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What is the essence of D&D

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
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".
I had something similar several years ago playing WFRP 1e. I decided to get into an arena with a minotaur with just my fists. Rolled 5 6's in a row (if you roll a 6 for damage, you roll again and add, and keep adding as long as you keep rolling 6s.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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".
A PC isn't allowed to retire? Seriously?

There are also many crpgs such as World of Warcraft that have no defined end point.
Sooner or later in any computer program, just by its very nature, you're going to hit a point where the map doesn't go any further (though it might seem to by code-looping and repeating previously-seen terrain). And no computer program can possibly be programmed to handle everything a player might think of. A living breathing DM, however, can.

I've never played WoW in my life but I know someone who does; and on more than one occasion I've watched for a few minutes and then said "What happens if you try [xxxx completely ridiculous but theoretically possible action]?", only to be told "You can't do that - the program can't handle it."

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.
Slight correction: you can at any time have your PC become a farmer. But, you have no right to any expectation that the GM (or anyone else) will do anything to make that life any more interesting than that of a typical farmer.

DMs have limits, of that there's no question - a setting, for example, might be limited by how much design work that particular DM has put in to some particular element. But that's not the game's fault - the game itself is open-ended enough to allow limitless setting design: should a DM* want to design an entire universe from the atomic level on up, for example, the game system won't stop her.

* - A DM with about a million-year lifespan, of course, as that's how long this would take. :)
 
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MichaelSomething

Adventurer
Slight correction: you can at any time have your PC become a farmer. But, you have no right to any expectation that the GM (or anyone else) will do anything to make that life any more interesting than that of a typical farmer.
Sounds like a person who never played Harvest Moon\Story of Seasons\Stardew Valley.
 

ParanoydStyle

Peace Among Worlds
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".
Strongly disagree. In a memey sense I'd be all like:

Any sort of skill-based or freeform magic makes the game into "not quite D&D" "BETTER".
"Fixed that for you." But that'd be kinda rude, so, I went with the first approach of "strongly disagree".

You're describing what I find--as a professional game designer, and being broke and penniless, desperately seeking any crap job I can get so I can take my dog to the vet, it's one of my few joys in life that I can honestly refer to myself as a professional game designer, so please don't take it away from me lol--to be the single worst aspect of the game as being the most essential aspect of the game.

My gold standard in many ways is HERO System. First, I'll recognize that it is extremely niche and not for everyone due to its lack of any implied setting outside the setting specific books, and more importantly due to its incredibly high crunch which scares away a lot of people, especially chargen which is so complex it requires special software for most people to complete (I can build a HERO System PC at 200/150 purely on paper from the book, but that's an ability I'm proud of, like a "stupid human trick", it's not something I'd want to ask of the average gamer if I could avoid it).

Anyway, in HERO System, if you can get past and through the initial wall of incredibly high crunch, you can observe that virtually every single power in the game works on the same basic principles using the same basic procedure. Resolving an Energy Blast or hand to hand attack involves essentially the same process as resolving an Ego Attack, a Presence Attack, Telepathy, Mental Illusions, Ability Drain or Mind Control. The game is complex but it is extremely consistent in that once you know how to do a thing in HERO System, you more or less know how to do all the things in HERO System.

Still needing to constantly reference special snowflake spells is probably the single thing about the current edition of D&D that I like the least.

I think it's very possible to design a version of D&D that is still very much D&D but has this kind of consistency of rules. I also think it would be a very difficult and time consuming task, so much so that even I would not want to take it on for free.

What do I think is the essence of D&D?

Grown people shouting very loudly and excitedly at a die that either came up a natural 20 or a natural 1, or failed to come up on the right number. JK

Good quesiton. There are all many, many things I think are the essence of what D&D is fundamentally about, individually and/or in combination. Here goes:

For me, D&D is about exploring exotic locations--often dungeons--searching for fabulous treasure, and fighting monsters--often dragons--that are guarding it. I'm reminded of my favorite Army slogan: "Join the army and travel around the world, meet interesting people, and kill them." Replace people with "creatures" and that more or less summarizes D&D.

Like Morrus said more succinctly in the very first response, to a degree it's about your characters going from very possibly doomed novices to the major movers and shakers in the magical geopolitics of a country, a continent, or even one or more planes at the highest levels. It's about getting comfortable in your character, comfortable enough to roleplay your character's conscience/ethics/morals in a way that is a more nuanced expression of your character's alignment; it's about being a murder hobo, but it's also about how your character feels about being a murder hobo, or what justifies it to them. This has been true since several editions before it was finally codified in 5E.

D&D is about finally finding awesome magical treasure...and equally about bickering over the division of treasure with other party members.

D&D is about leveling up and getting psyched at the new stuff you can do at the new level.

D&D is about the real possiblity of dying anti-climactically to a random encounter, an unavoidable trap, and/or bad dice luck...and about whether or not the other PCs can/will get you raised.

D&D is about avoiding getting TPK'd, which means TPKs need to mean, or at lease seem, possible.

As a DM, the essence of my personal joy in D&D is to design encounters or scenarios that leave the PCs feeling absolutely doomed to failure and death only to barely squeak through and survive to be victorious, because of their character abilities, cunning and unpredictability, not my fudging. When the PCs exchange crisp high fives after surviving something that I knew was survivable but made seem unsurvivable via various tricks, that is the sweet spot.

Most importantly I think, it's about pretending to be Elves and Dwarves, Fighters and Wizards, Dragonborn and Warforged, Warlocks and Rogues, and dealing with their problems for a few hours every week during which you don't have to worry about your own, probably much less fun, certainly less interesting, problems.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
I'd actually disagree with the premise and say that there is no essence of ALL the editions of D&D that pertains strictly to D&D.

There are two DIFFERENT times, that prior to 3e and that after 3e.

Prior to 3e, it was the wargaming influence and specific rules (to hit/THACO, descending AC, Saves, varied leveling, humancentric focus) mixed with general roleplaying that made it an essence SPECIFIC to D&D.

However, after 3e came out all the way to 5e there is no strict adherence to something that makes it D&D that could not necessarily be applied to any other RPG out there. The rules have changed too drastically to really say...this is D&D.

You could say it is leveling...but other games do that these days as well. You could say it is specific monsters, but there are many D&D games where those monsters never show up...so that can't really be used. You could say vancian spellcasting...at which point you ask...what differentiates between D&D and games that have their roots in 3e such as Pathfinder? Is Pathfinder and other games like it now also included as D&D product identity or D&D itself? I'm not sure WotC would want to include those.

At this point I'd say it's just a Name Brand that has ease of use. It has always been popular but that popularity died down for quite a while in a downward trend. It had a resurgence of sorts at the 3e release but then went down again, and even that resurgence was nowhere close to where it was during the height of the fad years.

Only now with a game that has ease of use is it attaining a new popularity. I'd credit that to the name brand of D&D (and people who want to try RPGs will hear of D&D first normally, which is where they will turn to...and with the ease of use of the rules today...they stay), but not necessarily some mysterious essence of the game today that can't be found in any other RPG...or at least an essence that has been around from OD&D to 5e today.

5e has it's OWN essence of what makes it 5e, but I don't think anything that could truly connect it all the way back to the original game that is seen in almost all games of D&D (or essence) exists that could not apply to many other RPGs along the way.
 

TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
Anyway, in HERO System, if you can get past and through the initial wall of incredibly high crunch, you can observe that virtually every single power in the game works on the same basic principles using the same basic procedure. Resolving an Energy Blast or hand to hand attack involves essentially the same process as resolving an Ego Attack, a Presence Attack, Telepathy, Mental Illusions, Ability Drain or Mind Control. The game is complex but it is extremely consistent in that once you know how to do a thing in HERO System, you more or less know how to do all the things in HERO System.

Still needing to constantly reference special snowflake spells is probably the single thing about the current edition of D&D that I like the least.
I'm not making a value judgment as to what is better or worse. I'm saying that referencing special snowflake spells that are fundamentally inconsistent is a defining aspect of the overall feel of D&D. Replacing it with something more consistent might make it a superior game, but it becomes a less authentic experience of D&D.

Most importantly I think, it's about pretending to be Elves and Dwarves, Fighters and Wizards, Dragonborn and Warforged, Warlocks and Rogues, and dealing with their problems for a few hours every week during which you don't have to worry about your own, probably much less fun, certainly less interesting, problems.
That's a fine definition of part of the joy of TTRPGs as a whole, but it doesn't really differentiate between D&D and every other TTRPG. I think trying to decipher the essence of D&D requires parsing out what makes it different from other TTRPGs.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'd actually disagree with the premise and say that there is no essence of ALL the editions of D&D that pertains strictly to D&D.

There are two DIFFERENT times, that prior to 3e and that after 3e.

Prior to 3e, it was the wargaming influence and specific rules (to hit/THACO, descending AC, Saves, varied leveling, humancentric focus) mixed with general roleplaying that made it an essence SPECIFIC to D&D.

However, after 3e came out all the way to 5e there is no strict adherence to something that makes it D&D that could not necessarily be applied to any other RPG out there. The rules have changed too drastically to really say...this is D&D.

You could say it is leveling...but other games do that these days as well. You could say it is specific monsters, but there are many D&D games where those monsters never show up...so that can't really be used. You could say vancian spellcasting...at which point you ask...what differentiates between D&D and games that have their roots in 3e such as Pathfinder? Is Pathfinder and other games like it now also included as D&D product identity or D&D itself? I'm not sure WotC would want to include those.

At this point I'd say it's just a Name Brand that has ease of use. It has always been popular but that popularity died down for quite a while in a downward trend. It had a resurgence of sorts at the 3e release but then went down again, and even that resurgence was nowhere close to where it was during the height of the fad years.

Only now with a game that has ease of use is it attaining a new popularity. I'd credit that to the name brand of D&D (and people who want to try RPGs will hear of D&D first normally, which is where they will turn to...and with the ease of use of the rules today...they stay), but not necessarily some mysterious essence of the game today that can't be found in any other RPG...or at least an essence that has been around from OD&D to 5e today.

5e has it's OWN essence of what makes it 5e, but I don't think anything that could truly connect it all the way back to the original game that is seen in almost all games of D&D (or essence) exists that could not apply to many other RPGs along the way.
Hah! Will I double dog disagree with you!* My stunning wit not convincing? Okay, this really does come down to personal opinion, but the fact that several other games (I consider Pathfinder just a clone so it's really not fair to call it a different game) copy ideas from D&D doesn't make D&D any less D&D.

But ever since I've been playing, some things have remained the same. We still roll a D20 to resolve attacks and our defensive saving throws. We still have HP, AC, the standard ability scores. Yes, the math is a bit different and the number and type of dice we roll has been tweaked but my AD&D fighter/rogue can be recreated with more-or-less same feel in 5E. Wizards still cast fireballs and clerics still heal.

I think 4E (again, a game I really, really did try to enjoy) is the exception that proves the rule. There was just something ... missing. Some special sauce that I and others have alluded to. A fairly simple set of base rules that can express a nearly endless number of worlds and styles. As long as you stay within the broad outlines of it's implementation of fantasy rules, you can have an amazing variety. If you're playing a Cthulhu, Star Wars or Vampire game, you know basically what kind of game you'll be playing. Madness? Jedi? Gothic punk? I'm over-simplifying a bit, but not by much in my experience.

But D&D? It can be anything from heavy political intrigue where you don't know who you can trust to exploring forgotten lands of mystery to murder hobo kick the door down and take their stuff beer and popcorn games. Yet we still know that dwarven strength based fighter is probably going to slap on armor and plunge into battle. That elven wizard is likely to chuckle with glee as they cast their first fireball against hapless goblins.

To me, it's still the same game I learned in high school oh so many decades ago.

*Which is fine, actually because you're entitled to your opinion. Of course, this being the internet, there are two kinds of opinions. Mine and the wrong one. ;)
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
In my view D&D is fairly limited in the style of play it supports. Yes you can use it for political intrigue or investigation but the system works against both of these due to the various mind reading spells.

Dungeon cracking is most strongly supported, followed by wilderness exploration.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
In my view D&D is fairly limited in the style of play it supports. Yes you can use it for political intrigue or investigation but the system works against both of these due to the various mind reading spells.

Dungeon cracking is most strongly supported, followed by wilderness exploration.
I'll have to remember that the next time I run a political/intrigue heavy campaign. Oh wait. I am running one now. On the other hand I don't remember the last time I ran a traditional dungeons, they feel far too artificial for my taste.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip
I think 4E (again, a game I really, really did try to enjoy) is the exception that proves the rule. There was just something ... missing. Some special sauce that I and others have alluded to. A fairly simple set of base rules that can express a nearly endless number of worlds and styles. As long as you stay within the broad outlines of it's implementation of fantasy rules, you can have an amazing variety. If you're playing a Cthulhu, Star Wars or Vampire game, you know basically what kind of game you'll be playing. Madness? Jedi? Gothic punk? I'm over-simplifying a bit, but not by much in my experience.
/snip
Frankly, I think this gets back to the "bag of tropes" that I alluded too. 4e didn't include the tropes to make it feel like D&D to you. Totally fair. I get that. 4e did shift a lot of things. The fact that 5e does "feel like D&D", to me, just means that they managed to hit the right number of tropes. For me, both games feel like D&D and I really don't have a strong feeling why other people wouldn't feel the same, but, hey, to each their own. It didn't have just that right trope or collection of tropes.

Or, to put it another way, the essence of D&D is in the presentation.
 

Harzel

Explorer
So I agree pretty much with the items listed in the OP. I also think there is significant truth to @Umbran's notion that you may just need a substantial subset of those to make it feel like D&D, although I don't think you can take away very many before it would begin to feel 'off'. Further, some of them I'm hesitant to say you can remove at all. If you are missing in particular HP, AC, classes, or leveling, the game may be recognizably D&D-like, but I'm not sure it's D&D.

To the list of things that contribute to D&D-ness and you need most but not all of, I would add the familiar quartet of particular classes - fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief (rogue, whatever) - and some particular playable races - human, elf, dwarf, halfling. Probably half-elf should be in there, too, but they've always seemed to me kind of forgettable.

I'm sort of on the fence about murderhoboing and its cousin kill-the-monsters-and-take-their-stuff. Those are certainly play patterns that AFAIK originated with D&D and evoke D&D, but I'm not sure I think their lack in any way makes a game seem less like D&D to me.

Finally, I would add to the list one thing that is a sort of rule 'theme' and perhaps a generalization of the nature of D&D spells that @TwoSix mentioned. D&D rules have always been, to a greater or lesser extent, idiosyncratic, irregular, asymmetric, and even inconsistent - lacking (or perhaps having a surfeit of) underlying patterns and principles, full of special cases, and greatly prone to corner cases emerging when rules collide. Going too far in that direction, of course, leaves you with a hot mess, but if you have just a modest tendency, IMO it lends an air of warm, fuzzy, hominess - kind of like a flannel shirt vs. a starched, white linen button-down. And while I never played 4e, the descriptions and commentary I see sound like it tamped down significantly on irregularity and asymmetry; if that's accurate, I can see that that might have made it feel less like D&D.
 

doctorbadwolf

Adventurer
It’s funny how much of the first dozen or so replies have elements of the game that I would say aren’t even particularly important to what dnd is or what makes it a big tent game.

The first two posts have:

*Zero to hero - Eh, I rarely ever start at level 1, would never bother with level 0 type rules, and have only a couple times played a “farm boy” trope character, and my experience isn’t rare at all in the larger dnd community.

*killing monsters and taking their stuff - common, sure, but vital to what dnd is? Not for any of my groups. We are more likely to have to find ways to fund our adventures than to make a profit from them, because we rarely play characters who are out there fighting ochre jellies and whatever else for money.

Usually, we are trying to help/save people, in a world where most regular folk can’t do jack against trolls or winter wolves, much less cults of the drowned king and their kraken-lich.

*Fighting fantastical creatures - It isn’t less DnD when your enemies are primarily humanoids.
 

dnd4vr

Explorer
The essence of D&D is escapism, like all games (in one way or another), books, movies, etc.

That is why once many people experience it, they are hooked, often for life. When we don't get to play, we miss it. It gives us all a chance to be someone else, do amazing things that will never happen in real life, and discover a hidden bit of ourselves we never knew or understood before. And, we get to do all this while making new friends or cementing the friendships we have in grand adventures we will be talking about for years to come.

This is what keeps us coming back and wanting more.
 

doctorbadwolf

Adventurer
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



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.

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.
4e was more dnd for me than 3.5. 🤷‍♂️
 

aramis erak

Explorer
4e was more dnd for me than 3.5. 🤷‍♂️
I found it a good game, but not a game that felt like D&D, nor a game I terribly much wanted to play. It lost the medieval super heroes feel that is what I actually like of AD&D and Cyclopedia...
3.X felt very much like late AD&D 2E to me, but that's because I had and used PO:Combat & Tactics; the AD&D descent of 3E combat is very obvious when one has used that book extensively, but not readily apparent to those who never met it...

At the time 3.0 came out, I'd have preferred something closer to 2E (I always felt AD&D 1E was clunky, even when I was running it, and 2E a good bit less so, but still so)... for example, ascending AC and converting from THAC0 to Attack bonus. I'm sore tempted to do that to the Dark Dungeons text.
 

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