Saturday, February 12, 2022

Why D&D

[blogger tells me I started this draft on October 30th, 2021. In light of comments on my recent "Why World Build" post, I think it's high time I got back to finishing it best I can]

Last week Grognardia posted an excerpt from a 1979 issue of White Dwarf that included part of an interview with Gary Gygax. My attempts to find a PDF of the mag/article have been wholly unsuccessful, so I will transcribe the text from the image:
D&D/AD&D allows players to have adventures. In a world where these aren't likely - at least without risk of life and limb - this is a real boon. The game form also allows each group to tailor the campaign to their own likes. The game form additionally allows participants to freely use imagination to the fullest. Participants can create and develop personal heroic fantasies. Mistakes are rectifiable - or at worst a new start can be made. Wealth abounds. Good and evil are easily distinguishable. Roles are clear, and soul-searching basically unnecessary. Each and every play is competitive and self-sufficient. DMs, in turn, are the creators and orderers of universes (in short, gods). Instead of a limited and restricted actuality, D&D/AD&D offers boundless realms where real success is quite attainable. Finally, the game form offers various challenges, group co-operation, and is open-ended, so that one player isn't clearly a winner, the rest losers.
[White Dwarf #14, in answer to the question 'Why do you think D&D has become so popular?']

I'm curious to know how much of this was thoughtful or calculated response, and how much of this was off-the-cuff musing (one of the reasons I went looking for the whole article).

[never mind: just found the thing via a comment on the original Grognardia post; it's worth a read]

Please note, I'm not the one emphasizing the word "adventures" in the quote: that's how it's written in the original White Dwarf article, causing me to infer that the word was emphasized by Gygax himself.

Just what is an adventure? I'm not talking about in "game terms" (Gygax isn't speaking in game terms when he's answering the question of D&D's popularity)...when I say: D&D allows players to have adventures, just what is this adventure thing that is deemed to be so desirable?

My old American Heritage Dictionary offers four definitions of the word adventure:
  1. An undertaking of a hazardous nature.
  2. An unusual experience or course of events marked by excitement and suspense.
  3. Participation in hazardous or exciting experiences.
  4. A financial speculation or business venture.
[my Webster's dictionary offers the same four definitions, but with slightly pithier wording]

Reading over these, it should be clear that old edition D&D...the kind that I play, the kind available to Gary & Co. in 1979...checks every single one of these boxes, including #4. After all, it doesn't get much more "speculation" than risking your (character's) life in pursuit of monetary gain, does it?

There are many humans...not all certainly, but many...who long for "adventures." We read about people undergoing adventures, we see films about folks having adventures, we listen eagerly to people recount tales of their own adventures. But few of us have the fortitude, opportunity, or finances necessary to live a constant life of "real" adventure. 

D&D offers adventure to its players: the chance at mentally/emotionally experiencing hazardous, exciting, and suspenseful undertakings without the physical toll that real adventures demand. Regardless of your physical capabilities and for a minimal financial cost, the opportunity for adventure is present every time you sit down at the table.

Why do people long for adventures? Now, that's a tougher question with a plethora of possible answers (I can think of a few). Why are some "called" to the sea? Or outer space? Or war? Or L.A. with a chance of being in the movies (or New York with a chance of being on Broadway)? There is, of course, an adrenaline rush associated with risk...that thing that causes folks to sky-dive or base jump or throw their life savings on one spin of the roulette wheel. But there are other reasons besides adrenaline...curiosity, for example, not just for other places and strange experiences, but curiosity about how we, ourselves, will handle the pressure and impact of an "adventure."

But, as I said: not everyone who wants adventure has "what it takes." I may want to travel to space or Antarctica, but I don't have the money to get there. I may want to be a undersea diver or submarine pilot, but I don't have the training/education. I may want to see the Middle East or Okinawa, but I don't want to join the army (and I'm too old these days to do so, anyway). Heck, even if I wanted to experience a firefight (speaking of military action) I don't really relish the idea of getting hit by a bullet myself.

And even though it's fun to watch television shows about "treasure hunters" on the Discovery channel (or whatever), the whole thing looks like a miserable affair. I mean, the show is edited...I'm sure there are long periods of misery and boredom that never even make it to the screen. All for little/no financial gain (the real money is in selling your TV rights to the network). 

D&D is a far easier path to adventure: you don't have to be young and fit or trained and educated or know the right people or have money to burn in order to adventure. You can experience the adrenaline rush, assuage the curiosity, gain the prestige, feel the sense of accomplishment, earn (imaginary) wealth beyond dreams of avarice, become a bonafide "hero" in the (game) world...all by dint of playing the game. 

That's a powerful, heady draw.

My handful of Spanish readers will undoubtably be familiar with Don Quixote, Cervantes' masterwork. Quixote could be the patron saint of role-players...a man looking for adventure and all-too-willing to escape into his own imagination in order to find it. All long-time D&D players have some measure of The Don in flowing through their veins. If they didn't, they'd be doing something else. If they didn't have a longing for adventure...or if they had the means of pursuing real adventures...they wouldn't be bothering to sit down at the table, over and over again. They certainly wouldn't find the experience very enjoyable.

It is, perhaps, interesting to see what type of folks do NOT enjoy D&D. My wife, for example, is plenty smart enough to understand the game. But she finds little/no joy in it. She loves to travel, to see new places, have new experiences. But she is extremely risk adverse. Hates gambling/speculation in any form (her company 401K is set as conservatively as possible), enjoys exercise so long as it's non-contact/competitive (bruises like a peach), has no love of violence or horror or fantasy. In many ways, thinking about it, she is perhaps too imaginative...too empathetic/sensitive (she has stated on more than one occasion that she doesn't like how RPGs make her "feel"). D&D scares her...and she's not a fan of being scared. She'd rather relax, chuckling, with an episode of Friends that she's already watched a dozen times.

Other folks (like myself) don't have quite that degree of empathy. We want the adventure with the minimal loss risked entailed in playing a game. 

Of course, that's just with regard to playing D&D. Being a Dungeon Master is a different story: the DM doesn't get to experience adventures, after all; the DM makes the adventures. The DM is the shepherd, and the players are the flock, being led to green pastures where they may sup on adventure to their hearts content.

Why be a DM? Because you get to be God. Which ain't an opportunity you get every day, either.

There's probably a whole 'nother post on that subject.
; )


  1. All good stuff! Maybe that's why more men prefer RPGs than women? I'm sure Jordan Peterson would have the statistical data and philosophical understanding to satisfy the skeptical.

    Isn't Godhood the most exciting adventure of all? Literally, the entire universe is in your hands!

    1. Humans enjoy the act of creation. In this way we are all “mini gods.” D&D world building is only one type of creation available to people.

      While I have known many more male gamers than female, I have known nearly an equal number of female GMs as male. There are LOTS of reasons for this, but I don’t think ANY of those has to do with a predisposition towards “adventure” or “godhood” based on gender.

      To some, I can see how taking the “easy” form of adventure (through gaming) can be viewed as a type of cowardice…and that is something found in both men and women equally.

    2. It's interesting that you know a roughly equal number of female DMs as males. Over the years, I've played with a fair number of women (maybe 20%) and not one was ever interested in being a DM. Two of my friends were even the daughters of a legendary DM in our area, and grew up playing at his table with the older guys. They definitely had the expertise and experience to be great DMs.

      I currently run a 5e campaign for an all-female group of players, all of whom were complete newbies to RPGs and are not connected with my other gaming circle. They took to the game with huge enthusiasm and it's been a blast watching them develop the creative skills to navigate the game.

      Despite that, when I encourage them to try DM'ing, they show zero interest in it. Even the group's rules-lawyer, who has great organizational skills and a solid grasp of the mechanics, declines to even consider it.

      Conversely, nearly all the male players in my other circle have tried DM'ing at least once, and several of us run regular, ongoing campaigns.

      All of that is anecdotal, of course, but I've often wondered why it is. I've asked, but mostly get shrugs.

      As an aside, I would say that insurance companies, at least in the US, have identified a predisposition toward adventure that *is* based on gender, which is reflected in the different insurance rates men (particularly young men) have to pay versus women. Whatever they've identified through statistics in terms of risk, it's quite significant (which anyone who has ever had to pay the bill for a male driver under 25 can attest).

  2. Interesting point; when you say, "you don't have to be young," it's complimentary that "you don't need to be old enough, either. No joining the army at age 9.

    1. That’s actually an excellent point: right, for a kid (or any minor), “experiencing adventure” isn’t really an option outside a fantasy world like D&D. The Pevenses, Beaudelaires, Harry Potter gang, etc. …they all make great stories to read, but reading isn’t the same as doing.

      And we don’t want our kids running away to join the circus or anything.
      ; )

    2. (all of which is to say I was looking at the whole subject with my “geezer glasses” on and forgot their are children who long for adventure, too)

    3. I'm older than you. But I still find I'm young at heart.

      This post is an excellent attack on the point I questioned the other day - though I must say your take is different, and unquestionably better, than Egg's answer. The word that's been locked in my head since starting to think about this is the natural quest for "fulfillment" ...

      But so far, I haven't anything concrete to say about it.

  3. If there is a key divide between old-school and modern RPGs, it's this: the former is about experiencing an adventure; while the latter is about portraying a character, generally in the service of constructing a story.

    It's a point that isn't made often enough: adventures aren't stories. (You can tell a story about an adventure, but that's not at all the same thing.)

    A great many gamers hold that this hobby is about collaborative storytelling, but the kinds of stories that you construct when you play a storygame via narrative mechanics are inevitably artificial and predictable in a way that adventures — risky, exciting, unpredictable things! that, yes, in the immortal words of Bilbo Baggins are also nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable, and make you late for dinner — are not.

    1. I think the divide is actually more of "experiencing adventure" VS. "constructing story," not portraying character. It permeates multiple levels of game play, right up to the DM/GM who is supposed to ignore ("fudge") dice rolls in service to the "needs" of the "story" being told.

      And lest anyone reading this comment think "modern RPGs" only started this trend in the 2000s or 1990s or something, I'm looking at my 1982 Traveller book right now, where on page 13 under REFEREE RESPONSIBILITIES it states:

      "The rolling of dice is a convenient way to represent unknown variables or to assist the referee in making decisions. Feel free to modify the results if you do not like the way they turned out."

      1982. That's your start of "modern gaming," as far as I can tell. Right now we're in what I'd call "post-modern gaming" and YES, the shift has now gone from "we're telling stories" to "we're portraying cool characters" and the GM is responsible for servicing this for players.

      How Godawful is that? What a devil's bargain is THAT to sign! It's like someone saying "hey, how'd you like a job where all you do is have sex? You like having sex right?" Except the reality of being a whore isn't all that great.

      No, F that noise. Playing D&D is about having adventures. The character is the vehicle to do that. The story is what we'll relay afterwards...if we want.

      I will remain hopelessly old-fashioned in this regard. And I will continue to instruct new players in this regard, and (hopefully) instill a love of the game AND adventure in their hearts.

    2. I don't consider fudging to be modern or anti-adventure or part of the story-game movement. Fudging, as you just proved, has been around since the early days of gaming. Same with railroad adventures, sadly.

      There is a divide, and I believe it's between players having autonomy over their character only vs players having control beyond their character... such as the world, campaign, story, etc.

    3. I’m curious about these distinctions because I’ve seen a lot of people online bandy about the notion that old school is not about story or characters but about adventure.

      Reading over the old rulebooks, it seems clear that the point of the game (from the perspective of the PCs) is to portray a character, to embody them as much as possible, claiming “each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by”. Part of the role of the DM is to “act the parts of ‘everyone else’” and “present to you [the PC playing Falstaff the fighter] a variety of new characters to talk with, drink with, gamble with, adventure with, and often fight with!” Elsewhere Gygax criticizes “killer-dungeons” as a travesty “for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae.” The fun of the adventure game is in part being the character as much as one’s imagination and good sense will allow.

      Moldvay Basic opens with a recounting of the fantasy feeling of embodying a character, and in the section for “How to ‘Win’” says that “a good D&D campaign is similar to the creation of a fantasy novel, written by the DM and the Players.” Arneson’s introduction to Empire of the Petal Throne has a similar excited recounting of his own character's adventures in the campaigns played in 1974, and both Arneson and Gygax compare the game favorably to other games because it lets players embody characters from adventure stories. You can find a lot of examples of this emphasis on the fantasy of playing a character throughout the early versions of the game and commentary by early members of the hobby. There are differences in the game mechanics in different editions or other games, and there are solid arguments to be made about what kinds of play game design promotes, but it wouldn’t be accurate to treat old school D&D as if the embodiment of character (and the DM’s role in creating interesting situations for those characters) wasn’t a major part of the appeal.

      I guess ultimately my qualm isn’t about anyone’s gaming preferences (I think you do a fine job of articulating your own and enjoy your perspective) but it just seems incorrect to treat the divide as sharp and vast as people tend to do online. And it’s strange to see it treated as a matter of fact when there’s plenty of textual evidence to the contrary.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I for one certainly agree with John here. 100%.

    6. @Jack⁴: Textual evidence!? We're not in the business of Biblical exegesis here. The writings of Gygax aren't sacred writ. And the OSR, as a project, is far less concerned with recreating the nascent hobby "as it really was back in the day" than it is with using our understanding of that past to create something better. To separate out the pure elements of fun gaming and healthy campaigns from the dross which has accumulated down through the decades — to forge the proverbial "superior alloy."

      The simple fact is, too much thespianism just isn't all that fun, and if we groggy types rail against it from atop a soapbox, it's only because that sort of play took over the hobby long ago. It's not the acting per se that galls; it's the excess of it. The misplaced focus. The dicta handed down from petty gurus guiding the newcomers into the hobby, endlesssly pronoucning on the virtues of "role-playing, not roll-playing."

      If quotes from Gary matter to you, consider that in 1985, he was already of the opinion that thespianism had gone too far, and that it was time to push the pendulum the other way from acting and back towards action and adventure.

      (deleted and reposted to fix a broken link)

    7. @Jack - Also note that in the examples you provided, the key feature tying all those quotes together is the passage of TIME, which only occurs through play.

      In general, the idea of an "old-school" game was that you start out as an ordinary person and then *become* something great. Often, that was through the magic items and titles you acquired during the course of the campaign (similar to how Arthur *is* Excalibur, or Elric *is* Stormbringer; without them, they are simply a jealous king and a whatever Elric is).

      Modern games want to imbue characters with greatness from the outset, even thought its entirely unearned. That might be fine for a one-shot or impatient players, but it's not old-school to fully flesh out your role and then start playing it; the role part develops FROM playing.

    8. @John - I think your reply gets off on the wrong foot. I’m not suggesting that these writings are holy writ (and my comments wouldn’t make sense if you understood them that way). The forum post you linked to is great in certain circumstances, but it’s a bit canned in this conversation because I’m not making any of the arguments T Foster is responding to. I am also interested in learning from the old to make the games of today fun, that’s why I brought it up. All this makes it seem like you’re really trying to talk to someone else.

      Having some textual evidence is helpful, particularly on historical questions. When we’re asking, “what are essential characteristics of old school games compared to modern ones,” it helps to have text to consider and interpret. What we find is even from its early days, the character work that is so often dismissed as “dross” has always been a part of D&D. That Gygax talks about it as a matter of a pendulum swinging should indicate that even in 1985 he recognized thespianism as a part of the game, albeit at concentrations he disliked at the time. I would recommend rereading the article you linked because Gygax is assessing the role-playing aspect of the game in the same way I have.

      I agree with you completely when it comes to too much thespianism. Bad acting is excruciating to endure, and D&D doesn't work when the game aspects are lost among the play acting. But that comes down more to taste and preference, the sort of thing that different groups will decide for themselves. It’s not something that distinguishes old school D&D from later versions: both have embodied character and taking on their role in a thespian-like way as a part of their appeals. Like I said, game design can promote different kinds of play, but the appeal has always been there.

    9. Apologies for being late to the discussion:

      @ Jack:

      You wrote:

      Reading over the old rulebooks, it seems clear that the point of the game (from the perspective of the PCs) is to portray a character, to embody them as much as possible, claiming “each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by”.

      Where are you pulling this quote from? I would like to read the passage to get the full context.

      You state that the old rulebooks make it "clear" that the "point of the game" (from the players perspective) is to portray a character and embody the character as much as possible. That's a pretty wild assertion. Which is to say: it's news to me. I've been playing these D&D games for a long time...I've been studying their textual nuances for less time (though still more than a decade) and this isn't an inference I've ever made. And I trained as an actor at university (my degree is in dramatic arts): I know a little something about "portraying" or "embodying" a character.

      I do not deny that a certain amount of "thespianism" (which I assume to mean "acting in character"...thespianism isn't a word in my dictionary, so please correct me if I have the wrong definition) has probably occurred at D&D game tables since the very earliest days of gaming, and that the idea of portraying a role has always held an appeal for some players. Humans like to anthropomorphize their game pieces: my wife (not a role-player) does this in games of Blood Bowl, my children do it when playing Legos or board games, it's a natural byproduct of imaginary play.

      But I don't believe it's in any way the POINT of play. And to my recollection I haven't read anything in the rule books that seemed to "clearly" state this.

      Maybe I've just been missing it for 40 years? I played D&D (mostly 1E) long before my days at university, and I don't remember my friends and I ever thinking that this was "point" of play.

    10. @JB - Thanks for the reply. The quote from Gygax is in the 1978 Player's Handbook, on page 7 in the section titled "The Game". Here is an article I found with a good overview of arguments about acting the role of the character as a part of old school play. Whether you agree with the author or not, it has a lot of references if you're interested in reading more.

      I think it's worth pointing out that Holmes Basic is spare on any advice about acting in character, incidentally mentioning that it's the DM who should dramatize monsters and NPC because it "adds to the fun." He also maintains a clear distinction between players and characters which other editions (including "Men & Magic") don't. So I can see the other end of people not attaching a lot of importance to acting as a character in playing the game.

      For the sake of contrast, Moldvay Basic's Foreword makes the case for acting as a character and I have a hard time understanding how you would interpret it without seeing acting as a character as a major appeal in the game. That goes for Arneson's introduction to Empire of the Petal Throne, which is admittedly not D&D but is pretty closely associated to rpgs in the era.

      I can understand having a negative reaction to some of the excesses of story games (personally I've found they lack a lot of the game elements that make playing as a character a fun activity, and the attitude of the people involved tend to turn me away). And like I said before, it can be a bad experience when someone pushes too hard on character acting when it's getting in the way of the rest of the group's fun. But all of that sounds more like a matter of personal preference and table decisions than the sort of thing people need to rail against. The appeal of D&D, to me, is the balance of open-endedness and game structure that makes acting as a character a big part of the fun.

    11. You write:
      Moldvay Basic's Foreword makes the case for acting as a character and I have a hard time understanding how you would interpret it without seeing acting as a character as a major appeal in the game.

      There is nothing in the Foreword about acting. There is a LOT about imagining oneself as one's character.

      You can imagine yourself to be your character without acting. To believe otherwise is a gross disconnect between what play is versus the art of acting.

  4. Great post. I realised as an adult that RPG and D&D in particular offers adventure and escapism from the real hazards of life (illness, debt, cold, hunger, anxiety) and that dungeon or adventure creation gives me a sense of control that I don't often have in real life. There's jeopardy and randomness in D&D but they are bounded and controlled by the rules. While in real life we see those who are supposed to represent our interests and guide us disregard and operate outside rules.

    One thing I'd have liked to see added to the post is that adventuring isn't really a solo activity. Nearly every hero has a sidekick or two. I think another reward of adventure is the togetherness it creates. Having recently rewatched HBO's Band of Brothers I can see that too.