteran players, even when total strangers to each other, can easily adapt to the presented system/edition (normally) and play together. The reason is, that D&D throughout all of its editions remained the same to the core mechanics and provided therefore a kind of unified "language" amongst people playing D&D. Now that might hold true for other games also (Runequest and its cousins for example), but it is (for me) most obvious in D&D.

Now for the "complete failure" to adapt into other genres I agree to a certain point. There were attempts in the past "Mask of the Red Death" for example), but IMHO they never clicked, because the support was not so large as for AD&D (2e) at that time and TSR made the big mistake in competing with itself by publishing too many settings so their customer base was split amongst itself. And this resulted in neglecting and finally abandoning those attempts.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Whatever it was that was quintisential to D&D, beside the trademark, 4E lacked.

I believe the missing trope was the difference in combat abilities, and the lack of similarlity of the classes to prior editions' roles for those classes.

It had KTAATTS play.
It had class and level
It had d20 for combat relevant rolls.
It had single location hit points.
It had the use of alignment.
It had the standard PHB classes and races, and then some.
It had the late AD&D1E and BECMI addition of non-combat skills.

It lacked the so-called "Vancian" magic...
It lacked disparities of combat power of 3E, AD&D, and BECMI classes

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.
But is that essential to D&D? You can play D&D without a reliance on TotM so I would think that is not core.
TOTM is very much NOT part of the way many played D&D in the 80's...
And yet it was part of D&D as experienced.
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.
Simple mechanics? Someone's not widely read... D&D 3 is medium-high on crunch... there are MUCH simpler games that cover the same space without being anywhere near as much mechanical complexity. Arrowflight, Barbarians of Lemuria...

And 3.X was simpler than AD&D - not a lot, but a bit... and it did so in key was that made play much simpler for the players. But even before 3E, simplified games in the same space existed.

  • Palladium Fantasy, for example (1st or 1st revised)... still a two key mechanic system - attack rolls vs AC, but at least it's linear... and the class skills are all consistently d%. roll low for skills.
  • The Arcanum likewise had d20 roll high for combat, and d% roll low for skills.
  • Despite it's tables, Rolemaster is actually a simpler game than AD&D. Half the pagecount for the core. more consistent throughout... albeit at the cost of almost half the pagecount being tables.
To be fair, since the early 1980s, there have been games more complex than AD&D, too... Phoenix Command comes to mind.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
To be honest, I'd say the "essence" of D&D is really just branding. Sure, there are lots of elements that have been common throughout all editions - elements that are "on-brand". None of them individually are essential to D&D - you could have D&D without classes, or with a different set of ability scores, or in a non-fantasy setting, or whatever else, and it would still be D&D. But you couldn't have D&D without any of those things. Lose too many of them, and it stops "feeling like D&D". It stops being on-brand. Depending on who you ask, 4e may have crossed this threshold.
 

clearstream

Explorer
The things I have always done in D&D...

Rolled 6 ability scores
Chosen character classes
Encountered monsters
Rolled to hit
Dealt and taken hit point damage
Chosen and cast spells
Found and used magic items
Levelled up

The abilities, classes, monsters, spells and items have had noticeable consistencies across editions. I moot it is that framework + those consistencies that make D&D.
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
A fantasy setting. Of course. You can have variants (the d20 system, portals to other worlds, gritty v. S&S v. high fantasy v. wuxia etc.) but magic & dragons and so on tends to be part of the base experience.
I think we can go into a bit more detail about the nature of D&D fantasy.

Tolkien-esque PC races - elves, dwarves, hobbits
Tolkien-esque racial geography - elves in the forests, orcs and dwarves in the mountains
Late medieval military technology
Modern attitudes towards morality, individuality, and nature
Lawless monster-infested wilderness that resembles the Wild West or post-apocalyptic fiction
Murderhobo PCs
Vancian (also Gandalf-ian) flashbang magic
Healing magic associated with religious devotion
Alignment as an objective knowable truth
Supernatural beings are generally not unique, they are members of classes or species
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
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.
By this definition the West Marches sandbox campaign wouldn't count as D&D because PCs aren't allowed to return to the "civilized lands".
PCs get to explore anywhere they want, the only rule being that going back east is off-limits — there are no adventures in the civilized lands, just peaceful retirement.
There are also many crpgs such as World of Warcraft that have no defined end point.

D&D does have limits. Adventures and campaign settings are limited geographically and by the type of action the PCs are expected to engage in. I can't have my PC become a farmer and expect most GMs to be able to make it interesting because it's going beyond the limits of D&D and the limits of GM knowledge.
 

Hussar

Legend
Whatever it was that was quintisential to D&D, beside the trademark, 4E lacked.

I believe the missing trope was the difference in combat abilities, and the lack of similarlity of the classes to prior editions' roles for those classes.

It had KTAATTS play.
It had class and level
It had d20 for combat relevant rolls.
It had single location hit points.
It had the use of alignment.
It had the standard PHB classes and races, and then some.
It had the late AD&D1E and BECMI addition of non-combat skills.

It lacked the so-called "Vancian" magic...
It lacked disparities of combat power of 3E, AD&D, and BECMI classes

/snip
"KTAATTS"? Never seen that one before. What's that?

But, again, this gets back to my point where the "essence of D&D" will be different for different people. For some, 4e had enough of the D&D tropes to count as D&D. For others, it didn't. Heck, the same is true for 3e as well - one only has to look at DragonsFoot to see that. So, really, what is "essential" for D&D depends on which bag of tropes appeals to you.

Really, it's no different than any other fanbase. Is Star Trek Discover really Star Trek or not? Are the Abrams Star Wars movies really Star Wars? Are the prequels? On and on and on.

What is "essential" to something says far, far more about the person proclaiming whatever is essential than any sort of objective scale.
 

clearstream

Explorer
What is "essential" to something says far, far more about the person proclaiming whatever is essential than any sort of objective scale.
I feel like we can admit grey areas while acknowledging that it is still frequently possible to distinguish one thing from another. Right?

The search is not so much for that which the hydrogen between the galaxies, and the stars, will say is D&D, but what many here and now will. Commonalities that are evident in the preceding pages.
 

Hussar

Legend
I feel like we can admit grey areas while acknowledging that it is still frequently possible to distinguish one thing from another. Right?

The search is not so much for that which the hydrogen between the galaxies, and the stars, will say is D&D, but what many here and now will. Commonalities that are evident in the preceding pages.
Oh, I totally agree.

I'm not the one banging the "4e isn't D&D" drum. Someone who claims that is saying a lot more about their personal preferences than anything about what is essential to D&D. Same goes for Pathfinder AFAIC. I have room in my tent for both. If 3e and OD&D can exist in the same tent, then good grief, so can 4e and Pathfinder.
 

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