Finding D&D: Essentially

Finding D&D, part 4! This one is scaring me. Remember how I warned that the one about fundamentalism and the OSR wouldn’t be insulting? I fear this one can’t say the same, and even if it doesn’t go too far, I know it’s going to gore a lot of oxen.

One point I develop in the video, but mercifully cut about 10 minutes at various points of ranting further, is that I typically don’t mind interacting with fundamentalists, if we’re talking about regular people rather than careerists. Unless they’ve gone fully reactionary whackadoo, in which case we’re talking about real danger, they’re typically capable of real conversation once they realize you’re not trying to make them stop handling snakes, or making fun of them. (This applies to evolutionary biology and real life as much as it does to D&D and made-up elves.)

Essentialists are another story entirely – there’s just no dealing with their two-ply teflon of knowing they’ve discerned the core/concept + being certain they’ve arrived at it through pure reason and thus any disagreement must be due to the other person’s confusion … at it’s worst, it’s impenetrable willful stupidity armed with smug, over-intellectualized certainty.

But then again, this is where the consistently best and most fun published game design that draws upon D&D fantasy comes from. When it comes to doing, they genuinely do.

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23 responses to “Finding D&D: Essentially”

  1. Revision notes

    I didn't mention two games which were on my lists, just got lost in the time-constraints and interruptions while filming.

    Fantasy Hero, as a straightforward parallel and partner to the same effect with GURPS Fantasy.

    Dungeon World, which was supposed to go in between Torchbearer and 13th Age and to have its own little spoken paragraph like they and Numenera did.

    • People familiar with

      People familiar with Dangerous Journeys might be surprised when I describe it as simple and bring it up for comparison with 13th Age. In preparing my notes for playing, the text I'm using (the cover I used in the video) is Mythus Prime, basically the Quick-Start version. It is elegant and direct in getting characters onto paper and into play, and the mechanics are easier and smarter than most mainstream 1990s games. The primary or full text, I've found, is much more of a beast with – as I see it – unmoving or unnecessary parts, so, for purposes of my points in the video, I'm talking about Prime.

      In the game I hope to organize soon, I'll be using Mythus Prime and Mythus Magick as the core texts.

  2. We have met the enemy, & he is us…..(maybe)

    Very provocative & a slant that I recognized as missing from the series as soon as you led us down the rabbit hole.

    I belive that this is a phenomenon that can be found emanating from  points of origin other than D&D as one looks about the hobby, and can be far more divisive than fundamentalism as it occurs on a much more insidiuos and "smug" level.

    I admit to some discomfort while listening and predicitng where the conversation was going next, complete with seeing the mirror before my own eyes far before the image and your poke at yourself ever made its way onscreen. Hence the Walt Kelly reference (a favorite strip of my father's).

    I frequenly identify with more of an essentialist streak rather than a fundamentalist one when it comes not only to the OSR, but to RPGs as a whole.

    It's clear that the archtype or idiom or genre for D&D has become D&D itself in a bizarre recursive manner. The chicken and the egg have long ago been blended into an omelette that resists being teased apart. ~ That "essential genre" is certainly the most obvious "it" that can be seen and which you talk about, but is probably the least divisive and most innocuous.

    Where i see the log in my own eye (and the log sized speck in many other's!) is in the other forms of "essense" or "it" that we often carry with us as "the truth".

    The most relevant to the series is my own definition of what the "spirit of the game" (secifically the OSR experience) might be. This is something that is difficult to be objective on and can seem quite rational. As you point out, there are a plethora of others who have the same intellectual claim over this spirit, but when we compare notes, we can smugly shake our heads as the other fellow is clearly quite deluded. ~ I have dear friends that disagree with me on some points of "the essense" and we can agree to disagree and still game together or engage in discussions, but i wonder if we are both waiting for the other fellow to come around.

    On the larger scale, I can find myself carrying what I consider to be the true essense of the ideal RPG experience or the "it" to every RPG I encounter. Fortunatley, I have grown to the point where I see that different people clearly have different expectations and preferences fort what they want out of an RPG experience, and that sometimes we suffer a clash of intentions that make us unsuited to play together, but we can remain friends and discuss the hobby. ~ Where I get into more trouble is inadvertently make games conform to my version of what the "essential it" is, rather than to take them for what they are and experience them as intended by the creator.

    • I was wondering how many

      I was wondering how many people might have been watching the previous videos and saying, "yup, there they are, they sure are like that," and then with this one, saying, "oh, shit." But since I'm not indicting anyone with the discussion of religion, none of this is about calling anyone a filthy superstitious fool, I hope that moment of recognition is a good one in the long run.

      If I'm reading right, you're pointing to the larger question of what is role-playing, rather than the more limited one of what is D&D. At least at the moment, I don't see the first one as a religious issue. I should clarify: the casual sense of "religious enthusiasm," "religious intensity," definitely applies in full, and the smug stubbornness common to sports, political parties or ideologies, this or that diet or health regimen, and academics can be found there as well. So the presumption of real or better role-playing is observed there, often based on very little knowledge or comparative experience.

      However, in terms of the literal, non-analogy sense, I think only D&D really qualifies as a religion. I can't think of any other game which I, as a role-player, am expected to weigh in about regarding this or that edition, or this or that creator, or else risk being dismissed as not a real participant in the hobby.

      Talking like that – "who cares? it's an edition of an IP, you like it or not, no one forces you to buy it or even to think about it" – receives the same response one gets by saying, not,  "I don't believe in God," but "I don't care." The response from hard-line atheist and devoted person-of-faith alike is simultaneous and identical: "oh come on, you have to care." I may feel strongly about the unmistakable and desirable superiority of Champions 3rd edition over all others, and any number of Hero Games enthusiasists may disagree and even call me stubborn or stupid … but neither they nor I think some other person who doesn't play that game should know about it and should have a position.

      In that case, essentialism becomes more than merely a subcultural status game (imagine intense players of Rifts trading gibes with caped-and-LARPing World of Darkness folks, while waiting in line for a restaurant in Indianapolis). The person isn't just finding the essence of role-playing, they're finding the essence of something really important, a powerful motive principle of some kind, the reason it exists, a rational purpose, for which all of real-and-actual role-playing is merely a bunch of footnotes. As evidenced apparently by the fact that they happen to have fun at their table …


  3. Another title I forgot

    Shoot, this game from the late 1970s should definitely get mentioned right into Part 1 and into this one:

    Its first booklet appearance was 1978, I think, and this core book came out in 1981. I have it, the adventure book, and the Goldchester wargaming campaign book it was associated with. Played it too.

    All those games were quirky as hell: T&T, RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery, early Champions, The Fantasy Trip, DragonQuest, early Traveller, the Holmes D&D for that matter. I miss that.


  4. A little more on D&D essentialism & other types

    Im totally on board with the idea that only D&D as such qualifies as a folk religion. I get where you are coming from in terms of "D&D essentialism" being different than any other RPG essentialism (global or game specific), but IMO the similarity between the two is worth examining and considering as it affects our hobby in an insidious and sometimes veiled manner.

    Although I recongnized that your slant on the Unitarian Univeralist (& similar) movements was regarding the smug & dismissive nature of such an essentialist vibe, I couldn't help but thinking that there is another there is another equally troubling dynamic regarding this approach.

    By treating the text(s) as irrelevant or unimportant, or by chossing parts of the text to emphasize while ignoring or discarding the rest, the essentialist becomes free to belive and preach what they want. They present an elusive and moving target that would be the envy of any politician.

    At least the fundamentalist blndly points to the text shouting "Gygax says thus!" or "according to Baker we see…" or the honerable Steve Jackson proclaims". To use the religion metaphor, it reminds of of the dangers that people like Sam Harris and his crew say about the danger of moderates. 

    Leaving the global essentialism for another time so as not to derail this entirely, I recently experienced a striking parallel to the essentialism I have experienced (& participated in!) in the OSR as I explored PBTA games.

    Within the PBTA community I encountered what I can only call a thriving essentialist movement rivaling that of the OSR. I have been shown many "truths" and been flat out told that I simply didn't understand what these games are "really all about" in a manner that smacks of Gnosticisim. There has been no shortage of "experts" or seasoned veterans who have smugly shaken their heads at me, divulged the "real way" to play the games, or even told me that maybe i would simply never get what they were on about. ~ However, (and this is important), when I examined the texts, over and over again i could not find what they were espousing as the "real way" to play these games. They have been unable to point out these passages either!


    (*For clarification, I have been enjoying the PBTA experience, so this is not a dig on AW etc)


    • I agree with you about the

      I agree with you about the PbtA community, which is not the same thing as playing and enjoying Apocalypse World as, you know, a role-playing game. In the recent seminar, I tried to walk a careful line about precisely why it's useful to examine the "powered by" assumptions – and as it turns out, presumptions – out there in the wild.

      Gnosticism, though – yes, perfect. They talk just like that. One can get excited about finding the possible religious parallels, some of which are a bit startling. I'm trying not to go that route most of the time. … possibly as an antidote to going too far down it, and true to my gamer roots, I think of Vincent as trapped in the "not the messiah" sequence from The Life of Brian.

  5. The homomculus effect

     Sorry, I meant to include this in the last post. I considered a very interesting thing that happened as different facets of the OSR & larger D&D Community begin to create games based on the essential nature of the original, whatever that means.

      As you so astutely pointed out, different people had a different idea of what the essential it of the game was. When they actually created games and brought what they consider to be “it” to the forefront sometimes The effect was puzzling or comical. A person with another viewpoint could look at the game, recognize that piece of it as being essential in some way,  but scratch their head as it was brought to the forefront. Many of these games end up looking like bizarre homonculi with giant hands or feet or eyeballs. They’re not bad games, Often they are quite good, but frequently they emphasize a part  or parts that the next fellow would’ve considered unimportant or of equal relevance with many others, while it was in fact the torso that was the really important part to him. 

    • So much easier and more fun

      So much easier and more fun to consider them to be merely role-playing games added to the throng, and the more diverse their content, and the more variously fun they are to play, well, that's more games for me.

    • Oh I agree one must consider

      Oh I agree one must consider them to RPGs in their own right. ~ The point was that they resemble homonculi from the perspective of one for whom the “essential it” is different or that has the components arranged in a different heirarchy of importance. 

  6. So, essentially you say…

    Ron, I think I finally see what you REALLY wanted to say, all these years, under all those lengthy essay that cointain, hidden, your ESSENTIAL point…


    …OK, I am joking, but if you excuse a little essentialism… in this part you are saying that these people write the best D&D-derived games (or at least the most focused ones)…  but are insufferable about it?

    • I don’t think phrasing it

      I don't think phrasing it that way captures what I'm saying. Both statements are true but they aren't supposed to be connected in isolation or contrasted in a unique way.

      The essentialism gets the designer past the certain slavishness to a basic list of quite arbitrary mechanics that one finds in most of the OSR, and allows for the kind of focus which I, at least, think contributes to good RPG design.

      The negative quality is more than insufferability; it's perhaps best described by the informal English phrase "educated idiot." I had thought Dunning-Kruger Syndrome to be made-up, i.e., not a thing, merely an unnecessary label for ordinary behavior, until I tried to talk about role-playing with hard-core D&D essentialists. (Not everyone who designs a game that fits the bill or blogs more-or-less this way is necessarily this sort of person to a defining degree, just as with the OSR or as with orthodoxy. But a few are.)

  7. Finding the Essentials

    Ron – As you pointed out, I've been looking at this series from a very personal/identity context. Partially that's because if I think about "D&D is a religion" abstractly, I want to argue with it and talk about how it doesn't REALLY make sense, unless [A, B and/or blahblah] – and that doesn't seem useful. Especially since so many specifics just seem (again) accurate and important. I've just assumed the appropriate non-metaphoric qualifications somehow happen.

    In this part, I can identify with times in my D&D history as about TRYING to be an Essentalist – at least, trying to Find the essence, be it direct-D&D or not. Maybe sometimes thinking I succeded – for a while.

    But where this part REALLY leaves me is … somewhat free of the identity-stuff. I'm kinda (ok, more than kinda) attached to challenging what I consider are inaccurate or flat-out-BAD ideas about what D&D was/is, but … at some point, and most of the time, I think I shifted to a Finding that is mostly about something other than D&D.

    And reading these comments, I'll underline the call "to consider them to be merely role-playing games added to the throng." Nothing seems more important right now than reminding myself that, from the late-70's, I have NEVER played just one D&D, or one RPG. It baffles me that any contemporaries would even make that claim.

    • Perhaps the final video will

      Perhaps the final video will be satisfying at the finding/identity level, although I haven't presented these in a spirit of discovery or outreach for one. Am I reading you correctly, in saying that #4 describes what you've sometimes tried to do? That you can see why someone would do this, although it didn't work out or ultimately seem viable in your case?

      I've been seeing claims by, and talking with, people our age who were "there," and yet are very committed to the notion of early D&D as a thing. I agree that it's a little hard to understand, but … maybe not totally baffling, if a person constructed a pretty strong local understanding of what "it" was.

      OK, I understand it better for 80s kids, many of whom began with an honest-to-God box with D&D in it, in the form of Moldvay or Mentzer, regarding it as first or original. The former does say "The original fantasy role-playing game" on the cover, so I get that the kid would think it's the actual-first version. I've certainly seen a lot of "I started with B/X!" or "with red box!" as claims to originalism.

      But for the late 70s? There seems to be a little barrier to get through in talking about it. Maybe it's a matter of being precise about experiences (or desires for an experience) vs. text and practice. At a private online community who reviewed the videos, some of the members responded fiercely – even aggressively – to the first one … then said, "wait, hold on a minute, it was like that." If we go back to the Forge conversations in 2003 when I first posted A hard look at Dungeons & Dragons, I remember some edgy responses like "yes but it was a thing anyway."

    • Ron – Yes, you’re reading me

      Ron – Yes, you're reading me right on #4 – at least, that's how I'm thinking right now. I've now watched #5, and – well, I'll post over there sometime soon. The thing that's hard to do is make sure I'm distinguishing what I think/feel NOW from what I thought/felt at various past-thens. Memory (and the "evidence" of my old play-artifacts) makes it clear that I've always played many styles of RPG, many styles of D&D. But memory also includes some … idealistic pursuits and beliefs at various stages. Maybe it's a mistake to map that into the D&D-religion at all  – even to map it to D&D specifically at all, as perhaps the nigh-absolute cross-linkage of D&D and RPG just never got established for me. I'd tie that to having a firm grasp on actual-fantasy (and SF) before D&D-fantasy (or its' SF-analogues) could get established. But I'd guess that's a seperate topic.

      I think this just repeats your points: My take on the "it" of early D&D is that even mildly successful play required bringing a BIG something-else to the table. So no one particular something-else can be THE "it" – but there is always AN "it".

      In the context of the Conclusions in "A Hard Look at Dungeons of Dragons": maybe that there was nowhere in "D&D" itself you could find an "it" IS the single, original "technique" – that which "was a thing anyway." This (hopefuly) defuses tension around a particular "it" being THE ONE, but I'm not sure it provides much beyond that quite valuable service.

  8. What is IT?

    What is the essense of D&D? It becomes more than a mere historical or anecdotal question, more than mere rhetoric.

    What is the essence of role playing? That one I think is easier, at least to me, as it is just adopting fictional versions of the self to live out a fictional, theoretical, or historic scenario. Playing cops and robbers or cowboys and indians is basic role playing. It should be done with consent and physical and emotional dangers in mind.  Role playing can be a tool, it can be terribly intimate, and it can just be fun. Or not fun.

    What is IT? What is the essense of D&D? What itch does it scratch? What need does it fill? From all of the different answers come many different approaches to game design and more importantly, game play.  I suspect that asking the question and seeking an answer are more important than the actual answer to the question.

    In my own head the answer is pretty simple: The IT of D&D is simply a broad and poorly understood concept of social gaming that created, through fair means and foul, the zeitgeist of permission to role play. That permission narrowed quickly down to a permission to play D&D.  Where as a counter movement like The Forge could be said to have given permission to not play, D&D or any specific game. I am generalizing a bit there and many others would know better than I.

    And in a better light, we might say D&D is an inspiration to play, albeit to only play D&D.  Permission is an important word though, I know I use it a lot when describing questions people ask of those they perceive as celebrity. I did an AMA on reddit on Tuesday (beause I am old and been playing a while, not because I Am in any way a celebrity) and many of the questions, many of the questions on all the sub reddits, are about permission to make a decision about play.  So D&D transfers its power to DMs and other players, allowing us to give those people permission to play.

    To a lesser extent it is true of other games. Glorantha comes to mind, which is an icon that has spawned (at least) two different kinds of play.  YGMV is, purposely or not, giving permission to do whatever the hell you want with that world. Rolemaster may actually have an IT: the charts if not at first certainly became essential to playing RM. The charts are what people focus on, not the other (excellent and not) aspects of the system.

    So essentialism is an illusion. No, the IT is an illusion; the idea that there is an essential thing that is D&D.  The essentialism is demonstrably real. The pursuit of the IT is more important than the IT itself. 

    • There’s a lot of passion in

      There's a lot of passion in your comment, although, with respect, it may obscure the point. Or I'm not able to discern enough, as a personal limitation. I'll go with the part I was able to see best.

      I like the way you're talking about permission regarding play – at all, or in what way, or about certain decisions. It seems tied to the concept of validation, that doing a thing isn't all about whether you want to do it, particularly, but at least partly about what kind of social person you are, or feel you are, for doing it (this way, and with what). My rather harsh outlook connects it further to consumer identity, that "you are what you buy," as a widespread core value.

    • You are right it likely does

      You are right it likely does obscure it a bit. I think to put it simply

      I think we can come to some kind of consensus on the essential it of role playing itself, sans the D&D identity (or as much as possible). If we asked people the essential IT of Star Trek or Star Wars, you could at least come up with a concrete list. Why do I like playing RISK or Diplomacy? Easy, I hate my friends.

      However, looking for the essential (Jesus) IT of D&D, we find that it is an ethereal concept at best and nothing but self referential feedback loops at worst. The essential IT of D&D is that it is D&D. Not the game play. Not the supposed Old School Feel(s). Not even the dice mechanics. Almost no one can answer with definity why they really like the game in a simple concrete answer. Similarly, although there are reasons to not like or reject D&D people often do not like it for the same reason. That is, no reason at all.

      So very simply: I aggree whole heartedly that the essentialism exists, but there is in fact no essential IT for D&D to connect to that essentialism. The IT is an illusion or buried so deeply behind the hype and consumerism, that if we found it, no one would know.  

    • Totally.


      I really hope you like part 5. I recorded it mainly in a visceral recoil from #1-4.

  9. Hoo boy, this took me down so

    Hoo boy, this took me down so many roads. I know this series is about D&D, and not Christianity, but in my history with the latter I see so much Essentialism. Taking a long hard look at the Jesus of the gospels and thinking, "hey, he's like me–he's not a Republican at all!". Check. As I left the personal-piety Christianity of my upbringing for a social-justice-piety Christianity (we were using the dreaded "SJ" term long before it ever became charged the way it is now), the only thing I and my peers could do when we looked at the history of our faith was to say, basically, "they didn't get IT." So sad, but we do know Man is sinful. We never went so far as universalism–professing Christ for salvation was still the starting point of faith–but we were happy to see Jesus everywhere, in everything, using certain verses to bolster that idea. We also didn't see ourselves as infallible; we were good post-modern college students, and we knew we had a Narrative going on here and that history might see us differently than we saw ourselves, but we also believed that we had seen IT, so I suppose there was some grappling within us between Modernism and Post-modernism. We felt the best thing to do was to live this way and profess this particular way and have faith that it WAS, or would become, "The Way", getting back to the essentials.

    I can see the parallels with Dungeon World, Torchbearer, 13th Age, and others. But is that Essentialism, or is it just people saying "this is what D&D is to me"? Or is it that putting that stake in the ground is an expression of  Essentialism? This is a half-remembered conversation, so I'm not going to name names, but I remember talking with a designer of some repute after we played his version of old-school deadly D&D, which was quite a clever game and different design-wise than you might expect (it certainly wasn't OSR). We were talking about Dungeon World, and he said something to the effect of "I don't recognize that as D&D, wherever they are coming from isn't the tradition I came from."

    He wasn't commenting on the quality of the design, he was commenting on its D&Dness. That he would do so, that this would be a perfectly normal and expected conversation among roleplayers, was perfectly normal to both of us. Which of course we would never do with any other game. I've played a couple weird-fantasy post-apocalyptic games in addition to Gamma World, and never once did I think, while playing those other games, "but is it really Gamma World enough?"

    Such a strange head-space/through-point of the hobby, and now that I've seen it, I can't unsee it, everywhere.


    • Hi Hans! Thanks for viewing

      Hi Hans! Thanks for viewing and commenting, not least for tolerating the early-early videos. Although I hope I'll be saying the same about the current ones a few years from now …

      One small thing gleaned from my academic career is that very often, postmodern critique is deemed "suitable for thee but not for me."

      My view on 13th Age, Torchbearer, Dungeon World, et cetera concerns a reconciliation of opposed and also inadmissible views: that D&D as textual game isn't "doing D&D," so design is necessary to do it, or at least to do it with much less tripping over a group's collective feet; also, that a real RPG or house system or company as such is validated by showing it can "do D&D," at least for fantasy. So the D&D-ness becomes absolutely abstract and available for me-ness instead, as long as you hit the right notes in presentation and self-justification.


      I can see the parallels with Dungeon World, Torchbearer, 13th Age, and others. But is that Essentialism, or is it just people saying "this is what D&D is to me"? Or is it that putting that stake in the ground is an expression of  Essentialism?

      … I confess I cannot see any difference between those things. I see one thing.

      You may be interested in some comics thoughts I've taken down related roads, written at the same time that I was formulating the Finding D&D issues or just afterwards: Four-color Christ Jesus, Jihad, exclamation point optional, Everyday religion, Super good.

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