In case you missed it, a very thought-provoking event took place on Oct. 9, 2017 for anyone in the Dungeons & Dragons or tabletop roleplaying game community.
Hosted on the itmeJP YouTube channel. Adam Koebel moderated a roundtable discussion including fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons co-creator and creative lead Mike Mearls, Critical Role Dungeon Master and voice actor Matt Mercer and video game writer and author Matt Colville, whose popular YouTube channel and presence in the D&D community has had a powerful impact on the hobby.
RollPlay Presents: A 5E Roundtable Discussion began with a deceptively complex question.
What is D&D about?
The tone of the roundtable was set immediately with this query. It was certainly not going to be a talk about the best warlock pact or new fighter archetypes. Weighty matters would be brought to the table.
Rather than go over the entire two hour conversation, I encourage D&D fans and roleplayers of all stripes to check out the video.
Instead, here’s a few points that caught my attention.
What is D&D
Is it a game? A culture? A tool box? A resource? Something else entirely.
The answer is, of course, all of those things and more.
As a game, D&D is a rule set providing mechanics to play a collaborative storytelling game. Dice roll results determined with various modifiers indicate success or failure on any sort of actions taken by players’ characters. The Dungeon Master is there to adjudicate the rules and present the framework for the story and adventures.
But D&D is also a culture, a segment of the larger population connected through mutual interest. In the same way that Harley Davidson is a cultural brand, D&D brings individuals together around something greater than a physical product. Many people who have never picked up a d20 and delved into a dungeon are nonetheless fans of D&D and identify with the culture. They buy the merchandise and know a cleric from a paladin, they might even own the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. They follow tales of adventure on live stream games like Critical Role or the Scarlet Sisterhood of Steel and Sorcery, sharing the trials and triumphs of the characters alongside their players. In the same way people wear Harley Davidson T-shirts and go to Sturgis, D&D fans are part of a culture that goes beyond the books, the dice and the gaming table.
D&D is also a toolbox. One of the design philosophies of 5E is empowering players and DMs to make the game their own. The experience at every table is unique, and leaving some rules open to interpretation while providing simplified rules to cover broader circumstances allows freedom to build whatever kind of game you can imagine. When building anything, you almost certainly don’t need every single tool in the toolbox. You select and use the ones that will help you create whatever it is you hope to make.
And D&D is a resource. It’s gives a name and structure for a very simple activity deeply ingrained in the human psyche: storytelling. Wiping everything else aside, D&D is what you call gathering together with people and sharing an experience using your imaginations to tell a story together. No one knows what will happen, or how it will end – even the DM. Success or failure, triumph or defeat spins on the head of a polyhedral die.
How to explain D&D?
My takeaway from this segment is by far the recognizable elements of D&D are what make it what it is. Editions come and go, but there are aspects of D&D that persist as synonymous with them all. Armor Class, alignment, fireball as a 3rd level spell – all of these and more are part of the fabric of D&D.
For me, the ability scores are central to what makes D&D special. Typically ranging from 3-18, this arbitrary scale is so familiar to me that other games using simpler math or scale are more difficult to grasp. In D&D, 14 is a wonderful ability score; not the best but nicely above average. It’s not a multiple of 5 or 10, or indicative in any way that it’s a good number to have…except in D&D.
As to how to explain D&D to someone unfamiliar with it? I’d say players create characters with unique skills and powers, and the DM presents a scenario to interact with. Players work together to overcome challenges and you roll dice to determine the outcome. Everyone tells a story together as the character gain experience and power to face bigger challenges.
D&D affects the brain
Players of D&D know how amazing adventures can be. When we talk with fellow gamers about quests past, we tell tales in first person, describing how we discovered the lost ancient city of fire newts, traveled to the Abyss to save our friend or won the desperate battle against the frost giant invasion. We were there, together, in our imaginations.
Matt Mercer brought up a book he read called My, Myself and Why by Jennifer Ouellette. He explains how in the book there is a section on memories and mentions D&D. It turns out the memories we make around the gaming table are stored in our brains in the same place as real memories. Powerful stuff.
So much more
I’m already getting carried away. How about a few bullet points to tie up this overview?
- Every group of players is playing a different version of D&D
- “Roll for initiative” is a keyword that means it’s time to pay a different kind of attention
- D&D is a gateway to games
- Open-ended rules force DMs to come up with answers – this is intentional
- D&D is a community. Unearthed Arcana helps facilitate this relationship
- D&D is fun to watch for the same reason as sports, plus audiences simply like the people and enjoy spending time with them
- Streaming shows what it means to be a good DM and player, and illustrates how you don’t need all the rules
- Rules are table management tools
- Toxicity in the community seems to moving forward past it pretty quickly; it’s still there but getting better
What is D&D to you?
At the end of the discussion, Matt Mercer sums up D&D perfectly, and it’s not only his endearing passion for D&D but his hopeful attitude I identify with. To paraphrase, he explains that D&D is just a game…but it’s not. It’s a safe space to tell stories, and to help forge understanding between people and cut through the bullshit. Ultimately D&D affects lives for the better, helps teach social skills and connect with family and friend, and to find solace.
What about you? What does D&D mean to you? As always I love to hear what other people have to say. Go check out RollPlay Presents: A 5E Roundtable Discussion and stop back to let me know what you think. Until then, stay nerdy!
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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.