In the article, This is everything I don’t like about D&D… and I like D&D, Jarys Maragopoulos puts to words a disturbing trend in tabletop roleplaying games. I’ve noticed it in the past and at cons and among the circles of gamers I most respect and admire. For a long time now I’ve been upset by the prejudiced idea that fantasy roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons is somehow inferior and less an artform than in smaller more independent systems. I’ve stood by quietly and listened with pursed lips while some of the greatest artists of our medium have railed against the “Murder Hobos” and “Home Invasion the Roleplaying Game”. And I admit it bothers me, I can’t help but feel like a kid with a bucket of crayons among masters with easel, oil and brush. That’s certainly the feeling I get from this article: that D&D is somehow a lesser craft.
Snobbery. Pure unadulterated snobbery. The kind of snobbery that kills creativity and diminishes the art of roleplaying. I grow weary of hearing panels of prominent designers and articles of prolific gamers, knocking the tools of my trade. It is tiresome to bear the persistent criticism of the brushes we use to paint the magnificent murals of the players’ characters’ deeds. It is as absurd to criticise the narrative quality of THAC0, Action Points, and Inspiration as to state that better art comes from the brush than the crayon. The mechanical tools used to hang our collective imaginings upon are each vital to their respective systems’ design. There is a word for what those who dismiss medieval fantasy as a genre or the tactical wargame roots of D&D as obstacles to storytelling – Hooey!
In the book, Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry, Shannon Appelcline describes the miniatures wargaming that gave rise to roleplaying games: “There were good reasons that miniatures wargaming remained small: it required more time, more effort, and more creativity. It was a niche within a niche – something that wasn’t for everyone.” When the young men of Lake Geneva in ‘69 -’72 were playing out the stories that inspired them, the great battles of history, as each session ended they found themselves seeking to get closer and closer to the narrative. Since there weren’t granular enough rules to accomplish this zooming in, they wrote them. Think about that. They weren’t able to experience the stories of the kings and generals in their imagination, so they wrote a means by which they could. And as the scale dropped, and the figures on the table represented fewer and fewer soldiers, 20:1, 10:1, finally, 1:1 they were able to “get inside” these characters. The rules were made to facilitate what they wanted to do. Historical accuracy was thrown off in favor of unrestricted imagination made possible in the Fantasy Game. For almost fifty years, a newborn still in the context of artforms, we have ventured to reduce the scale further, occupying the figures on the board till the very figures grew unnecessary for many. We experience through these characters built using these rules we adopt to facilitate our shared imagined space.
There’s a “Monster Manual” because there are now, and always have been monsters in the world, and we have collectively reimagined them. Our literature, our cultures, our legends are filled with heroes great and small who’ve faced down these monsters or succumbed to their terribleness. For many, it is fun to occupy the place of these great and small heroes, creating our own. And yes, it’s awesome when the story reaches that culminating moment and the dice get involved, and the dragon breathes and the hero swings their sword! But to diminish the achievements of the D&D design team as suggesting their efforts can be summarized by the rules in and around the attack and damage roll is not only insulting to fine craftsmen but, simply put, wrong. Proposing that Dungeons & Dragons, is less of a storytelling system because it provides combat resolution rules is not only ludicrous, but baseless.
In one of the games I had the privilege to play as Dungeon Master, a great warrior rose from amongst tribal people to cross lands of pure imagination, fall in love with a scion of civilization, and stood the attacks from an entire city for days rather than leave the one they love. Now, because the warrior had reached a powerful level they were all but mechanically invulnerable to the guards and soldiers that attacked them. At our table this translated into a scene of beautiful devotion and will be remembered as vividly as any myth or fable. From proficiencies to encumbrance the mechanics are designed create those details that make a story “real”. Throughout the core books of D&D is a graceful interplay of exceptions and mathematical intricacies that do a fair bit of heavy lifting in the creation of a world we share. Those rules are the collaborative contract we enter into to generate our imagined space. But this is just the beginning, this is just the stage and set the drama takes place upon. There’s this thing the Dungeon Master’s Guide says:
The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded. I have been lucky, and the crunch and rules have been integral in creating those moments.
The mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons are built to facilitate story. Redefining the system as “gamerist” does nothing but deride those who love the stories constructed at tables running D&D. Here’s the thing: I know I’m supposed to shut up and ignore the snobbery. But it hurts gaming as a whole when we start labelling things as something they’re not. Articles like Jarys’ aren’t rare, and the sentiment is common. But let’s look at the facts. In the D&D Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook, of the 320 pages, 170 are devoted to character generation, or if you like, building a protagonist, 100 pages are devoted to magic, spells, gods, and the planes, 35 pages are devoted to rules covering social interactions, exploration, inspirational reading and the like. A paltry 9 pages – less than 3% of the book’s pages – are devoted to combat, with the index and table of contents filling in the rest. 9 pages!
While Fiasco and Robin Law’s Hillfolk games’ have a more cerebral approach to shared storytelling, and I’ll be the first to stand atop the mountain and shout the praises of Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, all vital games whose mechanics generate successful shared narrative experiences, so too is D&D. At it’s core are some questions that have continued to inspire new stories for fifty years: what if magic were real? What if the dragons of myth and legend soared overhead? What kind of fantastic world can I imagine and what happens next?
We are building a beautiful thing here as a gaming community. Tabletop Roleplaying Games are emerging from the tiny “niche within a niche” with all the artistry of painting and sculpture, and some groups will produce masterpieces while others will generate sketches, but it is the poor craftsman who blames his tools. Critics making baseless claims about D&D as a poor storytelling medium ought to read the rules instead of vomiting the regurgitated tripe they read in their snobbish echo chambers. When we’re kids, almost all of us draw and play. But over time we’re worn down by the cacophony of discouragement. Rather than allow our creativity to be crushed, let’s drown out the noise with our heroes’ bellowing battle cries, and craft legends.
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Aaron Teixeira is proud to have started the Dungeons & Dragons Encounters program in San Francisco, CA, and to have run a continuous Planescape game since 1997. Besides D&D he loves Dungeon World, Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, and BASH. Having run roleplaying games for over thirty years, he has been in theater just as long. His degree is in History from San Francisco State University, and he is currently employed at Posit Science, a neuroscience software development company.