To call Dungeons & Dragons the 800-lb. gorilla of the roleplaying hobby, as I sometimes do, is something of an understatement, particularly when talking about the past. Nowadays, D&D's shadow remains large -- it's still by far and away the most popular RPG -- but not quite as large as it was in my youth. In those bygone days, "D&D" was virtually synonymous with "roleplaying game," so much so that I distinctly recall friends and acquaintances using the phrase "playing D&D" to mean playing any RPG, even ones that were quite different from Dungeons & Dragons.
One of the difficulties in discussing old school gaming is that the tradition of treating "D&D" as a very broad term is alive and well. Now, as I said, this practice has deep roots. So too does the practice of claiming that too much deviation from the core concepts of the game -- whatever those may be -- results in one's playing "not-D&D." Consider, for example, the cases of both Empire of the Petal Throne and Arduin. In both cases, you have games that are clearly derivative of OD&D, using not just the same terminology but in many cases the very same mechanics. And in both cases the very conception of what a roleplaying game is shows the clear influence of D&D.
Consequently, there were -- and are -- gamers who will make the not-unreasonable claim that EPT or Arduin are in fact species of D&D. At the same time, there are other gamers who make the similarly not-unreasonable claim that neither game qualifies as D&D. I myself tend to fall into the latter camp, as one might expect, for the simple reason that, in the case of EPT, despite being published by TSR and referencing OD&D in its very text, it nowhere makes the claim to being a supplement to or sub-set of Dungeons & Dragons. Arduin, despite references to OD&D in its unexpurgated pre-lawsuit text, similarly makes no claim to being D&D, calling itself simply "a fantasy game." Yet, many gamers at the time, including individuals at TSR, took it to be an add-on to OD&D.
And herein lies our problem. Because the little brown books are the ur-texts of our entire hobby, there is a very real sense in which most of us, regardless of what games we play, are simply playing species of D&D. I say that because, with comparatively few exceptions, the basic template laid down in 1974 remains the pattern every RPG designer uses, in most cases unconsciously, when creating his own game. Nevertheless, there's also a sense in which this perspective is utterly false, not least of which being that it robs the term "D&D" of any actual meaning, making it so equivocal as to be useless.
As you would expect, I'm not fond of such an approach to terminology. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, I don't think words mean whatever I say they mean. I acknowledge that discerning the meanings of some terms is difficult, but that doesn't mean they are devoid of meaning or that we should, in the interests of discussion, simply abandon such terms. Indeed, I think such an approach ultimately impedes rather than fosters conversation, which is why I often undertake the Quixotic position of arguing that, for example, "old school" isn't just an empty mantra.
And before anyone asks: this post isn't intended to start a conversation about the definition of "D&D" or "old school" or any of the other terms gamers like to quibble about. I do plan to get around to those things in the not-too-distant future, but they're not high priorities for me, mostly because I think my usage of both isn't nearly as opaque as some would have me believe. Taken as a whole, I think this blog provides pretty good "definitions" of most of these terms as I understand them. Most of my readers, even the ones who disagree with me about the content of my definitions, get that, so I'm not going to devote a lot of time to plowing the same fields I've been doing for over a year, especially when I've got lots of other things I'd rather share.