What IS D&D?

The question is a bit zen but I’m asking anyway: what is Dungeons & Dragons? The obvious answers are “a game” or “a hobby”, or “a book, roughly 300 pages long”. Maybe even a glib “a lifestyle.” But is that all D&D is?

If D&D is defined solely as “a game with a cover that says: D&D” doesn’t that mean every game with D&D on the cover is equally Dungeons & Dragons, from Wrath of Ashardalon to Dungeon! to Lords of Waterdeep? Or does the game have to be an RPG? If you were to take an roleplaying game at random, let’s say Big Eyes Small Mouth, and change the name on the cover does BESM suddenly become D&D?

13th Edition

What exactly is D&D? I started asking myself this question because of the EN World forums. Morrus, the owner & operator, decided to lump discussion on the game 13th Age in with the D&D forums, because after playing it he felt it was D&D.

The ENWorld forums were already mixed between D&D and non-D&D (technically) as Pathfinder was also included. However Pathfinder is basically D&D version 3.5 with baked in house rules, and the product line began as a 3rd Party products for D&D. So PF truly is D&D by any other name. Meanwhile, 13th Age is an entirely separate game: it’s the Mockbuster equivalent of D&D.

13th Age is designed by Wizards of the Coast alumni. And it has the familiar classes and races of D&D. Even one of the game’s new ideas, the Icons, draw much of their inspiration from iconic D&D deities and archetypes. But there as many differences as similarities. If similar classes and races are all it takes to make something into D&D than most fantasy RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, might also arguably be D&D.

The question is further muddied by 4th Edition D&D, which moves much of this question out of the realm of the hypothetical as it does have “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover but one of the more common complaints of the edition was that it “didn’t feel like D&D”. And the same criticism has be made of the online action game Neverwinter, which is an officially licenced 2nd Party Product.

Rules of the Game

To many people, D&D is certain mechanics. These are often the game’s sacred cows, such as six ability scores where 10 is average and 18 is the limits of mundane humanity. This might also include terms such as hitpoints, saving throw, or armour class. It might include powers such as fireball or sly flourish. Concepts such as intelligent wizards, wise clerics, and dexterous rogues are a big part of the game.

The rules of the game are what you pay for, especially when upgrading editions. The flavour and fluff (typically) does not change between editions. And no rules are required for roleplaying.

However, if D&D is defined by its rules this has a couple interesting effects. First, changing the rules means the game is less D&D, even if the change is an unequivocal improvement. Bad rules and clunky design – such as Vancian magic, quadratic wizards – might be essential parts of the game’s tone. Second, limiting D&D to being the sum of its rules also means when you modify the game via house rules you are no longer playing D&D. The more the game is customized, the less it remains “D&D” and the more it becomes a hybrid of D&D and some unnamed, unpublished, ruleset.

However, the counterpoint could be made that the customization of the rules is also D&D. House rules were very common in earlier edition, and it has been remarked that no one ever played AD&D 1st Edition straight out of the books. In much the the same was that no one plays the exact same game of Minecraft, but everyone is still playing Minecraft. This means a consistent ruleset that is not modified would be less D&D.

One other complication is alternate flavours of the D&D ruleset. If D&D is solely its crunch, then any games published using that crunch are also D&D. Even excluding the myriad of 3rd Party games using D&D’s OGL, during the era of 3e WotC released d20 Modern and two-and-a-half Star Wars RPGs, all based on the same ruleset as D&D.  So d20 Modern is also D&D, and arguably so is Star Wars. Ditto the version of Gamma World released during the 4e era.

Fluff Versus Crunch

The counterpart to D&D being defined to the rules is the game being defined by its flavour text and story. Rules make the game into “a game” versus shared storytelling or pure roleplaying. RPing is possible without any rules, as seen on any school playground or in any improv theatre. But D&D is a roleplaying game, which means the RPing is a vital element, given equal footing to the “game” segment.

Monsters and worlds define much of the flavour, as does the fluff justification for class powers and abilities. A game’s rules cannot be copyrighted, but monsters can be labeled Intellectual Property; the flavour alone can be unique to D&D as no one else can legally have a beholder or mind flayer in their product. And while monsters like drow are usable by the public, the worlds of their creation and fame (Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms) are property of WotC. In many ways, the characters, monsters, and tropes of Greyhawk are the characters, monsters, and tropes of D&D, and no one else can release a Greyhawk product.

Beyond the story elements, fluff would also include the various tropes and traditions of the game: dungeon crawls, ruins of ancient empires, wizards in robes with spellbooks, fighters in heavy armour, cunning and ancient dragons, orcs in 10×10 rooms, crazy traps, bizarre puzzles, and more. The various common elements found in almost every D&D world or campaign.

Limiting D&D to being the sum of its unique story elements is problematic because it means you’re “playing D&D” even if you’re running a game of Tomb of Horrors or a campaign set in Eberron using Dungeon World or the Storyteller system.

The line between mechanics and flavour can also blur. The fluff of the monster defines how it acts in the mechanical aspect of the game; a hill giant should not act or behave the same as a stone giant, despite both being strong large-sized monsters. Even if armed with the same weapons in the same terrain, the hill giant should be simpler and more instinctive (i.e. stupider) than the more cunning and intelligent stone giant. They should use different tactics, place different values on their life, and work together differently. Monsters also define the encounter area: even before you confront a goblin or kobold their lair should feel different with different challenges; even if the two small menaces were functionally mechanically equal, a kobold dungeon crawl should play different than a goblin adventure.

Style of Play

To a generation of grandmothers, a video game consoles was a “Nintendo”. It didn’t matter if it was a PlayStation or a Sega (or what type of Sega), it was a “Nintendo”. Despite the inaccuracy of the statement, to many people playing any RPG is playing “Dungeons & Dragons”. The one game is so synonymous with the activity that the brand name has almost become the general term, or even a verb.

If this is the case then D&D is any “fantasy roleplaying game”, which is far too broad a definition. This definition could be narrowed down by specifying the type of fantasy (a mix of “swords & sorcery” and “high fantasy”) and refined through the assorted conventions of D&D adventures. The traditions of the D&D adventure do affect both flavour and mechanics, such as how the rules are designed. There’s great variety in how the game has played over the editions. Or, rather, the potential for how it has played: not everyone has availed themselves of the full range of possibilities afforded them by the game. Because dungeon crawling is such a traditional part of the game, the rules are primarily designed to accommodate this style of play. Similarly, the rules guide how adventures are designed: the rules establish the rewards and what is needed to achieve them. Typically, these rewards come down to treasure and/or level gain. When experience was primarily awarded for treasure gained then fighting monsters (and combat in general) was optional and the risk to reward ratio favoured trickery, deception, and cunning plans that avoided combat and thus the risk of messy death. Adventures could be designed around combat, traps, puzzles, or even diplomacy so long as there was the same treasure at the end. And as a result, the stories told by the game tended to focus on acquiring treasure. Once experience moved to killing monsters, gaining treasure became optional and combat became a focal point, and it became harder to gain experience for non-combative solutions.


There’s a famous Indian story involving blind men groping an elephant, where they all touch one part of the animal and describe what they feel, thinking it a wall, a snake, or a tree. I wonder if the same might be said about D&D, that a holistic approach involving crunch, flavour, and style of play might all be necessary to encapsulate all that is D&D.

However, the defining feature of the elephant is their trunk. It’s unique. Even if you ignore the rest of the animal, the trunk defines it as an elephant. Similarly, there might be a single defining feature of D&D, only it is likely determined by individual tastes, a personal favourite element of D&D. D&D can be many things, but some people only care about one of those elements.

The tactical player might view D&D solely as by the strategic aspects of the game. The hardcore roleplayer might like the acting and personalized characters. Others might like the ability to improvise actions, coming up with cunning plans and creative solutions. And after 4e, there are likely some players who view D&D as a cooperative card game with miniatures.

Thankfully, players with such extreme preference in a single playstyle are likely rare, a minority among players. There are better ways of getting those same styles of play, from games dedicated to that style allowing for a more focused play. Players play D&D because they want some kind of mixture of elements, some peanut butter in their chocolate.

So D&D is its rules, its unique story elements, the interplay between mechanics and roleplaying, and the various tropes of adventure design. So while defining D&D by its mechanics is not any more inaccurate as describing the tail of an elephant as a rope, it fails to capture the full enormity of the game. And in much the same way as if you glued a snake, fan, wall, tree trunk, rope, and spear together you wouldn’t get an elephant, D&D might also be more than the sum of its component parts.