[Editor: The Busybody welcomes Bob Kruger, President of ElectricStory.com, who like myself grew up in D&D’s golden age, when rules were simple and adventure-modules inspired. Bob offers a sketch of what he considers to be the essential game elements.]
The Essentials of Dungeons & Dragons
by Bob Kruger
Every edition of D&D, including the new 5th edition, strikes me as poorly organized, with the essential game elements scattered throughout the lengthy rules rather than concentrated for easy reference. I think that’s a shame, because the activity would be a lot more popular if people could see through the nonessentials to what it’s really about: a group of people creatively improvising a story together. The Dungeon Master, or “DM” for short, with the complicity of the players, uses the game’s trappings like a magician uses stage props, to divert the analytical mind and draw out everyone’s latent capacity for stage drama.
After due consideration, I’ve decided that the newest edition of D&D does a good job of consolidating lessons learned by the community over four decades. Superficially, it looks like a big departure from the original game and even the 3rd edition major overhaul. But really, the essentials have been burnished to a high luster, and the dross has been minimized. If you read all the rules without guidance, you’ll probably come away with a better sense of how to conduct the game than you would by reading any other edition.
It is still poorly organized.
My friend Ken McGlothlen, a founder of Wizards of the Coast, likes to quote a statement by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” The rules in D&D are not like the rules in other games where players compete against each other to reach a winning objective; they are rather tools to achieve an effect, like a vocabulary or a musical scale. You can do a lot with little, and if you try to employ them all before you understand what you’re trying to do, you’ll make incoherent noise.
Organizing the rules so that you need to read them all to get a functional overview is a terrible disservice to the game. Instead, the rules should outline the essentials, and then progress toward what is optional, with perhaps reference tables at the end. There have been several attempts at a Basic Edition of D&D over the years, but I’m not talking about leading with the basics. The essentials are not basic at all. They are more like the core, challenging tenets.
The word “level” has an honored history in the game. I’m tempted to organize this discussion by levels, with the higher levels being more arbitrary and dispensable, but to avoid confusion, I’ll call them “tiers.”
Tier 0: Emperor’s New Clothes
Before I get to the essential first tier of D&D, I’ll give a nod to the idea that D&D is really no more than group makebelieve of the kind that young kids spontaneously engage in, boys playing at being soldiers or superheroes and girls playing “house,” or vice versa. Maybe D&D is really no more than a group improv storytelling activity that involves medievalish heroes, monsters, and magic. If you’re intimidated by weighty rule tomes, grid paper, miniatures, and polyhedral dice, then console yourself with the idea that all that might be optional.
If you are the Dungeon Master, you want to fool your players into thinking you’re playing the game at the highest levels – employing all the rules in the weighty D&D tomes — while actually striving for tier 0, where you dispense with them all. But don’t underestimate the challenge. If your players think you’re just making stuff up, which they will if you don’t maintain the disciplined pretense of using the rules, your players will lose faith in the exercise and feel manipulated. The rules give players confidence that they are operating in an objective world – rather than being railroaded — and that the decisions they make have a real impact on events, which they should.
In short, D&D is an act of self-deception — even for the Dungeon Master – that paradoxically results in a true experience. If that perspective is too abstruse for you, look at it this way: it’s practically impossible to play by the rules without boring the ass off everyone involved. Those players who really try aren’t master players, they’re duped beginners. The game’s not ultimately about following rules anyway; it’s about evoking a living story. “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”
It’s hard to overstate this. The only winning in D&D is sharing excitement. Players are excited if they feel they’ve exercised their minds to help bring out satisfying developments in a story. The Dungeon Master is excited if his players seem engrossed by his performance. Everyone feels a little ridiculous, which is why you roll dice to shake up the experience and make it seem like everyone is at the judgement of fate, but the best DMs understand the dice rolling and all the rules to be merely showman’s props. The possible developments should be necessarily limited and all should be interesting.
Once again, at its most essential, D&D is simply a magic trick conducted for a group by a DM, who uses dice rolls and rules as indirection to obscure his art, to create an emotional effect while the audience’s attention and thought are distracted.
To play D&D at tier 1, you need:
1. The referee storyteller, called a Dungeon Master, or DM for short, who describes the setting and assumes all the roles in the game except those of the player characters.
2. Players who assume the role of medievalish characters whose descriptions are set down on paper for reference, generally one character per player.
3. Dice that impartially represent the role of fate in determining the success or failure of an action like attempting to hit a target, scale a wall, or bluff a guard.
D&D has a few essential conventions and game mechanics. You assume the role of a character in a world with medieval-level technology where magic works and monsters roam. Your goal is to solve mysteries and defeat opponents to advance in experience level. As you advance in level, you increase the magnitude and scope of your abilities, which in turn allows you to take on more — and often more complex — challenges.
In a word, archetypes. Fighting, thievery, gods, and magic are concepts accessible to just about everyone. In all cultures, most kids get some instruction in these concepts through fairy tales, in addition to the idea of monarchy and to a lesser extent feudalism. We evolved to fight and steal and to attribute supernatural agency to things we can’t explain. If you stay close to these imperatives, you’ll be able to engage new people in a game of D&D very quickly.
Adults have a lot of unfinished business with fairy tales. Case in point: Star Wars. The basic concerns of fairy tales are lifelong concerns. In a modern culture that’s abstracted the fundamentals of life beyond recognition for many of us, D&D promises to set you back on a long-abandoned clear path toward making sense of the world.
You solve mysteries, fight monsters, and gain treasure. Specifically, you explore underground catacombs, labyrinths, or cave networks, referred to as “dungeons” even if they don’t have anything to do with housing prisoners. You may also explore wilderness or town settings. What’s important in the adventuring setting is constraint. For some reason, this has never been acknowledged in any of the rules. A poor dungeon master has a poor concept of how the geography or architecture of his setting constrains and focuses story action. A good adventure setting offers the players a limited but rich set of options for exploration and plot progression.
The stonework “dungeon” is essential to Dungeons & Dragons for several reasons. It makes it easy to limit the set of possible actions that characters can take and to standardize rules for them; therefore, opening doors, checking for secret doors, fighting monsters, illuminating a space with lanterns or torches – all have become standard activities. What’s more, the dungeon-and-cavern setting has inspired monsters that have become icons of the game, like the gelatinous cube, a mindless, transparent monster that neatly fills dungeon halls and cleans them of debris; the mimic, which can look like a spot of floor or a treasure chest; the lurker above, whose underside looks like a dungeon ceiling; and the piercer and roper, which look like stalactites and stalagmites, respectively. Finally, the dungeon is often a multi-leveled construction, with the lower levels inhabited by the most dangerous monsters, the greatest treasures, and the most powerful ancient magic, which symbolizes the psyche and its layers. The deeper you go into your own head, the greater the hazards and the greater potential rewards of insight and power.
Wilderness and town adventures can be viewed as basically dungeon adventures with streets, paths, rivers, houses, meadows, and valleys standing in for dungeon halls and rooms.
Alignment and Cosmology
Related to setting is cosmology, and D&D outlines a multiverse of moral and elemental forces. Characters and monsters and even different regions of the multiverse have moral alignments, from Good to Evil variously mixed with lawful order and chaos.
The moral universe is laid out on two perpendicular axes: the Law to Chaos axis that intersects the Good to Evil axis, with Neutrality where the lines cross at the center: so you have the zones Neutral, Neutral Good, and Neutral Evil; Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral; Lawful Evil and Lawful Good; and Chaotic Evil and Chaotic Good. There are home dimensions, or “planes,” for each of these alignments. There are also planes dedicated to material elements, like Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. The characters’ homeworld is like a stew composed of forces from the various planes.
The morally aligned planes shape the expression of the physical worlds. Therefore, evil places on Earth (or Middle-earth or whatever you call your adventuring homeworld) that allow passage to the Chaotic Evil planes may be desolate and repellant, inhabited by diseased, asymmetrical plants and animals that reflect the even worse corruption to be found on the Evil planes themselves. If you’ve read Leviticus (hint: in the Bible), you probably noticed that spiritual and physical corruption or perfection go hand in hand. This is an evolved bias. Our reflexive disgust at rotten or otherwise harmful things and our reverence of clean and pure things helped our ancestors survive, and insofar as we are naïve, we order our moral positions by that same physical disgust or reverence. So it is in D&D. Evil and Good infest the physical world itself. What’s more, they are not merely positions in the figurative sense; they’re also places you can visit.
D&D can get very complicated with its metaphysical maps. For tier 1 D&D, it’s enough to acknowledge the nine different alignments and the existence of moral and elemental planes you can travel to.
Only four character classes comprise essential, tier-1 D&D: thief, fighter, magic-user, and cleric. In recent editions of D&D, the thief is called a “rogue” and magic-users come, at a minimum, in wizard and sorcerer varieties. These specialist classes complement each other, which encourages players to adopt different classes from each other and easily slip into different roles that are highly valued by the other players.
Whatever. The main archetypes represent: 1) loners who live by dexterity and wit, 2) fighting men and women, 3) magicians, and 4) holy men and women. You’ll find many more classes in the official rulebooks and supplements, but you’ve got a good handle on the game if you view them as variations on, and admixtures of, these four roles.
Although the first popularizer and main author of D&D, Gary Gygax, tried to play down the influence of Tolkien on his work, it’s clear from early editions of the game that Tolkien influenced the game more than the Weird Tales swords-and-sorcery writers like Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft and their direct literary descendants like Fritz Leiber. The iconic (tier 1) races in the game are humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. The earliest editions of D&D back in the seventies conceived of the races as their own character classes, but by the eighties, a race implied a separate set of special skills and adjustments to basic attributes. The only race that’s really essential to the game is human, but the races have been a respected part of the game flavor, so you’re kind of working against the D&D grain if you don’t include them.
- The Dice
The Ancient Greeks recognized that there are five congruent polyhedrons where the same number of faces meet at every vertex. A simpler way of saying this is that they realized there are five different shapes that work great as dice: four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, twelve-sided, and twenty-sided. The Platonic solids have captured the imagination of mathematicians and natural philosophers for thousands of years. They give you a nice toolkit of probabilities to play with. Maybe there’s even real magic in them to represent the workings of fate in a living world. Who knows? In any case, they’re essential D&D equipment.
- The Attributes
Characters have six basic attributes, namely strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, and charisma, each of which has a score from 3 to 18 and is determined by rolling three six-sided dice and adding the results together. Early editions of the game prescribed these attributes for characters only. Monsters weren’t really on this scale, even the humanoid monsters. But for several editions now, all creatures are measured by this scale, with weak ones being off it in the direction of 0, and extremely powerful ones above it, up to a score of 25 or, very rarely, more. The 3-to-18 scale works very well, and I’d say it’s a tier 1 element of D&D.
Because three rolls of a six-sided die are added together for each attribute, you get a bell-curve distribution that favors a score toward the middle of the scale. There are many more three-dice combinations that add up to 9 than to 3 or 18. Your chance of getting a 9 score is relatively high. Think about it. To get a 3, you need to roll a one three times in a row; to get an 18, a 6 three times in a row; but a nine could be three 3s, or it could be a 1, a 6, and a 2; two 2s and a five; and so on. The scale could have been narrower, say with three four-sided dice, or broader with three ten-sided dice, but 3-to-18 is a very nice range. It’s big enough to differentiate a weakling from a bodybuilder or an idiot from a genius without getting too nitpicky about scoring fine shades of ability, and it’s close to the range of 1 to 20 that is so important to skill checks.
The six attributes were variously important to the different classes, of thief, fighter, cleric, and magic-user (and their permutations like rangers, assassins, monks, and so on) all the way back in the early editions of the game. Fighters needed strength to wear heavy armor and wield weapons; thieves needed dexterity to open locks, climb walls, and pick pockets; clerics needed wisdom for their spells, and magic-users, intelligence; but that hardly justified the existence of attributes for the classes that didn’t use them. Intelligence and wisdom hardly applied to fighters at all, for instance. That has changed with the belated system of skill checks, which really should have been there all along.
- Skill Checks
With 3rd edition and the D20 system developed by Jonathan Tweet, et al, the attributes translate to standard modifiers for skill and luck checks, like say a -4 added to a combat die roll for a strength of 3, up to a +4 for a strength of 18. Chief among these die checks is the “saving throw,” which determines whether your character avoids some baleful circumstance, like being charmed by a demon, poisoned by a giant spider, or affected by a magical spell. In early editions of the game, you’d roll a die and compare the result against a lengthy reference table for a particular activity, but this was silly and encouraged a proliferation of arbitrary tables. Also, saving throws were not cleanly tied to relevant ability scores, like Dexterity for dodging an arrow trap, or Wisdom to avoid a vampire’s gaze, which made all ability scores less meaningful than they could be.
The best approach is the current one, where a hypothetical average person succeeds at an average task by rolling a 10 or higher on a 20-sided die. The DM adjusts this 10 difficulty upward for harder actions or downward for easier ones. A DM needs to have a sense of drama and proportion and only employ skill checks to help focus the players’ attention, or to regain it if that attention is wandering. Therefore, you don’t employ a skill check for simply walking across a room unless there’s some special difficulty or consequence involved.
To make a skill check, a player adds any modifiers to the roll like, for instance, their character’s Dexterity bonus to dodge a trapdoor along with a bonus based on the character’s experience level, and if the outcome equals or exceeds the difficulty, the action succeeds. For some reason it took several editions of the game to hit on this superior approach. The term “saving throw” has a long tradition, but it’s not really an essential concept. It’s just a skill check.
Combat is much like skill checking, with some special added rules. Each combatant has an Armor Class, which represents the difficulty rating for an opponent to score a hit. So if you are an average person fighting a monster with a 13 armor class, you must roll a 13 to hit. If you are a hero with a magic sword that gets, say, +5 bonuses to hit, you’d only need to roll an 8, because you add your bonuses to the roll to try to get 13.
Different weapons do different amounts of damage and have various rules apply to them. The weapon rules can get very complicated. You can really dispense with the complications and just keep some rules of thumb in mind. A big sword or a spear will do about one eight-sided die of damage; a dagger or dart will do about a four-sided die in damage. Weapons that do more than a twelve-sided die, before any penalties or bonuses, will be very big and very slow to wield; ones that do less than a four-sided die will be very small.
Combat is conducted in rounds, which is an exchange of blows but implies a bunch of feints and dodges abstracted away for practicality’s sake. With a small weapon, you might get two attacks per round. With a big weapon, you might get as little as one attack every other round. You can look up exact rules if you want, but this is really up to the DM and most players do not keep close track.
- Magic Spells
Borrowing a magic system devised by writer Jack Vance, D&D dictates that a magic-user undergoes a long apprenticeship and starts his adventuring life with a few basic spells in his spellbook. He studies a spell to commit it to memory, and when he casts the spell, the magical energy released scrubs his memory of the spell, so he’ll need to re-memorize it. The number of spells and the kinds of spells that a magic-user can hold in memory are dictated by his Intelligence attribute score and experience level. To get new spells, the magic-user will need to study under a more experienced magician or else find magic scrolls in the course of adventures that he can copy into his spellbook.
A cleric prays to her god and performs a ritual, which invokes a favor, in the form of a spell, from her god. To regain a spell, the cleric will need to dedicate time to uninterrupted prayer. The number and kinds of spells that a cleric can invoke are dictated by the cleric’s experience level and Wisdom attribute score.
So there is pseudo-scientific magic, gained through study, that follows predictable rules; and there is divine magic that is bestowed by a god or other powerful being. Players assume their characters are acquainted with the particulars of the magic they use. Players themselves don’t have to memorize any magical procedures themselves, just what a spell does. They simply declare their intent to use a spell, and depending on the rules for a particular spell, their character may have to employ special physical ingredients and/or words or hand gestures. If the character isn’t free to speak or move, or if they hadn’t secured the right ingredients ahead of time, they can’t cast the spell. These rules serve to limit the power of magic-users in the game.
The essential use of magic is pretty much the same across the board. A magic-using character has spell slots and chooses which spells to put in them before the adventure, and during the adventure when a spell is cast, a spell vacates the slot, and a character needs about a day of downtime to recover spells. Spells are divided up into levels, which are not the same as character levels. A fifth-level spell is a powerful spell, for instance, and a character needs to have much more than five character levels to use it.
(This is tier-1 spellcasting. Recent editions of the game have introduced “sorcerer,” or “artsy,” magic that derives from innate talent. A sorcerer doesn’t need to find new spells and enter them in a spell book. More about this later.)
- Experience Points and Level Progression
Gaining levels is an essential D&D element. You do this by defeating monsters. To keep the challenge of level progression uniformly difficult, you need to defeat more or more powerful monsters to gain each successive level. So, for example, you might need a thousand experience points to go up to level 2 and then another 2000 to go up to level 3. The way experience has been awarded has changed over the years. While the concept of leveling is an essential concept, there’s no essential implementation. Basically, a DM wants to moderate the challenges so that a group will make regular progress in going up levels without having it be too easy, say one level per every ten hours or so of playing – less if the group meets seldom and more if they play a lot. It’s probably worse to make leveling too easy than too hard, however. Attaining a new level gives a character more hit points, and every few levels a character gets a bonus on various skill checks, or at least a to-hit bonus. Spellcasters can hold more spells in memory each level and qualify to cast more powerful spells every few levels.
Magic items are all arbitrary, but I’d say that magic swords and other weapons that give a bonus up to +3 on a to-hit roll, magic arrows that slay a certain type of creature if the creature fails a saving throw, rings and cloaks of invisibility, and magic potions that bestow various powers – basically any magic that can improve a character’s stats temporarily or permanently – are tier-1 elements.
Monsters represent the key antagonism in the game. They can be very arbitrary, but a few do seem to be essential. Humanoid monsters play on our xenophobia and help us to articulate ideas about evil. Monsters may have more or less power from culture to culture, but so far it seems that the following are durable monster archetypes that should show up at some point:
— Humanoid: goblins, orcs, ogres, and giants. There are various giants, but hill giants, frost giants, and fire giants seem most important.
— Undead: vampires, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and wraiths/shadows/ghosts (permutations of the same incorporeal undead). Undead complement clerics, because clerics have special powers to address them. If you get rid of one, you need to get rid of the other, and I think undead address universal anxiety about corpses, death, and the extinction of the self. Some undead can only be affected by magic weapons and holy water. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get holy water, which is magical where undead are concerned. Thus, the mere threat of undead helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world by forcing them to think about holy water. (In response to Christian churches that will not condone gay clergy, I joke that as long as gay priests can make holy water that will burn vampires, they should be allowed to keep their perquisites.) Sacred rites run deep in our psychology, and undead support this idea nicely.
— Lycanthropes: werewolves, werebears, and wererats. Maybe werewolves are the only essential lycanthropes. After all, “lycanthropy” derives from the Greek lukos, meaning wolf, but werebears appear in Tolkien’s work, and wererats touch our anxiety about a creature that has parasitized human civilization since the beginning. The idea of sewer-dwelling riffraff that can turn into rats seems essential to me. In any case, lycanthropes reflect our ambivalence with our animal natures. Because lycanthropes can be hit only by magic or silver weapons, players need to think about having extra equipment to address them. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get silver weapons, which are magical where lycanthropes are concerned. Thus, as with holy water, the idea of needing silver weapons helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world.
— Demons and Devils: demons and devils are essential to the game. They are like undead, but they come from realms of perfected evil, whereas undead merely channel the energy of those realms. Heroic fantasy deals with abstractions like good and evil as absolutes. Demonic forces reflect the higher order of the cosmos.
— Dragons: dragons have a long fantasy tradition. Whole scholarly books have been written (in the real world) on how they embody a mixture of traits common to the ancient predators of humanity: serpents, raptors, and hunting cats. The idea of them is readily at hand. We may have dedicated brain circuits to processing the idea of clawed, flying, scaly things with fear and awe.
— Giant Animals and Plants: gigantism in many forms evokes a number of important feelings, from otherness to awe to revulsion. A very small creature like an amoeba, cricket, or spider becomes a positive horror when made gigantic; same with carnivorous plants.
— Greek Myth: Just about any creature from Greek Myth should be considered a part of the tier-1 D&D canon.
— Weird: D&D needs a few weird monsters to evoke anxiety about Otherness and shake up the Manichean expectations set up by demons and devils. Maybe even demons and devils are ultimately too cozy and human-centric. Maybe at its deepest levels, the universe is a scary, unknowable place where all we cling to as order is arbitrary and vain. The Weird would include monsters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or their close cousins like mind flayers, but the particular weirdness isn’t important, just that there is some.
Essential D&D recognizes the gold piece as the primary unit of currency. Gold does not tarnish. It has a long tradition in alchemy, and is a great metaphor for purity. Copper, silver, and platinum coins are also essential D&D, but they all have value in reference to gold. Gems are also essential, as are various magic items, but the particular ones aren’t so important.
Traps and Puzzles
Pit traps, arrow traps, riddling sphinxes – traps and riddles are essential dungeon furnishing and can provide interesting roleplaying opportunities. They involve skill checks and so remind players of the various capabilities of their characters and help them maintain sight of the roles they’re playing.
Swords, spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, and maces. Thieves generally do not use heavy weapons. Some clerics may not be able to use blood-letting weapons. These restrictions help enforce class specialization and limit their powers.
Shields, leather, chain, scale, and plate, or admixtures, are essential. Armor is used to balance out the powers of the various classes. Thieves and magic-users generally cannot use metal armor. The in-game reasoning for this is that metal armor interferes with their movement, but the restriction also balances their powers with those of the other classes, of course.
Beyond tier 1, you really can consider yourself on your own and still solidly within the realm of D&D. I’ll just share what I think are a few elements of the game with a solid tradition that arguably lie closest to essential D&D without being archetypal; an example is monsters that were created specifically for the game.
In D&D trolls are a special type of green-skinned, dim-witted, regenerating monstrosity, very tough for low-level characters to kill, but generally solitary so they’re a common monster encounter. They’re nothing like the Nordic troll, which really can be replaced by ogres and hill giants anyway. Since trolls in the game are a D&D innovation, I wouldn’t call them essential, but most D&D games use them. The same could be said of other creatures like the gelatinous cube and the piercer, or the mind flayer, which is like a race of wingless, human-sized Cthulhu monsters. The mind flayer is a great D&D innovation. It has a hideous parasitic life cycle and has captured a lot of people’s imaginations.
Lesser-known monsters from world mythology, like weretigers, rakshasa, and so on, are tier 2. Is this a Western bias? Of course it is, because D&D is a game that started in the West and was primarily inspired by Western Classical culture. If you don’t live in the West, though, feel free to consider your local beasties tier 1.
Tier-2 character classes include paladin holy warriors, rangers in the idiom of Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings, monks like the kung fu warriors from chopsocky movies, and what D&D calls “sorcerers,” which are artsy-fartsy magicians whose spells come from an innate magical gift rather than disciplined study. Sorcerer-type magicians as defined by later editions of D&D have a solid tradition in genre fantasy literature. I don’t think they’re archetypes like wizards and priests, so they’re not essential, but they’re close.
Gnomes, deep gnomes, drow — drow are dark elves. Elves in Tolkien were arguably like humans before the Fall, so Dark Elves are like, I don’t know, elves who made a pact with demons to act wicked and still keep their immortality? Anyway, the idea of debased subterranean elves, suave but impossibly evil, worshippers of a hideous spider goddess who demands blood sacrifice and favors women so as to set up a dark matriarchy – it’s provocative stuff. The idea of drow is only a few decades old, though, not quite tier-1 stuff. Maybe I’m too conservative.
Recent editions of D&D have promoted dragonmen to first-class race status. In terms of importance to the game, I’d call them tier 3, at best.
All spells are tier 2 or lower. Some of them have a respected tradition in the game and in mythology generally, and should probably be considered canon, insofar as any spells are. That would include Web, Magic Missile, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Polymorph, Cure Disease, Cure Wounds, Shield, Light, Strength, Bless, and arguably a few others.
Specific Moral and Physical Planes
Every edition of D&D since the first “Advanced” D&D books published in 1978 has outlined a cosmology where each moral alignment has its home universes – or “Outer Planes of Alignment” [click on image below] — that bleed through a layer of elemental, or “Inner” — planes to intersect our own. [Click on image to the right.]
Now, whether the elemental planes in your D&D game follow the classical model, with realms of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water (and Ether, or “Quintessence”) and whether you recognize the existence of the Nine Hells and the 666 layers of the Abyss, divide the planes up into Inner and Outer Planes, mix in Light and Dark as elements, stick in an Astral Plane for good measure, and talk about “Demi-Planes” – whether you accept these specifics is really a tier 2 and lower consideration.
Some may argue that the nine alignments and a cosmology of moral Outer Planes and physical Inner Planes are not really essential, but I disagree; they unify discussion of monsters and magic and have such a deep tradition in D&D that without them, you’re really playing a different game.
Most of the specific rules of D&D are tier 2 or lower. The six basic attributes and the concepts of skill checks are essential, as I explained, but what about the exact numbers you need to apply to a 20-sided die and the names you give the various skills? Tier 2, or lower. I won’t go into which have the more solid tradition. Specific rules, as opposed to the general concepts, are really up to your taste. You’ll want them, but remember that ultimately you don’t need them.
Tier 3, and Beyond
Tier 2 represents the time-honored, if arbitrary, core traditions of D&D. Other traditions and have come and gone in the past forty years. In tier 3, I’d place the Energy and Transitive planes of the cosmology; monsters other than demons and devils that inhabit the Outer Planes, like devas, angels, and so on; specific gods like Lolth; combat rules involving weapon speed factors; advantage dice, critical hits, and skill and feat trees. If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. It is not “advanced” stuff; it’s just more stuff, some good, some not so good. All of it dispensable.
D&D involves several players and a storyteller referee that mediates the storytelling. Essential D&D resonates with our evolved cognitive biases, and explores archetypal symbols. It takes practice to do it well, but doing it well is less a function of adhering to the rules than mastering the art of appearing to faithfully apply them. You actually use the rules only to help the players suspend their disbelief and to suggest new, better dramatic possibilities for your story.
Coming Soon: D&D Setup and Procedure
(Dungeons and Dragons and D&D are registered trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, a division of Hasbro, Inc.)
Thanks for this excellent contribution, Bob. I agree with almost everything in your presentation, and I feel especially the same as you do about the importance of the moral alignment system (and its impact in the outer planes). I always found the criticism that alignment supposedly pigeon-holes PCs into unrealistic or one-dimensional behavior a profound misunderstanding of the alignment system. No one I played with ever assumed that a lawful-good PC was a saint 24/7, or that a chaotic evil went around with nothing but black-hearted intentions. The alignments are general leanings, and the outer planes contained convincing personifications of those moral impulses. And yes, without them, the game is very different.
Your opening salvo about the art of deception and self-deception is bang on. Wonderfully stated.
The only point I would take some issue with is your claim about Tolkien’s influence on the game exceeding the pulp writers (Vance, Howard, Leiber, etc). I think the races reflect Gygax’s cashing in on popular culture of the time, and are rather superficial influences (like the orc monsters), while the spell systems, character classes, and most importantly the settings and themes of the old-school modules, shout the influence of the pulps in almost every encounter area. But I realize this is a bone of contention among grognards, especially in how we view Gygax’s conflicting statements about Tolkien across his career.
Thanks very much for hosting the article. Your editorial and graphical touch-ups have certainly improved it! I agree that there’s a strong Weird Tales influence in D&D, but the game really rode the coattails of LoTR popularity. I propose a compromise: Tolkien had more influence than any single Weird Tales author, but collectively, the Weird Tales influences are stronger. Like the Abyss extending a tendril into Fairyland, the Weird in D&D held congress with Tolkien’s mythology and birthed the drow and the Ilithids, among other icons of the game.
Maybe I told you that what inspired me to write about this was recently introducing my nephews to D&D. They have short attention spans, so I needed to involve them quickly. I hadn’t played the game in a long time, and I was trying to sort out what I really needed to teach them. A few weeks after our first adventure, I bought the 5th Edition books, and for some reason, maybe from all the hype about the new edition and how it consolidated massive input from the gaming community, I assumed they would lay out the essentials and then discuss the traditions of the game, but instead, they fragment and scatter the core pieces so that you have to wade through all the rules to get a solid overview.
The next article will present strategies for efficiently getting players immersed in the game and the action and for keeping their attention. I’ll welcome your input and that of your readers.
I shouldn’t say my nephews have short attention spans. That’s facile and really unfair; they ultimately focused their attention for a long time, and that’s not all to my credit. My point was just that they weren’t acquainted with D&D and I was competing with high-res video games and with YouTube videos for their free time, so I needed to sell them quickly.
When you say that “D&D rode the rode the coattails of LoTR popularity”, that’s really my point. D&D was capitalizing on LoTR fandom, but I believe in a superficial way unlike that of the Weird Tales influences. This Grognardia post is worth reading, where James Maliszewski cites an article written by Gygax all the way back in 1974 — before the time, in other words, of his conflict with the Tolkien estate. It hasn’t settled the matter, of course, and in the end, we may be stuck with compromises.
I hope your nephews are loving the game!
They seem to be engage. They play sports and haven’t had time for it the past week, but I’m sure we’ll pick it up again soon. After we play out the adventure I cooked up for them, it’s on to Hommlett, repurposed for the world I started for them.
As for the Tolkien-influence controversy, I’m honestly not that well versed in it, so thanks for the link. I think it’s interesting the article uses some of the same language that you and I have here, like “riding coattails” and “superficial.” I’m happy to concede I’m wrong, but I think how you perceive the influence of either Tolkien or Weird Tales is a function of how you play the game. Halflings, orcs, elves, dwarves, and dragons clearly fit Tolkien’s conception or can easily be made to fit. If you omit those from your game, I think you impoverish it, but then, if you admit any Weirdness (capital “W”), you certainly do.
* “Omit all Weirdness” is what I meant to type.
Dear Loren and Robert,
what Gary said about the rules is actually pure truth.
I have been playing D&D for some time… and now not so much. I do not agree on the concept of having so many rules, and the marketing goal to produce and sell so many rulebooks.
Anyway, I suggest you to have a look at this wonderful free game system, The Window by Scott Lininger, that helped me to evolve many years ago (it was 1997), and I still use it today (even if customised): http://www.mimgames.com/window/downloads/
Concerning the game mastering tips, the best book I have found is the Gamemastering by Brian Jamison, which is even free in PDF: http://www.gamemastering.info/ . I agree with the majority of what the author explains… and for example on the worst D&D idea: the alignment.
Thanks, Federico! I’ll check out the links.
These two posts are *superb* introductions to (and for older readers, clarifications of) the meanings of D&D — thanks much.
That said, I think the D&D-specific spell library is quite important to the character of the game — not least because spells like Rope Trick and Tenser’s Floating Disc are tied so closely to the core player activity (explore the bowels of the earth, win exotic treasure from terrible monsters). The spell list is tailored, carefully or not, to the cave, the keep, the forest — what seems arbitrary and capricious turns out to be a kind of impressionistic portrait of the adventurer’s life, and in that sense it expresses the core values of the game quite neatly.
Same for certain magic items, as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll not press the issue. 🙂
Thanks, waxbanks. I’m glad someone has given more thought to the spells than I. My purpose with the first essay was to demonstrate my approach to breaking the game down, more than to be prescriptive with my ranking and categories. I could probably be persuaded to your point of view.