Friday, June 12, 2009

The Equivocal Meaning of "D&D"

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.


  1. I keep wanting to make a connection between some defensible "essential properties" of D&D, and established legal protections for food products such as Chocolate, Champagne, Gruyere cheese.

    For each of these food products (see Wikipedia), there were companies that would have increased sales and made more money, if they could have labeled their products with these names (and of course, they desired to do so). However, trade groups did manage to defend certain definitions of the products and prohibit other usages.

    Most of these defenses have been seen in the form of legal restrictions in the EU. However, you've got at least one case in the US in 2007 where companies wanted to replace cocoa butter with hydrogenated vegetable oil and still label the product as "chocolate", which the FDA shot down.

    I like the basic idea of that, although in each case it's a legal construct, and it's hard to see where we could take that with the D&D trademark still currently held by WOTC/Hasbro.

  2. I just love that you used the word "Quixotic".

  3. Is there really any true debate/confusion as to what "D&D" means? (at least in the sense of it serving as a substitute for "RPG")

    It seems to me that most people (non-players) who refer to D&D are refering to a sword-and-sorcery role playing game ... and most of these folks aren't even aware that there are other "flavors" of fantasy-themed role playing out there. So the only thing they know of, even vaguely, is D&D.

    It seems to me that the people who DO know the difference don't abuse the term ... and those who DON'T know the difference aren't exactly using D&D as a "generic" term, because they're most likely not even aware of alternatives out there.

  4. To quote The Bard: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

  5. This is still how my home group uses the term "D&D." I find that generic usage -- and the refusal to adhere to a strict, branded use of the term -- rather comforting.

  6. I meant to write "the implicit refusal."

  7. I don't use the term D&D generically, but I do use the term DM generically--so I've DMed White Wolf games, and Runequest, and other games. That one just stuck with me after playing so much D&D.

  8. Ditto on the matter what I play, the term just feels "right" to me for 30 years now. I still get irked and can't bring myself to be called a GM or referee.
    Any other personal sacred cows for you folk? For example, I can't imagine gaming without a 20-sider, or rolling for of those catch phrases signifying that an encounter is about to begin.
    I've also gotten stuck on the "double"damage for crits and can't reconcile to "max" die damage. As long as I can remember, a natural 20 brought excited cries of "DOUBLE DAMAGE!!!" and it's hard to let go.

  9. Let's play D&D...
    Let's play RPG...
    There is a new specific term nowadays: Let's play 4th Edition...

  10. Any other personal sacred cows for you folk? For example, I can't imagine gaming without a 20-sider, or rolling for of those catch phrases signifying that an encounter is about to begin.

    Needless to say, this is one of the key distinctions between D&D and other games, and one of the key forms of 'old-school'/swords-n-sorcery parochialism. (Note: I don't mean to jump on Theodore himself, just the language.)

    The roleplaying industry long ago matured beyond the point where 'encounter' meant 'our party runs into (likely) bad guys.' D&D did not. When other roleplayers deride D&D as juvenile, they're not just talking about its morality and aesthetics - they mean the structure of the narrativized lives that D&D 'simulates.'

    There're arguments to be made about the perceived need, among genre fans/storytellers, for amplified stories - the idea that human complexity needs super/subhuman scale to become fully clear or deeply affecting - and the parallel, perhaps related belief among D&D enthusiasts that D&D's concerns and play style are something other than historical accidents.

    An increasing number of enjoyable, complex games have nothing whatsoever in common with D&D, other than 'roleplaying' as a general class - which is like saying Axis & Allies and Chutes & Ladders are the same sort of game because they're played on boards.

    The 'little brown books' are the ur-text of roleplaying games, but most modern roleplaying games bear no actual resemblance in play to those books.

    Of course if 'old-school' games are the subject of this post (the referent of 'our hobby'), disregard my comment. I'm sure that's the default response anyhow.

  11. "When other roleplayers deride D&D as juvenile, they're not just talking about its morality and aesthetics - they mean the structure of the narrativized lives that D&D 'simulates.'"

    The structure of a D&D character's life is very simple, by the rules. Some people play it simply. Other people simply prefer not to be bossed around.

    I've run Vampire games that were mostly characters talking to each other. The only times the dice came out were for a couple of rounds of combat. In those cases, the rules didn't simulate a thing beyond what's in the original D&D.

    At the same time, I wouldn't call the narrative lives of those characters simple at all.

  12. D&D is just like Xerox or Kleenex or's a proper noun that has become a generic term. When you go into a restaurant here and ask for a Coke, they say, "What kind?" I think roleplayers need to stop being so anal about differentiation between the games they play and what they're called.

  13. I think that over time our character concepts, world-building and "stories" have matured and been refined. Most of us go beyond the kill, loot and dive back into the dungeon mentality. Calling old school D&D concepts juvenile is a bit far fetched. It's all in your circle of friends and collective imaginations, no matter what system you use.
    For some of us gaming for a while, recognizing that time has become increasingly limited, falling back to terms we find familiar and comfy just brings back some of that "feel" we had as youngsters. Call it nostalgia, but ultimately gaming is about evoked emotions and friendships.
    I still love going on an "adventure", running a "module" and talking about our last "campaign".
    By the way, have you noticed that a lot of MMO players refer to creating a character as "rolling"? Just shows you how pervasive these old terms are.

  14. I used to argue until I was blue in the face as to "what D&D is." I argued that it was a specific set of rules attached to a specific game. But eventually, I realized that what I wanted "D&D" to be just simply wasn't what "D&D" was to the vast majority of the people with whom I discussed the subject.

    "D&D" as the term is generally used simply means "fantasy role playing game." And frankly, seeing how quickly so many are willing to accept the various radical reworking of the rules over the last decade plus, whether the usage of the term in 1988 was proper or not is beside the point. It's true now.

    In a couple years 5e will come out, and as long as it's generally recognizable as a fantasy role playing game, it will be accepted as "D&D" by the vast majority of people, regardless of the its content and said content's similarity, or lack thereof, to previous editions of the game.

  15. You guys can fight over this. I'm going over to my buddy's house to play Atari.

  16. In terms of Arduin and other Dragon Tree Press books... it's been a while, but I don't recall there actually being a whole system in those initial three books. The Arduin game system came much latter. Such things like Role Aids and the Tome of Mighty Magic were OGL before OGL.

  17. @Ainatan, people who play 4E wouldn't say that. Grognards mocking/pretending to be 4E players would.


    @Adam, classic!

  18. FWIW, I consider EPT to be "D&D" but I don't consider Classic Traveller to be "D&D".

    EPT is really just Barker's house rules for OD&D. It's the same game, basically, with a few modifications here and there. Philosophically and genealogically, it's D&D.

    My saying so doesn't mean that I think that Toon and Phoenix Command are D&D. I think James makes a reasonable argument, but I want to mark out a middle ground here. The choice isn't "D&D is something pure" or "Every role playing game in the book is D&D"... I think there is room for some positions in between those extremes.

  19. This is one of those discussions that keeps going around. Everytime it comes up, I always get frustrated by someone's response, but my feeling is pretty simple in a way:

    Words are used for communication. It is always in everyone's best interests to be as clear as possible in communication.

    When I am talking to non-gamers (or at least people I assume are non-gamers), I will just say "D&D" to refer to any role playing gaming if they generally know what gaming is (so this is generally with my family). If they don't know what gaming is (for example, when explaining to the neighbor why people came over every Tuesday), I might say "We are playing a role playing like Dungeons and Dragons," going into more detail if appropriate.

    In other words, I'm attempting clear communication. If they don't need to know or wouldn't understand that I'm playing some specific variant, or even some other RPG entirely, it doesn't further communication to get into that. My wife (and my parents I think) are aware that there are other games than D&D, but the specific game is pretty irrelevant.

    On the other hand, if I'm posting a player's wanted notice, I try and be specific. I don't put up a sign asking for D&D players when I'm going to run RuneQuest. Even if it's D&D, I'm specific to the rule set (original D&D or ODAD [and then I explain what I mean by original], AD&D, 3.0, 3.5). If I'm going to have more than a couple minor house rules, I'l' mention that.

    Again, necessary communication.

    If I'm talking online (or in person) about a specific rule set, I will make it clear what ruleset I'm talking about, even specifying printing if necessary (for example, these days I'm playing Burning Wheel, I had a specific question about an example that seemed confusing and I was aware that there were multiple printings that may have clarified the example - I made it clear which printing I had).

    So what it comes down to for me - please don't get all huffy when people expect D&D to have some specific or generic meaning so long as their intent is for clear communication. But if someone is insisting on using D&D when it is causing communication problems. Don't do something like the following:

    "In my D&D game, I'm so frustrated, all people ever want to play is scouts and merchants because they want a ship."

    I might be able to guess you're playing Traveller, but how can I help you?


  20. I use the term D&D to specifically refer to D&D. If referring to role-playing games in general I will say RPGs. I only use the term DM when discussing D&D. I most often use the term GM however, whether it's D&D or any other RPG.

    There is a 'feel' to D&D. One that I haven't found in other games. It translated from 1E to 2E to 3E for me. They all 'felt' like D&D. I may well not be able to articulate *how* they felt like D&D, but they did.

    Which is why I loath 4E so intensely.

    What I love about D&D is that I view it as a set of games. And with the 3E SRD and OGL we have nearly unlimited options.

    But I have a deep affection for the older editions of the game. I cut my teeth on 1E and have kept all of my books from that era. Visiting this blog is like getting to visit those first games when I was fourteen.

  21. But eventually, I realized that what I wanted "D&D" to be just simply wasn't what "D&D" was to the vast majority of the people with whom I discussed the subject.

    I'm coming round to that opinion myself, FWIW, so you're not alone in this regard.

  22. Visiting this blog is like getting to visit those first games when I was fourteen.

    That's probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about this blog. Thanks so much for taking the time to post it here.

  23. I’m with Frank. I sometimes use “D&D” to mean old the currently in-print game with that name on the cover. Sometimes, I use it to mean the hobby in general. It all depends upon context. The key is to just attempt to be clear with all the words you’re using together rather than focusing too much on any one’s meaning in isolation.

    The roleplaying industry long ago matured beyond the point where 'encounter' meant 'our party runs into (likely) bad guys.' D&D did not. When other roleplayers deride D&D as juvenile, they're not just talking about its morality and aesthetics - they mean the structure of the narrativized lives that D&D 'simulates.'

    The thing is, there’s almost nothing I’ve seen in an RPG that I didn’t see in an AD&D session in the 1980s. I don’t think it can all be chalked up to us doing these things in spite of the game. I think the game encouraged these things, but in ways that are subtle enough that we don’t notice, forget, or gloss over them.