What is D&D?

Tenkar’s Tavern asks the question, At what point do house rules become their own rule set? I think it’s an important question, and one that deserves a conversation larger than just one blog (no matter how excellent I think said blog might be). It’s a question that points to the heart of our hobby, and hearkens to the earliest days of the hobby, in terms of how the game was actually played, and how people who played it thought of it.

At Metatopia this weekend I made the point that, back in the earliest days of the hobby (1974-1979 or so), one person would have a copy of the LBBs, an issue of the Strategic Review, a home-brewed magic system based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, and the Ready Ref Sheets from Judge’s Guild, while someone else might have a photocopy of Men & Magic, a few issues of Alarums & Excursions, and a bunch of house ruled combat tables based on his years as a white belt in the SCA.

Today, we would say they were playing completely different games, if one compared the mechanics.

And yet back then they were both called “playing D&D”. You’d take a character from one campaign and play it in another without any thought, converting stuff on the fly. The definition of “the rules” was flexible enough to accommodate house rules. You didn’t need a different name for what you played. It was all D&D, even if they were nigh unto unrecognizable from table to table.

We took the “don’t let us do the imagining for you” imprecation seriously. “D&D” was less a collection of specific rules and a general style of play – an aesthetic.

I can’t help but think that we’re seeing something similar in today’s OSR. Not outside the OSR, I should add – someone playing Dogs in the Vineyard isn’t likely to bring in the conflict resolution system from Shock, the shared narrative mechanic from Donjon, and say “we’re playing Dogs in the Vineyard tonight.” The silos are too well-defined, and modern games are too dependent on rule mechanics rather than the aesthetics of play.

I must wonder if the fragmentation that some lament in the OSR isn’t actually a hearkening back to the earliest old-school aesthetic. I don’t think the labels really detract from that aesthetic, because they don’t really define walls so much as sources. Picture a game played using the Labyrinth Lord rules with the mountebank and jester classes from Adventures Dark and Deep, plus the encumbrance system from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and a couple of printed-out issues of Crawl. 

You’re still playing D&D.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

12 thoughts on “What is D&D?

  1. Agreed. Steal everything. Put your campaign's Thieves Guild to shame! (Although it's polite not to file off the serial numbers and call it your own.) <grin>

    It always amazes me when people started asking "officialdom" how the game should be played. Although it always seemed to be players trying to dispute their gamemaster's ruling in Sage Advice.

    It still amazes me how reluctant people have become to change an OSR rule set when they encounter something they don't like and which makes them unhappy.

    [The only time I play a game as written is when I'm running a tournament game or playtesting something for someone.]

  2. I'm reminded of EGG's comments that D&D had turned into a "non-game", and AD&D was created to establish a standard. Many were offended by this and considered Gygax a hypocrite, as it seemed opposed to his views not long before. I'm sympathetic, though. D&D had ceased to be a game in any meaningful sense and instead became a synonym for "fantasy role-playing game". Gygax created AD&D, not to say any deviations were bad and that we shouldn't house-rule the game (he clearly promoted such activities in the DMG), but to make D&D its own game and not just a genre

    What I mean to say is that you're right about this fragmentation hearkening back to an earlier aesthetic – and that's a great thing – but once there's a significant deviation, you're no longer playing the same game as others, though perhaps a related one. Personally, I like the idea of D&D being its own game among a multitude of others – others which we still play because there's room for so many different games and it'd be a shame to limit ourselves to just one – but that, at the end of the day, even if no two campaigns are exactly the same, you still have a pretty good idea of what you're getting into when asked "Hey, wanna play some D&D?"

  3. As an enthusiastic would-be DM and player of OSR and actual OS D&D I am making an effort to put my collection of pdfs and extensive rule-book reading together to make a houseruled version out of everything from Castles & Crusades to Hackmaster; mainly with the aim of the aesthetic, a fit to my homebrew Greyhawk and the aim of being able to teach my players how to run content from any of these systems or the internet without having to worry much about conversion charts. There are so many Cook and Gygax modules I absolutely love, and being able to read them out-of-the-book for my players without having to do really any work is great. i've even though of getting my friends each a variant so we can switch characters around and each style of play will be a little differentto suit the theme of the DM; or at least be able to switch to these games without re-training. OSR actually shares something with D20 there; from post-apocalyptic fantasy of the 1980s to gritty Lovecraftian horror to straight dungeon-crawling y ¦

  4. Exactly. My own house rules are a mish-mash of things I like from Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer, with some extra classes modified from AD&D, and one thing from 3E that I like (ascending AC).

    And it's D&D. I also play in a Labyrinth Lord game that uses skills from Stars Without Number. It's still D&D. Alexis at Tao of D&D readily admits to using almost nothing from the actual books anymore, yet still claims to be playing D&D.

    It's more of a mindset than a ruleset that's important.

  5. Actually now it sounds like your describing the FLAILSNAILS phenomena.

    I do get what your saying regarding the harking back to the early days. While my own grand adventure started out with B/X, we mixed in AD&D and Basic for the most part, with various house rules and magic systems mixed in. It was all still D&D. It never became its own system.

    I do recall someone declaring their own system that I played in, but don't know what the real difference was – it seemed like D&D.

  6. Agree with you, but I have to point out that I do see just as much DIY-kit-bashing over in the Indie Games blogs. Story Gamers ARE combining Dogs and Apocalypse World and Sorcerer and even D&D, just as some OSR folks are grabbing cool bits from story games and melding them into D&D THEIRS.

  7. @Steven: I think you may have missed my point. I said "…and say "we're playing Dogs in the Vineyard tonight.""

    The point was about the identity of the type of play, not the mere fact that mechanics are being borrowed. You may well be right that a lot of story gamers are kit-bashing rules together. But when they do so, there is no over-arching label they can use to identify what they're playing in a generic sense. Therein lies the difference, I think.

  8. Very, very true, in my own experience. I also believe this is a Good Thing, and should be encouraged, if only because it reinforces the idea that the game is what you make of it, as a referee. It also encourages players to see game differences as design features, not bugs. There's a world of difference between the end notes in Vol. 3: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, and the emergence of the Sage Advice column in The Dragon.

  9. For me the cut-off is if you can run an adventure module with a different rule-set and convert things on the fly with no conversion work done beforehand then it's the same game, if you cant' then it's not. Sure that's subjective but the only reasonable answer you can get to this kind of question is going to be subjective.

  10. I like these thoughts a lot.

    I'd say the modular nature of the rules was encouraged even more by things like The Dragon, where practically every month you'd get new classes or rules variants to try.

  11. Well, a lot of role players (esp. now that the 'hobby' has more casuals than wargamers) are not comfortable making wargame style referee judgments and are afraid of 'unbalancing' the game. This is partly from playing integrated/positive feedback games (d20) and partly from just not being very good at on-the-fly rulings or interested in deep mechanics. They want a game that they 'know' how to play, this is why character generation has so much on-sheet crap now.

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