When is D&D no longer Dungeons & Dragons?

Secrets of the Secrets of the Vault: Mage Forge
Getting Started with Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for some time now and until D&D 5E, the number of people playing has never been higher. The landscape of the community has also changed quite a bit. With live stream games and actual play series like Critical Role, and online play, the hobby is vastly altered. All these aspects make for a wider and better hobby. But it does bring up questions in my mind. I’m seeing more D&D playstyles than I ever have in the past and often the games I watch at other tables is much different than the game at my table. This leads to the question: when is D&D no longer Dungeons & Dragons?

when is D&D no longer Dungeons & Dragons D&D playstyles

Tabletop roleplaying and you

Is D&D the system or spirit?

There are many roleplaying systems out there and every year dozens more are made. Each offers its view of a wonderful roleplaying experience. Whether it’s a D20 system focused on investigation or maybe a d6 pool system that attempts to replicate hacking into a computer system, these systems can be vastly different.

Playing Shadowrun, its system is a lot more formulaic and brutal, giving a sense of the shadowy streets and even weight to the battles on the matrix. This is a much different system to GUMSHOE’s Trail of Cthulhu, where the focus is heavily on investigation and holds to a high standard that rolling should never occur when the collection of a clue is at stake. These systems evoke different feelings and atmosphere with their mechanical abstraction of world simulation. This leads me to ask if you change these rules too drastically, is this still the same game in the book? Does altering and homebrewing make a new game at your table, one more aligned with your joy of play, but it no longer bear the true title of the original game?

Within the tabletop hobby I have quite a few interests, and designer board games are a big aspect of my life. They offer a lot of enjoyment for a lower bar of entry compared to other tabletop hobbies. When you break out the game, you read the rules, you teach your friends, and you have a few fun hours playing within the boundaries of the game. Within the board game community, there is a significant population that strives to play the game by the intended rule set. There is little question of the merits of playing by the rules. There is indeed cases of those wanting to alter the experience closer to their expectations, but those are often very small tweaks that don’t change the game in any dramatic way. Perhaps ignoring a win condition in favor of others to elongate the game length or keeping a card in the box to avoid it being the focus of every match.

Comparatively, in tabletop roleplaying games, homebrew and the major altering of the system of choice is considered not only a merit, but even discussing the alternative is often shunned. However, I believe thinking about and discussing this can allow us to better appreciate design and even our own homebrew decisions. If we focus on simply asking questions and thinking about the choices we make to alter the games we love, the better we can make the experience for ourselves. Does homebrew to a certain degree alter Dungeons & Dragons into something new, or is D&D in the spirit, rather than being a ruleset?

What makes this game Dungeons & Dragons?

Within 5E D&D the mechanical focus sits on resource management over the course of multiple battles. An overwhelming majority of the rules fall into supporting this play method. Most abilities gained by classes are focused on combat and are limited. These limitations are only a factor in situations where characters are fighting multiple combat scenes with no immediate or easy way to recover their resources.

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The overarching environment that comes to mind, fitting best for this recipe, is a dungeon. I mean, it is in the name after all. Despite this fact, I often hear Dungeon Masters lament about how it’s difficult to challenge their players. I ask them what their sessions look like, having them describe a single combat per session.

I’m a bit dumbfounded because if you take a game about extended resource conservation and risk management and ignore that, yeah, the characters might be a little over-prepared when it comes to the one combat per day.

How much of the original rules in the system need to still be intact for it to be considered D&D? Fifty-one percent? 90 percent? 10 percent? Or are the rules a complete red herring? Is D&D in the spirit of the game, not as simple as a set of rules? Does this make games like Pathfinder into D&D if you just use that same spirit or does having the Player’s Handbook in the room make it D&D?

These questions might be very personal and not something someone can answer for you.

While I believe the constant reminder that, “It’s your game, do whatever you want” is an important one, we do run the risk of ill-preparing our fellow players. A new DM simply doing whatever they want might end up making an okay session, but how much better could it have been if they put a little effort into running the game a little closer to its written intention?

If the rules aren’t important to you, that’s great, let’s grab a toy box and do something really creative and inspiring. As for D&D, I’m more interested in exploring dangerous dungeons and maybe fighting a big, powerful dragon. I’ve had people come to my table and say something similar to, “This is the first time I’ve felt like I was playing Dungeons & Dragons.” This is because I strive, in every system I play, to find what I believe to be the ethos within the mechanisms then focus on that intention. I try to play to the strengths of the system and downplay its weaknesses.

Does any of this matter?

If everyone is having fun at their respective tables, why does any of this matter? Well, it might not for you. If you and your group are having a wonderful time, then no one can mess that up for you. However, asking these questions of yourself might allow you to open up not only more of D&D to you and your party, but might open the door to embracing strong reasons for playing other systems from time to time and bolster your understanding as to why you enjoy your D&D playstyles. If there is one aspect of the hobby I think we see a huge improvement by bending back towards the rules as written would be moving to other tables. I know I find it difficult to move to other tables because of how little they tend to use the rules and how vastly different their D&D playstyles are. Having players and DMs get a little closer to the rulebook could make the language of playing D&D a little easier for everyone.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to keep them from having fun, as that’s not my intention at all. I just think it’s an interesting concept to ponder and you might find it interesting as well. If you’re having a great time, then far be it from me to come to your table and tell you how to have fun. If I can just get you to think for a moment about what you might be losing upon the sacrificial altar of fun, then this discussion was worthwhile. Tell me what you think. am I crazy? Is D&D whatever you make it or is it a game with rules? Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to stay nerdy!

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Follow Jacob Kosman:
Child of the Midwest, spending his adolescence dreaming of creating joy for gaming between sessions of cattle tending. He holds a fondness for the macabre, humorous and even a dash of grim dark. Aspiring designer spending most of his time writing and speculating on this beautiful hobby when he isn't separating planes.

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