Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dungeons and Dragons: The Once and Future King

Anyone and everyone who plays pen and paper role playing games knows: the Grandfather of All Role Playing Games is Dungeons and Dragons. It spawned the entire genre…and this really isn't up for debate.

How did it all start?

 Well, some dyed in the wool war gamers, used to pitching historical medieval battles with table top miniatures , dice and maps eventually came up with the idea of basing a fantasy character upon a single miniature figurine, sending that character into an underground maze full of monsters, tricks, traps, puzzles and fantastic treasures, and developing the character's powers, skills and abilities over a period of many sessions of play. The more powerful the character became, well, the more challenging the mazes and monsters that the character faced, ad infinitum.

And that, more or less, is how role playing games were born.

Since those early days of the first role playing games of the mid seventies to early eighties, others picked up the gauntlet, and there followed a  veritable multitude of role-playing game genres and styles. And in this ever increasing garden of game design, one idea seemed prevalent: This Game is a new horizon in role-playing, a fresh start in the evolution of RPG history. This Game takes the idea begun with Dungeons and Dragons and carries it to a whole new level,  undreamt by RPG enthusiasts hitherto. This Game is better.

And to be fair, some really awesome games were conceived.  Aftermath. Bushido. Traveler. Chivalry and Sorcery. Gamma World. Boot Hill. And many more than can be listed. Some of these games were so innovative, so creative, and so well produced that it is safe to say that they will never be forgotten in the history of the RPG hobby scene. Anyone who even casually delves into this hobby will discover these names, and perceive that  they were (are) indeed evolutionary progressions in the past time called RPG's. They allowed people to simulate planetary exploration, post apocalyptic survival, and modern warfare…far different frontiers than the stone passageways and poison needle-trapped locks of Ye Olde Dungeon.

Having said this, please allow me to tell you why no game, either created now or in the future, will ever displace D&D.

D&D is, and will always be, the Once and Future King of Role Playing Games.

That's right--I am stating, unequivocally and without apology, that this old retro game idea  of sending quasi-medieval fantasy characters into an underground catacombs system and battling monsters of Western European mythological conception as they search for gold, glory and magical swords will never be outdone or matched by any game system created.

The dungeon motif, that of the subterranean maze filled with perilous tricks, traps and monsters, will always be the touchstone of any role playing system ever conceived.  And anyone who abandons it in search of more immersive role playing, new frontiers, or non-medieval trappings may have some great games--but they will not have the BEST games!

Why , you ask, is this? Why do I assert such a prejudiced opinion…and this at the risk of sounding like an arrogant, ignorant and outdated oaf? There are three main reasons.

Please permit me to expound upon the virtues of the good old fashioned DUNGEON!

Reason Number one: The Dungeon is linear.

A lot of games allow you to role-play--they permit you to make any kind of character  you  want from any era or genre that you can conceive.  These games pride themselves on their open-ended systems and patterns of play.  They have transcended the Dungeon. They are a giant sand box, just waiting for you to explore any path, any non-player character , any idea, that you, as a player, can imagine. The sky is the limit, their designers declare.

 This seeming strength is, in fact, their very weakness.

A Dungeon Master (DM) who  has sat down and invested the time in mapping out and populating an underground Maze, embellishing it with an attendant "back-story ", has not created an  endless and open environment.

 He or she has created a  very certain and specific locale in time and  space within the fantasy milieu.

 This locale has very detailed geographic constraints--and these constraints are the actual perimeters of the Dungeon Map itself. That is, the perimeters  of the map and  the imagination of the individual DM who designed it.

In a linear environment such as this, the fantasy characters cannot go anywhere they wish.

 They can only go where the corridors, chambers and passages of the Dungeon allow them to go!

 There is a Map--and a very detailed Dungeon Key.

What lies beyond yonder door is not a mere matter of the DM's whim or a roll of the dice--rather, there is a pre-planned encounter or a lovingly crafted trick, trap or puzzle that the DM thought up or else borrowed from an existing source of fantasy literature or films. And because there is a pre-planned environment, this means that the solution or answer to the challenge at hand is not simply a  matter of the DM saying…"Eh…I guess so. That will work."

Rather, there is an actual and official key to the room/encounter/challenge/trap/puzzle! It is already set in motion when the DM mapped out and designed the dungeon.

You either figure it out or you don't.

The mythological guardian at the gate which asks you a riddle is wanting a specific answer.

The secret door in the passage wall which conceals a trove of treasure and magic items is opened by a specific trigger mechanism or password.

The magical fountain  in the courtyard has specific magical properties and limitations which have already been determined by the DM.

You, as the player, must figure this out!

In a very real sense, players of the original Dungeon Adventure motif are collectively pitting their wits against those of the DM.

The DM  has thought out the Dungeon--the players have to discern  his thoughts by logic and careful consideration!

 This is why not everyone can actually be an effective DM…it isn't easy to come up with tricks, traps, puzzles, and monsters good enough to outwit  or at least challenge a party as smart as your players! And in games with less well constructed environs, players can often feel as though the DM is simply "winging it."

When players go into a situation knowing that there is a pre-determined goal in mind by a power higher than their characters(The DM), and that this goal has already been charted for them in the Dungeon Map and Key,  they will be alert, deductive and really looking for a specific solution. When they actually uncover this solution , the DM cannot deny them their just reward--victory over the situation at hand!

They have matched the DM in his game of wits--and having beaten or at least matched him or her, they are rewarded. If they don't figure it out, they lose the reward.

It's that simple.

This not a "make it up as you go along" sort of challenge-- that kind of game would be like boxed puzzle with incomplete  or ill-defined pieces.

Rather, the pieces   from the puzzle box are all on the table--the DM already designed them and laid them out. Now it’s simply up to the players to gather and connect the right pieces! A DM cannot add or take away a piece of the puzzle--the puzzle was finished when the Dungeon Key was completed.

As an impartial judge, the DM must relent when his riddle has been unclasped.  After all, he wrote it down that way!

I guess this is what I'm trying to say:  perhaps the Dungeon Adventure doesn't allow you to go anywhere and do anything , but the personal reward of overcoming a linear  and pre-planned playing environment, and reaping the attendant character progression and enrichment, is beyond compare with so-called "Open ended" RPG game styles. If the DM just makes up  your game as she or her goes along, then  really, in game terms it's like mental sparring with God…what is the point? Since the DM creates the game environment, whatever happens is six one way, half a dozen the other.  The deck is stacked! It's a game that at its most fundamental level becomes just an elaborate conversation.

Please note: linear play does not mean limitations on possibility.  It  just  means order and structure,  the key to having a good time in any game venue. And nothing affords order and structure like a well planned Dungeon! The very physical confines of the Dungeon Map itself make this so.

Number Two: The Dungeon Offers the Best Role Playing.

In so called "Sandbox" or "Open Ended" role playing games, role playing itself is the most touted mechanic. After all, it is claimed: In an endless and open environment, are there not a whole litany of characters, monsters, heroes and villains that a player can role play with and/or against? In the Dungeon, you are limited to the denizens of the Maze. Why,  heck, if you can traverse this city or that hamlet, this metropolis or that planet, there is no end to role playing possibilities. Isn't this the ultimate of role playing, far superior to the old Dungeon pattern with its linear constraints?

In a word, no. It isn't  necessarily superior. In fact, it's usually not.


Because often, in such an open ended environment,   players around the table are mostly engaging in role playing with one other player--the DM.

He or she is, after all, playing the role of all the other beings in the game milieu. And remember, the DM already knows or can make up on the spot what these other beings will do, think, or desire in any given situation.  Again, the deck is stacked.

Oh, he or she can portray different personalities,  claim different motivations and speak in different accents, true. Very clever or creative DM's can be quite entertaining in the role playing venue.  But in the end, it is only the DM. Each character they create is really only an extension of  the DM's personality, and the players cannot fully connect or engage with these characters on a real level because they possess what the player characters do not possess…that is, omnipotence.  Omnipotence concerning the ultimate end of a given encounter,  and omnipotence concerning the plot of the over-all adventure. During it all, players are looking not most at eachother but at the DM.

I am convinced that the best and most rewarding role playing dynamic at a gaming table takes place not between a DM and his players but between player and player.  The DM, in my humble opinion, should actually be out of the way and carefully hidden behind his creation--the Dungeon---while the player to player dynamic takes front and center.

 I will state right now that I don't think the voice of the DM should be the most heard voice at the gaming table. The DM's personality and unique style will be apprehended easily enough through the Dungeon design, without him or her saying anymore than is needed to referee the game. Rather, the features of the Maze should be related in a simple fashion and the dynamic of the players in a party should then come to the forefront.

And in my opinion, there are few game environments equal to the old fashioned Dungeon format for bringing this dynamic out.  This is so for several reasons.

As has already been stated, a Dungeon adventure with a drawn out Map and detailed Key is a linear adventure pattern that matches player wits against the mind of the DM. Thus, there is a camaraderie between the players as they try to solve this giant puzzle that faces them. Such a camaraderie cannot exist in any meaningful sense between a player's character and characters created by the DM because as we have said, the DM's characters are omnipotent, no matter how hard he tries to make them not be.

Players'  characters, on the other hand,  have shared stakes--they aren't  a set of stats that a DM concocted off the cuff or with the overall plot of his adventure in mind. They are lovingly crafted and detailed fantasy personas with goals and aspirations dreamt up by the players who made them…characters who, in a very real sense, can cease to exist if they don't overcome the Maze designed by the DM. This should create a great deal of team spirit, which, in turn, will lead to good role playing.

As these characters become familiar from adventure to adventure, the players get to know each others' game personas as they develop  during a sustained campaign, whereas the non-player characters  of the DM's creation usually change in each scenario. And while this takes place in any kind of role playing game, not just in the old Dungeon format,  D&D characters are unique in this very important aspect: the old class system, so often disparaged as unimaginative and constraining for the player, tailored  a party to reflect the environment of the Dungeon itself.

 If the Dungeon contains a set of premises to be explored by the individual DM as a method of challenging his players (Trap, Trick, Puzzle, Monster, Magic Item, Treasure, etc.), then the old fashioned D&D characters had talents and abilities perfectly suited for such a Maze.

If Dungeons house the undead, players have clerics!

If the labyrinth is filled with locked doors and treasure chests or dangerous traps, players have thieves!

If Dungeons are dark and filled with perilous stone works,  there are elves who can see in the blackness, dwarves that can detect new construction and sloping passages, and Halflings who can hide in the dark from monsters. The uses of fighters and magic users in such an environment is self explanatory.

The sort of role playing that arise from the mixture such character templates is, admittedly, simple…and this is is its strength.

Certainly, pre-conceived roles can be limiting to a personality, whether that personality is  a real life personality or one invented for a fantasy role playing game.

 However,  well defined and understood roles can also make things run smoother and easier, allowing a party to have very strong expectations towards each other, and allowing the individual player to have a strong sense of where his or her character fits into the ecology of the Dungeon and the party chemistry.

When the party comes to a locked door, Antha the Thief knows that she is up!

If a magical scroll is discovered, then Mendolas the Mage takes front and center!

When orcs come barreling down a passage way, everyone looks to Olaf the Fighter or Skarl the Dwarf!

This isn't cookie cutter character building as many have asserted. The individual personalities of the characters can be as diverse and nuanced as the players who create them.

The class system simply gives the average person who comes to a gaming table a reasonable set of criteria for the sort of character he or she is going to play as relates to the place where said play will take place--the Dungeon!  

Reason Number Three:  The Dungeon strikes a chord in our dream-consciousness.

There is something about the most ancient myths and dream symbols of Man that touches something deep in his imagination. Who knows when someone first conceived of a goblin, or an elf, or a dragon. The fact is, it was very long ago, and yet, the idea of such beings  still resonates today  with nearly every person alive …and this is whether or not that person has even a smattering of interest in role playing games. These denizens of myth represent something very deep within the human psyche---call it racial memories, call it childhood conditioning, call it whatever you want, but fairy tales, in the most traditional sense of the word, have remained a part of us no matter how technological we become.

 A D&D game brings these fairy tales to life and makes us an active part of them, if only for a little while.  The idea of an underground lair guarded by a fierce monster and hiding a fabulous treasure or boon is old as mankind. When we play such games, we are walking in the dim, twilight regions between the waking world and the dreams of childhood. And while I know some will assert that the darkness and mysteries of space or the streets of a modern city can contain this same mythological power, and that role playing games which utilize such scenes are just as engaging as a fantasy setting,  I must differ.

That Dragons  and Demons appear in much the Apocalyptic religious literature of the world and have remained potent symbols of evil and/or power to the present should attest to their impact on human consciousness.  A Dragon is a motif. A Knight or a Wizard is a motif. I would argue that a spaceship or a superhero is less so.

In a good game of D&D, the stuff of man's most powerful and enduring myths becomes the material of the character's adventures.  This is why such material seldom becomes old, or, if it does, it takes a long time. And even when it does become old, you can be fairly certain that the sense of wonderment will  never entirely leave you--because it is a connection to our own past.

In Conclusion

For all these reasons, I believe that the Dungeon remains the gold standard  of the role playing game. I fully realize this is actually simply one man's opinion, and that if a person enjoys any game better than D&D, than as far as that person is concerned, his game is "better".  For me, while there are many other wonderful games to be enjoyed, they will never be better than the cloth from which they were cut.

Long live D&D!


  1. I need to digest this a bit more fully, but you've got some really interesting and provocative thoughts going here!

  2. Reason #2 seems like a pretty good summary of the philosophy behind 4e.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Kesher. I enjoy other types of gaming besides Dungeon adventuring, but by and large, I think that as touching a game (not to say novels, films, or other what-nots)the underground Maze is the the most exhilarating venue.

  4. You need to read more because #1 completely misses the mark.

    There are always parameters to any game, but there is indeed a big difference in providing an environment through which the characters choose where to play and explore, and the DM ramming characters through a story.

    A good DM can 100% create a game that does the former in advance, but more often than not, DMs will leave key details subject to random tables. Even the DM doesn't know what will happen in advance.

  5. @ Kilted--I realize what you are saying and I think there is a lot of place for randomness. Even in a very linear adventure, though, there are random events and random outcomes--reactions of monsters and NPC's are an example. How players handle a certain problem. Many others. And actually, when I design a Maze, I do make use of random tables. Often I will generate treasures that way, select a monster or two. I'm just of the opinion that the more preparation a DM puts into an adventure, the less he has to be involved during actual play--he becomes a simple referee between the players and the environment, letting the focus be on them. It flows better, players feel they are being challenged by and reaping wards from the environment, not the DM's whims or off the cuff responses. That said I think there is ample place for what you describe, especially in the urban adventure. Wilderness adventures too, to a very large extent. Thanks for reading, it is only one man's opinion but it sounds form your blog like you do a fine job Dming.