Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Three Pillars – Introduction

A little preface before I begin this series. In my opinion, there are pillars on which rest the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons. These pillars are what support what can be called “D&D game play;” if you don’t have these things, you don’t have Dungeons & Dragons. It is these things that help identify the specific type of game play one calls "Dungeons & Dragons." Stylistic tropes (hit points, saving throws, D20s, etc.) help with that identification, but those BY THEMSELVES don’t make a game “D&D.” Other games can include these stylistic tropes and NOT be D&D, for example.

The three pillars will each be identified and discussed in turn. None of the pillars is any more or less important than any of the others. The rules (“system”) of the game are what unite and bind these pillars together. System can be adjusted and tweaked to taste, as discussed (briefly) in my earlier post…the strength of the game is that it and its game play are recognizable across systems. These pillars make that possible.

When creating a NEW edition of Dungeons & Dragons (as is currently being done by the WotC crew, and as will more than likely be done again in the future), it is of vital importance that these pillars are kept in the forefront of the design process…that the mechanics created support the pillars, interact with them, and stabilize them, even as they (the mechanics) are informed by the three pillars themselves. They are the things from which the game play of Dungeons & Dragons is derived.

As I explained in my prior post, WotC has named their three pillars as “Combat, Exploration, and Role-Playing.” They state these are the foundation of D&D game play and that they are the things to which WotC is paying the utmost attention with regard to balancing character archetypes against each other. Not only that, they’ve stated that their philosophy of these three identified areas:
“…is something we want to extend beyond just character design; it should affect adventure design, setting design, and every other aspect of the game.”
Despite their worthy intentions, I think they’re acting under a faulty premise: their three pillars are NOT the actual foundations of D&D game play. I think that even though their three pillars are often a part of the D&D game, they are not the areas that identify and inform game play…they are not what make the game "Dungeons & Dragons" (as opposed to a different RPG).

In my opinion, the REAL foundation of Dungeons & Dragons can be summarized as:
  1. Challenge
  2. Reward
  3. Escape
As I said, all are of equal importance. All need to be present for a game to play like Dungeons & Dragons. All pertain to game play and the experience of game play. All are necessary for every participant at the table: players and Dungeon Master (DM). These three pillars are the “core” around which the design of the game should be woven.

As stated, I will explain each in turn, and try to give some constructive notes on each. The order listed is the order in which I want to discuss them; however, as I said, none are of greater or lesser importance for a game to be considered “Dungeons & Dragons.”

In my opinion.
; )

I’d also like to point out that nowhere in this trilogy will you find the term “fun.” FUN is assumed in the play of the game: people do not choose to play a game that isn’t fun for them (they may be dragged kicking and screaming to game table by a friend, family member, or significant other, but it’s not the game’s responsibility to help that particular issue). Not every game is fun for every person; that’s a fact. So “fun” is not a foundational pillar of D&D game play.

Likewise social stimulation and engagement is not fundamental to the game of D&D. One can play D&D in a recognizable form without the need to have a jovial camaraderie with the people at the table (see tournament/convention play), and playing games with two or more people are a requirement based on the system (i.e. rules) of the game…like having dice or using the tables within the text of the book. “Socializing” is thus not a foundational pillar of D&D game play, either.

Okay, having got all THAT out and posted, I'm ready to talk about our first pillar: CHALLENGE.


  1. are there games that dont offer your 3 pillars?

    to me youve given three generic/esoteric pillars, WotC have list more contextual pillars

  2. It seems to me the categories you offer are somewhat orthogonal to the ones devised by WotC designers. Or, put it another way, they offer a view of pillars from a different point of view.
    You can have Challenge both in Combat, Exploration and Role-playing, for example.

  3. Yes, you're looking at it from a completely different angle to them, not necessarily, they're wrong and you're right.

  4. It seems to me that people want to beat up on Monte and company just because they can. I think Combat, Exploration, and Role Playing are a perfectly legitimate lens through which to look at D&D.

    I might rephrase it a little bit... conflict, exploration, and social interaction (the pc's, NOT the player's!). Combat becomes a subset of conflict. Conflict could be a part of social interaction, but need not be.
    Conflict could also be part of exploration (finding/avoiding traps) but need not be.

    Your "challenge, reward, escape" would then fall under the domain of conflict.

  5. @ Wyrin:
    Yes, there are many (RPG) games that are not built on these pillars. I'm getting to that, I promise!
    ; )

    @ Antonio:
    Um, I don't know what "orthogonal" means. I'm going to have to look it up later.

    @ Nicco:
    Dude, I'm not beating up on those guys "'cause I can." Prior to this I think I had ONE post that mentioned Mearls (yeah, just checked) and probably zero regarding Monte. While I may not be very impressed by their bodies of work, I had no particular axe to grind, until I heard their "three pillar" nonsense.

  6. First, is there such a thing as a pillar of D&D game play? It seems like some BS that the corporate shills in marketing made up to garner interest in support of future sales. Combat, Exploration, and Role-Playing are just character actions. They are part of game play, but not the foundation of something inherently D&D.

    JB, your pillars seem to be conflict and conflict resolution. To me, that is just the plot. This is no better (an certainly no worse) than the drivel that comes out of WotC and only an element of what makes D&D.

    If there is a foundation, isn't it something deeper? Doesn't it start with the willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy world of magic and monsters or in the dramatic conventions we establish for our fantasy worlds?

  7. JB, just want to thank you for your in-depth analysis of D&D and our hobby in general. Seriously, I'm not just blowing smoke. I'm grateful for someone who knows their stuff and puts it forth for our consideration without resorting to being a nasty pedagogue like some others. Thanks!

  8. @ The Good Scott:

    Just stay with me a couple posts more, man!
    : )

    @ Drance:

    I appreciate the kind words...though I AM a bit of a pedagogue.
    ; )