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Playing with the Core
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.


Last week, I talked a bit about the mechanical core of Dungeons & Dragons. These were mechanics that, at least in R&D’s opinion, are uniquely D&D. If you removed them from D&D, you might start to think that you’re playing some other game. If you see them elsewhere, your first thought might be that the game is either based on or borrows from D&D.

From the comments, it seems that race is an obvious omission, and alignment is one area that saw a lot of dispute. I won’t argue that many groups ignore or bend alignment, but there’s something to be said for how terms like lawful good and chaotic evil have filtered into the mainstream of gamer and geek consciousness. Whether it’s someone trying to peg an alignment to each of the Muppets, or the countless casualties of the “What alignment is Batman?” wars, I think alignment is a part of D&D whether you use it in your games or not.

I think race is missing because it was shelved as a story element during the R&D discussion. Clearly though, gaining mechanical adjustment because of your race is a concept that has its roots in D&D.

It is also interesting to see how quickly people online make the leap from D&D’s rules to the actions you take during the game. As it so happens, that is precisely what I’d like to talk about this week.

You Are What You Do

Before a session, or in the prep before play, there are a few things everyone does. These are fairly obvious pieces that I think speak to all RPGs. The players create characters, their fictional personas in the game, while the DM prepares an adventure for the session. That adventure might be a largely scripted story, some notes on whatever area the characters are wandering through, or a blank sheet of paper the DM fills with invented details as the game progresses.

During play, things get more interesting. The players all assume fictional personas. The important question is what do those fictional personas do?

Setting aside mechanics, I think you can boil D&D down to three basic activities: exploration, roleplay, and combat. Personal tastes vary as to which of the three is the most important, but I think most groups dabble in all three.

To me, exploration is all about uncovering secrets and thinking in terms of the big picture. It’s the excitement of setting sail on the Nyr Dyv in search of the Isle of Woe. It’s the uncertainty of checking for traps, or trying to figure out which door to open first. Exploration is a strong part of D&D because it plays into the idea that the players can do whatever they want on a large scale. You can strike off into the forest west of town just to see what’s there, or take a long route around an undead-occupied keep to attack it from an unexpected direction. It gives players a real sense of control over their characters and the story—one that few other games can continue to feed for as long as a D&D campaign. When you get to the edge of a map in D&D, the DM just fills in the area beyond.

It’s easy to think about roleplay in terms of portraying a character with a funny accent or with a set of distinct mannerisms. That’s part of it, but I also think it links into your character’s ties to the people and events in the campaign world. Forging an alliance with a barbarian tribe, seizing control of a thieves’ guild, or marrying into nobility and building a castle are all parts of roleplaying. The strength of roleplay is that you can give two players identical characters, but in play the two can appear vastly different simply based on how they act. It in part occupies the area outside of the rules, the space where a player has free rein to mold a character.

Combat is the area where we see the most rules. Most players are happy to let the DM create a world or dungeon to explore, and the DM can make judgment calls on relationships and characterization. Combat is the most common point where the players and DM come into conflict, so we expect rules to keep things fair. Obviously, combat is about defeating monsters and NPCs. To a lot of players, exploration and roleplay serve to set up combat. You fight the necromancer lord because he threatens to destabilize the fragile alliance you worked so hard to build. You travel to a strange, lost temple and battle the yuan-ti that infest it. Some groups reverse that process. If you defeat the bandit gang, you make an enemy of the thieves’ guild and the nobles in town who are linked to it.

From a design perspective, I think that you need to design a game that accommodates all three activities in an easy, intuitive manner. The rule set should provide at least basic support, with opt-in complexity or expansion in specific directions for groups that prefer one over the other. That concept is the root of the diagram I showed off two weeks ago.

What Does This Mean for D&D?

If you think of combat, exploration, and roleplay as what you do during the game, then the fundamental mechanics of D&D are how you do those things. The union of those two, combined with the basic format of an RPG (DM, players creating fictional personas), creates D&D. That’s the game in a nutshell.

So what does the game look like if you strip everything away except for essential mechanics, and then orient them to support exploration, roleplay, and combat? What would D&D look like? We’ll start answering those questions next week.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 06/21/2011

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

  • 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

Continuing next week...

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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