Thursday, September 23, 2021

Seven Elements

As promised in my last post:

I realized my whole theme of "true D&D play" likely touched a nerve or two, and for that I apologize. I suppose I could have called it "advanced play" instead of "true" play...but what is "advanced" game play but the highest form of a particular game? You can play a simpler variety of MANY games...a fast version of Monopoly, for example, or a scaled back version of Axis & Allies. For a quick night's entertainment  - or as a tutorial for new players - that works fine and dandy. Dungeons & Dragons, as (perhaps) the greatest tabletop ever invented, can perform adequately for years even in a "basic" form (like B/X). But the game is given its highest expression in the form known as AD&D.

First edition only.

Here, then, are the seven elements of advanced ("true") D&D play, as I see them:
  1. D&D is a game.
  2. Cooperation is necessary.
  3. Violence is inherent.
  4. Magic is limited.
  5. Economy is present.
  6. PCs are heroic.
  7. The Universe does care.
I've not listed the elements in alphabetical order, nor order of importance/priority, but only in the order I intend to discuss them. Regarding "importance," there could certainly be some debate, but ALL of these elements are essential to game play. And it is (partially? completely?) the presence of these elements that sets D&D play apart from other games, and that sets AD&D apart from other editions of the game.

Each element requires elaboration. Let's get down to it:

#1 Dungeons & Dragons is a game 

I can already hear the collective multitude shouting "duh" in chorus. But consider the many implications of this element. First off, games have RULES, and D&D is no different. Rules constrain the actions of both the players and referee (Dungeon Master, DM). Games have means of winning and losing, and of judging both. Death in D&D is one of several possible "failure states" of the game, though certainly not an insurmountable one (as raise dead, wishes, and divine intervention can all attest).

Constraints influence game play. There are limitations places on classes and races available and their use in combination; there are limitations placed on levels attainable (based on class/race combos) and on the capabilities of characters at various levels. These limitations are in place for reasons...reasons of shaping the scope and scale and direction of game play. Same with limitations of available spells, weapon selection, armor use, etc. 

Game rules are meant to be followed in the prescribed manner. When a situation presents itself for which a rule is not present, a rule must be formulated by the table. When a rule presents an inconsistency, the referee (DM) must make a ruling on the issue in order for game play to proceed. Players and referees have differing roles and responsibilities determined by the game rules. And as final arbiter of the rules presented, DMs must have a thorough knowledge of the game rules...DMing D&D in its advanced form is NOT for the faint of heart. 

People play games for many reasons, all linked to enjoyment (even if one simply means to challenge themselves, it is the challenge that is being enjoyed). When we play a game, we agree to abide by the rules...both those of the textual rulebook and those of etiquette, both of which may vary from game to game and from table to table. 

D&D is a game...all of the above applies to its play. It should also be noted that, because true D&D is a game, we can also signal what it is not. It is not a performing art. It is not improv theater. It is not a mechanism for constructing a story in the conventional sense (as one would find in a novel, film, or play, for example). Exploring the human psyche or condition is not an objective of play, and its design is not supportive of such. It is not sport. It is not a platform for addressing social inequities in a meaningful fashion. It is not a simulation of reality...though (as discussed below) some verisimilitude is to be desired.

#2 Cooperation is necessary

This element does not address the "social contract" of its participants (that's part of element #1) but rather the method of game play itself: D&D as a game of fantasy adventure is cooperative. It is meant to be played by groups of players, not single individuals, and even pairs (one DM, one player) will find the game decidedly rough without additional participants.

Players (that is, non-DM participants) play characters of asymmetrical capabilities. None of the various character types are created "equal," though all have niches in which they excel or (at least) perform admirably. However, even without a VARIETY of character types, sheer numbers of cooperative players can win the day where individuals or non-cooperating parties will fail miserably. 

Consider that a group of player characters (PCs) working in concert, act as a large pool of hit points..."sharing the pain" in a way that allows ALL (or most) to survive, while generating more actions and/or attacks. Fallen characters can be aided by their comrades (by being dragged to safety, healed, raised, etc.) and can do the same for others when the shoe is on the other foot (as it will, eventually, be). Of course, the old adage "two heads are better than one" is more than apt when it comes to the various riddles, challenges, and complications that face the average adventuring party...and some obstacles will be presented that simply cannot be circumvented without multiple PCs working together.

AD&D is designed in such a way that no single character type holds ALL the benefits and capabilities of effectiveness. The greatest paladin in the world can be brought down in a crush of goblins using the grappling rules. The most powerful archmage of the setting will need to sleep eventually. No character is an island in D&D, and the players that cooperate in the most efficient manner will, in the long-term, have the most sustained success.

#3 Violence is inherent

D&D is descended from war games and its design reflects the fact and the play assumptions of the genre. Each character encountered (player or non-) has a set of hit points that provides an exact amount of punishment that can be sustained before being least temporarily...from play. Huge swaths of the rules text are given over to weapons and armor, combat and battle, deadly conflicts of physical, psychic, magical, and (in the case of clerics) spiritual type. 

D&D is not a game of court intrigue and political machinations. It is not a game of back parlor deals, treaty negotiation, and real estate development. It is not a game of buying and selling commodities, arranging marriages, diplomatic complications, or the challenges faced by individuals fighting depression, ennui, or issues of self-esteem and self-worth. Any and all of these things MIGHT (or might not) appear in play...but they are neither the point of play, nor a priority of design.

The design of D&D reflects the intrinsic dangers of the world. Characters can die...or can be turned to stone, charmed, captured, level drained, etc. Generally speaking characters WILL die...often humorously or ignominiously. It is an expected part of game play, and should not prevent players from taking bold action. Played cooperatively (see #2) even death may be overcome in the D&D game...and it will be meted out in spades to the opponents and monsters that come into conflict with the PCs. The source material for the AD&D game (pulp fiction featuring face-punching protagonists) reflect the base assumptions of an adventure game, a game of violent action. While caution and intelligent choices are laudable, timidity and indecisiveness are not (and recklessness is a failure to play cooperatively).

The violence of D&D should be embraced by all at the table; managing the risk of threat to one's (imaginary) life and limb is one of the main components of the game.

#4 Magic is limited

D&D is a game and as such has rules which constrain the game. Magic is a major component of D&D and yet is very much a limited resource in the game. Spell-casting is grueling work for characters, requiring hours of (game) preparation just to have access to a handful of spells. Spells are limited by the need for verbal, somatic, and material components. Spells used are forgotten (until recovered through sleep, study, and prayer). There are no "at will" cantrips, laser eye beams (at least, not from PC casters), or spells that provide huge benefit at no cost. Even the mighty wish spell will age the caster several years (possibly killing the character through system shock).

The acquisition of spells in no mean feat. Magic-users may only add spells to their repertoire as they find them, and even those found may not be comprehended, depending on the character's intelligence. Clerics are limited in spells by the whims of their deity (and the deity's opinion of the cleric's piety) and, as with magic-users, the highest level spells are limited to character's of great wisdom. Of course, all spell-casters are limited by their level: power must be earned through bold endeavor.

Likewise, magical items must be earned by player characters; there are no "magic shops" and characters must brave dangers and dungeons to earn every single +1 weapon. Most enchanted items are limited in the true D&D game: many items have charges or are single-use in nature. Cursed items abound in every category, ensuring there is always risk involved in the use of any enchanted item. Many items require command words to access their abilities, and often magical items are saddled with alignment restrictions that can damage, destroy, or level drain would-be wielders of the wrong faction. Rare indeed are the entirely beneficial items, making them highly prized by all...such items tend to make their owners the targets of thieves, assassins, unscrupulous nobles, etc. 

PCs may construct their own magical items and research their own magical spells, but only at tremendous cost (in terms of time and money)...the process of doing so is never easy and success is never guaranteed and often entails its own adventure as enchanters must search out special materials, usually the organs and body parts of extremely deadly (and rare) monsters.

Flagrant use of magic in the D&D setting...towns lit with continual light, flying carpet travel services, etc.... is likely to bring unwanted and hostile attention on offenders. Magic is rare and wonderful in the true D&D game and is respected because of it. It should never be an answer to all problems, nor a replacement for the conveniences of modern day life; doing so renders D&D something other than an adventure game.

#5 Economy is present

That is to say: money matters. From the very beginning of character creation, players in a true D&D game are concerned with the matters of wealth and resources. A first level character only has a limited amount of starting capital with which to outfit themselves, and must choose wisely.

Acquisition of treasure thus becomes the primary concern for PCs. Ready cash is needed for a variety of expenses: food and adventuring equipment, armor and weapons, hirelings and their monetary needs. As characters advance, more money will be needed for training purposes, possibly for spell acquisition, tithing and guild fees, and (of course) magical aid in the form of raise dead (and other recovery) spells. Specialists will need to be contracted: sages for information, armorers for troops, engineers for the building of strongholds. And as characters reach the levels of domain ruler, even more wealth will be needed for expenditures on henchfolk and permanent investments (buildings, mills, bridges, fortresses, etc.). 

While this "bean counting" may seem cumbersome, it is absolutely essential to the game play of D&D as originally codified. Without an economy, without a need to spend, the desire to acquire treasure dissipates...and it is that need for treasure (for "money") that drives D&D game play. It is one of the objectives of game play that unites the disparate player characters, the thing that compels cooperation as much as survival instinct, because it is needed by every character type. Tying it to the reward structure of the game (where each gold piece of treasure = one experience point towards leveling) engenders the risk-reward assessment that is at the heart of true D&D game play. 

Resource, demand, the use of wealth, the logistics of encumbrance...these things are the core of D&D game play. What matter the Lich-Lord's army if you cannot feed your own? How can you hope to arrive at Smaug's lair or Mount Doom if you cannot afford enough food for both your mount and the pack animal that must carry it? Many are the D&D players that have complained that D&D isn't enough like The Lord of the Rings...have they read Tolkien's books? Challenges regarding food, water, and travel are rife throughout the series!

And the game's economy is tightly bound to resource management. Equipment and gear...even the magical not "indestructible" in AD&D. The item saving throw matrix on page 80 of the DMG is proof enough that rough usage will quickly deplete the party's inventory. Making use of oil flasks as "fire bombs" is all well and good until you find yourself out of fuel for your lantern. And the limits of magic (see #4 above) means that the care and maintenance of mundane equipment is of utmost importance. Even that sword of "metal, hard" will break eventually, if struck with enough "normal blows;" hopefully, the character's adventures earn enough wealth to carry a backup weapon or two.

Without an economy, and an emphasis on wealth and resources, one cannot play D&D as designed. And the verisimilitude such games rules offer aids in both the immersion and engagement of game play.

#6 Player characters are heroes

"What?!" I hear the cries through the darkness of the internet. "Heroes?! That goes against every principal of 'old school' role-playing!" Mmm, mm, mm. Slow down folks and give me a chance to explain.

The player characters are the most important characters in the D&D game. They are charged with braving fantastical challenges and facing deadly perils. They are adventurers; they ARE heroes. Without player characters, there is no game. 

And they are heroic...favored by the gods. This is made clearly evident with the design choices of HIT POINTS and SAVING THROWS; such is explained at various points in the DMG. These avatars of the PCs are special...we (the game's participants, whether player or DM) are concerned with the actions they take. It matters to us whether they succeed or fail. With regard to that part of the game, they are most definitely the "stars" of the show.

This does not mean they won't fail or die or have their limbs cut off by a sword of sharpness. It doesn't mean they won't be captured and brutalized and they may well wind up starving to death in some lightless subterranean labyrinth, or bleeding out at the bottom of a pit trap. A character's DESTINY in D&D is not written in stone. Always remember, D&D is a game (see #1), not some sort of narrative structured story-telling device. PCs are heroes because of the ACTIONS they take, not because of the FATE they've been handed by an author. 

And as such, player characters should be respected. They should not have their roles as heroes usurped by NPCs of the DM's creation; they should not be upstaged by various narrative "cut-scenes." The action of the game should be focused squarely on the player characters and their intentions and desires...that is the design of the D&D game. NPCs (monstrous or otherwise) are a dime a dozen; they exist as obstacles and allies and sword fodder FOR THE PLAYER CHARACTERS. Only the PCs count as heroes in the D&D game. Their lives (and deaths) are, ultimately, the only ones that will matter to the game's participants. Ever.

#7 The Universe is a caring one

Building on #6, it is important to understand that the Dungeon Master (DM)...that ultimate creator of the D&D human and cares about the players and their characters. I will state it is impossible to be wholly impartial as a referee...which is why we make use of rules and randomized fortune generators (i.e. dice) to ensure that we do not err too far to one side or another.

However, we care for our players (and their characters)...if we did not care, if they did not matter, we would not bother creating challenges for them to confront. We want them to be challenged...because we love the game and want to continue playing it, and the game will not hold the players' interest if we make the game too easy or too difficult. We (the DMs) want the players to be engaged with the game play....because that will hold their interest and allow us to continue playing; as I wrote in #6, there is no game without players. And remember #1: D&D is first and foremost a game.

DMs MUST care about the campaign (both the setting and its players), because if the DM does not then no one else will. For the game to reach its maximum potential, the Dungeon Master must be heavily invested. They must know the rules, they must create the world, they must build "dungeons" and scenarios and situations that will intrigue and delight their players. That means a lot of time, effort, and thoughtfulness being expended by the person who elects to play "Dungeon Master" to the table.

How can such a person NOT care what happens?

The game universe (i.e. the DM) of a "true" D&D game cares about the players because they must. Because it matters how much treasure is made available. It matters how much magic and resources the players are able to access. It matters how the challenges of the party intersect with imaginary world being created. It matters whether or not success or failure happens and what impact (if any) that will have on the development of the ongoing campaign and its "legacy."

In its advanced form, the D&D game is neither frivolous nor capricious; it is not thrown together thoughtlessly, nor is it run carelessly. There is too much to the game for the DM not to care. And for any particular game table, the DM is the embodiment of the game's universe.

Thus, the D&D Universe cares. That doesn't make it kindly, nor wrathful, nor malicious, nor generous....although, as a human being, DMs will exhibit all these emotions and more. However, the competent DM will not allow such feelings to unduly influence the play at the table, because (the rules being what they are) doing so has the potential of breaking the game. And the DM cares too much. 

How could they not?

Aaaaaaand...that's all I've got for today. Cheers!
: )


  1. Normally, I read something like this and I’m so repulsed by misreading of the material, bias, ludicrous statements and self-aggrandizement that I can’t get through it. Oh, I have my quibbles ... but honestly this IS how I and my friends essentially played the game between 1979 and 1984. We believed and built game worlds that strove to effect the seven elements described here.

    I watched other players begin to move away from these things in the late 1980s, for reasons that can only be attributed to blind, facetious stupidity ... a sort of cognitive denial that the game mattered, or that cooperation did, or that magic ought to be limited. Movements away from the incorporation of violence and a universe that didn’t care (by your definition, JB) happened later. Yes, I’ll stand by what you say here; the dismantling of these things accurately describes the de-evolution of D&D, as it was endlessly hacked to pieces for the sake of a novelty that roasted these seven elements on a spit. I might add, to make money. I think that would be accurate.

    Arguably, the deviation began from two fundamental non-table sources ... though I doubt anyone would agree, even those playing at the time, who were deliriously in love with source #1 and utterly indifferent to source #2.

    Source #2 is the one you named, JB: the later books that came out after AD&D’s primary three. As you say, they did nothing to meaningfully support the original game, but they did introduce peripheral flotsam that catered to novelty without substantially accounting for the disagreements that novelty would inspire. Basically, it took an ice cream shop with 10 flavours that tasted good and turned it into a shop with 20 flavours, half of which tasted nasty to half the customers, and good to the other half. And on this I’ll stop before sounding too much more like Bilbo Baggins.

    Source #1 is the beloved Dragon magazine, that fed the intensive craving for D&D discussion that everyone wanted to have, all the time. Only, the Dragon contained mostly garbage writing, produced by amateurs, edited by amateurs, who were duty bound to produce such-and-such content per month, which had no chance of being legitimately valuable on account of the time frame and the relative inexperience of most of the contributors both in terms of RPGs and their careers as writers. But that didn’t matter, because the Dragon was BELOVED. It met a need, specifically the need of young, ignorant, stupid boys who themselves had little to no understanding of the game they played ... but who were encouraged by the Dragon’s content to adjust and change EVERYTHING without pausing to think maybe there was good reason not to change things. The Dragon led the wider community into the habit of “drift” as you call it ... and we have never learned a lesson from it.

    So, I’ll end this by saying, I’m on your side here. Not sure you want that, however; remembering I’m never on the side that’s popular. Just look up. I trashed the DRAGON, ffs. My abuse of the community knows no bounds.

  2. Great post - thanks. Helps me understand why I get frustrated with more modern editions - they simply have the dials for each of these seven factors turned too low or too high for my personal taste. I do think though that you're making a case (a good case in my opinion) for an old-school play style vs a modern play style. However, I'm not seeing this making the case for AD&D over B/X - each of your points seems as valid for B/X (or BECMI or RC or OD&D) as for AD&D. Am I missing something?

    1. Your question is reminiscent of John Higgins “quibble” in my last post. I am still considering my response.

  3. All very much in line with my own thoughts on the ethics of of Classic D&D, or even Classic fantasy RPGs more generally. For me the first two and the last are most essential. Early D&D is a cooperative game (for everyone, including the referee) and the role of the referee is to model a consistent universe.

    I'd say consistent rather then uncaring (or is that caring? either works), though my preferred play style and settings tend to emphasize human fallibility and the callousness of the universe. I suppose one could say swing things the other way though with a few house rules, placing the PCs more firmly into the heroic mold, and as long as the setting consistently and predictably supportive of daring deeds (perhaps following Machiavelli's belief that Fortune loves a risk taker) it could work.

    Now my snarky response to you True way post was more about how polemical it was. I'll never be more then mildly confused as to why people want to wrestle with the taxonomization mania of Gygax's implied setting building, inconsistent efforts to add "realism" (GURPS - one could just play GURPS?), and fixation with pole arms.

    AD&D is a system.
    It's one that works well enough for a procedural dungeon crawl.
    I like a simpler system.

    I also think this hobby is small enough, and the number of folks in it interested in older styles of play even smaller. Too small of manufacturing conflict over which of several similar versions of a game is the correct one. It's like those in the hobby that complain about the aesthetics or setting of and adventure rather then looking to its structure and mechanics - perhaps trying to make this tiny pond even smaller.

    1. @ GusL:

      There are absolutely simpler systems for procedural dungeon crawls. I think OD&D is fine for that, as are the Basic sets that are based on OD&D.

      As I wrote recently (um...yesterday's post): dungeon crawling is an IMPORTANT ASPECT of D&D play. Despite the name of the game, there are other aspects to D&D (and I don't just mean "dragons").

      RE Manufacturing Conflict, Shrinking the Hobby, Gatekeeping, Etc.

      UMMmmm...not really what I'm trying to do. But I'm not limiting the "D&D hobby" to dungeon crawling (which can be run procedurally with simpler systems than AD&D). For a more expansive view of The Game one needs a more comprehensive rule set.

      However, let's say (for the sake of discussion) that ME pointing readers towards a particular edition of D&D is turning people off from exploring The Game. What happens if I don't do any pointing? They go about their merry way creating 5 room, scene-based dungeons? Is that a good thing? Is it a good thing for them to imagine D&D play is something like a live-streamed radio play?

      I'm not keeping any gates, man. I'm throwing the gate open and inviting folks through into MY world. If they don't want to come through, that's on them.

      [give WotC your money! Give it give it give it! Set it on fire if you want! It's YOUR money!]

      It's not like I'M getting some sort of commission on sales of 1st edition PDFs. Jeez!
      ; )

  4. After reading this over a few times and experiencing what I did throughout my early years in the hobby, both positive and negative, I have to wonder:

    If AD&D is the true D&D, why is it so easy to misunderstand and misinterpret? Why did so many people get these same three books, read the same words, and come away with styles of play or perceptions that are so different from each other?

    For example, I would argue that the PCs are NOT heroes. Adventurers definitely but not necessarily 'Heroes'. I have heard others with this same outlook but not always for the same reasoning as my own.

    Also, to read 'The Universe is a caring one' actually made me laugh. I see little to no evidence of that. The Dungeon Master may or may not be caring but the universe of D&D doesn't give me any indication it cares, especially when I think of all the games weighted on the side of the players/PCs.

    A commenter to Zak Smith's blog one wrote, "D&D does not like you. D&D is not your friend." I couldn't agree more. Nor does it have it out for you (the way Gamma World seems to or Character Creation in Traveller). It is indifferent, providing tools for your survival and success, as well as your demise.

    1. There are a lot of reasons why people playing AD&D play it in different ways. Some come to it from other versions of the game and retain past suppositions. Some were "taught" the game by someone else and have never bothered to read anything but the various tables. Lots of folks simply have a difficult time wading through (or parsing) the opaque writing style...or they simply don't have the stamina to endure the slog required for solid comprehension.

      D&D as a GAME does NOT care about player characters. The D&D Universe, however, (i.e. the DM, the person creating the setting) *does* care. Apologies if I didn't distinguish that well enough.