Is D&D a Role-Playing Game?

Well, you might think “D’uh, of course it is! It’s the original!”, but at the same time, the implication is obvious. If I present this question, I clearly think it is questionable. (Although, as a teacher, I do often present questions on stuff that might seem obvious to make you think about them. This is not one of those situations.)

Okay, it is true D&D is often considered the first role-playing game. However, things change. For example, for the ancient Greeks, comedy was a form of drama, not it’s opposite or different genre. Drama was the whole of theatrical arts, which had two main forms: tragedy and comedy. They were differentiated by how they ended. Tragedies ended poorly for the antagonist, while comedies had a happy ending. Of course, this was often reflected in the rest of the story being either darker or brighter. Awful used to mean awe-inspiring. Pink used to be the color of warriors and even hundred years ago it was the color of choice for boys’ clothing. Also, all small children were known as girls. Boy was a name for male-servants.

So, calling D&D role-playing game, because it used to be that, doesn’t really hold water. But in order to go any further, we need to define a role-playing game. Well, that should be easy, he said, in a sarcastic tone.

If I ask Google to define it (meaning search for ‘define:role-playing game’), I get the following:

a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures, typically in a particular fantasy setting overseen by a referee.

Okay. That doesn’t really work. I mean, most of my sessions aren’t really adventures. Adventures are supposed to be exciting and exotic. Maybe there was some amount of exoticism when I played an inquisitor bent on killing one of the other characters in De’ Medici (you can find it here), I wasn’t really on what you might call an ‘adventure’.

Maybe try another one? Wikipedia says the following about Tabletop role-playing games:

A tabletop role-playing game (or pen-and-paper role-playing game) is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a set formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.

Okay, this sounds better. Let’s look at one from a RPG book. They often have a section for the beginner (at least they used to), which tries to explain some of what this is about. This is from HeroQuest 2nd Edition:

Roleplaying is a hybrid experience, combining elements of game play and collective storytelling. A group gathers together to talk its way through a spontaneously created story. All but one of the participants, called players, creates a fictional character (called a PC, for player character) defined by various abilities listed on a record called a character sheet. Using these abilities, the PCs pursue various goals in an imaginary world portrayed by a participant called the Narrator. The Narrator controls various other people and creatures in this fictional environment. The players describe how their PCs pursue their goals; the Narrator challenges them by putting obstacles in their path. Sometimes these barriers to success come in the form of supporting characters who oppose them; at other times, they’re impersonal physical or mental challenges, like a lock that must be picked or a cliff the characters have to climb.

Well, this is kind of specific to HeroQuest, but there’s nothing here that would rule out D&D either. Okay, so I guess I can’t use existing definitions. What I do want, though, is that you need a narrative, but it shouldn’t be pure freeform storytelling, and you need rules, but those rules should serve the narrative and encourage characterization.

My problem with D&D is the latter. The rules emphasize combat quite highly. Sure, you have some skills to use outside of combat and some spells as well, but the whole system is about how your own little killing machine can become better at killing things through killing things. Ruleswise, it’s a miniature game, with very tightly defined rules on everything… within combat.

Sure, you can argue that you can play a role within that system. Yes, you can. You can also play the part of a dog in Monopoly, but in that case the rules are about taking over a city financially. You can still wag your imaginary tail when you buy real estate or someone lands in your scare. The fact remains that the rules don’t serve a story or characterization.

Games don’t become role-playing games just because you say they are. Just because you have some representation of a character doesn’t make it one either. I mean, no-one thinks of Magic: the Gathering as a role-playing game (well, most don’t, I bet you can find players who fully embrace playing a role) even though you often have a lot more interesting and complex representation of your character (your deck).

In all games, the rules should be there to tell you where the fun is (paraphrasing Mark Rosewater). In D&D the rules are there for combat purposes. Not exploring the inner workings of your character or participating in an interesting story. If you try to explain someone what a role-playing game is, you (hopefully) wouldn’t mention combat. Letting go of the idea that D&D is a role-playing game would serve the whole hobby well. Why can’t we just separate the miniature combat games from actual role-playing games? We shouldn’t be tied to this idea because of history. We should know better or at least try to know better.

9 thoughts on “Is D&D a Role-Playing Game?

  1. Yeah, just no.

    Surely you do see the irony of your words when you say that games don’t become RPGs just because people say they do, while at the same time you have to invent your own definition for an RPG because the existing ones incorporate DnD just fine?

    And even then your own definition is pretty narrow and fails to encompass all sorts of games, if I understand what you mean by rules serving a story. DnD has had all sorts of editions and appearences through the years, and isn’t a very cohesive rules text in any of those like you would find in, say, Forge games, but it has always had what you say you want in an RPG: a framework in which to have a narrative and distinct characters. The fact that many of its versions do not require you to have those as clearly cut as in something like S/lay w/ me for an example does not mean it isn’t there.

    Also, what balony is this about combat somehow lessening a game’s worth as an RPG? Those are not in any way different ends of the same spectrum. It is fair to say that you prefer other situations over combat or violence in your games, but very disingenious to try and argue your games to be inherently better because of it. Combat and violence are very interesting and very possible things in our real and fictional worlds, why would those not be parts of our games too? It is true that in the context of post-AD&D DnD has focused very much on combat versus other things as its main gist, which admittedly bores me to no end, but it would still be very dishonest to say that shift of focus is somehow a deathblow to its roleplaying aspects. I personally enjoy my homebrewn DnD as a vivid, player driven sandbox full of wilfully unbalanced challenges where characters can act as they wish towards their own goals and agendas and live and die by their own choices. Been running for years, is the bee’s knees with players always wanting more and has tons of emergent narrative bursting out of it as told by the players’ actions. And their corpses as things go snafu.

    In DnD especially this is sometimes a bit funky to see through, but there are a lot of combat rules because that is the easy part to formalize like that. In old school games (OD&D, 1. ed, retroclones…) there are mainly rules for those because it’s good to have all the people at the table on the same wavelength on how combat is handled. The rest is done via referee rulings, which takes less space in the book but constitutes most of the actual game. It isn’t written down as strictly, because it cannot be. It is too dependant on the game group. This has the effect of making it seem like DnD is mostly combat, with the majority of rules talking about that. In modern era, 3rd ed and forwards, this shifted more towards the combat and so forth. Anyway, I will anyday defend well played and refereed game of DnD as an RPG, because it undoubtedly is that: players have distinct characters, via whom they interact with a world, make meaningful decisions about it, set their goals, make friends and enemies and so forth. At its best, it is a very rewarding and tremendously diverse roleplaying game. If you only see DnD through the miniature chess lens, you either haven’t played good DnD or are being deliberately obtuse. And excuse me, but saying letting go of DnD benefitting the hobby is just dumb. The hobby benefits from exploring and trying out more things, not trying to fracture it over a very petty point of “nuh uh, you’re not playing a REAL game.”

    So, you sir are totally wrong. Please do try to think a bit more broadly next time.

  2. I think I’ll have to side with Peitsa here. Aki started this discussion with a bold statement and I for one would love to see a healthy discussion here.

    From my point of view I like to differentiate RPGs (if such a thing is needed for the sake of argument) into two categories:

    1) ROLEplaying games
    2) roleplaying GAMES

    To me the distinction comes from the setup and expectations of the game in question. Is is supposed to be about the inner workings of the characters narrated in whatever way the group find suitable OR is it about doing mostly the same thing but following the rules and trying to incorporate them into the story/game.

    What I think Aki is saying (and I have a history of misunderstanding his intentions and just disagreeing with him) is that there isn’t that much in D&D in the terms of gaming rules that encourages you to ROLEplay your character. The system guides you to participate in combats and leaves the other stuff to be handled as wanted.

    But that doesn’t mean D&D cannot be called a roleplaying game. If that would be the case one could argue that Dungeon World isn’t and rpg and by extension that would also rule out Apocalypse World as a roleplaying game. And that just doesn’t sound right.

    I personally have been itching to run a game of D&D where the emphasis would be out of combat. Why? Just because I want to. Our games tend to be lite on rules anyway so I might as well try to run D&D this way and have the great combat system when needed.

    Another point that (again, from my point of view) comes to mind is that while playing D&D (and clones) you are in essence setting your expectations to a predetermined course. If you have played rpgs before you know that D&D might be a bit different. For example – when I played D&D first time about seven years ago I decided I wanted to play as a power hungry gamer. I had the character but I challenged myself as well. I tried to play differently to understand the game and to see how changing my style would affect the game.

    Arguing about whether D&D is an rpg or not is a bit like arguing if rap is music or not. Roleplaying games are music and there are a lot of genres. You do not need to like them all but arguing for arguments sake that something isn’t music just because it isn’t for you misses the point. Trying to define the said music might help you to discuss the music you like (or not) with your peers but most of us just listen to it because of the feeling it gives us.

    • Laurimaijala wrote:

      “But that doesn’t mean D&D cannot be called a roleplaying game. If that would be the case one could argue that Dungeon World isn’t and rpg and by extension that would also rule out Apocalypse World as a roleplaying game.”

      Apocalypse World isn’t a roleplaying game, because in it the game plays you, not the other way around. As a player, you have very limited things you can do within the game (moves), and as a GM you are compelled by the mechanics to make certain things happen.

      That, to, me defines it being something else than a roleplaying game, in the traditional sense.

  3. This is an argument and an opinion I have heard many times before. Once again though, it fails to answer the question I desperately seek answered: “If D&D rules don’t lend well for the narrative side of roleplaying, what systems rules do?”

  4. I understand your core point and having played many systems in the 80s and 90s saw that things were moving towards roll-playing rather than role-playing (as others have put it). Largely I think that that was because there is relatively more effort in putting together a puzzle or a character situation which will keep the party occupied for 15 minutes than for a big dirty fight with a dragon or two.

    My favourite game events were always the improvised sort that Peitsa Viteli alludes to above, where the DM decided upon giving you a bonus on your roll for creative cheek to wheedle your way out of a near-death encounter.

  5. A little late to the party, but I do agree.

    I recently started played Call of Cthuhlu after years of playing DnD, and I was surprised by how much easier it was to find my character and to blend myself into the story. It felt as if my character was part of a narrative and not a person with a pointy stick looking for the next thing to kill.

    DnD is HEAVY combat oriented, and that is fine! I love DnD and I even Role-PLay in DnD, but I find it easier to get INTO a role in CoC and World of Darkness because I don’t feel like my every step is to find Loot, find Gear, find XP. It is about exploring a story through a character I created and how they respond to that. In CoC I can be a nervous accountant, a brooding circus performer, perhaps a suave Private Eye or even a down on her luck Archeologist. Anything goes.

    In DnD you are more restricted, you need to create a character that has to a) want to be an adventurer or have some motivation for it and b) must be able to fight. I can’t make Agathar the Gnome accountant who counts his gold everywhere he goes and who has never seen the outside of a cave.

    What benefit will he bring to a party that has to fight a dragon?

    To make it simpler; in any RPG combat encounter you are going to do the most EFFICIENT action, no matter what that means for your character. The point of a combat encounter is to WIN or at least be alive by the end of it. So screw any real RP, you look down at your sheet and use the most efficient action to help save the day. You can of course think as a Role-Player, and Agathar the Gnome would probably think ‘screw this’ and run. You can certainly do that, but by the third time you do this the novelty would have worn off, and either you’re going to be bored (or worse) you’re going to have annoyed players and DM on your hands. So you stick to what works, and what works is; fight, roll and kill.

    In games where combat is not the focus, you are offered a wider range of scenarios in more frequency. More interaction with NPC’s means more RP. Perhaps a torture scene (where CoC has a sanity system in place which will have an effect on your character), or an Auction where intelligence and knowledge will help (The fact that INT is mostly dump stat in DnD should tell you something about the RP aspect of the game). DnD can’t wait to get to the combat, and it doesn’t have systems specifically tailored to actual RP.

    It’s system is COMBAT. Which again is fine, for what it is DnD is fun with friends who want to kill stuff. For more in depth, darker and more intriguing stories I always turn to other system that caters for a more in depth game.

    Thanks for the great article!

  6. In any case we should start by getting he record straight. D&D was not originally published as a RPG but as a wargame (part of Chainmail). In contrast T&T displayed the word “roleplaying” from the beggining. So we too lightly accept the detail that D&D was the first RPG. This is obviously a mystification.
    Althoug, what is D&D? Is it a derivation of “Wesley’s game” (rolling a D20 for character’s manuevers in the Braunsteins)? Or was it Arneson’s new concept of campaign?
    D&D always had to struggle to come up to the main stream of RPG, then and now.
    It might seem abnormal that the most sold and played RPG is not the standard of the activity unless we come to thing that RPG itself is never mainstream in fact it’s more likely RPG is a secondary activity in our culture, therefore its internal integrity relies more in social context than in an institution or subculture we call RPG.

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