Pointless Geek Debates: Rollplay vs. Roleplay in D&D
Originally posted on Frags and Beer, April 6, 2020
The internet is awash in pointless geek debates; which superhero is stronger than which, which version of Battlestar is better, Robotech or Macross, but one that really defines pointless to me is whether D&D is, or was always meant to be a game of rolling dice and tabulating numbers, or telling a collaborative story with rules for combat and magic. Why is it pointless? Because ultimately the only people who get to decide what D&D should be about is the people playing it, for their own group. What group A does has absolutely zero impact on group B, C and so on. If one group wants it to be a number-crunching game of dice and miniatures with zero story, great. The next group can make it all about telling a story, and not roll a single die. And, you know what? They’re both right.
But, that’s not enough for an article so let’s dig a little deeper. Part of the debate is on the intent of the folks who created D&D. What did Gygax want, and TSR? What is the game that they designed, what did it turn into, and how did they want us to play it? What did Mr. Gygax have to say about the role of the DM, one of the more contentious parts of this debate.
You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow.
Some people contend that the DM is there for no other purpose than to adjudicate rules, determine the outcome of skill checks, and respond to the things the players do. The other extreme is that the DM is there to tell a story with very little input from the players at all. I’ve always thought the DM was somewhere in the middle. Having something of a story to tell, but only having half of it. He or she does not know what the players will do. I’ve always found, as a DM, that the more planning you do the more the players will find ways to burn it all down. The job of a DM has always been part writing, part improv, and a whole lot of patience. You are the shaper of the cosmos. The creator of the world your players will inhabit as their characters. Not just a calculator or a computer.
It also seems odd that a guy who wrote Role-Playing Mastery in 1987 would not consider his creation a Role-Playing game but a Roll-Playing game. It is part of the acronym RPG for a reason. It’s also curious that the first iteration of Dungeons and Dragons not only mentions that miniatures are optional…twice, strange choice for a game that’s supposed to be a board game on steroids. Much of the game preparation falls on the referee (DM) to set up the game, dungeons and “people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly.” As if the DM is more than just a screen monkey calling out the effects of dice rolling.
The original D&D text is also where we see the creators make it very clear that rules are really just guidelines. They’ll say that without a shadow of a doubt in future versions, but right out of the gate they advise “that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.” And they make it quite clear that players, before play begins, will choose which “role they will play in the campaign.” It is clear that the game is meant to be cooperative. Adjusted to fit your group, and that the players should contribute as much as the referee.
One of the clear distinctions that sets D&D apart from other tabletop wargames, is the reference to roles. It was originally based on the wargame Chainmail, where players didn’t play as a character. In fact, right away Chainmail is clearly different from D&D with its base requirements, “In order to play a wargame it is necessary to have rules, miniature figures and accompanying equipment, a playing area, and terrain to place upon it.” While D&D says that miniatures are optional, and barely mentions terrain, Chainmail requires them.
Original D&D isn’t the only iteration though. What does the basic set from 1977 have to say about playing strictly by the rules? “the game is completely openended, is subject to modification, expansion, and interpretation according to the desires of the group participating, and is in general not bounded by the conventional limitations of other types of games.” It is not meant to be a set of restrictions on how to play, but a framework to make it easy to play the type of game you want to play. They also say, “A final word to the Dungeon Master from the authors. These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise.”
You know what else came out with the basic set? Dungeon Module B1, In Search of the Unknown. An adventure module, with a story (albeit a pretty basic one) and this passage: “As moderator. you present on everchanging situation as it occurs (sort of like an unfolding story, or even a movie, If you like to think in those terms). and the players respond pretty much as they desire. As the game goes on, you are presenting them with a hundred different opportunities and choices — exactly how the game goes will depend upon their response to those opportunities and choices.”
It’s a wonder where we got the idea that D&D is about cooperative story telling from… But seriously, for all this talk of planning, story, choices, there is one thing that’s been quite clear in D&D. The game is whatever it needs to be for the group of players playing it. If you want a game that’s just hack and slash dungeon crawls, rolling dice and taking names, you can have that. If you want a game that draws out a mysterious story with puzzles to solve and character backstories to grow on, you can have that too. D&D is what you make of it.
That said, this debate is pointless because no one is right or wrong. Well, except the people telling you that you’re playing wrong. There’s no ‘one way’ to play. That’s the beauty of TTRPGs. Hell, my group uses a combination of Pathfinder, D&D, and homebrew materials for our campaign. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a game that works for us. It may not work for you, and I’m certainly not going to tell you that it’s the only way to play. The debate is pointless. Game on!