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The Core of D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


Before I launch into this week’s column, I wanted to pause for a moment and thank everyone who has posted in the comments field of these articles or in various message board threads. It’s great to hear feedback. Positive feedback helps motivate me, and pointing out mistakes or watching discussions bloom helps give me insights into my own thinking and to what’s rattling around in your minds.

Specifically about last week’s column, it’s obvious that my names for the axes are fairly bad at getting across their meaning. Clarity is important for this kind of work, so I’ll pay more attention when I start appropriating terms. At the end of the day, though, I count myself incredibly lucky to have so many people who take the game seriously enough that they’re willing to spend their free time talking about it so passionately on the Internet. Thanks.

The bigger insight I’ve gained is that I think there are a lot of different scales you could use on that sort of diagram. As D&D players, we’re diverse enough so that a range which seems important to one person is irrelevant to another, and vice versa. The most useful point to make lies beyond the specific examples, but in the big picture idea that D&D isn’t one game but a range of games.

I have a theory that in the days of AD&D, there were a few things at work that helped shape D&D. In the AD&D days, the rules had enough leeway for DM judgment calls that a group could bend and twist the rules to fit the DM’s feel for how things should work. One DM could hand wave details, while another would do a lot of research and incorporate as much realism into the game as possible. Thus, while the design might have pointed in one direction, DMs can and did alter the game as they saw fit.

With the release of 3rd Edition, we saw a new trend that 4th Edition only strengthened. The rules became more comprehensive and easier to use. A DM was still free to modify them, but it became a lot easier to just use the rules as written. I think that’s when you started to see divisions among D&D players come to the fore. We always played the game differently, but now that we were a little more reliant on the rules those difference became more obvious.

If people play D&D in such a variety of different ways, then what’s left to unite us?

The Essential D&D Mechanics

Not too long ago, I decided to send out a short survey to the members of D&D R&D. I asked them to make a list of the most important mechanical elements of D&D. The basic idea was to make a list of mechanics that, if any one of them were missing, you’d feel like you weren’t playing D&D. From the opposite perspective, these are mechanics that make you think of D&D when you see them in other games. Here’s the list:

  • The six ability scores—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—as the categories for measuring a character’s abilities.

  • Armor Class as the basic representation of a character’s defense.

  • Alignment (Law v. Chaos, Good v. Evil) as a personal ethos and a force in the universe.

  • Attack rolls made using a d20, with higher rolls better than lower ones.

  • Classes as the basic framework for what a character can do.

  • Damage rolls to determine how badly a spell or attack hurts you.

  • Gold pieces as the standard currency for treasure.

  • Hit dice or level as the basic measure of a monster’s power.

  • Hit points as a measure of your ability to absorb punishment, with more powerful characters and creatures gaining more of them.

  • Levels and experience points as a measure of power and a mechanic that lets characters become more powerful over time.

  • Magic items such as +1 swords as a desirable form of treasure.

  • Rolling initiative at the start of a battle to determine who acts first.

  • Saving throws as a mechanic for evading danger.

  • “Fire-and-forget” magic, with spellcasters expending a spell when casting it.

As you can see, it’s a fairly long list. The interesting thing to me is that every edition of D&D supports all of these elements in one form or another. 4th Edition has the most different magic system, but it still features daily powers that function in essentially the same way. If you look at the very original D&D game from 1974, you find almost everything listed above in the rules. The only exceptions I can find are some of the combat rules, as the original edition of the game relied on Chainmail. However, even then the only term I could not find in the three rulebooks was initiative. Chainmail used the basic concept of determining who goes first, but it didn’t use the term initiative.

The funny thing to me is that, if you used only these mechanics, you can easily see how you could build an entire game. You don’t need much beyond the implementation of the specific concepts above to make an entire RPG. Games like AD&D and Basic D&D were built in just such a way.

Next week, I’ll tackle exactly that question. Does D&D need anything beyond this list?

Is there anything missing from this list? Are there things here that you don’t think serve as an important part of D&D? Sound off in the forums and comments.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 06/14/2011

The bugbear is eager to cut a deal.

"Escort me to the exit from this place. I can sneak through the city from there. Visit The Rusty Blade no earlier than tomorrow and tell the barkeep that you are a friend of Hrunar. He will give you a gift on my behalf. A wizard dwells in the chambers above this one. He is a deadly foe, but I have a crystal that contains the trapped essence of a demon he tried to bind. Break the crystal and the demon will slay the mage, leaving the mage's treasures behind for you to plunder. That damnable mage captured me after I stole that crystal and several items from him. I can assure you that I only scratched the surface of his treasure hoard."

What do you do?

  • Escort Hrunar out of the dungeon: 80.5%
  • Kill the bugbear: 11.1%
  • Ignore him and go up the stairs: 5.8%
  • Ignore him and exit through the door at floor level: 2.6%

Poll Time

After escorting the bugbear safely through the dungeon, you once again face a choice:

What do you do?
Proceed north from the entrance.
Proceed west from the entrance.
Proceed south from the statue room.
Proceed through the ground floor door in the snake room.
Go up the stairs and through the door in the snake room.
Leave the dungeon and wait to collect your reward from Hrunar at the Rusty Nail.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.

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